Broken Windows: Trust and Missional Leadership

Working with the good folks of my congregation, I called our leaders to think about the importance of tending to issues of trust in the community of faith. We did this by reflecting first on Galatians 5:13-26, a passage of scripture we have been studying at the church council table for the past couple of months. In it, Paul contrasts life in the Spirit with life in the Flesh.  What follows is the reflection on trust I shared with them, a reflection that works with Galatians 5.

With Galatians 5 in mind, I want us to take time to think about what it means to be leaders in a community that is important to us. I invite you into this reflection on Galatians 5 by engaging the topic I am presenting on. At the end of my presentation I will pose four questions for us to think further on. ‘

As I said, I want us to think about what it means to be leaders in the church, a community that is important to us. In particular, I want us to think about what it means to guide this community of faith during difficult times. Difficult times call us to lead carefully and to remember that the health of our church is directly related to our ability to provide stability in the midst of uncertainty. The base of this stability will always be Christ, in whose death and resurrection the church is grounded.

How we lead in difficult times matters. When leadership is mixed with wisdom, trust is built. Trust is central to our endeavors at all times.  When we leading in difficult times, trust is even more essential. Without it, organizations fall into damaging disarray.  Trust is the backbone of every healthy organization.

Edward Banfield, a Harvard Political Scientist wrote well about the importance of trust in organizations in 1958.  He noted that you can’t get anything so complex as a business of the ground when you are not reasonably sure of a moral orderliness and sobriety around you, when you can’t trust others to tell the truth, to keep their promises, and not rob you when you’ve turned away. (As told by Anthony Esolen in Trust Busters, When Authorities Smash Windows. Touchstone. July/August 2008)

My dad owned a small business. We regularly pumped gas into cars before we asked for payment. If a customer said she wanted us to fill her car, we trusted that she’d pay for it. And if she asked us to put it on her account, we generally had faith that she would, indeed, pay her bill at the end of the month. Trust was behind every action conducted in our business.

It’s the same in the church. We build a community and engage one another in trust. I give my weekly offering and trust that the money will be used well. We engage in conversation about issues trusting that we are openly talking with one another in ways that will build God’s church to be a faithful place of worship and ministry. Parishioners share their stories and are open about their lives with us because they trust that we will walk with them in their times of joy and pain. Trust is a foundational.

So, what happens when trust is broken in a community?

In 1982, a famous essay titled Broken Windows explored this question. It was written by James Wilson and George Kelling. Wilson was a professor of Government at Harvard and Kelling, a researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, which is also at Harvard. It’s a great read about the impact of broken trust in the community.  Wilson and Kelling examined trust by looking at the impact of crime on a community.

They began by talking about what many boys know instinctively: A broken window that remains unrepaired is an invitation to break more.  I learned the truth of this during vacation bible school, believe it or not. And it wasn’t taught to me through Luther’s Small Catechism, which, when teaching about the command not to steal calls the Christian to protect our neighbor’s property and means of making a living. I learned about it because a window was broken in the abandoned school next to the church. And that broken window became an invitation for some rocks to be thrown. Abandoned buildings regularly bear broken windows. It always starts with one broken window.

A broken window in an abandoned building tends to attract disorderly conduct…  At least that’s what social scientists and police officers have said for years. Stones will be thrown.  Not only that, but other lawlessness will ensue.

To study this phenomenon, a Stanford Psychologist removed license plates from a two cars, popped the hoods and placed them on two streets: one in the Bronx, and another in Palo Alto, California. In the Bronx, vandals set into it within ten minutes – starting with a family who removed the radiator and battery.  Within a few hours almost everything of value had been removed. Then random destruction began – windows were smashed, parts torn off, upholstery ripped. Most of the adult vandals were clean-cut people.  The car in Palo Alto fared differently. It sat without plates with the hood popped undisturbed for more than a week.  Nobody touched it, until, the researcher, took a sledgehammer and smashed part of it.  Within a few hours, the car had been turned upside down and utterly destroyed. Again, it appeared to have been done primarily by so-called respectable folk. (From Broken Windows, Wilson and Kelling, Atlantic Monthly, March 1982.)

There’s something about broken windows that invites bad behavior by others.  It has also been found that the appearance of broken windows has another effect on people. A neglected building leads people to perceive the area to be unsafe. Add some graffiti, and people’s perception of the area suffers. People no longer trust the area to be safe, so they walk through it quickly and stay behind locked doors. They spend less time loitering and go to a place where they will not feel threatened.  Many simply move away. And all of this happens whether or not there is a high crime rate in the area. Broken windows break communal trust.

Broken windows need to be fixed.  Broken glass needs to be carefully taken out, the glazing around it peeled away and a new pane be put in. You can’t just put a board over it and pretend that it’s not broken, leaving the sore site to erode the community. It needs to be replaced.

The Catholic Church, through the clergy sex abuse scandal, has learned that plywood over a problem does not make it go away.  For a long time they moved their broken windows. And in the process, spread the destruction, because they did not tend to the breaches happening in their leadership. The few who broke the trust of the community, have poisoned the priestly functions of the many.

The Apostle Paul, speaking to the church in Galatia talked about the importance of protecting the order of the community. Acknowledging that Christ sets us free from sin and death, Paul reminds that freedom does not equal a promotion of a looseness based on individualism. He says, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence…” (Galatians 5:13)  There are standards that need to be maintained. Our attention to what is right and wrong, is no longer about being right with God, but about protecting the neighbor and building up the community. For this reason, we are called lead the people of God in our communal practices of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These ways of life maintain the orderliness of the community.

When trust is broken – when the orderliness of the community is disrupted – trust is hard to regain. Therefore, It needs to be protected.  It calls us to carefully think about our words and actions.  We need to consider whether we, by word or action are throwing rocks. As leaders, we are called to carefully tend to the community’s orderliness in good and faithful ways in order to protect the trust of those we serve. Remember, broken trust spreads – sometimes quickly, sometimes quietly and slowly.  Once trust is broken, people pick up rocks, spend less time in the community, or move out of the community all together.

The Spirit calls us to order life in the community, to lead this congregation in such a way that when people look at us, they see God active in this world.  In this sense, we are windows for the people we serve.  And when people look to us for leadership, they should be able to see in us God’s hope for the future.  People should see us practicing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

To maintain the community, we, need to be willing to identify broken windows among us and to work toward their repair.  We mustn’t pretend that they’ll be fixed on their own.  Bad behavior that breaks trust needs to be addressed in the community of faith as surely as it does in every other organization.

The health of the church is entrusted in the hands of us as leaders. We are called to work together to tend to our community.  Therefore, we need to be willing to openly and honestly think together about these things. So, here’s an exercise: Take some time and turn to one or two people next to you and discuss these questions:

1.     In what ways are we working toward maintaining an atmosphere of trust within the congregation?

2.     What does it take to repair windows of trust?

3.     What do we need from each other to be sure that we protect our windows?

4.     What is our responsibility when windows are broken in our church?

The above photo, entitled “Broken Window, Broken Lives – S. Maria della Pieta” is the work of Fabien Finocci. It is used according to Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-NID 2.0) license.

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