Commentary: The church’s news and why it matters
The staff at United Methodist Communications recently created alternative job titles to explain what each person does, but in a fun way. One of our news reporters, Heather Hahn, gave her title as: “The messenger – please don’t shoot!”
We are living in an era in which news reporting is needed more than ever, and it is under attack more than ever.
The introduction of “fake news” and “alternative facts” into the U.S. lexicon reflects the lengths that people in power will go to discredit factual reporting and information sharing. Yet journalism that informs the public and holds truth to power is vital for a healthy society.
It is also vital for a global denomination with 13 million members.
Several decades ago, leaders of the Methodist Church recognized that the denomination needed a news agency that would use professional journalism standards to report faithfully the work of the church to the world and keep members well-informed. Without a news service, our leaders realized, the public media, special-interest groups and others would shape the story.
Or the story would not be told at all. The news service was the only entity on the scene to report how United Methodists in West Africa were responding to the Ebola crisis, and major media organizations around the world used our content as a result. More recently, we were at the violent rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, to report on how United Methodists were standing up for civil rights and the principles of our church.
Having a news service has built credibility for the denomination, making it more transparent with members as well as the public. Secular media have often used our stories as background information for their own reporting and sometimes publish our stories verbatim. Reporters with major news organizations have marveled to me about how openly United Methodists handle difficult issues. This transparency has reflected well on the denomination at a time when other churches have struggled with credibility issues and cover-ups.
In the 1980s, The United Methodist Church was hit with stories in Readers’ Digest and on 60 Minutes about a financial crisis at a chain of church-related nursing homes in the western United States. The debacle became known as the Pacific Homes crisis, and coverage in reputable mainstream news organizations cast blame on the denomination as a whole – though Pacific Homes wasn’t owned by the denomination — and raised doubt about how the church would handle the situation.
United Methodist News Service reported the full story about the church’s efforts to address the problem, and UMNS showed how, over the course of several years, the church made good on the financial commitments. The church’s side would not have been told were it not for the news service. This is one example among many in which the news team has set the record straight on behalf of the church.
While we are professionally trained journalists, we bring an added dimension to our work as people of faith serving the church. Each person is responding to a call as surely as any pastor or seminary professor is called to ministry.
Most of our coverage tends to be in the “positive” category. We have reported on the remarkable ways in which individual United Methodists are living their faith, how local churches are transforming their communities and how the general church is responding to needs around the world. We love telling these stories.
From time to time, we also report difficult news. People ask why the church would support a ministry that reports “negative” information – news about disagreements in the church, leader misconduct, church trials. By reporting on its own difficult news, the church is ensuring that its story is told accurately and knowledgeably. It is also keeping faith with its members, who support the church’s work financially.
I admire our forebears in faith who shaped the Bible. How tempting it must have been for them to leave out the stories of human frailty that wouldn’t have been “good PR” for the Christian movement. We would not have the unflattering stories about Adam and Eve, Noah, Jacob, Moses, Samson, Jephthah, Saul, David, Mary Magdalene, Peter, Judas, Thomas, Paul, and many others. The Bible would be quite slim and not quite so authentic.
Those stories survive, informing our faith today. Modeling how we handle our own struggles is a powerful witness that we make as God’s people. The world needs that witness.
Sometimes the process can seem messy, but we must engage in it.
The Council of Bishops puts it well in the Nov. 10 statement signed by Bishop Bruce R. Ough: “Conflict and differing opinions, a natural part of the human and faith experience, come in a variety of forms. We are called to address our differences with authenticity and respectful conversations which enrich our understanding of God and of one another.”
UMNS is committed to helping people better understand the church, its workings, beliefs and history. We cover the institutions, such as General Conference, the Council of Bishops, the Judicial Council, annual conferences worldwide and the general agencies. These are important pillars, embodied by people who are striving to be faithful in their roles. God, we believe, is working through all church members in our rich diversity of theology, experiences and world views.
We continue to advocate for openness in the church. During the past year and a half, we have reached out to the bishops regarding the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. We expressed our commitment to covering the commission and our view that news coverage would be important to its work. Realizing the commission had a challenge in terms of building trust among the members, we suggested adapting our coverage process to support the confidentiality the commission needed while also enabling us to fulfill our role of providing information to the church about the group's work.
The moderators of the commission have closed their meetings. That is a subject for another commentary. One statement referred to the denomination’s media as interpreting “the commission's work through a hermeneutic of suspicion.” On behalf of the denomination’s media in general and United Methodist News Service specifically, I can state that we do not bring a mindset of suspicion to our work. We do ask questions. That’s our job.
We also view ourselves as being on the same team, with a shared commitment to the ministry of The United Methodist Church.
This is a sensitive time in the life of the church — a time of change from what we have been to what we will become. Our leaders, including the Commission on a Way Forward, have our prayer support.
As the church moves forward, United Methodist News Service will continue documenting the journey, lifting up the celebrations as well as the struggles. We will strive to build understanding in the church, as we all move by faith into God’s future.
Tanton directs United Methodist News Service. To read more United Methodist news and commentary, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.