Trust: The Essential Leadership Quality During Crisis

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When I was 14 years-old my family drove 265 miles from Whitefish, MT to Spokane, WA to see the movie Jaws. My grandparents lived near Spokane so seeing the movie wasn’t the only reason for our trip, but it’s the only part I remember. When we got to the theater there was a long line and the theater filled before we got in, so we stood in line for the next showing. It was worth it! To this day Jaws is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. One thing that made the movie scary is that you didn’t see the monster. For much of the movie Jaws was unseen, but terrifying and brutal, attacking unknowing swimmers from the murky depths.

Like the shark in Jaws, Covid-19 is an unseen killer, but unlike Jaws there’s almost no place of safety. “Stay out of the water” and Jaws won’t bite you! But nearly every landmass in the world has reported cases of the virus. As of today, April 30, 210 countries and territories have reported cases of Covid-19. The first death in the U.S. from the virus is believed to be a woman in California on February 6, 2020. Twelve weeks later, 61,867 deaths have been attributed to Covid-19 in the U.S., and 231,415 in the world.

Nothing in our lifetime has challenged leaders on the scale of this killer virus. From the President to governors and mayors and school principals, and from business owners to church pastors to moms and dads, leading through this crisis is excruciatingly difficult.

It’s difficult because we can’t see the killer and define it with precision. It’s difficult because the means of victory are more costly than anything we’ve ever experienced, and we can’t quite agree on what exactly are the proper means. It’s difficult because the solutions, we are told, will be determined by science and data, but it’s not a “pure science.” Shutting down business and church and sports and national parks and staying home in isolation is a primary tactic to fight this enemy. But the science that has determined this as our best, first tactic, creates other problems, and some of them are deadly too. Over 30 million have filed for unemployment in six weeks. Job loss and the inability to pay bills leads to depression, drug and alcohol abuse, abuse in the home, and even suicide. Businesses built over a lifetime are being destroyed. How long do we keep things shut-down, and should stay-at-home orders be applied uniformly across the country or throughout a particular state? The decisions will be determined by science and data, we are told, but who interprets the data and how best do we apply the science? And how do the scientific disciplines of medicine, social science, political and economic sciences, interact as decisions are made?

So, with these leadership difficulties identified, and they are not the only challenges, what is the most important thing a leader can do in such a crisis? Quite simply, leaders must tell the truth. Tell the truth as best as you know it and as completely as you can. Don’t “manage the truth.” Tell the truth. Distort nothing. Be fully transparent. Confess what you don’t know. State what you do you know. Don’t overstate, or understate, just tell the truth. Manipulate no one. Don’t exaggerate things, and don’t try to reassure people by minimizing the situation, either. Lament loss. Acknowledge disaster, even as you express biblical hope. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).

John Barry’s outstanding book, The Great Influenza, tells the story of the 1918 flu pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million people. The book is a thrilling, terrifying account of what happened then and is happening now on a smaller scale. In the Afterword to the 2018 edition Barry writes, “If there is a single dominant lesson from 1918, it’s that governments need to tell the truth in a crisis.” He says, “As horrific as the disease itself was, public officials and the media helped create that terror … by minimizing it, by trying to reassure.” He writes further, “The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing. Society is, ultimately, based on trust; as trust broke down, people became alienated not only from those in authority, but from each other” (pp. 460f).

Barry is right. Telling the truth, as best we know it, builds trust. Lying, hiding the truth, being dishonest with what you know and don’t know, destroys trust. And when leaders lose trust, they’ve lost the ability to lead. You’ve seen it – a brilliant and gifted person who can’t lead a country, a church, or even their own family because they’re not trusted. Nothing compensates for loss of trust.

What’s true about leadership during a mega-pandemic is true about leadership when the crisis is isolated to one family, or one church, or a large network of churches. Truth-telling, which is necessary to build trust, isn’t just vital for governments, it’s vital at all levels of leadership. Trust is the essential thing a leader must have. Thus, the crisis that is most damaging long-term is not the crisis event itself, but the erosion of trust that can destroy relationships, organizations, and the essence of society and culture.

Here is a worthy prayer: “God protect me from doing things or saying things that erode the trust that others have placed in me. God heal the wounds I inflict when my actions create distrust. God help me be a person you can trust, so that I am worthy of the trust of others.”

Shine the Light – Building Trust in a Scandal-Plagued World

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“Let us behave decently, as in the daytime” (Romans 13:13a).

We all know that sin thrives in darkness. “Nothing good happens after midnight,” parents warn their kids. But it’s not only physical darkness that provides a covering for sin. Governments, corporations, and even Christian ministries are prone to corruption and various forms of wrongdoing when they operate “in the dark.” What does it mean to operate in darkness if you’re a ministry organization? It means to function without transparency and accountability.

The Northwest Baptist Convention (NWBC), which I serve, has a Board of Directors, established by messengers from NWBC-affiliated churches at our annual meeting. I am accountable to these churches through the Board they have established. The NWBC is a ministry of the churches, established by the churches, so that together they can advance the Great Commission. As such, it is vital that the Executive Director and the NWBC staff maintain the trust and goodwill of our churches. How do we do that?

First, NWBC Executive Board members are trained to understand that their primary job is to hold the executive director and staff accountable to do what we have determined to do as a convention of churches. While I’m called to provide leadership to our convention ministries, I am accountable for how I lead. Sometimes board members in the Baptist world think their primary job is to represent the convention or entity to the churches, but that is not the way the trustee system is designed to work. At every level of Southern Baptist life, board members must represent the interest of the churches to the conventions and agencies. This requires proper training, and it requires that board members be reminded of their responsibility.

Second, the NWBC maintains transparency on the budget, income and expenses. We do this in six primary ways. First, the NWBC Board of Directors is involved in composing the budget and meets corporately to discuss and vote to recommend the budget to NWBC messengers at the annual meeting. Second, the annual budget is discussed and adopted by messengers at the annual meeting. Third, the full executive board receives monthly income and expense reports from the NWBC business manager. Fourth, the Cooperative Program contributions of every participating church is reported in each issue of the NWBC Witness. Fifth, salary structures for each NWBC staff position are adopted by the NWBC Board. Sixth, and importantly, specific budget information, including income and expenses, is available to any participating NWBC church and church member. For example, if a pastor or church member wants to know how much is spent in a ministry area, that information is provided.

Third, the NWBC has policies regarding sexual harassment and abuse, and we do not use nondisclosure agreements, or non-disparagement agreements (NDAs), to hide or cover-up abuse or immoral behavior. In fact, we do not use NDAs, period. No employee or former employee has been asked to sign any agreement that prevents them from speaking privately or publicly. Personally, I have never, in 36 years of ministry, asked a staff member to sign an NDA, nor have I ever signed one. Often money is used to entice a person to sign an NDA. In my opinion, this damages trust and goodwill because it lacks transparency and sends the message that something needs the “cover of darkness.”

Fourth, performance reports and long-term trends are provided and are available. Ministry organizations like to promote and provide good news. Of course we do! We all like good news. But the performance of organizations funded by the freewill gifts of God’s people should be made public and explained, whether the information is encouraging or not. Ministry methods and strategies must always be open for discussion. We don’t debate the veracity of Scripture, but interpretation and application are a different matter. Baptists believe we must advance the Great Commission, but how we best do that, and how well we are doing that, is something that requires continual discussion.

Transparency requires that every decision made, and every dollar spent, must be open to scrutiny. Secrecy erodes trust and trust is essential for an organization to thrive. This has always been true, but in a scandal-plagued world, where ministry leaders fail and fall frequently and publicly, it is essential that we go the extra mile, and then some, to protect our ministries, reputations, and, most importantly, the name of Christ.

I am grateful that the NWBC has enjoyed six continual years of growth in mission’s giving through the Cooperative Program, and that baptisms, church starts, and the number of affiliated churches have all grown as well. We now have more than 500 affiliated churches. Our East Asia partnership has proven highly successful as hundreds of Northwest Baptists have served in East Asia, and some have moved to East Asia to serve long-term. We do not take these Great Commission advances for granted. As servants and stewards of our Lord and His churches, trustworthiness is essential if we are to continue enjoying the confidence of God’s churches.

Trust: The Irreplaceable Currency of Voluntary Missionary Movements

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High trust societies prosper; low trust societies don’t. Nearly 20 years ago my wife started an import business to help missionaries in South Asia secure business visas. She imported from a country that manufactured unique jewelry, carpets and clothing. The business was successful in that several missionaries received long-term visas. Financially, though, it was not profitable. A primary reason behind the lack of profit was that the people from whom she imported always skimmed some of the products.

Economists know that prosperous nations have high levels of trust, enabling them to develop banks, stock markets and legal systems that operate with an integrity that builds trust. Poor nations are generally low in trust, often extending little trust of anyone beyond family, ethnic group, or religion.

When I think about the work we do together as Baptists, I am amazed that a voluntary missionary movement such as ours has prospered in miraculous ways – and that is what the Southern Baptist (SB) denomination is – a voluntary missionary movement – an incredibly successful one at that. While we grieve the recent downsizing of the International Mission Board (983 missionaries have left the field, plus 149 stateside staff), it’s remarkable that 3,941 international missionaries are being sustained through the voluntary missions support of Southern Baptists (as of 2/23/16).

In addition, more than 900 churches are being planted each year in North America, 18,000 seminary students are being trained, and thousands more are sharpening their skills and strengthening their hearts through training and events, and so much more. The SB voluntary missionary movement includes dozens of colleges and universities, collegiate ministries, children’s homes, and, at one time, hospitals. The currency that has been irreplaceable in moving our missionary movement forward is trust and good will. More than the almighty dollar, Southern Baptists, and our Northwest Baptist network, have enjoyed a level of trust that has enabled our now 46,000 churches to do Kingdom work together, even during difficult days.

However, while God’s work through the SB voluntary missionary movement has been remarkable, it is not inevitable that God will continue to bless us and use us to bring the gospel to our nation and our world. Jesus said that the gates of Hades will not prevail against His Church, and we believe this absolutely, but local churches do die, and denominations and missionary movements have died as well. The Church continues, but local expressions of the Church have no such guarantee. Have you ever visited the churches that Paul founded in Ephesus, Corinth, or Philippi? Neither have I because those churches no longer exist. In 1776 the Congregationalists had the greatest number of churches in America. Today they are blip on the screen of American church life.

Glossy optimism about the voluntary missionary movement that is Southern Baptist is not warranted. The facts (baptisms, missionaries on the field, new churches planted) indicate that our missionary movement has not only ceased moving forward, but we have actually taken steps backward. Some become uncomfortable when such things are pointed out, but I believe that we must face things as they really are, including how we got to where we are, if we hope to regain momentum in our grand mission endeavor.

For effectiveness to continue and grow, we must build and grow the “trust bank.” How do we do that? Here is a thesis statement for you to consider: Trust results from the credibility of the leader, and the confidence that the leader acts in the best interest of the organization. Believing this to be true, I want to offer several essentials for building and maintaining trust. Please note, though I have referenced the larger missionary movement that we call the SBC, these principles apply to any voluntary missionary movement, including the regional convention that I lead, or that of the local church.

The key to a missionary movement is leadership. Voluntary missionary movements require leaders who:

1. Believe in the missionary movement that they lead. This may seem obvious, but some leaders only believe in the movement “when they are the leader.” The most effective, trust-building leaders are chosen to lead because they demonstrated belief in the movement even before they came to lead it. We see this in the Bible over and again (Acts 6:3; 1 Thess. 2; 1 Tim. 3; many Old Testament examples, with David being one of the best because he fought a giant for his God and country before he became king). Southern Baptists hearts are united by a cause, the Great Commission, but we are also united by the means we have chosen to engage our cause, namely working together cooperatively, which includes the Cooperative Program. To be a Southern Baptist means we believe that the Great Commission is our commission, and that a primary method to fulfilling it is through CP missions.

2. Develop strong and healthy relationships with others who lead the missionary movement. Voluntary missionary movements require trust, and trust is built through relationship. We see an example of this in the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and we see it throughout Paul’s letters.

3. Are transparent and open to inquiry and accountability. In a voluntary missionary movement, no one is more accountable than the leader. Strong, secure leaders invite inquiry and discussion. Restricting speech will destroy a voluntary missionary movement. “Trust the Lord and tell the people” is an old Baptist saying.

4. Always keep their word and act with integrity. Always.

5. Explain their actions, giving the “why?” as well as the “what?” Knowing “why” a particular course of action was taken, especially if the decision is controversial, will preserve and build trust because it demonstrates respect toward others in the missionary movement. Again, we see this in Acts 15. We see it throughout Paul’s communication with various churches as he explained himself and his teaching.

6. Admit and explain failure. Repent and ask forgiveness when they sin.

7. Think and plan for the long-term. Christopher Columbus, yes, the one who “sailed the ocean blue” in 1492, believed that he was extending Christianity, and that through his efforts and those of others, Jesus could return in about 150 years. Jonathan Edwards, the great revivalist and preacher, wrote in the 1740s that the last people he expected to be reached for Christ were the Muslims, and that by the year 2,000 Jesus could return. He was looking forward 250 years. Leaders of voluntary missionary movements serve as though Jesus could return tomorrow, but they don’t “sell the farm,” trading tomorrow for today.

Those of us who lead aspects of the Southern Baptist missionary movement, whether we are local church pastors, associational or denominational leaders, inherited the trust and good will built by our forefathers. Just as inherited wealth tends to dissipate over time, trust and good will can easily be eroded over time if it is not stewarded well. When a voluntary missionary movement loses these, it loses everything.

Many years ago I read Jay Winik’s book titled April 1865: The Month that Saved America, which focused on the final month of the American Civil War. It was a fascinating book, the thesis of which was that it was not inevitable that the war ended the way that it did, allowing for the United States to reunite and eventually become one again. To paraphrase, he said that great men did great things, at the right time. Had Lincoln, Lee and Grant chosen differently, we would live in a different world today.

God is sovereign. He will accomplish His agenda. But it would be presumption, not faith, to say that God has to bless us and use us to get His work done. As leaders of a Bible class, a church, or an agency that serves churches, we must do all we can to build trust, so that God alone gets the glory as He uses us in ways greater than ever.