It was all just a misunderstanding, pastor!

Don’t jump to conclusions.  Ask for more information before you jump.

Sometimes when something just seems wrong–this could not be!–it is wrong.

Here’s the story, from my journal of the 1990s. I had forgotten this.

I had been out of town for the weekend, and my assistant had preached.  We had four additions to the church and everyone praised the preaching of Dwight Munn.  And then, I began going through my mail…

An offering envelope from Byron (last name) had been placed in my mailbox.  He’s a new member, a super nice guy, a pathologist, and was engaged to marry Carol, who was equally nice and as lovely as anyone has a right to be! Inside the offering envelope was a note. A rather angry note.

The writer–presumably Byron–was criticizing all the announcements in the service, particularly the two made by the wives of a couple of staffers.  The writer said it’s enough to welcome new members at the end of the service, but nothing more should be said.

As I say, the tone was angry.

Why someone should be fired up about such a small thing is a puzzle.  If you don’t like it, it’s all right to tell the leadership.  But it doesn’t deserve a major treatment.

Since Byron is such a kind and gracious person, I was stunned and thought perhaps I had misjudged him.  So, before acting, I put in a call to his fiancé Carol (whom I knew a little better than I did him), and left a message on her answering machine.  I wanted to get her opinion before responding.  Was Byron mad about something?

Unable to get this out of my mind, I went ahead and wrote Byron a nice letter in reply, which I typed, revised, and retyped. I gently explained that not everyone needs announcements, but most of our people need to have events reinforced in their minds two or three times. I promised we would reassess this.

Carol returned my call that night at 8 pm.

I said, “Is Byron there with you?”  “Yes, he is.”

“Well, I wanted to ask you something concerning him, and now I don’t know what to do.  But let me go ahead and talk, and you can listen.”

I told her the story.  At the conclusion, she implied she would not tell Byron.

She called back a few minutes later.  “Joe, I decided to go ahead and tell Byron.  And he says he didn’t write you a note!”

He didn’t?

She: “Was it signed by him?”

“No.  It was unsigned, but it was inside his offering envelope which had his name on the front.”

We chatted back and forth, finally deciding the offering counters must have found the note when it fell out of the offering plate.  Someone picked it up and decided it must have fallen out of Byron’s envelope, stuffed it inside and sent it on its way.

We laughed.  Carol said she was so glad she’d decided to ask him about the note.  Byron said he was too, that he surely did not want me thinking he was angry, that he loves this church.  He added, “If I ever have anything to say to you, I’ll say it in person!”

I answered, “That’s a deal!”

The next day I called the two deacons who had counted the offering. Neither remembered seeing such a note.

So, the mystery went unsolved.  And since the note was anonymous, I let the matter lie.

The minor event serves as a good reminder:  Misunderstandings happen.  Anytime you have more than a few people in your congregation, you run the risk of someone not understanding why another person did a thing.  Responding in love and with gentleness is always the order of the day.  Doing that will save you from hurting someone accidentally, having to eat your words, or going before the congregation to apologize.

Let’s think of a possible scenario…

Let’s say there’s a family in your church who joined not long ago.  As the pastor you have reached out to them, but with no response.  They do not want a home visit from the pastor. You invite the man to meet you for coffee and he never has time and now ignores your invitation.  They seem standoffish at church and never participate.  And yet they did join the church, and they’re there most Sundays.  What is happening, you wonder?

Jumping to conclusions might involve something like this…

–You decide the family is unhappy about something in the church.  They’ve been hurt or offended, you think.

But in truth, they could be having a relationship problem at home.  So, it’s not necessarily about the church.

–You could conclude they’re mad at you  for some reason, that they are unhappy with your sermons or leadership.  This kind of mild paranoia is common among preachers.  If someone is unhappy, we must have failed them.

But not necessarily.

–You could conclude that the church leadership must do something about this unresponsive family.  Perhaps send a team of deacons to see what’s wrong.  But then, every church I’ve ever pastored had a few families who were chronically unhappy.  Sometimes, it’s just their personalities, sometimes it’s a problem of their own and has nothing to do with you.  In a small town political enemies may worship in the same church, but not speak to each other.  This has nothing to do with the preacher or the church, even if it feels that we have failed them in some way.

When a pastor friend suggested the above scenario to me–the unhappy family sitting in his congregation Sunday after Sunday–we discussed the various possibilities.  But in no way was I suggesting he do anything.  Sometimes we need to leave people alone if they are not causing trouble.

“If you feel you must do something,” I told him, “pull in two or three leaders whom you trust, and share it with them.  Then, lay it before the Lord.  Do nothing until you sense a clear leading from Him.”

What you must not do is assume anything.

Pastors have enough troubles to deal with in the church without creating new ones.


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