Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Power of Assumption

When Chris was a baby, when I went somewhere, especially to church, I would carry him in a baby sling. I loved it and he loved it. It kept him close and involved in what we were doing, it was easy to nurse him in public, and he really didn't like strollers. It was so much easier to care for him that way.

At thirteen months, Chris hadn't started walking yet. I wasn't really alarmed and he was obviously healthy. My husband had taken his time in this area also. Chris ended up walking at fifteen months. The exact age Jeff was when he started walking.

But one day, a woman in my congregation decided to tell me a story. It was about a woman who was taking care of this little sick calf who could barely move so she had to carry or drag the calf to get to it to food and water. But as she nursed the calf back to perfect health , she still would carry the calf to its' water and food, even though the calf was proportionately bigger and bigger and was obviously capable of walking there. It was ridiculous to see this woman dragging this perfectly healthy half-grown calf. But the calf had never learned that it could get there itself now, and the woman hadn't wanted to let go of it.

I got her gist. She was saying that because I was carrying Chris around all the time, he never really had the opportunity or the motivation to learn that he could do it himself. And she might be right, IF I was ALWAYS carrying him.

You see, she was making an assumption based on the two hours of the week that she saw me. During that time, Chris was usually sleeping through the service or we were in the parish hall, which had very hard, cold floors and folding chairs that easily collapsed and were not safe. At home, he was crawling, standing, and cruising the days away. This woman just never saw that.

As a young mother, I was slighty amused by her creativity, mortified by coming under her scrutiny, and hurt and a little angry at the assumption.

But what she did wasn't particularly unusual. We all make assumptions about people based on what we see of them, despite the fact the majority of their daily lives are not revealed to us. If our doctor is rushed, he will always be inattentive in our minds. If we have a bad food server, the restaurant is awful. if kids misbehave, they are brats or their parents aren't controlling them...and on and on and on. Often, we honestly don't have enough information to make the assumptions that we make, and we are so ready to embrace the most negative belief.

That's why when Luther elaborated on the Eighth Commandment, he said not only are we not to lie about our neighbor or hurt his reputation but we are to "defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way."

That takes WORK. It really does. It isn't enough to simply not gossip or act on our assumptions, but to actually counter those sinful thoughts with good ones, and be willing to express them. This means also that we have to train ourselves to believe that the person is acting out of good will and wants to make something good happen, even when we don't understand completely what is going on. When when we see a problem, we need to try to work through it, even when we fear rejection or criticism ourselves. More than that, it takes the regeneration of the Holy Spirit to humble us by constantly showing us how much of a sinner we are so that we fixate less on the sins of others.

One place where I see the damage of assumptions so strongly is in the lives of pastors. People are very ready to criticize their pastors. Maybe there is this basic assumption that they should have it more together than other people or are less sinful than other people, but they are not. Ever since the time of the prophets, God has chosen weak sinners to do His will -- Abraham was a liar, Jacob was conniving, Moses was a murderer, Samson was selfish and prone to rages, David was a murderer and an adulterer, Solomon was an idolater, Jonah was a coward and stiff-necked, Paul persecuted the church, and even the disciples, the very people Jesus himself chose to spend almost all of his time with for three years, the men he would send out to build His church -- were at times perfectly oblivious, petty, and cowardly. The very chosen people of God, the Israelites were stubborn, stiff-necked, and rejected God repeatedly. The evidence is there that as God's church, we are no more faithful, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit we are made and kept His through the waters of Baptism. Neither is there anything more righteous or particularly distinguishing about a man that God has chosen to serve him in the office of Pastor. A man isn't a pastor because he is more righteous than others. He is a pastor because God has decided to use him to shepherd His flock, despite that man's sinfulness, flaws, and imperfections.

Yet the things that they generally come under scrutiny for are not things like murder, embezzlement, or adultery. It is that people don't like the length of the sermons, he doesn't do as many visits as the last pastor, that things are intangibly different than they were from the last pastor, that his desk is loaded with papers, or that he's not at the office when they call or stop by.

Let's look at these common complaints:

If you like a shorter sermon - why? Are you anxious to get the church part of your day over with? Is your attention span not able to keep up? Is the pastor truly rambling or is there meat in the sermon? If the law and the gospel aren't hitting you on that particular day, maybe someone else sitting next to you truly needs it, and you are begrudging God's work. Maybe you do need that message in particular, but you are hardening your heart and making other things your god besides hearing God's word and being truly present in church.

If you want a visit, have you invited the pastor over? Often when pastors try to arrange visits in today's day and age, no one is ever home, they are too busy, or they simply do not want the pastor to come over. Make sure he knows that YOU want him to come over, even just to socialize and get to know you. Generally pastors want to and would love to, but people often only invite them into their lives when they are sick or are in crisis. It would be nice to be welcome into their flocks' lives when things are good. Some pastors are better than others at making that happen beforehand.

No pastor is going to be able to make things "just like it was when Pastor (insert name here) was here." He's not Pastor (insert name here). But we recognize that the new pastor that is brought in wasn't a mistake, he was called to serve the congregation by God through that congregation. God put him there for a reason. He put him there because He knew that the congregation needed the particular gifts that this new pastor has, for one reason or another, for however long He sees fit. Because this pastor is a servant of God, he deserves respect and honor, help and Christian brotherhood. Or in other words, as the Bible says it:

"We ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard
among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other." I Thess 5:12-13

"Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you." Heb. 13:17

Luther uses these verses under The Table of Duties in our Small Catechism entitled "What the Hearers Owe Their Pastors."

Also, being the new one in the congregation is hard. It is a completely different thing getting to know 100 people (or more or less) than for that 100 to get to know the one. It is hard to figure out who is who, who is related to whom, what supports are there for him to do his job, what people expect, what expectations are reasonable, how things work in the congregation, what really needs to be done, etc. The pastor often feels very vulnerable as he establishes himself in a new congregation, yet that is when a lot of people allow their unchangable impressions to be formed.

Pastors are people. They are not always neat. Some are, some aren't. Some are so busy that straightening up the desk is not the top priority -- they congregation is. Some pastors struggle and feel defeated by the mound of papers that Synod, the District, and every church board gives them, not to mention every charity under the sun! A pastor can still be a good pastor with a messy office or with many other faults that you and I manage to survive with in the world.

Yet, a pastor has an office....that means he should be there, right? But we said before that he should be doing visits. Hmmm......

Let me give you an example from a pastor's schedule, since I have a little insight into one.


10:00 (GASP!!! you say. But before you freak, pay attention to what time he comes home tonight, and keep in mind that Monday night he had a board meeting until 9:30 p.m. and Tuesday night he was visiting with a family in need, and he was then called out to a chaplain emergency at 1 in the morning).
--Returned phone calls, worked with the church secretary on things, and did sermon work, etc.

12:00 Had catechesis with a member in the office.

1:00 Premarital counseling

2:30 Rushed out of the office for a visit with a family in crisis

4:00-5:30 Worked on sermon study, phone calls, and newsletter

5:30 - Dashed home to change and grab a granola bar

6:00 - Wednesday evening vespers service.

7:00 - Confirmation class

8:30 - finished up newsletter notes and emailed them off. Made a final phone call and went home at 9:45.

That was a long day - over 10 1/2 hours. Lunch was after 4 p.m. and eaten while working. Monday was even longer and involved hospital visits 30 miles away, an evening meeting, a class at the seminary, and a meeting with a colleague.
Hospital visits, home visits, nursing home visits, classes, private confession and absolution, catechesis, circuit meetings, field workers, chapel, chaplaincy duties, and so many other things that are routine in the duties of a pastor take him out of the office. Thank God for cell phones, home phones, email, and answering machines. Most members of the flock usually work 9-5, so when he is needed, he needs to be available in the evening. Yet even with all these modern conveniences, the pastor hears that people don't know how to reach him because he's not in the office, waiting for them to stop in.

Let's not forget the pastor's family. 70-80 hour work weeks are all too common in the lives of pastors, but under most circumstances, if that is the norm, the family suffers. The Bible is clear that the pastor is a husband and father first before he is a pastor. My husband was blessed to be under a vicarage supervisor that emphasized that this job cannot often be done in 40 hours, but it can be done in 50-55 hours a week. He led by example. If he had a meeting that night, he left at three o'clock to be with his family. My husband often goes in later if he has been working evenings. But his weeks are still usually around 50 hours a week, and there is usually only one "guaranteed" day off. When I look at how easy it is for pastors to get buried under their responsibilities, I thank God for the vicarage we had.
Yet it is easy to assume that if a pastor is home during the day, he is not doing his job. This very often is very far from the case. And with cell phones and lap top computers, the pastor can often work wherever he is.
Job satisfaction is low among pastors. They are in jobs where they receive a lot of criticism. They work a lot of hours. Their families sometimes feel neglected and stressed by the work demands and scrutinized by the congregation regarding their personal lives. It is often hard to make friends with members of the congregation. The divorce rate is high, as is the rate for mental illness from pressure and exhaustion. If a pastor does not take care of his family and himself, you could find yourself without a pastor because divorced pastors often lose their calls, exhaustion can leave him looking for a different way to support himself, and mental illness can leave him incapable of caring for you.

Another very harmful assumption is that the pastor is going to do things his way, and that they don't care what the parishoners think. There are a few like that, but for most, that assumption could not be farther from the truth. The pastor has been called by God to care for the flock. Of course they care what the parishoners think. Decisions they make are usually done out of love, and if that is not how it is perceived, they do want feedback and the opportunity to correct any harm that has been done. Others don't want to complain because they don't want to hurt his feelings. Yet what often ends up happening is that they remain hurt regarding the issue it festers. Or worse, they end up talking to other people in the congregation and stirring up unrest. Sometimes, they tranfer or leave the church without saying a word about what is bothering them -- even insisting nothing is wrong when asked. Sometimes everyone else knows why the person was leaving, except the pastor. And he knows that, too. This is very common in the life of the church and it is far more hurtful than coming to him and letting him know you don't agree with him.

That isn't how the Bible says that things should be handled. If you have a problem with your brother, you are supposed to go to him and tell him. Maybe you are fearful that there will be conflict. Honestly, God addresses that, too. If you go to your brother and he does respond to you, then you are released. His response is his to account for before God. You have the responsibility of trying to make it right. God puts that before you. The pastor can't correct anything or even explain anything if he doesn't know what is the problem. So tell him your problem. Go to him. Most pastors really would rather hear from you whatever you are upset about, no matter how harshly (though please don't be harsh) than know that you are unhappy but keeping silent or gossiping. If you know someone who has a problem, don't tolerate their griping but instead encourage them to go to the pastor. Changing this behavior alone can save a church, it certainly has destroyed many; plus it shows respect and honor to the pastor and to God, who called the pastor there to care for you. IT IS WORSE to sit on a problem than to talk about it. It is certainly NOT more kind. I know intimately how much it hurts a pastor to know that someone is unhappy but they can't figure out how to fix it, or they are leaving, but won't say why. Imagine what goes on in their heads. It is hard. Some pastors end up hardening their hearts to it all, or trying to. But that often makes them worse pastors in the end.

Love your pastor. Treat him how you would want to be treated. Allow him to love you the way God wants him to. Respect him, honor him, and give him the opportunity to really serve you as he has been called to do. That is where his heart is. Don't assume that he is not deeply concerned for you. God put you under his charge. Don't assume that he is only doing the things you see him doing, there is so much more. If you have doubts even about this, ask him about what his days look like. I'm sure he'd appreciate being asked.
Pastors feel how their sinfulness and inadequacies get in the way of their ministry far more strongly than you would think...and it grieves them. They are in need of Christ's forgiveness just as much as you and I, and they need your understanding and compassion, too. Allow him to have his faults, and recognize his strengths.
Definitely don't gossip or harbor bitter feelings in your heart that eventually take your heart away from your friends, your congregation, and your pastor. Satan rejoices when we let these things break up even the Lord's congregation. Assumptions are rarely reasonable and they hurt, and they can hurt deeply. Forgive.


elephantschild said...

You must get this article published somewhere where those who aren't familiar with your blog will see it! I wish I could pass it around every church in the nation.

At a recent cong. mtg at our church someone had the audacity to say that since our Pastor was no longer serving as interm principal to our dayschool (in addition to being the sole pastor here), he now had his weekdays free.

"... ... ...?"

Several lovely people stood up and roundly shouted down this guy, (although they did not tazer him) pointing out several of the points that you've discussed here.

So much of what a pastor does is invisible and private. Pastor can't march around town saying, "I've been working with a couple for three months now, and they've decided to reconcile!" or "I think we'll skip your son's baptism this morning, since I was at the hospital until 2am and I'm afraid I'm going to accidentally immerse your kid I'm so tired."

Blessings, RPW.

Des_Moines_Girl said...

A wonderful post! I agree wholeheartedly. I've always thought pastors were like doctors (my dad was a doctor) because neither one works your average 8 hour day, they are always on call.

My brother is a pastor in North Dakota - his first call. He is the only pastor for two churches (one is about 30 minutes away). For a time he was pastor of three churches. The third church's pastor retired and the 20 members in the congregation decided to disband the church at their 100 anniversary. My brother took over as their pastor for the last 6 months.

He is very busy but he loves doing God's work. I'm not sure how many hours he puts in every week but to hear the passion in his voice when he talks I don't think he knows either.

Tammy said...

Bless you for this post. I am a pastor, married to a pastor and to be honest, the assumptions made about who we are and what we do have pushed us, especially my sweet, gifted and called to be a pastor husband, into sabbatical from fulltime service at the moment. We are healing and working towards what what we know God wants for us (not specifically but know he has a plan in all of this) all the while working each day to be in the center of His will.

One of our struggles is the meshing of family life in our home and parish life with the people of our church. The balance...the expectations...the constant need to set boundaries to protect the well-being of our family completely wore us down. As I said, we are healing and hopeful... but many need to hear what you have said...

Btw... I found you thru "random" on CWO... I will be back! Grace and Peace to you...

The Gauntlets said...

Thank you for this post. My husband is newly ordained. His first call is to a small congregation in ruralsville. We were just today talking about this topic as he is making changes (like encouraging people toward weekly communion) that make some people squirmy.

Their squirmy-ness is making me a bit confused about how I should behave in church settings. I know from my growing up how closely people scrutinize pastors' wives and kids when they are feeling squirmy about the pastor himself as the women in my family were ones to WATCH, if you know what I mean.

NOT to say that I'm worried or pretending my life is so hard, but your story about the sling informs (by the by: I use a sling for my babies, too). What those who watch see me doing two hours out of every week will speak loudly but not completely . . . hmm. Now I have to think about how I might put that on and wear it around.

A random question: how did you get your comment page to block anonymous comments? Just curious.

Thank you!!!!

Susan said...

Amen and Amen! I have been through some of the exact things you are talking about! I am printing this wonderful article. My hubby and I have just been through something I hope we never have to go through again. But your article screamed our names. God bless, Susan

Faith said...

Oh man. Can you email this to every member of our former congregation?

I just cried for a very long time reading. Being Catholic, I had *no* concept of what life was like for a pastor and his wife and kids. I thought I did. But I was sooooo off the marker. We had no support, we had the rugs pulled out from under us... and here we are, without a call, without a place to even attend with the babies, tinged with a bitterness and pessimism toward church members that doesn't seem to want to go away no matter how hard we pray about it.

Congregational gossip, assumptions, and unrealistic expectations don't just hurt, they can irreparably harm people and churches. And most members know this... but do it anyway.

Satan works. And some people just do a little extra to make his yoke a bit lighter.

BundlejoyCosysweet said...

I told you he'd like it! My husband wants to ask permission to reprint in our church newsletter. Can he?

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

The Gauntlets,

Go to your dashboard, click on "settings," then click on "comments." There will be a box that says "who may comment?" Change that to registered users. That should take care of it.

As far as the congregation goes, know this. They will sometime hurt you, and it will come out of left field. You could spend your time managing your children's behaviors and yours meticulously, and it will still happen sometime. But God is gracious and He will care for you.

The only thing that you can do in regards to your congregation is to conduct yourself in a Christian way--not because you are the pastor's wife, but because you are you and a member of the congregation (one that people do watch, though, you are right). Train your kids in the way that they should go, not so people won't gripe about them, but because it is the right thing to do, and know that they still are sinners and are still going to say something or do something at one time or another, and don't treat it like pastor's kids shouldn't do that. If you like wearing a sling - wear a sling -- you will hate yourself forever and eventually hate your congregation and maybe even be mad at your husband if you let them come in the way of loving your children the way that you see fit.

Susan would say also, get a father confessor for you and/or your whole family. I think that is very good advice. Then you have someone taking care of you spritually so you do not feel alone. I have felt that way. At times, I have also felt the need to drive 40 or 50 miles to go to a midweek service or a Bible Study where I could be "Lora" rather than "the pastor's wife," where I could be more free to ask questions and just relax. At times that was alone, at times that was all of us, and my husband took on more responsibility with the kids since on Sundays, when it came to family crowd control, I was a single mom. That is probably the hardest thing for me when my kids are young.

Your husband will know what your congregation truly needs, but I do add a word of warning. The Synod is full of guys on their second calls because they were really zealous coming out of the seminary and mowed over their first congregation in the name of good confessional practice.

Every week communion is a truly wonderful thing, but is it what they need now? A congregation that has been without a pastor often needs times to just slip back into "new normal" and learn to trust the pastor and have him get to know them.. They often interpret a pastor that is coming in and changing the way they do things (when they way they have done things has been chaotic for a while) as a rejection of them as a congregation. "You come in and immediately you don't approve of us and want to change things." Sometimes going what feels like TOO slowly is more loving. Remember, they haven't been immersing themselves in all of these issues every day for the past four years. Rather than working on things right away (and I don't know the manner your husband is working on this), maybe just making sure that the blessings we receive in communion frequently make it in to the newsletter, the Bible Study, the sermon, and the devotions with the elders.

My husband always has made it a policy not to change anything that is not an emergency in the first year. He had to change closed communion practice in our first congregation, but even that was done with diplomacy and gentleness. He started practicing it, but he didn't call it an official policy until he had people understanding what it was (he also had taken the passing of the peace out of the service because it had turned into a ten minute social time before it disappeared at Advent and didn't come back. When the people asked about it, he said he would bring it back, with a proper understanding of what it should be - people in the congregation acknowledging that they are at peace with each other before going to the table, and done in an orderly way - IF closed communion was put into place. They agreed.) But every week communion didn't come for another year or two...and the chalice took a year or two after that.

I may be giving unsolicitied advice...and I do my apologies. I do wish you guys the best of luck in your call. It is a scary and intriguing time.

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...


I wanted to edit it a bit before I gave permission, and I think I am done, so yes, he has my permission.

If he'd like a real name to credit it to, email me at rebelliouspastorswifeATgmailDOTcom

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

I know that the way that some of you ladies have been hurt by these behaviors has been much more severe than what we've experienced, though I don't think any pastor or pastors family is immune from it. It kills us to see our husbands attacked like this, and we are not generally immune from criticism either.

God bless you. Know I am praying for you and your families at this time.

The Gauntlets said...


Thank you for your message. You're great and I like your blog A LOT. I appreciate very much that you gave of your time to help me. :) Thank you, sincerely.

I do want to clarify, for my husband's sake, that he is taking a very, very, very cautious tact with his parish. While he is making changes back to the "way things used to be" in year one, he is very diplomatic and loving, and by and large the people seem to be comfortable. But there's always a squeaky (squirmy) wheel. And the squeaky scare me a bit as they tend to shake hands but keep their fingers crossed in back, you know?

I'm the one that tends toward . . . BLAM! BOOM! EHEHEHEHEHEH! (read: machine gun noises). Which is why we have to have conversations on a regular basis. Which is why HE (dh) is the pastor and I'm the little wife. I just have a difficult time staying . . . little.

We have our first meeting with our father confessor this week. Perhaps that will help. :)

God bless you and yours unto life everlasting!

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said... sound just like me!!! Often when changes do need to be made, I want to see them made yesterday, and my husband has to kind of coax me into sulking patience. And it is much better that he is the pastor and I am the wife....and that these discussions go on privately :)

I wasn't necessarily "assuming" (going with the theme) that your husband was stampeding toward anything. I just wanted to add that as a general warning...because some do. It sounds like things are going swimmingly.

When I mentioned also that your congregation will sometime hurt you, I also wanted to add, that in the majority of cases, there will be moments where their love and generosity (not always toward you...but toward someone)will amaze you (but it is sometimes toward you and your family).

Robyn said...

Thank you for a great post! As a pastor's wife myself I can relate to everything you have written. I don't think people realize how harsh they can be to the pastor and his family. But some things people say can sure sting!

We have been serving in our current congregation for 6 months. After we had been here 2 months, a member of the congregation told my husband what he was teaching was from the devil. Can you believe that?? Do you know what he was teaching on? How to witness to others to help them come to Christ!

All in all, we are blessed in our church but there are some weeks that can be bad weeks. I'm sure you know about that.

I love your blog and will be back frequently now that I have found it.

Marjorie Hall said...


Thank you for your honesty and sweet approach to this (from both sides). It is very easy to assume that the members of our husbands' congregations are just itching to blast us at every turn. You were very fair in pointing out that many times they are just unable to appreciate or understand the situation.

And Dawn, I continue to giggle that you seem to feel inadequate as a Pastor's wife. HELLO! The Lord put ME in this role!!!!! You are exponentially more patient and kind and forgiving than I and your congregations are blessed to have you as their "first lady" (a term someone used for me one time - insert more laughter here).

And there is plenty of hurt to go around; I wish there was a vaccine that could be given to those in the ministry and their families! But it is not the hurt that defines us. I have found that it is not always our response to the hurt that defines us. It is the healing that defines us, molds us, and draws us closer to our Lord. Some of us (not me, mind you) are more proficient at this process. Some of us (now me) are a little slower to learn! But we heal. We forgive. We love our husbands, so we love their flock.

Thanks again for your wisdom. Your pointers for members are good...must pass along!