Glass-ceiling puff piece

If you’re a baseball purist, imagine a metro daily publishing a full-length story about the designated-hitter rule and quoting only those who favor it. If you thought “American Idol” was better with Paula Abdul as a judge, imagine a major media report that interviews only fans who believe Ellen DeGeneres is God’s gift to reality TV. Would either piece impress you as quality journalism?

Now, hopefully, you’re in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the disturbing level of bias and/or journalistic incompetence in a Minneapolis Star-Tribune profile this week of a black woman (yes, race is an issue in the story) who decided to become a senior pastor. Here’s the main headline and deck:

Doing a manly job

A determined preacher refused to accept her minister’s admonition that women can’t lead a church.

And here’s the top of the story:

In 1993, the Rev. Hattie Horne reached a point where “I could either do what God wants or what man wants. So I decided to do what God wants.”

She wasn’t using “man” in the generic, “mankind” sense. She meant it in the specific, gender-related way. She wanted to become a pastor, but the male minister at her church believed that women weren’t qualified.

So, she quit and started her own church.

The story’s basic theme: Stand up and cheer this incredible example of a strong African-American woman who broke through the glass ceiling of a discriminatory religion. Pardon my sarcasm, but if readers could sue for journalistic malpractice, this story might offer a potential test case.

We never find out Horne’s denominational affiliation — if she has one — although we do learn that her congregation is called the True Love Church. We get no details either on the “male minister,” except for this statement:

Horne doesn’t want to call out her old church or its minister. When she encounters the minister, “I greet him with respect and keep moving.”

How nice. The paper gives Horne carte blanche to share her point of view. Meanwhile, the unidentified minister — and you can bet many readers know who she’s talking about — is the male chauvinist. And there’s no need for the reporter to go through the whole messy process of gathering input from both sides.

This entire puff piece focuses on societal — or perhaps secular is the better word — issues and implications related to a woman serving as a pastor. Not once does the article reference any theological reasons why some religious groups (let’s see: Roman Catholics, Southern Baptists, the Orthodox, a majority of the world’s Anglicans) ordain men, not women, as senior pastors. For that matter, the article offers no theological reasons why other major denominations — United Methodists, Assemblies of God, many Episcopal Churches in the U.S. — disagree with the men-only doctrine.

Earth to Star-Tribune editors: There’s this neat little invention called Google News. Plug in a phrase such as “women as pastors,” and you might be able to add a bit of national context. For example, you could note that this is a subject of never-ending theological debate. Just in recent days, a Chicago priest who made headlines for mocking Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign caused a new furor by publicly supporting the ordination of women as priests. In Georgia, a Baptist state convention in Georgia threatened to cut ties with a church where a woman serves as co-pastor.

While not perfect, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story at least attempted to frame the theological issues involved:

“I’ve seen women in the ministry and worked with women in Presbyterian and Methodist churches,” the Rev. Mimi Walker said. “They are moving forward in the process of keeping women involved in the ministry and moving toward equality. … Our disagreement is related to how you interpret Scripture.”

She pointed to Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

David W. Key Sr., director of the Baptist studies program at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, said many people cite St. Paul’s words from 1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent.”

Unfortunately, the Star-Tribune missed a tremendous opportunity to tell a compelling religion story — one about religion and race. Consider this nugget:

Horne, 62, is one of only 23 black women who are senior pastors in the Twin Cities. With 312 African-American churches in the metro area, that means that 7 percent of them have women as senior pastors, a figure in line with nationwide averages.

Horne is convinced that being part of a black church made it tougher for her to be taken seriously as a minister.

“I know plenty of white women ministers who have had it hard, too,” she said. “But I do think it’s harder in the black church. Too many black churches are run by boards that are still all-male. They’re the good old boys, and they make separate programs for the women. Well, I don’t believe in separate women’s programs, and I don’t believe in the good old boys.”

That’s a great statistic on black pastors in the Twin Cities. Call me a stickler, but I need a source. Horne’s claim that it’s more difficult to be a female pastor in a black church also is interesting. But develop it. Talk to black church leaders and members. Provide some historical background. Interview a few theologians.

To be fair, we do get this bit of insight:

Bettye Collier-Thomas, director of Temple University’s Center for African-American History and Culture in Philadelphia, said that Horne is not alone in encountering sexism in the church. It’s a topic she explores in a recently published book, “Jesus, Jobs and Justice: African-American Women and Religion.”

“I’m not saying that changes haven’t occurred,” Collier-Thomas said. “But the changes have come incrementally. It’s still a male-dominated society. In terms of ascending to the point where women can function as equals to men, no, we’re not there yet.”

That’s a start. But again, it needs to be balanced. The implication is that women are not equal to men if they can’t serve as pastors. That’s one viewpoint, yes. But it’s not the only one.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Martha

    “She wanted to become a pastor, but the male minister at her church believed that women weren’t qualified.

    So, she quit and started her own church.”

    Okay, that does sound like sloppy reporting; it seems that the only objection to her discerning if she had a call to the ministry was the pastor at her church. So why did she feel the need to start her own up? Unless, of course, it wasn’t a personal, biased, misogynistic decision by one man but the position of the entire denomination or group of churches.

    So which was it, newspaper person? One guy saying “Nope” or the entire denomination?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Good question, Martha.

  • Julia

    The reporter gives the impression that a church board not wanting to have a woman minister is the same as not wanting a female doctor or lawyer.

  • Jerry

    I can understand the need and desire for a story to contain all the controversy it can, but there’s a limit in my judgment. I don’t consider this a “puff piece” at all but rather a biographical sketch which should be evaluated on those terms.

    I think some here would take a report on Lincoln’s famous statement on joining a church and want a reporter to visit all the local churches to get their reaction to the quote. Personally, I don’t feel the need for such.

    And in case any wonder what quote I’m referring to it is:

    “When any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement of the substance of both law and Gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and thy neighbor as thyself’ that church will I join with all my heart and all my soul.”

    It’s interesting to consider that quote is still alive today given all the controversy about church membership that still roils our country’s seas.

  • Alex

    On the one hand, I’m annoyed that the Star-Tribute didn’t simply take 30 seconds to Wikipedia “complementarianism” and to lift the quotation in the first section. And then, on the other, I realise that “complementarianism” is a word that almost no-one outside the appropriate circles would know.

    It’s been put forward before that church leaders should write a Christian-jargon glossary or “Cannon Law for Dummies”. Perhaps just a reverse dictionary would suffice.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Appreciate everyone’s comments.

    Jerry, if this were simply a biographical sketch of this woman, then your argument would be appropriate. However, from the beginning, the story focuses on the aspect of whether a woman can serve as a pastor and the fact that this woman broke through that barrier, so to speak. The story includes stats on the small number of female pastors and an expert opinion claiming sexism in the church. So, no, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to criticize the piece as one-sided and lacking in appropriate content and context.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    As handy as Wikipedia is, a reporter in Minneapolis has an even more convenient source for a complementarian position.


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