Churches

Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

If we have learned anything from the clergy sex-abuse scandals that plagued the Catholic church last year — and continue to do so in the form of new revelations — was how important the religious press (especially the voices on the more conservative end of the spectrum) have tried to point out the failings of Pope Francis.

Not to be outdone, the prevailing Catholic press on the doctrinal left continues to exert a lot of influence in church politics. In other words, publications on the left are still required reading not just for Catholics, but anyone who writes about the church for mainstream news outlets.

Take the National Catholic Reporter.

Founded in 1964 (just five years after the Second Vatican Council dramatically changed the church), its aim was to bring the professional standards of secular news reporting to the press that covers Catholic news and issues. That’s all commendable — until one looks at the consistently progressive positions the bi-weekly newspaper (and its website) has espoused at a time when the church is increasingly split between liberals and conservatives.

But here is the twist. In the wake of the crises, people of faith have to deal with why they continue to identify as Catholic and what that means to them. For the first time in modern history, the pontiff’s progressive nature matches what the NCR has championed for years.

If the Catholic voices on the conservative spectrum are getting greater attention at this time, it is also worth noting that several journalistic pillars of the religious left continue to set the agenda for millions of Catholics. That includes clergy and priests as well as the laity and, by extension, politicians.

NCR has won journalistic accolades from the Catholic Press Association (of which I am a proud member) and remains one of the most important voices out there. It isn’t afraid to take on church doctrine and traditional beliefs, becoming a lightening rod for those on the right. For example, the bi-weekly newspaper’s position, in a 2014 editorial, said climate change is the most-important pro-life issue facing society. The paper is anti-Donald Trump and not shy about pointing the finger at St. Pope John Paul II’s inaction when faced with past clergy sex-abuse allegations.

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How much should religious groups pay top leaders?

 How much should religious groups pay top leaders?

THE QUESTION:

How much should local religious congregations, agencies, and charities pay their leaders?

THE GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic is brought to mind by three simultaneous articles published in December. In the first, The New York Times “Ethicist” column responded to an anonymous employee of a non-profit agency that works on consumer rights and economic literacy who’s upset that due to a financial crisis its management cut the staff by a fourth.

This was said to be necessary to protect the long-term future. But the employee is “hurt” and considering a protest after learning top officials’ pay and perks consume a fourth of the budget. The president even gets a company car. The employee thinks top incomes are “seemingly” out of line and an “injustice” to other staffers.

In response, New York University philosophy Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah said non-profits, like for-profit companies, may realistically need to pay the going rate to get talented executives. But high pay is always “worrisome” for a charity, plus this agency might have been wiser to trim executive pay in order to limit layoffs.

Churches also face money questions. The Rev. John Gray of Relentless Church in Greenville, S.C., gave his wife for their wedding anniversary a $220,000 Lambourghini Urus SUV (650 horsepower, 0 to 62 miles per hour in 3.6 seconds, top speed of 190 m.p.h.). She gave Gray a costly Rolex watch. After Christian Websites sizzled with hostile comments, Gray tearfully responded that he spent his own (obviously handsome) income, not church donations, and noted he gets added money from his Oprah Winfrey Network show and a book deal.

A different problem is old-fashioned embezzlement from church accounts diverted to personal use, $80,000 or more in a case just filed against Jerrell Altic, a minister at Houston’s prominent First Baptist Church from 2011 to 2017. This raises obvious questions about this church’s fiscal management and financial transparency with its members.

Misuse of non-profits’ income can get you in a pack of trouble with the Feds.

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Call the police: Baby Jesus has been stolen — and The New York Times has a compelling story about it

Call the police: Baby Jesus has been stolen — and The New York Times has a compelling story about it

I’m in Texas at my Mom and Dad’s house as I type this — about to enjoy a festive Christmas Eve breakfast with chocolate syrup and pancakes, white gravy and biscuits, sausage, bacon and assorted other fixings.

My wife, two of my children, my brother, sister, my sister-in-law and various nephews and a niece will join me in line as we start our Christmas celebration by eating way too much.

I mention the above mainly because it’s all I can think about at the moment, but also because it may help explain why this post will be pretty quick and to the point.

I’ve got somewhere else to be, don’t you know.

Seriously, I want to highlight two New York Times stories real briefly this morning — both about nativity scenes, but one a much more compelling read than the other.

The first story was featured on Sunday’s front page with the headline “Cameras, Bolts and an Elusive Goal: To Sleep in Heavenly Peace.”

It’s a creative, timely piece about a national trend of baby Jesus being swiped from Nativity scenes nationally, and the dateline — the setting for the story — is pure brilliance:

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Away in a manger on Bethlehem’s public square, a woman approached a statue of the baby Jesus one dark, December night. Then she stole it.

The theft, from a Nativity scene outside City Hall, raised alarm in this eastern Pennsylvania city that shares a name with the real Jesus Christ’s birthplace.

When the missing baby Jesus was found, it had been damaged, and Bethlehem’s police chief had to glue its leg back on. Then the city took action, positioning a concealed security camera exclusively on baby Jesus and assigning police officers to monitor the footage. In the two years since, the statue has been left at peace, asleep on the hay as the camera, nicknamed the “Jesus cam” by some residents, rolls.

“If anybody looks real close, they’ll see a crack in his leg,” said Lynn Cunningham, a leader of the local chamber of commerce.

Such manger larceny, in glaring violation of the Eighth Commandment, is also part of a sad national trend. This year, thieves have raided Nativity scenes in Tennessee, West Virginia, Minnesota and plenty of other places, and made off with Jesus figurines (and sometimes Mary and a donkey, too).

In terms of clever writing, there are nice touches throughout. As for religion, the reporter doesn’t neglect it, including lines such as this:

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'Tis the season: GetReligionista work slows a bit, but we will still be paying attention

'Tis the season: GetReligionista work slows a bit, but we will still be paying attention

So it is Thursday afternoon. And next Monday is Christmas Eve, which will be a holiday for gazillions of people.

In front of that Monday, we have an ordinary weekend. #DUH

That means that lots of folks can skip work on Friday, as in tomorrow, and end up with how many days off in a row? Five or six — for the cost of one vacation day — depending how their office managers handle The Holidays?

So that sound you keep hearing outside your window, this afternoon, may be car doors slamming as people toss packages (or their suitcases, if headed to the airport) in the back of cars as they prepare to head hither and thither and yon. Some of us older folks, of course, will be joyfully preparing for cars to pull into our driveways containing loved ones — some wearing tiny shoes, in which to dash around the house.

So, what’s the point of this meditation?

Some of your GetReligionistas are already on the road and others will soon depart. Work here at the website will slow down, but our cyber-doors will not be locked tight. You can expect, as usual, a post a day, or maybe two, during the Christmas-New Year’s Day season.

I will be at home near a keyboard most of the days between now and, oh, Jan. 2 or thereabouts — but will have a chance, as always, to flee to the mountains of North Carolina, where Wifi and strong cellphone signals are often a matter of theory, rather than reality.

Let me stress, that we still want to hear from readers!

This is, after all, a time of year in which even the most cynical editor/producer has been known to gaze at the newsroom and mutter, “Somebody get out there and do a story about Christmas. I hear that has something to do with religion, maybe.”

The results are can be glorious or fallen. We are interested in both. Please keep sending us URLs for news that caught your eye.

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Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

Why is a church shrinking or closing? Reporters: Brace for complex and heated debates

If you are into taking notes, then here is a challenge for folks listening to this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and subscribe).

The topic, this time, is why so many churches are shrinking and dying these days — in urban areas, as well as small towns and other at-risk locations (think the Rust Belt in general). The hook for this podcast was my recent post about a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.”

As host Todd Wilken and I discuss this subject, try to keep track of the number of factors that can affect whether congregations, and in the not-so-distant future entire denominations, shrink and even die.

Is evangelism a priority for this flock?

What about location, location, location — in terms of population growth.

How about the state of the economy in that zip code?

There are demographic issues linked to birth rate and family size.

Is this congregation part of a denomination that is in statistical free fall (is the brand wounded)?

Has the national church taken controversial stands that have caused schisms or departures?

Are the seminaries for this denomination producing pastors that people will trust and follow? Does this particular church body have enough pastors or priests?

Is the church too liberal, or too conservative, for its community?

Does the church have more retirees than young families?

I think there are several others that I’m leaving out, at the moment.

The RNS story focuses on historically black Episcopal parishes closing in North Carolina. That is certainly a poignant topic. My post noted:

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama.

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Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

Episcopalians closing more African-American churches: Other big trends in this story?

No doubt about it, get ready to see more and more stories about church closings.

You know a topic is big news when Pope Francis starts talking about it.

These stories are valid, of course. The question is whether reporters will keep asking questions about the trends behind all the “For Sale” signs.

Obviously, this is a complex story that involves urban demographics, real estate, birth rates, worship trends, rising statistics about the “religiously unaffiliated (nones)” and other realities. However, ever since a National Council of Churches executive named Dean M. Kelley wrote That Book (“Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion”) in 1972, journalists and church-growth activists have been arguing about the role of theology in this drama. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

First, here is the context for this discussion — a Religion News Service feature that ran with this headline: “As one historically black Episcopal church closes, others face strong headwinds.” Here’s the poignant overture:

WARRENTON, N.C. (RNS) — On a chilly December morning, 100 years and one week after its sanctuary opened, All Saints’ Episcopal Church, an African-American congregation with a proud history, was formally closed.

Bishop Samuel Rodman presided over the Eucharistic service in an elementary school a block away from the church, where weekly services ended more than three years ago. Several longtime members returned to read Scriptures and sing hymns. Afterward, the group of 100, including history buffs and well-wishers from North Carolina and Virginia, shared a meal of fried chicken and baked beans.

All Saints is hardly alone among mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations. Faced with dwindling members, crumbling infrastructure and costly maintenance, some 6,000 to 10,000 churches shutter each year, according to one estimate. More closures may be in the offing as surveys point to a decline in church attendance across the country.

But All Saints is an example of an even sharper decline. Historically African-American churches across the South are fast disappearing.

What do the numbers look like? The story notes that the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina “once boasted 60 such churches. Today, a mere dozen are left and, of those, only three have full-time clergy.” This long, deep, story has few, if any, signs of hope for the future.

Note that this feature is focusing on trends in “mainline Protestant and Catholic” churches.

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A culture of abuse: Must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches

A culture of abuse: Must-read investigation on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches

On Sunday’s front page, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published the first part of a major investigative report on sex crimes in independent fundamental Baptist churches nationally.

Today’s Page 1 of the Texas newspaper brought Part 2.

Part 3 and Part 4 as well as a helpful explainer on how the Star-Telegram undertook the eight-month probe can be read online.

Bottom line: Investigative reporter Sarah Smith and her colleagues have produced a mammoth piece of journalism filled with infuriating case studies of pastors abusing underage girls and suffering few, if any, consequences.

The chilling, powerful opening of Part 1:

Joy Evans Ryder was 15 years old when she says her church youth director pinned her to his office floor and raped her.

“It’s OK. It’s OK,” he told her. “You don’t have to be afraid of anything.”

He straddled her with his knees, and she looked off into the corner, crying and thinking, “This isn’t how my mom said it was supposed to be.”

The youth director, Dave Hyles, was the son of the charismatic pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, considered at the time the flagship for thousands of loosely affiliated independent fundamental Baptist churches and universities.

At least three other teen girls would accuse Hyles of sexual misconduct, but he never faced charges or even sat for a police interview related to the accusations. When he got in trouble, Hyles was able to simply move on, from one church assignment to the next.

Hyles’ flight to safety has become a well-worn path for ministers in the independent fundamental Baptist movement.

For decades, women and children have faced rampant sexual abuse while worshiping at independent fundamental Baptist churches around the country. The network of churches and schools has often covered up the crimes and helped relocate the offenders, an eight-month Star-Telegram investigation has found.

More than 200 people — current or former church members, across generations — shared their stories of rape, assault, humiliation and fear in churches where male leadership cannot be questioned.

The Star-Telegram took eight months to report this series, titled “Spirit of Fear.” It’s a lot to digest, and I’m still doing so. But I’ll offer a few initial thoughts based on my quick first reading.

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A question for editors: Pondering the difference between the Catholic 'church' and its 'hierarchy'

A question for editors: Pondering the difference between the Catholic 'church' and its 'hierarchy'

Is there a difference between the Catholic ““church and its “hierarchy”?

That’s a question that very few, if any, editors and reporters working in either the mainstream or religious press seem to have asked themselves. It’s just another of the many questions to come out of the clerical sex-abuse scandal and the downfall of now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick that highlighted news coverage since this summer.

It’s a question that was surfaced by Father Thomas Reese (for decades a major source in many mainstream news reports) in a recent opinion piece that ran on Religion News Service. Journalists need to think about what he’s saying, so here’s an excerpt:

I remember in the 1980s taking a tour of the House of Commons in London. The tour guide pointed to a plaque on the wall in honor of a minister “who was killed by the Irish Catholics.” Not the IRA, not the Provos, not the terrorists, but the Irish Catholics.

Today we do the same thing when we say, “Muslims are killing Christians.”

Saying that the Catholic church did not protect children is just as wrong. It was the bishops. It was the hierarchy.

We should not blame the the people of God for the sins of the hierarchy. In many other churches, the people have some say in selecting their leadership and therefore have some responsibility for their hierarchy’s actions. Not so in the Catholic Church, where new leaders are chosen by current leaders.

If the hierarchy had been open with the laity about the sex abuse crisis, if the bishops had listened to the people, we would not be in the mess we are today.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Reese has an interesting take, but one that's loaded with journalistic naivete.

When speaking of Catholicism, the term “church” does often refer to the hierarchy in references used by journalists in news accounts. In this regard, the words “church” and “hierarchy” are often interchangeable.

Catholicism is a hierarchical religion and journalists are, in most cases, not referring to the faithful when saying “the church” failed to protect children or young seminarians. It’s akin to using terms like “the people” when talking about a criminal trial and referencing “prosecutors” or “the government.” It reminds me of some of the gripes Mormons have had, and are still having, with the way the press has identified them.

Dictionaries are still of vital use.

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LGBTQ redux: Seattle Times leans left while covering church struggles over the issue

LGBTQ redux: Seattle Times leans left while covering church struggles over the issue

On Sunday morning, the Seattle Times ran this story: “ ‘I am a gay Christian’: Debates about LGBTQ acceptance roil Seattle-area non-profits, churches.”

It was an even-handed headline, in the online version.

But in the print version, which was just above the fold on A1, the headline was: “When religion discriminates: LGBTQ debate roils faith groups.”

Reporters have no control over headlines, so this one inadvertently let us know what direction the story was going: Traditional religious groups are inherently discriminatory.

I am glad the Times tackled this, as it is a real issue here in the Pacific Northwest (even though as of Sunday night it only ranked third in reader viewership, after stories about an alleged remnant of an alien civilization and the burst water pipes that will happen if Seattle has an earthquake like Anchorage did last week).

But one does tire of the black/white view some reporters adopt. Which is: Liberal religious folks are good. Conservative believers are jerks.

Let me point readers to a multi-faceted story on the Christian music scene in Seattle that appeared three years ago this month in the Stranger, not a publication that is pro-faith by any means. Both sides were represented accurately and sympathetically.

So it is possible, but I can’t say the Times reporter did the same. Her article begins:

As board president of World Concern, Jun Young was a believer.

He felt called to the Christian development agency’s mission, spoke about it to donors, traveled to Sri Lanka to see the work up close and donated tens of thousands of dollars through his public relations company, Zum Communications.

“You are beloved.” That’s the message he said Shoreline-based World Concern imparts to marginalized people around the world. “I so believe in that. And I still do. It pains me that I can’t be part of that.”

This summer, parent organization CRISTA Ministries — a more than $100-million operation that runs schools, retirement communities and radio stations in addition to its international relief work — told Young he would not be invited to serve a second, 3-year term on its board or World Concern’s.

At 45, he had just unearthed a secret he had kept even from himself: He was gay.

The story then introduces us to two local Christian organizations who’ve been struggling with the issue.

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