That Baptist shoe drops in Palm Beach

pod1The other shoe has dropped in West Palm Beach. As I noted the other day, the leaders of the First Baptist Church of Palm Beach elected to try to stonewall reporter Jane Musgrave of the Palm Beach Post. Why? She was checking into rumors, reports and documents that suggested that the Rev. Steven Flockhart -- the congregation's new minister and a nationally known pulpit star -- had some financial skeletons in his closet. That led to a lengthy report that, to my amazement, did a good job of quoting the young minister's many admirers, as well as his critics.

However, I also predicted that this lock-it-down approach to media relations would backfire.

So what does the congregation get from this procedure? You just know that the newspaper now believes there are holes in this minister's background -- educational, personal, whatever -- and will dig with renewed vigor. The newspaper may find something. It may not. This is standard procedure in this situation and this kind of hide-the-source shell game only makes journalists more suspicious.

Thus, Musgrave went back to the well and there was plenty to write about. As it turns out, Flockhart -- whose evangelism website has now gone offline -- seems to have done preliminary studies at the Pat Robertson School of Resume Writing. Actually, that may not be fair. The resume (the Post put in online as a PDF) is tiny and vague, as opposed to packed and padded.

Thus, the news from Palm Beach County is that Flockhart has resigned. There is no need to review all of the details in the newspaper's lengthy second investigative piece that focused on Flockhart's educational background. The bottom line is that the evangelist's degrees came from the online Covington Seminary, a school that does not have much going for it on formal accreditation.

"This is one of those schools I wouldn't recommend anyone go to," said Rick Walston, author of Walston's Guide to Christian Distance Learning: Earning Degrees Non-Traditionally.

Covington's Web site says it is accredited by Accrediting Commission International. Once known as the International Accrediting Commission, it changed its name and moved to Beebee, Ark., after it was charged with fraud and barred from doing business in Missouri, according to an article by John Bear, who has collaborated with Walston and has served as an expert witness on diploma mills and fake degrees.

The school's downfall proved to be a sting operation in which it accredited a school set up by a Missouri assistant attorney general. To make his fake school as outrageous as possible, the state lawyer listed the Three Stooges and other TV characters as faculty members. The school motto, when translated from Latin, was: "Education is only for the birds."

2005best 01So what happens now? This is certainly a tragic story for Flockhart and his family, although it seems that he has powerful friends who may be able to help him earn a real seminary degree and then return to the pulpit in one of the thousands of independent or almost independent Baptist churches in America.

But what happens now at the newspaper? Do not be surprised if Musgrave and her editors are already digging again, looking for more information about people with ties to Covington Seminary.

Why? There is a hint in the story, a hint about Flockhart's powerful mentor -- the Rev. Johnny M. Hunt, a leader on the Southern Baptist Convention's right flank. The Post notes that Hunt recently withdrew from the race to be the next president of America's largest non-Catholic flock.

That leads to this section of the story:

Flockhart said he was "licensed to preach" in 1986 by Rev. Hunt and ordained by Hunt in 1990. Hunt appeared via videotape at Flockhart's first service at First Baptist last month and gave a ringing endorsement of his protege. Like Flockhart, he also lists a degree from Covington on his resume. It says he holds an honorary doctorate from the school.

An honorary degree means little or nothing. But stay tuned anyway, because this story may not be over yet.

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