Why Covering Churches Isn’t Like Covering Congress

As the long summer winds down, things are heating up in Lake Wobegon country as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is poised to vote during its Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis on allowing non-celibate LGBT people to be ministers.  If approved, the ELCA would be the largest protestant denomination in the U.S. to allow LGBT people in committed relationships to be clergy (FULL DISCLOSURE: I am actively involved in an ELCA church).

These kinds of news stories are tough to cover. Covering a vote in a churchwide assembly or annual meeting is not like covering a vote in Congress or the local school board. It’s hard, in fact, to even view these kinds of stories as “gay rights” stories because they oversimplify the underlying tensions.

The best coverage treats every side with respect and acknowledges that good people can disagree about a significant change in how a church denomination approves clergy. It’s a mistake to cover these kinds of stories using the “winner/loser” paradigm.

So how is the reporting so far?

  • NPR‘s religion correspondent Barbara Bradly Hagerty focused on a minister in Atlanta who was put “on trial” for violating the ELCA’s policy against non-celibate gay ministers. Hagerty gives a balanced look at the disagreement, but makes the mistake of letting opponents of the new policy to give theological arguments against the change, while not giving supporters that same opportunity to make theological arguments.
  • The Associated Press had a curtain raiser story focusing on a Minnesota church where the members are allegedly bracing for the possibility of leaving the ELCA if the change is approved. The story then moves to the story of the Atlanta minister.  It’s a well-balanced story, although I was left with questions about how likely it was that there would be an exodus of congregations and members if they change was approved.
  • The Washington Times also had a curtain raiser, focusing on two bishops near D.C.  I found it odd that Julia Duin didn’t interview the bishop from the synod where most of her local readers live and where the newspaper is located, but maybe they didn’t return phone calls.  It just seemed odd to have all these cautious quotes, while leaving out the bishop whose synod supports the change.

A vote on the proposal is expected on Friday, when we will see a whole new round of stories from both the mainstream and LGBT press. Some suggestions for covering this story, and denominational disagreements in general.

Beware of Comparisons – While the issue is similar, the disagreement in the ELCA is different from the disagreement inside the Anglican community and with the Episcopal Church, which is different from the United Church of Christ and the Methodists. The ELCA, for instance, is a relatively new denomination that was created after an ideological and theological split with more conservative Lutheran denominations.  They’ve been through this before.

Talk to All Sides – There are compelling stories on all sides of the disagreements, and there are a lot of people who don’t really care. The AP story does a nice job of personalizing the story from both sides.  And don’t just talk to spokespeople for either camp; talk to real people.

Theology Matters – Both the NPR story and the Washington Times story do a disservice by not really explaining the theological arguments on both sides.  Those opposing change are given wide latitude, but those supporting change aren’t given a chance to explain their theology.  This isn’t legislation, it’s about a theological disagreement.

What Now? – No matter the outcome, people will be disappointed and angry.  But what happens after the decision.  Will people really leave the ELCA?  Will they stay to fight another round? How will churches respond, especially those with LGBT clergy?

Undoubtedly, we will see more this weekend.


2 Responses

  1. Good luck. Religion is one of the toughest arguements in American history. People can be extremely closed minded when it comes to their religous beliefs.

  2. Thanks for the excellent blog. I will be interested in how snarky Mollie Hemingway at getreligion.org gets when she, in the guise of criticizing journalism, vents over what looks like the approval of non-celibate gay ministers. Your comments about good journalistic approaches to this story are far more helpful than anything on getreligion.org, which just wants reporters to be deferential to conservative religious people and, especially, in Mollie’s snarky posts, demonize gay people, religious or not.

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