If you want a friend, be a friend, the saying goes. In religion coverage, that might translate to, "If you want attention from faith groups, pay attention to them."
And when you don’t do that, they don't tell you about major local stories -- like the resignation of a prominent pastor after confessing to an affair.
The Washington Post broke the story Sunday night that Pastor Tullian Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, stepped down from the pulpit at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale. The local newspapers, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald, were caught off guard.
Why were they caught off guard? Because they'd lost their religion writers and didn't name successors. (Early disclosure: I was one of those writers, laid off by the Sun Sentinel in 2012.)
The Washington Post's Sarah Pulliam Bailey must have been tipped on the scandal, because she got a lengthy statement from Tchividjian himself:
“I resigned from my position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church today due to ongoing marital issues. As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated. Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself. Last week I was approached by our church leaders and they asked me about my own affair. I admitted to it and it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to resign. Both my wife and I are heartbroken over our actions and we ask you to pray for us and our family that God would give us the grace we need to weather this heart wrenching storm. We are amazingly grateful for the team of men and women who are committed to walking this difficult path with us. Please pray for the healing of deep wounds and we kindly ask that you respect our privacy.”
Bailey, a GetReligion alumna, also got a counter-statement from Kim Tchividjian, his wife, saying Tullian's remarks "reflected my husband’s opinions but not my own." Rob Pacienza, executive pastor of Coral Ridge, produced another statement: "Several days ago, Pastor Tullian admitted to moral failure, acknowledging his actions disqualify him from continuing to serve as senior pastor or preach from the pulpit."
Evidently, neither Kim nor Rob elaborated.
The Post article goes on to narrate the rest of the drama: Tchividjian's sinful past, his redemption and his rise in church circles -- culminating with his ascension to the pastorate of Coral Ridge, founded by conservative Christian leader D. James Kennedy. The Post also retells Tchividjian's conflicts with traditionalists in the congregation, his triumph over their attempt to have him fired, and their exit to form a new church.
A gold star for the Post in noting that Kennedy was a founding board member of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority. Another for pointing out that Kennedy developed Evangelism Explosion, a gospel-sharing method that he considered his greatest achievement.
The article misses in a few places, though. It says Coral Ridge was founded in 1978; the church actually held its first worship service in 1959 and was chartered the following year.
The Post notes a couple of other religious leaders who fell from grace, including Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Mark Driscoll of Seattle. Oddly, though, it misses Pastor Bob Coy, whose own affair cost him the pastorate of Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale last year.
Finally, there's a ghost in the Post: It mentions Tchividjian leaving the Gospel Coalition, a group of Reformed pastors, last year. It blames a "theological dispute" but doesn't say what the dispute was. Perhaps it's just as well, because Christianity Today says the flap was over the core of the Christian faith -- forgiveness versus "sanctification" -- tough to explain to secular readers. But it's usually best not to raise questions that you don't answer.
Still, both the Post and Christianity Today got far ahead of pretty much everyone else. Many media descended on the story -- from Time to People to the New York Daily News to The Advocate -- but most followed the Post's narrative, with little or no original reporting.
Even in South Florida, the Sun Sentinel ran an afternoon story yesterday topped with the Washington Post newsbreak. Then the Sun Sentinel dips into its archives, filling in bio material and events from past coverage. In something akin to desperation, it even adds details like the church's "dramatic, 300-foot steeple."
Not that the paper didn't try for more. A reporter dropped out to the Tchividjian house, where Kim declined an interview, "holding a long-haired Dachshund." A writer and photographer also visited Pacienza, who merely showed off a framed jersey from Troy Aikman and said Tullian likes the team.
The Miami Herald at first ran a mere five-paragraph brief by the Associated Press, which could have been rewritten from the Post piece. But late last night, the Herald posted a more substantial 1,200 words.
It gets reaction from friends of Coral Ridge, one in New York, one in Ohio. It adds details on the split, although it doesn't get feedback from anyone in the breakaway church. And it recalls the Bob Coy scandal, though it surprisingly references the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Post. Surprisingly, because the Herald did its own reporting on Coy's affair.
By now, you probably know why I think the two largest newspapers in South Florida were left to scramble: They had no religion specialists to keep in touch. I was laid off from the Sun Sentinel in late 2012. My colleague and competitor Jaweed Kaleem left the Miami Herald the previous year to become a religion writer at the Huffington Post. Neither of us was replaced.
It takes time to gain the trust of people in a community -- especially people, like evangelical Christians, who feel the mainstream media just want to find fault. I spent years cultivating friendships at Coral Ridge, among leaders and members alike. As one result, when the traditional dissidents fought Tchividjian in 2009, I was able to write a series of articles on the struggle. Leaders of both sides trusted me to get it right.
None of this is meant to make myself a hero or martyr. With more than two-thirds of my life at the religion desk, I had a more than satisfying run. But when newspapers abandon coverage of a particular community, they pay a price. In this case, the price was seeing a newspaper more than a thousand miles away get the jump on a story in their own back yard.