- Our church was really excited about the Vital Church Initiative, but no one ever said we’d have to change the way we’ve always done worship.
- I can’t understand why our pastor’s husband won’t join the men’s study group. Isn’t that his job?
- Our new pastor didn’t say hi to me at coffee hour after worship. I don’t know why he doesn’t like me.
- She shouldn’t be on the Finance Committee. She’s too new to the church and doesn’t understand how money works around here.
- They promised us that the conference would never close our church, but no one will give us help to pay our bills.
- I’m not going to vote for the new addition to the building. We can’t possibly raise the money in this economy.
Assumption: a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.
It’s human nature to make assumptions. Assumptions are a part of our belief system and help interpret the world around us. Because we learned these beliefs previously, we take them for granted and do not question them. From our assumptions, we then make inferences about others in order to make sense of our surroundings.
If we live in a dangerous area of the inner city, we lock our doors because we assume that anyone ringing our doorbell has evil intentions. If we come from the country, we assume that everyone who lives in the suburban communities of a major city has great wealth and is snobbish. Because of the values our parents taught us, we assume that everyone who is overweight lacks self-control, everyone who is gay has chosen this “lifestyle,” and everyone who struggles with substance abuse issues is morally weak.
Each one of us makes judgments and comes to conclusions about others based on what we have been taught and have experienced. Consider the assumptions that people made about Jesus and the inferences that they drew. Jesus ate with sinners. Therefore, he must be a sinner himself. Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Therefore, he broke the Jewish law. Unlike John the Baptist, who fasted, Jesus came eating and drinking. Therefore, he is a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus cured a man who was blind and mute. Therefore, he has a demon. The inference: Jesus was dangerous and a threat.
The belief systems of many of the Jewish religious leaders were so deeply ingrained that they could not conceive of Jesus as anything other than a rebel and a heretic. Those assumptions about Jesus so threatened the status quo that they eventually led to his death as the so-called King of the Jews.
Why do we make assumptions, anyway?
- We make assumptions when we don’t have all the information that we need to make a decision or judgment. Rather than ask questions, seek correct facts and clarify intentions, we default to our own belief system.
- We hear what we want to hear. At times the truth may be so painful that we shut ourselves off from the reality of a situation and choose to stay within our comfort zone.
- We forget or have never learned one of the hallmarks of healthy conversation, “Do not assume malicious intent.” Rather than acknowledge that people bring different viewpoints to a particular situation and may see the data in another way, we decide that it is others who are at fault or are out to get us.
A mark of healthy self-awareness is realizing that the inferences we make are greatly influenced by our assumptions about people and situations. In 1997 Don Miguel Ruiz published a best-selling book called The Four Agreements; A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. These four principles are designed to help us live whole, happy and productive lives.
1. Be Impeccable with your Word
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
3. Don’t Make Assumptions
4. Always Do Your Best
Ruiz puts the onus on us to avoid making assumptions by asking questions and seeking the information we need to make wise decisions. He writes, “If others tell us something, we make assumptions, and if they don’t tell us something, we make assumptions to fulfill our need to know and to replace the need to communicate. Even if we hear something and we don’t understand, we make assumptions about what it means and then believe the assumptions. We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.”
Open and honest communication, which can mitigate the drama that plays out because of assumptions, is at the heart of all healthy organizations, including the church. I wonder how the vitality and sustainability of our local churches might be enhanced if we all had a professional communications staff person. Clearly, that will never be the case, yet there are ways in which clergy and laity can work together to enhance effective, clear communication.
What can clergy and church leaders do to avoid the assumption trap? Lay people who don’t know what’s going on will invariably make assumptions about what is going on. They will also share those assumptions with others as if they are true. Hence, gossip and the rumor mill. That’s why it’s critical to be out in front with communication.
- Communicate as often and as clearly as you can. Even having no new news to report about a particular issue can be shared so that everyone is in the loop. Seek the help of laity with skills in the area of public relations.
- Make regular reports about the financial status and overall health of the church.
- Realizing that others may not want to hear what you desire to communicate, be clear, transparent and non-anxious.
- Have periodic “town hall” meetings where church members can ask questions and dialogue face to face.
- Don’t sugarcoat the truth. At the same time, offer hope and encouragement. Trust, faith and confidence are contagious.
- Clergy and church leaders must have a positive, can-do attitude. Parishioners will follow our lead. If we ourselves aren’t convinced that our congregation can do the impossible; if we aren’t certain ourselves that we can raise $300,000 for a building addition; and if we don’t believe that the power of the Holy Spirit and a viable strategic plan will enable us to grow and reach new people for Christ, then none of it will happen. Period.
What can laity do to avoid the assumption trap?
- Recognize when your own biases may cause you to hear only what you want to hear.
- Learn how to see situations from more than one point of view and broaden your understanding.
- Rather than share your assumptions with others by spreading rumors, take the initiative to ask questions and seek clarification.
- Understand that certain things such as personnel issues need to remain confidential; trust that your leaders are acting prayerfully and in the best interest of the church.
- Never assume malicious intent on anyone’s part.
How do we avoid the assumption trap? Alan Alda once said, “Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Clean those windows and bring on the light!