Liberal viewers of Monday’s episode of The View (scroll for video) may have been surprised to hear the story of Rev. Rob Lee, a young white, minister who was recently pushed out of his pulpit for speaking out against racism. I wasn’t.
If you don’t know the backstory, Lee is an indirect descendant of Robert E. Lee. He has been an outspoken advocate for racial justice, but a recent appearance on MTV’s Video Music Awards in which he introduced Susan Bro, the mother of murdered anti-racism activist Heather Heyer, and endorsed Black Lives Matter, was too much for his congregation. Over the Labor Day weekend, Lee released a statement through the Auburn Seminary website, announcing his departure and affirming his love for the congregation, even as he claimed the church’s reaction was “deeply hurtful” to him.
It might also come as a surprise that Lee pastored a United Church of Christ congregation, a denomination with a reputation for being a bastion of liberalism. Yet, not only does the UCC have a sizable proportion of conservative members and congregations (particularly once you get away from the coasts and the major metropolitan areas), but our decentralized polity leaves congregations in control of whether or not they want to continue a pastor’s employment—and why.
There’s no bishop to impose doctrine—or to protect a pastor who’s cheesed off her congregation. A UCC pastors’ tenure is only as strong as the relationships he or she has been able to foster with the people in the pews. That means in turn that a minister’s ability to speak prophetically suffers the same limitation. Paradoxically, this is exactly the mechanism that has allowed liberalism and diversity to flourish in the UCC. Pastors can take things as far as their congregation will allow them, and no more.
Which brings us back around to why I wasn’t exactly surprised to hear that Rev. Lee had been canned. Sunny Hostin of The View asked Lee about a sermon he gave after the recent attack on Charlottesville by white supremacists. Quoting from the sermon, she read:
If you are silent at a moment like this, if you do not condemn the racism through what channels and avenues you have, you can leave church now, because you’re doing church wrong.
“Are you saying that those who want to keep politics out of the pulpit are doing church wrong?” Hostin asked.
“I’d say the pulpit is inherently political,” Lee responded, pointing to the example of the black church.
This sounds like music to the ears of many liberals, but I’m surely not the only pastor to wince at the exchange. One of the cardinal rules of working in a church is that you never, ever—ever—tell them they’re doing their faith wrong, even if they clearly are, unless you have your bags packed and the car warmed up. There is nothing so fatal to the bonds between shepherd and flock as questioning their faith. The only way it can be received is as an unfair accusation, particularly in a system where congregations are given the freedom to discern the path for themselves.
It makes no difference that the pastor or anyone else thinks they’re going down the wrong road. Congregations get to choose their direction, they get to define themselves. The bolder the confrontation over a matter like this, the stronger the resistance. This is terribly unsatisfying for those who would like to nudge the body of Christ in a certain direction, but it is the reality of working respectfully in community.
So I’m not in favor of demanding Christians take particular social stances as a mode of pastoral ministry. To be very clear, it’s the “demanding” part that’s problematic here, not the idea that the Christian faith entails certain views on social equality. It does. And America very much needs leaders who can articulate the urgent faith claims that would lead adherents to reject racism and other forms of bigotry and social supremacy.
But that role, much needed as it is, also lies in tension with the role of a pastor, who is called not only to preach, but also to teach and to minister diligently, without favoritism. No pastor worth her salt has avoided the struggle of having to minister to people whose politics or beliefs about social equality she finds wrong-headed, if not downright repugnant. But that’s the call—modeled after Jesus himself—to be the pastor for all the people in the pew, not just the ones you agree with.
In his interview on The View, Lee said two things very much at odds with one another: that the pulpit is inherently political, and that Christians ought to be respectful of others. But if we take the former statement seriously, it means that to oppose politics in the pulpit is itself a political stance. And if we take the latter at face value, it requires those who preach the word of God to take seriously viewpoints which may be 100% opposed to their own, or at the very least, the people who hold those views.
My point here is not that Lee ought not have spoken out against racism, or asked others to do the same. It’s just that if you take a political position in the pulpit, then you shouldn’t be surprised when the people you’re preaching to take their own. Namely: We don’t want to hear what you’re saying. If this were an election then Lee lost, and, well, that’s politics, fairly or unfairly.
Again, I don’t think it’s out of line for religious leaders to stake social positions—to even do so aggressively. I have in the past, and continue to do so, on race, sexual equality, and reproductive rights. But the trick is to do it in a way that leaves followers feeling like they’re being summoned to their better angels, not being faulted for what someone perceives as their worse devils. That’s not coddling racists. It’s a pragmatic recognition that leaders who want to create social change need something other than Speaking The Truth Boldly in their toolbox if they want to be successful. For better or worse, pastoral ministry is about creating change through the power of relationships. It is a very long game, and one that can be lost with one wrong step.
Full disclosure: I did reach out to Rev. Lee over Labor Day weekend to offer professional support, but have not spoken to him after an initial exchange of emails. Nothing here should be taken as criticism of him personally.
Update 9/18/17: This story gets weirder. Over the weekend, the Southern Conference of the UCC released a statement on behalf of Lee’s former church.
With no members of the governing council tuned into the VMAs, the leaders of Bethany only became aware of any conflict when Pastor Lee emailed his resignation to governing council chair Jerry Clodfelter a few days after the program aired.
“I was headed out of town when I received Pastor Lee’s email,” said Clodfelter, “so I respectfully declined his resignation and asked him if we could discuss his desire to resign when I returned. No one at Bethany was aware any problem existed, and we were unprepared for the media attention. To the knowledge of the governing council, no one at Bethany had an issue with Pastor Lee’s statements on television.”
Lee disputes this, saying on Twitter that
If they reactivate their online presence it will become quite clear the pressure I was receiving in regards to my appearance on the VMA’s,
an apparent reference to the church Facebook page, which was recently taken down.
So, uh, I don’t know? The congregation could be telling the truth, or Lee could be, or it could be somewhere in the messy middle. This, too, is very UCC. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever get more information about what sparked Lee’s departure unless one of the parties has receipts, as they say.
In the meantime, Rev. Lee has acquired a bunch of speaking invitations and at least one radio appearance. I do not know and will not judge the circumstances of his departure from the church, but the situation does leave me wondering about who’s been helping him get all this media time. Could it be that they’ve been a little too quick to jump on this narrative?