What is the most important character trait for a pastor? A preaching gift? Theological education? Leadership skills? Vision? Communication saavy? A shepherd’s heart?
All of these things are important and essential for the ministry, but none of them will be used effectively if the pastor doesn’t possess the one thing that will determine the rise or fall of his ministry: trust.
Trust matters. When people first walk through the doors of a church, they enter with a bit of fear. Most likely they have had a stressful, busy, difficult week. As pastor Mike Glenn once said, “People use up all of their faith just getting to church on Sunday.”
They want to know: Can I trust the pastor? Can he lead me well? This is especially important in an age of distrust. In the last several decades we’ve seen our venerable institutions fail us: our banks, our government, our religious organizations, our sports leagues, our schools, our media. People are skeptical of leaders at all levels.
Ironically, I think pastors have a unique opportunity to lead in this environment by demonstrating the unique kind of shepherding, nurturing, winsome leadership so absent from all other institutions. But trust can’t be learned in a book. It can’t be taught. It has to be both earned and then practiced.
Here are three ways successful pastors I’ve observed have earned trust of their people:
1. Handle the Scriptures well
One of the best compliments I’ve ever received came after a sermon I preached on Sunday. The man who delivered it was a longtime, faithful, mature Christian leader. Preaching in his presence was a bit nerve-wracking, mainly because he probably forgot more about the Bible than I’d learned.
He said, simply, after shaking my hand, “Thank you for handling the Scriptures well today.” This is exactly what our job is to do on Sundays for our people. We are to declare to them what God has already said. We cannot be flippant about the text. We must resist the urge to press our agenda into the breathed-out words of God. We must approach it humbly and joyfully, recognizing that we are mere messengers, communicating the life of the Word to the people of God.
I have seen, over time, how people gravitate to regular, systematic preaching of the Word of God. They come to be fed, to eat at the table, to be nourished on the life of the Word. We may fail them in many other areas as leaders, but we cannot afford to fail them in this primary role of teaching and preaching.
When I left my congregation to work for ERLC, it warmed my heart to hear people say to me: “Thank you for teaching me the Word of God.”
You will earn a lot of trust and margin for mistakes if you teach and preach the Bible well. Study hard. Know your people so that you can apply the Scriptures in a way that resonates with them. Don’t mess with novel interpretations of texts. Admit when you are overwhelmed by tough passages. Give them the sense that you are learning the Word together. Resist the urge to become their high priest and interpreter so that they can only know God through your enlightened exegesis. Be the scholar at your church but pursue this humbly. Be transparent in the pulpit, but don’t over share. Point people away from themselves and toward the transcendent Christ.
2. Get to know your people
Every pastor must be a preacher (see above), but not every preacher is a pastor. What I mean by this is simple: you must shepherd your people. This looks a bit different based on gift set, size of church, and church structure. However, there are not shortcuts to building relationships. You must take time and effort and energy to be among your people on days other than Sunday.
When I pastored, I made it a priority to have breakfast or lunch or dinner with people in my congregation. Most of these meetings had no agenda other than to hear from people about their concerns and their struggles. What did a typical workday look like for them? What were their career ambitions? What spiritual questions did they face? How was their family life?
You should also be there, if you can, for key moments in people’s lives. You can’t attend or officiate every funeral or wedding, especially if you are pastoring a large church, but you should attend or officiate some. You can’t go to every birthday party or retirement dinner or graduation, but you should go to some. You can’t be best friends with everyone in your church but you should be best friends with some of the members of your church.
This is part of the life of a pastor. Sometimes I wonder if we’ve so prioritized the pastors study time and rest—important things to do—that we’ve swung far the other way and have pastors who are so walled off from their people they can’t really shepherd well.
Spending quality time with your people builds enormous trust. They get to see the pastor in a normal environment, when he’s just another person. They see you up close and watch and observe. These friendships take time and effort to develop but will be crucial for your leadership.
3. Proceed with change at a managed, sensitive pace
One of the biggest mistakes I made, early in my pastorate, was to make a major renovation without involving key stakeholders. I was young and cavalier and didn’t really consider the opinions of those who might be affected by this change. I survived this after patching up hurt feelings and it became, later, even a source of humor between me and the person involved. But it taught me a valuable lesson of leadership: a leader must not only bring change, he must manage the pace of that change.
There are two equally opposite tendencies among pastors. First is the tendency to be paralyzed by fear of man and make no changes. This is not only foolish; it’s an abdication of leadership. Even if you walk into the most healthy, functioning, missional church, you will have to make some changes. The way to approach change, however, is not to abandon it, but to wisely lead people through it. And if you have built up enough leadership capital (see the above two points), you can begin to implement change because your people trust you.
The second mistaken tendency is for leaders to make change too quickly and too cavalierly. Sometimes we get so focused on what we want to see differently that we forget to love our people well enough to lead them through change. Leaders do have to move forward and cannot be paralyzed by fear, but they also must step into the shoes of those who will be affected. They must analyze the change and provide a biblical rationale for it and must effectively communicate to their people why this change is necessary. They must also initiate change at a pace their people can handle, which is almost always slower than the leader wishes.
To do change well we must be aware both of the temperature of our church and the trust we have or have not yet earned to make the change. Is the church ready for a change of this magnitude? And if so, have we built relational capital and sown the seeds necessary for this to happen?
Bottom line: Trust matters in any kind of leadership position, but especially in the unique role of pastor. If you desire to shepherd your people well, work hard to build the trust that will enable you to lead as the Spirit of God directs you.