Modesto Bee punts when it comes to basic reporting on pastor-turned-politician

Normally I’m happy when smaller newspapers cover religion news. And the 33, 522-circ. Modesto Bee does qualify as a small newspaper.

The second newspaper I worked for was that size. The first one was even smaller, so I know what it’s like to be in the smaller markets. But when a big religion story is staring you in the face, it would help to provide more than the minimum of coverage.

Fox example, when a local megachurch pastor decides to run for public office, that calls for decent coverage. What did run, in this case, was pretty lackadaisical.

The senior pastor of Big Valley Grace Community Church — which is one of Modesto’s biggest churches — confirmed Monday that he is running for mayor in the November 2020 election.

“I love this town. I love the people of this town,” Rick Countryman said in a phone interview. “This is literally the right time to get involved. (If elected), I will use my energy, my passion and leadership to make Modesto a better place.”

Countryman, 58, declined to discuss his top issues or what he hopes to accomplish if elected. He said there will be plenty of time to talk about those things during the campaign. But he did say he gets tired of how Modesto ends up on the “bottom of lists of crummy towns” and wants to change that.

So here is the crucial question: What happens to the church, if he is elected mayor? How does one do both jobs?

Countryman said he has thought about running for mayor for about the past couple of elections but the time was not right. He said he now is at a stage in his life and Big Valley is in “healthy place” where running makes sense.

He said if elected, he would continue with Big Valley but his role may change as he takes on the demands of being mayor. Countryman said about 3,000 people attend Big Valley, which he said places it among the five largest churches in Modesto for attendance.

So this guy essentially runs a corporation servicing 3,000 people and he has the free time to want to run for mayor?

Something is very funny here. Modesto’s population is 214, 221. This is not exactly a small town situation.

Meanwhile, what kind of church are we talking about?

Countryman is a Modesto native and joined Big Valley 40 years ago. He has been a pastor with the church for 35 years, including the last 13 as senior pastor. Big Valley is an evangelical church, which means its followers believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God and are social conservatives.

One wants to tear one’s hair after reading the above quick take.

We’ve been writing for some time about how the media (often mistakenly) defines evangelicals. It’s best to stick with theological definitions (i.e. the belief in Jesus as the one way to salvation), not with cultural ones, such as assuming all evangelicals are social conservatives. Many are, but not all.

Countryman said he understands a mayor who also is a pastor could tweak some people’s minds. And he said while he “believes in the lord and has a biblical view of the world that shapes his thinking,” he is running to be the mayor of all of the residents of a very diverse city.

“People are not electing a pastor of the city,” he said. “They want someone to be a leader of the city.”

I doubt this man is going to get very far in his race, but the reporter could have done some basic homework.

Aren’t there any local politicos who could say something about this man’s chances at snagging the job? And, simply saying his church is evangelical misses a lot. What is the denominational heritage of this congregation? If you look at the church’s website (a rather basic research step), it says the place originated as a Brethren church.

I’m assuming the Brethren roots mean it’s connected with this Anabaptist denomination, but that’s a guess. Does Big Valley still belong there or did it leave when it changed its name?

It sounds to me that, if this pastor won, he’d step down from his church. Is his only reason for running related to the town’s less-than-savory reputation?

Oh, and what political party does he belong to? Evangelical?

So many unanswered questions. So little research done to advance this story. Five years ago, another reporter for the Bee wrote about a former pastor from that church and did a decent job. Does the Bee think that Countryman’s campaign is just a joke and they’re not willing to give this guy’s run much space?

I’m not sure who dropped the ball on this one, but someone needs to pick it up and run with this story.

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