Slow-pitch screamer on the Godbeat

When I was younger and trimmer, I played organized softball. In high school, I joined a co-ed team from the McDonald's where I flipped frozen patties and endured grumpy customers. That league exposed this sheltered Church of Christ kid to cursing, drinking and the full spectrum of human imperfection.

In other words, it prepared me quite nicely for the church league where I suited up after college. My coach, a member of my home congregation, inevitably ended up red-faced as he argued call after call with the umpires. My team did not consume anything stronger than Coca-Cola (at least where anyone could witness it), but our Roman Catholic opponents generally showed up with coolers full of adult beverages.

These memories came flooding back as I read a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story this week. The top of the story by Godbeat pro Tim Townsend:

The Tuesday night scene couldn't have been more American — teams from the local churches, decked in matching T-shirts, faced each other on the softball field as their fellow congregants cheered from the bleachers.

But in the last two weeks, this league of six church softball teams shrank to five when the pastors of three of the churches told one of the member churches that their teams would no longer take the field against that church's team.

The problem was not pine tar or steroids, it was the sexual orientation of the new pastor of St. John United Church of Christ.

"Three congregations said they were uncomfortable playing our team because I am their pastor and I am an out bisexual person," said the Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell, 27, "which is surprising because I don't even play."

Not surprisingly, this is one of those stories that immediately gained national legs. Religion News Service distributed Townsend's piece, while news organizations ranging from The Associated Press to Fox News to the Huffington Post assigned reporters to it.

The Post-Dispatch report — a concise, 500-word daily news story — did a nice job of allowing the various parties in the dispute to explain their positions in their own words:

Bethel Baptist Church in nearby Lonedell is among the churches whose pastors didn't want to compete against the team from Darnell's church.

"We believe that God's word speaks clearly about boundaries, and that lifestyle is outside of those boundaries," the Rev. Ben Kingston, Bethel Baptist pastor, said Tuesday evening from behind the backstop.

Really, such balance in a news story is basic journalism. But regular readers of GetReligion know how often that mainstream media reports fail to reach that standard, particularly on this specific subject matter.

In one case, the St. Louis newspaper did allow Darnell to make a claim without seeking a response:

Darnell said he had also felt some tension in the local ministerial alliance, a collection of pastors, but that the members there had decided to allow him to remain despite his sexual orientation.

"They decided they would benefit from an alternate viewpoint," he said.

In the local newspaper, the St. Clair Missourian, the alliance president took issue with that characterization.

If I can be nitpicky (and I guess I can since that's what we do here at GetReligion), I wish the Post-Dispatch story had tackled a few additional questions, including:

— The United Church of Christ left after three teams in the six-team league raised objections. I wish the story had included the names of the other two churches in the league (those that presumably did not seek the other church's ouster) and their reactions to the controversy.

— I wish the writer had included more background on the theological beliefs concerning homosexuality of the churches involved. I'm assuming the three Baptist churches mentioned are Southern Baptist, but the story does not specify that.

— I would have welcomed more detail on what the pastor means by "bisexual." Is he a practicing bisexual? Does he believe in a monogamous, committed relationship with one other person — male or female?

— Perhaps most importantly, I wish the piece had included more depth on the softball league itself and its mission. Are there any alcoholics, porn addicts or divorced people in the league? What sins are players not allowed to commit if they wish to remain in this league? If I recall correctly, the Bible says that Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. Why do the concerned pastors believe he would not play softball with a bisexual pastor?

The only other story that I wanted to highlight on this subject was the AP report. This line in the AP report stood out to me:

Darnell said he has reached out to Church of Christ congregations and other sympathetic churches in the area about forming their own softball league, or at least playing in a tournament.

Um, as a lifelong member of the Church of Christ, I can assure the AP that the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ are not the same. In general, their views on homosexuality would be strikingly different. That's a pretty major error for a national wire story.

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