Here’s an interesting piece of church-crisis communications advice: Don’t take your story to the press. In fact, don’t even try to answer their questions.
In a nutshell, that’s the Oct. 15 advice from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson, who cited I Corinthians 6 to justify it. Since Paul wrote that believers shouldn’t go to secular courts for justice, that means, the Associated Baptist Press quoted Patterson as saying:
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson said the prohibition in First Corinthians 6 on church members suing one another in secular court means “we don’t take matters before unbelievers.”
“This also means that you don’t take matters to the press,’ Patterson said. “What goes on in the church of God doesn’t go to the press.
“‘If I had 50 dollars for every time that I have told somebody from the press: ‘I’m not going to comment on that because, frankly, it’s none of your business; it’s the church of God’ — if I had 50 dollars for every time I’ve done that, this would be a wealthy institution and you wouldn’t have to pay any tuition at all,” he said.
Southwestern Seminary has helpfully put the sermon audio online, and you can download the audio if you like. This isn’t the usual GetReligion critique of a mainstream religion-news story, but your GetReligionistas thought that people who follow life on the Godbeat would be interested in what Patterson had to say.
So I downloaded the sermon. Patterson’s press criticism begins at about 17 minutes into the message, and he adds this, as the ABP quoted:
Of course, Patterson wasn’t always unwilling to discuss internal church matters with reporters for the media, including secular media outlets. In 2004, he had this to say to an Associated Press reporter, recalling the 25th anniversary of a conservative “takeover” of the Southern Baptist Convention:
“Patterson said that response is never popular. ‘Well, don’t you believe in a free press?’ Yes. ‘Don’t you believe in a free ministry?’
“I’m not going to talk to the press about things that are matters internal to the church of the Living God,” Patterson said. “It is none of their business. And they can’t possibly get it right, and they don’t get it right, [and] so why do you take it to the world of unbelief? Whether that be the court, whether that be the press? ‘Well there’s just no other way to handle it’ Yes there is. Commit it to the Lord God Almighty.”
Patterson, now president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, said the 1979 annual meeting “was clearly a watershed convention since it marked the first successful assault on the liberal and neo-orthodox hegemony of the convention.”
Now, it turns out that the AP scribe in this case happened to GetReligion’s own Bobby Ross, Jr., so we can (correctly) assume Bobby knew the nuances and was able to frame the story fairly and correctly. That said, it sure seems as if Patterson was talking “to the press about things that are matters internal to the church of the Living God,” to borrow a phrase.
I note this not to try and “catch” Patterson; clearly a historical recollection isn’t the same as discussing a current situation. But that said, Patterson certainly remembers the hubub surrounding the 1979 SBC “revolution,” and the media interest therein, not least because then-President Jimmy Carter was a Southern Baptist (he left the denomination in 2009).
And Patterson’s remarks — as well as the Associated Baptist Press story — beg another question: media outlets can (and do) discover “matters internal” without the help of church leaders. Arrest records, court filings, leaks — all these can make for a story in the morning paper or evening website.
That being the case, I believe (from my own experiences, including close observation of two different denominations) it would be wise for churches and their leaders to have a crisis communications strategy, and Patterson’s “I won’t discuss this with you” might be a harmful one in many instances.