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First Thoughts

The Seventh Commandment of Staff Relationships: Thou Shall Assume Good Things about Others

We Will Always Assume the Best of Another’s Actions, Words, and Motivations Until Evidence forces Another Conclusion

A Staff Mess

Conversations can be complicated on ministry staffs. Years ago, a staff member at First Baptist asked for my plan about his boss’s future. That would have been an inelegant question at any point, but in this case, it was positively awkward.

Recently, our leadership team had decided his boss was a great man who was poorly placed. Everyone wanted to keep him on the team but had come to believe he was serving ineffectively where he was. Because he didn’t see it that way, the communication required some delicate and painful conversations. Those conversations were ongoing when his team member asked what I thought about his future.

The question put me on my heels. On the one hand, I did not want to be evasive with a staff member who could be promoted in the coming weeks. On the other hand, it would have been inappropriate to share sensitive information about his boss’s job. I split the difference and responded that I just wasn’t sure.

That response turned an awkward situation into a bad one.

In the following weeks, both men got together and said I was being dishonest. They accused me of lying when I said I wasn’t sure because, in fact, I was sure that he was not the right man for the job. I tried to explain that my response might have been awkward in its own way, but it was definitely not a lie. I was confident the man was not serving well in his current role. I was also confident there was another place for him on our team. But I was unsure about where that other place was. My explanation did not help.

Their distrust ran so deep that each man refused to speak to me without another person present. At their insistence, we engaged a third party of their choice to help bring resolution to the matter. This man heard both sides, talked to all of us together, and shared his judgment that I had been honest and that their accusations were harsh and unfair. I thought his independent judgment would finally bring an end to the matter. It didn’t.

Both men ultimately resigned their positions, refused to follow his counsel, and, to this day, do not speak to me.

How could one awkward conversation lead to such a mess?

Conversations Require Interpretations

The answer to that question comes when you understand that it is impossible to listen to someone without interpreting their words. Every act of conversation is simultaneously an act of interpretation. Those interpretations require some assumptions. Because our knowledge of others is always limited, it is necessary to make assumptions about what the other person wants, what they intend, and even what kind of people they are. Those assumptions are crucial to your interpretation of what someone says.

If you assume a person speaking to you is a good-hearted person who wants what is best for you, it will help you listen with a gracious ear. On the other hand, if you assume the person speaking to you has malicious intentions, you will listen with a critical ear.

This is a crucial principle for members of ministry staffs to understand because we are always communicating and, therefore, always interpreting and always assuming. Bosses never listen dispassionately to their direct reports but always interpret what they hear through assumptions they make. The same is true when people listen to their bosses. Assumptions always shape the way they hear the words of their supervisors.

When we listen, we are always assuming. Those assumptions are either suspicious or charitable. And the Bible declares which ones we are to have.

Love Believes All Things

In the Bible, it is a sin to make suspicious assumptions about the words, actions, and intentions of our fellow staff members. 1 Corinthians 13:7 demands that love “Believes all things.”

The Apostle Paul knows we cannot have exhaustive knowledge of our co-workers and will have to make assumptions. He also knows what love is. He knows the determining factor between charitable assumptions and suspicious ones is love.

He commands that love believes good things about those with whom we serve. We are commanded to think good things about the words, actions, and motivations of others. When forced to make a judgment, we must extend the loving judgment of charity.

Why We Don’t Do This

When we fail to believe the best about others—and we fail a lot—there is a very specific reason for it. We fail because our hearts are selfishly tuned to the polar opposite of love. We are hateful.

It feels good to disbelieve our co-laborers.

We like being suspicious. We feel better thinking judgy things about others than considering how we might humbly grow in love.

We are the ones guilty of sin. Not our coworkers.

The Exception: Evidence

Of course, there is a limit to believing the best. That limit is evidence. When we talk about believing the best, we are talking about assumptions—the things we don’t know. Jesus makes clear that every matter is to be established on the evidence of two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:16). When there is evidence of wrongdoing, then assuming it didn’t happen is silly. But until a matter has been established, the call of Christ is to lovingly believe the best.

In your ministry, as in mine, you must always assume the best of another’s actions, words, and motivations until evidence forces another conclusion.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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