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Managing Issues of Trust

By Howard L. Young

Developing the ability to maintain or reestablish trust within a ministry environment through wise, patient, and caring leadership needs to rank high on the agenda of concerns for leadership. Although many challenges confront the contemporary Christian leader, managing thorny issues related to attitudes of trust are among the most difficult. Furthermore, the consequences of lingering low-trust conditions may eventually devastate an otherwise healthy ministry or Christian institution. Sharpening the symbiotic skills to both perpetuate a trusting mood and overcome distrust is, therefore, obligatory for effective leadership.

The Inestimable Value of Trust

Trust is vital to the health and progress of any institution, particularly the church. The apostle Paul understood that pristine behavior and unimpeachable ministry were fundamental prerequisites for effective and trustworthy leadership in the church (2 Corinthians 4:1–6). He intuitively knew that when trust is eroded within the milieu of ministry, the difficulty of sustaining transformational ministry increased. Undoubtedly, he recognized the inverse relationship that exists between careless leadership and healthy levels of trust within a group of individuals. Simply stated, the more inept the leadership, the greater the chasm between the leader and those led with the probability of distrust increasing. Low levels of trust toward leaders can be the Achilles Heel of leadership, slowing down or even negating the critical processes of transformation so often needed to effectively lead.

When a leader inherits a low-trust environment created by carelessness in the past, the value of understanding and responding to trust issues is indispensable. Understanding the critical issues of trust, contemporary authors challenge leaders to recognize the value of maintaining high levels of trust within essentially all relationships experienced by the leader. Lowe, for example, insists that trust brings continuity and coherence to all relationships — marriages, families, corporate organizations of every kind, and even informal groups. He also points out that trustworthiness requires character, proper motivations, competence, and the fundamental skills and ability to perform the entrusted task.1

When Trust is Eroded

In a day of cynicism toward leaders and institutions, distrust can be the problematic uninvited guest in the ministry environment. Shawchuck and Heuser observe, “Americans no longer believe they can trust their leaders, and are demanding greater accountability on the part of all leaders, from presidents to pastors.”2 Few would question the painful accuracy of their assessment. Compounding the trust issue is the tendency of followers and constituents to be more demanding and harder to please, insisting that leaders hold to high ethical standards and adequately respect the intelligence and contributions of those who follow.3 The pervasive realities described by Shawchuck and Heuser make it likely that the contemporary leader will at some point inherit a leadership environment heavily overcast with distrust and low commitment to leadership. Also, sensitive leaders recognize their own leadership mistakes can widen any existing chasm of distrust among individuals currently under their care.

If an institution’s history has been good and individuals are following at high levels of satisfaction, the first months and years of a new leadership position can be enjoyable and chances for leadership successes are enhanced. Conversely, when poor leaders make an abrupt exit from a tormented situation, the next leader generally faces the enormous challenge of recreating trust in a low trust environment. This process can take months and often years. Some have suggested it can take three to five years to rebuild trust in an emotionally battered situation.

Unfortunately, preexisting trust issues may not immediately come into focus for a newly appointed or elected leader. This means that unchecked distrust may continue an insidious attrition within the institution. Once identified, however, trust issues demand the immediate engagement of thoughtful and prayerful strategies and skills. Knowing that sooner or later skills for rebuilding trust must be applied over indefinite periods of time, leaders will continually examine their own behaviors and attitudes, hone problem-solving skills to a razor sharp edge, and constantly seek God’s wisdom and strength for tackling the giants of distrust when they show up (James 1:2–6).

An appropriate motivation for securing high levels of trust cannot be the agendas or desires of the leader. Caring leaders recognize the impropriety of accruing trust from others for purposes of personal gain, attaining personal goals, or ulterior ego needs. Neither do leaders desire trust simply because it’s impossible to effectively lead without it. Leaders build trust because it is both foundational to leadership effectiveness and it is a cornerstone virtue of the godly leader. Furthermore, there is an intuitive understanding that trust properly given by one party to another is a kind of sacred confidence that is at the core of a nurturing ministry and a satisfactory working environment.

Spirituality and the Trust Process

Rebuilding trust is fundamentally a spiritual issue that relates both to the betrayed and the individual endeavoring to rebuild pillars of trust within the relationship. Pastoral leadership will know few challenges any greater than rebuilding trust in a broken situation. Therefore, the spirituality of the leader is paramount. Prayerfulness, hopefulness, and patience must merge into a healing expression of leadership that is adequate for the distrustful situation(s). The process of dissipating the distrust of others, positively controlling one’s own thoughts and emotions in difficult situations, and offering trust toward untrusting individuals are all exercises requiring mature spirituality in the leader. The healthy leader understands that an ongoing strategy of personal holiness and unimpeachable behavior strategically empowers the leader to do his or her best work and enhance feelings of trustworthiness (1 Timothy 4:11–16).

In matters of trust, godly leaders continually assess the outcomes of their own behavior within the ministry environment. Building and sustaining trust over long periods of time require that mature leaders offer timely apologies when needed, expend energetic efforts to diffuse volatile matters, and humbly acknowledge to the appropriate people any significant lapses in personal judgment. The ownership of mistakes possess little luster for the sincere leader; but honesty and servant-like humility brings to the ministry environment a refreshing sense of openness that is an integral part of leadership accountability. While most people do not expect perfection from their leaders, they do want a true spirituality marked by authenticity and a willingness to get things back on the right track.

Trusting Those Who Distrust

Distrust may have origins other than leadership failure. Distrust can, for example, be a manifestation of the basic self-perception of the individual. When individuals experience personal failure, their ability to trust themselves is often projected toward others. It sometimes seems that those who cannot trust themselves find it difficult to offer trust to others.

When ministering to those trapped in their own distrust, a paradoxical approach of trusting those who distrust themselves and others is often a fundamental step toward resolving issues of distrust. Jesus is our example in matters of demonstrating trust in those who fail. His example demonstrates His deep love and high aspirations for His disciples, even after they fell into a period of personal struggle and failure. He instructed and nurtured them up to the moment they betrayed and left Him (Matthew 26:17–56; John 14–18). Although their failure broke His heart, it did not negate His love for them or the plan He had for their lives. He gave them new trust and empowered them to rise from the ashes of their inconsistency and proceeded to hand them the commission of a lifetime (Matthew 28:16–20). It is difficult to imagine the feelings of the disciples when days after their betrayal, the Lord entrusted them with His personal plan for the salvation of the world (Acts 1:1–9).

Generally speaking, people given trust respond positively to those who offer them trust. Leaders who take the appropriate risk of trusting others are often given trust in return. Others regard individuals who willingly and wisely offer trust as trustworthy. On the other hand, those who struggle to trust others, including leaders that cannot trust, are themselves perceived as less deserving of trust. A significant danger in this low trust cycle is the possibility of an untrusting leader exercising highly controlling behaviors that may make matters worse. Since expressed trustworthiness is a crucial aspect of leadership effectiveness, controlling leaders who try to manage distrust through more control may inflame the situation and create even deeper suspicions, increased negative thinking, and general distrust toward the leader.4 The work of God becomes increasingly difficult when a well-meaning leader cannot deal with issues of trust within his or her own life.

Another important aspect of a leader’s personal ability to demonstrate trust toward others is related to his or her personal trust in God. At first glance, the idea that a leader must trust God with the outcomes of leadership challenges seems almost too elementary to mention. There is, however, a deeper issue emerging from the leader’s ability to entrust all leadership issues to God. Richards and Hoelktke suggest that when a leader is truly capable of entrusting outcomes to God, leaders themselves are liberated to begin trusting other people-a monumental challenge for domineering autocratic leaders, leaders in conflict, or leaders recently hurt or seemingly discarded by others. Trusting Christ as the Master of all situations releases the leader to trust others, because the leader is confident in God’s involvement and His loving commitment to heal the situation.5 How liberating. How many things pile up on a leader’s desk or crowd the spaces of a leader’s mind because others will not be trusted with even simple tasks and solutions?

Qualities that Rebuild Trust

Attitudes of servant leadership

Servant leaders assume the responsibilities of leadership unconditionally. In fact, servant leaders will walk into some situation fully expecting the worst. Pain, disruption, and dysfunction are conditions known all too well by servant leaders who willingly place themselves in eruptive environments. The leader looking for kudos and comfort beware. A sense of humility and submission to God, and a desire to do His will in tough places, is an absolute for those operating in troubled environments. When followers are immersed in distrust, servant leaders in their desire to help others grow and become healthy servants themselves, will in every way possible engender trust in those living in doubt and distrust.

Spiritual leadership

Difficult leadership situations are opportunities for good leaders to model spiritual attributes and practical skills that can help earn new levels of trust from others. Scripture makes it clear that prayer, gentleness, and sensitivity contribute to the wise handling of challenging situations. James’ encouraging words point us in the right direction for problem solving within low trust environments. Prayer and wisdom go hand in hand (James 1:5–8). Wisdom birthed by prayer is characterized as pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, and full of mercy and good fruits (James 3:17,18). Over time, it would be difficult for distrust to remain passive toward a Spirit-given wisdom that expresses itself in a practical and wholesome manner.

Predictability in leadership

Issues of distrust often arise when leaders respond inconsistently to the challenges and difficulties they face. A parishoner once confided with his pastor, “I worry very little when problems arise in our church. I know you will handle things quickly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully. You will be thoughtful of the needs of all parties and you will do your best to do the right and fair thing.” This parishoner was really saying that when things were difficult, his pastor was predictable. There was a high sense that things would be handled promptly and correctly. Such predictability is an important precursor of trust.

Skillful and open communicator

Distrust from followers is often the product of simply not knowing what’s taking place in the church or workplace. Naturally, some information is confidential or potentially volatile and is best withheld from the general public. Obviously, personal prudence and circumstances dictate how, when, and to whom information is passed along within the church; but a right time will arrive and a right person(s) will emerge for critical communication and information sharing. Depree suggests that among a leader’s most trusted tools are communications skills. When the lack of communication is a part of distrust, the sensitive leader will rise to the occasion, understanding that knowledge is power, but it is pointless power if information is hoarded.6 Everyone has a right to simple and clear communication or explanations when needed. Hoarding information related to critical matters may only deepen distrust among key individuals.

Thoughtful Intervention Strategies

Intentionality in rebuilding trust is a must. A variety of difficult experiences in a person’s life can be an emotional earthquake that breaks a relationship and creates a chasm between the follower and the leader. The chasm will not naturally close by itself. Assuming the chasm will close on its own is to disregard basic human nature. Therefore, nurturing brokenness back to trust can be like building a bridge over a deep and dangerous chasm. The serious business of building a healing bridge that connects the leader with the wounded individual comes into focus. Ignoring any breach of trust that divides a follower(s) from a leader is a recipe for added pain, if not disaster, for everyone involved.

Unfortunately, many bridges of healing are never built because a leader may expect people to trust simply because he or she is a reputable leader. It is easy to think: My leadership is proven and there is no reason to mistrust me, so get on with it. Even under the best of circumstances, trust is typically not given because of leadership history. There is only one way to close the chasm. Bridges into the lives of hurting people must be prayerfully and strategically built. The history and credential of a good leader may be foundational to a healing process that is effective, but the prevailing behavior and finely tuned problem-solving skills of the trust-builder provide the most optimistic expectations that trust can be restored.

Treat pain and alienation in the church in the same way one would counsel couples headed for divorce. Learning to re-trust is often difficult in deeply injured marriages. The pain is deep. Often those in marital pain will say, “I will never trust another man or woman.” Similarly, those hurt by leaders may say, “I will never trust another leader, preacher, or pastor.” Additionally, whether a leader or another individual within the church hurts the individual, there is often the tendency to generalize anger and pain toward the church in general. The unwise behavior of the individual is perceived or judged to be characteristic of the whole. While such a judgment is harsh and unfair, it is a reality to many who wish to regain a positive attitude toward a community of faith, but lingering distrust keeps them at a distance.

Hurting individuals really want to trust again. They want to release their spiritual growth and welfare to shepherds of their soul, but because of past experiences and perhaps their own inability to see things clearly, they find trusting again difficult. They separate themselves from healthy relationships and avoid even trustworthy and dedicated leadership. Understanding the human difficulty of learning to trust beyond pain, the healing leader rebuilds trust through continued and loving communication with the injured individual(s). There is an ongoing attempt to build an authentic friendship that helps the wounded trust leadership again. Essentially, the leader demonstrates a loving pastoral heart that prioritizes the emotional pain and needs through listening and assisting with a meaningful process that brings trust back to broken relationships.

Trust Ensures Communication

Shawchuck and Heuser, discussing strategies for reducing and resolving conflict, properly understand that trust is the basis of communication that brings healing into painful situations. They suggest a simple strategy for restoring trust for the purpose of meaningfully communication. (1) Allow people the freedom to disagree over issues; (2) listen to conflicting parties to empower them. There is always the need for people to share their perspectives with strength and effectiveness. (3) Protect individuals in everyway possible so they are not hurt any more, and so that they do not hurt others.7 The processes of helpful communication and the issues of trust must proactively connect in a manner that helps erase lingering suspicions, doubts, and distrust.

Offer Hope through the Process of Healing

Another way of viewing the problem of restoring trust is to recognize that people can appreciate certain aspects and qualities of the leader and still withhold trust. As amazing as it may sound, individuals may enjoy a leader’s teaching or preaching, respect an individual’s leadership skills, enjoy a leader’s personality, but still not fully trust the leader. When the trust mechanism in a person’s spirit has been injured or completely broken, restoration rarely comes easily or quickly. The trust mechanism must be fixed and this usually takes both intentionality and patience. Think about people suffering severe physical injury. They do not immediately spring back into perfect physical health, even after treatment by the most skilled physician. Time and continued treatment are required. People who suffer deep emotional injuries that impair their ability to trust will also need time and adequate spiritual care to recover. Even when the Holy Spirit is directly involved in the healing process, He chooses to utilize events, good models, and time to make the recovery both complete and the past experiences understandable and emotionally manageable to the injured.

All leaders are called into situations that demand that trust be restored. Although it would be wonderful if trust quickly returned when good leadership arrived on the scene, this is seldom the case. Wounded people must learn to trust again, no matter who is leading them. The individual leader cannot become a point of trust until people are healed and even then the leader must strive to maintain the trust of those who follow. Therefore, leaders must teach people how to trust while at the same time offering themselves as worthy objects of trust.

A 21st-century leader is constantly aiming for higher levels of trust, even when the leadership environment seems healthy and productive. Robert Greenleaf offers the suggestion that the leader seek optimal trust (italics mine)-the right amount of trust found somewhere between blind trust that can abdicate responsibility and no trust that stifles responsibility in others. This is trust that supports leadership that moves followers toward what is richer, honest, and fundamentally right.8

The contemporary leader has two straightforward goals in matters of trust: exercising personal trust toward God in all matters related to life and leadership and earning voluntary trust from those led. The primary goal of personal trust in God is a product of grace and the Holy Spirit’s power in the life of the leader, a unique ability to place situations in God’s hands and leave them there. This ability to completely entrust issues of leadership to the Lord is particularly critical when nurturing those held in the grip of distrust. The secondary goal of gaining voluntary trust is awarded leadership by those who recognize godly virtues authentically reflected in leaders who bring hope and healing into fractured situations.

When leaders fail, it is never with impunity. Stumbling leaders almost always bring injury to their followers and most often the fallout is very serious. The moral standards of the Christian faith make failure for the Christian leader particularly egregious. Peoples’ faith can be shaken, Christian testimony is jaded, and leadership in general may experience a decline of public trust. Consequently, transformational leaders must work hard for the trust of those led, allowing trust to flourish in environments in which the values of honest and caring communication and proactive problem solving prevail.

Howard L. Young, D.Min., senior pastor, Woodland Worship Center of the Assemblies of God, Oneida, Wisconsin.


1. Jack Lowe Jr., Insights on Leadership (Trust: The Invaluable Asset) (New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc.,1996),68.

2. Norman Shawchuck and Rodger Heuser, Managing the Congregation (Nashville: Abingdon Press,1996),168.

3. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, Credibility, How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Pub.,1993).xvii.

4. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pub.,1995),166-168.

5. Lawrence O. Richards and Clyde Hoeldtke, A Theology of Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub., 1980), 79.

6. Max Depree, Leadership as an Art (New York: Dell Publishing, 1989),104,105.

7. Shawchuck and Heuser, Managing Conflict, p. 262.

8. Robert Greenleaf, On Becoming A Servant Leader (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996),336.

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