Should Methodists be allowed on the Godbeat?

LastDaysAn expose of a Kansas City megachurch ran on the front page of The Kansas City Star‘s Sunday edition and a few readers passed it along then. I apologize for the delay in posting about it, but it’s taken me days to get through the whole package.

Reporter Judy Thomas wrote sidebar after sidebar, including a piece on how the pastor and his Southern Baptist church have been delinquent in paying tax bills, how various business offshoots add to the pastor’s bottom line, details on the pastor’s lavish lifestyles, how the “Dr.” in the pastor’s title comes from an honorary degree and he doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree, how he has claimed for years that the church is on the brink of financial destruction, claiming Satan is attacking the church because of all the good work it does and how he has seven family members on the payroll.

The pieces are exhaustively researched. Thomas interviewed dozens of former church members, current and former board members, tax experts and the pastor of the church. Pastor Jerry Johnston gave one 35-minute interview but deferred further questions to a Dallas public relations specialist. The PR man answered a few questions via email before refraining from further comment. Thomas also read through dozens of sermons given at the church. But she specifically said she avoided analyzing the pastor’s religious views:

The newspaper did not examine Johnston’s religious doctrine or his positions on social issues, only the church’s finances.

I think this was intended to keep the discussion on finances, rather than the pastor’s conservative political views. But I wish she would have been able to show how or whether his theological views contribute to the financial issues being discussed. Eric Gorski did just that in his series on the financial shenanigans of a Denver megachurch and readers were better off because of it.

The article explains in great detail how the church is structured in a way that provides no financial transparency. It’s a riveting package which is all the more impressive considering to what lengths Thomas goes to to write fairly and modestly. This section will give you a feel for her style:

Even critics acknowledge that Johnston is a gifted orator with a strong grasp of Scripture. And supporters say that’s what keeps them coming back. The church now boasts more than 4,200 members, a $17 million annual budget and a TV ministry that has gone global.

“I’ve never seen such a visionary,” said Gary Krings, a financial adviser who joined First Family three years ago. “The guy is incredible. There are very few people I see that are making such an impact for Christ worldwide and locally.”

But among Johnston’s biggest critics are people who either worked for him or were in his inner circle — including former members of his board. Many were major donors, and several said they gave hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Although their backgrounds are diverse, they all shared similar concerns. They believe the church is in dire need of financial oversight. . . .

David Pinson, who is on the faculty at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said he left the church two years ago because Johnston refused to provide any financial information.

“There’s zero accountability,” said Pinson, who taught Sunday school and sang in the choir. “I did put money in the church, but I regret every penny of it.”

Thomas speaks with officials at other evangelical megachurches as well as evangelical overseers who put the church’s claims about the need for secrecy in perspective. Needless to say, the church doesn’t have many defenders.

As interesting as this news package is, the most interesting thing about it was this disclosure about the reporter at the bottom of the main story:

Thomas is a longtime member of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood.

Thomas’ church is a megachurch and she mentions it in her story to compare size and budget. That pretty much means she had to disclose it. One GetReligion reader said that members of the profiled church think Thomas’ affiliation disqualifies her from writing the story since she goes to a megachurch down the road. What do you think?

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  • http://conblogeration.blogspot.com Pastor Jeff

    It doesn’t disqualify her at all. She did the right thing to disclose what might be perceived as relevant information.

    But here’s something else, going back to your earlier comment — if she and her church are at opposite ends politically and theologically from the Baptist church, that would be useful information, as one could see how that might color her reporting.

    Yet you’ve said her articles are thoroughly researched, they seem balanced between supporters and critics, and the church has had opportunities to tell its side of the story.

    It sounds like a good example of religion reporting.

  • Stephen A.

    I can envision the future TV and print ads for the church now: “The Kansas City Star calls Dr. Johnston (quote) ‘A gifted orator with a strong grasp of Scripture’” This, of course, in the style of movie reviews quoted – sometimes out of context.

    As for the reporter’s disclosure, I think it was appropriate and kind of gutsy. It also revealed any potential biases, though this sounds like a rather straightforward and well-researched story. (The Star can quote me on that, too.)

    The idea that being a Methodist, or of any other faith, should disqualify a person from writing about another faith is ridiculous. Though you sometimes hear some crackpot ideas about boys only being taught by men, or minorities only being taught by people of their “own” race.

    I hope that foolish thinking doesn’t seep into journalism. Though it occurs to me that they would never be able to find enough reporters to cover the Religious and political Right!!

  • Eric

    This reminds me a bit of my son, who majored in religious studies at a secular (but historically religious) college and did his undergraduate thesis on an aspect of the history of the Mormon church. One of the professors on the review committee objected when he proposed his topic, saying that it would be impossible for him to write an objective thesis because he was LDS. After diplomatically suggesting that no one should say that a Jew should be disqualified from doing academic research on the Holocaust, my son’s response was basically this: Every one of us has made a decision about his/her religious belief or affiliation. In matters of religion, there is no true neutrality. Even to not have a religion is to take a position that the claims of various religions are invalid or not worthy of investigation. Much better in this case to disclose possible biases and pursue a topic of interest; in this case, my background provides insight that some others might not have (just as a non-member might have insights that would be lost on somebody already familiar with the church).

    I think the same principle applies here. The reporter has disclosed a possible bias, and the reader can make a determination to what extent that colored the reporting. And the fact that the reporter belongs to a megachurch provides some insight into their social structure, appeal and that sort of thing.

    In my son’s case, the depth of research (which included numerous anti-LDS sources) showed, and the thesis was approved with honors. I haven’t read the Kansas City article yet, but I expect the depth of reporting will speak for itself one way or another.

    All that said, I find a bit sad that members of a church should think of another church, one that presumably preaches the same gospel, as “competition.”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I’m just glad people don’t think my headline to this post was serious. Sometimes my sarcasm is hard to read, I’m told.

    Anyway, I think the disclosure was necessary and proper in this case. I still have to think about whether such disclosures are a good idea for other situations.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I find it ironic that the media constantly barrages every other institution, group, or organization with demands that everything possible about them and the background of their personnel be revealed and made public. And if anyone says their demands are intrusive or irrelevant they get a lecture on the First Amendment, freedom of the press and the public’s sacred “right to know.” Yet try to suggest that the media be more open and above board about the background of their news personnel or columnists and they act as if a witchhunt against the media has been declared.
    Comparing the rules the media covets for itself on revealing information to the public about themselves with what they demand of others under threat of smearing you for your “secretiveness” is one of the major hypocrises by which the media operates.
    If someone writes a news piece on Mitt Romney and his Mormon religion, then the reader should know if the writer is Mormon, Evangelical Protestant, Catholic or atheist.
    If someone does a piece on the Catholic Church and abortion, the writer should be up front about his position on abortion and the Catholic Church. The most hate-filled anti-Catholic published in the Boston Globe is an ex-priest who uses his well-paid position to regularly attack the pope, the Church, and Catholic teachings and Tradition.
    Yet few Globe readers realize he is very much grinding a personal axe seeming-from his writings- to be rooted in his failure to keep his freely-given vow of celibacy.

  • http://watchpost.blogspot.com Tyler Simons

    Deacon Bresnahan,

    Try to suggest that the media be more open and above board about the background of their news personnel or columnists and they act as if a witchhunt against the media has been declared.

    I’m inclined to think that this is crap, but if you’ve got some good evidence for such a seemingly odd claim, I’d love to see it. To which backgrounds of what reporters or columnsts from what news organizations are you referring?

    Who is this ex-priest of which you speak? You’re a little vague with your last paragraph. Maybe you were rushed, but what’s your source for concluding that the unnamed priest is angry with someone (himself?) for his own failure to maintain celibacy. You seem to suggest that he wanted to maintain celibacy, but couldn’t resist temptation and was forced out of the clergy because of that. This means he didn’t come to his positions out of an intellectual and/or spiritual disagreement with the Church over its positions on celibacy, women’s ordination, homosexuality or whatever.

    I’m not sure what good it would serve if the Globe were somehow forced to include ex-Fr. whatever’s spiritual autobiography with every column. If he really is such a reliable opponent of the Magisterium, her defenders shouldn’t have too much trouble developing their own psycho-analytic theories for the actual motivations behind his work even without a constant disclaimer.

    I tend to think that a deacon in the Church should give others. even those who disagree with official Church teachings, a little more benefit of the doubt than you’re doing here. I think it’s awfully presumptuous to locate the mystery columnist’s anger in some kind of pathetic resentment towards the Church rather than in an honest opinion that the Tradition has corrupted aspects of the true teaching of the faith with all-too-human errors.

    Beware of too-easy ways to dismiss those who disagree with you. The eye cannont say to the hand “I have no need of you” and all that.

    Then again, I remain a proud Episcopalian. Be careful, the antichrist is an ecumenist.

  • Dennis Colby

    The ex-priest John Bresnahan is referring to is James Carroll. It’s no secret that Carroll is an ex-priest who disagrees with the Catholic Church; I know it, and I live 800 miles away from Boston. Printing that with every column he writes would be like printing that Pat Buchanan used to work for Reagan with all of his columns; it’s pretty well known.

    That said, I couldn’t disagree more with Mr. Bresnahan’s desire to learn the religious affiliation of journalists. That’s the same school of thinking which produces the kind of literary criticism that judges a writer’s work by their biographical details. Personally, I prefer to let the work speak for itself.

    It should be the same with journalism. The unspoken corollary here is that only Catholics should write about Catholics, only Jews should write about Jews, etc. which is obvious nonsense. Furthermore, how would such a vague disclaimer provide any information whatsoever? If someone says they’re Roman Catholic, is that Roman Catholic like Richard McBrien or Benedict Groeschel?

    In the Kansas City Star story, the disclosure was appropriate because the reporter used her own church as a point of comparison. I don’t have a problem with that, but I do have a problem with the notion that every story on religion has to be prefaced by a reporter’s Credo.

  • Adam Greenwood

    Is she disqualified? Are megachurch’s rivals? Do members of one megachurch feel that its their duty to weaken other megachurches? If not, I don’t see what the issue is. But even if there is an issue, disclosure is probably the important thing. Kudos.

  • Alison

    The two churches are indeed rivals. The pastor of First Family frequently calls out the pastor of Church of the Resurrection, challenging him to a “dual.” Also, there are 7 family members, PLUS Johnston and his wife on the staff.

  • Sarah Webber

    How are they rivals? And did you mean “duels?”

    What I also would love to know is what the current membership of FF thinks of these articles. Would the majority of them simply chalk it up to persecution or would they start making inquiries of the own?

  • Sarah Webber

    Sorry, duel.

  • Tom Schaefer

    As a former colleague of Judy’s, I consider her to be one of the best reporters I’ve known. She does her utmost to be fair and balanced (if I may be allowed to use the phrase). Check out her coverage of the 1991 months-long anti-abortion protests in Wichita, Kansas, (Summer of Mercy). She worked hard to provide readers with accurate and unbiased reports. (Both sides in those contentious times acknowledged her accuracy and fairness.) A Kansas farm girl, Judy imbues the values of middle America; that makes her, in my book, an honest and dependable journalist, with no ax to grind.

  • Sarah Webber

    Come on, everyone has an axe to grind. There’s no such thing as objectivity.

    However, we all seem to agree this particular axe–exposing corruption–is a valuable one to grind.

  • Adam Greenwood

    The pastor of First Family frequently calls out the pastor of Church of the Resurrection, challenging him to a “duel”

    Hmm. To the extent the reporter knew about this, it should have been disclosed also.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I don’t think her church membership was remotely relevant.
    If a political news reporter writes an investigative story about a city council member who lives in District 1, is that reporter obligated to tell readers that she lives in District 3? Should a business writer who investigates Safeway disclose that he shops at Piggly Wiggly? Should a reporter who covers mass transit disclose whether he drives an SUV? A reporter who covers the State Fair of Texas disclose whether she was ever a member of the 4H Club?
    Folks, back in the Olden Days, what made a journalist different from a writer was the ability to keep the opinions out of the copy. (Opinion writing has different rules.) The writing and facts speak for themselves, particularly on a story as completely reported as this one.
    Yes, we all have our personal biases. But generally, if you can tell by reading my work which side I agree with about a matter of real controversy (other than I think the matter itself is newsworthy) I have failed in my job. Even in these days of blurred lines and snarky bloggery, I think that’s still a position worth defending. Like Judy, I covered part of that Wichita summer. I got a letter from a reader back then that I’ll never forget. It said that the reader (who felt strongly about the issue) had no idea what my personal position was about abortion. Did I have a personal position? None of your business…1:-{)>

  • Stephen A.

    I, too, think the fact that one pastor is calling the other to participate in a “duel” is significant. Is this a mere theological contest, or the physical shooting variety? Both would be interesting, but the second clearly deserves a subhead and maybe even a place in the lead!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Dennis–If something is pretty well-known about a writer–then why the fear of putting it in print at least once in a while for the unwary. I’ve noticed that many magazines of impeccable integrity give virtually whole paragraph bios of their writers either with the story or in a column which gives solid information about the magazine’s contributors.It is the double standard (hypocrisy) of the media’s in always questioning the motives of anyone who won’t do their bidding in providing information they want, but telling the public “tough luck” if they are curious about the personnel feeding them what sometimes is propaganda under the cover of calling it news. Actually, it is the editors who I would like to see more bio info on.
    One reason it is important to know the religion of a religion writer is that many experts on religion and religious psychology are convinced that someone of one religion can only very rarely truly comprehend another religion from the outside. In this, religion is a unique subject, some of which (the most unimportant in most cases) can be reported from the outside, much of which (the most important) cannot be grasped by an outsider.
    And Tyler–I can tell you exactly how I concluded Carroll is grinding an axe–I am a retired history teacher from a public school and took a raft of psychology courses including one on Abnormal Psychology–and one thing I learned was that someone who virtually NEVER finds something positive to say about a group or organization (but is always talking or writing about it) is grinding an axe that most likely comes from some personal grudge. From his writings it appears (or as I said earlier seems) to be about his copping-out on a vow he gave as a mature adult.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I’m with Jeffrey:

    She does need to disclose this — TO HER EDITOR. The editor should, over time, have an idea whether she can handle this.

    If the churches are dueling in some way, and I was a member of one, I would have requested a co-writer. But this is an issue for the reporter and her editor. Period.

  • Eric W

    I remember Jerry Johnston. We used to live in Kansas City, and he was a young star at Al and Vidy Metsker’s Kansas City Youth For Christ, and a graduate of CUBI (KCYFC’s Christ Unlimited Bible Institute) – a skinny kid with piercing eyes, a dynamic way of speaking, and the ability to shout and pound the pulpit with the best of them. I remember watching him on TV when he spoke at Jerry Falwell’s church.

    That was back in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s.

    It sounds like he learned how to be a big, successful minister.

  • http://flatlandsfriar.blogspot.com Brett

    If I read Mollie’s post right, the reporter mentions CoR in her piece, so it would seem appropriate to disclose her membership, as reporters do when writing about, say, the company that owns their news outlet. It does not, I believe, disqualify her from the piece, and the work speaks for itself to justify her qualifications.

    Rev. Johnston’s “calling out” of another pastor for some kind of duel seems to me very odd, especially since CoR’s pastor, Adam Hamilton, is also pretty orthodox in his views. I don’t know anything about First Family beyond what I read in the KC Star piece, but very little of what I know of Rev. Hamilton would lead me to believe he views other ministers or congregations as rivals, outside of a church softball league.

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net/ Deborah

    She does need to disclose this — TO HER EDITOR. … this is an issue for the reporter and her editor. Period.

    Given the animosity toward religion (particularly of the conservative Christian variety) that we readers see regularly in the popular press, I don’t agree that this is exclusively an issue of disclosure TO HER EDITOR. It is important to us as lowly, uninformed readers to know what perspective a reporter may be coming from with respect to a story like this.

    And, no, tmatt, I don’t want to start a discussion about whether every story needs a disclosure of some sort. I merely thought that it was a thoughtful touch here. Period.

  • Scott Allen

    Sorry TMATT, I support full disclosure of the background of all reporters (perhaps posting a “Bio” on the publication’s web site?).
    I don’t always agree with Deacon Bresnahan, but I do on this one. The media wants full disclosure on everything but rarely does so, itself.

    Plus, as a practical matter, you’re better off pre-empting others by putting out your own Bio instead of letting others act like they have “discovered” some “hidden” bias.

    Also, it’s a personal connection that gets people reading certain Blogs and authors online (at NRO, Townhall, etc.). Look at your buddy Rod Dreher. He has successfully packaged himself and created a niche while his traditional news job (or at least the section — Religion at the Dallas Morning News) has been eliminated. As much as I dislike Dreher, others are drawn to him. It’s a new age.

    Regarding First Family church, I actually attended a service in approx. 2001 when I was assigned to a nearby Marine Corps reserve command. Theologically it seemed OK but it relied not on the Word but big multimedia presentations and I found it sorta creepy. At the church I ultimately selected, our pastor on one occasion mentioned that he had rejected an invitation to join First Family in some sort of initiative. In general he said they had too much “razmatazz.” Not a very Biblical comment, necessarily, but while we want to separate “worship style” from content, the truth is that the style can dictate how much content you communicate (that is, “the medium is the message”). A good pastor “reports” on the Bible by quoting it consistently and accurately!

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Scott:

    Rod is an EDITORIAL writer. I am a columnist.

    I was speaking of reporters on traditional news beats.

  • Dennis Colby

    Scott Allen writes: “Sorry TMATT, I support full disclosure of the background of all reporters (perhaps posting a “Bio” on the publication’s web site?).”

    Scott, exactly what would this accomplish? How detailed would this biographies be? Would this include all reporters – say, the entertainment reporter? The court reporter? Is it important to you to know that the person who writes up the police blotter is a Presbyterian?

    What happens when the first Catholic priest tells the paper they refuse to talk to non-Catholic reporters? I agree with Jeff Sharlet: you know you’re reading journalism when you can’t deduce a reporter’s opinions from their story. Stray biographical details would only muddy the water.

  • Adam Greenwood

    “The unspoken corollary here is that only Catholics should write about Catholics, only Jews should write about Jews, etc. which is obvious nonsense.”

    The unspoken corollary is that information is good. As the gal said up in the first few comments, no one is neutral on religion, and outsiders and insiders both have a perspective that’s useful but also biased. That bias doesn’t have to obvious to be worth knowing about.

    Could a journalist ethically conceal this kind of information from an editor? If not, why can’t the readers know it too? Readers aren’t proles.

  • Dennis Colby

    “That bias doesn’t have to obvious to be worth knowing about.”

    So what do you do with that knowledge? What conclusions does it let you draw? If you learn that a Lutheran has written a story about the Catholic Church, does that entitle you to dismiss the reporting entirely? Biography isn’t destiny, as much as some people wish it were that easy.

  • Scott Allen

    Gee Dennis, I suppose if writers provided some biographical background, readers would think about the bio. Then they would draw any conclusions they wished. Sorry that you’re uncomfortable with the fact that “some people” may act a bit crazy with that knowledge.

    Of course, attribution is required by public law for political ads. But journalists are agenda free, right?

    How wonderful that folks like you and TMATT protect me from such dangerous knowledge.

  • Dennis Colby

    “Of course, attribution is required by public law for political ads. But journalists are agenda free, right?”

    Political ads have to carry a line about who paid for the ad, not whether the person who paid for it is Catholic. Let’s try to stick with apples-to-apples here.

  • Dennis Colby

    Scott,

    Also, if you’ll read what I wrote, I never make the claim that people (I never used the phrase “some people,” incidentally) will “act a bit crazy” upon learning a reporter’s religious affiliation. I have no idea what that even means.

    I just asked a simple question: What do you think the knowledge of a reporter’s religious affiliation or lack thereof would contribute to a news story? Specifically, what conclusions would readers be able to draw from that knowledge?

    My opinion is many would draw the wrong conclusion – that people who aren’t Jewish can’t write about Jews, that people who aren’t Zoroastrian can’t write about Zoroastrians, etc. Journalists should be judged by their work, not how (or whether) they worship a divine being. Is that so controversial?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I don’t think people’s personal affiliations or views really have that much to do with how they report. I have colleagues who are the most personally liberal people I know — but I would trust them to write anything about any conservative institution or group. I have gay colleagues who write more fairly about gay issues than some straight colleagues.

    However, I do think that certain affiliations could give the impression of conflict of interest — if not reality. In those cases, I would appreciate disclosure. But that would just be on a case-by-case basis.

  • Raphie

    Regarding the “rivalry” that is mentioned by some of the posters… I can assure you that any “rivalry” exists in the minds of certain First Family Church members only. As far as Jerry “calling out” the pastor at Church of the Resurrection, he has done it from his pulpit a couple of times, but refuses to meet with him to discuss their theological differences.

    The thrust of the article written by Judy Thomas was not to discuss theological differences, but rather to bring to light the manner in which the finances (and things financially related) are under the tight control of Jerry and his family. The reference to Church of the Resurrection was used only to contrast congregation size and budget. That was all.


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