What to do when trust is low

So, can your church change? Is there enough trust between the congregation and its leaders to take up this work? Is there a tolerance for conflict? Can members identify things they’d be willing to trade for? Again, not every church can, which nonetheless does not disqualify them from being loved the way God would love them. But let’s say you are in a congregation that does have the capacity to change. Many congregations that have the capacity to take up the work of adaptive change fail to do so nevertheless. Here’s where a certain kind of leadership can make a big difference.

But before I get into that, let’s get back to the churches that can’t change. This is not necessarily a terminal condition. I think if they can’t find anything worth trading for (the third thing on my list), then you’re in a world of hurt. But the first two problems stated above may be amenable to repair.

In fact, these two things (trust and conflict) are connected. Handling conflict well engenders trust. Trust makes it easier to engage conflict. You get the idea.

I think the place to begin, however, is restoring trust. It’s probably not the best strategy to incite conflict in order to establish trust. Let’s do it the other way around. I am again indebted to Heifetz and Linski for language and concepts that help me think through these things. I like their suggestions, in particular, for “raising and lowering” the temperature and “creating a holding space.”

Before I unpack these ideas, however, let me begin with something I learned from the Appreciative Inquiry folks. People are willing to take risks when they feel most stable. The problem with lack of trust between congregations and their leaders is that people don’t feel secure. While ultimately you can’t get transformation apart from conflict and the energy that comes with it, in times when trust is low you have to “lower the temperature.”

There are several ways H&L suggest to lower the temperature, but the big one in terms of restoring trust is to slow the rate of innovation. I know the frustration of being a leader who senses that certain things have to change before progress can be made. But if the congregational temperature is already too high due to lack of trust, it is still the better part of wisdom is to slow the rate of innovation. Lower the temperature and live to fight another day!

All other trust building measures have to do with what I would call the “communicative environment.” When trust is low, people build alliances as a way of preserving for them what seems to be at stake. A holding environment, according to H&L, allows people to talk to each other again, hopefully without flying apart. So, what constitutes a holding environment?

Several things. Here are a few. 1. Clarifying shared language, values, and perspectives. What would everyone salute if you ran it up the congregational flagpole? Live in these for awhile. 2. Establishing ground rules for discourse. For example, “We won’t assign motives to other people, even if we’re sure we know what they are. We won’t gossip. We will seek to understand before we respond. We will avoid “you” language.” You get the idea. 4. Drawing on positive stories of working together. 5. Identifying lateral bonds of affection, trust, and camaraderie. Even in a divided congregation, there are still likely persons on either side of an issue who still trust each other or like each other.

Of course, you may attempt to do all these things and still not be able to have a civil conversation. If the issues are highly personalized (in other words, “so-in-so is the problem and clearly not to be trusted”) around leaders, then it is likely you will need mediation–someone from the outside that both sides feel will be impartial.

It is tempting to think of a holding environment as something you construct when you’re in the midst of conflict. In other words, you might think of it as episodic rather than as a regular part of your congregation’s life. But I think this is just good ministry all the time. I think of leadership in ministry not as “getting things done,” but as tending to an environment that allows the Spirit to move freely between people, and the living Word of God to continue to be spoken and heard person-to-person in community. Call me old fashioned, but I truly believe it is God who gets things done.

Well, here I’ve started to talk about leading through adaptive change. But we’ll have to wait for subsequent posts for those.

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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1 Response to What to do when trust is low

  1. Patti Bowman says:

    Dearest Mark Love, this essay is so helpful, courageous and hopeful. I love you. I hope you and Donna are well and glad, my brother & friend. Emmanuel! Patti BoWoman

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