Leadership cannot flourish without trust. Relationships, institutions and communities depend on people having confidence in one another. Clergy who want to lead change, transform congregations and establish authentic interpersonal connections need to understand that trust is never automatic. Trust is cultivated over time through intentional and consistent practices. When churches have had painful or disappointing experiences with pastoral leadership, trust-building is difficult work. Developing a few vital leadership competencies can help pastors as they seek to build up and amplify trust. 

  • One trust-building practice for pastors is deep listening. Every new pastor — and any pastor leading a church through an uncertain, anxious season — should spend more time listening. Set aside time to meet with individuals and families. Listen closely to what lay leaders tell you. How do they feel? Convene ministry groups and demographic groups to ask generative questions. Notice what they are saying — and what they are not saying. The more people know you are listening, and that you care about what they have to say, the more likely they are to have confidence in your leadership.
  • Pastors also build trust by being reliable and dependable. Keep your commitments. As Dave Odom writes, trust comes down to doing what you say and saying what you will do. Doing what you say is about reliability. Saying what you will do is about communication. As churches continue to muddle through global pandemics, it is even more necessary to clearly say what we plan to do if we want to maintain the trust we’ve earned.
  • Ministers can also build trust by showing that they care. Most clergy are busy people. We have sermons to write and meetings to lead. We must find ways to demonstrate that we care. Sometimes a phone call to someone you cannot visit in person is more than enough to communicate compassion. You can also show you care by leading with transparency. People are more likely to trust leaders in times of instability when leaders provide a clear rationale for change. Why are changes happening now? Why these changes? Be transparent with accurate and informative financial data. And always care enough to take responsibility for your mistakes.


Before you go…

Not knowing how to intentionally build trust can stifle any leader’s progress. That’s why a pastoral colleague once told me not to use my authority until I had some. What he meant is that people don’t trust you just because you’ve been appointed or called to a church. Your authority as a leader, which is derived from trust, emerges when people have confidence that you will listen, that you are reliable and that you genuinely care. It sounds cliché to say that this process takes time and patience. But it does.

We also must consistently practice trust-building habits. What can you do this week to cultivate trust with your people? If you have other ideas about cultivating trust, feel free to reach out to me and the Alban Weekly team at alban@duke.edu. It is my prayer this week that you will keep trusting the God who called you. Peace and blessings!

Prince Rivers

Editor, Alban at Duke Divinity