Among my grandparents’ generation, trust was high. People trusted societal institutions and each other. Since my parents reached adulthood, trust has been trending down in each successive generation to the point where trust no longer can be said to be our default position.
We can’t assume trust; it’s no longer a given. Instead, we more likely have to assume no trust and start from there.
The church is no exception. Trust in the clergy among Americans has declined in recent decades to its lowest point. In 2018, Gallup reported trust in clergy at an all-time low, with just 37 percent of respondents rating clergy high or very high in honesty and ethical standards. Nurses rated highest at 84 percent, and members of Congress rated lowest at 8 percent. Journalists came in at 33 percent.
Trust has taken a hit for good reason. Too many leaders have turned out not to be trustworthy. This is a problem attacking everything good. Leaders must be held accountable and must do the hard work of earning trust. As a leader, I include myself.
Trust is foundational
According to psychologist Erik Erikson, the first thing we learn as infants is either to trust or mistrust. From our first breath, we learn whether our needs will be met or we will be neglected; if the world is safe, or if it will hurt us. Everything else we learn is built on whether we learn to trust or mistrust.
Trust is the foundation on which all our relationships stand or fall.
Trust affects efficiency and profitability.
“When trust goes up, speed will also go up and costs will go down,” Stephen M.R. Covey wrote in The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything. Conversely, “when trust goes down, speed will also go down and costs will go up.”
Trust affects quality and cohesion.
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“High-trust societies have … spontaneous sociability. People are able to organize more quickly, initiate action, and sacrifice for the common good … corruption is lower and entrepreneurship is catalyzed … people feel connected to each other and … are more civically engaged,” David Brooks wrote in a recent essay for The Atlantic.
Building on trust
In writing about trust, Covey and Brooks refer to economics and civil society. Their insights should be taken to heart by astute observers in the church—especially given the broader context of Brooks’ essay.
Addressing what he calls “interpersonal trust,” Brooks writes: “Falling trust in institutions is bad enough; it’s when people lose faith in each other that societies really begin to fall apart. … In America, interpersonal trust is in catastrophic decline.”
He cites a 2018 Pew Research study showing interpersonal trust dropping—according to some measures—by about 10 percent in each successive generation. He sees declining trust moving American society toward unsustainability.
Covey focuses on economics, namely efficiency. Without trust, your company will suffer. Brooks broadens his view to the moral and social realm. Without trust, your country will suffer. The church is rooted in the spiritual dimension of trust. Without trust, our souls will suffer, and not just here and now.
For all these reasons, it is imperative that the church—as witness to the Creator and Restorer—be a standard-bearer of trustworthiness.
It is imperative that the church—as witness to the Creator and Restorer—be a standard-bearer of trustworthiness.
The responsibility of accountability
When trust is broken—however it is broken—the appropriate response is not to stay quiet, as if it will just go away. The appropriate response is accountability, even if it’s embarrassing, because the negative effects of broken trust don’t just go away.
We should be less disturbed by mistrust being brought to light than we are about the reasons mistrust exists.
The responsibility for accountability is not on those under leadership; the onus is on leaders. All too often, however, those under leadership do the reporting and are blamed by leaders for doing so. Shifting blame does not build or earn trust, but further attacks trust—the foundation of our shared life.
Some contend such accountability further divides us. In response, we can see the lack of accountability divides and abuses us. Division with accountability is better than division without it.
If the downward trend in trust is to be reversed, it cannot come from those on the receiving end of broken trust; it must come from leadership. Anything else is a further abuse of trust and of grace.
Attack the problem, not the messenger
My editorial last week was celebratory. It was received well by a readership eager for something to feel good about—to celebrate. And celebrate we should.
While we celebrate what is good about our shared life in the church and society, we cannot take our eyes off the ball. The downward trend in trust ought to concern us all, because it affects us all.
If Covey and Brooks are right, the more trust declines, the more we can expect the negative effects of eroded and eroding trust to pile up in all areas of life.
But we don’t have to ask if Covey and Brooks are right. We already know they are. We’ve seen the results of mistrust in broken friendships and marriages, political stalemates, ever more complicated contracts and bitter church business meetings. A course-correction is imperative, and it must begin with our leaders.
What we need to ask is: Will we be people who break trust, or will we be people who build it?
Unfortunately, we’re not starting at zero. We’re starting in a hole we must address first. Doing so requires holding leadership accountable. It requires those who have broken trust to own their part and make amends.
It’s not going to be easy, but the rewards are great. It’s going to take time, and maybe a lot. The sooner we start, the better.
Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP. The views expressed are those solely of the author.