While less than a third of Americans rate clergy as highly honest and ethical, across the globe in the Philippines, 91 percent of the public trusts religious leaders, according to EON Group’s 2021 Philippine Trust Index. Respondents of the survey ranked pastors as the most trusted leaders in Filipino society, compared to a Gallup poll that found clergy in the US ranked lower than 10 other professions, including chiropractors and police officers.

“When people outside of church find out I’m a pastor, their demeanor changes out of respect,” said Aldrin Peñamora, director of the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches’ Justice, Peace, and Reconciliation Commission. Some people even ask him for prayer.

The disconnect is rooted in cultural differences, religion’s role in society, as well as the impact of church scandals. Still, pastors from both countries noted the importance of having pastors engage with their congregations and local communities to build trust.

Drivers of trust in the Filipino church

In the Philippines, Catholics make up 80 percent of the population, while evangelicals make up about 3 percent. Catholicism came to the Philippines through Spanish colonialism and stuck as Filipinos made their faith their own. Today, the Catholic faith has become a cultural attribute of Filipino life.

The high view of church leaders also reflects traditional Filipino values, said Peñamora: “Filipino culture values respecting the elderly, which spills over to their submission to people in authority, including religious authority.”

In the Philippines, older people are considered wise, and they provide a sense of order and direction to the life of the community, Peñamora said. The root of this respect is utang na loob, defined as “the sense of obligation to return a favor to someone.” Because the older generation paved the way for next generations to enjoy certain privileges, younger people feel indebted and want to give back to their elders. Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Anna Cristina Tuazon writes that utang na loob isn’t a transactional relationship but an acknowledgement of a malasakit, “an act of compassionate sacrifice that goes above what is expected.” The debt is never fully repaid.

According to the EON survey, the number one driver of trust in the Filipino church is when it “has integrity and espouses honesty, providing a full accounting of its funds and other resources.” Other drivers include having a wide reach (including global connections), and maintaining a separation of church and state. Despite recent scandals in Filipino Protestant and Catholic churches, Filipinos of all ages still trust the church: 85 percent of Gen Z responders said they trust the church, as well as 89 percent of millennials, 95 percent of Gen Xers, and 97 percent of baby boomers.

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As a result, Peñamora said that many congregants are eager to emulate what ministers are doing, including evangelizing and serving in church ministries.

Francis Egenias, the chairman of the board of the Philippine Missionary Institute, said that most congregants trust religious leaders to guide them in matters of faith. “Filipinos listen to their leaders out of respect, even when they don’t like what is being said to them,” Egenias said. Yet that doesn’t mean that people are heeding their words, as “sermons enter one ear and exit the other.”

For instance, even though the church speaks out on practices like vote buying—where candidates give money to people in exchange for their votes—or playing the illegal gambling game jueteng, Christians continue to do these things, Egenias said.

“Filipinos do both the profane and the sacred,” Egenias said. “They go to church even when they don’t obey. They listen to their pastors as long as they don’t interfere with their vices.”

Filipino Americans caught between two worlds

This high trust is also seen in Filipino American communities, three-quarters of whom identify as Christian, mostly Catholic. Father Perry Leiker of Los Angeles’s St. Bernard Catholic Church noted to the Los Angeles Times that nearly half of the church’s parishioners are Filipino American. “They’re just very expressive of their faith and very proud of their faith, and I think they find a lot of support in their faith,” he said.

However, that trust can easily be broken in both Catholic and evangelical churches. Gabriel Catanus, lead pastor of Garden City Covenant Church in Chicago, has observed that Filipino Americans raised in white evangelical megachurches often become disillusioned by organized religion because of the hurt and spiritual abuse they experience.

“[Filipino Americans] are treated like the help in churches, seminaries, and Christian colleges but do not have a voice in leadership,” Catanus said. He finds that people with marginalized identities suffer most from the worst parts of institutional life.

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In response, he builds trust with his multiethnic congregation by allowing Filipino Americans to receive and build community without the expectation to serve. He is also intentional about educating them on the historic and systemic realities upon which institutions are built and inviting them to consistently follow the person of Jesus.

Filipinos’ trust in the church, whether they are in the homeland or in the diaspora, is shaped heavily by their experience with the church leaders, Catanus said. They long for a shepherding presence whom they can confide in during times of hardship and strife.

“We need to have leaders who listen to God and to people and who are willing to listen to people who suffer,” Catanus said. “When you do that, you cannot rush.”

Breakdown in institutional trust

For the larger American population, the distrust of pastors is representative of the country’s own values and culture.

“The decline in trust in religious institutions is a part of the larger decline in trust in all institutions,” said Daniel Hummel, research fellow in the history department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Americans are highly individualistic in how they understand the world, and this bleeds into the role of the church.”

Instead of being a mediator, the church becomes a place where one goes to meet one’s needs, Hummel said. This cultural reality makes it harder for trust in institutions to be sustained because it is easy to opt out of a fellowship when it no longer serves one’s needs.

Also, church attendance today remains lower than pre-pandemic levels, making it more difficult for church leaders to build personal relationships with their congregants. As a result, there are fewer points of contact between clergy and those outside the church.

In CT’s January article on why Americans no longer trust pastors, Nathan Finn, executive director of the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University, pointed to several factors for this change: clergy sex abuse, political polarization, and evangelicals’ countercultural moral positions. Finn said this decline in trust is notable “especially among those who have either had bad church experiences or whose worldview assumptions are already at odds with historic Christian beliefs.”

In the Black church, some see a failure of leadership as clergy stay silent amid injustice.

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“Black churches turn the other cheek to issues that plague our world,” said Taylon Lancaster, senior pastor at Third Baptist Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. “Black clergy are silent on the issues that Christians should’ve cried out loud about.”

Building trust is needed in both contexts

Despite the differences in how pastors are viewed in the two countries, leaders from both stressed the importance of building up the credibility of churches in their context to witness to the gospel.

In the US, Lancaster believes the church can build trust by caring about the issues that communities are facing and acting as a transformative presence that holistically meets people’s needs. This requires religious leaders to create space for people to share their concerns.

Sandra Maria Van Opstal, cofounder and executive director of Chasing Justice, noted that, to build trust, “churches must be honest, repent, and confess when they’ve done something wrong, even when it’s hard to do as an institution.”

She has observed that in communities of color, it can be difficult for Christians to walk away from their congregation because many of their relationships are wrapped up in the structures of the church. “The church is integral to the flourishing of marginalized people,” she said.

The church is where people in her community find food and financial support, and where they connect with people from similar ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. This is why Van Opstal finds it necessary for churches to be intentional in creating an environment where trust can grow. Although Filipinos have high trust in their church leaders, evangelical churches still have to intentionally build relationships within their communities.

Over in Quezon City, Philippines, Chonabelle Domingo, executive director of Mission Ministries Philippines (MMP), believes “the evangelical should be creative in doing outreach.” Her ministry builds trust within her community by offering early childhood education to low-income families. The ministry started after she saw that she was more welcomed into homes as a teacher than as a preacher. “When God’s love is extended to children, it leads to meaningful community engagement,” she explained. MMP designs its curriculum to care for students holistically.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) actively engages in interfaith and inter-political dialogue and develops good relationships across different groups. “We need to engage in society on different levels,” director Peñamora said. “Neighborliness, regardless of differences, is part of our mandate as Christians.”

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That’s why PCEC is active in relief distribution when natural disasters like typhoons or earthquakes strike. With support from PCEC, many evangelicals built houses for Muslims in Lapayan, Lanao del Norte, after the 2017 Marawi siege when ISIS-affiliate militants overtook the city. The group was also heavily involved in peacebuilding in the region, and have seen that building relationships with the community have helped with lessening animosity among people of different faiths.

Peñamora longs for the local church to form relationships in the community that are not imperialistic or hierarchical. He believes church leaders should not be passive or apathetic to issues happening outside of church walls. Instead, churches need to meet people where they are, as Jesus did, and be worthy of trust.

“The more we get involved within the community, the more we are trusted,” Peñamora said.