Fewer foregone conclusions, please

Growing up as a pastor's kid, my aversion to congregational meetings was earned honestly. I don't know what it is about people, but time somehow becomes no object when contending for how you want the bathrooms remodeled. And I'm glad that people care about how their congregation is operating, but sometimes that concern translates into some pretty tense moments. I was reminded of my feelings about voters assemblies when reading this horribly imbalanced story about a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran congregation's recent vote regarding a principal who had been accused of teaching contrary to the denomination's position. So the WELS, as you may know, requires congregational voters to be male. Some congregations, I've heard, even limit families to one vote per family. I realize that many people here may find this odd, but I'm pretty sure I've been part of congregations that had only male voters and sometimes I fantasize about my own congregation doing that so that I wouldn't have to go to voters' assemblies ever again! Conservative Lutherans just have a different culture when it comes to the role of men and women. I'd hardly say the WELS women I know (or know of) are shrinking violets, they just believe in a traditional Biblical understanding of men being the head of the household.

Okay, so the story by Channel 3000 (WISC-TV) is just not well done. The story is about a "firing" when in fact, judging from the comments below the story, it was about the "rescinding of a call." It may seem the same to outsiders but terminology matters. Here's the sensationalistic opening:

BARABOO, Wis. -- A church meeting where women weren't allowed to speak is drawing controversy in Baraboo.

Women from St. John's Lutheran Church said they want basic rights and that the lack of those rights is what led to the firing of the school's principal.

The Lutheran school's principal, John Hartwig, was fired on Sunday, mainly because of his beliefs that women should be respected more in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Church, WISC-TV reported.

Apparently the school's principal had distributed articles advocating for . . . something related to women's role in the church. We're not told what, just that it is contrary to the church body's doctrine on the matter. Instead we're told that it all comes down to one side that respects women and the other that doesn't. Come on. I mean, I'm pretty sure that all sides on this issue like to think that their understanding of the proper roles for men and women are the most respectful of women so the line above is just blatant editorializing.

The story quotes two women, one who is a member of the congregation and one who sends her children to the school but is not a member. Their quotes are interesting but they're never balanced. Note this, for instance:

Some St. John's School parents said that lack of respect for women was evident in the meeting that led up to Hartwig's termination.

"(Hartwig) had different opinions than the church, and they basically booted him because of his opinions," said Carla Lentz, a member of St. John's Lutheran Church.

This may blow some people's minds but in confessional church bodies, pastors aren't really allowed to have different opinions than the ones they promise to uphold. The idea is that if they disagree with church doctrine, they should no longer be called pastors who promise to teach and preach that doctrine. But that viewpoint is never presented.

Likewise, we never learn that there were, in fact, two meetings to discuss the issue. The first one lasted for three hours and members and non-members of the voters assembly were allowed to speak, including women. At the second meeting on Sunday, some 300 people showed up and the organizers decided to just let voters -- who, as we've already ascertained, are all men -- speak. Even though only voters were allowed to speak, that meeting still lasted six hours. Yes, six hours.

People may agree, disagree, celebrate or abhor the idea that only men are members of a congregational voters assembly, but these basic facts should be included in a story about the controversy.

The story manages to mention precisely no doctrine about why the WELS practices in this manner. It uses political language and a political frame for viewing. That may be good for firing people up, but not so much for helping people understand. And I sort of feel there's a double standard here in how this traditional community is being written about compared to, say, a traditional Jewish or Muslim community that also teaches that men are responsible for church affairs.

If a local media outlet is going to find a particular voters meeting newsworthy, the least that reporters could do is make sure they understand the culture and doctrine of the group they attack.

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