The warning in the atheist pastor story

The New York Times today has a piece headlined “Minister Admits Overstating Her Credentials,” an update of sorts to the previous week’s fluffy profile of a mainline pastor (“After a Crisis of Faith, a Former Minister Finds a New, Secular Mission”) that began:

Nine days before Easter in 2012, the Rev. Teresa MacBain sent a letter to the congregants she had pastored for three years at a Methodist church in Tallahassee, Fla. For much of that time, she had preached the Gospel every Sunday, only to slip each Monday into tormented doubt.

GetReligion readers are familiar with this story, as it was big news back in 2012 when CNN, NPR and Religion News Service covered it. Last week the Times had this follow-up:

Now, 18 months into a new life, Ms. MacBain is bringing much of her old one to the task of building congregations of nonbelievers. She has been hired as the director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard with the mandate to travel the country helping atomized groups of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers replicate the communal structure and support that organized religion provides to its faithful.

This line of work draws directly on Ms. MacBain’s experience of seeing her father create and build congregations throughout the small-town South and of her own track record of ministering in churches, prisons, nursing homes and drug-rehab centers. Were she not helping to develop communities of nonbelievers, she would be called, in Christian parlance, a church-planter.

Gushy. So anyway, turns out the Harvard project won’t be going ahead with Ms. McBain:

A Methodist minister who resigned her pulpit last year after deciding that she was no longer a believer, and who was recently hired by a humanist group based at Harvard to help build congregations of nonbelievers throughout the country, has acknowledged fabricating aspects of her educational background.

The former minister, Teresa MacBain, whose crisis of faith was described in the On Religion column last Saturday, claimed she had earned a master of divinity degree from Duke University.

I think there are two items of journalistic interest in this news.

There’s the old editor’s adage about how if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. There’s a reason that we’re encouraged to be skeptical about — everything. But I don’t think that means reporters should be expected to call universities to verify degrees received. I would be particularly unlikely to check the veracity of obtaining a degree if the person had been hired at Harvard.

Although, it seems, Harvard was not doing its due diligence:

“Clearly we should have verified Teresa’s M.Div. degree rather than relying upon her résumé and the frequent, public references to it as she worked for and with several Freethought organizations.”

This makes me wonder about the issue more abstractly. If journalism is about improving well-being via the communication of truth, do we have an obligation to check ever claimed degree — and every other similar fact? Or should we be able to expect a certain level of truth from sources in a civil society. What do you think?

And then there is a second journalism issue here. This story has been reported in a one-sided manner for a long time.

Bobby pointed out last year that we were seeing dramatic and generally positive stories about this pastor leaving her flock — without ever hearing from the parishioners who were so left (and left after the public announcement had been made at an atheist convention, as the New York Times admits belatedly in an editor’s note). I do wonder if a bit less cheerleading and a bit more scrutiny would have prevented such embarrassing corrections and updates.

A few readers also wondered about the use of the term “overstating” her credentials, given the situation, and whether a shorter word might have worked better.

Warning image via Shutterstock.

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  • Martha O’Keeffe

    I think, unfortunately, you do have to be sceptical. It’s a combination of people being encouraged to make their curriculum vitae (resumé) as exciting as possible, (so don’t put down that you answered the phone when customers rang up to complain, say you were in charge of Customer Services), and a lot of people letting things like honorary degrees go to their heads (there have been Irish instances of the Great And Good getting an honorary degree from a university after a large donation and then insisting that their minions refer to them as Dr So-and-So).

    Particularly in theological qualifications – there are a lot of honorary degrees out there, where in Europe they’d be earned degrees, regarding Doctor of Divinity etc. Would it be very unkind of me to mention in this context the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church and her credentials claim to have been “Dean of the Good Samaritan School of Theology” when it turns out rather that she was in charge of the adult/continuing education programme of the church?

  • http://revmhj.com/ Matthew Johnson

    One of my colleagues wrote a post that adds a little more detail – he is a Duke grad and elder in the UMC

    http://www.andrewthompson.com/2013/09/27/teresa-macbain-setting-the-record-straight/

    • MollieZHemingway

      That was *very* interesting. Thanks for the link.

  • Kodos

    But journalists continue to write about those “women priests in the Catholic church” who are, in fact, not Catholic priests.

    So why are these journalists NOT continuing to refer to this “ordained” minister “with a MDiv from Duke” even though she is, in fact, none of these things? If she says she is, she is, right?

    What’s good for the goose is good for the goose.

  • Darren Blair

    “157. If a critic of the church claims to be a former member, watch their
    words carefully. The louder they protest that they simply lost their
    faith or were innocent victims of a spiteful leadership, the greater the
    odds that they were, in fact, ejected for personal misconduct and are
    praying that no one calls them on it.”

    - from my own personal “Skippy’s List”.

    One of the biggest controversies surrounding the counter-cult movement involves the shockingly high incidence rate of pundits and “ministers” who have exaggerated, if not lied about, their resumes and/or personal history. D. J. Nelson and Walter Martin got their doctorates from diploma mills. J. Edward Decker left the Mormon faith because he was facing excommunication for adultery. Alberto Rivera was wanted in his home country (Spain) on fraud charges. John Todd lied about the nature of his military service. Et cetra.

    As you can imagine, then, for those people like me who have found ourselves in the position of having to counter the counter-cult, “asking questions if things don’t sound right about a person’s credentials” has become almost second nature. Couple that with the fact that I worked my fanny off to obtain a legit master’s degree, and I don’t play around when it comes to padded resumes.

    In contrast, however, it would appear that the media was in such a rush to put forth a new darling – and Harvard was in such a rush to look good by hiring this person – that nobody bothered to do even basic fact-checking. When you consider James Frey, Martha Beck, and all of the other one-time media darlings who were later found to be lying through their teeth, one would think that the media would have learned by now to take half a second and do some independent verification first.

  • Julia B

    In the secular world this happens as well.
    Examples: a famous politician is said by the media to have been a Constitutional law professor. No, he was what would be called at most law schools an adjunct professor. That is a member of the community who teaches a class on a particular aspect of law that is relevant to current issues. A Constitutional law professor is a full professor teaching one of the most important core classes that every student must take. I’ve not seen this politician to have claimed full professorship for himself; it’s the media who does this.
    Second example: another politician who claimed to be a Native American and listed herself as such. Harvard did not check to see if she actually was a duly-enrolled member of a tribe. OTOH Archbishop Chaput is actually an enrolled member of the Prairie Band Potawatomies, but I don’t see that mentioned by the press. I’m thinking that Harvard and most of the East coast press don’t understand the concept of being an enrolled member of a recognized tribe.


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