Bob Coy's fall: Kinder, gentler media treatment, for now

Some of the most compelling Bible stories are those with flawed characters like David and Samson: rising to prominence, then falling into sin. Pastor Bob Coy, who fell from grace last weekend at Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale, fits that mold.

Coy, whom I got to know casually during my time as the religion editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, could be forceful and aggressive, but never holier than thou. He was public with his past as a womanizer, drug abuser and Las Vegas promoter. And he always told people to follow Jesus, not him.

This is why I think mainstream media have been rather kind with the story of his resignation over a confessed, though unspecified, "moral failing." The Sun Sentinel and the Miami Herald are fierce, longtime competitors; yet their coverage of Calvary Chapel this week has refreshingly shunned the acidic glee of most scandal stories. Thus far, at least.

Both newspapers posted initial "breaking" news articles, followed by longer newsfeatures. The Herald's first piece, however, was a five-paragraph AP story with the barest details -- and an incorrect report of 18,000 members for Calvary Chapel. The staff-produced story gave a more accurate 20,000.

The Sun Sentinel turned out a longer, 18-paragraph newsbreak, as one might expect from a newspaper in the church's hometown of Fort Lauderdale. The article also narrates considerable church history, drawing from its own extensive files going back to the church founding in 1985.

Both sets of stories do have their blemishes. The Herald veers into cliché by mentioning Coy's "boyish good looks." And both newspapers talk about Calvary Chapel's "parishioners." Apparently, they're still unaware that many Protestant churches are not parishes.

The Sun Sentinel states incorrectly that Calvary Chapel started six other campuses, as opposed to the Herald's accurate reporting of nine. The Sun Sentinel could have simply counted the campuses on the church website.

Each paper stumbles in saying that Coy had no higher education in religion -- "no formal religious training" in the Sun Sentinel's story, "no formal seminary training" in the Herald's. It's a stumble because it shows little understanding of how nondenominational churches operate. In Pentecostal churches, for example -- both black and white -- young believers often sense the call, then undergo apprenticeship under a pastor, then receive a license to preach. And some church chains run their own ministerial schools.

Beyond accuracy, there's the matter of tone. Media cultures include overall attitudes, including those toward religion; and each indepth story reveals differences in the two newspapers.

The Sun Sentinel, drawing from the Midwestern-based Chicago Tribune chain, sets up a religious Camelot before hinting at the fall:

When Bob Coy arrived in South Florida nearly 30 years ago to found a Calvary Chapel ministry, he seemed an unlikely man of God.

Yet from his first days in front of worshippers meeting in a Pompano Beach funeral home, the admitted onetime cocaine abuser and womanizer from Las Vegas showed a talent for mixing Bible lessons with real life that gave rise to a mega-church with tens of thousands of followers.

"He just kept your attention the whole time," said 20-year parishioner Beverly Shrove, 62. "There was just something about him that made you keep coming back."

But in the wake of Coy's surprise resignation for what church officials have termed "a moral failing in his life," some wonder if one of the largest churches in Florida can survive the loss of its charismatic leader.

In contrast, the Herald takes a more pompous, melodramatic tone, drawn from its roots in the old Knight newspaper chain:

From the pulpit of Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, pastor Bob Coy would sometimes recount stories from his un-pious past as a means of leading his legions of parishioners on the path to salvation.

In his sermons, the cocaine-addict-turned-preacher would mimic the voices of the topless dancers he once managed or the gangster who would page him to make cocaine runs — jobs he quit in 1981 when, he said, he left a life of drugs and womanizing to save his soul.

Coy, 58, stepped down late last week. The church, announcing his exit, cited a “moral failing” on the preacher’s part, but did not elaborate.

The scandal has rocked the megachurch, which in three decades has grown from a dozen members who met in an Oakland Park funeral home into one the biggest Evangelical ministries in the nation with 20,000 or more parishioners.

Both accounts then retell the saga of Coy's "troubled past," as the Sun Sentinel put it, a life that changed when he became a believer in Jesus at a Calvary Chapel in Vegas. The newspapers also narrate the fast ramp-up: 4,000 attendance within a decade, 75-acre campus, youth ministry, even a skateboard park. The Herald adds perceptively that Coy "captivated thousands of followers who sought a spiritual connection that resonated with their everyday lives."

Another striking difference is the choice of that staple of indepth reporting, the academic source. The Sun Sentinel quotes John N. Vaughan, director of the Megachurch Research Center in Missouri, who points out that the Calvary Chapel effect was more than Coy alone:

Vaughan said he had "no doubt" that the church would survive.

"Churches don't get that big because of some hotshot in the pulpit. They get that big because they're meeting people's needs," Vaughan said. And Calvary Chapel, he said, has a reputation for doing just that, with a "mission-oriented" approach in reaching "people whose lives are going in the wrong direction."

"There are lots of stories in that church, of people whose lives have been dramatically changed. There are raving fans in that church," Vaughan said.

Contrast this with the Herald's choice, a generic religion department chief, who gives some "Duh" quotes:

David Kling, professor and chair of University of Miami’s department of religious studies, said resignations due to “moral failings” are not unheard-of. He cited the examples of Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. In some cases the ministries they founded survived. In others, they did not.

“It's difficult to know what will happen at this time, but the one thing that you can say for sure is that it won't be the same church it once was,” he said.

I think the fairly gentle coverage stems not only from Coy's own self-deprecation, but from what reporters heard from members themselves. As one told the Sun Sentinel: "I could just cry. But this is a lesson. We worship Jesus Christ, not Bob Coy."

That's for now, at least. Two loose strings are left dangling. One is an interview with Coy himself, who hasn't returned reporters' calls. The other is the nature of the confessed moral failing. The more a church tries to keep quiet, the more persistent newspapers tend to get. And as they pry, they often get less friendly.

Some people in church circles are telling everyone to leave Coy alone to heal with his family. There is validity in that; but it may hard to switch off the spotlight after standing in it for nearly three decades. And even in Bible stories, David's misdeeds were outed -- by a prophet, no less.

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