The ability to trust other people is fundamental to the human experience. Trust is “the very basis for acting in the world—our sense of security, our relationships, and our ability to navigate through problems. Without it, life becomes despairing” (8). In Lives Entrusted, Barbara J. Blodgett develops a philosophy of trust which she uses to explore four “relational practices” (31) of ministry: confidentiality, misconduct, gossip, and bullshit. Blodgett is concerned with how trust operates as a verb. Trust is something we do. More specifically, “[t]rust is a transaction that establishes a relationship” (2).
A Philosophy of Trust
Blodgett approaches trust with a philosopher’s eye. She examines the phenomenon from a variety of angles in order to precisely describe the structural features of trust. This process is evident in chapter one when Blodgett rejects three impostors of trust. First, trust resembles familiarity since we often trust those whom we are familiar with. However, there are times when we trust strangers and withhold trust from people who are familiar to us (17). Second, trust also resembles reliance since we rely on people whom we trust. Blodgett considers motivation here. Some people are reliable simply because they follow a set of instructions which indicates something less than a trust relationship (18). Third, trust resembles consistency, since we trust people who behave in a consistent fashion. Sometimes, however, relationships require rule-breaking or inconsistency in order to be trusting (18).
This examination of related phenomena leads Blodgett to a clear structural understanding of trust. A “trust relationship is the kind of relationship created when one person hands over to another something of value . . ., for its safekeeping” (12). Person A entrusts person B with valuable C. This trust transaction involves three features: risk, vulnerability, and power.
Three Features of Trust
If trust is a transaction in which the trustor gives something of value to the trustee, then that transaction involves risk. Risk is not necessarily bad. In fact, “sometimes people should be encouraged to take a little more risk” (17). In order for trust to flourish, there must be an awareness of risk and a decision to ignore that awareness” (19). The second feature of trust is vulnerability. When a person takes a risk they may become more vulnerable. Vulnerability is a key feature in Blodgett’s discussion of clergy confidentiality. Like risk, vulnerability can be a positive factor in the life of a church community. The final feature of trust is power. “[T]he trust relationship always involves a differential of power” (22). Ideally, for Blodgett, the power differential between the truster and the trustee should be minimized. I question Blodgett’s presupposition that a power differential is always a negative factor in the trust relationship between a minister and a congregant. I appreciate the power differential between myself and my doctor, for example. Should not power be viewed more like trust and vulnerability—elements that can operate positively or negatively in the relationship? These three features enable Blodgett to evaluate the role of trust in the four relational practices which form the rest of the book.
Blodgett’s philosophical approach rewards the reader with a clear structural description of trust which she applies to four relational practices. However, in a book developed for Christian ministers, the omission of any biblical foundation weakened her case. Blodgett does note that in a Christian context, trust bears resemblance to faith (27). Indeed, the trilogy of faith, belief, and trust form the semantic range of pistis which is a key theological category of Christian theology. Blodgett responds in part to this anticipated criticism in the conclusion by suggesting biblical images for trust and clarifying why trust between humans is both similar and dissimilar to trust between God and humankind (147-8). However, a phenomenological reading of the Abraham and Isaac narrative, for example, would have added a theological richness which was lacking. Consider how risk, vulnerability, and power are exercised by Abraham, Isaac, and God in their three-way trust relationship. The theology of Lives Entrusted is essentially anthropological.
Four Relational Practices
The four relational practices which Blodgett evaluates are areas of practice where clergy are tempted to take shortcuts in lieu of developing a healthier ethic of trust. These relational practices, when relied upon, actually “undermine the flourishing of trust in the church” (31). Ironically, they undermine the community they were intended to support. The arguments Blodgett develops are often counterintuitive, subverting conventional wisdom.
Confidentiality occurs when “one person entrusts another with information, and asks that to be kept secret” (33). The common trope of the Roman Catholic confessional along with the rise of the therapeutic model of pastoring has led to the assumption that confidentiality is a moral virtue when it reality it is morally ambivalent. Blodgett posits the counterintuitive position that confidentiality can do more harm than good to both the minister and to those seeking counsel.
The description of trust as a two person transaction is a valuable way of examining the practice of confidentiality. On the one hand, the confider bears increased risk and vulnerability. How might the confidant handle the information? Will confidence be maintained? Will the confidant engage or withdraw from the relationship? On the other hand, the confidant also bears risk and vulnerability. Bonhoeffer notes that “[a]ll too easily this one person will be overburdened” (49). This is a serious problem in ministry. Furthermore, the type of information confided may place moral or legal obligations on the confidant. Beyond risk and vulnerability, confidentiality always increases the power of the confidant over the confider.
The most acute insight on confidence came when Blodgett examined the responsibility of the clergy in contrast to the counselor. A counselor has a primary responsibility to one person. Clergy, on the other hand, are responsible for an entire community of people. Unilateral insistence upon confidentiality can damage the community for the sake of the individual. Willimon points out that confidentiality can harm the individual since it cuts that person off from the healing resources of the community (39-40). Blodgett’s description of trust as a transaction between two people constrains her ability to explore the trust relationship between the minister and the congregation as a group.
Blodgett walks an uncomfortable line in this chapter. In order to support her thesis on the value of trust she argues against the effectiveness of safe church policies. These practices reflect our society’s increasing reliance on audits: “any kind of check into other people’s behavior or practices” (55). However, she does not dismiss these policies out of hand. “Let me repeat this: I am not necessarily advocating against forms of audit in the ministry—I would support several of them—but I am skeptical of the ultimate effectiveness of audit practices alone to deliver the assurance that vulnerable people deserve” (56-7).
While Blodgett states that both a smarter trust as well as some forms of auditing can work together to create safer churches, she never reconciles how these two features may coexist and complement each other. In this chapter Blodgett has largely dropped the three features of risk, vulnerability, and power in order to argue for the ineffectiveness of auditing. While she is right to say that audits alone cannot protect churches and that it is wrong to trust in them, her solution, “sometimes we just need to trust trust” (78), sounds naïve.
Gossip is difficult to define. Blodgett settled on “informal, evaluative discourse about someone not present who is a member of the speaker’s social group” (88). Like her philosophy of trust, this definition is philosophically insightful, albeit without exegetical basis. Blodgett begins by stating the counterintuitive position that gossip is a positive feature of community life that promotes bonding, moral evaluation, and education. In the end, she rejects this position on the basis of trust. “Just because gossip serves these functions does not necessarily mean that it builds trust” (98).
Returning to her three features of trust, Blodgett notes that gossipers avoid the risk of real engagement through linguistic devices that protect the gossiper. Similarly, those who gossip do not take on any vulnerability since their words are about others. Power is an interesting feature of gossip because it can be understood in various ways. In one sense, gossip is the weapon of the powerless to gain power over the leadership. Conversely, the power of gossip can damage others.
If gossip is primarily a female act by which the powerless seek to gain power from the powerful, bullshit is a male act by which the powerful placate the powerless to maintain their power. Blodgett’s feminist perspective is clear here, etemologically noting bullshit as the “waste product of a male bovine” (144). While Blodgett states that men can gossip and women can bullshit, her broad characterization of the gender of these practices is counterproductive to a feminist viewpoint.
Blodgett’s philosophical acuity is evidenced in her ability to uncover the essential structure of bullshit. Although it bears a family resemblance to lying, there is a significant difference: a bullshitter may lie or speak the truth. The issue is not the message but the use of power to impress or placate the audience. Blodgett wisely notes the various ways that ministers can fall prey to this vice in their testimony, preaching, teaching, pastoral care, and even prayer life. Unlike the topics in the previous three chapters, bullshit is an unequivocally bad practice—a “variant of lying and a violation of trust” (122).
Lives Entrusted is a provocative look at four relational practices of ministry from the perspective of the trust relationship. Blodgett excels at describing precisely what trust is and making it understandable through small anecdotes sprinkled throughout the text. However, there were times when her arguments (especially on misconduct and bullshit) seemed to disengage from the logical criteria of the book as set out in the first chapter. Furthermore, a deeper grounding of trust in the biblical narrative would have added to the strength of this work and perhaps brought more clarity to the relational practices.
Blodgett, Barbara J. Lives Entrusted: An Ethic of Trust for Ministry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.