How not to handle a call from a reporter

526600146gQNMkA phAs a rule, GetReligion limits itself to dissecting the work of mainstream journalists when they wrestle with news stories about religion. But, every now and then, you see a story in which your heart really goes out to the journalists who are trying to do this difficult job.

Take, for example, reporter Jane Musgrave of The Palm Beach Post and her recent story on the troubled financial past of the Rev. Steven Flockhart, the charismatic new preacher at the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Fla. This church sits in the heart of a major metropolitan area, just across the bridge from the world-famous resort community of Palm Beach. This is a high-profile gig in a very complex city.

Musgrave had some of the most important building blocks a reporter can have on this kind of story — like court documents, an anonymous tip that checked out and, then, on-the-record interviews with members of a church that Flockhart left in debt eight years ago. She also did a good job of telling the positive side of the story, stressing that those touched by the preacher’s troubles retained a remarkable degree of affection for him as a person, as a leader and, most of all, as a spectacular orator.

However, there was a problem.

Musgrave — in the name of accuracy and fairness — also needed to hear Flockhart’s side of the story. That meant doing an interview. This is where the train came off the rails a bit.

Want to see how not to handle a journalist’s request to hear your side of an important story? Check this out.

The Rev. Kevin Mahoney, executive pastor of the imposing Baptist church along the Intracoastal Waterway just south of downtown West Palm Beach, said he and other church leaders learned of the lawsuit after they offered Flockhart the prestigious position of head pastor, which had been vacant for three years. Like The Palm Beach Post, the church received a copy of the lawsuit and other court documents from a person who signed a short note only as “A former Crosspointe (Baptist Church) Member.”

Flockhart, 40, who lives in a 4,500-square-foot house in Royal Palm Beach with his wife and six children, declined requests for interviews. It is church policy for Mahoney alone to respond to press inquiries, the executive pastor said.

Say what? It is the congregation’s policy that the man in the pulpit — its superstar voice to the community — cannot talk to the press? Does this include television news interviews about, oh, spectacular Christmas events? Radio work?

Thus, the church created a kind of information triangle in which the reporter is forced to bounce documents and questions through an indirect connection. Trust me, this does not help a reporter trust the results. It’s like waving a red flag with one hand while shooting up warning flares with the other.

2005bestHere is what this looks like in print. You can read the story and make up your own mind about the complicated financial details. What we are interested in is the awkward contacts between the church and the newspaper and how this affected the story that was printed. We start with an IRS lien against the preacher for not paying some taxes.

When asked about it, Mahoney said, Flockhart denied ever having any problems with the IRS and said he had not had an American Express card for 12 or 15 years. After The Palm Beach Post faxed the Georgia court documents to Mahoney, he talked to Flockhart again.

Roughly a half-hour later, Mahoney called to say Flockhart did remember a dispute over payroll taxes with the IRS. Further, he remembered the dispute with American Express.

Mahoney said he was not troubled that Flockhart’s story changed dramatically in less than two hours.

So what does the congregation get from this procedure? You just know that the newspaper now believes there are holes in this minister’s background — educational, personal, whatever — and will dig with renewed vigor. The newspaper may find something. It may not. This is standard procedure in this situation and this kind of hide-the-source shell game only makes journalists more suspicious. I know all about that from my background covering the Rev. Jim Bakker, years ago.

Like I said, this is not how to handle a simple request for an interview, especially when the reporter is holding documents in her hand.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    My father always maintained that the three worst businesspeople in the world were doctors, lawyers, and preachers. Apparently, at least some of them stink at PR, too.

  • http://www.lexalexander.net Lex

    And a note to congregations: When your pastors are acting like this, something is up, whether you want to believe it or not. And you’d better find out what it is, quickly, before the church you love ends up on the auction block with the IRS praying, as it were, over the pieces.

  • Ken Mahanes

    For Jane Musgrave to have printed such a fair and accurate story, without the pastor granting time to meet with her to present his side of the story, is commendable. I think the reason the pastor chose not to meet with her is due to (1) his culpability to the allegations and (2) the risk that he might make matters worse by talking to the journalist than by remaining silent.

  • Jack O’Neill

    Whatever happened, if he does not realize that honesty is the best policy, from a practical as well as ethical standpoint, he is a cooked goose.

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  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Churches often give their pastors enough rope to hang themselves and that seems to be part of what happened at Flockhart’s other church. A pastor or church leader should never have that kind of free access to church funds.

    I am always suprised that this kind of “misappropriating” doesn’t happen more often because of the amount of money coming into churches and the amount of trust put in volunteers to handle the money.

  • BluesDaddy

    And what is it about being a “specatacular orator” that makes people want to hand their wallets over? Is this a function of abandoning sacramentalism for the priority of preaching? I’m not familiar with anyplace in scripture that makes charismatic preaching a requisite for a minister.

  • http://god-of-small-things.blogspot.com Bob Smietana

    Terry,

    This story points out that “getting religion” can be a two way street. Reporters have to better understand faith communities, and faith communities also have to better understand reporters.

  • http://www.spaulspots.blogspot.com Don Neuendorf

    We get requests from the local paper sometimes for comments on religious news (the DaVinci Code, controversial movies, etc.). I am often hesitant because I’m afraid that a carefully balanced theological response will get chopped up to look like something else.

    I’d love to see a GetReligion post on what a pastor should know when talking with journalists, even if he or his congregation are not the focus of the story.

  • Stephen A.

    And what is it about being a “specatacular orator” that makes people want to hand their wallets over? Is this a function of abandoning sacramentalism for the priority of preaching? I’m not familiar with anyplace in scripture that makes charismatic preaching a requisite for a minister.

    BluesDaddy, you nailed it. I was just telling someone recently about the pastor of a large, fundamentalist “Mega Church” in the 1990s in which a pastor was given a new car by his congregation. And it wasn’t the first financial “gift.” This would have never happened in the Mainline church I was attending, because of the transparency and accountability built into that denomination’s governing structure.

    About the handling of the reporter, wow did they blow it here. Never lie or try to mislead a reporter. It will come back to bite you. Dealing with this head-on would have made the pastor seem more honest, at least.

  • Andrew S.

    Rev Hunt’s description of Rev Flockhart on his video is inaccurate. Rev Flockhart said from the pulpit that he is “NOT a compassionate person“. I don’t have the date he said it, but his sermons are recorded. Maybe he needs to be an Evangelist exclusively. I believe God is working to strengthen our church, and He started at the TOP of the organizational chart. I am sorry for Rev Flockhart’s family, but he should have learned from his mistakes. Where was Rev Flockhart’s “heart for his flock”? I am greatly saddened by his actions.

  • Connie

    Dr. Flockhart’s life has been drastically changed for the good (no one is “perfect”) because of his belief in the Gospel. His life has impacted thousands of others for the good because of his bold passion to preach of his conversion.
    The ending which was forcing him to resign has been a great tragedy to many. I miss him terribly.


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