You know what happens when you assume, right?

20140724_114622I received a phone call from a member of my congregation, one who is not necessarily regular in her attendance, but she does attend often enough that I’ve never felt the need to question her devotion. She left a message, but it was one of those messages that when you hear it, even though nothing is spoken precisely with regard to the reason for the call, you know it isn’t going to be good. I returned her call right away.

I read an article some time back which posited that at any given moment a pastor can be certain that at least 30% of members in his parish are wishing he wasn’t their pastor. I spent the next ten minutes talking to one of the 30%. Although she couldn’t tell me exactly why, in a general sense, she wanted me to know that she considered me to be a rotten pastor and that since my predecessor, she hasn’t appreciated anything about the church or my efforts to serve her. But eventually, after listening for a little while and asking some questions, I discovered a window into the room that housed her core concern. And what she so unabashedly revealed was so much more devastating than the personal attacks.

She finally let loose and told me that she didn’t appreciate hearing about what she called “politicized topics.” Although I never preach topical sermons (that is I don’t come to the sermon process with the intention of writing a sermon on stewardship, or faith, or whatever), I do spend time wrestling with those topics as they rise from whichever text is prescribed by the lectionary. In her words, she didn’t want to hear a sermon, read a letter, or sit in a study that mentioned things like abortion or homosexuality, especially if they were being presented as sinful. In her mind, by speaking to these issues, not only was I politicizing her church, but she wanted me to know that if indeed the Bible and the Church understand these as sinful, she happens to have contrary opinions and it offends her to hear otherwise. A recent mailing I sent out served as the final straw and she asked to be dismissed from church membership. I urged her to reconsider and asked to meet with her in person to talk it through in more detail. She refused. I encouraged her to retain her membership at least until she found another LCMS congregation to which she might transfer. Although she hinted at possibly joining the “other synod” (meaning ELCA), she did ultimately decide that retaining her membership until she could find another LCMS church to her liking would be the better course. And so, as the conversation came to an end, she once again affirmed her dislike for me, reminded me that I am nothing like my predecessor, and then pressed again that she wanted nothing more to do with the congregation in which she has held her membership for over 25 years. Then she hung up.


This happens to pastors sometimes. Jesus told us it would (John 15:18-19). Still, it hurts. But in the midst of the hurt, by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of Christ’s loving rescue, a pastor has what is necessary to put away anger and doubt and to reflect humbly upon the situation. I’ve done that. And I’ve made a few discoveries which I think may be of interest to at least some of you.

Just like everyone else, Pastors get into routines. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not until the routines turn into assumptions. I’ll speak for myself. I’ve been coming to the preaching and teaching task making some assumptions about the people in my care, and I think that they are a reflection of the periodic ruts of naiveté into which even the most experienced pastors can stumble and fall. That being said, with my foolishness now on display, there are at least three mistakes in particular that I can share with you.

The first mistake is that I’ve been assuming that the person in the pew is actually an “objective” listener who sees and hears me as one called and sent by God. Not that I expect everyone to agree with everything I say all of the time. In fact it is the duty of every Christian to listen carefully and discern. Nevertheless, the faithful pastor understands that he is tasked with giving a message, an objective truth, one that comes from outside of himself. I think I may have grown somewhat indolent in a sense, assuming that the listener is one who recognizes and admits unquestionable alignment with the objective truth I am preaching and is not necessarily as affected or influenced by his own subjective opinion. I have taken it for granted that he is actually able and willing to bend his subjective opinion to align with the objective truth he is hearing from the pulpit, in congregation letters, and Bible study. In other words, I am admitting to going about my work mistakenly assuming that the listener is in fact able to ask “What is God saying to me through His servant by His holy Word?” as opposed to actually asking “How will I assimilate what God (or this pastor) is saying to me into what I already believe to be true?” Being someone in a profession established by God to meet face to face with the sin-nature on a regular basis, it is probably better for me to assume that a whole lot of my listeners are predisposed to the latter.

The second mistake may have been the assumption that because the listener is a regular, longtime “church-goer” in an LCMS church, he is most likely a “Biblical conservative” and relatively aligned with the public confession of the church body in which he has held his membership for so many years. Yes, on paper the LCMS holds a very different public confession than that of, say, the ELCA, but to assume that the members of my congregation systematically believe what the LCMS believes as opposed to the ELCA is very dangerous. In so many ways, postmodernism appears to be blurring these types of distinctions and therefore the Biblical “givens” that shape our positions on topics like abortion or homosexuality. Being associated with a particular synod or fellowship may not necessarily mean all that much anymore to most folks, at least not as much as it used to. A pastor’s vigilance is required here, too.

Although as a pastor I do A LOT of teaching, the third mistake I’ve made is that I have assumed that outside of the many studies offered, the listener actually reads his Bible on his own and holds enough familiarity with the contents that certain topics, no matter how controversial they are to everyone else, are no-brainers for Christians. For example, it would seem to be a no-brainer that abortion is ungodly, and yet I began this article by sharing with you a startling phone conversation with a veteran LCMS Lutheran admitting that she doesn’t necessarily believe that the Bible presents God as solely a “pro-life” God. In fact, she doesn’t really think that the Bible has anything to say about the topic. Hmmm.

Now, my next point may seem a bit tangential at first, but give it a chance. It is an attempt to reflect upon the accusation of politicizing the church. If we LCMS pastors are to assume anything about the people in our care, perhaps we should be assuming that it is more than likely they truly are postmodernists, affected by politics, culture, and generational biases, and as church-goers, may very well be conservative in name only. With regard to identity, especially here in America where we have a strange mixture of culture and patriotism, our listeners call themselves Christians while simultaneously subscribing to the liberalism of “freedom”, “destiny”, and “choice” ideology. I came across and appreciated Stanley Hauerwas’ words about this in his book A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching. Here Hauerwas argues that it is the subjective notion of liberalism to develop “arrangements without memory.”[1] He writes:

“Thus my claim that modernity names the attempt to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they chose when they had no story. This is called “freedom,” and it is assumed such an account of freedom is necessary to sustain an account of morality that cannot acknowledge that we live by gift.”[2]

William H. Willimon speaks similarly in his book Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized:

“(A)ll our talk of “freedom” is but the rattling of the chains binding us to the authoritarianism of a liberal, democratic culture, a culture that, whether it is intended to do so or not, destroys human community by fragmenting us into a herd of isolated units, each detached from tradition, community, history, and one another, all the while telling us that we are free. Ironically, in such condition, detached from sources of true meaning, we have not gained our individuality but have lost it, for true individualism comes only for someone who knows and can name who she is. Of course, the democratic Empire now knows what the monarchs of old did not: detached, rootless, historyless individuals are more easily managed than people in groups, people who have names, stories, histories, and a home.”[3]

Both Hauerwas and Willimon are onto something here. For the sake of this discussion at least, they are making the general point that if you are human, you already have a story and you are bound by it to others around you whether you believe it or not. But they are also inferring that if you are a human living in the current age, it may be likely that, you not only don’t believe this, but you don’t “want” to believe it and you are inclined to work against it. These are our listeners – a huge group of “individuals” sitting in the pews disconnected from one another and perfectly content with devising their own truths and politely giving room for the truths of others, no matter what the collective narrative may actually be, no matter what the objective truth may be.

And so, as a pastor, I guess that the solution for any of this is to be well grounded in the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions in order that catechesis may remain constant and full, and while this catechizing is happening, I need to be more mindful of the cultural undertow while actively urging the catechumens toward the truth that they are actually blessed to be slaves to a narrative that comes from outside rather than from within, the Biblical narrative, the Word of God that shapes them and not the other way around. It’s easy to roll along and assume that they already agree with this, but in reality, unless they tell me otherwise, I should teach according to the assumption that this is less and less likely to be true.


[1]              Stanley Hauerwas, The Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), 148.

[2]              Hauerwas, 148.

[3]              William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 53.


You know what happens when you assume, right? — 24 Comments

  1. An excellent, if painfully true, series of observations, Pr. Thoma.

    I remember one of the first assumptions I had to disabuse myself of, was that not everyone in a parish is particularly interested in being a theologian. I can’t tell you how shocking it was to me, that philosophy and theology were not of significant interest to more than a handful of people nearby… but I think it is always the case, that a person who has a passion for a subject, often finds that a majority of others do not share this passion, at least not to the heights that drove him to become an expert in it. I’m sure my engineering friends have a similar disappointment in my lack of passion for calculus and applied physics.

    But I think you’re spot on with the ongoing catechesis. As we pour out the truth of Holy Scripture over the whole congregation, there will be those drink it in deeply and readily, and others who will range from general interest to full resistance. Such is the burden of the Word entering the darkness of the world. To extend the analogy, there may be many who never aspire to work differential equations, but many may hear and believe enough to avoid dangerously abrogating the laws of physics.

    May the Lord grant you peace and perseverance in His service, and healing from the wounds incurred while carrying your cross.

  2. Great piece. And also don’t assume that your synod leaders – dp, seminary teachers, circuit counselor, etc. believe and confess the same doctrine. This is another face of life in LCMS.

  3. Excellent essay Pastor Thoma. Very interesting observations too. Every congregation is unique unto itself. And while that uniqueness would ideally be distilled down to personality only, the fact is that in every congregation you have unfortunate variations in theology (practice and doctrine). There are many reasons for this, yet it remains an unfortunate reality. Some have been afforded the blessing of a strong catechesis, while others have experienced a miserable/halfhearted attempt at instruction. Dare I say, some have even been intentionally misled. Yet, we all need the same thing: The Pure Word rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered.

    I believe it’s crucial that pastors routinely reference the confessions in order to ensure that the flock is continuously catechized. I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve been an LCMS Lutheran all my life. The instruction I received was tremendous. However, as I went on through life and moved all over the country, the overall concept of continuing catechesis was what I can only categorize as “good,” not great. Looking back, what seemed to be lacking was a routine discussion regarding our confessions (and the confessions of other church bodies such as the ELCA). I believe this ties directly in with your excellent essay. When our confessions are rarely, or never, discussed they are rendered unimportant. When the confessions are rendered unimportant, they become irrelevant to the flock. When we neglect our confessions we neglect our identity as Christians who seek purity of Doctrine and Practice. When we neglect our confessions it’s far too easy to latch on to the ELCA, non-denoms, etc…. I guarantee you that many Lutheran “pewsitters” don’t know the difference between the ELCA and the LCMS.

    I can’t imagine what a pastor must face on a daily basis. I thank all of you who faithfully serve!

  4. It’s easy to roll along and assume that they already agree with this [Bible and BOC], but in reality, unless they tell me otherwise, I should teach according to the assumption that this is less and less likely to be true.

    “I’ll drink [Coke] to that!” and comments 1-3 as well! 🙁

    Unfortunately, I’ve seen “lifetime Lutherans… participants in what passed for Bible study, even… make statements which demonstrated lack of elementary knowledge of the Small Catechism.

    And Pastors do things which were in defiance of the BOC, with no reprimand from anyone further up the line.

    As my higher algebra teacher said, (when we were more dense than usual), “What to do!?”
    [He was an Estonian refugee, and blamed our inability on himself instead of our lack of prior grounding in the subject.]

  5. @Randy #3
    I guarantee you that many Lutheran “pewsitters” don’t know the difference between the ELCA and the LCMS.

    You do, if you’ve been through three or four synods, one step ahead of the merger results, but if you’ve been a 40 year member of a congregation which never discusses the politicization of the Church, no, you probably don’t. (Although even a 40 year member should have been curious about Seminex. You’d think!)

    My ***A relatives, who learned the same catechism I did, should have a clue! Since 2009, if not before. 🙁

  6. Hmmm, one reality is this, people will look for any and all excuses to leave the fellowship, or complain, etc.

    They will seek many excuses, but in the end, it is God’s Word they are troubled by.

    And there is nothing we can do, the Holy Spirit is in charge; we can only love them and cherish them as God’s own, teach them right at all times, and promise we will always be there if and when they come back.

  7. I will throw in my 2¢.

    When friends tell me that they don’t like the church’s position on female pastors or divorce or homosexuality, I tell them that I don’t like it either because in my heart none of those things bother me. The problem is that I am in no way an authority to decide what is right and my heart is sinful and dark not magnanimous and kind. Matthew 15:19. I am a poor miserable sinner. The church’s position on these matters comes from the Word of God which is infallible. Therefore, I defer to the divine authority rather than trust my own judgement. Proverbs 3:5-6.

  8. @helen #5

    You state the truth, Helen. I’ll add this though. While there are many reasons for LCMS Lutherans to neglect the significance of our confessions, there are many, many new members (young and old) who just aren’t even taught that the BoC exists. At least, I have witnessed this personally (in CoWo/CGM congregations). To some degree that’s why if you mention the confessions or BoC to a crowd of Lutheran’s you’ll likely get a fair number looking at you with a tilted head and confused look that resembles the old RCA dog. This ties in to Pastor Thoma’s article. Even in a confessional congregation one shouldn’t assume that all the members have a common understanding due to the simple fact that in our mobile world folks come and go.

    Again, I can’t imagine being a pastor in today’s society………….

  9. Great piece Pastor,
    One thing to keep in mind is that a good slug of your parishioners who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s grew up in liberal parishes. Singing vacuous campfire songs w/ young engaging (liberal) pastors IS “traditional Lutheranism” in their minds, because that’s the church of their youth, and they have never seen or heard anything else. The true historical and Biblical Christianity that you are presenting is, from their limited perspective, “change” rather than a return to grounded historical doctrine and praxis. Repristination is a challenge in an ahistorical culture, and especially one with such a strong “tradition” of liberalism.
    Fight the good fight+,
    -Matt Mills

  10. @Matt Mills #10

    How true that is…

    I never cease to be amazed by what our Boomers often call “traditional.” The reference is almost always to culture and practice, and never to Scripture and the Confessions. Re-calibrating people to what actually is historic, traditional Lutheran doctrine and practice seems more often than not, to require shifting the thought patterns at a most fundamental level– away from subjective feelings and experience (or emotional/sentimental attachment to particularly revered leaders,) and toward objective sources of authority rooted in the Word of God.

  11. Pastor Thoma,

    A question for you concerning the parishioner in your account: isn’t it better for that person to leave the church if they’ve already determined that they reject God’s Word on issues such as these (and these are certainly not peripheral issues, to be sure)? I ask this because, while it is certainly true that there will never be a truly perfect church this side of eternity, there’s an inherent danger in that somebody such as this could subvert the church in other ways (Not saying that this particular parishioner would do this, but I’ve seen churches in the past which have had damage dealt to them because of a member which becomes a conduit for unscriptural things to enter the body of Christ).

    Good post, btw.

  12. To be dismissed and so judged for preaching a clear teaching of the Lord is one of the most hurtful things that can happen to a pastor. A pastor loves his flock and knows salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and that faith in Christ comes only from the hearing the truth of God’s Word (Rom 10:17). It is all so easy when a person feels threatened by the truth to blame the messenger rather than deal with the message. I had a dear pastor once. He served in a church who had a couple of strong lay leaders who at first were his most ardent supporters. But disagreements arose of communion practice with one key leader teaching the flock that real pastors did not practice communion fellowship according to the official LCMS position but welcomed everyone to the table. A topic that should have been able to be resolved theologically. But instead secret meetings and visitation of church members with character assassinations flowed. People were told the pastor was a legalist who didn’t care about people just about cold official doctrines. The lay leader and the chairman of the congregation met with me and my wife for five hours trying to convince us of why the pastor was so bad for our church, how he didn’t have people skills, how he didn’t care about people, how he used communion to beat up people. We were told the pastor was trying to find a way to steal the church’s money (never really understood what that was about) and that his wife was trying to run off the organist so she could get a paid job. They even accused the wife of having mental disorders. They seemed convinced the pastor was in it just for the money. It seemed the crucial issue was when on young woman left the church in anger because her father, an elder in a local baptist church, wanted to commune even though he didn’t believe in the real presence and the pastor had told him he thought it best to refrain. I’m sure it didn’t help when the lay leader acknowledged he has visited with her and told her that the pastor was wrong about communion.

    A vote was held and church members who hadn’t been in church for years, but who happened to be related to the key adversaries of the pastor, showed up in droves. The person who made the motion to fire the pastor called him “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”. You could see the hurt and pain in his eyes. He was fired. His final message to our church. Be reconciled to each other. But I couldn’t. I wish I could, but I can’t pretend to have fellowship with such things. We left and found another faithful home in a nearby town. The pastor left the ministry. Having been fired, I guess he couldn’t find another church that wanted him. He was suspect.

    This pastor is the man who after I had slipped away and not attended for years visited me at home and with compassion and the truth of God’s Word convinced me to return to the Word and the Sacrament. I brought my family with me. My Mom and Dad and my brother and his wife followed us. What was done grieved us, but our pastor reminded us it is not about the sinful people in the congregation it is about the truth of the Gospel. So we found another home where the Gospel flows in truth. When my Dad got cancer, this man called him every week to pray with him and support him. Just before the end he flew in and visited with Dad. This man not only loved people, he loved them enough to give them the truth of God’s Word. What more can be asked of a pastor?

  13. J. Dean, I guess that if I can keep the person connected to an LCMS fellowship that confesses truthfully, that would be better for her in the long run. I know the possibility remains for what you are suggesting, but again, I’d rather keep her connected to the pure preaching of Christ. It doesn’t have to be me, that’s for sure. And it probably won’t be.

  14. Nice post, pr Thoma. It is so easy to think that people in a Lutheran church have to be steadfast Lutherans automatically. We must face realities, and step one is to perceive and understand the status of the real persons, before we take appropriate measures.
    But, as J. Dean wonders, is it the best solution to recommend her to transfer to another LCMS church? What is a confessional Lutheran pastor’s duty when a member refuses to subordinate himself under the Word of God? If you recommend her to transfer to another church, aren’t you saying her that pastors are preaching opinions; and that if she doesn’t like your opinions she ought to find another pastor whose opinions she likes?


    Matt Mills :
    Singing vacuous campfire songs w/ young engaging (liberal) pastors IS “traditional Lutheranism” in their minds, because that’s the church of their youth, and they have never seen or heard anything else.
    -Matt Mills

  16. @Rev. Jakob Fjellander #15
    Sometimes, recommending a member to another LCMS congregation actually works….the member connects better with the other pastor and they are able to better understand/accept what is being taught in the church. It’s like you are told one thing by one person and you don’t like or understand it, but someone else tells you the exact same thing, but in a different way, and the point gets across. I would hope that is what has happened to the woman in this story.

  17. Pastor Thoma, in our church we had a similar occurrence. A prominent member (a Sunday School teacher) listened to a strong sermon by our pastor that plainly explained why abortion is wrong, marriage is between one man and one woman, and that homosexual behavior is sinful. After a couple of days he came to church and told the pastor that he was leaving the church because he just could not accept the LCMS position on these subjects. (I thought these were Biblical positions.) Our pastor did his soul searching on this just as you have done. As one of those congregants sitting in the pews, I expect to hear the gospel from the pulpit, and I dare say the same is true of the vast majority of the pew sitters. Keep preaching gospel, with God’s help, as best you can.

    Every human being filters what they see, hear, smell and feel through their own experiences, and part of the filter of every human being is a sinful nature. Don’t expect more or less from your congregants, nor should they expect more or less of you. Keep preaching the gospel, with God’s help, as best you can.

    Most pastors are called by God to do his work, thanks be to God. But that doesn’t mean it will be easy, and you may find it humbling to see how difficult it is to shepherd a congregation. This is especially true when the the difficulty reminds you of your own humanness. Keep preaching the gospel, prayerfully with God’s help, as best you can.

    There will always be complainers. Some sit in the pews, some stand in the pulpit, and a great many never enter the church. Keep preaching the gospel. It is not you, it is the gospel that solves the problems here. It is the gospel that touches people’s heart with God’s saving grace, that works justification of our sins and frees us from (but doesn’t eliminate) our sinful nature, that inspires the preaching of the gospel to all nations, and that rises above the complainers. Don’t get discouraged – keep preaching.

  18. @Green #19

    To my observation, it often isn’t the preaching of the Gospel that tends to alienate these people (and I’d bet, not the one you reference, either.) Our time is very close to Antinomianism, and as such, many of the churches these days preach a gospel that has no Law– a big, squishy, warm hearted god, who loves ya just the way you are, doggonnit. In such people, who expect God not to challenge them but just to be warm and fuzzy, the preaching of the Law is jarring and unsettling.

    It is the Law that inspires terror in the hearts of men, and either flight or rebellion or despair on the part of the hearer. Of course, the soul that despairs of their situation before the Law is ready for the Gospel to heal and reconcile them to God. But the soul that flees from God to remain in their sin, or the soul that rebels against God to declare their refusal to repent of their sin, cares nothing for the Cross of Christ anyway– to their mind, it doesn’t apply to them. If you remove the Law, they might stick around for the fellowship and the coffee despite the irrelevant gospel, but they are no more Christian than the pagan on the street.

    I actually heard elders in an LCMS church, tell their pastor (who gave a sermon on repentance), “How dare you call US to repent! Who do you think you are?” No joke. They wanted the soft law they thought they could keep, and a cheap cross they thought they could bear. They did not want to face a Law they could not keep, and Jesus’ Cross which they could not bear.

    I think we simply need to be prepared for this. Plant the seeds where the Lord calls us to plant them, and leave the growth (or the death) to the Lord. Doesn’t matter what synodical banner a person flits to, the true Law and Gospel are eternal and inescapable.

  19. @Brad #20
    I think the gentleman I referred to had a very current culture worldview. I guess he only objected to certain parts of the gospel. Pray for him – God knows who he is.

  20. Pastor Thoma, you set a great example by your humility and gentleness in this situation. If it were me, I think my anger at the parishioner would get the best of me.

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