By David Murray
“Americans’ rating of the honesty and ethics of the clergy has fallen to 47%, the first time this rating has dropped below 50% since Gallup first asked about the clergy in 1977. Clergy have historically ranked near the top among professions on this measure, hitting a high rating of 67% in 1985.” (Source: Honesty and Ethics Rating)
Although pastors remain in the top third of the league table of trust, the decline is significant enough for us to ask what’s happening and what can be done to put it right. We’ll look at causes first and then at some cures.
Immorality: The report itself notes that: “The Catholic priest abuse stories from the early 2000s helped lead to a sharp drop in Americans’ ratings of clergy, a decline from which the profession has yet to fully recover.” However, Catholics don’t have a monopoly in immorality. Evangelicals are doing sadly well in that department too.
Greed: Some megachurch pastors’ salaries and lifestyles have drawn just criticism.
Distance: Some pastors do little more than teach and preach. Others become like CEOs, spending their days administering paper and staff. In both cases, there’s a loss of contact with the sheep as the pastor increasingly delegates home and hospital visiting, counseling, weddings, funerals, etc.
Brevity: The average length of a pastorate is four years, which makes it virtually impossible for people to get to know the pastor well, never mind begin to trust him.
Cynicism: Society has become more cynical and less trusting in general. It’s no surprise that the church suffers along with other institutions.
Media: Given the media’s non-stop all-out attack on the church via outright opposition, mocking sniggers, and caricatured Christians, in some ways it’s a miracle that anyone trusts a pastor these days.
Attendance: With less people going to church, people have less face-to-face contact with pastors. Again, hard to trust people you don’t know.
Why is this so important? Why can’t we just shrug our shoulders and say, “Who cares? They didn’t trust Christ and we shouldn’t expect anything different.” That’s an understandable reaction; in some ways, the level of trust that pastors have enjoyed has been a cultural anomaly resulting from the United States’ unusually strong Christian heritage.
However, we can’t just nonchalantly throw trust overboard as if it doesn’t matter. It does matter, because God has bound up the messenger with the message. If the messenger isn’t trusted, neither will his message be trusted.
So how do we rebuild trust in the messenger and the message?
Patience: We need to realize that grand gestures are not going to work. It’s going to be a long, slow, incremental process of multiple actions by multiple pastors in multiple locations.
Stay: Pastors have to commit to staying longer in their posts. Most people take three years or so before they really begin to trust a pastor and open up to him. Constancy and consistency create credibility.
Mix: Get out of the pulpit, get out of the office, and get among the sheep. Yes, it’s much messier than study and administration, but how else can pastors truly say, “I know my sheep and am known of mine” (John 10:14). Notice who’s at the top of the table – nurses!
Holiness: A holy life is a trustworthy life. People are looking at two areas in particular: money and women. To be blunt.
Local: A small minority of pastors may be called to a wider ministry, but way too many evidently desire a wider ministry, and often pursue it to the detriment of their local churches. Unless people see that the shepherd prioritizes them, and usually makes them his exclusive concern, they will not trust him.
Bridges: Build bridges with the unchurched. Get involved in non-church activities so non-church people can see you are “normal,” that you have two eyes, one nose, skin, feelings, etc. That you are surprisingly just like them.
Ultimately Gallup opinion polls are less important than God’s opinion of us. We certainly don’t want to become man-pleasers either; people can smell that a mile off too. Our first question must always be “Does God trust us?” more than “Do the public trust us?” However, without sacrificing our integrity, we must also have a concern to build trustworthiness. If we do that, trust will follow.
What do you think the causes of this declining trust are and how can pastors climb the table again?
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, blogs at Head Heart Hand, and is author of the books Christians Get Depressed Too and How Sermons Work.