March 2, 2020

​The Live Option

Trust is hard-won and easily lost.

Lowell C. Cooper

The First Kind of Trust

Two kinds of trust operate in organizational life. The first is trust in individuals—the confidence that people in leadership roles are persons of moral character and competence. Trusted leaders are obviously committed to the lordship of Jesus, keep their promises (including promises of confidentiality), strive for justice and fairness, practice objectivity in decision-making, and possess a team consciousness rather than a celebrity mentality.

Paul’s description of his leadership style underlines the trust issue: “We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 4:2).

Leaders must have integrity. They must accept the fact that the impact of their moral behavior will rarely, if ever, be neutral. Their words and deeds are heard and watched more closely than the words and deeds of others. Their personal choices are noticed and evaluated—often against higher standards than those applied to others. Furthermore, the microphone is always on. Virtually everything a leader says is analyzed, amplified, communicated, and often misinterpreted. The leader’s behavior needs to be consistent with the beliefs, policies, and values of the organization.

Character counts in church leadership. The tone of leadership resonates throughout an organization. Leaders’ voices and conduct must reveal unquestioned integrity.

Task-oriented leaders may find it somewhat strange that before His crucifixion Jesus used prime-time moments with His disciples to focus on relationships rather than tasks (see John 12-17). Some would have expected His concern after His departure to be about strategy, tasks, and structure. But His agenda was focused on the inner life.

A similar situation occurred in the Exodus. Moses was summoned to meet with God on a mountain. You might recognize that Moses’ great need was an organizational chart, a strategic plan, a portable supermarket with fresh food, and a blueprint of how to get this unruly mob moving across the wilderness and into the Promised Land. After his 40-day meeting, Moses returned with only two small and interrelated items: a code of conduct and architectural specifications for a portable place of worship.

Evidently, proper behavior—ethical conduct—and enlightened worship are among God’s highest priorities. Ethical conduct among His church’s leaders is essential to the effective advance of God’s mission. Unethical behavior mars our witness for Him and erodes the confidence of church members in church structure. An old proverb states: “A crooked stick casts a crooked shadow.”

In addition to moral character, leaders build trust when they demonstrate such ethical characteristics as enthusiasm, empowerment, and empathy or emotional intelligence.

A leader’s enthusiasm about mission is contagious. Every Adventist church member deserves to know with assurance that their church pastor is a believer—in the Bible, in the Fundamental Beliefs of the church, and in church organization. Leaders in all entities of denominational organization enhance their own credibility and that of the organization they serve when it’s clear that the foundation of all they do is to “glorify God” (see John 17:4) and advance His mission on the earth. Loyalty to mission is more important to church members than loyalty to leaders.

Loyalty to mission is more important to church members than loyalty to leaders.

The ethical attitude of empowerment means that leaders believe in the competence and commitment of others, seek to enable others to make decisions, recognize the giftedness of others, and provide opportunities for the development of their skills and talents. An ethical leader will not use power selfishly. Jesus modeled the use of power through service: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:26); “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (verse 28). Serving is giving, is sharing; and power shared becomes power multiplied.

Ethical leadership in the church also calls for leaders to have empathy or emotional intelligence—the awareness that people have differing personalities, reflect differing cultural backgrounds, and may approach problem-solving through other methodologies. A leader who is sensitive to individual uniqueness and cultural backgrounds will find ways to engage people’s strengths so that everyone is valued, and everyone needed. The apostle Paul spoke of the church as being the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-21), amazingly diverse in function and characteristics, yet wonderfully unified in collaboration and mutual respect.

Respect involves treating people with dignity, equality, honesty, fairness, and good will. It means that leaders will be committed to creating an environment that attracts, develops, and retains a highly qualified, diverse, and dedicated workforce. Harassment or any conduct creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment must not be ignored, overlooked, or tolerated.

A Second Kind of Trust

Trust in leaders must be complemented with organizational trust, the firm conviction that an organization’s purposes are valid and its operations consistent with its policies and public statements. Besides living in a way that builds personal trust, leaders in the church must collectively function in a manner that inspires faith in the church as an organization.

This is one of the most important global leadership tasks in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. For the reality is that mistakes and failures occurring in one location can be, and usually are, communicated instantly to many other locations around the globe. An attitude of distrust that germinates in a particular unit of church organization can quickly metabolize into a generalized distrust of the whole organization.

Trust in a church organization can be enhanced or eroded in many ways. At a minimum, organizational trust will rest on these five features: transparency in decision-making, fair and just policy administration, timely and accurate communication, a safe environment for reporting misconduct, and systems of accountability.

Transparent decision-making in the Seventh-day Adventist Church recognizes that the highest authority at any level of organization is a group (board or executive committee) rather than an individual. Group decision-making will involve open, candid, and free discussion; presentation of all relevant information; addressing conflict of interest situations; and adopting the will of the majority while respecting the view and rights of the minority.

Fair and just policy administration means there will be no favoritism or discrimination. In many locations around the world ethical employment practices are already defined in law. Church organizations cannot circumvent legal obligations on the excuse that “this is the Lord’s work.” Principles of equality, fairness, and justice found in employment laws must also be applied to other areas of administration as well. Church organizational structure calls for respect of organizational boundaries and authority. No part of the church can exist on its own, nor can any part act as if it exists only for itself.

Timely and accurate communication builds trust in an organization. Ti
meliness and truthfulness have become increasingly important in today’s instant-news environment. The potential for accidental or intentional misinformation, misinterpretation, and misrepresentation is pervasive because every individual can become an instant publisher. It is incumbent on church organizations to establish reliable and responsive sources for official communication.

Every entity of church organization needs to foster a sense of security in the work environment and to establish a safe process for reporting misconduct. Fraud, discrimination, abuse, and hostility in the workplace must not continue undetected, unreported, or spun manipulatively.

Every entity of church organization needs to foster a sense of security in the work environment.

Organizations and their leaders must be accountable. In large organizations many individuals contribute to the decisions and policies, often making it difficult, even in principle, to identify those who should be accountable for the results.

Accountability means being realistic in making promises—and keeping them. It means respecting and protecting assets of the organization, including physical and intellectual property. It involves appropriate use of resources with due consideration for effectiveness, efficiency, the most urgent needs in furthering mission, and for reduction of waste. Good performance needs to be recognized and performance shortfalls addressed quickly and fairly.

This does not mean that there is no room for creativity, initiative, the questioning of long-held assumptions or policies, and experimentation with new ideas. Trail-blazers and pioneers perform valued service to any organization provided they embrace their own accountability, seek counsel, and demonstrate loyalty.

Change is constant, however. Neither the church nor its environment remains static. Wise and discerning leaders will ever be alerted to anticipating change and/or recognizing the need for it. Their response will be designed in a manner that contributes to the strength and health of the whole church and its engagement in mission. The processes for handling change—Bible study, prayer, negotiation, give-and-take, teaching and learning, experiment and revision—all have their rightful place; and they yield their best fruits in a collaborative rather than confrontational environment.

Christian organizations and their leaders strive for excellence, not from rivalry with colleagues or competitors but from the realization that this is how God works. They demonstrate excellence by their unwavering commitment to continued growth (1) professionally, with respect to their responsibilities; (2) relationally, with respect to understanding and interacting with the diversity of persons, groups, and viewpoints; (3) intellectually, with respect to embracing an ever-enlarging grasp of the vast sum of knowledge; and (4) spiritually, with respect to deepening their understanding of and walk with God.

For church leaders and church organizations, ethical conduct is obligatory, not optional, if the church is to reflect God’s character and proclaim God’s good news to the world. Paul’s example will be our goal: “We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry. In everything we do, we show that we are true ministers of God” (2 Cor. 6:3, 4, NLT).*

* Bible texts credited to the NLT are from the  Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Lowell C. Cooper, now retired, served as a General Conference vice president for 16 years.