Congregational Trust Building for Elders

Thoughts for Elders on Gaining the Trust of the Congregation

The following thoughts are derived from both an implied outworking of Biblical principles regarding elder function in the New Testament local church as well as personal observations based on pastoral experience. Thus, in the main, these tips should be viewed as suggestions rather than Biblical fiat. They are variously applicable to the Board plenarily and to individual Board members as well as to both vocational and non-vocational elders. 

It is helpful to understand that trustworthiness is a trait, not a one time event. Thus, it takes time, and lots of it, both to develop this trait and for this trait to be recognized by others. One does not normally gain the trust of another overnight! Therefore, elders must be in it for the long haul if they are to win the trust of the congregation. This requires patience and persistence. Oftentimes, trust is a reward of longevity in ministry. (Illust: I was a solo pastor for seven years before I sensed that I had gained the trust of the flock.)

Furthermore, the reality is that trust gained over the course of years can vanish in one imprudent moment. It is a fragile commodity that requires diligent protection.  

I have found the following suggestions helpful.

A. Trust begins with having qualified elders

  1. Ensure that only biblically qualified men serve as elders. This should be non-negotiable. Having only qualified elders is by far the most important concept in the confidence building endeavor. This will require educating the congregation regarding the Biblical qualifications found in the Pastoral Epistles. This should also be done in writing and distributed prior to all elder selections. These qualifications should be featured  both in pre- membership classes and in a robust prospective elder training program. It also means that the board must police itself and be willing to ask any non-qualified men to step down.  Remember, the Board is not the place to train unqualified men nor is it a place to allow them to grow into qualification. It is far better to have no elders at all than to have elders who are not qualified. (Illust: the temptation to recruit unqualified men is often enormous. Resist it with all your might).

B. Trust is a dividend of good shepherding

  1. Don’t forget to shepherd. One of the best ways to build trust with the congregation is to make sure the elders are not just managing the “business” of the church but are also heavily invested in personally caring for people. The congregation needs to know this. A wise Board will systematically assign every member to the care of an individual elder who will in turn be held accountable to the other elders for discharging his care duties. (Illust: During a potentially divisive event in the life of the church many members confessed to me that they trusted the elders to act in the congregation’s best interest in this situation simply because knew thattheir elder genuinely and tangibly cared for them.)
  2. At the end of the day, trust is personal. I maintain that the degree of trust is often proportionate to the degree of personal interaction with individuals and families by the elders. Certainly there are congregants who will trust their elders intellectually because they know they should trust the God ordained leaders of the congregation. Bravo for them; we need more of that kind of command orientation to obedience. However, it is my view that loyal and long lasting trust is born more from the breeding ground of knowledge based on personal interaction rather than intellectual submission to Scriptural dictum. (llust: to this day a former congregant considers me her pastor, I hope in the right sense. I believe this is the case because, over the years, I took an interest in her unsaved husband as well as walked with her during difficult vocational, marital and health circumstances.)

C. Transparency begets trust

  1. As a matter of policy, elder meetings should be open to all members of the church. Any member should be able to observe, yet without voice or vote. However, meetings may be closed for consideration of confidential or sensitive matters as determined by the elders. This also means that all elder meetings should be published on a church calendar of events. (Illust: I discovered that as the congregation came to trust its elders, observer requests were rarely submitted!)
  2. Elders must pay careful attention to communicating their decisions, deliberations, and activities well. Publication of these must be timely, clear, to select sub-groupings of the congregation as appropriate (normally those most effected by the decision), and with explanation if deemed helpful by the elders. Also, including a formal elder report replete with a question/answer opportunity at all membership meetings goes a long way toward instilling confidence in the board of elders. (Illust: In my experience, our well thought out, concise, formal elder report mitigated almost all issues). 
  3. Don’t be afraid to solicit input from the congregation especially regarding decisions or actions that may be potentially controversial or divisive. Typically, congregants appreciate that the elders are willing to hear their views. However, handle this with care. Boards can not afford to give the impression that the congregation is making the decision or that the Board is bound by congregational opinions. Straw polls are almost always a bad idea.  
  4. Even the appearance of hiding matters can sabotage congregational confidence in the Board. The common attitude may very likely be, “if it smells like fish, it probably is.” So, it may not be possible to avoid the appearance of secrecy in everyone’s mind, but do your best. Always default to transparency. It breeds trust. (Illust:  Out of compassion, the elders chose not to share all details behind encouraging a staff member to seek another position. This led some congregants to accuse the elders of hiding something.

D. Trust is enhanced by rightly handling resistance

  1. Recognize that in congregations with a history of pure democracy governance, there will naturally be suspicions and misunderstandings about how the elder board functions and whether it is operating in the best interest of the congregation. Furthermore, churches  located in democratic societies are often more prone to questioning elder authority. And, In light of the reality that the congregation might be several steps behind the Board on any given matter, resistance should be anticipated. Do not be surprised by push back. It is not necessarily a harbinger of rebellion. 
  2. Deal with criticism well. (Illust: A vocal critic nailing me in the nursery over a decision I had made with which she disagreed.) Board and individual board members must avoid reacting defensively. They must welcome criticism (or at least give that impression). Listen listen, listen. And listen patiently. Even if you don’t do what is suggested. Even if the criticism is unfounded. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Have I thanked God for this issue? 
  • Have I contributed to this issue? 
  • Does this issue expose any personal blindspots? 
  • Do I really believe in a big God who is in control of every detail of my life and ministry? 
  • If so, what lessons can I learn?

  1. As a rule, do not solve or address individual issues with a public statement (or worse a sermon). Deal with them personally. But, if a public statement must be made, carefully craft the statement so that it is both accurate and compassionate.  Give enough detail for understanding but not too much detail so that it smacks of gossip or that it appears that the Board must always give a reason for what it does or decides.
  2. When the Board makes a mistake or bad decision that is a matter of public knowledge, it should quickly and unequivocally admit it and change it when possible. (Illust: Decision to allow a restored disciplined member to minister on the platform.)

E. You teach well and they will trust well

  1. Establish a long history of commitment to teaching the Word throughout the fiber of the church - the pulpit,  adult, student, and children classes, special groups, and et al. The effect of this is that as the church grows to trust their elders to handle the Word without pulling punches or promoting their own pet inclinations they also will grow to trust them with the corporate practices of the church as well as with the intimate details of their own individual lives. This is one reason why the church should be known as a Word centered church above all else. Yes, I know “gospel centered” is currently the fad. Sorry.
  2. Periodically teach the congregation regarding the role of elders in the church, how the Board functions, how it makes decisions, the relationship between the elders and the congregation, the relationship between elders, especially between vocational and non-vocational elders. (Illust: I have found that even a healthy church never gets to the point of not needing this refresher. It goes against the grain of our natural orientation of being in charge).
  3. When making major changes, educate, educate, educate. If time is available take it. Assume nothing. Live to see another day. (Illust: The one notable time I failed to do this the situation turned out badly.) 

F. Functioning the book breeds trust

  1. The elders should establish a book of policies and procedures that cover the full range of church and elder operation and organization. It then becomes crucial that they carefully and consistently follow all official directives. Documents must be followed or changed. Excellent organization and administration eventually leads to trust.  If the congregation is assured that the leadership has mundane administrative matters under control they normally conclude that the leadership also has a watchful eye on things of greater importance. And this causes them to trust those same leaders to pilot the ship well.  ( Illust: This is especially important in how church discipline is handled. Carelessness here will eventually result in some nasty situations.)
  2. Put in place reasonable organizational checks and balances. The Board must preserve integrity at all costs. Consider adopting a policy that if the number of non-vocational elders is less than the number of vocational elders, the Board will consult with the deacons.  Also, adopt a policy that vocational elders will recuse themselves during decisions regarding their performance and during decisions regarding selecting a lead vocational elder. 
  3. However, it is possible and perhaps even prudent to state somewhere in the church documents that the Board has the authority to suspend rules in the event of an emergency or some urgent or unforeseen circumstance. But, exercise great caution here. Such authority should only be for a temporary time period and should be infrequently invoked. 

G. Trust starts in the board room

  1. Allow for a difference of opinion among elders on matters of secondary doctrine and practice. (And among congregants for that matter). Of course, determination of what is and what is not secondary can be tricky. When the congregation realizes that its elders refrain from elevating personal preferences or popular viewpoints to cardinal doctrinal status, confidence in the elders is generated. So, the Board should think twice about adopting official positions on secondary doctrines and practices. One helpful habit is that the Board should always ask whether a decision they are making or practice they are adopting really has Biblical warrant rather than mere preference. While an issue may be advocated by some well regarded churchman, does it have the clear endorsement of the Scripture? (Illust: Our elders differed over several secondary beliefs and practices, however, these differences never became issues)
  2. Even though elders should allow for differences of opinion among themselves, they must always speak highly of one another publicly. The Board is a team. And related, any disagreements should be private in so far as is possible. Unity, not necessarily unanimity, should be the goal. Nonetheless, the congregation’s view of the elders appreciates when it knows that the elders do have robust disagreements and discussions but handle such debates Biblically. In short, the Board should strike a balance between valuing individual views and striving for unity. 
  3. The Board should establish its own identity. The congregation will have confidence in a Board that they know makes decisions based on their own Biblical understanding rather than the opinion of the latest church guru or some current popular evangelical practice. The questions must be, “is this practice or decision right Biblically” and/or “is this practice or decision right for this local church” not “is this the way other respected churches do it or influential gurus advise”.  Never worship other church models slavishly and never check your brain at the conference or bookstore door. 
  4. Always keep confidences. If congregants suspect that Board members don’t do this, they will never trust the Board or individual Board members with their most intimate concerns, questions, and problems. Period. Game over. In conjunction with this, I remind you that an elder’s wife and family are not Board members and should have no privileged access to confidential information. (Illust: I never wanted to put my wife in the position of trying sort out what was confidential and what wasn’t - especially on the fly. So I greatly limited what I shared with her regarding elder decisions or pastoral encounters.) 

H. Trust happens as the elders value the congregation

  1. The Board should make it widely known that, when possible, it prefers a bottom up rather than a top down approach to the ministry of the church. In other words, when people have ideas  for ministry the Board should empower them to accomplish those ministries if such ministries fit into the current goals, priorities, resources, and philosophy of the church. And do not forget to, by some means, publicly applaud the innovative congregants as well as all who are engaged in church ministries whether small or large in scope. (Illust: how about recognizing “servants of the week”).
  2. Avoid the “we’ve always done it this way” response to creative and new ideas put forward by a congregant. Rather, the Board should boldly make it known that, in its view, any idea is a good idea. However, the Board must not allow everyone to do what is “right in his own eyes”. A complete “hands off” policy usually spells disaster. The Board ultimately is held accountable for all the ministries of the church. (Illust: Small groups should not be allowed to operate independently from the congregation without supervision and gatekeeping). 
  3. Always remember that even though the Board possesses the authority in the church, it serves the congregation. The Board must therefore act in the best interest of the congregation rather than its own self interest. In this sense, the overused term “servant leader” is appropriate. Most congregants gladly trust this kind of an elder!
  4. Act like an elder. Being known as one of the guys in the congregation is not necessarily a prized reputation. I am convinced that congregations want elders they can look up to, admire, respect, and emulate. I’m not talking about a phony or pompous aura but rather genuine spirituality, practical wisdom, growing maturity, and sober dignity. (Illust: I understand cultural variations, societal trends, and internal vs. external aspects. I get it. But still, I am wondering what this looks like in personal appearance and conduct. Have we missed something?)

Final Thought

In my view, elder boards do not have to buy into all of these specific suggestions for gaining the trust of the congregation. However, elder boards somehow must gain the congregation’s trust.  This must be a priority. Failure to do so nearly always leads to ineffective care as well as inefficient oversight of the congregation.

© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2017. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to this source.