Little ado about something big?

Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

That was sort of my reaction to a Dallas Morning News story on a Southern Baptist church “making history” by adding women deacons.

Here’s the top of the Morning News story:

As old-fashioned Baptists might say, Betty Rutledge has stars in her crown for all the church volunteer work she’s done in her 63 years.

She’s played the piano, taught Sunday school, directed vacation Bible school, served as church parliamentarian, and been on personnel, music and missions committees.

“I’ve been busy,” she understated.

Rutledge’s portfolio has expanded to include being a deacon at Community North Baptist Church in McKinney — and apparently to making local history.

The story goes on to explain that, by ordaining four women deacons, Community North apparently became the first — and only — church out of 110 member congregations of the Collin Baptist Association to do so. Collin County is a fast-growing area north of Dallas that includes one of the nation’s more prominent Southern Baptist churches: Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, where former SBC president Jack Graham serves as pastor.

The Morning News frames the “local history” this way:

The distinction has come with a cost, in the form of departed members who did not support the move.

“Several families did leave the church, which grieves me greatly,” said the Rev. Bruce Austin, pastor of Community North. “On the other hand, during the process several families joined our church, knowing many of us favored the election of women deacons.”

The rest of the piece follows pretty much the same matter-of-fact tone, as if the role of women in the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t a highly explosive issue with fiery, passionate positions on both sides.

Maybe that’s by design. Maybe the idea is to report the story in less emotional terms. But if you ask me — and maybe I’m too much of a journalistic rebel-rouser — I’d prefer a bit more spark in my religion news. A bit more reality.

I mean, people don’t typically leave a church — especially in a case like this — with smiles on their faces. I’d suspect there are some angry former members out there who believe this church has chosen the wrong path. Where are their voices? Why are their perspectives not included in the story? For that matter, more context on the church itself would be helpful. Readers never learn the size of the congregation, exactly how many people left, the total number of deacons or the function of the deacon board.

I noticed on the church’s website that it cites the “Baptist Faith and Message” 1963 as its statement of faith, as opposed to the controversial 2000 version. I was surprised that the story included no specific mention of that. (Just recently, I posted on former President Jimmy Carter criticizing the SBC’s “more creed-based and anti-woman” doctrinal positions.)

To its credit, the story does provide important background on how rare women deacons are in the SBC, quoting an expert from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. The report also includes the Dallas area church’s pastor citing the “totality of Scripture” as a reason for the move. A dissenting area pastor claims his counterpart’s sermons represent a “rationale for a radical gender egalitarianism.” But there’s no elaboration on the meaning of either position. Maybe that’s just not possible in a 660-word news story that — in my opinion — deserved more space.

After reading this story, I felt like I had eaten a dry piece of toast.

I would have preferred a double-biscuit with gravy.

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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.

  • Jerry

    I’m going to disagree with your call for a lot of emotion. As someone who grew up with Walter Cronkite’s comforting voice on the evening news, I prefer my news without listening to or reading quotes from people foaming at the mouth angry about this or that.

    And we have as a culture sadly moved far away from his ideal of journalism as is evidenced by this quote: Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Fair enough, Jerry. I always appreciate your input.

  • Franklin Jennings

    Me too!!! I’d much rather have some old fart tell me what I need to know, rather than actually hear, you know, uncomfortable news reported.

  • Bob Smietana

    The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message doesn’t ban women from serving as deacons.

    “Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

  • http://GetReligion.org Bobby

    Thanks, Bob. I didn’t mean to insinuate that the BF&M banned deacons but referenced it in relation to the SBC’s debate on the role of women.

  • Robert

    I agree with Jerry. The emotionalism that has found its way into “objective” journalism has only served to polarize our churches and our country, and we are all the worse for it. As Det. Joe Friday used to say “Just the facts ma’am.”

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Robert, thanks for your comment.

    My point was not that the newspaper should overhype – or overemotionalize – the situation. My point was that if the church just went through a root canal, the story shouldn’t read like all that occurred was a routine six-month cleaning.

  • Passing By

    I didn’t read it as a “six-month cleaning”. It didn’t raise any particular emotions, but might that be because stories about women being ordained are fairly common these days? It’s not like they are breaking any barriers that haven’t been broken.

    It would have been nice to know what the neighboring (Farmersville) pastor meant by the rather cryptic remark:

    “If the ordination of women as deacons is the end of a journey for Community North Baptist, then the difference of opinion between our autonomous congregations will be small,” Barber said. “If it is only the first step of a longer journey, then the growing distance between us will likely prove to be more controversial.”

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Passing By,

    Given the next paragraph, I took the “cryptic remark” as a reference to women pastors:

    Austin said Community North has no plans to ordain a woman as preaching pastor – something that would almost certainly create tensions with other local SBC churches, given that the group believes that the Bible restricts such a role to men.

    As Bob noted, the Baptist Faith and Message clearly takes a stand on women pastors, as opposed to the office of deacon:

    “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

    That’s not to say it hasn’t happened in the SBC.

  • Robert

    How about starting the article with “In a bold move that is sure to ingnite passions on both sides and could even lead to a schism in the SBC…”. That’s the journalist’s spin and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let the readers determine the significance of the ordination of women as deacons in the SBC.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I would be more likely to start the story with something like this:

    A decision by the Community North Baptist Church in McKinney to add female deacons – an apparent first among the 100-plus Southern Baptist churches in Collin County – has prompted some longtime members to leave and reignited the long-running debate over the role of women in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

    Of course, that lede is way too wordy and probably too negative. But it’s certainly a different journalist’s spin than the “making local history” lede.

    That said, I must confess that in my secular reporting days, I was one of the reporters who often had his anecdotal ledes sent back to be rewritten more straightforwardly. In other words, I had trouble practicing what I am now preaching.

  • Robert

    That lead in would be ok if it ended at “has prompted some longtime members to leave.” Period. What follows is editorializing.

  • Jerry

    In other words, I had trouble practicing what I am now preaching.

    I resemble that and so does at least 99% of the human race :-) More seriously, being honest about one’s limitations is the mark of what in my ethnic background we call a mensch.

  • Passing By

    My bad, Bobby. Didn’t make the connection because I had something else in my head.

    Another comment: it would have been interesting to read actual comments from someone who actually did leave. Perhaps the women deacons wasn’t the only issue?

  • Robert

    Comments from people who did leave would have been appropriate–like “man in the street” interviews. Also, rather than saying “four women were ordained” the article could have just given the names of the women and let the reader connect the dots or draw whatever conclusions he or she sees fit.

  • http://www.thewardrobedoor.com Aaron

    Being at an SBC seminary, this is still a live issue. One of the major SBC churches in the area, with many professors in attendance and leadership, has women deacons.

    However, it is in a different context than most. The women deacons function as servants to the women in the church. They are not part of a governing body, as many deacon bodies are in SBC churches.

    Needless to say, there are numerous issues at play in this discussion – not just does the church have a woman who is a deacon.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    So, Aaron, the seminary is once again a hotbed of liberalism? :-)

    Seriously, what form does the governance of the church you mentioned take if the deacons do not perform that role? Is there a governing board? Elders?

  • Hector

    I respect and find compelling the Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental arguments that women priests are an impossibility (though in the last analysis I do disagree with them). That said, I don’t see any reason why a church that doesn’t believe in the apostolic succession, the sacrament of ordination, the general reliability of tradition, or the sacrificing priesthood, has any good ground not to allow women pastors.

    If you can change the ‘matter’ of the Eucharist to allow grape juice to be consumed in place of wine, then you can change the ‘matter’ of ordination to allow women to be ordained in place of men.

    It’s a matter of record that women, throughout history, have served as preachers, prophetesses, visionaries, and spiritual guides. If that’s the function of a pastor, then they should be pastors. What women weren’t able to do, until recent times, was to confect the sacraments; but if you don’t think that’s the prime function of a pastor, then why shouldn’t women be pastors? A women can clearly preach a sermon and explicate the Bible as well as a man.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Hector, was there a part of your comment related to journalism/media coverage?

  • Hector

    Re: Hector, was there a part of your comment related to journalism/media coverage?

    Bobby,

    Isn’t theology rather more interesting and important to our eternal destinies, than journalism/media coverage?

  • Jon in the Nati

    I don’t see any reason why a church that doesn’t believe in the apostolic succession, the sacrament of ordination, the general reliability of tradition, or the sacrificing priesthood, has any good ground not to allow women pastors.

    Hector, at the risk of drawing Bobby’s ire, the rationale for conservative/evangelical protestants not to allow female pastors is very different from that used by the ancient/apostolic churches. Generally it has a lot to do with the biblical injunction that women not speak in church and not hold teaching authority over men.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Bobby,

    Isn’t theology rather more interesting and important to our eternal destinies, than journalism/media coverage?

    You might say the same thing about sports, but you wouldn’t go to ESPN.com to discuss eternal destinies. Alas, GetReligion is a journalism site interested in media coverage of religion. If you want to discuss eternal destinies, this is not the place. There is, however, a way to raise issues such as the ones you did in the context of whether these are questions the media should be asking.

    Jon in the Nati, I’ll reserve my ire this time. :-)

  • Julia

    As someone who grew up with Walter Cronkite’s comforting voice on the evening news, I prefer my news without listening to or reading quotes from people foaming at the mouth angry about this or that.

    I recall Cronkite pontificating about Viet Nam. He was no neutral commentator.


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