Have they lied? Reflections on memory and processing events.
Updated: Jul 14, 2022
Memory is a funny thing. It turns out we can be totally deceived by our memories. There are moments that this has happened publicly for people and they ended up losing their jobs and being called a liar. If someone doesn't tell the story how we think it happened, or even how we know it happened, they must be a liar right? Well, memory is complicated and it isn't so straight forward.
A fascinating podcast episode called Free Brian Williams by Malcolm Gladwell highlights this phenomenon - click here. In the episode Gladwell sites a study done with hundreds of people recounting their memory of where they were and what they did the day the planes hit the New York Towers on 9/11. The further down the line from the event, including the 10 year anniversary, the discrepancies in their memories became more and more extreme. People relocated themselves to different rooms in their homes, had conversations they didn't have or had on a different day, or even conversations someone else had. They saw people they didn't see or saw on a different day, and many other details, sometimes fairly extreme, had changed. They weren't lying, but their brain had merged memories in a way that told a different story from what had actually happened.
This spurred me to rewatch a church meeting answering questions about my standing down, my memory is different from that of what was shared. If you don't know what I'm talking about you can catch up here and here on the mess I'm currently processing and why it is on a public blog.
Three weeks before our last meeting as elders, I was asked to 'consider my place' on the team. I responded to this question by email - one I still have a copy of (you can see it at the end of this post). Despite asking in the moment three times for clarification, neither elder gave me a reason for the question. Our final meeting happened three weeks later and this is where the memories differ...
The elders' memory:
Almost 6 weeks after the elders meeting and two weeks after the first church meeting where my departure was announced, there was a follow up church meeting to clarify what really happened due to the number of questions in the church. In this meeting it was announced that in the final elders meeting, the paid elder asked me for my answer to the 'considering my place'. It was said that I decided not to answer and instead put it back on him to answer. There was no mention that I'd answered in an email already. He apparently then explained I should stand down, that I was quarrelsome and hindering meetings and decisions. It was also announced that I took responsibility for the times I was forceful and that it was because of the nature of how I was responding that my points were hard to hear. I think the audience got the point, I was to blame, it was right to stand me down, and they made it clear to me, in the moment why they stood me down.
I could see the meeting going nowhere. I was raising issues with the way the paid elder was claiming responsibility over a serious grievance all while he was refusing to read or engage with the report from the investigation. He was admitting to not reading the report despite me (and others) raising concern that it was biased against the employee and had failed to represent and deal with her concerns fairly. The unpaid elder then said 'it is awfully difficult to talk to you Phil when you are attacking us'. This made it clear that I was in a room with two against one and no witnesses and they were already viewing me as hostile. I realised it wasn't a healthy place for me to be at that point in time so I raised the question of what the paid elder's reason for asking me to consider my place in the team was and what his answer was. He wanted me to answer again despite my email, I responded that I'd already answered and I needed to know where this was coming from. He then told me I should stand down and I asked for biblical reasons. His reasons were that I'd undermined the eldership, undermined the apostolic oversight, prioritised my friendship with the grieved party, and that the writing was on the wall for my eldership as I wasn't around much (I'd lowered my capacity in agreement with them to accommodate family responsibilities better, this was then used against me). I then left the meeting, the only meeting I've ever walked out of early. I wasn't told that I was quarrelsome until two weeks later when I met with the unpaid elder. There were no specific examples of how I was quarrelsome and no recognition of the three-way apologies that are recorded in emails (that I still have) from all of us recognising we weren't as gracious or gentle as we'd like to have been. At the very least, we were all equally quarrelsome. I'm the only one that has taken responsibility for playing a part in that.
What do the differences show? One shows the elders are the victims of me being forceful (quarrelsome) and hindering meetings. The seriousness of the grievance is softened so as to make it look like any 'hindering' on my part was a regular occurrence, unjustified and even petty. It says that I take full responsibility for the falling apart of the eldership team because I was the one whose behaviour needed repenting for.
On the other hand, my memory shows that I was painted in a hostile light, my taking responsibility for what I could was used against me to make it look like standing me down was justified. It also shows no biblical process was followed, no follow up regarding the initial 'consider your place on the team' occurred, and I was left with no option other than to resign because the reasons for asking me to stand down were attacks on my integrity and unbiblical.
It is no surprise people are confused as to what went down in our leadership team and that some are deferring to neutrality.
Did they lie? Having listened to the episode by Malcolm Gladwell linked to at the start, I'm not convinced I can go so far as to say the elders lied. That would imply intent and motive, which I can't speak to. Certain facts blurred into half-truths, details that painted me badly were emphasised and key details were left out, especially those that painted the elders in a lesser light. Maybe this wasn't intentional but just an instinct to defend oneself, but the damage done has been incredibly painful. It seemed to become more intentional when I was then treated like a threat, blocked from responding in the church, and only given opportunity to listen to the church meetings I wasn't invited to on Zoom because someone fought my corner.
Have I misremembered? A key aspect of the damage of this is questioning my own reality and memory. I've led with these guys for years, I thought we were close friends. The narrative we taught was that as a church we were family. Family doesn't silence family without good reason right? The level of soul searching when you have nothing specific to work with but apparently you've sinned enough to be stood down from eldership is pretty heavy. I can confidently say the narrative does not line up with my memory, emails, notes from meetings, nor with a phone call I made to Tina after the meeting. It also totally contradicts who I am and my character, something again I've had to question because of this. I am not quarrelsome but I do stand my ground when I see something is wrong, hence these blog posts. Sometimes, not backing down is the right thing to do even if it makes people uncomfortable.
Why don't I just move on? Well, I'm working on it. This is part of it. It will take a while to recover from being pushed out of the community I spent almost half my life in. If it helps others process their hurt, thats great. If it leads to the elders reading it and repenting for their behaviour, even better. If it makes people uncomfortable, I'm open to feedback as long as I'm able to disagree - silence over these events doesn't seem to help anyone. Over time, these blogs will shift towards what healthy church looks like, but I need to process how it has gone wrong first.
To conclude, here is my response that was part of a longer email to my fellow elders the day after I was asked to consider my place in the eldership. You can decide if this sounds like me being quarrelsome and hindering the church.
"...While I'm emailing, I'll respond to part of your question to me... which was about my place in this team. I am fully committed as an elder to the church as they [the church] are the ones that prayed me into this role and I'm committed until they ask me to stop or I hear God calling me to step away. At this point it feels like my fulfilling the role God has called me to has placed me between my own team and a member of the flock who has been burned by a process that hasn't cared well for her. I am trying to fulfil this role in a way that honours you both even in strong disagreement. I do mean it when I say I love and appreciate you guys even if it does not feel like it at the moment, I wouldn't be so openly honest if I didn't. I am doing my best to hear your perspectives and understand them and change/adapt where I agree with you. I am fully committed to resolving this and learning from it and I pray that it will, in time, make our team stronger. All that said, if the question is asked because you are questioning my place in the team then that would require more of a conversation and maybe that should be prioritised next week."