American Baptists

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

If you know anything about the lives of pastors and priests, you know that — when it comes time to help hurting people — they really want to be able to pull aside, slow things down, look into someone’s face and talk things over.

Life does not always allow this, I know.

But my father was a pastor and, at the end of his ministry life, a hospital chaplain who spent most of his time with the parents of children who were fighting cancer.

On the few times I was with him during those hospital shifts, I saw him — over and over — sit in silence with someone, just being there, waiting until they were ready to talk. He was there to help, but mainly he was there to talk, to pray and to wait — for good news or bad news.

It would be hard to imagine a form of human communication that is more different than today’s world of social media apps on smartphones.

That’s why an article that I ran into the other day — via the progressive Baptist News Global website — stopped me dead in my tracks. The headline: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” I posted the article as a think piece here at GetReligion and then decided that I really need to talk to the author, the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, the lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.

That led to an “On Religion” column this week for the Universal syndicate and, now, to a “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why did this topic intrigue me so much?

Well, first of all, it would be hard to name a more powerful trend in human communication today than social media and our omnipresent smartphones. That’s news. And Alvaro is convinced that these social-media programs are seriously warping the work of pastors. That’s a claim that would affect thousands of pastors and millions of people. So, yes, I think this topic is a news subject in and of itself.

Here is a large chunk of my column:

His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Waves of transgender news add to difficult agenda confronting religious traditionalists

Waves of transgender news add to difficult agenda confronting religious traditionalists

A bit of U.S. “mainline” Protestant history was made May 11. The Rhode Island State Council of Churches announced that its 70-year-old executive minister, American Baptist Donald Anderson, will take three months off for an unspecified “process of transitioning” to female identity.

The council’s board is “totally supportive,” stated its  president, a United Church of Christ pastor, and anticipates Anderson’s September return under the new name of Donnie. The council sponsored an April 24 “merciful conversation on gender identity and expression” at an Episcopal church.

By coincidence, the April 25 edition of The Christian Century, a prototypical “mainline” voice, published a noteworthy article on “nonbinary gender” as part of God’s good creation.

The piece was an excerpt from a new release by the Presbyterian Church (USA) book house, “Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians.” Author Austen Hartke, creator of the youtube series “Transgender and Christian,” is a recent graduate of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he won an Old Testament prize.

This frontier in modern moral theology confronts many U.S. religious groups head-on, and just after legalized same-sex marriage, causing religious-freedom disputes the news media will be covering for the foreseeable future. 

The transgender cause contrasts with the heavily “binary” and “cisgender” culture throughout the Bible and the Quran that shapes the beliefs of traditional Christians, Jew and Muslims.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

File this away for use in 2018: Adelle Banks at RNS digs into 'Blue Christmas' rites

A couple of decades ago, one of the best sources for religion-beat stories about church life was a researcher named Lyle Schaller.

Schaller was -- yes, this sounds a bit odd -- a United Methodist expert on evangelism. He was the rare mainline Protestant leader who was actually interested in why some churches gained members, while others were losing them.

Back in the mid-1980s, I interviewed him about the difference between so-called "Easter Christians" -- people who only show up at Easter -- and "Christmas Christians." I bring this up because of an excellent Religion News Service feature by Adelle Banks that ran the other day about churches that hold "Blue Christmas" services in the days leading up to Dec. 25. Journalists need to file this story away for future reference.

Hold that thought. First, let's return to Schaller. This is from the tribute column I wrote when Schaller died in 2015:

The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said. ...  Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?
"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."

Christmas, he stressed, was a chance for actually evangelism and healing. It has become one of the most painful times of year for many people in an America full of broken and hurting families.

The lengthy Banks feature focuses on that angle, as well as people facing Christmas after the death of a loved one. Here is the overture:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

Some flocks grow, while others shrink: Yes, that's a big, complex, religion story. So there!

This week's Crossroads podcast is all about connecting the dots.

Warning: This is a rather confusing podcast (click here to tune that in). Host Todd Wilken and I wander all over the map, touching on topics ranging from shuttered Episcopal cathedrals to declining (and growing) Southern Baptist statistics, from Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod arguments about worship to declining numbers of students in Catholic seminaries, as well as in some (repeat some) urban Catholic parish pews.

Along the way, there's lots and lots of talk about religious real estate (as in my recent post, "There may be faith angles in all those stories about fading flocks in urban America"). Lots of this once-sacred real estate is for sale in prime urban locations, from sea to shining sea.

Do you see any connections yet? Basically, we are talking about some of the biggest stories in American religion. The thread that connects them is demographics and the tricky subject of why some religious congregations (and denominations) die while others grow.

Ah, you say, that's all about where these institutions are located! How did The New York Times team -- not the religion desk, by the way -- put it the other day, in the latest of many Times stories about religious sanctuaries sporting "for sale" signs? That headline proclaimed: "Struggling to Survive, Congregations Look to Sell Houses of Worship." The key paragraph looked like this:

This situation is playing out again and again across New York City. Upward mobility, suburban growth and the dissolution of traditional ethnic enclaves have all contributed to empty pews, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. Twenty-seven percent of New Yorkers identified as religiously unaffiliated in 2014, compared with 17 percent in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center.

Now, in my post I noted that the final sentence there points off the secular real estate map, with a reference to the "Nones" trend that has been one of America's biggest religion-beat themes in recent years.

But, you see, even in New York City there are booming religious movements and congregations, as well as those that are fading. Did you know that?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

It's closing time: Symbolic date invites press analysis of liberal Protestant seminaries

It's closing time: Symbolic date invites press analysis of liberal Protestant seminaries

Attention religion-beat scribes: Nov. 12, 2015, carries high symbolism for “mainline” Protestantism, which for centuries exercised such broad influence over U.S. faith and culture.

On that date Andover Newton Theological School, the oldest U.S. institution for graduate-level clergy training with a 208-year history, announced it is no longer ”financially sustainable” due to falling enrollment and must sell its leafy 23-acre campus outside Boston.

The school, which has “historic” links with the United Church of Christ and American Baptist Churches, plans two more years of operation while it ponders two radical proposals: either relocate and merge within a larger institution (preliminary talks are under way with Yale’s Divinity School) or else switch to ministry apprenticeships with basic coursework but no full-service residential campus.

As explanatory sessions ensue with Andover Newton students on  November 17 and December 3, and with alumni on November 20, it’s a timely moment for newswriters to assess future prospects for America’s Protestant seminaries.

The ever-solid G. Jeffrey MacDonald (himself a U.C.C. minister) reports in Religion News Service that to preserve an $18 million endowment, Andover Newton is paying its bills through a mortgage line of credit. Based on an interview with Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, MacDonald says  this and seminary trauma elsewhere is “the fallout from decades of declining membership numbers in mainline denominations,” noting that their seminary enrollments have dropped 24 percent since 2005.

At Andover Newton, enrollment totalled 271 students in the last A.T.S. report. Only 40 percent were full-time and only 25 percent lived on campus, compared with the 450 full-time students a generation ago. Enrollment is 63 percent female, and the average student age is 49.

The school requires no creed of the faculty, and instead defines itself doctrinally by “core values” like integrity, innovation, openness, understanding, academic freedom and the sustainability of creation. The school emphasizes “multifaith education” and 10 percent of its students are non-Christians (variously identified as Unitarian Universalist, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Muslim, agnostic or atheist).

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Nostalgia time for the Religion Guy, with observations from an American town

Nostalgia time for the Religion Guy, with observations from an American town

This Memo, more personal than others posted by the Religion Guy, scans a nostalgia-drenched week that demonstrated several American trends.

First, hundreds of alums marked the end of the Time and Life Building as the Time Inc. magazines move to lower Manhattan, due to cost-cutting that afflicts all print media. 

Then there was a visit to hometown Endicott, New York, for the 100th anniversary of Union-Endicott High School. This American village of 13,392 typifies the hollowing out of U.S. industry, and religious phenomena seen elsewhere. 

Background: The Endicott Johnson Corporation, now defunct, was once the nation’s biggest or one of its biggest shoe manufacturers. E.J. fended off union organizers with medical services and other remarkable “square deal” benefits given line workers, many of them Americanizing immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe. International Business Machines, all but vanished locally, originated in Endicott and had major operations there through much of the 20th Century.

Endicott was incorporated in 1906 and later absorbed the older town of Union. The reigning Johnson family gave the land for First Methodist Church to build in 1902, the Religion Guy’s own First Baptist Church in 1905, and the original Catholic parish, St. Ambrose, in 1908. The Johnsons also donated the Baptists’ pipe organ, still in use, and provided many other community services.

The Guy’s boyhood village was roughly half Catholic and half Protestant, with a high invisible wall between. The ecumenism fostered soon afterward by the Second Vatican Council was virtually non-existent.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Changing churches: What's Scott Walker's faith got to do with his Republican presidential creds?

Changing churches: What's Scott Walker's faith got to do with his Republican presidential creds?

As the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination develops, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is making faith-related headlines again.

This time the news has nothing to do with whether Walker thinks President Barack Obama is a Christian.

The New York Times explored Walker's religious background in a front-page story Sunday.

The Times' lede:

DES MOINES — Scott Walker, the son of a Baptist preacher, learned a lot about being a politician by going to church.
He was introduced to glad-handing while greeting worshipers beside his father after Sunday services. His confidence as a public speaker began at 2, when he delivered a Christmas greeting from the pulpit, and it blossomed when he preached occasional sermons as a teenager. And now, Mr. Walker’s lifelong church involvement may be a powerful asset as he positions himself to run for the Republican presidential nomination and focuses on early primary and caucus states dominated by evangelical voters.
Already a hero to fiscal conservatives — both the Tea Party base and billionaire donors like Charles G. and David H. Koch — Mr. Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, made his most explicit appeal yet to the Christian right on Saturday before hundreds of social conservatives in Iowa. During his toughest times in office, he said, “What sustained us all along the way is we had people who said, ‘We prayed for you.’ ”

A few days earlier, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel produced its own, even more in-depth portrait of Walker's faith.


Please respect our Commenting Policy

Scott Walker’s church is as interesting an American story as Walker himself

Scott Walker’s church is as interesting an American story as Walker himself

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, 47, is facing new scrutiny as the flavor of the month in Republican presidential politics.  Among various disputes in play, he’s an evangelical Protestant and thus needs to be prepared for skeptical questioning about religion and pesky  “social issues.”           

While in London, Walker was asked if he’s “comfortable with” or believes in evolution. He said “that’s a question politicians shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.” Skewered for ducking, he quickly followed up with a vague faith-and-science tweet.  He also ducked when asked whether President Obama “loves America” after Rudolph Giuliani raised doubts about that, and then again when asked if the President is a fellow Christian.

Walker would be a Preacher’s Kid in the White House, the first since Wilson, so reporters will be Googling a Jan. 31 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel piece on this, datelined Plainfield, Iowa  (population 436).

When Scott was young his father Llewellyn was the pastor of Plainfield’s First Baptist Church on -- yes -- Main Street and a town council member.  Llewellyn was also a pastor in Colorado Springs, Scott’s birthplace, and Delevan, Wisconsin, where Scott completed high school.

The father, now retired, served in the American Baptist Convention (now renamed American Baptist Churches USA), which has a liberal flank but is largely moderate to moderately evangelical.  The Journal-Sentinel missed that the current Plainfield pastor endorsed the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which vows bold Christian opposition to abortion, assisted suicide, human cloning research, and same-sex marriage.

Please respect our Commenting Policy