Trust and the Church

Churches aren’t businesses.  Churches aren’t schools.  Churches aren’t civic organizations.  Churches are (or are supposed to be) sacred communities.  Trust is a vital component of life together in a sacred community – trust in God, and trust in one another.  What makes that trust sacred is our acceptance that circumstances and human flaws will violate that trust over and over again, and yet we go on trusting.

Trust doesn’t just happen.  The basis for trust may be a revelation (Saul on the road to Damascus), but more often trust is based on experience over time (the Hebrew people in the wilderness).  Even when a church community is eager to trust, its ability to trust will be strongly influenced by experience, particularly its experience of decision-making.  How decisions are made is a major factor in building trust in God and trust in one another.

Two major styles of decision-making seem to be dominant in our culture.  The first is goal-oriented, and the second is process-oriented.  With few exceptions, we each have a preference (which may be strong, weak, or somewhere in between) for one approach or the other.  Unfortunately, we generally have an inbuilt assumption that our preferences are shared by everyone else – or at least understood.  In addition, our culture places such a high value on the goal-oriented approach that those with this preference may have a hard time understanding why their decision-making processes are ever questioned, and those with a process-oriented preference may have a hard time trusting the more goal-oriented.  Understanding these two approaches to decision-making is vital if trust within the community is to be developed and maintained.

Goal-oriented people tend to make decisions based on their own judgment of how things ought to be.  They may seek advice, or consult with a trusted group, but once they’ve decided what the goal is and how it should be reached, the decision is made.  When leadership is strongly goal-oriented, a great deal can be accomplished, so long as everyone shares the leader’s goals and methods of reaching those goals.

However, every community includes a good number of people whose preference is for a process-oriented form of decision-making.  These people are likely to question the validity of the leader’s goals, since those goals are perceived as imposed, not as the product of shared discernment.  At this point, trust will diminish.  Even when these people agree with the goals, they may be uncomfortable with the methods used to reach them.  Often their discomfort has a valid basis, since strongly goal-oriented leaders are likely to regard method or process as less important than their goals.

Process-oriented people tend to focus more on the method of reaching a decision.  They may have a goal in mind, but they are aware of how shared perceptions may uncover multiple possibilities that can modify both goal and process.  When leadership is strongly process-oriented, a real sense of community and shared decision-making can grow and flourish, nourishing trust.  If developed well, process itself can help build a culture of inclusion and shared responsibility.  It can also make good use of the unforeseen serendipity of diverse minds working together.

If the decision-making process goes on too long without results, however, the more goal-oriented people in the community will become impatient with what has come to seem an endless process of discussion.  If the process becomes much more important than the goals, goals may never be clearly set, and when they are, those goals may never be reached.  When people begin to think that nothing is getting done, and that no real progress is being made, trust declines and dissatisfaction sets in.

How, then, can we avoid both extremes and make good use of both styles of decision-making?  The most important factor is understanding the differences.  Since both styles of decision-making are likely to be represented in any group, a guided discussion of both styles can help develop respect for both approaches.  A strongly goal-oriented leader needs to be aware that simply announcing goals and process to a group charged with making decisions does not work for everyone.  And a strongly process-oriented leader needs to honor the desire of members of the group to set clear goals and reach conclusions in a timely fashion.

True shared decision-making, honoring and using well both styles, is an ideal foundation for building trust within the community.   We make much better decisions when we discern our direction together, using our pooled gifts, experiences, and ideas to open ourselves to the mind of God.  The goal-oriented leader must honestly seek the contributions of all members of the decision-making group, listening carefully and taking what is heard into full account in determining the process of decision-making.  The process-oriented leader must honestly value the need to clarify goals and reach decisions in a timely manner and be willing to conclude the process even if every detail is not fully agreed.

When a church community practices healthy shared decision-making, honoring the preferences in style of every member of the decision-making group, Christ is at the center of the decisions made and the Holy Spirit has room to work transformation within the community.  And trust grows.

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