The Power of Assumptions

[NOTE: this article comes to us from Angie Ward, PhD.]

The young pastor and his new wife packed all their earthly belongings into a 14’ U-Haul , said their goodbyes to friends and neighbors, and began the 950-mile drive to their first church. They were excited to begin “real” ministry after graduating from seminary together, and this church seemed like a great place to start.

The couple was impressed by everything they read and heard about the church during the search process. The job description was a good fit. They agreed wholeheartedly with the church’s values as communicated in interviews and in the church’s literature. The vision was inspiring. The couple was eager to jump in and join the effort and excitedly accepted the church’s offer of employment.

Yet several months into his new position, the new pastor began experiencing some…difficulties. There was no overt conflict; he just felt like things weren’t clicking between him and his supervisor and coworkers. When he came to this church, he was excited about how much they talked about the importance of the Gospel, how the pastor talked about team ministry, how they mentioned empowering others.

But now, he is realizing with growing unease that these words mean different things to him than they do to the leaders at his new church. Their theological understanding of Gospel is different; not bad or wrong, but definitely different from the way the professors at his seminary talked about it. “Team” does not seem to mean, “We are a team (everybody’s contributions are different but equal in importance) but rather, “You are on my team,” meaning that the Lead Pastor needs a team to accomplish his vision and goals. And “empowering” seems to have some limits compared to the freedom you thought it meant regarding authority and responsibility.

What happened? This young minister officially ran into different assumptions.

Every individual or organization has their “espoused values:” the things we say we value. But our real values, or what those espoused values really mean, could be completely different from your own understanding of the same words. What means one thing to one person, means something completely different to another. Here are some more examples from ministry.

Missional: To some, it means missions work — as in cross-cultural, overseas ministry. To others, it means evangelism — reaching others and bringing them to Christ. To others still, it refers to a lifestyle by Christians on mission for Christ’s Kingdom. Same word, very different implications depending on the meaning you ascribe.

Small Group: A lot of churches have small groups. But each church uses them differently in their overall ministry strategy. If you come from a church that believes small groups are the place for in-depth Bible study, you will be frustrated or disappointed at a church where the primary purpose of small groups is to build relationships without structured content or study.

Expository Preaching: Does it mean word-for-word, verse-by-verse, chunks of Scripture, “big idea,” or in-depth examination of the meaning of the original languages?

Growth: Rick Warren famously said that a healthy church will grow. But what does growth look like? Size? Depth? Health? How much? How fast? How can you tell?

Contemporary: By which standard? The 1980s? 2012? The 1880s? Are drums OK? Guitars? Electric guitars? Or are certain instruments and musical styles inherently less spiritual?

The thing about assumptions is just that – they are assumed. In other words, the person holding an assumption takes it for granted that their assumption is true, and that everyone else believes the same thing. In fact, assumptions are so deeply rooted and deeply held that to act contrary to them seems absolutely unthinkable. You have probably overheard – or maybe even participated in – this type of conversation in your own ministry context: “Can you believe what they did!?!”

But because assumptions are so deeply rooted, they are very hard to uncover, especially when they are your assumptions. They have been shaped through years of development and experience and have become thoroughly embedded in your mind and heart.

The deep rootedness of assumptions also explains why people have such powerful emotional responses when those assumptions are questioned or challenged, even unintentionally. For example, a church is reconsidering its policy and practice of supporting overseas missionaries. On one side, you have people who assume that the overriding principle of stewardship of financial resources, and good stewardship requires evaluation. On the other side, you have people who assume that the overriding principle is that missionaries are like family and should never lose support.

Of course, most people aren’t able to articulate these assumptions. Instead, they come out as passionate arguments around the surface issue. Is the issue really the color of the carpet, or the fear of losing a sense of comfort, familiarity and even connectedness if the church begins to change?

In ministry, the power of assumptions is compounded because we “theologize” them, thereby turning them into tests of morality (the goodness or badness of the person holding the assumption) or orthodoxy (rightness or wrongness of doctrine). In the case of reevaluating missionary support, both “sides” offered Scripture to support their view. But maybe the assumptions have more to do with cultural and generational differences than with Biblical (or unbiblical) decisions.

There are four things you should know about dealing with assumptions as they surface in your life and ministry:

  1. Know that they exist. Human beings are complex creatures, a divine combination of body, mind, spirit, and emotions. Assumptions are normal part of the human experience.
  2. Know that you have them. No one holds a completely objective perspective. (Of course, we call our own assumptions something else: “the truth”!).
  3. Know that assumptions have deep, and deeply emotional, roots. Don’t expect to change them by power of rational argument alone.
  4. Know that the better you get as identifying your own assumptions and helping others identify theirs, the more effective your ministry will be. People who can identify their own bias and consider other options without fear are extremely compelling; in other words, they are great leaders.

Angie Ward is a leadership writer, teacher, coach and consultant who helps ministry leaders and organizations see what they’ve been missing. Visit Big Picture Leadership at or follow Angie on Twitter at @angiewardphd.

About Chad Hall

Chad Hall is the Director of Coaching for Western Seminary and also serves as a leadership coach for ministry and corporate clients through his role as Partner with Coach Approach Ministries and iNTERNAL iMPACT.