When Confirmation Bias Leads Us Astray

When Confirmation Bias Leads Us Astray

I'm going to hang myself out there a little with what may prove an unpopular point of view regarding a story that hit this week about a young, courageous and thoughtful pastor who had a valuable moment in the spotlight. It's possible we can stand with him and not condemn his now former congregation. 

I've been chewing a good bit on the news story about the resignation of Pastor Robert Lee from his church, particularly as it was covered by the AP, Washington Post, and Raw Story as they showed up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I'm a pastor. A white one. I spent more than a few Saturday mornings at Rainbow/PUSH meetings in Chicago as a seminarian, marched for voters rights in Winston-Salem and have stood in Raleigh, on occasion, with Rev. Dr. William Barber, founder of the Moral Monday movement. Too frequently I participate unreflectively in economic and social systems that are tainted by racist structures. I am not pure. I've also been a young, first-call pastor in a small, stuck congregation of about 80 people with about half that ever present on any given Sunday. I am proud of Robert Lee, a young pastor and descendant of Robert E. Lee who took a courageous stance. Beyond his public stand for justice on MTV's Music Video Awards, we know little of this story about his relationship with his congregation other than what he shared in his statement on a seminary website. Having been a justice seeking, young, just-out-of-seminary, inexperienced pastor once, I have questions and some thoughts.

I looked at Pastor Lee's now former church's website and read a newspaper story from when he was called there earlier this summer. Bethany United Church of Christ is a small congregation in Midway, North Carolina, west of Winston-Salem. It's very small and appears to be "up there" in average age. Lots of talk about how it needs new life, a turnaround. There are a lot of mainline Protestant congregations like this one; at least 90 percent of them, really. Many churches decline and stay stuck partly because they cease to be relevant to new generations, dislike change, cling to traditions as a matter of style preference, and often because they get dysfunctional as a group. It's also true that they are often poorly led by us pastors. Earlier this year a fresh-out-of-seminary young man was recommended by their denomination to Bethany United Church of Christ, a small congregation in Midway, North Carolina, west of Winston-Salem. It's hard to get experienced pastors for these small, declining churches. In a context where relationship building in the congregation and hard, focused work in the community would be essential, this little church was given someone with great promise, and also with varied interests - writing, teaching at Appalachian State (according to one of his social media accounts) - and a new wife gainfully employed in Boone, from where he'd be commuting an hour and a half each way. I can tell you that in the best of circumstances that this isn't a great recipe for success for a new pastor in a new congregation.

We don't have insight into what happened recently. We would hope that his courage and the media exposure for his good, faithful stance would be applauded by his small flock. In a public statement about his resignation from the church, Pastor Lee wrote of a "faction" in the church who took some kind of exception to his words of support for those who protested white supremacy and extremism in Charlottesville. The nature of it is vague. It appears this faction was calling for a vote on his continued tenure. It's harder to tell if the congregation had agreed to actually hold the vote. They might have. Again, hard to discern. Some things to think about:

1. Bethany UCC could be a church of messed up people who eat clergy for dinner. We don't know.

2. It could be a church of mostly seniors who were struggling to wrap their brains around what their new, young preacher was doing and saying, and they acted impulsively, maybe even poorly, but perhaps not as horribly as is being portrayed based on inferences from Pastor Lee's statement.. We don't know (from here on out WDK).

3. It could be that his first 5 months at his new place, with commute, additional outside interests, new marriage, etc., have not gone swimmingly. WDK.

4. His public statement starts with his desire to recount all that "has happened to me." That raises a flag for me. He went to college. Went to divinity school. Sought a position as a pastor. He stepped out boldly. Wonderful choices, but nothing of it "happened" to him. No one ever promised that being a principled, justice seeking, bold pastor would be easy. Ask William Barber. But it doesn't "happen" to us as if we are victims.

5. If a "faction" of my congregation started talk about voting on my remaining - within their right, by the way - I would take stock. Do they have a point? Are they all wet? Do I feel like I should stand and fight? Should I meet with them and try to calm things down and seek reconciliation and forgiveness? Should I decide it's not a good match after all and move on? I've been in those situations over a 20+ year journey as a pastor. Once, I chose to stay and fight. Another time, I chose to leave. As a young man, would I have said the church's – or faction's – actions were "hurtful to me" as this young pastor stated? Yep. Would I have confused the faction with the totality of the church? Possibly. As an older guy, I would feel the hurt, feel the sting, but wouldn’t publicly state that "they" hurt "me." I'd be pretty quiet and spend time reflecting on my feelings, their source, and my own responsibility for feeling hurt, or not.

6. The denomination who facilitated his call to this church - the United Church of Christ - is not racist as a denomination. Typically, they're a leader in seeking justice for others regarding issues of race, gender, sexuality, you name it. That doesn't mean a local congregation couldn't be off the beam, nor that the UCC gets it right at every time and every case. Mainline Protestant denominations aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire these days. They suffer from their own leadership crises. I wonder if the regional denominational leaders jumped in and tried to counsel the pastor or the congregation. WDK.

7. Finally, if you've read this far, unless I've missed it, the congregation itself has said nothing. Everything is through the public statement of a courageous, seemingly gifted, young, hurt pastor. The little congregation's voice is missing. Whenever someone's voice is missing, I'm prone to want to figure out a way to include it. Now, across the country, and including in my Facebook feed, they're being painted as racist. Are the people of Bethany UCC in the budding metropolis of Midway racist? WDK.

8. He wasn't voted out. He wasn’t “forced out” (as the Raw Story headline claimed). He wasn't fired. He resigned. (No value judgment there. Just a fact).

The larger picture isn’t appealing to me. Those who I believe would self-identify as liberal, progressive, and seekers of justice, seem to have jumped on the bandwagon of condemnation of a small congregation of probably mostly very good people. The condemnation stems from confirmation bias intersecting with very lax, inaccurate reporting from even auspicious news organizations like the Associated Press and the Washington Post – in other words, what some would call “fake news”. And as commendable was Pastor Lee’s courageous public stance, less commendable was his choice to make a defensive public statement using his growing public platform and fame. It's somewhat Goliath-esque compared to his more little-David-like former flock. His statement left much to interpretation or misinterpretation, a forgivable misstep for a young pastor who must be experiencing an overwhelming jumble of emotions these days. I wish he'd been better advised. 

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