In many ways, a Washington Post story this week titled "We let a wolf in" has the kind of remarkable layers and depth that you'd expect from a 4,300-word piece in that prominent newspaper's Sunday magazine.
It's a fascinating yet extremely sad portrait of a small Virginia church and the train wreck that occurs when the relationship deteriorates between the congregation's two elders and its new minister.
Oh, there's one twist in particular that makes this real-life drama a prime candidate to be made into a TV movie-of-the-week.
I'll let the Post subhead explain:
He seemed like the perfect preacher -- until his flock discovered his murder conviction.
Regular GetReligion readers know that I am a born-and-bred Church of Christ adherent. From the outset, I should make clear that this story concerns a Church of Christ, albeit -- as it turns out -- not one associated with my particular fellowship. But it took digging of my own to determine that. The story did not reveal that information, which is my major criticism of this piece: the vague way it handles key religion details. Ghosts, anyone?
The story's opening:
HARRISONBURG, Va. -- The Harrisonburg Church of Christ is an unlikely setting for a bedtime horror story, the kind of Southern Gothic tale involving murder and mendacity and money and, by many accounts, the handiwork of Satan himself.
Nestled in a small town in the scenic Shenandoah Valley, the church situated on seven acres is a homey, one-story red-brick affair with a white steeple. There's a grassy yard perfect for hosting dinner on the grounds, a fellowship hall and a gravel parking lot. The people of the nondenominational church are few and mostly conservative and elderly.
In the fall of 2008, this modest assembly needed a new minister. Its governing elders -- Robert Thomas, a retired lieutenant from the Virginia Department of Corrections, and Gary Rexrode, a retired builder -- were delighted to find that a man such as William M. Drumheller III was eager to take the job at $600 a week with free housing in the parsonage.
The reference to "nondenominational church" in the second graf caught my attention. That's exactly how most members of my fellowship -- a cappella Churches of Christ -- and this church's fellowship -- independent, or instrumental, Christian Churches and Churches of Christ -- would describe themselves. As The Associated Press Stylebook puts it:
The churches do not regard themselves as a denomination. Rather, they stress a nondenominational effort to preach what they consider basic Bible teachings.
Certainly, these churches -- a cappella or instrumental -- do not have any kind of central denominational headquarters. Each congregation is independent and autonomously governed. Yet according to the most recent stats from the National Council of Churches, non-instrumental Churches of Christ rank as the 16th largest Christian group in America with 1.6 million members. The instrumental Christian Churches and Churches of Christ rank 25th with 1.1 million members. That's 2.7 million total members of these two groups that share common roots in the "Restoration" or "Stone-Campbell" movement.
The churches in each fellowship cooperate to support endeavors such as Christian universities and summer youth camps. The church in the Post story, for example, is listed among the supporting congregations of the Tri-State Christian Service Camp (with Drumheller given as the contact).
Is that kind of context needed in a story like this, or is it sufficient for a 4,300-word report to describe this church simply as "nondenominational" and not tie it to a larger body of believers? The Tea Party has no central headquarters, but would the Post write a 4,300-word story about a politician aligned with that movement and not reference that association?
Ironically, the instrumental music issue -- a key factor in the 1906 split that resulted in the separate fellowships referenced earlier -- makes an appearance in the Post story:
There was the fraud conviction and the alleged extramarital affairs. Drumheller's resume stated that he had left Bumpass's church in Chicago over a theological dispute about playing instruments during worship services. When told that the minister -- the man who'd helped him get out of prison -- said it was over an adulterous affair, Drumheller responded. "That's his story." When later told that Jim Karas, the woman's husband, also had said it was over the affair, Drumheller declined to comment.
Now, amid all the crime and sex, the little matter over whether a piano should be a part of worship assemblies gets lost in the Post story. The writer fails to explain whether Drumheller supported the use of instruments in worship or opposed them. An inconsequential detail? The 2.7 million church members mentioned earlier probably wouldn't mind knowing. In fact, a few other readers might be just as interested in that detail as the fact elder Thomas was drinking coffee, eating banana-nut muffins and drumming his fingers on a wooden table the day that the reporter interviewed him.
The church in Chicago referenced in that same paragraph is kept equally vague in the story. One would assume that it's a Church of Christ -- an a cappella one, given that Drumheller cited that theological dispute in going to an instrumental church. But the story never provides any concrete information on the Chicago church, not even a name. (The story does make reference to Drumheller's "fundamentalist Methodist" upbringing.)
Similar vague treatment is given to the theological issue that started the dispute between the Virginia church's elders and Drumheller. The elders hired a private investigator and discovered the murder conviction only after this occurred:
Then, early this summer, after a series of angry confrontations with the elders, sparked by scriptural interpretations about what becomes of the soul after death, Drumheller noticed that Robert Thomas and Rexrode had added their names to the list of trustees without a vote by the congregation. Drumheller notified the local court, secretly called a meeting of a few trusted church members and orchestrated a coup, stripping both elders of their positions. Drumheller and the new board moved the church's $30,000 of savings into new bank accounts. In a later interview, he referred to the elders as a "dictatorship" and accused them of having "coronated" Rexrode's wife, Gilda, as church treasurer.
Thomas and Rexrode were so stunned that they hired a private detective to check into Drumheller's business dealings.
The investigation unearthed a stunning revelation, which soon made headlines in the Daily News-Record, the local newspaper:
Drumheller -- never mind his seemingly genteel nature -- had beaten his girlfriend's 14-month-old son to death in 1970.
The disagreement over what happens to the soul after death was heated enough to flare tempers in an extreme way. Yet the Post never provides any kind of explanation of the theological positions involved in this disagreement. Drama matters, but apparently not doctrine.
The story does mention that Drumheller received his M.Div. from a diploma mill:
The resume also listed that Drumheller had received his master's in divinity degree from "Rochville University" in "Rockville, Maryland." Drumheller, in an interview, said he thought it was a legitimate online institution. But Rochville -- with no campus in Rockville or anywhere else -- is widely regarded as a diploma mill and is not accredited by the U.S. Education Department.
Certainly, the independent Christian Churches have their own associated institutions that train ministers, such as Cincinnati Christian University. Did the fact that this new minister claimed a degree from a university not tied to that fellowship -- and probably not familiar to these elders -- not raise any kind of red flags?
Your turn, GR readers: By all means, read the story. Despite my criticisms, it's a compelling, meaty piece of journalism. After you read it, tell me: Are the kind of details I'm seeking relevant? Or am I asking for too much?
Just what do you make of this cautionary tale?