Michael Jinkins: Ministers trusted less than politicians

A recent study in “Scientific American” shows just how much trust we’ve lost.

Prepare yourself for more bad news.

According to a survey conducted by “Scientific American,” “religious authorities” rank at the bottom of eight categories of persons trusted “to provide accurate information about important issues in society.” On a 1 (strongly distrust) to 5 (strongly trust) scale, clergy (at 1.55) ranked below “elected officials” (1.76), “companies” (1.78), “journalists” (2.57), and “citizen groups” (2.69).

I want to reiterate this point, just so we don’t miss it: ministers rank below politicians in believability and trustworthiness.  

Maybe we have one piece of the puzzle why folks are not beating a path to the doors of the church. Note also that the question wasn’t who you trust to provide good “scientific” information, though scientists came out at the top of the reliability scale at 3.98, above “friends or family” (3.09).

 This study disturbs me.  The results may be influenced by the actions of pastors on the angry fringe like the one in Florida who advocate the burning of the holy book of another religious tradition. The results may be influenced by the outrageous congregation in Topeka, Kansas, that seems to hate everyone in the name of God. The results may be influenced by the endless culture wars and ideological wars that continue to rock mainline denominations. Or the results may simply be influenced by the anti-institutionalism that is so much a part of our society. I don’t know. But the results are disturbing, because faith and trustworthiness go hand-in-hand.

I want to believe that a well-educated clergy (i.e., ministers with the deep knowledge and critical judgment that come from careful study of complex issues in light of their religious tradition) could provide some bulwark against this erosion of trust. But there are very smart and well-educated people who have proven untrustworthy. 

A few days ago I invited some of a few members of our staff at Louisville Seminary to reflect with me on this survey. They stated their surprise, since, as one staff member said, “Ministry is all about relationships, and that is the basis of trust.” Could it be that she has the answer? Have we forgotten ministry’s core competency: relational trustworthiness?

A close friend, who serves as the senior pastor of a large congregation, confessed to me that in his first year or so after coming to his church, he was so busy that he simply forgot to forge those relational bonds with his people that make everything else possible. He forgot, as he said, “just to love on ‘em.” He told me this as a warning as I began my tenure as president of Louisville Seminary.

The survey reminded me of a study the faculty of Austin Seminary conducted while I was their Dean. We found that one of the most important qualities lay persons wanted in their pastors was “humility.” They wanted a pastor who  listens more than he or she talks, whose leadership builds confidence among the people, who can take advice, who is not arrogant, who (often this was the word chosen) is “humble.”

I would venture to guess that there’s something about science’s empirical approach that tends to undergird the trustworthiness of scientists.  You might call it “humility in the face of empirical evidence.” The public may assume that scientists are less likely to have an axe to grind or an agenda  to pursue. Maybe there’s something we can learn. But the second most trustworthy group, “friends and family” are not empirical scientists. I dare say there was a time that ministers were at least as trustworthy as this group. Our trust in “friends and family” is not built on professional standards, but bonds of affection, mutuality, reciprocity, and love.

Clearly, those of us who are in ministry have some fences to mend. Or, to reach back to the jargon of the sixties when the phrase was first coined, we have a “credibility gap” that needs to be bridged. The only way to gain trust is to earn it.

Michael Jinkins is president and professor of theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.