It seems there’s not much everyone in our denomination can agree on these days, but one opinion I have heard voiced a good bit is that the trust level is low across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
If this assessment is correct, it is little wonder that we are struggling. Trust is the lifeblood of voluntary organizations. Our system of polity is based on the idea that we trust each other to make decisions in the best interest of the whole church. If that trust is missing, the system becomes a bunch of rules signifying nothing. Without the generous assumption that we can trust each other to do what is right, things fall apart.
A number of experiences led me to the above conclusion. One that sticks in my mind occurred as I was holding a question and answer session for a presbytery about matters flowing from the PUP report. An elder rose to ask me what assurance I could give him that the stated clerk of the General Assembly would uphold the constitution of the church and interpret it correctly going forward. I assured him in the strongest terms that the stated clerk and those working with him were persons of good faith and integrity who were committed to upholding the constitution of the church. Later in debate on a matter, the elder rose again and stated that I had given him no assurance that the constitution would be correctly interpreted. I did not have opportunity for private conversation with this elder, but my clear impression was that he did not trust anyone in our offices in Louisville any further than he could throw them.
How did we get to this sad state?
There is a good bit of literature coming out of the business world on the subject of trust. One of the things it points up is that if time and energy are not given to the task of building trust, the level of trust in a relationship will not just stay the same; it will erode.
As I muse on all this, my mind goes back to the early days of the reunion of the PCUS and the UPCUSA. I was involved in the life of the national church in those exciting days. I recall that we spent many hours and many meetings working on merging the administrative and ecclesial lives of the two denominations and creating an organizational structure for the new church. What was missing, I think, and what we are reaping some bitter fruit from now, was any attention paid to merging the cultures of two very distinct expressions of the body of Christ. Little attention was given to the things people on both sides lost in this reunion. We did not spend much time getting to know each other and honoring our different ways of being church. We did not pay attention to learning each other’s history and honoring each other’s different values. Not much effort was made for the people of the two closely-knit denominations to move toward a similar intimacy with those in the other half of the reunited church. Two strangers became one nominally, but not in soul, and there was a very slim trust balance in the system going forward.
We can’t go back to 1983 and start over. But going forward, I believe there are some things we can do to nurture trust in our fractured church.
Trust is built on relationship.
People trust people they know and they trust what they hear about others from people they know. If we want to raise the trust level in our church we need to give our people opportunities to get to know each other across the dividing lines, and we need to get to know the people who work at 100 Witherspoon.
Listening nurtures trust.
How often do we really listen to each other? I was very encouraged recently when the General Assembly Council met with the presbytery and synod executives with the express purpose of listening to their concerns and ideas. Nothing dramatic came out of that meeting, but experiences like this (and a diligent response to the concerns expressed) build trust.
The ability to trust each other flows from our trust in God.
It seems to me that the root of much of our dis-ease in the church today is spiritual. We are not accessing the spiritual gifts and graces that enable believers to trust and love each other in spite of their differences. When all is said and done, we cannot make people trust each other. The church has never been able to heal itself. We must always look to the Lord and Head of the church for what we need to live together.
My prayer is that we will admit our brokenness and plead for a fresh outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit on the church as the only path toward healing for the future.
Joan Gray is moderator of the 217th General Assembly and parish associate at First Church in Atlanta, Ga.