The Fallacy of “Earning Trust”

Some leadership teams believe a new staff hire needs to spend time “earning trust” before they are given significant freedom to lead. I addressed the reasons I believe such is usually (not always) a counterproductive posture to take at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. When I asked the class how long it took to “earn trust,” the consensus was, five years.

Five years.

Churches are willing to get less out of a minister for five years so they can protect against them doing the church harm either practically or spiritually? Why hire such a person if they deserve such suspicion? Who would jump at the opportunity to serve in such a system? Does this all make sense?

At one level, it makes none at all–given the average pastoral tenure is less than that. In addition, new elder selection processes reset the trust clock with at least some. Furthermore, frustrations relating to freedom to do ministry usually run toward the top of the list. In addition, how is a minister supposed to earn trust based on competency when they aren’t allowed to do what they’re capable of?

Ironically, churches choose people as elders they believe are trustworthy. In most cases, full regard for their input and authority is granted from day one. However, this doesn’t happen at the staff level–which is why both systems–elders and staff–struggle to work together.

I obviously believe absolutely EVERY minister should be trustworthy. However, I also believe the infamous “earning trust” phase is self-defeating–leading to lower productivity and higher turnover than would otherwise.

Why not just hire people you trust?

Don’t spend five years paying someone to be, largely, a professional trust earner. Besides, every elder and church member may have different criteria for what earns their trust. For some, it will be competency. For others, it will be not rocking the boat. Others will have totally different “trust earning” criteria.

This system doesn’t work.

Hire people you trust, and trust them until there is some reason not to–remembering grace if/when they make mistakes. Let’s not choose five years of suspicion and caution instead of five years of ministry together based on trust. The best way to do that is to hire well, with a clear picture of “trustworthy” looks like as you hire.

As New Vintage Church, we look for these four things.* (The first three are from Bill Hybels in Courageous Leadership.)

  1. Character. They pursue a growing relationship with Christ and live a life of integrity.
  2. Competency. They are able to lead their area of ministry with excellence.
  3. Chemistry. They get along well with others in leadership and the congregation as a whole.
  4. Fit. They fit our staff culture–creative, excellence-oriented, flexible, fun-loving, and buy into our ministry philosophy.

If we know (as best we can) they have these four things, it’s not hard to trust such a person.

Question: What does it take for you to grant trust to someone you work with?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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