Baptist pro: Don’t meet the press, unless you want to

Baptist pro: Don’t meet the press, unless you want to October 22, 2013

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:

“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.”

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, 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.

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7 responses to “Baptist pro: Don’t meet the press, unless you want to”

  1. As a Baptist, I suspect Patterson would make a distinction between what goes on at the local church level (which is mainly private) and what goes on at the denominational level (which is mostly public). I also think he is drawing the line in a reasonable place, even if some (most?) journalists would disagree. We don’t expect therapists to discuss what goes on in a therapy session, so I’m not sure we should be surprised when pastors, elders, et al., feel that is improper to discuss internal church issues, particularly those that deal with church discipline.

    • “internal church issues” – the problem with the way his remarks are framed here, and the implied tone of them (exasperation), is that he comes across as just another person interested in helping local churches cover up scandals by telling outsiders that “we can handle them in-house, none of your business.” At least this is certainly how his remarks were taken when Rachel Held Evans tweeted a link to this story last week–both her and a number of people who replied to the tweet expressed concern that this was a potentially damaging position when applied to some circumstances.

      Now, let’s give Paige Patterson the benefit of the doubt and assume that he and Rachel Held Evans probably agree on the sorts of things that need to be exposed to outside scrutiny (sexual abuse of minors, for example). Given the recent publicity of some things like this, he should have made clear the limits of what he’s talking about and made clear that there are really important cases in which what he’s saying should not be applied. Unless he either (1) did make these clarifications in the audio, which I’ve not listened to, or (2) would disagree that there in fact are some things that necessitate outside scrutiny, which raises a whole host of problems in my mind.

  2. I worked for a denominational entity for 17 years (the Arkansas Baptist State Convention), and pastored several churches prior to this. I found that most secular reporters, while they may mean well, are profoundly unprepared to interview a pastor or denominational leader about church or denominational issues. They do no homework, apply their vocabulary and definitions to concepts that are spiritual or ecclesiastical, and generally have predetermined ideas about what they are reporting. I stopped returning reporters calls unless I knew that the report would help our churches or the denomination. In short, I learned that I unless I could use the reporter to promote something we were doing, the probability of error, innuendo, and criticism was just too high. Dr. Patterson’s use of Scripture to make his point makes me a little uncomfortable, but his course of action is wise.

  3. Sexual abuse of a minor is a crime, and thus not a private matter. The preacher having an affair with the church secretary, on the other hand, is not a crime and really is not the business of the local newspaper. It’s not news, it’s gossip. In that context, I really like the idea of telling a reporter to mind his own business. That the reporter would go into a snit is no surprise.

  4. FYI: In the penultimate paragraph, you say, “American Baptist Press” rather than “Associated Baptist Press.”

  5. …or, a church could be pro-active and establish a rapport with local reporters, including supplying them with press releases about upcoming events and whatnot that the news organizations might run with as “community interest” pieces.

    Do this often enough, and there’s a chance that the paper will see the church as a friend and source of filler stories instead of a mysterious entity to occasionally poke with a stick.