NYTimes story blurs issues in minister's employment problems

Many a reporter has started one kind of story that turns into another.  You can either break it into two or more stories -- or, as the New York Times recently did, stitch them together.

That’s my guess for why a Times article begins as a piece on problems of a young minister, then blurs it with several paragraphs on problems of young ministers in general -- then makes it about problems of a young, black female minister.

The main character is a Brooklyn minister who is doggedly pursuing her calling, despite money and employment issues. She served as an unpaid associate pastor and worked as a hospital chaplain, and she still couldn't make it work. Why she couldn't is the muddled matter.

To read the Times, Atchison is a commanding, evocative presence, blending vocal skills, body language and inspirational sermons:

The Rev. Dominique C. Atchison stood at the lectern in the church fellowship hall, her voice soaring, her body swaying. There were joyful and troubled hearts in the seats before her.
She sang to soothe their spirits. She preached to inspire their faith.
“Beautiful! Beautiful!” the congregants called to her at the Wednesday afternoon service at Brown Memorial Baptist Church in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn. “Amen!”

The story then reveals that the hospital had laid her off, and she was wondering what to do next. “I’m trusting that there’s some meaning or purpose to all of this,” she tells the Times. “I don’t think I can let myself worry. I think it would overwhelm me.”

Finally the diagnosis starts, about 10 paragraphs down:

But these days, as she continues along her journey of faith, her steps are less certain. Profound social and economic changes are upending the working lives of many young ministers who feel called to a full-time religious life.
Declining attendance has forced some churches to close or shift to part-time pastors, and the economic turbulence of recent years has made some older ministers reluctant to retire, leaving fewer vacancies for young clergy members to fill, said Daniel O. Aleshire, the executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, which is based in Pittsburgh and represents 233 seminaries and religious schools in the United States.
The shifts have led to enormous variation in opportunity, he said: Roman Catholic priests have little difficulty finding parishes, while Presbyterian and United Church of Christ ministers may struggle to find full-time, paid positions.

OK, it's an attempt at context, but it lacks numbers. How acute is the shortage? How many clergy are between jobs? What percentage of them are younger? Also, how to define as "younger"? Atchison herself is 34.

Then come four paragraphs of muddying, starting with "African-American women, like Ms. Atchison, often have it harder still, particularly if they aspire to leadership roles in more conservative congregations."

"I don’t like black lady preachers," the Times has her father telling her (apparently without asking him about it). It says congregants "stumble" over whether to use her clerical title. And it says she knows they have a problem with "her gender, her dreadlocks and her two tattoos" (apparently without asking any of them about it).

So, um, what's this story mainly about? Racism? Sexism? The generation gap? The decline of American churches? All of it? Or is this just a slice of life in religious Americana?

And how different is Atchison's plight from that of non-clergy? One Times reader brought up that issue: "Substitute musician, actor, sculptor, writer, dancer for this woman's occupation. Lots of us with 'callings' have money problems."

The story might have addressed, or perhaps avoided, some of these questions if it had included other ministers. Ironically, they did show up -- among the readers' two dozen comments.  

Several of them came from ministers themselves, telling of their financial stresses in following God and how congregations think they don’t rate decent pay. Two complained about what they see as the cumbersome, politics-driven machinery of employee compensation. And more than one said he/she had to leave the ministry in order to make a living wage.

"In the ministry, it is never really a part-time job," wrote one. "It's just the pay that is part-time."

Just think. If more people like them had been in the story, it would have been at once broader and more focused.

If the article is mainly about Atchison, though, one reader may have given her a solution: a link to apply for an army chaplaincy. "Surely with so women in our armed services these days, there's a special calling for women chaplains," the reader says.

Please respect our Commenting Policy