Building a Foundation of Trust

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Two recent webinars—one on scientists struggling for acceptance in church and another on the anxiety and stress pastors face—have me thinking about the place of trust in ministry.

At the end of January, we hosted a donor-only webinar. We focused on a newsletter I had written on one of the hardest questions we hear from scientists: what do I do if my church does not accept me as a scientist?

In preparation for that event, my colleague Dave Navarra wanted us to consider the perspective of a pastor on the issue of relationships and acceptance. The newsletter I had written sided more with the scientists’ perspective, but Dave felt we also needed to voice the other side.

The webinar ended with a discussion about trust. Without it, how can pastors and congregations better accept science professionals? Trust is essential for our Standard Model to work and when we have seen that relational approach thrive, it is built on the bedrock of candor between church leaders and their science partners.

But we all know that trust is a tricky dynamic that rarely happens quickly. Nor is trust ever guaranteed, even between pastors and parishioners (although we hope both sides graciously give the other the benefit of the doubt).

The Unique Situation of Pastors

Our February 12th webinar on pastors and mental health, the first in a series of four with our friends at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, featured a Christian counselor speaking on anxiety and stress. Nate Brooks counsels clergy who have been terminated or forced to resign. He doesn’t focus on the few whose scandals make the news, but rather, he focuses on the larger segment of clergy who have been let go because of conflict or a breakdown of trust.

He has seen some of the worst in how pastors can be treated by their congregations, and his work is filled not only with anxious, unemployed clergy but with situations where trust has been severed completely.

He emphasized the unique position of clergy that is unlike almost any other profession. For pastors, nearly every aspect of their life, and that of their family, can be tied up in the church. For the average pastor, the church is the locus of their relationships, of their family’s finances, of their reputation, and of their spiritual support. Moreover, geography plays a unique role for clergy. A lost job typically means the family must relocate to find a new one. This can create all sorts of struggles. It raises doubts about God’s providence and their call to ministry and can rip apart important connections to people and place.

That is all to say, trust is essential between a pastor and the congregation they serve. The risk is monumental if a conflict develops between them and the individuals who determine their livelihood and so much more.

  • Over at the Biblical Counseling Coalition, read Nate Brook’s summary of the unique challenges clergy face when terminated.
  • Sign up for the last week of our webinar on pastors and mental health for a discussion about conflict.
  • Our collection of newsletters and videos highlighting the Standard Model give you a sense of what it looks like when pastors and scientists build trust for the sake of the church.

Candor in Dialogue

Trust between the pastor and scientists should never be blind trust. Only Jesus can get his disciples to immediately drop their nets and follow him. Nor do I think one needs compelling evidence before trust forms. Progress will be complicated if we all doubt like Thomas.

Rather, I think what we need is candor. Dialogue should be honest and continue so long as there is a common desire to advance the gospel in and through the church. Once that is established, it is ok to have different approaches to a common goal. But without candor, we may not learn how the gospel is hindered when the church fails to address science well or we might engage science in ways that cause unintended harm.

Imagine an accomplished physicist decreeing to their pastor: “Thou shalt believe in string theory.” Of course, they would say it differently, but if a scientist pressured a pastor to accept any scientific theory, the pastor should be able to react honestly. “What? Why?”

Our physicist might reply with something about the mathematics that underly the laws God used to create. Hopefully the pastor knows enough about science to ask about the evidence. You may know that there is scant empirical evidence for string theory—even if the pastor does not know that. But science is built on the bedrock of gathering evidence before committing to theories.

Here the conversation might get hard. The scientist will explain the idea of strings and what she see as the evidence. Most pastors will quickly be out of their element. But it is important for the pastor to try to understand.

Ultimately, after trying to understand, the pastor should be able to ask what string theory (or any science) has to do with the church. This is where the scientist must speak with candor. A hard question about acceptance might arise; or why she believes the church’s current approach to science is hindering the gospel.

For trust to form, the pastor, too, must respond with candor. Even if he accepts string theory, if it is a topic that he feels will cause conflict (or distract for more urgent goals), the pastor should be able to give that voice. The scientist needs to hear him and understand the unique cost for a clergy member to take risks.

When I asked a psychologist about trust, she suggested the importance of “loving candor.” We must speak honestly and listen empathetically to realize points of pain and potential risks. That candor must apply to the ideas as well as the lived realities of science professionals who sometimes feel like outsiders in their own churches and of pastors for whom conflict can be so threatening.

Loving candor is part of what makes the Standard Model work. Building off trust, the pair can begin to imagine how to move forward in ways that recognize the complexities for both science professionals and pastors when the church engages science. This is when we have seen transformative ministry begin.

Building trust can be hard work. But it is precisely the relational work that must be done if we are going to hold the Body of Christ together. Look inside and outside the church. Dividing us against them over every difference is a second pandemic of our age. Why wouldn’t we make an investment in building trust, leveraging our passion for Christ to curtail the divisiveness and, in doing so, strengthening the church.

This is essential for work around faith and science, and it is a skill that translates to so many other areas where the church is seen to divide rather than unite. For in Christ Jesus, we are all children of God through faith (Gal. 3:26). We must relearn how to trust one another so the world can see the Christ in whom we find unity.



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