Attention all supporters of strong, accurate religion-beat reporting: What is the first question a journalist needs to answer for readers when covering a "Lutheran church" story, especially when it is linked to controversy?
Let me raise the stakes a bit higher. This question is especially true when dealing with a flock located in Minnesota or elsewhere in the upper Midwest, which is often called the Lutheran Belt in American life because there are so many Lutheran congregations in that region.
The question: So what kind of Lutherans are we talking about?
Are we dealing with a congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which, despite the presence of the E-word in the name, is a liberal flock on key issues of doctrine and moral theology? Or how about the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, located on the right side of the mainline Protestant world? Or how about the smaller Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which is also more doctrinally conservative than the ELCA?
So check out the top of this major story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press earlier this month. Yes, you'll have to look for clues in this long passage:
North Heights Lutheran, the one-time megachurch of Arden Hills, has run out of prayers.
The church is shutting down, the apparent victim of a civil war that has split it apart. After 70 years of weekly worship, the church’s last service will be Sunday.
“This took me by surprise,” 20-year member Zelda Erickson said Monday after learning of the closing at an announcement during Sunday’s church service. “I feel terrible about this.”
North Heights once had Sunday attendance of 3,400 at two church locations. But attendance has fallen recently to several hundred -- not enough to keep the church afloat. ...
Phone and email messages to church leaders, including pastor Mindy Bak, were not answered Monday.
Yes, the pastor is a woman. That would hint that this is an ELCA congregation, right? Except that we are also talking about a flock that experienced strong growth in recent decades, a timeframe in which the ELCA has been experienced stunning declines in terms of membership.
So what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here? And what issue was at the heart of this painful split?
Believe it or not, the story never answers either of those questions (other than in comments by readers at the end of the report). I realize that the "why" question would require strong quotes from people on both sides of the split and the reporter -- trigger warning -- would have to ask questions about doctrine. Maybe like these three?
Here is the closest that readers get to an answer on the second question, with quotes from a Jack Anderson, a former member:
“She lost the primary support of the church -- the tithers,” said Anderson. “The young people around here are not in a position to command a lot of resources. But the (breakaway church) has lots of well-established people.”
Jim Kellett was a member of North Heights for about 25 years -- until he began attending the alternative services last year. He, too, was critical of Bak and said she was “destroying the church.”
When interviewed in September, Bak said the drastic cuts were necessary to save the church. She charged that the Bondservants were sexist and could not stand to see the church led by a woman.
OK, let's assume that "tithers" -- people who give 10 percent of their income to the church -- are older, more traditional members. It might make sense for some of them to leave if placed under the leadership of an ordained woman.
But none of this makes any sense at all without knowing what brand of Lutherans we are talking about, right? It's like covering a Baptist war in, oh, Atlanta without knowing the differences between the Southern Baptist Convention and a church in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
So has anyone else covered the basics in this story? Well, in the Twin Cities there is another newspaper. So what does the Minneapolis Star Tribune story say? In this case, the big question is answered right at the very top (where this information belongs):
North Heights Lutheran Church, once numbered among the nation’s biggest ELCA congregations, is shutting down.
The church in Arden Hills, along with a sister congregation in Roseville, had 7,600 members at the beginning of the century. Then a noisy civil war, in which breakaway members created a ferocious website posting internal church documents, led first to the closing of the original building and finally the shutdown announcement on Sunday.
Church officials declined to comment Tuesday, as did others connected to the church.
“I really have no comment on this right now,” said Mike Bradley, director of the Alliance of Renewal Churches, the church network with which North Heights affiliated itself after breaking away from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Now, that word "ferocious" is a bit much, without evidence to back it up. Still, it's crucial to know that this massive congregation left the ELCA and moved to a "renewal" network, which is often code language for evangelical theology. If you look around online, North Heights is frequently described as a "charismatic" church.
Alas, the rest of this story is based on file materials. It's pretty clear that people on both sides of the split -- including Pastor Bak -- have gone silent, probably at the advice of lawyers.
But background materials did yield this, about events in 2000 or thereabouts:
The Star Tribune’s religion editor described the church ... as one that “can wield incredible influence within the [ELCA] denomination.” Within a few years, however, the church broke off from the ELCA over social issues such as the denomination’s more liberal posture on homosexuality.
Obviously, this was not going to be an easy story to cover, with the church's current leadership -- we can only assume -- choosing to remain silent.
Did the more conservative, established members rebel once again and move further to the right on doctrinal issues? Were there "worship wars" issues between young and old? How did Pastor Bak come to this rather independent church in the first place? What is her denominational and/or theological background?
Yes, there are lots of questions here. But how do you cover this religion-beat story without asking these kinds of, well, basic religion questions?