Creating an Atmosphere of Trust


The Beast

We all filed into the room, scraping, rattling and moving the chairs as we got ready for the meeting. It had been a good morning in church and as the room filled with men, the atmosphere was upbeat. There was that outward show of good cheer expected of Christian men when they get together. I’m sure some of the men thought the atmosphere was real and lasting. But I wasn’t one of them. To me it felt thin and fragile, like icicles in the winter sun. If I could have avoided this meeting, I would have. But I was the guy who stood in the pulpit on Sundays. Escape was impossible. The chairman called everyone to order.

"I don't know how we got through that ugly moment."

We began items of business that were easy to get through. Small items. Agreeable items. But then came the matter that awoke a beast: the Trust Fund. Suddenly, I felt as I had once when confronted by a Doberman: time and breath stopped. The room no longer seemed to have a warm, jolly glow. It felt stark, exposing everything in a naked light and there was no hiding. All that was left was to stay as still as possible and hope not to be eaten. My favourite elder bravely put forward some thoughts. Then the bald-headed teacher spat out his caustic accusation. The chairman tried to moderate. A theologian tried to offer an analytic, dispassionate way through the mess. But that wasn't going to work. There was too much history in the background. And it wasn’t good history.

To this day, I don’t how we got through that ugly moment. The issue was probably tabled after much emotional and fruitless discussion. One thing I am sure of: that leadership group could never successfully tackle anything beyond routine business items.

The Trust Factor

Recently, my friend Stephan Kruger asked me to teach on Church Leadership in the School of Revival in Raleigh. It gave me a chance to research and reflect on Church Leadership from both a Biblical and experiential perspective. Though I am quite young (still) I’ve been in several different kinds of leadership structures. I’ve been in churches where leadership was made up of a plurality of elders. I’ve been in places where ;men’s meetings' ran the church. I’ve been in a church run by a young team with a 'lead shepherd'. I’ve been in a ministry that has an apostolic leader of a world-wide network. It’s all been very instructive.

"Nothing kills trust quicker than an atmosphere of insecurity and fear."

When I look back on that leadership meeting that blew up, I find it quite ironic. On the surface, it was about the Trust Fund. But in reality it wasn’t about money, it was about 'Trust' itself. The key leaders in that meeting did not like each other. More importantly, they didn’t trust each other. Leadership that finds its fullest expression and ability to function must have this key ingredient. If trust is not present, leadership is hamstrung. Or it boldly goes where no leadership should ever tread. So how do we create trust in leadership?

Creating the Atmosphere of Trust

In my mind, there are several factors that help create the atmosphere of trust that allows a leadership team to function best.

1. A Shared Life

Though leaders don’t need to agree on all issues, they must trust and respect each other. An apostolic leader sat down with my wife and I once and said this surprising statement: “I didn’t think you (the leadership team) would make it. It wasn’t Jesus that held you together. It was your relationship to one another.”

He had it right. We had suffered the loss of our senior pastor, endured the criticism of city leaders and hurt church members. Yet for two years the leadership team stayed together. We, of course, loved Jesus. And we had vision. But just as important was the fact that we had shared life together. Our team ate in each other’s homes, prayed together, and loved each others’ children. Some of us went on holidays together. Even our retreats were as much about 'play' as they were about business and spirituality. We roared around on Sea-doos, water-skied, jaccuzzied and sat by the pool. We played guitar, video-gamed, cooked together and ate endless tubs of Blue Bell ice-cream. A shared life of unguarded moments creates trust. I’m convinced that this happened in the meals, camping trips and weddings that Jesus shared with his disciples.

2. Vulnerability

Personal vulnerability is also necessary in order to build trust and gain openness. And it must start with the person at the top. Victories and failures, highs and lows, fears and faith must be shared. Not necessarily every day, but some days. The leader who has it all together creates a false model of what it means to be a friend of God. Not only does that negatively impact the leadership circle, but it filters down to the church. We should remember that even Jesus allowed his friends to see him weep. And he invited his disciples to be with him during those agonizing moments in the Garden of Gethsemane. One leadership team I was part of was intentionally good at vulnerability. The business of our meetings was often put on hold in order to find out what was going on with our children, in our marriages and in our hearts. That was a shock at first. But it soon became the norm.

3. Fear-less Atmosphere

The leaders of Bethel Church in Redding, California have noted the connection between leadership and the creation of a culture of honor. Such a culture values the God-given gift that we are to each other. We see and treasure each other. And this brings out the fullness of the Church through Godly leadership. But nothing kills trust quicker than when there is an atmosphere of insecurity and fear. And this can happen in a number of ways.

It can happen when a leader betrays a confidence spoken to him in secret. When a key leader shares what was meant to be secret, it strangles the willingness for others to be vulnerable. Much less fearsome, but no less damaging, is when a leader makes others feel that they don’t really want to hear their opinion. This just shuts people down, because there is only the illusion of a team.

"Leading with other leaders in church requires trust."

Perhaps the strongest assassin of trust is when leaders make it 'unsafe' to disagree with the party line. Through a variety of poor responses, key leaders make it feel as if dissent leads to being labeled as 'not spiritual' or 'not having the vision and values of the church'. When this happens, other leaders become likedenizens of a coral reef at the appearance of a shark: they disappear. Hearts shut tight in a guardedness that squeezes out life.

Rearranged Leadership Style

We all have an image of what it means to be a leader. We gained the image by watching our families, TV, and by the coaches, teachers and bosses we’ve had. Some of us intentionally read up on leadership. So we muddle through the minefield of leading people. But leading with other leaders in church requires trust. And this takes time, intention and effort. You don’t just swing by the drive-through and order trust 'to-go'. It’s a life process. And it’s just as important as all the business and spiritual items on our agendas. We have to make time and space for it. When we do, our mutual trust puts us on the same side rather than against each other. It allows leaders not only to weather storms, but to bring all of themselves into the field of leading others. Not only does it do this in the name of Christ, but also in the Spirit of Christ.