Don Follis: In the end, trust is all a pastor really has

Don Follis: In the end, trust is all a pastor really has

Every month I receive calls from pastors trying to figure out how to best relate to church leaders. This shocks you, I realize. This week a call came from a pastor puzzled at his perception of the indecisiveness of the church leaders at a recent board meeting.

He drafted a letter clarifying his thoughts. He wanted me to read the letter and give him my thoughts. Later that night, he planned to hand out the letter at the board, augmenting it with his own commentary.

"Does the board know the letter is coming?" I asked.

"No, I thought I'd explain it when I hand it out."

The letter was good. It was both clear and strong. I asked, "Would you like to receive this letter presented on the spot if you were on the church board?"

Every pastor, every church leader, knows it is not a matter of if there is church conflict between the pastor and the church leadership team. It is a matter of when. Pastors come and go. Many don't stay in one location more than five years. Parting ways is not always pretty.

Occasionally I meet pastors who have been at the same church 30 years or more? Amazing people, most of them. I like to ask them, "What is the secret to staying in the same church for a long time?" Jimmy Adcox, a 40-year pastor at Southwest Church in Jonesboro, Ark., recently wrote about how he's stayed 40 years at his post. "To be honest, I'm not sure. When people tell me I must have done a great job to be in one place for 40 years, I often smile and say, 'They are just a patient group of people.' And they are! I certainly couldn't have stayed without them!'"

Having just passed the 39-year mark of ministry in Champaign-Urbana, I will be the first to second the part about patience from others. I have tried to get on my horse and get out of town many times. When I arrived in this university town in the late 70s I was pretty sure I would be here no more than five years. This is a transient town. Early on, I thought I, too, would move on to "greener pastures." Instead, I have traveled around the world to see some of the people to whom I have ministered, while always returning to my Urbana home.

Pastor Adcox in his Arkansas church wonders if perhaps he has resisted change because he could not pull the trigger. "Perhaps I was just more comfortable with the challenges I knew than the ones I didn't."

I most definitely resemble that comment. Adcox admits, "I wish I could say my choices were always made from deep spiritual discernment, but spiritual discernment about such things has always been rather foggy to me." He thinks God is more concerned about our being faithful to him wherever we are than about dictating our location. Well, OK, if it's not an excuse you hide behind.

In the end, all healthy long-term ministries are sustained by trust. If the shepherd of the church flock develops a relationship of mutual trust with the parishioners, you can build a foundation to weather almost any storm.

A foundation of trust allows church members to overlook a pastor's mistakes. Trust begins with the relationship between the pastor and the other church leaders. No hidden agendas. No surprises. No playing one member against another. Pastors must put the welfare of the church above their own personal interests. They can't undermine leaders by gossiping about them to other "trusted" church members who could give them insights on how to proceed on this or that issue.

Leading a church is a stewardship — a sacred trust. Trust coupled with a long-term presence in people's lives brings influence, one of the great blessings of a long-term ministry. But such influence is dangerous. The longer pastors serve, the more ownership they feel, which is even more reason for them to keep surrendering their ministry to God and to the good of the church they serve.

"Trust is crucial when people feel threatened, when big decisions are being made about the future, when asking people to give to a vision and when problems must be addressed while confidences are being honored," says pastor Adcox.

In frequent sessions with pastors, I get reminded that trust is built on character, competency and chemistry — especially character. The faithful watch to see if pastors are genuine, if their personal life is consistent with their profession and with their public presentation. They watch to see if pastors can be counted on to bring competency and consistency to their work. Can a pastor be trusted to say appropriate things when called on in the community? Do they have enough emotional intelligence to know what is appropriate to a specific moment?

It takes a long time to build a trust bank where a pastor is given the benefit of the doubt, especially when something goes awry. This doesn't mean a pastor can't have a bad day. We all are cracked, clay vessels. The faithful know that.

Still, pastors can't deplete their trust account. Because in the end, pastors only have their influence. The foundation of influence is trust.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

Sections (1):Living
Topics (1):Religion