When your pews are in the news

GetReligion readers, I have a question for you. How many of you are part of religious congregations that have ended up in the news? Perhaps even more than once?

What happened? What went right and what went wrong? What did you learn from the experience?

Now, don’t go wild. I know that it’s easy to say that everything was messed up. In my experience, that rarely happens. What happens is that journalists — especially those with no experience or training on the religion beat — tend to get certain kinds of details right and certain kinds of details wrong.

In other words, I have seen patterns. I am interested in knowing what kinds of patterns you have seen when your church ended up on the other side of the reporter’s notebook.

Regular GetReligion readers will know that the parish I attend — Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland — has ended up being in the news quite a bit. In part, this is because the wife of our priest is Frederica Mathewes-Green, a nationally known writer, speaker and commentator.

Then, there is the fact that our church is (a) close to the media of Washington, D.C., and (b) a perfect symbol for this era in which many Americans — especially evangelicals and former mainline Protestants — are choosing to convert into the ancient churches of the East. Our parish is at least 80 to 90 percent converts and their children. Thus, we ended up in the New York Times, which tends to get you noticed. Thus, a crew from a national Russian television network came to call. Does anyone out there speak Russian?

There’s more. A talented chanter in our parish (a young woman who may be the best choral musician I have sung with in my life) was the subject of a lovely feature on the PBS Religion & Ethics Weekly show, which ended up being amazingly popular online. Then I ended up, because of GetReligion.org, being the subject of a Baltimore Sun profile, which drew a bit of a crowd via the folks at Poynter.org.

It happened again the other day, with reporters at two local newspapers writing about the parish in news features linked to Easter or, as we call it in the East, Pascha. The Maryland Gazette did a short piece, based primarily on talks with Father Gregory and Frederica Mathewes-Green. Here’s a sample:

Mathewes-Green said the Parrish is largely made up of people in their 20s and 30s who were raised in different faiths.

“I think there is a big search going on today,” Mathewes-Green said. “Our congregation is devout. People are often surprised at how little a role the priest plays. Everyone has a part.” …

Tonight, when the parishioners follow Mathewes-Green back into the church they will be singing in English, Greek, Slovanic, Romanian and Arabic. Following a mass they will then go to the basement where they will be greeted with their Paschal baskets filled with meats, cheeses, wine and other things forbidden during lent.

“It’s the feasts of feasts,” said Mathewes-Green. “Russians will be drinking vodka and people will walk around with their favorite dishes asking if you would like to sample them.”

The Baltimore Sun piece by veteran reporter Jonathan Pitts was much longer and more involved and, thus, dealt with more complicated issues that are hard to keep straight. Consider this section about a service the week before Pascha:

It was the Great Vespers service of Palm Sunday, the first day of the holiest, most hopeful week of the year for the world’s 225 million Orthodox Christians, 2.6 percent of whom live in the United States. The faith blends ceremony and mystery in a way worshippers say makes their faith less a doctrine than a living thing.

But at Holy Cross, one of four parishes of its kind in Maryland, the old gives rise to the new. Most members are in their 20s and 30s. About 70 percent are converts, including former atheists, Anglicans, Catholics and Buddhists. The group embraces Caucasians, Asians and blacks, ethnic Serbs and Greeks, and occupations from research biologist to homemaker to roof repairman.

For a faith often identified with Eastern ethnic groups, at Holy Cross it has a bustling, American feel.

Now there are all kinds of things in that short passage that Orthodox Christians could spend hours discussing.

For example, Holy Cross is said to be “one of four parishes of its kind in Maryland.” But there are way more Eastern Orthodox parishes than that in the state. The global statistics are for all of Orthodoxy, but then the reference to Holy Cross seems to be to the Antiochian archdiocese alone (which has five parishes in Maryland).

Also, I know what people are talking about when they say that Orthodoxy is a “living thing” that is more than mere doctrine. However, that makes it sound as if the doctrine is not all that important or that it is evolving and changing. The bottom line is that the church is called “Orthodox” for a reason. It’s a faith that you learn by living it and that includes the doctrine that is woven into the rites, hymns, prayers, the fasting, confession and everything else. There is more to the faith than the words of the doctrines, but never less.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s a fine and sensitive article, but there are other fine points linked to doctrine and history that are also tricky.

This is my point. Recently, I had a chance to speak to a New York City gathering of communicators from a spectrum of religious bodies. We talked about the kinds of facts and themes that are just hard for reporters to keep straight. We kept cycling back to issues of history, doctrine and law. It seems that some things are just too detailed and rich for reporters — even fine, dedicated reporters — to keep straight. Throw in a several layers of controversy about some of these topics and things can get messy.

Reporters do not like errors. Neither to the people touched by the stories. What can religious groups do to help with the process? That’s the question.

OK, I have gone on and on. But I think about this both as a journalist and as a churchman. Readers, what have you observed? Let me warn you that I will take down the usual straw-man, generalized attacks on journalists as a group and the whole profession. Be detailed. Offer URLs to stories about your congregations and movements, if you wish.

Discuss.

Top photo: Pascha at Holy Cross, in 2009.

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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.

  • Bill Crawford

    Back in 2004, the preacher (one of the staff at our church) said something encouraging folks to vote for President Bush (I don’t remeber exactly what he said).

    A member of the congregation who was more politically liberal told a reporter at the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle about it.

    The reporter interviewed both the one reporting the remark and the pastor who made it. All in all, I remember it being a fair and balanced report.

  • Michael Pettinger

    Ignorant question. I notice that that Maryland Gazette piece refers to “a mass.” Is that normal terminology among English-speaking Eastern Orthodox Christians?

  • Jerry N

    The singing in multiple languages refers to the chanting of the Gospel in the Easter liturgy, I presume?

  • Jerry

    Now there are all kinds of things in that shot passage

    I assume “shot” a typo for short rather than a Freudian slip:-)

    In my experience personally and with other groups I know about, building projects tend to evoke bad coverage. Often there are some people who distort the actual intent and plan, sometimes quite dramatically crossing the line from “distortion” to “falsification”. Rather than dig for details and try to understand the situation, the reporter often just presents a superficial “he said, she said” view of the situation which gives weight where it’s not justified.

    Of course this is not limited to just churches but I have noted it several times for religious institutions in the SF Bay Area over the past couple of years.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    VARIOUS:

    No, our rite is called the Divine Liturgy.

    Our parish sings a wide variety of music from various Orthodox traditions and there are fragments of many languages in the service.

    Thanks for helping with the typo, Jerry.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I am a member of the Churches of Christ. A majority of the time when writing about our fellowship, reporters will refer to the “pastor.” Often, they will include “the Rev.” before the minister’s name. Neither title is one that our fellowship uses for the preacher, as AP style clearly points out (but few writers bother to check AP style on this). The error by reporters irritates some members and really upsets others.

    A couple of years ago, I wrote a freelance story for the Tulsa World on a Church of Christ minister who attends an annual fantasy baseball camp. Knowing how frequently the error occurs, I wrote a note at the top of my article when I submitted it. I’m assuming the note didn’t make it to the final editors because the piece that appeared in print included a headline about the “pastor” and identified the minister as “the Rev.” in the text of the article.

    I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. :-)

  • Ivan

    If I had more time, I’d give a rough translation of what’s going on in the Russian piece. Perhaps after finals.

  • http://enxc.blogspot.com/ Matt

    The monastery where my wife and I attend church operates a restaurant and has made the news several times. Here are a couple links:

    MetroMode
    Hour Magazine

    The MetroMode story refers to Father’s cassock as his “Cossack.” But aside from that, these stories do a fine job, and anyway are more about the restaurant than about the church itself.

  • Shaun G

    Regarding tmatt’s question about how religious groups and people can help journalists more accurately and more evenhandedly cover their faiths …

    I recently (as in, a few days ago) started a little project to help reporters and other journalists “get” Catholicism.

    It’s called The Reporter’s Catechism:

    http://reporterscatechism.pressbin.com

    There are only a couple dozen entries right now, and some of them are quite brief and need to be expanded and edited, but I’m hoping that over time, with the help of others, it will get fleshed out.

    So what makes it different from the official catechism?

    Aside from giving a brief explanation of the key concepts themselves, it also offers “style notes” that explain how certain terms should be used, along with some warnings about potentially ambiguous or objectionable usage.

    If there are any folks out there who are interested in contributing to the project, please send me a note via’s the site’s “feedback” form.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I would suggest providing a printed hand-out that touches on and explains things that a church knows from bitter experience reporters usually get horrendously wrong. Reporters frequently like something to refer to that has been easily gotten. In fact,some of the media seems to have a plagiarism problem these days so you might see or hear more than you expect from your handout in a story.
    And Shaun–provide a spelling lesson for the word “canon”–I am tired of seeing even normally competent people refer to “Church cannon law.” Even the highly erudite Alan Dershowitz in his column defending Pope Benedict (claiming that the reporting on him appeared to him to be smears rather than fact based reporting) spelled the word “cannon.”

  • Jerry

    Deacon Bresnahan and I agree about almost nothing, but his advice to have a press release with explanations of the points you want to make is good advice. I would not word that advice negatively as he did but positively – the easier you make it for a reporter to understand the points you are trying to make the better.

  • Rebecca

    My church had been in the news at least once, though that was years before I joined. Actually we talk about it in inquirer’s class. The article title was, “A new rite: Ex-Episcopalians hold first service in Orthodox church”. The article talked about what the Western Rite is, the new building, and the fact that the congregation held Sunday services on folding chairs the previous day. Unfortunately, at the time the building hadn’t been cleared for occupation so the priest got chewed out by the building inspector.

  • Ben

    I was attending Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, Mass. at the height of the Church scandal in Boston and the tensions between Cardinal Law and priests like my own, Father Walter Cuenin. Cuenin and the parish got a bunch of press. For the most part, I thought the coverage was excellent, with reporters capturing well the anger in the pews, the tensions with Law, and portraying Cuenin’s dissents fairly. It helped that Cuenin was obviously good at giving strong quotes. When Cuenin was finally forced out by the archdiocese over a scandal that many in our parish considered ridiculous, articles like this one did a good job raising questions about his departure by talking to a range of people.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    Many years ago, a reporter visited my parish’s food pantry, and recorded a short sound-bite about city funding cutbacks that were forcing some pantries to close. On camera, I agreed that this was a bad thing.

    The problem was that, although cutbacks were apparently closing some shelters that year, ours wasn’t among them. Our volunteers wanted their customary summer break. That important nuance wasn’t reflected by the piece that eventually aired, which was a fairly typical piece on how hard-hearted the mayor was.

    To its great credit, the mayor’s office called me up within a few days, and offered to help find funds to keep the pantry running. I felt like an idiot (and much worse) when I had to turn them down.

    The reporter should, clearly, have visited a church that actually had the problem she was reporting on. I should have politely declined to say anything, especially on camera. We were both young and foolish.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I thought of something else: Our 1,200-member Church of Christ made the news about three years ago when a deacon was arrested on child pornography charges. This was the lead story on the 10 o’clock TV news and made the major daily paper. The story broke late one day and was the subject of follow-ups the next day, a Wednesday.

    What the initial stories failed to provide was any context about the role of a deacon in our church. It made it sound like he was a much more high-profile and important figure than he was. In fact, our congregation is overseen by a group of about 16-20 elders. Then we have about 50 deacons who oversee ministries such as benevolence, missions, maintenance, etc.

    The second day, we already had our regular Wednesday night Bible classes planned. The church leaders decided to be real open about this case, voice strong concern for the victims and pray for this man and his family. The TV cameras were invited to film the service. Reporters were allowed to interview anyone they wanted, anywhere they wanted (people in the building and in the parking lot; nobody was off limits). And basically, the church made it clear that we had nothing to hide. An official church spokesman was appointed to speak to the media and attempt to explain our church leadership structure and the role this deacon played, which was working with a men’s ministry, not children.

    I think the openness and the willingness to acknowledge that it should be news when a deacon is arrested on such charges — no matter how many deacons you have — helped. Video of our church singing, praying and coming together led the 10 o’clock news that night on the local CBS affiliate. It was the best possible image for such a terrible situation.

  • Dave

    The Oberlin Unitarian Universalist Fellowship has had a few interactions with the Oberlin News-Tribune in the time I’ve been here (1994-present), usually following OUUF sending the News-Trib a release about something we wanted publicized. The interaction is invariably orderly.

    Once a reporter misidentified the local UCC church as the first in the town to open up to gays and lesbians in the pews. At the time OUUF had a lesbian minister, and several letters of correction from UUs went to the News-Trib editor. The paper took a defensive posture for a week, until the UCC minister wrote a letter stating that he’d never made that claim to a reporter, and the paper backed down.

    Having seen spectacular church-press collisions in the past and currently ongoing, I’m grateful our interactions have been boring.

  • http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/dec/06/lesbian-elected-episcopal-bishop-in-los-angeles/ Julia Duin

    Anyone have a link to that profile in the Baltimore Sun? The links in your commentary are not working…

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie
  • http://twitter.com/kevinjjones Kevin J Jones

    My Denver suburb parish was once mentioned in a Lincoln, Nebraska newspaper’s piece on the local diocese there.

    It had commentary from a parishioner and former Lincoln resident about how great she thought the church and her pastor were.

    Big problem: the story ran six months after the pastor left for another assignment! So either the parishioner wasn’t a regular attendee or the story had been on the back burner for a long time.

  • http://khanya.wordpress.com Steve Hayes

    Reading the headline, I expected to see a story about a controversy involving int introduction of pews into an Orthodox Church, or the removal of pews that had been previously introduced by zealous purists. But there was nothing remotely connectyed with that in the body of the article.

    When Orthodox themselves write misleading headlines, we can’t complain when secular journalists get it wrong.

  • Keshav

    After Sept. 11, the local news did a peace on various religious denominations doing what they could for the victims. This was before we built the new temple, but my Hindu congregation under the Chinamaya Mission was interviewed. It was actually really short and this was before Youtube so I’m not sure we’d ever find it.


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