CNN on the superstar Stanleys: The ties that blind

Suffice it to say that I started working my way onto the religion-news beat in the late 1970s, precisely the era in which the Southern Baptist Convention — the mega-denomination in which I was raised, as part of a family active on all levels of SBC life — veered into a civil war that took very few prisoners.

For better and for worse, I speak fluent Southern Baptist.

While at The Charlotte News and then The Charlotte Observer, I began to pay close attention to the Rev. Charles Stanley of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta. Yes, I even have family ties in Baptist life in greater Atlanta.

Anyway, I interviewed Stanley several times when he was leaping into national SBC leadership and, to make a long story short, I thought he was the archetypal Southern Baptist megachurch pastor of this era. He was on television, but his television ministry was really an extension of his pulpit ministry. He was a pulpit star, only with a softer edge that fit the beginning of the pastoral-counseling era in which ministers were supposed to be soothing, rather than jarring. Stanley was an old-fashioned version of smooth, blended with big doses of the new suburban Southern style.

Let me stress my main point again: Stanley was a talented megachurch preacher and, thus, it’s safe to say that he faced the challenges that the superstars in that line of work end up facing. And what might those challenges be?

First, you have to be able to maintain a high level of performance in an age in which younger audiences want younger preachers. You must retain your core audience.

Second, you have to set up loyalty structures that allow you to hang onto your pulpit to the point of retirement or beyond, depending on the size of your gifts and/or ego.

Third, you must dance a dangerous dance with workaholism and the other temptations that come with being The Man On Which Everything Depends.

Fourth, if possible, you have to find a talented successor who is willing to serve as second fiddle until the moment when you choose to step aside, to one degree or another. For some reason or another, megachurch pastors like to hand these franchises to their own children — which can get messy. Ask the Rev. Robert H. Schuller.

The bottom line: It is very hard to have an easy transfer of power when a massive institution is built almost completely on the talent and charisma of one man.

This brings us, naturally, to the massive — 5,000-plus words — new CNN feature about Stanley and his son Andy. The headline sets the tone of this dramatic piece: “Two preaching giants and the ‘betrayal’ that tore them apart.”

What, precisely, was this “betrayal”? That is the question at the heart of this story, yet it is the question that is never answered. That’s a problem.

Did the son walk away from his role as his father’s heir apparent because (a) he got tired of waiting, (b) his new neo-evangelical seeker flock was outgrowing his father’s old-fashioned Southern Baptist operation, (c) his father made decisions — precise details are hidden — that devastated his mother or (d) all of the above?

What’s at stake? This summary paragraph offers a strong metaphor:

There’s no father-son preaching duo quite like the Stanleys. Imagine if Steve Jobs had a son, who created a company that rivaled Apple in size and innovation — and they barely spoke to one another.

That was the Stanleys. Neither man has ever fully explained the events that tore them apart 19 years ago — until now.

This feature offers a riveting view of the personal conflict that tore these two superstar preachers apart, even as it becomes clear that — for whatever reason — neither man is willing to address the private details of the earthquake at the heart of the story, the elder Stanley’s divorce and the rumors that have swirled around it for years.

Thus, many will think that the following passage is the pivotal moment in this ambitious and largely successful piece:

The quiet exit of Anna Stanley from the pews went public in June 1993 when she filed for divorce. Her action caused a sensation in Southern Baptist circles, where divorce is considered a sin by some based on a literal reading of the Bible. Some pastors shunned Charles; others publicly demanded that he step down. The scandal dragged on for years as the couple attempted to reconcile.

In 1995, Anna Stanley explained why she wanted a divorce in a letter to her husband’s church that was excerpted in the local newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in an article titled “Torn Asunder.”

She said she had experienced “many years of discouraging disappointments and marital conflict. … Charles, in effect, abandoned our marriage. He chose his priorities, and I have not been one of them.”

The article makes it obvious that Andy’s primary loyalty, in this family schism, was to his mother. At the same time, how could the son build a sprawling, mega-ministry of his own — 33,000 people attend one of the son’s SEVEN churches every Sunday — without stepping into some of the same traps as his father?

Personally, I think there is another piece of this CNN feature story that comes closer to making the essential point.

You see, the CNN team seems to think that there is such a thing as a Southern Baptist tradition (there are many, quite frankly) and even a Southern Baptist theology (there is no one such approach to doctrine; ask Bill Clinton about that). The elder Stanley is held up as a prime example of the old Southern Baptist way and then Andy becomes the brave young leader who steps away from that frozen orthodoxy and finds his own way.

Truth is, Baptists and members of similar free-church flocks always evolve from generation to generation with millions of churchgoers flocking to the hot new preachers and the emerging super congregations that rise and fall in power year after year, decade after decade. One generation always creates its own new tradition and then outvotes the older generation by moving on to something new. In these evolving structures only the living saints get to vote.

Thus, here is the piece of this story that hit me:

Andy had discovered another preaching mentor, the Rev. Bill Hybels, an unassuming, genial pastor — the kind who travels alone without an entourage. He helped pioneer “seeker churches” while leading Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago.

People tend to focus on the cosmetic innovations of seeker churches: incorporating contemporary Christian music in worship, injecting clever skits and colorful stage props into services. But Andy was also drawn to Willow Creek’s primary mission: reaching “irreligious people” who had been turned off by traditional church.

After hearing Hybels, Andy says, church made sense “for the first time in my life.” Hybels became his hero.

“They were more committed to progress instead of maintaining traditions.”

How could his aging father compete with that? Especially since Charles Stanley was, in effect, his own tradition. Now his son has to come to grips with the new tradition that he, inevitably, has created by escaping from his father’s orbit.

This CNN feature is more than worth the time that it takes to read it all.