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The need to be a well-informed church

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People of faith cannot be effective and relevant in the world today if they are not well informed, says Tim Tanton, who oversees UM News. On today’s episode of “Get Your Spirit in Shape,” Tim shares details about the news agency of The United Methodist Church and shares why UM News is an important ministry in the church, one that can be trusted as a reliable source of information

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This episode posted on May 27, 2022.

Transcript

Prologue

Crystal Caviness, host: People of faith cannot be effective and relevant in the world today if they are not well informed, says Tim Tanton, who oversees UM News. On today’s episode of “Get Your Spirit in Shape,” Tim shares details about the news agency of The United Methodist Church and shares why UM News is an important ministry in the church, one that can be trusted as a reliable source of information.

Crystal: Welcome, Tim, to "Get Your Spirit in Shape."

Tim: Thank you, Crystal. It’s great to be here.

Crystal: Well, I’m so excited that you are here and I feel like we have some really important things to talk about today. Before we do that, can you tell us just a little bit about yourself?

Tim:  Sure. I am the Chief News Officer for United Methodist Communications which means that I work with UM News and with Ask the UMC. And I’ll share a little bit more about those. I’m a longtime Methodist. I belong to East End United Methodist Church in Nashville. And prior to that…prior to joining United Methodist News Service I worked in secular journalism for many years and felt a calling to use my journalism skills and background in the service of the church. And so I honestly feel like God brought me to United Methodist News Service and it’s been a good ministry.

Crystal:   And I want to talk about your ministry. I thought we might talk about it a little later, but you brought it up. So before we talk more about UM News, how is being a part of UM News an expression of your faith? How do you feel like that’s part of your faith journey, your faith story?

Tim:  Well, communications is a ministry. And news is a part of that. And I believe that it’s not something that perhaps historically people have thought of as a ministry of the church, but when you get right down to what enables a church to function and to operate effectively in the world communication is just essential for that. And I believe that the news is part of that is foundational. The church has to be well-informed in order to be effective in the world today. I believe that we as individual people of faith also have to be well–informed. So that may be kind of a long way around answering your question, but I really feel strongly that information is just kind of the lifeblood of all we do as a church.

Crystal:   So let’s talk about news. Some United Methodists may be surprised that the church has its own news agency and UM News is a part of United Methodist Communications as you mentioned, which is the global communications agency for the United Methodist Church. So UM News serves the church across the world. Let’s talk about that. How does a news agency serve a church that’s across the world? That seems like such a big job.

Tim: It is a big job. It’s an exciting job. But it is challenging. So let me speak to the first part of your question around the fact that the church has a news agency. Several decades ago the leaders of the United Methodist Church’s predecessor, the Methodist Church, decided that having a news agency was an effective strategy for telling the church’s story, and by having a news agency that tells the stories of the church’s successes as well as its struggles, the church could build credibility for its witness and also engage more people in being part of the story. And this has proved to be a fruitful approach. I mean, through the years we’ve had many people, church members as well as secular news reporters and others, express appreciation for the fact that the United Methodist Church has a News Service that does its best to tell it like it is. Usually the stories we’re telling follow the category of good news. But often we’re also reporting difficult news. And it’s all important. It’s critically important that the people in the church as well as people outside the church get the full picture of the life and work of the church in the world today. So, on a global level…you know, John Wesley said that the world is my parish. And I think he would really be pleased to see what that looks like today in Methodism. And United Methodist News certainly lives into that. We have worked for many years now to build a community of communicators and correspondents in not only across the annual conferences of the U.S. but also in Africa, in Asia, especially Philippines and in Europe. And this is something that we’ve done as part of United Methodist Communications’ broader Central Conference emphasis. But what this has meant for us in terms of news reporting has been that we’re able to tell the stories of the global church in a way that’s contextual. Our correspondents are in the communities that they’re reporting on. They know the people. So it’s not just a kind of a U.S.-centric take on the news of the church. It’s very much a focus on being contextual. So having that …that network has been really key to what we’re able to do in reporting the news of the church. And you know, our first line of partnerships in telling the church’s story is the communicators around the world. And I would also say that here in the U.S. the conference communicators are just such a critically important part of reporting the news of the church. And we rely on them a great deal as we identify news that needs to be shared out across the denomination, as we find those inspiring stories of United Methodists who are living their faith in uplifting ways. Telling the stories of the church is very much a community endeavor. And it’s a communal experience.

Crystal:   Why does having an unbiased news agency…why does that matter to United Methodists? Why should that matter to United Methodists?

Tim:   Being well-informed, as I mentioned, is essential to the church. And it’s also essential to our lives as individual people of faith. We really can’t be effective or relevant in the world today if we are not well-informed. When the coverage is unbiased then you know that it can be trusted. So whether it’s good news or bad news the church needs to know that it’s getting reliable and thorough information.

Crystal: Tim, how do you differentiate between church news and secular news, because there are things that happen in society that definitely affect us in our lives, those of us in the church, so how do you differentiate that? Or, tell me about that process, what you cover and how you choose to cover certain things.

Tim: Sure. Sure. Well let me take a step back on that and just share with you a little bit about our team and then I think that’ll set up the answer to your question a little bit better. So United Methodist News is staffed by professionally trained journalists and communicators, reporters, photographer, webpage designers. So we apply the standards and the news values that are recognized across journalism to telling the stories of the church. What we also bring to this work is the added dimension of being in the church and being people of faith. And so we’re servants of the church in addition to reporting on it. So when it comes to how we distinguish between the news of the church and secular news, that is really a key piece of it. Usually you could look at just about every major headline happening in the secular news. And there’s gonna be some United Methodist connection. The challenge for us really is determining what stories, you know, we persue. And in doing that we are looking at how are United Methodists engaging with this situation. For example, this past weekend there was a horrible shooting in Buffalo, New York. And there were responses from United Methodist leaders and agencies almost immediately after that happened. There were also responses at the local level, the local pastor and the congregation responding to what had happened. So we immediately shifted gears into contacting people and gathering these responses and telling this story in a way that really shows how United Methodists are trying to be present in a very difficult situation. And so as we look at, you know, stories that are, you know, that are secular versus stories that are United Methodist News stories, what you get through UM News is that United Methodist dimension. We’re responding in so many ways to things that are happening in the world today—the invasion of Ukraine. We have pastors and lay people in Ukraine, in Europe and elsewhere in the world who are responding. There are United Methodists who are among the refugees. And there are United Methodist agencies like UMCOR that are deeply involved in the response. So as we pursue stories we’re really going after the story that would not be told if there was not a United Methodist News Service. And that is the story about how United Methodists are responding. Just about every disaster there is a major United Methodist response to it. And the stories aren’t always grim news. You know, there are a lot of really uplifting stories to be told as well. For example, we are working on a story about an actor in a pretty popular TV series who is United Methodist and will be, you know, sharing her faith story with us. So there are those nice feel-good stories as well that we like to tell. But they all have that United Methodist connection.

Crystal:  Well, that leads me really nicely to my next question. What are some of your favorite stories or maybe some of the stories that you felt have been…you’ve been so thankful that UM News was there to tell those stories.

Tim: There have been so many. Just thinking…. Most recently we had a team go into Mexico to meet with people who are dealing with challenges related to immigration. You know. There’s just such a huge challenge that, you know, huge humanitarian challenge that the United Methodist Church is working to respond to in partnership with Methodists of Mexico and elsewhere. So our team has brought back just stunning images and just heart-breaking stories from people who have been forced to leave their homes due to violence and crime and marginalization. And those stories, while they’re difficult to take in are also very powerful testimonies to the importance of what the United Methodist Church is doing in the world today. Some of my favorites have been stories just about regular church members who come up with great ideas for sharing their faith or for making a difference in people’s lives in their community. It’s an inspiration honestly to me. It’s an inspiration I know to my colleagues to be able to get out into the world and sit with people in their homes and hear those stories. And wherever we go in the world, you know, there are these wonderful cultural differences, but you know, there is something underlying all of those, that connects all of them. And that is just this really strong vibrant faith that you can really see God’s spirit working in so many different ways as you go into communities around the world and you get to meet people who often are enduring great hardship but still are just overflowing with faith and grace and hospitality. So again, I would just…I would just lift up some of the great stories that we’ve been able to tell along those lines, you know, stories of malaria net distributions where in Côte d'Ivoire, for example, we were sitting in these big dugout canoes full of malaria nets and being rowed out across the Grand Lahou Lagoon near the Atlantic Ocean to this little island that was a fishing village. And you could only access it by boat. And, you know, getting off the boat, the reception that the people in…on the island had to getting malaria nets, and the reception that they had for the United Methodists. There’s a big Methodist congregation in this little fishing village. And there was just a lot of jubilation that the church had come out to this very remote corner to witness, to bring a message of love and to bring something very tangible in the form of bed nets, you know, that would save people’s lives. So those are kind of the, you know, the uplifting moments that just make it all so…so meaningful.

Crystal:  You know, Tim, as I hear you talk about this it seems that UM News really underscores our connectionalism as a denomination, you know, in a very tangible way as you’re telling these stories of people of the United Methodist across the world. Does it feel like that?

Tim:  Absolutely. You know, that’s where the importance of news comes in because, you know, sharing the stories is what really connects us. You know, stories have such a transformative power. I mean, you know, Crystal, you’ve done some just really heart-warming stories about how people are living their faith. And those are…those are the places where we really connect, we really get a deeper understanding of one another’s faith journeys. We get a deeper understanding of our life experiences and how we come to the beliefs that we hold, you know, because we’re all different, we’re all unique. And I think when we’re sharing…when we’re sharing our stories we’re doing it at a personal level and we’re breaking past the boundaries that would normally keep us apart. You know, we’re closing that distance, you know, between one human being and another. And you know I think especially with some of the difficult issues that we’re facing today, you know, the things that people are divided on, I place a lot of hope in this transformative power of our stories to help us not necessarily convince one another that one particular side is right or wrong, but at least be able to travel together with a deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation for other people who may be very different from us as human beings. Because, you know, as you look around the world today at the polarization, the division, I think we’ve lost some of that ability to empathize with one another. We kind of let our empathy stop at the place where we disagree. And I think we have to be able to get beyond our disagreements. And I think our stories are what enable us to do that. And, as you said, the connection is a God thing. It is just something that I think is so precious. I know that it’s something is also under some strain right now. But, you know, when you think about what does it means to be the body of Christ, I think the United Methodist connection is certainly a good faith effort to represent that. And our stories are, you know, provide some of the glue for holding that connection together.

Crystal: Tim, in doing a little research I see that this year, 2022, you’ll have been a United Methodist Communications for 25 years. And congratulations on that milestone. And it occurred to me that across that 25 years, two and a half decades, you’ve seen some amazing changes just in the way you do your work and probably just technology has changed so much. I was curious as how technology has affected the way that UM News covers news.

Tim: Well, technology has really revolutionized our work. When I joined United Methodist News Service we had a dark room, you know, a fully functioning dark room. We were still using film. Now that’s all digital. And our photographer, Mike DuBose, as opposed to having a dark room now just sort of has a darkened desk area. So you know the digital age has just brought about so many dramatic changes in what we do. It’s made reporting more immediate. You know. We are able to share information quickly online, you know, through social media and through other channels in ways that, you know, we were not able to do 25 years ago. We used to, back in the day, print our stories out in a printing room and fold them up and put them in envelopes and mail them out by snail mail. And our longtime colleague Debra Jemison, who’s still here, was in charge of all that. And it was just a…it was a massive undertaking. Just sort of a funny aside, in addition to mailing out the stories, we would also put a copy of the photograph that went with a particular story in the envelope with the story. And if the person who received the story (usually was a secular news reporter or a United Methodist communicator,) if they were interested in the photo, they would contact us and we would, you know, send them an actual print of the photo. Well, from time to time we would get… you know, we subscribed to tons of newspapers, of course, and from time to time we would get a newspaper that had actually used one of the photos out of the envelope in their publication. You could tell that they had taken it out of the envelope because you could see the fold marks, you know, bisecting a photo. So, you know, those days are…that’s kind of becoming a little bit of a bygone era. But just the immediacy really has…has changed so much the way we do what we do. We’re able to turn around news within minutes, you know, as opposed to a day or longer. Our audience doesn’t have to wait to receive the news in the mail. We were posting some of our news…well, we were posting our news on the web. But we really relied, before we fully got into the Internet, we relied on other publications to pick up our news. So the digital era enabled us to go straight to our audiences. So we no longer have to rely on secular newspaper or a conference newspaper to pick up our story in order for it to see the light of the day. Now we’re able to, you know, just go straight to, you know, to our audiences. So that has been just kind of a wonderful transformation. Now the changes though have also come with new challenges and things that I don’t think we foresaw 25 years ago. You know, the rise of social media has been really powerful development. And there’s been a lot of good that’s come with that. We’ve also, however, seen a rise in misinformation, disinformation, the power of the press, (if you will) to use that kind of old term now has gone from the hands of, you know, a professional category of people to everybody. You know, everybody is a storyteller now. Everybody can shoot photos and share videos and that has been a great good. It has also come with a great, you know, with great challenges because now, as you know, one of the biggest challenges that we’re facing in society today and in the world is the fact that, you know, there are individuals and entities out there that are, you know, producing content that looks real and looks credible, but it isn’t. There’s just a lot of misinformation and outright disinformation that is proliferating out there. It’s a lot harder for people to sometimes separate what’s fact from what’s falsehood. And so, you know, I think as we look at the challenges that are facing the church and society today that to me is a very significant one. Now we’re at a point where people can actually produce videos that look real. You know. The deep fake video. And I think it really underscores the need for our audiences to think critically about the news and information that they’re consuming, to consider the source of what they’re consuming. And of course this gets back to your question about why it’s so important to have an unbiased news agency. And it’s important for people to get their information and their news from more than one source, including sources that might not necessarily align with one’s own world views. I think it’s just really incumbent upon all of us to be more thoughtful about what we’re taking in and what we’re sharing out. So, yeah, I mean, there’s just been tremendous change. And a lot of it has been a great good. I think, you know, when we use the word connection we go outside the denomination I think as a global community, if you will, we’re a lot more connected. We’re, you know, we’re a smaller planet than we were in a lot of ways. I think, though, that there are also new hazards that we just have to really be conscious of. And I think we have to take on more of a sense of responsibility for not only what we’re consuming, but also what we are sharing out with other people.

Crystal: One of the things I thought of as you were talking about technology and how it’s changed the way UM News does its job, is in accessibility. So through the website, through newsletters that UM News sends out, the Daily Digest. The news now is accessible to more people than ever. And that really feels like it levels the playing field as far as information and knowledge for what the reporters from UM News staff what you’re writing about. It isn’t just a small segment receiving it as it was in the past, that you had to wait on process. Now every day you’re producing new stories and every day those news stories are going out where members can access that.

Tim: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And it’s going out not only in English, for example, but you know, we’re reporting the news in Spanish and Korean and French and Portuguese. And UM News is also providing avenues for people to access the news in Norwegian and German and Russian and other languages. So there is much greater access than there was 25 years ago. I mean, back in the early days most of our subscribers were church leaders, church communicators and secular media. Now our stories go out and are consumed by certainly United Methodists around the world but also people outside the church who live in far-flung parts of the globe. So the growth of technology has really been a game changer for us in so many ways. At the same time there continues to be a need for us to focus on making sure that we’re providing a platform for voices that aren’t heard or voices that aren’t heard as much. And in the New Service we’re committed, for example, to telling stories of the ethnic caucuses, for example and people of faith in communities that have historically been marginalized. So we’re really focused on making sure that our content reflects the global character of the church in terms of culture, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of age, and certainly with gender sensitivity. You know, we really are striving to make sure that that richness that is one of the wonderful parts of being United Methodists…that that richness is reflected in our stories and in our content.

Crystal: As we finish up I just have a couple of more questions. And one is, is there something that we didn’t talk about today that you wanted to make sure that you shared about UM News?

Tim: Yes, there is, Crystal. And I appreciate you asking that question. Often people will ask us why do we report news that is difficult, or bad news—if you will? And you know, I think it’s important to understand that we don’t report the news from a standpoint of whether it’s good or bad. We’re reporting news that people need to know. We’re reporting what’s happening in the church and trying to shed light on difficult issues of the day and how the United Methodist Church is speaking to those and showing, even in the process of reporting challenging news, how United Methodists are striving to make a difference. And I think it’s just important to keep that in mind. You know, reporting on the challenges and even negative news really reflects well, I believe, on the transparency of the United Methodist Church—a church that is unafraid to show its struggles to the world. It’s a church that is real and authentic. And I think it’s a church that I certainly want to be a part of, and I think others do, too. We get plenty of spin from almost every institution in society. And I think that people need and expect their church to operate differently. I think that kind of authenticity and honesty that the church represents creates trust and credibility. And I believe that that’s part and parcel of what we do through the ministry of news. And it’s much better to be well-informed and uncomfortable than to be blissfully uninformed, in my view. I think it’s much better for the church in the long run as well.

Crystal: Absolutely. Thank you for that. Our last question is a question we ask all of our guests on "Get Your Spirit in Shape," and that question is: how do you keep your own spirit in shape?

Tim: That’s a great question. I keep my spirit in shape through simple things. Each morning and each night the first words that I say and the last words that I say are simply ‘thank you, God.’ I think connecting with gratitude and a degree of humility and really putting the focus on God and not on, you know, I, myself, (if you will) is a very spiritually sustaining or strengthening thing, I’ve found. And how I anchor my day with scripture and with prayer and, you know, I hold in my heart the words of a friend of mine, the Reverend Mike Waldruff. He used to close out every sermon by telling the congregation ‘remember to seek Jesus in everyone you meet.’ And those words have helped me in sometimes challenging situations.

Crystal: Wow. That sounds like a great benediction.

Tim:  Indeed it is. Yes, yeah. It’s a good reminder. It’s an important reminder. Everyone we meet doesn’t look like us, but Jesus is there in everyone we meet. And it’s just important to keep that in mind, especially in circumstances where, you know, there may be some friction or disagreement.

Crystal: Tim, thank you so much for being with us today on "Get Your Spirit in Shape." It was such a joy. We’ve been colleagues for a while now and just to get to sit and have this conversation together was a lot of fun for me and a real delight. So thank you.

Tim:  Well, thank you, Crystal. It’s been a real pleasure.

Epilogue

Crystal Caviness: That was Tim Tanton, Chief News and Information Officer at United Methodist Communications where he oversees UM News. To learn more about Tim and UM News go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.