A leader builds trust in one of four ways—relationship, success, unblemished integrity, or personal transformation. Let’s consider each of these, discover how they build a foundation for change, and identify how much change each will allow a pastor to achieve before the ice beneath his feet begins to crack.
First, trust is built through relationship.
This used to be the pastor’s wheelhouse. A new pastor would join his congregation, knowing that the best first step would be to engage the people, get to know them and the extending branches of their families, and understand their worlds from an up-close perspective. Pastors once launched their ministries with plans for people rather than plans for change, believing they needed to walk in the former pastor’s shoes for a while before being certain of any new steps to take.
Sunday sermons and Sunday dinners, wedding rehearsals and their subsequent receptions, graduation parties, hospital visits, kids’ ballgames, family funerals—these, and other moments like them, prove to be the construction sites where a pastor’s relationships are built. Pastor’s influence in our lives is established by his presence in our lives. Experienced pastors understand that their preaching is a job requirement, but they really become “pastor” by their presence in the midst of life’s major moments, especially its crises. Preach a great series on the Beatitudes and folks will appreciate you, but sit in the Intensive Care Unit and hold their hand as doctors remove dad’s ventilator and your role in their family changes forever.
And, as that influence grows, trust grows as well. Through relationship, pastor has proven that he’s one of us. We’ve come to know him as he has prioritized knowing us. So we attach ourselves and our family’s spiritual futures to our pastor because we know him, we like him, and we trust him. Will we, then, let him direct changes in our church? Yes, at least to a point—the point that our relationship can withstand.
You see, when pastor has established healthy relationships with us, we come to believe that he understands us and our needs more fully. He does. So we are willing to trust his heart for us because he has proven that heart in our cemeteries and hospital wings. He’s laughed at our jokes and eaten blueberry pie in our dining rooms, so he has proven his commitment to us and we like him. Change? Go ahead, pastor, we trust you…to a point.
When your influence or leadership is built on relationship, we let you lead because we like you. But change too much or go too fast and we start liking you less. “You may have done an amazing job with grandma’s memorial service, but decide to discontinue my Sunday school class, and we’re back to square one!”
This “zeroing out” of the love bank often catches pastor by surprise and inflicts some of his deepest hurts. He’s caught off-guard when the family that he’s held together by the bailing wire of his late-night counseling efforts suddenly decides to leave the church. He doesn’t understand how his long-time friend and fishing buddy withdraws his membership over last Sunday’s song selection or why the babies he’s held and slipped candy to for a generation now want the Associate Pastor to replace him.
Yes, at times we the people can be a bit fickle. We may sometimes allow our mole hills to become mountains you can’t climb, but there’s something we need you to understand. In a journey of change, relationship is essential, but it will only take you so far. If we let you lead because we like you and the changes you’re making lead us not to like you anymore, well, you can see that your recent withdrawals from our love bank have overdrawn your account. So we close it.
Funny thing about relationships, though, they won’t let you make a lot of change, but we won’t let you make any change without them. Making changes at church without first building relationships is like trying to cash a check when you’ve never made a deposit. If you do that, the bank teller’s going to frown at you, and shake her head until those horn-rimmed glasses fall from her ears.
Now, there are two modern realities that work against a pastor’s priority of making relationships. The first of these is the increasing size of today’s churches. A half-century ago, a pastor would typically arrive on scene and be welcomed by eighty to a hundred people, ready to launch life’s journey together. Today, that average has almost doubled and there are many places where the assembled well-wishers could fill the local high school’s gymnasium…twice. To build relationships with hundreds would be overwhelming. Keeping this size of a crowd happy requires a politician, not a pastor.
In the larger church, people soon figure out that close relationship with the pastor isn’t realistic. So we don’t expect him to officiate the kids’ wedding or show up at the clinic to pray before each colonoscopy. Instead, we like our pastor because he seems likeable—from a distance. We know him (or think we do) because of what he shows us in the pulpit. He’s kind because he seems kind. He’s smart because he sounds smart. He cares about us—you can tell that by the way he crafts each week’s benediction—but we really don’t know him. We may, however, know some people who know him, and they say good things.
In many larger churches, relationship isn’t a realistic means for building trust. Those pastors will have to look to one of the other two options we’ll consider in a moment.
The second reality is our principal subject in this chapter—time. Building relationships takes time, there really are no shortcuts. It’s this requirement that has many pastors growing impatient. They’re attending conferences where the latest idea looks like the perfect solution to an aspect of congregational weakness, and waiting a few months or even years to try it out doesn’t seem appealing.
When I first became pastor of our congregation in Wichita, a fellow pastor told me that I wouldn’t really be the pastor for the first five years I held the title. That’s about how long it takes to build the needed relationships to lead. He ruined my evening—several of them, in fact. I decided right there not to like that fellow pastor, and it had nothing to do with the fact that his congregation was six times larger than mine!
But he was right.
Relationship building is time consuming work. And pastors, especially those leading congregations of 400 or less, have no choice but to make that investment. You simply cannot lead change until you have proven your love and care for the people, and that requires you to live some life with them before launching us all forward onto new avenues.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve some change until you’ve entered year number six. Change can be achieved more rapidly if you can work effectively with those in the church who currently possess the influence you haven’t had time to build. Often, those sitting around the deacon table or others among your leadership team have put in the time and proven their care for the congregation. If you can respect and value these friends, and learn to trust their sense of judgment and timing, you can make some earlier progress on the future—steps you could never successfully take on our own.
Still, even with the help of these friends, you need to be prepared to spend some time before we’ll trust you enough to let you determine our direction. Sheep follow their shepherd’s voice, and it takes a little while for that voice to become familiar—time spent bringing us to green grass and extricating us from life’s thorn bushes. We want you to lead us, but we need to be sure that you really know us before we can be sure that you know what is best.