The New York Times today has a piece headlined "Minister Admits Overstating Her Credentials," an update of sorts to the previous week's fluffy profile of a mainline pastor ("After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission") that began:
Nine days before Easter in 2012, the Rev. Teresa MacBain sent a letter to the congregants she had pastored for three years at a Methodist church in Tallahassee, Fla. For much of that time, she had preached the Gospel every Sunday, only to slip each Monday into tormented doubt.
Now, 18 months into a new life, Ms. MacBain is bringing much of her old one to the task of building congregations of nonbelievers. She has been hired as the director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard with the mandate to travel the country helping atomized groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers replicate the communal structure and support that organized religion provides to its faithful.
This line of work draws directly on Ms. MacBain’s experience of seeing her father create and build congregations throughout the small-town South and of her own track record of ministering in churches, prisons, nursing homes and drug-rehab centers. Were she not helping to develop communities of nonbelievers, she would be called, in Christian parlance, a church-planter.
Gushy. So anyway, turns out the Harvard project won't be going ahead with Ms. McBain:
A Methodist minister who resigned her pulpit last year after deciding that she was no longer a believer, and who was recently hired by a humanist group based at Harvard to help build congregations of nonbelievers throughout the country, has acknowledged fabricating aspects of her educational background.
The former minister, Teresa MacBain, whose crisis of faith was described in the On Religion column last Saturday, claimed she had earned a master of divinity degree from Duke University.
I think there are two items of journalistic interest in this news.
There's the old editor's adage about how if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. There's a reason that we're encouraged to be skeptical about -- everything. But I don't think that means reporters should be expected to call universities to verify degrees received. I would be particularly unlikely to check the veracity of obtaining a degree if the person had been hired at Harvard.
Although, it seems, Harvard was not doing its due diligence:
“Clearly we should have verified Teresa’s M.Div. degree rather than relying upon her résumé and the frequent, public references to it as she worked for and with several Freethought organizations.”
This makes me wonder about the issue more abstractly. If journalism is about improving well-being via the communication of truth, do we have an obligation to check ever claimed degree -- and every other similar fact? Or should we be able to expect a certain level of truth from sources in a civil society. What do you think?
And then there is a second journalism issue here. This story has been reported in a one-sided manner for a long time.
Bobby pointed out last year that we were seeing dramatic and generally positive stories about this pastor leaving her flock -- without ever hearing from the parishioners who were so left (and left after the public announcement had been made at an atheist convention, as the New York Times admits belatedly in an editor's note). I do wonder if a bit less cheerleading and a bit more scrutiny would have prevented such embarrassing corrections and updates.
A few readers also wondered about the use of the term "overstating" her credentials, given the situation, and whether a shorter word might have worked better.
Warning image via Shutterstock.