By Adam McLane Have you ever been bitten by a sheep? I have. Of course, by sheep I mean a church member so for any farmers who might read this we're talking about church members as sheep. In my first full-time ministry experience I trusted that the church leaders would tell the truth and share their expectations up front. More importantly, I hoped that these same leaders would help me not get bitten by mean-spirited sheep who wanted to test a new shepherd.
My wife and I moved our family 2500 miles from Chicago to a rural town in Northern California. We were a bit naive and had high hopes for this new role. I made a lot of mistakes politically. People weren't patient with me and within months people had lost all patience and I was getting bitten by an angry church member nearly every day. Flash forward a few months and we were moving back across the country to a new ministry. In the process we learned that church sheep bite, they and bite hard.
I learned a lot in that failure. First and foremost I learned that ministering to students is built on a foundation of trust. I thought it mattered how I ran my programs or how I taught the Bible. I learned in the business world that the best way to establish yourself in a new job was to put out results early. That strategy didn't work at all. What I discovered was that since the students, leaders, and parents didn't trust me they didn't really trust that the programs would work for them or what I was teaching applied to them. They just politely stared at me for a year and most of what I said and did went in one ear and out the other. How frustrating!
For me, the “next time” came just a few months later. At our new church I spent way more time building trust relationships with parents, students, and church leaders. Consequently, my ministry at that church was a very different experience. The result of having the people's trust was that the ratio of effectiveness to frustration was moved considerably toward greater effectiveness for my tenure there.
Here are 3 things that I found built trust:
1. Get on their turf: If you work at a church building you quickly forget just how intimidating the church building can be. For many, the building is a “holy place” and your seat of authority. We both know that's not the case and that seems silly, but it is people's perception. I made a point of inconveniencing myself and met with people on their own turf or neutral places like restaurants. At their school or at their home or at their favorite diner is their turf and my going there expressed to them that I was in their turf to learn and listen.
2. Transparency: I was open about my failures, concerns, questions, and fears as a new person in that ministry and that lead to a very productive place. I didn't come to fix things… I came to learn how things worked and ask questions. Often just doing that lead to leaders see what needed to be fixed. I learned to be careful in how I talked about myself, not in a self-deprecating way, but in a way that communicated over and over again that I was just like them, I had weaknesses, I needed Jesus everyday as much as they did, and through Jesus I could be forgiven just like they could.
3. Open-process: Instead of me just “doing magic” and coming up with ideas in my office by myself, which would have been more efficient, I learned that opening up the planning, leadership, and teaching process to collaboration built trust. It took much longer. I didn't get what I wanted all the time. However, opening up that decision-making and sharing those victories caused trust to soar.
I want to encourage you with this. Learn from my mistake! Reject the lie that many of us were trained to believe. We are in the trust business. Ministry to students cannot take place unless there is a trust relationship. In many ways building trust is way more important then having great youth group meetings with a killer talk. When you get serious about building trust your students will allow you to lead them to truth taught in God's Word. Trust building is a process – embrace it.