Slow-pitch screamer on the Godbeat

When I was younger and trimmer, I played organized softball.

In high school, I joined a co-ed team from the McDonald’s where I flipped frozen patties and endured grumpy customers. That league exposed this sheltered Church of Christ kid to cursing, drinking and the full spectrum of human imperfection.

In other words, it prepared me quite nicely for the church league where I suited up after college. My coach, a member of my home congregation, inevitably ended up red-faced as he argued call after call with the umpires. My team did not consume anything stronger than Coca-Cola (at least where anyone could witness it), but our Roman Catholic opponents generally showed up with coolers full of adult beverages.

These memories came flooding back as I read a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story this week. The top of the story by Godbeat pro Tim Townsend:

The Tuesday night scene couldn’t have been more American — teams from the local churches, decked in matching T-shirts, faced each other on the softball field as their fellow congregants cheered from the bleachers.

But in the last two weeks, this league of six church softball teams shrank to five when the pastors of three of the churches told one of the member churches that their teams would no longer take the field against that church’s team.

The problem was not pine tar or steroids, it was the sexual orientation of the new pastor of St. John United Church of Christ.

“Three congregations said they were uncomfortable playing our team because I am their pastor and I am an out bisexual person,” said the Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell, 27, “which is surprising because I don’t even play.”

Not surprisingly, this is one of those stories that immediately gained national legs. Religion News Service distributed Townsend’s piece, while news organizations ranging from The Associated Press to Fox News to the Huffington Post assigned reporters to it.

The Post-Dispatch report — a concise, 500-word daily news story — did a nice job of allowing the various parties in the dispute to explain their positions in their own words:

Bethel Baptist Church in nearby Lonedell is among the churches whose pastors didn’t want to compete against the team from Darnell’s church.

“We believe that God’s word speaks clearly about boundaries, and that lifestyle is outside of those boundaries,” the Rev. Ben Kingston, Bethel Baptist pastor, said Tuesday evening from behind the backstop.

Really, such balance in a news story is basic journalism. But regular readers of GetReligion know how often that mainstream media reports fail to reach that standard, particularly on this specific subject matter.

In one case, the St. Louis newspaper did allow Darnell to make a claim without seeking a response:

Darnell said he had also felt some tension in the local ministerial alliance, a collection of pastors, but that the members there had decided to allow him to remain despite his sexual orientation.

“They decided they would benefit from an alternate viewpoint,” he said.

In the local newspaper, the St. Clair Missourian, the alliance president took issue with that characterization.

If I can be nitpicky (and I guess I can since that’s what we do here at GetReligion), I wish the Post-Dispatch story had tackled a few additional questions, including:

— The United Church of Christ left after three teams in the six-team league raised objections. I wish the story had included the names of the other two churches in the league (those that presumably did not seek the other church’s ouster) and their reactions to the controversy.

— I wish the writer had included more background on the theological beliefs concerning homosexuality of the churches involved. I’m assuming the three Baptist churches mentioned are Southern Baptist, but the story does not specify that.

— I would have welcomed more detail on what the pastor means by “bisexual.” Is he a practicing bisexual? Does he believe in a monogamous, committed relationship with one other person — male or female?

— Perhaps most importantly, I wish the piece had included more depth on the softball league itself and its mission. Are there any alcoholics, porn addicts or divorced people in the league? What sins are players not allowed to commit if they wish to remain in this league? If I recall correctly, the Bible says that Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. Why do the concerned pastors believe he would not play softball with a bisexual pastor?

The only other story that I wanted to highlight on this subject was the AP report. This line in the AP report stood out to me:

Darnell said he has reached out to Church of Christ congregations and other sympathetic churches in the area about forming their own softball league, or at least playing in a tournament.

Um, as a lifelong member of the Church of Christ, I can assure the AP that the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ are not the same. In general, their views on homosexuality would be strikingly different. That’s a pretty major error for a national wire story.

Image via Shutterstock

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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.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Crickets chirping.

    That’s another thing I remember from my softball days.

  • tmatt

    Dude, you didn’t put bisexual and switch hitter in the headline.

  • MJBubba

    Bobby, This will become just another entry in the pile of “Christians are mean and intolerant bigots” stories in the blogosphere. I doubt if either the local paper or any of the many remote papers that ran the brief item have any interest in considering your questions, and surely none of them will devote any resources to a follow-up. Only if Tim Townsend gets some good chatter stirred up in St. Louis, then he might poke around some.
    To your questions I would add a question about if the church league is generally considered endorsement that the member churches are orthodox (for instance is there a Mormon church or a synagogue in the league?).

  • Jay

    Bobby, you would think a “Godbeat Pro” would know the difference between Church of Christ and United Church of Christ.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.


    To be clear, that mistake was made by an AP generalist, not the Post-Dispatch Godbeat pro.

  • Chris

    As much as I complain about writing news stories to fit a narrative ; this one fits the narrative.

    Folks, its SOFTBALL !

  • Jonathan

    I thought of Tim Wilson’s “Church League Softball Fistfight” when reading this story.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    OK, Jonathan, where were you when I was coming up with the art element for this post?

    The YouTube video of the fistfight song would have been perfect!

  • Tim Townsend

    Bobby – just seeing this today (on a bad day for the paper – another round of layoffs) but wanted to address some of your points, and, because it’s fun for journalism geeks, give you a small backstory.

    I agree that I should have called the ministerial alliance and allowed them to respond to Darnell’s characterization of how they felt about him. That last section was an optional trim and now I wish the eds would have taken me up on it.

    In terms of backstory – and this will answer why some of your questions weren’t answered in the story: One of our news clerks flagged a statement (a press release of sorts, I guess) that Darnell had sent around to local media, and it landed in my in-box around 5. I thought it had potential as a next-day story if I could nail it all down quickly and talk to the ministers of the churches that had threatened to walk off the field.

    I found Darnell easily enough, but once I located a roster of the teams in that particular league and began furiously looking up phone numbers of team captains and their pastors, it was getting late and we almost threw in the towel. One of the pastors finally called me back, but he wouldn’t talk on the record. Then I figured out the league actually played on Tuesday nights (the day we got the story) so I drove (fast) 45 min. out to St. Clair and eventually convinced the two other pastors, who were there watching the games, to talk to me.

    By now it was about 8:45 and we’d decided to hold the story for a day to put in some of the context that you asked about. But then – the scourge of all newspaper reporters – as I was leaving the field, a TV news crew showed up. We decided we had to get it into the paper, so I wrote the story longhand at the McDonald’s next to the field and dictated it in to another reporter in the newsroom by our 9:30 first-edition deadline.

    So – was the story missing a ton of good stuff? Hell yes. Could have been way, way better. But I blame the Action News Team for that.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.


    I’m so sorry to hear about the layoffs.

    Thank you for addressing my points and sharing the backstory. Your perspective certainly adds real-world insight to my Monday morning quarterbacking – er, slow pitching.

  • Evanston2

    Bobby, Having been a “Commissioner” of a church softball league, I find this subject to be important and welcome your journalistic perspective. That said, there is a difference between those who proudly sin and those who repent, is there not? So I believe your question about alcoholics, adulterers, etc. misses the point. Sure, some churches use sports ministry for “outreach” but we try to show that Christians accept the Lordship of Christ in all things. I wonder whether journalists will ever openly deal with the issue that “freedom of association” such as Church softball is threatened by civil rights laws? I expect only to get more lectures on what Jesus would do, telling Christians how to be Christian, instead of “straight news” that deals with religious freedom and freedom of association as explicitly established in the Constitution. Again, I thank you because the implications of this story (and its coverage) are not trivial.