When gossip makes the front page

Psssssst.

Did you hear the latest news from Memphis, Tenn.?

A woman accused of church gossip made the front page of The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ metro daily. The story has generated quite a discussion in Elvis Presley’s hometown.

The top of the report:

Dr. Nan Hawkes has been a member of Second Presbyterian Church for 35 years. That would end if she’s excommunicated over charges of “slander, bickering and gossip” against church leadership.

Hawkes, 59, said Wednesday she has been indicted by the church, accused of “offenses of immorality and contempt for the established order of the church.”

The proceedings will be held in March and will be presided over by Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft. An elder at the church, Craft confirmed Wednesday that he has been chosen as chairman of a five-member commission (three men, two women) of church members who will hear the case if it is not settled through negotiations.

Officials with Second Presbyterian, at 4055 Poplar, would not comment on the charges against Hawkes.

“We’re committed to resolving all cases like this in accordance with Scripture and in accordance with our book of order,” said Robb Roaten, church spokesman. “It’s a sad situation that this kind of thing would happen at all.”

(A quick digression before weighing in on the bigger picture: That third paragraph gives the impression that the case is headed to a criminal court judge. The story should have made clearer that a church elder who happens to be a judge will handle the proceedings.)

Readers who submitted the story link to your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas offered differing perspectives on the report.

Said one tipster:

It makes no sense that it is even in the paper, much less front page with a photo.

Another correspondent said:

I suppose it is front-page news because it is so rare for a matter of gossip to be handled through formal charges in a church. Tons of questions leapt out to me that remain unanswered.

I think the second reader is probably right: It’s not often that a church initiates excommunication proceedings against a member for gossip. Moreover, this is not just any church; this is a 3,800-member congregation with a 150-plus-year history in Memphis. To me, this is a legitimate news story, and The Commercial Appeal’s straightforward report gave me no serious heartburn. At the same time, I understand why the church refused to comment.

More interesting to me than the initial story, however, was the column that Commercial Appeal Editor Chris Peck wrote Sunday defending the coverage. You get the impression reading the column that the story offended somebody (or lots of somebodies) at the “big, powerful church” and that Peck is walking a fine line between appeasing those somebodies and voicing his confidence in the journalistic approach taken. The (alleged) gossiping member certainly moves from potential heroine in the news story to all-around louse in Peck’s piece.

From the editor’s column:

In a tart e-mail, Cory Hale, a lifelong subscriber to the newspaper and a member of Second Presbyterian, noted that all kinds of organizations face conflict. Sometimes that conflict simply cannot be resolved and a forced separation must occur, he said. ”Shame on The Commercial Appeal for sensationalizing the ordinary with a front-page story and giving your readership the impression that this is somehow extraordinary, even scandalous, just because it happened in a church — my church.”

A fair comment. And not dissimilar from some discussions inside the newsroom about the newsworthiness of the story.

Some editors asked whether the story was too much of an inside-the-church issue to warrant coverage. Others asked whether the story really mattered much to the public. Still others wondered whether we knew enough about what is going on to report about it.

All good points.

But in the end, there was little disagreement among the journalists that this story was unusual and would have a broad public interest.

I wish the editors who wondered whether the paper knew enough about what was going on had received more of a hearing. Peck’s column provides much more insight and context (assuming his unnamed sources can be believed) on the situation than the initial 655-word news report, which was told primarily from the perspective of the woman accused of gossip. At the same time, the editor provides plausible rationale for why the story matters — the kind of explanation that might have helped the report itself.

All in all, a little more TLC before publication might have negated the need for so much navel gazing afterward. The paper’s highly talented Faith in Memphis columnist David Waters did not write this story, but I’d have loved to have seen it in his capable hands.

What say ye, GetReligion readers? Is a church member facing excommunication for gossip newsworthy? Was The Commercial Appeal’s initial report adequate? Should the paper have dug deeper before going to press?

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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.

  • William

    Cory Hale says:

    Shame on The Commercial Appeal for sensationalizing the ordinary with a front-page story and giving your readership the impression that this is somehow extraordinary, even scandalous, just because it happened in a church — my church.”

    Then the piece goes on to say “A fair comment.”

    No, it’s not. Is excommunication (to use the Roman term) ever an ordinary thing? It sounds from both stories that when a church of any denomination or size expells someone, there is news to be had, and if it really was an ordinary event and everyone was familiar with the process, there wouldn’t be the level of public interest displayed. Here’s the REAL problem: Second Presbyterian has been made to look petty and foolish by a member who may or may not be a nasty person. But an astute reader could ignore that in favor of interest in the excommunication process itself.

  • Seth

    Whether or not the Commercial Appeal’s article was unethical (and there’s a good argument that it was,) it was ill-advised.
    Apparently, Mr. Peck’s standard of good journalism is that a story be “unusual and … have a broad public interest.” I have always thought that a newspaper ought to behave like a good citizen of the community it claims to serve. Clearly, Peck doesn’t share this notion. This article was carelessly and clumsily injurious to good citizens of Memphis who are doing nothing scandalous, and who are simply trying to maintain the integrity and confidentiality of their church disciplinary procedings. The Commercial Appeal allowed itself to be used as a tool by a party to these proceedings whose motives are obviously vicious, and whose credibility is patently inferior.
    Peck’s column was a response to a sudden realization that he had made a mistake of judgment. As such, it was insufficient. An apology would have been appropriate, not a weak attempt at a defense of his poor leadership at the Commercial Appeal.

  • northcoast

    In my very unqualified opinion, the excommunication is news just because such action is so rare. Often I would like to see more detailed information in a story; not so this time. Does the paper go into detail like this every time they report a domestic dispute?

  • John M.

    I stand by my recent assertion (on the recent Driscoll thread) that there is a 0% chance of the media covering a church discipline process in a fair manner. It is so thoroughly antithetical to our culture’s ideas (and the MSM’s ideas in particular) of how churches should behave that it’s just going to be a hot mess by the time it hits print.

    “Hey! Look at these hypocritical Christians! They say they’re going to accept sinners, but look at what they’re doing to this person! Self-righteous, holier-than-thou, neener neener neener. And hey, I found this local pastor who insists–absolutely insists–that Matthew 18 doesn’t mean what it says it means. So these guys must be crazy. So go ahead and run your soup kitchens, but don’t you dare tell me or anybody else who I can and can’t diddle.”

    Relevant quotes from the Peck piece:
    “And not an easy situation to explain in public, given the fact that churches, as a rule, present themselves as a place where sinners can go and be accepted without question.”

    If you don’t understand the difference between John 3:16 and Matthew 18, don’t run the church discipline story. If you don’t understand the difference between a wicket and a 6, don’t run the cricket story.

    “Those far from the particulars probably are asking whether there might have been other ways for the church to break with Hawkes, short of a very public excommunication process.”

    If you don’t understand why churches excommunicate people, don’t run the church discipline story. If you don’t understand why Iowans go out to elementary school gyms and community centers on a cold January night, don’t run the Iowa caucus story.

    -John

  • carl jacobs

    I think it is a legitimate story. It’s a big church and this kind of thing doesn’t happen very often. If it’s a public trial, then the publicity will aide in achieving a fair outcome. It certainly will generate reader interest in that tabloid kind of fashion.

    The problem is I don’t trust the media to treat it fairly. This stinks of ‘gotcha’ journalism. It is a certain fact that the media is only covering this story because it serves “the Agenda” and that convinces me they shouldn’t cover it. I wouldn’t read their stories about it. I wouldn’t trust a word they wrote about it. I wouldn’t even believe the quotes.

    carl

  • Marie

    The fact that some is getting excommunicated can be news because the incident is rare. The fact that religious bodies do in fact excommunicate members is not necessarily news as it is rather common place.

  • Martha

    If any church is invoking excommunication, it is for more than mere gossiping, as the story itself seems to indicate – charges of slander and bickering as well as “contempt for the established order of the church”, so there obviously is a story in there somewhere.

    And yes, we get hints as to what is going in further down:

    “She contends that the real problem is that she continues to nominate women for the board of elders, something their denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, allows.

    Willson has said that only qualified men can be elders at Second Presbyterian, she said.”

    So there is a disagreeement about church leadership, which might even develop into a split. And the “gossip” is her alleged classifying of the minister as suffering from “narcissistic personality disorder”.

    But the way the story is framed, you would think this is about a bunch of women nattering over the coffee about the misdeeds of their neighbours and a heavy-handed church board blowing it up out of proportion.

    “Was The Commercial Appeal’s initial report adequate? Should the paper have dug deeper before going to press?”

    To the first, I would have to say no, because the initial presentation of the events and then the facts in the main body of the story are contradictory in how they make the dispute appear: silly church shenanigans (they’re going to have a church trial over a woman wagging her tongue!) versus possible split in a local church. The paper should dig deeper and keep on this story to see what happens, and if there is more to it – if Dr. Hawkes has support amongst the congregation for trying to get more women into leadership positions or not.

  • Matt

    To its credit, the article correctly identifies the denomination in question, though I think even more background would have been in order. This is not the Presbyterian Church (USA), which is mostly liberal and represents 70% of U.S. Presbyterians (note, that’s becoming an old number); nor is it the Presbyterian Church in America (my denomination), who is mostly conservative and represents another 15% of U.S. Presbyterians. This is the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which tries to split the difference between the two aforementioned and which has been growing quite a bit recently with convulsions wracking the PCUSA.

    It is easy to read between the lines of this article and see that it is not really about gossip at all, but rather a dispute over leadership and the church’s direction. Hawkes freely acknowledges that she has been repeatedly nominating women as church elders, contrary to the church’s bylaws, and the mention of “contempt for the established order of the church” indicates that the church leadership feels she has taken that kind of activity to an extreme and that it is this activity that primarily motivated the action.

    Further background that would have been helpful is that women’s ordination has long been a very touchy topic in the EPC. Historically, the EPC allowed each presbytery (regional overseeing body) to determine whether women would be ordained within its boundaries. This was an effort to “have it both ways”, and it made some sense since the presbytery is ordinarily the ordaining body. However, with the influx of new congregations fleeing the unpleasantness in the PCUSA, the EPC has recently taken this decision away from presbyteries and now says that the issue is for congregations to decide. According to the Second Presbyterian Church website, they have been in the EPC since 1989, so this is part of the EPC “old school”. The article does mention that the congregation leadership wishes to maintain a policy of not ordaining women, but (this is my extra background guesswork again) the removal of a settled order on this issue at the presbytery level has probably opened the door for much contention at the congregational level.

  • Matt

    I wish the editors who wondered whether the paper knew enough about what was going on had received more of a hearing.

    Indeed. This is clearly a complex inter-personal situation, and we clearly don’t know enough about it to make an informed judgment. Maybe better reporting could have fixed that and maybe not, in which case it may have been best to let the story lie.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Hawkes freely acknowledges that she has been repeatedly nominating women as church elders, contrary to the church’s bylaws, and the mention of “contempt for the established order of the church” indicates that the church leadership feels she has taken that kind of activity to an extreme and that it is this activity that primarily motivated the action.

    It was interesting to me that the news story quoted the estranged member as attributing the no-women deacons to the pastor, not to the church itself. But the editor’s column referred to church doctrine. I’ve reached my “10 free views” limit on the paper’s website so can’t recall if I saw mention of bylaws on that issue.

  • Chris Bolinger

    This is on the church’s Web site.

  • zman

    I think it’s interesting to contrast this with coverage (what coverage there has been) of the Mars Hill/Andrew situation. While the details are different, the overarching issues are similar. A member’s behavior runs up against church policies, doctrines & disciplines, so how does the church handle it?

    The differences in what is emphasized in the coverage – and maybe appeal as a story – seems driven by “cultlike leadership” and personality, a highly visible church and what is traditionally viewed as more scandalous behavior on the one hand. On the other, an established, more traditional church, behavior that is not normally considered worthy of active church discipline, and the subtext of it being about women in leadership.

    Salacious behavior and a polarizing leader, throw in the C-word and you have all the makings of a lead story, don’t you? A well-established, traditional church, a polarizing member and the issue of women in leadership and you also have the makings of a lead story, don’t you?

    I think they both have merit as stories and what is emphasized in the articles is most interesting to me.

  • Frank Lockwood

    Dr. Hawke’s excommunication is, no doubt, an interesting story.

    The problem with the original Commercial Appeal story is that it needed to quote somebody who favors Dr. Hawke’s excommunication. In a church with 3,800 members, surely somebody could have offered better insight on this topic.

    It also needed more authoritative information about how often Presbyterians (and other denominations) excommunicate members, and the steps they pursue prior to an excommunication to try to seek reconciliation.

    Cory Hale says churches excommunicating gossips is “ordinary” — not “extraordinary.” I’m guessing (I’m hoping) it’s fairly extraordinary. It’s also fairly interesting.

  • rob in williamson county

    Matt’s answer was right on–I’m PCA as well, and I would only add that excommunication is the last step in what must have been a fairly long process. The elders would have first admonished her privately, then probably in front of 2-3 witnesses, it’s all in Matthew 18 as John M notes above.

    Oh yeah, about the journalism: it seemed to me the story was superficial in the sense that it focused mostly on the excommunication and not on the greater complexity of this issue. If the church has followed the tenets of Biblical discipline, and the person in question remains “in rebellion,” the Church has to act or risk a split. This is as much a Biblical commandment as it is a practical thing that the church must do to avoid a split. When I joined my PCA church, I swore before God and my congregation to submit to discipline if required (among other things). It seems like the story could have delved more deeply into theological issues like this instead of making it appear that a member was being excommunicated for “gossip”.

  • Matt

    Rob, indeed the EPC membership vows appear to be very similar to those of the PCA. Their Book of Church Order is here, and the membership vows are on page 19 (section 9-2D). The fifth question to be affirmed by any prospective member reads:

    Do you submit yourself to the government and discipline of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and to the spiritual oversight of this Church Session [i.e., board of elders], and do you promise to promote the unity, purity and peace of the Church?

    Please note that this vow not only pledges submission to the church’s government, discipline, and oversight. It also pledges to promote “unity, purity, and peace.” This basically means that causing a big stink about a decision that didn’t go her way is directly contrary to the membership vows to which Ms. Hawkes voluntarily committed herself.

    My point here, of course, is not to take sides in the dispute (even though I may have an opinion). That’s not the purpose of this blog. My point is that this is not about gossip. It is about far more fundamental issues of Christian conduct. The newspaper’s choice to focus on the gossip angle has the lamentable effect of falsely making the church look petty.


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