Enemies, Trust, and Dying for Congregational Transformation

By Derek Penwell

From time to time someone will come to my office, anxiety etched across the brow, looking for a listening ear. When I open the door on these occasions, I don’t know what kind of pain lies on the other side. I summon my best active listening practices from Pastoral Care 101, and I say, “What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well, Gladys and I have been having problems. You may have noticed we haven’t been around much lately.”


Sometimes I have, and sometimes I haven’t. I try to remain noncommittal: “I”m glad you’re here now."

“Let me cut to the chase.”

(That’s good. I’m pro cut-to-the-chase.)

“I think Gladys has been having an affair with a co-worker…”

And with that we embark on an all too familiar journey into betrayal, fear, and recrimination.

I listen to another sad story, which often ends with a question. It’s a big question, one I never feel comfortable answering. People who come to see me with problems like this ask it anyway:

“What should I do?”

I know the difference between directive and non-directive counseling, between offering a way to move forward and offering the person the opportunity to make those kinds of discoveries and decisions. I often have a hard time keeping my mouth shut about what people ought to do, but in these situations, it always seems better (easier?) to go with a non-directive approach:

“What do you want to do?”

“That’s just it. I don’t know what to do. I lover her, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to trust her again.”

There it is. Trust.

Trust. Relationships require it if they have any chance at being healthy. To say that “once lost, trust is difficult to recover” is, surely, to have said something everyone already knows instinctively. How long does it take to quit checking text messages and phone logs? How much time has to elapse before you believe that a trip to the store for milk and bread is really a trip to the store for milk and bread?

Unfortunately, there’s no calculus capable of offering a quantifiable answer about how much time it takes to rebuild trust. However, one thing is certain: If trust is to be rebuilt, it won’t happen just because of the elapse of time. Trust takes work, hard, often tedious, repetitive, mind-numbing work. Showing up when you say you’re going to show up. Being where you said you’d be. Doing what you said you’d do. Going out of your way to reassure the other person.

No matter how strongly a person feels about having recovered, no matter how eloquent the protestations about “turning over a new leaf,” no matter how many genuine tears are shed seeking forgiveness, there’s no short cut to the actual work of rebuilding trust.

Everyone knows that, right?

The other side of it, though, which also seems equally self-evident, but often gets overlooked in the face of the pain is that the wounded party has to want to heal, has to want to find trust again. This too requires work.

It’s possible to bang your head against a wall for someone who appears only to relish the sight of you concussing yourself. It is impossible to heal, however, when the infliction of pain becomes the glue that holds the relationship together.

Betrayal and the Congregation

It occurs to me that many churches have been wounded, whether by promiscuous pastors who took advantage, or by unprincipled lay leadership, or by denominational neglect–or just because the organizational system was set up to fail. Whatever the cause, the first casualty of betrayal is trust.

Unfortunately, the lack of trust in wounded congregations is a self-destructive feedback loop of bitterness and distrust that inhibits healthy growth and creativity. Distrust in a congregational system treats all change as equally menacing, treats everything new (people, programs, ideas) as presumably hostile–until proven otherwise.

A trip to the store for bread and milk is always assumed to be a pretext for something else, something surely more nefarious.

A new Sunday School class can never be just a new Sunday School class; it’s an indictment of the other Sunday School classes or a new avenue for some hostile party to consolidate power.

A change to the worship service or to the worship space is either an attack on tradition or a play to increase the power base of some suspicious constituency–or both.

What gets communicated in a wounded system where trust has been lost is: “We’re not quite sure yet how you’re trying to screw us over, but we’re pretty sure you are. Therefore, we’re withholding approval and/or permission.”

Has your church lost trust? Here’s an informal checklist:

  • Do you regularly have meetings that last longer than 2 hours?
  • Do people bring dog-eared copies of Robert’s Rules of Order to board meetings?
  • Do you hear at least one reference to the Constitution and By-laws at every meeting?
  • Do people bring their own calculators and red pens to the meeting where the budget is being proposed?
  • Do you have meetings where there are arguments about whether everybody on staff “really needs their own stapler?”
  • Does rearranging the furniture in the narthex or switching brands of air freshener require board approval? (Bonus: If really bad, does it require congregational approval?).
  • Do you have a lot of congregational meetings?
  • Does the announcement of a meeting elicit a particular kind of feeling in your stomach?
  • Do you keep an extra bottle of Rolaids in your car for use before meetings?
  • Does recruiting for congregational officers evoke anxiety not for a fear of who will say “no,” but for fear of who will say “yes?”
  • Do you require a doctor’s note from staff who call in sick?
  • Do you have people who regularly drive by the church to see if the pastor’s car is there?

How Can We Trust Again?

I wish it were easy. It’s not.

I wish I could point you toward “7 easy steps to recovering your trust.” I can’t.

It all comes down to this: a wounded congregation must make a decision to begin trying to trust again. You may get burned. But relationship is always a crap shoot.

How about this?

  • Be mindful that each positive step in which you don’t get hurt is a step in the right direction.
  • Call attention to and celebrate positive steps.
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t enter every new situation convinced you’re going to get burned.
  • Assume people (even those who feel like the “enemy”) are telling the truth until you find out otherwise.
  • Don’t get into the habit of thinking of people with whom you share the body of Christ as the “enemy.” It’s too difficult to pull back from the precipice.

Even if trust hasn’t been restored, you’re going to have to live like it has. Until you can live together with a commitment to restoring trust, ministry, if possible at all, can only be tenuous and fragile.

And if all else fails, remember, it’s God’s church–not your’s (or your “enemy’s”).

Besides, trusting your enemy is just about impossible--although dying for your enemy has been done before.

Sukkot: We All Dwell in Booths

My favorite American holiday is Thanksgiving, and we are now in the midst of my favorite Jewish holiday, Sukkot; in many ways, they are versions of the same holiday. Sukkot (“booths” or “tabernacles”), is of the three biblically mandated festivals along with Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot, the latter two being celebrations of our freedom from slavery and the giving of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew bible) to the Jewish people. The sukkah is a flimsy structure, open to the wind and stars, and is so constructed and used during the seven days of the holiday to commemorate our temporary shelters during our wandering in the wilderness for 40 years after our liberation from Egyptian bondage. It is also an integral part of this autumn harvest festival, this “Jewish Thanksgiving,” in that it brings to mind the structures ancient Israelites slept in out in the fields during the harvest season. During the seven days of this important holiday in which we find ourselves, we’re commanded to be mindful of our dependence upon nature and our partnership with it. Most of us are now far-removed from our agrarian roots, so it is all the more important to be mindful of where our food comes from and the web of nature and individuals who bring that food to our table, beginning with the procurement of seeds, the sowing of them, caring for crops, harvesting, transportation, and preparation of food. How many of us think, as we walk into Kroger or Meijer, how utterly dependent upon one another we are to survive? Sukkot brings us back to the basics, to remembering, to pondering this foundation of interdependence upon nature and each another.

We take our meals outdoors when we are able during this holiday, even sleeping outside if we’re so inclined, and we create opportunities to fulfill the commandment of hospitality, of receiving ushpizin, “guests,” symbolically figures from Jewish history such as Abraham and David, but in reality our neighbors and friends. In doing so, we slow down from the frenetic nature of quotidian life in order to once again become mindful, to truly encounter and acknowledge one another and the ephemeral nature of life as once again we stand in the midst of autumn as a segue into winter.

I pondered the nature of this holiday as I drove westward into the sunset yesterday on the Western Kentucky Parkway, the sun peeking below the clouds and bringing into sharp relief a gorgeous, 3-D panorama of orange-purple-red on the undersurfaces of those clouds. As I enjoyed the view, it was made all the sweeter for me knowing just how fleeting the sight would be. Perhaps such is an apt metaphor for this holiday and for life in general. We all dwell in fragile structures: our communities, our houses, our bodies themselves. This holiday reminds us to be attentive to all, to acknowledge one another as part of a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and to remember not only to welcome guests but that, no matter our station in life, citizenship status, or the material of our dwellings, that we, too are guests in this life and should behave as such: kind, courteous, and mindful of all those around us.

Chag sameach, a joyful holiday to you.