Revisiting that nasty Sunday-school fight

boxing glove velcro 1 colourAfter looking back over the comments from last week's post on the disastrous news articles on the firing of a longtime Sunday School teacher in upstate New York, I feel it's necessary to make a couple of points very clear. It is possible for the media to do an adequate job covering religion and sometimes they even excel at it. And, yes, it is also necessary for the media to cover religion.

The whole situation is quite sordid thanks to the confusing nature of church politics, but it's clear that both the Associated Press and Dan Harris of ABC News fumbled the coverage. But that does not mean that everyone failed or that reporters should not cover the story.

Thanks to a link provided by GetReligion reader Jeff, check out the local news coverage in the Watertown Daily Times of the church's controversies. Staff writer Drew Mangione does a very thorough job covering the developments in the church that led to Sunday school teacher Mary Lambert being dismissed:

The Rev. Timothy R. LaBouf was named pastor almost two years ago, and in his tenure, attendance at the Sunday service has gone from fewer than 40 to more than 150. He estimated that weekly giving has gone from about $900 under the interim pastor who preceded him to about $2,500 now.

"First Baptist was on a continual decline until two years ago, when we began to see growth," the pastor said. "It's all about relevancy. That's what the American Baptist (Churches) wants for its churches -- to be relevant in the 21st century."

However, some longtime members are upset their pastor is leading them away from their doctrinally moderate tradition and toward fundamentalist beliefs.

"I can't even begin to express the frustration of the established members of the church, the people who have been here for a long time and who hired him as the pastor," said Mary F. Lambert, a past church moderator, who chaired the pulpit committee that chose the Rev. Mr. LaBouf.

She and about a dozen other members have compiled a list of grievances, alleging that church items are missing and that their pastor doesn't follow church procedures. At the core of their displeasure, however, is his conservative approach to Christianity. Mrs. Lambert has hired Watertown attorney Eric T. Swartz to explore their options, which could include an attempt to oust the minister.

Things are not as simple as Lambert being upset at LaBouf for being a conservative preacher. It runs much deeper than that. And it's darn confusing.

At one point of the article, Lambert is upset over the resignation of the moderator of the church's deacon board, Robert Fleming. Apparently Fleming owns an adult video store and promised that if anyone hesitated to join the church because of this, he would step down. He stepped down, but Lambert and her supporters believe it was over a disagreement with LaBouf. What does Fleming say? He supports the pastor:

However, the businessman said he regularly attends services, tithes and continues to support the pastor, who accepted him into the church on the premise that Jesus's message is for sinners, not saints.

Mr. Fleming said that Mrs. Lambert's efforts can only hurt the church and that he believes the dissenters are upset because they have been marginalized by the growing congregation.

"They're not happy because they can't keep control of the church," Mr. Fleming said. "They want 100 percent control and for the pastor to say what they say, when Tim follows the Bible."

This is only one angle in the story, but one worth highlighting because it draws out the tangled web of tales, he-said, she-saids and allegations that a reporter must be willing to uncover.

There may, in fact, be an overarching conservative vs. liberal theme to the story. However, as you dig into the weeds that whole paradigm starts falling apart and what you have is a wonderful opportunity to explore the inner workings of a changing community.

As Mangione demonstrated, it is possible to do that. It's complicated, but it's possible.

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