So You Don't Trust Me? Thoughts on the decline of Americans' trust in pastors

I have a salesman’s voice. Not often. It normally hibernates, but nothing wakes it like a little social anxiety. Typically, I find myself talking to a visitor at our church when I feel my voice begin to slip away. I half expect the following to fly out with my arms raised: and you can make next Sunday’s sermon yours for just 9.95! Thankfully, I always stop it before it goes so far afield. 

My vocal metamorphosis certainly isn’t intentional. I think that most people find my fear-founded fa├žade altogether gone the second time they talk to me. Still, what about the people who never get a second conversation? It terrifies me to think people go home and say, “What a phony sounding pastor!” I have many weaknesses, but I can say with all sincerity that I love pastoring and I believe deeply in the work that I do. 

With that in mind, my heart sank when I read this study from Gallup (published by Christianity Today). They found that only 25% of non-Christian Americans think pastors have high ethical standards. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of the distrust. Several years ago, my wife and I bought a share in a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. We loved the weekly boxes of fresh vegatables and eggs and so when the farm invited us and other members out for a picnic we leapt at the opportunity. It was a huge let down. Conversation after conversation ended with, “Oh . . . so, you’re a pastor,” followed by a look of concern and a quick escape. After about 30 minutes the word must have gotten around, and I sat alone in an Adirondack chair the rest of the afternoon. 

All the same, it’s unsurprising. I imagine that non-Christians have very little experience with pastors, so perhaps they fear what they do not know.[1] The worse number, as far as I’m concerned, is that Gallup also found that only 48% of Christians think pastors are trustworthy![2] So only every other Christian I meet thinks I’m safe to talk to. If my hope were a candle it would be cold and wet! 

Which gets me back to my salesman’s voice. Perhaps it’s this cultural formula we’ve adopted and anointed: pastor=engine of growth. I don’t believe that, but even I get there rather quickly when I’m nervous. I can act like my only wish in the world is to add a visitor to our stable. And I’ve been to conferences where they’ve taught us pastors how to do this more effectively!!! People are smart, and they can recognize the difference between someone who really sees them verses a salesperson. 

A Trustworthy Approach
15 Ever since I first heard of your strong faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for God’s people everywhere, 16 I have not stopped thanking God for you. I pray for you constantly, 17 asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. 18 I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance.
Eph. 1 (NLT)

I find myself inspired by the Apostle Paul’s pastoral passion in his letter to the Ephesians. I hope that in future relationships I can lead with my desire to aid in the ministry of Christ in people’s lives. I hope I can rightly earn the trust of people, not because they trust pastors blindly, but because they sense my commitment to their spiritual wellbeing. I hope that I can squelch that fear-driven salesman’s voice and replace it with the safety of a humble shepherd’s care.  I hope that getting people to choose my church is the last thing on my mind and continues to be absent my church’s list of expectations for me. Instead, I hope that pastors and Christians everywhere work to build trust with a world that clearly doesn’t trust us. Perhaps our co-laboring can rekindle that dark and despondent candle of mine.

[1] For some, what they hear about pastors in the news may be their only exposure to clergy. If that’s the case, I would fully expect a negative outlook since we hardly ever make it into press coverage for something good.
[2] After reading the study thoroughly, I’m also left wondering if Christians would answer this question differently if they were asked to rate the ethical standards of their own pastor. Perhaps we think negatively about pastors as a concept—holding images of seedy TV preachers in the back of our minds—while thinking rather fondly of the pastors we actually know. You can read the full study from Gallup here.


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