Pod people: Sometimes editors really need to do the math

I have never been much of a math guy, but sometimes you have to see the numbers written on the walls.

For example, what essential thread runs through the following religion-beat stories? I am not arguing that this math hook is the only factor at play in these stories, but that this X-factor is a key piece in these puzzles.

* Nationwide, the Catholic church has been forced to close many of its parishes, especially in urban areas, along with their schools — due to falling numbers in pews and desks.

* The Southern Baptist Convention has experienced a consistent, even if relatively small, decline in membership numbers. Baptisms have continued to decline. Meanwhile, the denomination’s work with Latinos and African-Americans provides a crucial boost.

* Christian colleges, like their secular counterpart, now face increasing challenges in enrollment — especially with the post-Millennial generation “cliff” looming ahead.

* Mormon numbers continue to rise. Same song, with new verses.

* Liberal Protestant churches continue a multi-decade demographic implosion, leaving a majority of congregations smaller, older and often (even with endowments from previous generations) swimming in red ink. The radical decline in the old mainline leaves a giant gap in American culture that provides an opening for evangelicals to grab the cultural spotlight.

* Jewish congregations, schools and social institutions face declining numbers, especially when it comes to finding families with children — the link to the future.

* Greek Orthodox churches in North America face a shortage of priests who are, well, Greek and Greek-speaking. Many parishes (some tense about this) now have convert or Slavic priests.

* Conservative denominations — think Missouri-Synod Lutherans, for example — face falling enrollments in some of their elementary, middle and high schools, especially older schools far from suburbs.

* Home-schooling families continue to wield an increasing amount of power in evangelical circles.

I could go on and on with this. However, there is one other story linked to this issue that recently drew major coverage — sort of — in The New York Times and was the subject of my “Crossroads” podcast chat this week with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in).

Can anyone guess the topic?

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A ‘startling’ statement in NYTimes United Methodist report

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The religion beat is just so, so, so complicated. There are all those historical facts and picky doctrines and stuff. You know?

Thus, the following correction in The New York Times was probably amusing to readers who had, at some point in their past, survived a church-history course (or maybe a young-adult Sunday school class in a half dozen or more Protestant denominations).

An earlier version of this article misstated when John Wesley started the religious movement that became the United Methodist Church. It was the 18th century, not the early 19th century.

Well, actually, the Rev. John Wesley was an Anglican priest until the day he died and he started a renewal movement within that body that, after his death, turned into a denomination. The birth of the United Methodist Church was many twists and turns down the road. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

Actually, I just kind of shook my head when I read that correction. But I laughed out loud when I hit one HILARIOUS word in the lede on the early Times piece on the latest sex-wars win for the United Methodist establishment.

Experienced Godbeat scribes and consumers, and activists on both sides of the oldline Protestant sex wars, will have no trouble spotting the howler. Here goes.

A onetime Methodist pastor who was stripped of his clerical credentials because he presided at the wedding of his gay son is being reinstated, a startling reversal for a large Protestant denomination that, like many, is riven by divisions over same-sex relationships.

So where was the laugh? It’s the word “startling.”

Why is that so funny? Let’s read on.

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NYTimes: Why did two towns produce so many priests?

At least once a year, a major newsroom in the United States produces a big story about the OTHER Catholic crisis in this land, which is the declining number of men entering the priesthood (and women and men entering religious orders, as well). The American priesthood is getting smaller and older.

It is possible to write this story over and over, year after year, covering the same ground and pretending that this is a “news trend.” However, skilled journalists can find new wrinkles within this decades-old story and, thus, do fresh reporting.

That’s good. And that is clearly what The New York Times national desk was going for in an interesting news feature that ran under the headline. “In Two Michigan Villages, a Higher Calling Is Often Heard.”

So what is the new angle? Well, it appears that there are small, intensely Catholic communities that are producing way more than their share of priests. Why is that? What does that look like on the ground?

What really jumped out at me was that the Times team actually — buried near the end of this piece — came close to discussing a really crucial demographics issue linked to this big story. More on that later.

At the heart of this piece are 26-year-old twin brothers, Gary Koenigsknecht and Todd Koenigsknecht, who are about to be ordained as Catholic priests. The story notes that they will be “two of 477 men in the United States expected to be ordained this year.”

They demonstrate that priestly vocations are not evenly distributed by family or geography: they are among six priests in their extended family, and among 22 from their hometown, Fowler, Mich., population 1,224. They officially tie up the leader board with the neighboring village of Westphalia, population 938, which has also produced 22 priests, making for a robust rivalry in both football and Roman collars.

In an era when the number of priests in the United States continues to dwindle — declining by 11 percent in the past decade and crippling the Catholic Church’s ability to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population — this rural patch of Clinton County offers a case study in the science and mystery of the call to priesthood.

With the older generation of priests dying off, it would take three times as many priestly ordinations as is occurring nationwide to maintain the population of 38,600 priests, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

The story updates all of the dire statistics, as it should.

But the strongest material in the piece, from my perspective, is the detailed background information — high up in the report — about what Catholic life is like in these parishes. What’s going on here?

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Faith and fitness: LATimes explores God’s role in weight loss

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There’s a healthy dose of religion news on the front page of today’s Los Angeles Times.

“God is their fitness co-pilot,” proclaims the print headline on this Column One feature. The online version goes with “Cross training” (get it?).

Believe it or not, there’s no mention of that Northwestern University study from a few years ago that prompted Time magazine to report  “Why Going to Church Can Make You Fat” and USA Today to suggest “The devil may be in the pepperoni.” But I digress.

Let’s start with a large portion of the LATimes opening:

When Jim Black leads people on a robust walk three times a week on the grounds of the 120-acre Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, he’s got powerful company: God.

The several dozen people who join him have shown up with the same hopes that anyone brings to an exercise plan: They mean to lose weight, ditch inhalers, get stronger.

But at Saddleback, there’s a lot more going on. Pastor Rick Warren is using the power of his church, one of the biggest in the country, to impress upon his followers that their bodies need the same care as their spirits.

After two months on “The Daniel Plan,” Black gave up his diabetes medication. He has given up wheat, dairy and sugar. He recently bought a bicycle. In a year, he lost 90 pounds; his wife lost 40.

“It’s that one scripture: My body is not my own, my body is on loan and someday I’ll have to account for it,” said Black, 48. “I wanted to serve God at a higher level. And I wanted to be able to fit in the seat of a roller coaster and buy one seat on the airplane instead of two.”

Yeah, that one Scripture (AP style is uppercase when referring to the religious writings in the Bible).

But just to be clear, exactly which Scripture are we talking about? The LATimes just brushes right past that obvious question. I assume Black is referring to 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. From the New International Version of the Bible:

19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

The missing Scripture aside, I like the LATimes lede. It is interesting and draws me into the story. I am compelled to read more (even if I weren’t a GetReligion critic):
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Got news? Yes, there was a funeral for Ann B. Davis

I realize that I have written two GetReligion posts (here and then here) about the mainstream press coverage of the life and faith of the late actress Ann B. Davis, who was a friend of mine from my days on the religion beat in Denver. However, I continue to hear from readers who find it amazing that so many journalists spent so much ink on reports about Davis, yet didn’t seem all that interested in her actual life, other than her roles on television screens.

Well, there is that principle again: Television (or politics, or sports) is real and worthy of ink, religion is not so real and, thus, is not so worthy of ink.

The woman we all called Ann B. died at age 88 at home just outside of San Antonio, the home she shared with Episcopal Bishop William C. Frey and his wife Barbara, the final connections of a multi-family, multi-generational household that had been together since the mid-1970s. If you knew anything about Ann B., and especially her love of Bible studies, you will not be surprised to know that she was active in a nearby parish and that people there knew her well.

Thus, I am happy — thankful even — to report that The San Antonio Express-News sent a reporter to cover the her funeral. It is especially fitting that they sent the newspaper’s religion-beat specialist, reporter Abe Levy, rather than someone out of the entertainment pages. The resulting report included content from the words spoken in the funeral, something that cannot be taken for granted in this journalistic day and age. Here is a key chunk of that:

Her spunky personality and Hollywood success laced eulogies at her private funeral Friday morning at her home parish, St. Helena’s Episcopal Church in Boerne. Yet, the gathering focused memories on what the speakers called Davis’ exemplary devotion to her faith, especially her decision in mid-career to leave Tinseltown and join an Episcopal community in Denver. …

“The media had a field day” recalling her acting career, said William Frey, 84, a close friend and retired Episcopal bishop, during the homily. “But most of them have missed out on the one thing that has driven her for the last 40 years, and that is her faith.” …

Davis moved with Frey and his wife to San Antonio in 1996. She regularly sang in the choir and rarely missed Bible studies or the church’s morning worship service on Wednesdays.

Direct, and to the point. However, note the reference to Wednesday morning services.

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The ongoing spectacle of NYTimes contempt for religion

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Yes, this was a piece of commentary. In other words, it was not a news story that automatically fell into GetReligion territory.

Yes, this mini-essay was about a new reality-television show way off in the outer reaches of cable land.

But, well, it was also a piece that was published with a staff byline in the pages of The New York Times under one of those double-decker headlines that simply demands attention, right this very moment:

Seek and Ye Shall Find a Hottie

In ‘It Takes a Church,’ the Congregation Helps Pick Your Date

Said review also contained an out-of-the-blue statement that, well, you just knew GetReligion readers were going to bring to our attention again, and again, and again, world without end, amen. More on that in a moment.

Nevertheless, your GetReligionistas passed the URL around for a day or so and we concluded that we would let this one pass us by. Then GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway jumped in, over at The Federalist, and went all GetReligion on it. Thus, we are choosing to pass along what she had to say.

So what’s this all about? The Times explains:

Each week the show visits a congregation and matches up one of its single members with a prospective mate. The first episode travels to the Rock Worship Center in Charlotte, N.C., where 30-year-old Angela laments, “I can’t find a man.” Apparently, she hasn’t been looking very hard, because when the TV cameras come to town one Sunday, bachelors pop up from the congregation like weeds, each accompanied by a “matchmaker” — his mother or some other advocate — extolling his virtues.

The gimmick of the show is: It’s not Angela who does the initial winnowing. It’s the congregation, though the criteria the parishioners are using to thin the field are not clear. Anyway, after the elimination round, the usual shallow banter ensues — here, devoid of the sexual innuendo common on other dating shows — and Angela eventually picks one fellow for a date, the results of which we do not learn.

M.Z., tongue only slightly in her cheek, noted that this scenario does not sound all that unusual to her. Why is that?

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Ann B. Davis: True heroine of alternative families?

My recent GetReligion piece on the life and ministry of actress Ann B. Davis, a friend from Denver days, rang up some pretty good social media numbers (thank you readers and Twitter fanatics). As a result, I heard from quite a few folks reacting to the mainstream media coverage of her death.

I think this is a commentary on her fame via The Brady Bunch. No doubt about that. However, I also think that — because of decades of activity in events nationwide linked to the Charismatic Renewal Movement (a very ecumenical and far-flung body of believers) — Ann B. had also actually met thousands of people face to face who in some truly personal way felt a human connection there.

I think it’s safe to lump these reader comments into two camps. Those dealing with print sources felt that these reports minimized the role that faith played in Davis’ life and didn’t seem to understand the fine details. But at least the faith was there. Meanwhile, the mainstream television reports were — people said over and over — all but completely faith free.

Then there was this strange piece in Time.

I mention it for a very simple reason: It is a perfect example of the kind of material that is being published today in publications that consumers think of as news products, yet most of their contents have little or nothing to do with news. Instead, they are works of basic commentary.

Thus, consider this piece with the headline epic double-decker headline:

Somehow Forming a Family: Why We Loved The Brady Bunch‘s Alice

Played by Ann B. Davis, who died over the weekend, Alice represented something that was becoming familiar in people’s complicated lives if not on TV: the non-parent parent.

While this is billed as an “appreciation” of Davis, the piece actually is not about Davis at all (the Time video is, in fact, a mini-profile). Instead, it is about a writer’s personal opinions about the importance of Davis and her “Alice” persona. Honestly, search the piece for actual information about the facts of her life. Here is a sample passage:

… (Alice) connected with a change that, in the early ’70s, was emerging in American families, in which figures other than two parents were central in kids’ lives.

Like a lot of childhood TV memories, The Brady Bunch is loved not so much for its artistry as for its emotional connections. The Brady family was big, it was blended, and it felt like there was room for everyone. Putting two families together on TV was unusual at the time, and it spoke to the number of kids who recognized divorce and remarriage from their own lives. Yes, Mike was a widower, and Carol’s status was never clarified — a compromise after Sherwood Schwartz wanted her to be a divorcée — but anyone watching knew what the show was really depicting. It turned something commonly depicted as tragedy into a triumph — a family coming together by choice.

And also, at the end:

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‘Openly’ debating a key news issue in 2014 Summer of Sex

Faithful readers of this blog may have noted that your GetReligionistas rarely mention the names of reporters in our posts when we are critiquing news reports, unless a particular issue turns into a pattern that must be discussed.

There is a simple reason for this names-free policy and we have stated it many times: We have all been there in the press doing this difficult work.

We know that, far too often, reporters are assigned impossible stories and then given too little time and too little space. We also know that many errors and biases are actually edited into stories or reflect what is happening at the level of editors, more than the reporters. So we strive — as much as possible — to criticize news organizations, rather than individuals.

Praise, however, is another matter. We often end up mentioning Godbeat veterans who consistently get the job done right.

So readers will know that, when we see the “Peter Smith” byline, we know we are going to get a story that includes lots of basic reporting and, whenever possible, the people on both sides of hot debates are going to get to speak for themselves (as opposed to lots of vague “some” references and second-hand commentary). This is the case, once again, in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette news feature on a key element in the annual oldline Protestant Summer of Sex rites.

The goal here is a high-altitude overview of the doctrinal angles in same-sex marriage debates, with special attention given to events in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church. Thus, the opening:

“Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

Well, some chapels anyway.

With this week’s landmark federal court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, some houses of worship, including those affiliated with more liberal Protestant and Jewish denominations, will be opening their doors to gay couples — and in fact have been doing so for years before they had benefit of a marriage license.

Many other religious groups — including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and conservative evangelical Protestants — are holding fast to traditional doctrine as a matter of course. And for still other religious groups, the ruling only further complicates their long-running debates over homosexuality.

The leader of the region’s United Methodists is immediately given a chance to explain why the judge’s ruling has, primarily, turned up the heat on debates for religious leaders, as opposed to settling the debate.

“The ruling may change the understanding of marriage in the commonwealth, but it doesn’t alter the stand of the United Methodist Church at all,” said Bishop Thomas Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of that denomination. “What it really does is heighten the debate that already exists within the church.”

The denomination forbids involvement of its pastors and churches in blessing same-sex unions. Bishop Bickerton said Thursday he would be issuing a letter urging pastors to find ways within the bounds of church rules to minister to gay couples and members. “I really believe our pastors, all of them, want to be in ministry to the people they’re serving,” he said.

Cautious, but clear words there. And the state of the liberal Presbyterians and other members of the old Mainline Protestant world?

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