Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Power of Assumption

I wrote this one last year and felt like reposting just seemed the thing to do.

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.

One day before this happened, 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 have been 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 and new pastor's wife, 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 really don't have enough information to make the assumptions that we make, and we are often too ready to embrace the most negative belief.

That's why when Luther elaborated on the Eighth Commandment, he said not only should 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 abstain from gossip or to avoid acting on our assumptions, but we are to actually counter those sinful thoughts with good ones, and be ready and willing to express those good thoughts.

This means also that we have to train ourselves to believe that without clear evidence to the contrary, we are to believe that a person is acting out of good will and is trying to work toward something good, even when we don't understand completely what is going on and our feelings are hurt by misunderstanding.

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 that they should be 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 disobedient, 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 our Lord 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 themselves welcome and at ease with other people. They are, afterall, people.

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, and this doesn't get easier just because the boxes are unpacked. It takes a while. 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.

Wednesday:10:00 (GASP!!! you say. "The lazy bum!" 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).

10:00 --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, since the confirmation parent that he had an appointment with didn't come in.
9:45 - Made a final phone call and went home.

That was a long day - over 10 1/2 hours. Lunch was after 4 p.m. and was 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. The pastor 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 in the morning 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 probably 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 is painfully aware of that. 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, but failing to change it certainly has destroyed many congregations; 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" (especially when they are not sins), 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. When you leave like that, you have no idea how much it hurts a lot of other people BESIDES the 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.


revalkorn said...

This is absolutely brilliant, and it says something that pastors can't say themselves without sounding self-serving. Or at least, that's how it would be taken.

Thank you.

The Parson's Wife said...

I just think this essay/letter should be sent out to all pastor's wives, so that we know we aren't alone in our feelings... and congregations to help with the understanding of the Office of the Keys. Thanks for this thoughtful post. Shawn <><

Michelle in NM said...

Thanks for post this. It is so filled with truth and things my family has also experienced.

Christopher Esget said...

Great post.