When I was in my early years as a minister, I served a congregation that had met for 40 years in the basement of the local YMCA. They were fiercely lay led, what we call a Fellowship, and very suspicious of authority, including ministers. They had an ethos of fierce individualism, long a hall mark of our faith at the expense of building a community that would be able to reach out to those in need. The congregation served more as a social club than a religious meeting, God was never mentioned, and Jesus only on the occasion that someone tripped on the steps.
Despite all this the congregation wanted to grow and they had applied to the UUA to be an Extension Congregation. This designation would allow them to call their first full time minister for three years, with the UUA paying half the salary until the congregation had grown enough to sustain a minister’s salary in full. I was in search and precandidating at some large congregations. When I didn’t find one that fit, I resolved to continue to serve the congregation in South Bend, IN, my first call out of seminary. It was May and Francis and I with our young family had resolved to spend another year in Indiana. We still had good work to do. Until one day when Charles Gaines from the UUA called me up and asked if I would be interested in serving this lay led congregation. I would be their first minister. “They have a lot of potential” he said “but they don’t trust ministers so you would have to overcome that”. I had one week to decide. Francis went out the next Sunday to check them out and came back and said, “Well, they now meet in a little house and you would preach from the dining room into the living room, but they have a lot of energy and the town is great”. We said yes, and they said yes, and it began.
Things were going well. In a few short years the congregation of 87 adults and 6 kids had doubled. We were contemplating going from two services on a Sunday to three. With Francis as DRE we had grown from 6 kids to 40 and we were finding space in people’s homes for religious education. We had a few brush ups. Not everyone appreciated taking a collection. I moved the pulpit once and that caused an uproar. “Just who does he think he is” but that was all resolved in time. We had formed a building futures committee and they were hard at work looking at properties. After our third year together we moved from the little house to a college auditorium for worship which sat 400 and we rented every classroom in the building for RE. I thought this is great. I must be quite the leader.
About this time the local Masonic Temple came up for sale. It was right down town and had more than enough room for our growing congregation. It was architecturally fascinating, five floors of rooms and an assembly hall that looked amazing. This is it, I thought, this is what we need. The building futures committee was not so sure. Parking was an issue. Handicap accessibility was an issue. The price was an issue, not to mention the amount of money we would have to put into renovations. We had one large gift secured but we hadn’t yet done our capital campaign. But so convinced was I that this was the answer, and so convinced was I that I could do no wrong, I overruled the committee and entered into negotiations with the Temple for sale, even though I had no authority to do so. About this time I got a phone call from the Board Chair. “What the hell do you think you are doing?” “Getting us a new home”. And what transpired was a heated argument about polity and authority. “Look”, I told him, “I know the congregation has to vote on this, but if we don’t act this property soon it may be gone.” “And so will you” he said. Whoa. What? What does that mean? Well, just what I thought it meant. I stopped and listened. Somewhere, I had lost sight of my people, somewhere I had lost their trust. I stepped back. We had a meeting of the Building Futures Committee and the Board and me. I managed to not be defensive and began to understand that the work of moving into a new home is more than just getting to the end, it is very much how we get there.
We agreed to drop the negotiations with the Temple. I agreed to procedures that allowed for wider and wider circles of engagement in the search process. I had to learn to trust the process, in order for the trust of the congregation to be re-invested with me. It was Carl Jung who famously said “there is no birth of consciousness without pain”. Having my ego knocked down a peg or two help to awaken in me a new consciousness about trust.
Trust is hard to earn but easy to lose. I almost lost my ministry that year. How many of us have lost the trust of those they loved in what seems like one sweeping moment; a fight, an affair, an addiction? Once trust is broken it takes a great deal to re-create it. I spent the next three years of that ministry, learning to trust in my people, and, in so doing, having them trust me again. It happened but slowly, and three more years after this incident, now six years into our ministry, three past what the UUA was willing to pay for, I was officially called by the congregation with a 98% margin. I would stay there five more years, some of the best of my career.
Creating trust, especially if it has been lost, requires at least three virtues. The first is authenticity. You cannot be seen as trustworthy, if you are inauthentic. And believe me, people can tell if you are putting one over on them. Most extra martial affairs are not discovered, they are admitted to. Something is wrong, distant, or suddenly the partner is happy. It’s often just too much for the other to carry on in deceit. I know this is painful for some of you. And I know it is almost impossible to find your way back from such a deception. It does happen, but not often. And then both partners are feeling distrustful of any intimate relationship again. Trusting is complicated and sometimes just not possible. Even assuming good intentions is not always easy if you are a person of color, or identify as female, or dealing with emotional or physical struggles. That said, I still believe trust is our best currency.
Being authentic, means living with integrity. Living in such a way that your values match what you do. It’s not always easy to make this happen. I learned that my values were the wrong ones. I wanted to be successful at all costs and I was willing to drag my congregation along with me. So in order to realign my values with actions, I had to examine my values. Success at any cost isn’t the reason I went into ministry. I went into ministry to change lives and to build a beloved community. Those were the values I had to act upon. So in order to reinvest my authentic with my people, I needed to behave in a way that reflected my higher values; the values of empowerment, kindness, compassion, justice making. Stephen M.R. Covey (the son of Steven Covey the author of The Seven Habit of Highly Effective People) wrote in his excellent book The Speed of Trust that it is possible to behave your way out of problems you have behaved yourself into. This is the journey back to authenticity. Covey tells the story of one therapist who had a client who was sure she not only wanted to divorce her husband she wanted him to hurt. They had drifted apart, no infidelity but he just seemed to ignore her. So the therapist said “ok, then do this, go home and act as if you really love him, bend over backwards to be kind and considerate and when he is really convinced you love him, then tell him you want a divorce.” Well, that is just what she did and after three months, she realized she didn’t want a divorce she did still love him and he loved her, because what she was giving he was reciprocating. Authenticity begins when you act on your values. When a cashier doesn’t ring you up for something and you bring it to their attention. You ask how others are doing and spend time to truly listen to their reply.
This is what I had to do. I had to listen again to my people, I had to defend our values as UUs, I had to follow the spirit of congregational polity, not just the letter of that polity. Several weeks ago I preached a sermon about the beauty of our building and made a case for why we need a capital campaign. I heard from several of you that I had overstepped and was using the pulpit to push forward a vision that the congregation at large had hardly considered. I heard you and I apologize for that. In fact, the board and the capital campaign committee have all decided that we need to take a few steps back in this process and bring all of us along. There will be more information available to you every week as we discern together what we need to do to reinvigorate our spiritual home. There will be question and answer session on February 24th including with a potential architect to hear from you. And rest assured we will not take any action towards having a capital campaign without your vote, that is currently scheduled for May 5th. Only then will we ask for donations and only after we have those donations will we, once again ratified by a vote, begin the work. Our principles embrace the use of the democratic process and that is exactly what we will do.
The second virtue to creating trust is empathy. What is empathy? Empathy is the willingness to truly feel what the other is feeling. And as Palmer reminds us, we are likely to be more empathic with those closer to us. It was none other than Stalin who said: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” We have the opportunity here to be naturally empathic to those we know, especially in our congregation. And I think this is true for us. But remember just how easy it is to lose that trust. Empathy is not agreeing with the person you are with but it is understanding what the other is saying and feeling. Seek first to understand then be understood. And this included not only what people say but how they act. Trust is created when we truly understand the intent of the other. Remember “we judge ourselves by our intent, we judge others by their behavior.” (Stephen M.R. Covey) Ask the ones you know and love if what you think they mean is what you hear them saying or doing.
Finally, the third virtue is competence. I didn’t want to believe that this was a virtue of trust. I know lots of competent people who I don’t trust, but then again, they aren’t authentic people either. Here it is: When you are competent people trust you. Ultimately, what saved my ministry those many years ago was not only my authenticity and my humility, but my competence. I am good at what I do. I am often a little worried but that is normal, ultimately, I know what I am doing and I demonstrate this. Despite my occasional tendency to over promise and under deliver, I do manage to do what needs to be done carefully and considerately. This is often what people mean when they say they want transparency. Transparency is often a word we use to indicate our distrust. It is a real feeling and one you have had as a congregation, am I right? But transparency becomes evident when we are competent at what we do and show others what we are doing. Competency is not perfection. Trust in the messiness as well my friends. I will have more to say about that next week, but for now realize that we are all mostly competent people, at most of what we take on in our lives. And when we are not, trust can only be created by admitting as much and trying to change. Competency implies a willingness to sacrifice certainty in order to grow. It is to admit that we don’t always know and to say so. The dream worker, Toko-pa Turner writes in her work Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home “Sacrifice is a show of trust in the unknown…Your willingness to step into the emptiness is a show of devotion to your own belonging.” Because trust requires of us a certain courage that we cannot see. Creating trust is this and so much more.
Four years after my crisis of trust with the Frederick congregation, we cut the ribbon on a brand new 10,000 sq ft building just on the edge of town. I took those years to remember that we were each other’s keepers, to find the faith to raise the money, and borrow it, and the trust in one another and the unknown to see into a future. It was a glorious day. And both Francis and I knew that we would soon be moving on. We had done what we came to do. I am happy to say that that congregation is alive and thriving today, all because of trust.
Let me close with this reading from J.R.R Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” which encapsulates for me the courage it takes to create and hold trust. I commend it to you as we as a congregation, embark on our own journey of building revitalization and a renewed mission to save lives.
“But it does not seem that I can trust anyone,’ said Frodo.
Sam looked at him unhappily. ‘It all depends on what you want,’ put in Merry. ‘You can trust us to stick with you through thick and thin–to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours–closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo.”
Kim Beach: “Because we live with mystery, we trust that which is deeper than we know—which touches our hearts—which steadies us and rekindles our spirits—which, finally, in faith, may be named the love that has laid hold upon us, and will not let us go.”