Press Releases and Accountability in Southern Gospel

Press Releases and Accountability in Southern Gospel May 30, 2013

The other day I read an article on MusicScribe where each contributor listed five “pet peeves” about this music we all love. I sympathized with some more than others, but the ones that seemed to generate the most discussion involved accountability and misleading press releases for group turnover. Two contributors complained that there’s a culture of “sweeping things under the rug” when a given singer sins in some way, criticizing sunshine and roses press releases that give the false impression all is well. “So-and-so is leaving to spend more time with his family… so-and-so is leaving to follow God’s exciting new direction for his life…,” etc. As one agreeing commentator put it, this falls flat in times when “everybody knows” there’s a scandal.

Like my friend Brian who commented from Southern Gospel Critique, I tend to look on the bright side of the industry. My first reaction was, “But… what if someone really does just want to spend more time with his family?” I understand that there have been scandals over the years, and I’ve seen plenty of rumors with varying degrees of substantiation. However, I’m a primary sources kind of person. I’m very hesitant to claim that I “know” something to be true unless I can trace it to somebody reliable and close to the case. Frankly, I’m not sure what folks mean when they talk about “everybody knowing” that a given group turnover is scandalous. How could “everyone” possibly “know” all the ins and outs of a private transaction? Sure, a few folks might know who are in the industry or have industry sources, but most normal fans aren’t that plugged in. They just enjoy the music and are sorry to see a favorite singer go.
I also disagree that even if there is sin involved, the group is obliged to “spill” for the fans. A commenter flat-out made this demand in his own list of pet peeves: “Don’t sugar coat it. Tell us.” I answered, “Why do they have to?” We don’t know if there’s repentance. We don’t know what innocent parties could be harmed by the dissemination of such information, including innocent group members. (For example, suppose they made it public information that one member was being fired for sin problems. People who heard about it 2nd or 3rd or quintillionth-hand might get confused about exactly who it was and view the entire group suspiciously because they heard that “somebody” involved had done something really bad.) There’s also just the fact that fans don’t really need or want to know all the sordid details of a given scandal.
A regular reader, JSR, replied that he felt public rebuke was biblical procedure when it came to people involved in the ministry, and southern gospel is a kind of ministry. He argued that the rebuke should be just as public as the performances which inspired love and adulation from fans in the first place. Fans have a right to know that they’ve been had. The sin should be laid bare before the whole Church. In reply to my satiric “good-riddance-and-don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out” virtual press release which gleefully denounces singer x as “an uncontrollable perv,” he advocated for a press release that makes it clear there’s sin involved without going into details. Something like “We regret to inform you that we had to release singer xyz from the group because of his infidelity.”
What do you think? I still have reservations even about revealing that much. I do agree that press releases should not be deceptive. I think we can all agree on that point. But if there’s truly nothing positive to say, one should perhaps not issue a press release at all. (In fact I do remember a case that was so bad the group member literally disappeared without a trace. At least nobody lied there!) But JSR feels he has a biblical case. In his words, “The bible tells us the elders who rule well are worthy of double honor, but those that sin, rebuke before all.”
Somebody named “Mike,” who appears to be an artist, left a long comment that dealt with this particular pet peeve by saying that an individual could be permanently damaged through such an exposure. This seems to go back to my point about repentance. I’ve heard of people who sinned but felt remorse and gradually turned their life back around. 
I’m liking my option of simply not saying anything at all in certain cases, which seems to split the difference between outright lying to fans on the one hand and TMI on the other. (I suppose I could imagine a case where it’s technically true. “So-and-so needs to spend more time with his WIFE and kids. Right so-and-so? *cough-cough*” But you get the idea.) Do you have a better idea?

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  • I think it’s dangerous to start mixing the dealings of the local church with gospel music ministry. There’s a lot of instruction in the epistles about discipline in the church. If a person is sinning in a public fashion to bring reproach to the church and to Christ, he is rebuked publicly. This is LOCAL CHURCH discipline.
    I feel it’s none of my business what happens internally with groups and their private lives. Unless the person has sinned directly against me, I don’t need to hear about it. I think it’s great if the person publicly asks for forgiveness and “comes clean” if they choose. I don’t feel they have an obligation to the public to do so. I certainly don’t feel that the GROUP has the obligation to speak for the individual in this way.

  • JSR

    So we should respect these groups as doing the Lord’s work, support their “ministry”, and never speak negative of those doing the Lord’s work, but none of the rules of discipline or biblical guidelines for conduct of a minister applies?
    Seems like a double standard.
    Ministry is like politics, when you decide to join you forfeit your right to tell people your failings are none of their business.

  • Lydia

    Here’s another wrinkle. What if the person comes back with a different group but hasn’t dealt with whatever the problem is? What if the other group just has different standards from the first group? Does this have any connection to whether the first group should have made some brief reference that clued the fans in that there was sin involved? The reason I bring it up is that the person might be attempting later to continue in ministry without really taking care of the problem, and then people would have no idea of that and might support the person’s return unknowingly. I suppose this would be similar to a pastor who embezzled money at Church A, was quietly let go so as to avoid a scandal, and went on to get a position at Church B where he proceeded to embezzle all over again.
    But it’s all extremely difficult, because we do live in a society that reveals way too much, and we don’t value discretion enough. So I appreciate very much the pull towards “less is more” and “you don’t have to let it all hang out.”

  • I thought of that. And what if the person was continuing to sin secretly and the 2nd group was just oblivious? One does hear rumors about that sort of thing.

  • The Bible’s standards for Christian service apply to all of us, at all times. Whether or not the specific requirements outlined for bishops and deacons apply to gospel singers is a whole other subject.
    My point is not that gospel singers shouldn’t be held to a standard. My point is that we, the public, are not who enforces the standards. I don’t believe they are accountable to me just because I’ve listened to them sing and maybe purchased some of their music. Let the groups handle that stuff internally. Meanwhile I will be in prayer for the Lord’s will in all their lives, whether there is some kind of sin going on or not.
    Whether or not you “support” a ministry is a personal choice, hopefully with the help of the Holy Spirit. There are groups in the southern gospel world that don’t line up with me on a spiritual level, for any number of reasons. But I keep that stuff to myself…it’s not for public discussion.

  • My first thought, reading this, was, “How would you feel if your sin was spilled out for the world to read about … forever, as press releases like that tend to haunt you for the rest of your life”
    I sure wouldn’t like that … at all!
    And why do “we” feel groups have an obligation to tell everything, the good, the bad and the ugly just because we love their music and buy their records?
    And no, being an audience is not being a church, as far as I’m concerned. We don’t have to discipline singers … they have their home church for that.
    It’s obvious, I guess … I’m a “less is more” person.

  • Melissa Selby

    I believe there are a couple of scriptural passages that address some of the controversy here:
    “Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them. And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:1-11 KJV)
    I suspect that if the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth were revealed regarding an erring artist’s departure from a SG group, the reaction would be an avalanche of virtual stones, the end result of which would resemble Pompeii after the eruption of Vesuvius, smothering the targeted miscreant so that even if a sincere effort at redemption was attempted, he/she would never be able to dig out from under the blanket of suspicion and censure. A pity such a thing can be said about the so-called Christian community, but there are several current/former SG artists out there who could probably write an entire dissertation on this particular subject. And without doubt there really are artists who have come off the road for the very reasons as stated. Should they be regarded as guilty until proven innocent?
    As regards the ministry, past and future, of the “accused”, Paul has this to say:
    “Some indeed preach Christ even of envy and strife; and some also of good will: The one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds: But the other of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the gospel. What then? Notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.” (Philippians 1:15-18 KJV)
    Although Paul was specifically referring to those who “preached Christ” as a means of usurping Paul’s influence with his followers, clearly Paul believes that if the Gospel to which the listener has been exposed is the true one, then Christ has been preached and God’s purposes are fulfilled, regardless of how questionable the character or motivations of the messenger might be. Is a person any less saved because he came to know the Lord as a result of the ministry of a person of uncertain integrity? The messenger’s agenda may indeed be suspect, but when you come right down to it, aside from Christ Himself, there has never been, and will never be, a human representative of the Lord who can spread the gospel from a platform of absolute sinlessness, and the comparative sizes of motes and beams may be (indeed, almost certainly is) quite different from God’s perspective as compared to our own.
    My own belief is that it is the responsibility of those with whom an artist is in ministry to hold that person accountable, just as it is in any other religion-related setting. If one Baptist minister strays, is it the duty of every single member of the Baptist denomination to pass judgment? The same with a southern gospel group: a member strays, he is admonished, and if the collective ministry of that group is threatened, he is let go. Is it the responsibility of the southern gospel concert-going/music-buying public to demand the opportunity to judge whether the punishment of said artist is sufficient for the crime committed? And if the purpose of knowing such information isn’t specifically related to making such a judgment call, then what’s the purpose of wanting it in the first place?
    As for that person taking his shortcomings into another group, well, it’s just good business sense for any employer to ask for references – and that is as true for a ministerial business as it is for a secular one. Any group manager who takes on an unknown quantity into his group (or even a known one, for that matter), without first checking into his background and/or the reasons for his departure from his previous group(s), is asking for trouble, and in such cases, the group manager for the artist’s former group will be perfectly justified in providing that information. But no employer, in business or in ministry, is ever obligated to tell his clientele the reasons for an employee’s dismissal if such a disclosure will ultimately result in more damage than can be justified by the release of the information.
    The bottom line is that if we who consider ourselves Christians could in fact be trusted to act in a Christ-like fashion when faced with the transgressions of a fellow brother or sister in Christ, it wouldn’t be necessary for artists and groups to “hedge the truth”, so to speak. The fact that they must do so says as much about our tendencies towards lack of compassion, lack of willingness to forgive, and an a general reluctance to grant second, third, or even fourth chances, as it does groups’ own determination to shield even their failed brothers from the scrutiny and condemnation of an increasingly judgmental and unforgiving world.

  • Lydia

    It seems to me that a sort of deathly silence in truly bad cases is a way to split the difference. The silence itself will “speak” by its contrast with a cheerful press release. But it isn’t airing dirty laundry. It would serve as a kind of warning to any future groups. They could think, “Hum, yeah, there was quite a mystery as to why he left the other group. Everyone just went all quiet about it. We’d better ask some questions.”

  • JSR

    I think the industry plays to their strongest supporters. They usually always act like its a happy departure and never mention anything negative.
    I am really at a loss as to why we don’t care if someone who has a “ministry” is involved in sinful acts. I think one of the biggest problem is people don’t really like judgement because of their own personal sins. As mentioned above, Jesus didn’t condem people, but he did tell them to stop sin. I get the feeling people are ok with singers being sinners because they sin and they’re comfortable with that. Jesus died for something better.
    Anyway, back on topic. I will note that Paul didn’t always keep things secretive. He wrote letters about people. When Demus left Paul he didn’t say he was pursuing another ministry, he said he loved the world too much. It’s ok though, religion ignores a lot of the bible on other subjects. Not sure why I would expect any different when it comes to covering sin in the lives of those brought in to sing in churches.

  • Make no mistake, when something has been handled deceptively, I take issue with that. I also do care quite a bit about the integrity of performers I follow. I don’t lose as much sleep over it as I used to, but it’s very important to me.
    Melissa’s articulating more of a “Judge not” position, which I’m not sure I entirely agree with either. I don’t look at it from a “we’re all in the same sin-boat anyway so whatever” perspective so much as a propriety perspective. How much do people _need_ to know? What’s the best way to handle this so that nobody is deceived but discretion is also served? However, I definitely wouldn’t agree that we can never “judge” people who sin.

  • Saved Girl

    I really can see both sides of this issue. I think that one main reason I don’t like the “sunshine and roses” approach to the issue, is that then, even if someone is departing from a group for reasons that are perfectly fine, you wonder if they are being honest about it in the press release. You always end up wondering if there really was a problem. (Exception: the Ball Brothers press release. That was pure genius, saying things like they threw him out because they were jealous, etc.) If no one ever says if anything is wrong, how will you know when everything really is fine? So, then this lack of honesty throws a slur on all group departures.
    But I also understand that there are some things that just aren’t our business to know. If it does not affect us, or we are not going to have any part in resolving this sin issue, then desiring to know every detail is just a desire to gossip and really, to feel better about ourselves.
    I really think that a good approach would be to either not say anything about why they are leaving or to at least have some honesty (so-and-so is having some issues right now, etc. but we would ask you as believers to respect so-and-so’s privacy and reputation by not turning to speculation or gossip). That way they are being honest that, yes, not all is well here, but they aren’t airing all the dirty laundry.
    I would take issue with the people who say that to say anything would forever damage their reputation. Yes, we should avoid false gossip for that reason, but, Christians, isn’t there such a thing as grace? If a person comes back truly repentant and changed, can we not forgive them and glory in the fact that God could save even a sinner such as that? Think Michael English. What an opportunity for the person to say, “I once was SO lost, but now I am found!”

  • Melissa Selby

    Don’t get me wrong. I too care deeply about the integrity of the performers who I support with my money and my attendance. The point I was (rather ineptly) trying to make is that one reason groups aren’t more up front with their explanations regarding why a group member might be leaving is that if the reason is a negative one, the rebuking won’t stop with the admission of fault and the penalties that are assessed (i.e. resigning from/being fired from the group in question, the resulting personal and professional turmoil, the loss of credibility, etc.). In this electronic age of real-time communications, the subject will be endlessly discussed and debated, on blogs and in discussion forums, and I just cannot understand what good can be accomplished by what may well end up becoming a never-ending demolition of an individual’s reputation (to say nothing of those of family members and friends whose only fault was their association with the guilty party), especially when (thanks to blog and forum archives), even an old-news discussion can be instantly regenerated at the click of a search engine. If we as modern-day Christians could be depended on to temper our judging with an equal amount of compassion, then group managers would probably be willing to demonstrate the same lack of hesitation in sharing the truth that Paul showed regarding the failings of Demus and Mark. It’s not so much the judgment that’s at issue here; it’s the tendency of too many Christians to extend the boundaries of that judgment to include not only the component of judge, but also those of jury and executioner as well. I don’t know what the answer is; all I know is that if we as the southern gospel audience want groups to be completely above-board in their dealings with us, then we should be required to demonstrate that we are capable of discerning which is the baby and which is the bathwater.

  • JSR

    Very well articulated thoughts, Melissa.
    I really don’t want to hash out someone’s sin. Nor do I want to know every detail. I’m really going after the hypocrisy and deception that goes on when a press release is issued that says how much singer xyz’s service was appreciated and we wish them the best as they follow the Lord’s leading in their life. If we find out three months later that singer xyz was smoking pot behind the bus and got fired over it, then in my opinion we’ve given the industry a worse black eye than telling the truth. The truth may be as simple as, “singer xyz is no longer with the group due to conduct we felt was contrary to the values we hold as a group. We wish him the best in his future endeavors.” It’s clean, neat, and doesn’t demean someone unnecessarily.

  • Melissa Selby

    I like your simpler version of the truth. Such a statement would admit to the fact that there were irreconcilable issues involved in the departure of a member, without revealing details that really are only the concern of the parties involved and of any future employers who would have a legitimate need to know those particular details. There would still be speculation, but hopefully such speculation would be limited in scope, since the problem could as easily have been due to incompatible temperaments as to immoral behavior. Alas, there would also be those who would regard anything less than full disclosure of all the facts as insufficient to fulfill the satisfaction of their curiosity, but at least the group in question would be protected from the accusations of hypocrisy and duplicity in dealing with both their supporters and the general public.

  • JSR

    I think you’ve touched on something that was in the back of my mind but never came out. Since every press release is the same, it almost puts an unnecessary cloud over ever change. With the exception of cases like singer who moved from DMB to BFA, where the storyline is fairly obvious to all, there tends to be a little suspicion over every move. I’ve also noticed I tend to read speculation on line about why people are moving on anyway. Being more open and honest would probably help clear the innocent and the speculation and discussions about the guilty would probably not really increase very much. We would just now be sure that those being discussed are those who are actually guilty.
    I also really liked the way David Ragen handled his press release. I’m leaving, sorry for the short notice, but things didn’t get handled like I thought they would. Was a little awkward, yep. Was it honest, absolutely. Was there excess of gossip and discussion? Not that I noticed.

  • A person may be a great singer and a great talker both on stage and off, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a great writer.
    Clearly writing an explanation for a situation that may or may not be touchy requires a unique skill. Also, it’s not something they do every day.
    So, what often happens is they just parrot something they’ve seen before.