Maintaining a Relationship of Trust A Christian perspective on pastoral care and trust
1. The Need For a Relationship of Trust
In my first volume it has been shown that elders and deacons have a far-reaching task: from the Bible elders must provide the members of the church with what is of service to their being a Christian in all of its aspects; in addition, deacons, as “composers of the community”, are committed to the fact that the members of the church actually commit themselves to each other. From this it flows — as has been noted in chapters 4 through 7 in volume I — that office-bearers can address a range of subjects, also of a very personal nature. This state of affairs makes it clear that when elders and deacons are to perform their duties well, it is necessary for them to have a relationship of trust with the members of the church with whom they are visiting. Only when there is a mutual relationship may the office bearers expect to have open and honest discussions.
1.1 Objections to Emphasizing Confidentiality
Now it is stated: “There is no need to argue for a relationship of trust between office bearers and church members. There is also no need to work on such a bond, because such a trust relationship is by definition present between those involved. After all, both parties are one in the faith; they attend the same church services and take part in the sacrament together. In addition, it is a fact that office bearers are appointed by God and represent Christ; conversely, the members of the church acknowledge that God has placed them under the care of the office bearers. Is this not a sufficient basis to have full confidence in each other? That is why office bearers may expect from church members in advance that they will not shut them out during a visit but instead that they will pour out their heart, regardless of whether they know each other on a personal level or not.” ref?
To a certain extent this is correct. If church members are aware of who are visiting them — fellow believers with a divine appointment — then it will not be decisive for them whether they know the visiting office bearers personally or whether they meet them for the first time. The decisive factor is the special relationship that they have in regard to their visitors. In the realization of this, they will not just let the office bearers talk and they will not keep quiet in front of them.
That is the way it should be. And in practice it often turns out like this. Because office bearers do experience it that although they only visit church members annually or even for the first time, they still speak with each other in a profound way. However, more often church members will be somewhat distant at such encounters.
1.2 Obstacles to Arriving at Confidentiality
The fact that church members still behave defensively at times, will sometimes be caused by the fact that it is not sufficiently clear to them what office bearers actually represent. Perhaps the church members in question do not understand the basic principles. Biblical nurture, certainly of the younger ones among them, therefore remains indispensable. Through the sermons, in the church magazine and during the visits at home, they must be told that office bearers are worthy of trust because of their position and task. The office bearers themselves can also be guilty of the fact that the church members miss the basic principles. Because of their failing behaviour, they can prevent church members from understanding office bearers’ position and task. For this fact alone, elders and deacons cannot simply claim that church members open themselves up during a visit to them.
There is more to this: office bearers cannot deny that many people have the inherent mechanism that they can only dare to open themselves up to someone when they are familiar with this person through regular and good contact. For them it is therefore not sufficient to know themselves connected with office bearers because of a scriptural principle. They only “cross the bridge” with what occupies them, when their visitors have met them on the human plane. Such a mechanism is understandable and often even fair. In our mutual relationships we have to deal with the power of evil, which practises its disturbing influence in all kinds of areas. Most people will have experienced that they gave their trust to someone and then was disappointed later: the other person did not understand them, did not take them seriously, misused it or did not keep it to himself. This gives just as many reasons to be more restrained in a subsequent contact, with or without the office bearers. It is also possible that someone, because of his situation, is controlled by feelings of guilt or shame and therefore has reservations: no one likes to show his vulnerability. Furthermore, a person may behave in a dismissive manner towards office-bearers because he expects to be reprimanded by them while they do not try to put themselves in his situation. Church members can also be unsure whether their difficulties are serious enough to burden elders or deacons with, while they already have so much on their plate. And finally, some people are just not used to express themselves about their personal concerns.
All of this explains why there are many inhibitions among people to open themselves up to elders and deacons. When they want to build each other up, then more is needed than that the visited church members realize the unity of faith with the office bearers and that they recognize their office. It is equally important that the office bearers are focused on maintaining a relationship of trust. In this way, they help church members to dare to express their hesitations and to express what lives in them. For that reason, it is a good thing that in this regard there are feelings of discontentment among many elders and deacons about their functioning — as long as this induces them to work on establishing a personal relationship.
1.3 The Demand For Confidentiality
How should the office bearers win the trust of the members? In what follows all sorts of topics will be discussed. That is why I suffice here with a list of the means that can help to establish trust and openness on the part of the members. First of all, the way in which office bearers conduct a conversation is very important (see 3). Furthermore, they would show wisdom in seeking more contact with their addresses in addition to the annual home visits (see 4.1.2). Obviously, it is then necessary to arrange the districts or wards in such a way that it is feasible for the office bearers to do more than just the home visit (see 5.1.3).
In order to strengthen the mutual bond between office bearers and church members, district evenings can be organized, or evenings with a certain age categories (see 5.3.3).
This makes it possible to create confidentiality between the parties involved. As a result, the elders and deacons are aware of what is going on at their addresses. If there are problems, they do not rely on external issues, but they can make a responsible diagnosis. Because of their relationship of trust they also have the space, with words and/or actions, to react appropriately to what they have learned.
Meanwhile, the meaning of a personal relationship should not be overestimated either. Even if office bearers make maximum efforts in this regard and church members generally respond with openness, this certainly does not guarantee that church members will open up. It does not have to be this way, nor is it always wise (see 1.2.1). Moreover, it must be remembered that church members usually have more people they interact with than just the office bearers; in this way they sometimes prefer to discuss possible problems with fellow believers from their own congregation or from elsewhere or even with professional aid responders (see 2.1). On the other hand, office-bearers sometimes have to conclude that they themselves can do too little with what church members tell them and that they can therefore best refer them to others for further help (see 2.2).
The above clearly indicates the limited value of a mutual relationship. Yet this does not detract from the mandate that elders and deacons have to pursue such a bond intensively. First of all, this is necessary if they want to be able to carry out their task properly. Moreover, not all church members have an address where they can go to with their problems. By dedicating themselves to mutual trust, the office bearers create the space within which members of the church in any case have the opportunity to speak out. It should not depend on their absence when someone feels abandoned or, worse, goes wrong in principled or in practical terms. Just the other way round: elders and deacons must show through their personal involvement that the well-being of the church members entrusted to them is close to their hearts.
2. The Need For Distance in a Relationship
In the above, a relationship of trust has been advised between office bearers and church members. The task of office bearers is simply of such a nature that it can only be properly performed when those involved have a certain relationship with each other. In such a situation, church members will usually find it easier to expose their feelings during a visit. Conversely, office bearers can afford to come up with more probing questions than is customary on coffee visits. Such a probing question is indispensable to encourage church members to “cross the bridge”. Only then can office bearers gain insight into what is going on externally and inwardly among the visited church members and can they be of service to them with their encouragement, instruction and/or reprimand.
All of this does not alter the fact that there must always be a certain distance between office bearers and church members.
2.1 Arguments For Keeping Distance
Why should there be some distance? Various arguments can be put forward for this. First of all, church members have the right to keep aspects of their lives to themselves. Of course, there is in principle the opportunity to unburden oneself completely to office bearers. This can be particularly beneficial (see James 5:16a). Furthermore, it is also true that church members do not have the freedom to pretend differently to office-bearers than they really are. They must be honest with their elders and deacons, so that they may not get a complete but at least a reliable picture of them. Meanwhile, there must be no misunderstanding: office bearers are not confessors who will listen and forgive on behalf of God, and to whom church members must confess their failures. Such a position does not belong to any of us. We are not able to deal responsibly with such a position of trust. For that we are far too small in all respects. Those who are nevertheless forced to reveal their weaknesses and mistakes to another limited fellow human being will usually experience this as some form of humiliation. Only with God we encounter someone who in his judgments of people really involves all factors. He can do that too, because he sees us through to our deepest inner self (Ps. 139:1-4). Moreover, it applies to him that he, as Lord of all, has a claim on us. It is therefore not that we would try to hide anything from God. But he is also the only one from whom we are not allowed to withhold anything. It cannot be desired and not even expected of church members to observe the same openness towards office bearers. Everyone has the right to life secrets that he only shares with God. Given the uniqueness of the relationship with God, elders and deacons must respect that things remain between God and the church members they visit.
The fact that there must be a distance between those involved is also to protect the office bearers against themselves. In some cases, they run the risk of taking too many liberties. In this way they can arrive at asking about the details of someone's adultery with the argument that they should be aware of the exact facts: a false argument. Of course it makes a lot of difference whether someone has stumbled once or has deliberately and persistently violated God's command. But in the end this is a matter for the person involved with God, and he himself determines to what extent he wants to inform someone about this. What the office bearers have to deal with is the fault of the misstep and the question of how the church member is opposed to it. That is enough to appeal to him for action. Questioning about details does not add anything positive to this and must be rejected as inappropriate. In this context I remain silent about the fact that office bearers can be guided by curiosity or sensationalism in their questions, which is no unthinkable possibility. For this reason, too, elders and deacons are well advised to always critically review whether their informative questions arise out of interest and/or whether they are relevant.
In a different sense, office bearers must be protected against themselves. If they do not keep enough distance, they run the risk of identifying with other people’s problems. Obviously, elders and deacons should think along with and empathize with church members during their visits. Genuine involvement cannot be lacking in mutual contact. But in this they cannot go so far that other person’s problems also become their problems. Those who are no longer able to disconnect from what they have heard, lose the space to guide the other person in his or her trouble. That is why it is important, despite all the sympathy with church members, to remain independent in their thinking and feeling.
2.2 The Task of the Office Bearers
It belongs to the task of the elders and deacons to prevent the relationship of trust with church members from being violated by too much intimacy. First and foremost, this means that, due to their way of asking questions, they are not allowed to make anyone to reveal more than he actually wants. In doing so, I do not defend the fact that office bearers always keep to the surface. Given the nature of their task and the course of the conversation, it is even predictable that they will be informed about extremely personal matters. But this must be done with proper strategy. Office bearers may think that it is fitting to ask a certain question in the atmosphere of being together, but the relevant church member may experience that question as a violation of his privacy. For that reason it is wise to explain in so many words on such occasions: “I’m aware that I am inquiring into something very confidential. Maybe I ask too much according to you. If so, please say so.” Or: “You may find that I am now going too far. Then simply do not answer.” By using such phrases, office bearers prevent a situation where they convince someone to being frank when he did not intend to be so open.
In order to preserve the desired distance, it may also be necessary to protect church members against themselves. After all, it can happen that someone becomes more talkative because of the relaxed atmosphere than he thinks is proper afterwards. Office bearers must be aware that such a situation may occur. In that case they have to slow down the person concerned in his confidences: “You show great trust in what you are telling me (or want to tell me). But perhaps you would regret it later if you continue now? It may be best for you to keep things to yourself.” In this way, the other person will have the opportunity to reflect on whether he really wants to reveal everything to his visitors about the point in question.
Church members also need to be protected against themselves if they are threatened to become too dependent. That can happen. Then a church member seeks intensive contact with an office bearer and surrenders to his leadership. An elder or deacon may be inclined to let this happen. After all, it may be flattering to him that someone else wants to rely on him so heavily, while in this way he can also mean much. Yet office bearers do wrong to give someone the opportunity to strongly attach themselves. Instead of helping the other, they make him even more helpless and they fall short of his responsibility toward God, the neighbour and themselves. Obviously, special circumstances are conceivable: for example, someone’s situation has completely gone downhill and he is only just starting to climb out of this depth. In such a situation, elders or deacons can accept that the person concerned is relying on them. But that may only be temporarily. In addition, they also should do as little as possible and instead allow the other person to do what he can actually do himself. At the same time, they have to work from the beginning that the affected person will be on his own feet again and that they will be able to take a step back. Because a church member only comes into his own when he can act as an independent person who knows how to judge, decide and act.
3. Balance Between Confidentiality and Distance
In the above, it has been shown that office bearers must ensure a good balance between confidentiality and distance in a relationship. If the confidentiality threatens to become too great due to the actions of themselves or the church member visited, they are forced to intervene: too little distance deprives them of the scope to serve responsibly as office bearers. Conversely, too great a distance also makes them powerless to be able to be fruitful. So just as there may be a lack of confidentiality, elders and deacons should focus on bringing change to the relationship.
Now there are situations where it is extremely difficult to realize the aforementioned balance. That is why it makes sense to give it some special attention.
3.1 The Relationship With Those Who are Far Away
It may happen that office bearers have people in their ward who because of their position or personality are very distant from them. In daily life a church member can be the employer of his district elder or deacon. There may be a cool relationship because an earlier conflict between the two parties is still not forgotten, even though the dispute itself has now been settled. The cause of the distance may equally well lie in the fact that office bearers and church members simply are not in sync with each other or even find each other unsympathetic. In such cases it is extremely difficult for office bearers to establish such a relationship of trust that there can be a profound discussion with each other. Yet this is not impossible. A precondition is that both parties think in a principled way: they must be convinced of the divine appointment and the wide-ranging task of the office bearers. In the realization of this, both parties will be able to overcome the obstacles present, so that a good conversation can still occur.
It must be acknowledged that this does not always apply. Allow me to speak again from the office bearer’s perspective: the feelings evoked by the position or the person of a church member can become too powerful for the elder or the deacon in question, in spite of the principled considerations he places in return. This is regrettable, yet it is reality and that is what counts. In my opinion, this must be based on the objective that every church member receives the best possible guidance. If due to certain causes the local district elder or deacon is unable to provide this guidance, or not enough, then a different solution must be sought. When there are two office bearers who visit, an acceptable solution will often be that the one who has the above-mentioned difficulty keeps himself in the background and that especially his colleague speaks. If this does not result in a workable situation, the person concerned will have to be replaced after consultation with the church council or the diaconate. This is far from ideal, and such a substitution must therefore only be done as an exception. The hard fact is that one may have to yield to this when an office bearer is powerless at a certain address. But that is better than to assume that the contact does not come into its own at such an address. This contact should receive priority, and not the requirement that the person who was originally designated maintains this contact (see also 5.1.3).
3.2 The Relationship with Friends
It is generally found undesirable that elders and deacons have someone from the immediate family in their ward. Rightly so: the bond with a family member is usually of such a nature that the necessary distance is lacking and they do not have enough space to serve as office bearer. Does this also apply to the relationship with good friends? Usually someone will have to overcome some hesitation to act as an office bearer at a friend’s home. In comparison with other times he now has to make a very special visit. The topics that have to be (or are being) raised will not always have been discussed in the context of ongoing social contact. The visit will also have to aim at a certain tendency and purpose within the conversation, which is more or less foreign to social visits. Finally, it is (unfortunately) unusual for friends to pray together after an in-depth discussion. In short, if someone in the position of office bearer meets with his friends such a visit will be different than on the occasions with which he is familiar. Making such a visit will therefore not be easy, especially not the first time. But those who have the courage to step over their insecurity will find that it is usually feasible. Of course, it is required that the church members visited can also accept their friend as office bearer. In the exceptional cases where the official contact by (one or) both parties remains difficult, it will be advisable to let the fellow elder lead the discussion, or even after consultation with the other office bearers, to make a substitution (see also 5.1.3).
In order to help themselves and their friends in handling the unusual situation, elders and deacons sometimes choose to skip familiar forms of addressing each other during an official visit and then also the use of the first name. Instead, they address their friends as “brother and sister”. Is this to be recommended? In my opinion, there are no fixed rules to be given than just this: preference should be given to what in a specific case contributes most to a smooth course of contact. For one office bearer this will mean that he will continue to use familiar forms of address, because a change will appear unnatural and make the atmosphere too distant for him. In case he has to exhort a friend thoroughly, he may choose to use familiar pronouns. Another office bearer may prefer the term “brother and sister”, because otherwise he sees that he has too little distance to perform his duties. But perhaps he will switch to the use of the first name, when very emotional problems come to the fore.
In other words: no office bearer and no situation is the same, and therefore it is better not to stick to one particular line of conduct in principle — as long as there is a good balance between confidentiality and distance.
3.3 The Relationship with Single Females
Special attention must be given to the contact of office bearers with single women. Sometimes it is argued that elders and deacons only jointly visit female church members. That would be a far too restricted requirement. Indeed, it is virtually impossible that too great an intimacy can arise. But at the same time it is more or less assumed that a married office bearer and one single woman in one room cannot be trusted with each other. In my opinion, this assumption is not realistic and those involved can rightly consider it offensive: as if by definition there is a risk that they will simply become attached to each other devoid of will and/or with an evil intent.
Of course there are emotionally disturbed women who sometimes want to make advances to an office bearer; when they have succeeded or not, they can use such visits he has made on his own to accuse him of unwelcome intimacies. When does one have to deal with such a woman? Office bearers who are not too unsuspecting and who rely on the intuition of their wife, know this soon enough. In such an exceptional situation it is asking for trouble if only one person goes out to visit.
In most cases it is responsible to visit single women without a colleague — as long as the elder or deacon in question is aware that the required distance may not be lost due to excessive confidentiality. This gives him the obligation to be critical of his own feelings. At one point his main motive to visit a female church member may no longer be the pastoral desirability or necessity, but the fact that he likes her so much. This can be combined with the fact that during a conversation he takes an inordinate effort to be liked by the woman he is visiting. If this occurs an office bearer must face it honestly and have the courage to deal with himself, so that sufficient distance is created again. He can achieve this by visiting less or differently, and if necessary, by being accompanied by a colleague. It is also possible that an office bearer, inadvertently and unintentionally, is caught falling in love. In that situation it comes down to what is accepted as normative. If an affectionate elder or deacon decides that his emotions are decisive, the consequences will be catastrophic: someone feels that he is already striving for greater intimacy because of his passion. Whoever wants to be a Christian in all areas of his life, however, will recognize that God’s commandments have the right of way and that they supersede even his own feelings. Such a person will not give in to this infatuation, but will do everything possible to increase the distance from the particular person, by restricting his contact with her to the minimum.