Benefit of the Doubt

During my first stint in full-time ministry I ran into a problem. Actually, I ran into a “problem person.” I had a volunteer that had an attitude problem. It came to a head one Sunday morning when she cornered my wife and spewed hate at her for no reason.

That next week I talked to my pastor about it. I was lit! I wanted to fire this volunteer, and let her know in no uncertain terms that she were unfit for any position in our church!

My pastor just looked at me. He sat there for a while, motionless and not talking. Uh-oh.

Finally he told me something that would change my life as a leader. “You need to give people the benefit of the doubt,” he told me.

“Yeah, but what about when they really mess up?”

“Give them the benefit of the doubt.”

“But what if they hurt your feelings, or worse – the feelings of those you care about?”

“Chris. This is not a debate. You give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Then he went on, explaining that yes, people will disappoint you. That people are imperfect and imperfect people do imperfect things. “But it’s much better to be surprised by people’s mistakes than be jaded and expect them to make mistakes.”

I took that advice with me. Ten years later, different church, different staff position, but same imperfect people. I took over a ministry area with over 100 volunteers and the first thing I was told was, “This one volunteer leader has got to go.” Apparently this guy – let’s call him Mark – had been disgruntled and upset for a few months. He was starting to let his attitude affect others too, always complaining about the church or the staff or his ministry area. So it was given to me to get rid of him.

Do you know what I did? I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I scheduled a meeting with him and sat down to chat – not about church or ministry or volunteering, but about his life. When we finally got around to his volunteer position, I laid out some options for him. The biggest frustration he had with the church was that he thought he had to stay locked in to this area of ministry. He wanted to do something else, like be a group leader in the student ministry.

I let him know that was more than okay. “Mark, if you want to cut back on your responsibilities, that’s fine. We can find a replacement.” All of sudden it was like a load was lifted. Benefit of the doubt. Repurposing volunteers. They go hand in hand.

Let me just give you some lessons I’ve learned about giving the benefit of the doubt.

First, giving the benefit of the doubt gives you freedom.

Where once you were jaded or cynical, now you are hopeful and expectant. Where once you would lay in bed at night wondering why people won’t do what you want them to do, now you’re free to expect great things from them. Sure you’re going to be disappointed and surprised. But you’ll only get hurt when they hurt you. When you’re jaded, you’re in a constant state of hurt.

Second, giving the benefit of the doubt gives the other person freedom.

When you assume the worst of people, you will get the worst from them. But when you give the benefit of the doubt, you release them to do so much more. My friend Mark would never have realized a passion for a different type of ministry if I had simply fired him, got rid of him, shaming him for his attitude.

Finally, giving the benefit of the doubt uncovers real issues.

When I started thinking about the problem of Mark, I wondered if there wasn’t something else going on. I asked around about him, starting to get a full picture of what was going on. Turns out he had just been laid off, his wife just had a baby – their fifth child – and she was going to have to go back to work. Mark had a lot going on that was causing a lot of frustrations. I would have never known about them – and been given an opportunity to pray for Mark and live life with him – if I just assumed the worst about him.


Giving the benefit of the doubt is loving like God loves. The reason God remains so faithful to us when we are so faithless at times is because he always gives us the benefit of the doubt. And that is why he was so willing to give so much for us – his very son.

When have you assumed the worst rather than giving the benefit of the doubt? Was it helpful? How can you start giving the benefit of the doubt in the future?