“Americans’ rating of the honesty and ethics of the clergy has fallen to 47%, the first time this rating has dropped below 50% since Gallup first asked about the clergy in 1977. Clergy have historically ranked near the top among professions on this measure, hitting a high rating of 67% in 1985.” (Source: Honesty and Ethics Rating)

Although pastors remain in the top third of the league table of trust, the decline is significant enough for us to ask what’s happening and what can be done to put it right. We’ll look at causes first and then at some cures.

Pastoral Causes

Immorality: The report itself notes that: “The Catholic priest abuse stories from the early 2000s helped lead to a sharp drop in Americans’ ratings of clergy, a decline from which the profession has yet to fully recover.” However, Catholics don’t have a monopoly in immorality. Evangelicals are doing sadly well in that department too.

Greed: Some megachurch pastors’ salaries and lifestyles have drawn just criticism.

Distance: Some pastors do little more than teach and preach. Others become like CEOs, spending their days administering paper and staff. In both cases, there’s a loss of contact with the sheep as the pastor increasingly delegates home and hospital visiting, counseling, weddings, funerals, etc.

Brevity: The average length of a pastorate is four years, which makes it virtually impossible for people to get to know the pastor well, never mind begin to trust him.

Cultural Causes

Cynicism: Society has become more cynical and less trusting in general. It’s no surprise that the church suffers along with other institutions.

Media: Given the media’s non-stop all-out attack on the church via outright opposition, mocking sniggers, and caricatured Christians, in some ways it’s a miracle that anyone trusts a pastor these days.

Attendance: With less people going to church, people have less face-to-face contact with pastors. Again, hard to trust people you don’t know.

Rebuilding Trust

Why is this so important? Why can’t we just shrug our shoulders and say, “Who cares? They didn’t trust Christ and we shouldn’t expect anything different.” That’s an understandable reaction; in some ways, the level of trust that pastors have enjoyed has been a cultural anomaly resulting from the United States’ unusually strong Christian heritage.

However, we can’t just nonchalantly throw trust overboard as if it doesn’t matter. It does matter, because God has bound up the messenger with the message. If the messenger isn’t trusted, neither will his message be trusted.

So how do we rebuild trust in the messenger and the message?

Patience: We need to realize that grand gestures are not going to work. It’s going to be a long, slow, incremental process of multiple actions by multiple pastors in multiple locations.

Stay: Pastors have to commit to staying longer in their posts. Most people take three years or so before they really begin to trust a pastor and open up to him. Constancy and consistency create credibility.

Mix: Get out of the pulpit, get out of the office, and get among the sheep. Yes, it’s much messier than study and administration, but how else can pastors truly say, “I know my sheep and am known of mine” (John 10:14). Notice who’s at the top of the table – nurses!

Holiness: A holy life is a trustworthy life. People are looking at two areas in particular: money and women. To be blunt.

Local: A small minority of pastors may be called to a wider ministry, but way too many evidently desire a wider ministry, and often pursue it to the detriment of their local churches. Unless people see that the shepherd prioritizes them, and usually makes them his exclusive concern, they will not trust him.

Bridges: Build bridges with the unchurched. Get involved in non-church activities so non-church people can see you are “normal,” that you have two eyes, one nose, skin, feelings, etc. That you are surprisingly just like them.

Ultimately Gallup opinion polls are less important than God’s opinion of us. We certainly don’t want to become man-pleasers either; people can smell that a mile off too. Our first question must always be “Does God trust us?” more than “Do the public trust us?” However, without sacrificing our integrity, we must also have a concern to build trustworthiness. If we do that, trust will follow.

What do you think the causes of this declining trust are and how can pastors climb the table again?

  • derrick johnson

    Amen! I couldn’t agree more thank you for taking the time to say these things Dr Murray

  • http://www.housewifetheologian.com Aimee Byrd

    Thank you for this David. You’ve made some really good points here. My grandmother was just lamenting the retirement of her older pastor. The new one has never taken the time to get to know her (and he’s been there for almost ten years now). Now that she is elderly and cannot attend regularly, he hasn’t even phoned or expressed any notice that she is missed. So this goes along with your “local” and “mixed” categories: valuing the elderly in your church. They are the gems on the crown!

  • Les

    Thank you for posting this. I’m reminded of two pastors who pastored (literally) congregations in my home town when I was young. A female pastor was assigned to my grandmothers dying mainline church. Forty-fifty people were turning up on Sunday mornings but the place was packed by the time she left and the once nonexistent youth group was flourishing. What did she do? She went down the membership roll and visited every family on the list. She regularly visited the elderly members who couldn’t attend regularly bringing them communion. My grandmother told me that this pastor was the first one to visit her in over 20 years. Twenty years! The priest at my Episcopal church used the same model. Both pastors would regularly visit members of the congregation who were hospitalized at least one a week even if it meant driving 90 miles to the better equipped hospitals in a nearby city. They cared. I used to raise sheep and can tell you it’s hard dirty work. Shepherds smell like their sheep. Sheep have to be tended not slopped like pigs.

    I enjoy reading the works of the Puritans because they loved God. They show the glory of Christ. I crave Jesus and His love when I read their works. I hear the same thing in some of the sermons I download as well but it’s so often lacking in the pastors I hear in the town I live in. Love for Christ translates into love for men’s souls. Most churches today seem so cold.

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  • Tim Collins

    It is not surprising that the world in general doesn’t trust pastors for the reasons you stated, not to mention the Biblical doctrine of natural enmity. However, more worrisome is that fact that many professing Christians do not trust pastors much, and for some of those same reasons. But there are other reasons that haven’t been mentioned at all. Here’s just a few of them, found even among some of those who espouse sound Protestant doctrine: too many pastors meddling in politics, political controversy, or partisan party advocacy; their perceived identification not with the poor of this world, nor even with the lower middle class, but with the more prosperous end of the spectrum (compare that to the social appeal of this new Popish antichrist); the rise of “female” pastors, and women in pulpits, which is obviously contrary to clear Scripture; the collegial “darest thou teach us” or ‘circle the wagons’ response of many pastors to criticism; and related to that, the flood of false doctrine flowing out of the mouths of so many celebrated American “pastors,” their hand-in-hand fellowship with Roman Catholics, and the general kid glove approach to confronting these false prophets by those who do know the truth; hard to imagine Luther or Calvin, or John Wesley being so gentle, nor, for that matter, the apostles or our Lord Jesus Christ (Jude, Matthew 23). The remedies to these things are obvious. Stop doing them.

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  • Marc

    I believe the main reason is that the message of the cross is not preached nor is sin and hell hardly ever preached.
    Christians need to hear the whole Word of God.
    Pastors today only preach humanist feel good sermons because they are afraid of losing some of the flock.
    They will all be accountable when they stand before Christ.