Unitarian ghost and a new Dr. Death

If there is a list of GetReligion’s deadly journalism sins that affect religion coverage, one of the top items has to be this one: Don’t play the God card unless you intend to follow through and offer the reader some facts about the actual role that faith played in the story.

You know the kind of story we’re talking about. So you have this fallen football star who is trying to come back from moral failure and he talks about how the Lord is on his side, etc. Then that’s it. Readers never hear from a pastor or see any information that documents that the person is active in a faith tradition in any way, period. Or what about the famous coach who is talking about faith all the time and it’s clearly central to his life and work — yet the stories rarely offer any specifics?

Well, the Newspaper That Lands in My Yard served up a story of this kind the other day — with a twist.

In this case, it’s hard to say that the story played the God card because we are dealing with a controversial figure who may or may not still be a Unitarian minister. This is significant, because Dr. Lawrence Egbert is, we are told, a brilliant academic who is now becoming known as “The New Doctor Death,” an activist who has been present at 100 deaths. This summary passage describes the landscape of this Baltimore Sun report:

A decade after Jack Kevorkian went to prison for helping a man with Lou Gehrig’s disease commit suicide, Egbert, 83, has been dubbed “The New Doctor Death” by Newsweek after being criminally charged in two states for his role as medical director for the Final Exit Network. An Arizona jury acquitted him last month following a three-week trial in the death of a Phoenix woman. He has also been charged in Georgia.

The cases have revived the debate over assisted suicide and placed Egbert, a retired anesthesiologist, at the forefront of the debate over Americans’ right to take their own lives. The Final Exit Network is the only known group performing such work, and members say their assistance is compassionate and progressive. Prosecutors call them “killers.” Even other right-to-die advocates, including Kevorkian himself, disagree with their methods.

Amid the controversy, Egbert has been dismissed from his role teaching classes at the Johns Hopkins University and has had a falling-out with his church.

So, that’s an important point, mentioned high in the story in its summary of the major themes.

One would expect to find out what happened, right? What was this “falling out” about? How does this man’s faith or lack thereof fit into this controversial cause?

One would expect that. Along the way, we find out all kinds of things — on one side of the story. When it comes to brilliant apologists, this is apparently a very one-sided debate. This is not terribly surprising, when reading Sun coverage of social and moral issues. If you read the whole story, you will not find a single unpredictable voice.

Religion makes another brief appearance in mid-stream:

(Egbert) says the key moment came in the mid-1980s when the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Dallas asked if he would euthanize a parishioner with cancer. After researching the issue, he agreed, and though the woman’s daughter talked her out of it, he became a believer in the benefits and rights to assisted suicide.

At the very end, there is one more visitation by the ghost:

Egbert said that he’s received wide support since his arrest but that there has been a backlash locally. At Hopkins, he had been an assistant professor in the anesthesiology department, taught an ethics course, conducted interviews on prospective pre-med students, and was a Unitarian minister at the school’s chapel. Following publicity of the criminal charges, Egbert retains only his title as a professor and is not teaching classes.

Note the past tense. Egbert “was a Unitarian minister” at the chapel in one of the world’s most prestigious medical schools.

But that’s it. That’s all the information the reader gets. I, for one, would be interested in knowing what happened during this so-called “falling out.” This is especially important since Egbert was drawn into this cause through a Unitarian connection and the, if the story is accurate, he cared enough about this progressive approach to religion to become ordained.

So, who out there wants to know how one exits the Unitarian Universalist fold in a debate over euthanasia (if this is, in fact, what happened)? My hand is raised. Way up.

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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://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    This is a guess, it is only a guess. But it is also a phone call (or two) that I would make if I was the reporter.
    I am guessing that Egbert did not have an MDiv or formal ordination, but simply volunteered to lead occasional prayer/meditation/whatever services for Unitarians in the medical school chapel, much as a lay Episcopalian can lead Morning Prayer services. One would have to check with the UUA to see if he represented them in any official capacity or whether they had anything with his dismissal from the chapel. I would be surprised if that was the case. My guess is that he was simply a volunteer for a wider hospital chaplaincy, and that the chaplain-in-charge told him that his services were no longer needed.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I think that could be true. We cannot tell based on what the newspaper published.

    It still would not change my interest in knowing the facts of the dispute that the Sun puts in the nut graph, and then drops. The “falling out” hole is still there.

  • Dave

    As a Unitarian Universalist myself, Terry, I am quite interested in your question.

    Precisely, the story does not say Egbert had a falling out with the Unitarian Universalist Association. He had a falling out with Hopkins, where one of his duties was as a UU chaplain. His exit from that role was part of his breach with Hopkins, not with the UUA.

    If he was an ordained UU minister he still is unless there is evidence to the contrary. UU ministers are ordained by UU congregations, not universities.

    Speaking generally, there are plenty of UUs who support the right to suicide, and a smaller number who support assisted suicide, but neither is a tenet of UUism. The First UUA Principle is support for the worth and dignity of every human individual; its application is this area is, well, tricky.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    It says:

    Amid the controversy, Egbert has been dismissed from his role teaching classes at the Johns Hopkins University and has had a falling-out with his church.


    I agree that this may be a local congregation rather than the association.

    But again, there are not enough facts to tell.

  • Karen

    Ironic, given that one of Jack Kevorkian’s early assisted suicides was John Evans, the minister in the UU congregation I grew up in. Two of the four UU ministers I have worshipped with supported the possibility of assisted suicide, but it was (and would not be) a matter of dogma in a UU congregation and many would most likely disagree. I would have appreciated more information as well and it wouldn’t have taken much for the reporter to follow up.

  • CarlH

    Unfortunately, this could be the result of chopping-block editing rather a failure by the reporter. It happens all too often in all kinds of stories, not just religion stories. The last sentence of the summary passage sounds an awful lot like a “details to follow” statement. The details, such as they are about problems at Johns Hopkins, are there, but I’m left thinking that other details met a block-delete death before publication.

  • Dave

    Terry, you’re right. If the reporter is being strictly accurate this would be with a local congregation because, strictly speaking, the UUA is not a church (nor a denomination); it is an association of churches.

    My own small congregation in Oberlin OH has a relationship with the UU chaplain of Oberlin College. As a chaplain he is a community minister in the UU frame and the UU rules require community ministers to have an affiliation with a UU congregation. Egbert may have had that relationship with a congregation near Hopkins and could have fallen out of favor with them. If that occurred he would still be a UU minister.

    If he fell out of favor with the Association the UU Ministers Association could have dropped him from Fellowship, a serious matter (though he would still be an ordained UU minister).

    I wish the story had given at least that much detail. Note I say “story,” not “reporter,” in agreement with CarlH that the omission might have been editorial.

  • Ethan Contini-Field

    Some other UU folks have already posted accurate info about UU polity. I did a little research and so I’ll try to fill in the gaps:

    I can’t find any evidence that Dr. Egbert is an ordained minister. He is not listed in the UUA Directory section listing all living ministers. He’s not listed in any official ministry role in any of the Baltimore area churches. He seems to be (or have been) a member First Unitarian Church of Baltimore. I found a 2008 sermon on their site that refers to him as a member “serving as a lay chaplain for campus ministry” at Hopkins. He was a listed as a Hopkins campus minister elsewhere as recently as 2008: http://www.mdcase.org/node/58 but note that while other Campus Ministers use a “Rev.” before their title, he does not.

    As other folks above have mentioned, one need not be an ordained minister to help lead a campus group. It is kind of unusual to refer to him as a “campus minister”, but this term might have been assigned to him by the newspaper or other organizations who just swapped around the terminology. But the weight is pretty different: Most laypeople supporting a campus ministry group are volunteers, similar to a youth advisor or Sunday School teacher.

    One plausible scenario (this is completely hypothetical, not factual) Dr. Egbert teaches at Hopkins and is a member of First Unitarian Baltimore. He notices there’s no UU group on campus, and asks the FUB minister about it. The minister then endorses Dr. Egbert to the University as the contact for a UU group (hopefully with the approval of the congregational board, but maybe not), saying, “Yes, he’s with us.” The fact that Dr. Egbert is already on the faculty is another point of accountability. But then, a few years later, the assisted suicide stuff gets controversial. Maybe then Johns Hopkins says, “You can’t work with students anymore. No more teaching, and no more UU campus group.”

    Then maybe Dr. Edgar appeals to the church to go to bat for him, but they don’t, hence the “falling out”. It could be because of the euthanasia thing, or it could be that he just personally wasn’t a good fit anymore (at age 83) and they suggest he step away from it gracefully, but he doesn’t agree. He may still be a member of FUB, but is taking a break to cool off. Or he might be going to another UU church. Or he may have actually resigned his membership, but there’s no evidence that happened. Again, this is all completely hypothetical. It seems extremely unlikely that FUB would have involuntarily removed him from membership unless there was something much bigger going on.

    As people have said above: Because of UUism’s congregational polity, lay members of UU congregations have no formal relationship to the denomination other than through their congregation. The UUA has no power to excommunicate a member. Individual congregations might ask a member to leave in extreme circumstances (usually on behavioral grounds, not ideological) but that wouldn’t prevent that person from joining another congregation.

    Even though it doesn’t apply in this situation, you might be curious: Ordained clergy DO have a relationship to the denomination through ministerial fellowship, which CAN be revoked. However, an ordained minister with revoked fellowship is still an ordained minister and can call themselves “Rev. ___”. And a minister whose fellowship has been revoked can still consider themselves a UU, and still be a member of a UU congregation. They just can’t call themselves a “UU minister”, and more importantly, they will be denied access to the UUA’s system for settling ministers in congregations.

    If your hand is still up, your best bet is a phone call to the minister at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore… though he may consider the matter confidential.

    (A former consultant for UU Young Adult and Campus Ministry)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    That is certainly plausible.

    Actually, my hand is still up because the Sun story does not deliver on the information that it promised, or mangled it.

    BTW, I agree with those who speculated that this looks like a poorly cut/edited story. The presence of the strong religion reference early on makes it seem that the reporter had that in the story and it was cut.

    (Sigh) Every reporter knows how that feels.