Assumptions are dangerous

Leaders at all levels and in all stages of their careers have assumptions about themselves, their institutions, their communities. What are yours? What are you doing about them?

My first year in parish ministry, I was serving as the pastor of two small churches in rural Western North Carolina. They were beautiful places with wonderful people; they taught me about what it means to be clergy.

That first autumn, one of the congregations asked if I would preach the homecoming sermon. Frankly, I didn’t know anything about homecoming in a church. I grew up in a large congregation in a university town where homecoming meant kegs of beer and a football game. Now, as a parish pastor in one of North Carolina’s five remaining “dry” counties, I didn’t have the faintest idea what homecoming might mean there.

When I asked, I was told that homecoming was a very big deal in the life of the congregation. There were people flying in from California. There would be seven types of chocolate cake.

I wanted that congregation to be proud of its new, young preacher, and so I worked hard on that sermon. It was pure luck when I discovered through extensive research (I read the church sign) that the church would be celebrating its 100th anniversary that year. With that knowledge, the rest of the sermon seemed to write itself.

Homecoming Sunday came. I preached that sermon about how a 100-year history gave the congregation a great foundation on which to build and a sense of the durability of the institution. It should liberate the congregation for risk-taking mission and ministry in the community. I thought the sermon soared.

When I went to the back door at the end of the service, I expected praise. All I received were polite smiles and tentative handshakes.

Finally, one woman, now of sainted memory, spoke the truth. “Nathan, this church is not 100 years old.”

“Sure it is, Juanita,” I said emphatically.

“No, it is not,” she said just as emphatically.

“Look there -- on the church sign -- Asbury United Methodist Church, 1903.”

“Nathan, that is not the year the church was founded. That is our street address. This church was founded more than 200 years ago in the brush arbor out back.”

There’s just no response to that.

In the years since that autumn Sunday in 2003, that story has become in my life and in my teaching a significant cautionary tale about leadership.

I tell it to new clergy, who are so full of passion and ideas, all built around their assumptions of what is right and what is wrong about the church. I tell it to senior leaders, who smile knowingly (perhaps remembering their own early pastoral missteps or thinking about their young clergy) but who get a slightly more stricken look when asked to consider what assumptions they are making in their leadership today.

It never ceases to amaze me how leaders at all levels of organizational life and in all stages of their professional careers find themselves undone by their assumptions -- however they are revealed.

So, take a warning from Juanita: assumptions are dangerous things.

My warning? Street addresses can haunt for years.