Manya Brachear Pashman

Friday Five: Godbeat news, Bush 41 funeral, pope on gay priests, megachurch biz, pastor hero

Friday Five: Godbeat news, Bush 41 funeral, pope on gay priests, megachurch biz, pastor hero

Enjoy the “Walking in Memphis” video.

Speaking of Memphis, there’s good news on the Godbeat in Tennessee’s second-largest city: Katherine Burgess reports on Twitter that religion will now be a part of her coverage responsibilities at the Commercial Appeal.

“Please send religion stories my way,” requests Burgess, who previously did a nice job reporting on religion for Kansas’ Wichita Eagle.

In other Godbeat developments, I learned just recently that religion writer Manya Brachear Pashman has left the Chicago Tribune. Here’s an update from her:

I officially left the Tribune at the end of October to follow my husband's career to New Jersey. I am in the process of figuring out the next chapter, while taking some time to tend to family and staying involved with RNA and RNF. I am optimistic that someone will replace me at the Tribune. But it might take a while, since they're going through a round of buyouts at the moment. But it's hard to imagine the Tribune without someone devoted to covering religion. In Chicago, that's the equivalent of leaving the city hall beat vacant.

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five.

1. Religion story of the week: Wednesday’s Washington National Cathedral funeral for former President George H.W. Bush was full of faith, as GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly highlighted in his roundup of news coverage at The New York Times and the wall-to-wall (and almost totally faith-free) spread at The Washington Post. And yes, Bush was an Episcopalian — that’s a noun — as tmatt noted in a separate post full of Episcopal jokes.

Finally, be sure to check out tmatt’s obits commentary on “The mainstream faith of Bush 41: At what point did 'personal' become 'political'?” And there’s a podcast coming this weekend.

Here’s a key passage from the funeral coverage material, offering a way for readers to study a news report and decide whether the editors thought the state funeral was a political event, only.

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Monday Mix: #RNA2018, Hurricane Florence faith, Botham Jean justice, Beth Moore vs. Trump

Monday Mix: #RNA2018, Hurricane Florence faith, Botham Jean justice, Beth Moore vs. Trump

It’s the post-#RNA2018 edition of the Monday Mix.

Look for a link below concerning a letter submitted this past weekend at the Religion News Association’s annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio, by seven former presidents of that professional association. Yes, the letter relates to the controversy earlier this year when Religion News Service’s former editor in chief, Jerome Socolovsky, was fired.

For those needing a refresher on this new GetReligion feature, Monday Mix focuses on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

We'll mention this again, too: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. "It’s easy to say, ‘I love God,’ but put on your boots, get your hands dirty." The faith-based response to Hurricane Florence is front-page news in today’s New York Times.

The Times offers an excellent overview of the crucial role people of faith play in disaster relief:

From the first moments of the rolling disaster of Florence, there has been no sharp divide separating the official responders, the victims and the houses of faith.

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Bill Hybels resigns at Willow Creek: Thank goodness, real pros got to cover this story

Bill Hybels resigns at Willow Creek: Thank goodness, real pros got to cover this story

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the most basic facts.

When I was teaching at Denver Seminary in the early 1990s, the Denver area was in the middle of a remarkable boom era for evangelical megachurches. There were congregations that -- in the space of 12 months or so -- attracted several thousand members.

During a classroom discussion one day. a student from overseas (I think it was Russia) asked an interesting question: Why are there no old, unattractive, balding superchurch pastors? Why are they all young, super attractive and really funny? And how can you be a pastor when you have 7,000 members or more? Were these men pastors or celebrities?

The Americans laughed, but the laughter was rather weak.

I thought about that exchange when I was reading some of the early coverage of the latest scene in the ongoing drama of the Rev. Bill Hybels and the massive Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago.

Obviously, Hybels is more than a pastor who founded a giant evangelical megachurch 42 years ago. He is the creator of what amounts to a new Protestant mini-denomination -- more than a mere parachurch network. He has been a hero -- a celebrity -- among moderate evangelicals who want to make sure that the world understands that they aren't like all of those other tacky evangelicals.

There's a reason that GetReligionista Julia Duin's original #ChurchToo post about the accusations against Hybels has attracted nearly 18,000 readers.

With all that in mind, let me say something very obvious about the main news reports about the Hybels resignation.

These stories are, as a rule, long, detailed and full of nuance. In other words, look at the bylines on the following stories in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and the hard-news website at Christianity Today.

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Another #ChurchToo: The Chicago Tribune investigates Bill Hybels in 6,000 words

Another #ChurchToo: The Chicago Tribune investigates Bill Hybels in 6,000 words

The Chicago Tribune set off a #ChurchToo tsunami last week when it ran a lengthy story (I counted 6,096 words) about the revered pastor of Willow Creek Church, a megachurch and global parachurch ministry hub northwest of the city.

Those of us on the beat were commenting on it almost as soon as the mega-story came out. It was clear to several of us that a ton of work that had gone into this piece and that reporters Manya Brachear Pashman and Jeff Coen must have been working on it for a long time.

Obviously, people have been talking about this situation for some time. The story begins:

Last October, the Rev. Bill Hybels stood before worshippers at his packed sanctuary and made a stunning announcement. After 42 years building northwest suburban Willow Creek Community Church into one of the nation’s most iconic and influential churches, Hybels was planning to step down as senior pastor.
“I feel released from this role,” he said, adding that he felt called to build on Willow Creek's reach across 130 countries with a focus on leadership development, particularly in the poorest regions of the world…
What much of the church didn’t know was that Hybels had been the subject of inquiries into claims that he ran afoul of church teachings by engaging in inappropriate behavior with women in his congregation -- including employees -- allegedly spanning decades. The inquiries had cleared Hybels, and church leaders said his exit had nothing to do with the allegations.

What follows is a step-by-step recitation of what Hybels was accused of, plus the fact that these accusations have been swirling for at least four years. What was also intriguing is that within hours of the Tribune’s story, Christianity Today, which is headquartered in Chicago’s western suburbs, had its own highly detailed story up on its site.

To have their own investigation –- written by religion beat pro Bob Smietana -- at the ready tells me one thing: If CT was onto this, then a lot of people knew about these rumors and have known about them for some time.

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Friday Five: Sister Jean's rising celebrity, Bill Hybels' #ChurchToo accusers, Pence's bunny and more

Friday Five: Sister Jean's rising celebrity, Bill Hybels' #ChurchToo accusers, Pence's bunny and more

In this space last week, I highlighted Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt — 98-year-old nun and team chaplain for Loyola-Chicago — after her 11th-seeded Ramblers won in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Thursday night, Sister Jean's team improved to 3-0 in #MarchMadness and advanced -- in yet another last-minute win -- to the Elite Eight.

"I don't care that you broke my bracket," she quipped after Loyola's latest victory.

With each game, Sister Jean's national celebrity just keeps growing.

Among the countless stories about her, the New York Times' Jeff Arnold had a really interesting feature this week on "A Day in the Life of Sister Jean, Media Darling." A note from the piece:

William Behrns, Loyola’s eeassistant athletic director for communications, is one of two staff members who have been assigned to sort the requests for time with Sister Jean since the Ramblers’ success thrust them — and her — onto the national stage last week. Behrns estimated that as of Monday evening, his office had received 75 requests for interviews with Sister Jean, from outlets including “The Tonight Show,” newspapers, radio stations and cable television networks.

Here on the religion beat, we do love this kind of detail:

Sister Jean wakes before dawn, an hour earlier than usual, and immediately spends time in her daily prayer and meditation. She routinely, and almost ironically this week, asks God for a peaceful day. She then meditates on a gospel story; lately, her choices have centered on reminders of God’s love for his children. “Whether we win or lose,” she said in an interview with The New York Times on Tuesday morning, “God is still with us.”

Loyola will face Kansas State, a No. 9 seed, in the South Region final Saturday night. USA Today calls it "an epic underdog battle." 

But enough about Sister Jean and Loyola -- for now anyway. Let's dive into the Friday Five:

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How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

How major papers played Billy Graham's death on front pages: These bylines will be familiar to many

For those in Godbeat circles, many of the bylines splashed across today's front pages are extremely familiar.

I'm talking about names such as William Lobdell and Russell Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, Gayle White of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today.

All of those veteran religion writers — just to name a few — wrote their respective papers' major obituaries marking Wednesday's death of the Rev. Billy Graham at age 99.

But here's what might surprise many ordinary readers: None of them has worked for those papers in years. 

"I must have written and updated a whole suite of advance obit stories on Graham at least three times over 15 years," Grossman said. "I last polished up the package in 2013, in the week before I left the paper on a buyout. However, I stayed in touch with USAT editors (and) emailed them where fixes/changes might be needed over the years."

Welcome to the concept of the "prepared obit."

Here's what that means: News organizations put together obits in advance for certain prominent people, such as presidents, movie stars and — in the case of Graham — world-famous preachers. That way, they're prepared (at least somewhat) if the person dies 10 minutes before deadline.

A New York Times obituary writer explained it this way in a 2014 piece:

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Do Christians, Muslims, Jews all worship the same God? Is it a public school's role to say?

Do Christians, Muslims, Jews all worship the same God? Is it a public school's role to say?

"The same God? That's for a school to say?"

That comment atop a Facebook post by my friend Jim Davis, a former GetReligion contributor, caught my attention.

Davis linked to a story from The Courier-News, an Elgin, Ill., hometown newspaper that is a part of the Chicago Tribune family. The story concerned a protest by some Christians over an assignment at a local public school.

The lede:

Dozens of people spoke out Monday against a homework assignment made at an Elgin-area U46 school in which it was asserted Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths all believe in the same God.
One month after the assignment was criticized by U46 school board member Jeanette Ward, people who identified themselves as part of the Christian community attended the school board meeting Monday to add their opposition.
Several people attacked the assignment, quoting Bible and Quran verses to support their argument that Christians do not follow the same God as Muslims. Some of those who spoke live outside the U46 boundaries, including one person who came from Florida.
"To say that Allah of the Quran and the God of the Bible are the same is simply absurd," said Art Ellingsen, a church pastor from Arlington Heights.

Last month, the same school board heard from religious leaders with a different perspective, as the newspaper noted then:

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Friday Five: Minister tax break, Mormon death, The Crown's religion, Trump's dirty words and more

Friday Five: Minister tax break, Mormon death, The Crown's religion, Trump's dirty words and more

I watched the first season of "The Crown" on Netflix with my wife, Tamie.

I enjoyed it, although I wouldn't say I was goo-goo over it. When the second season came out, we caught an episode or two. Then my bride binged on the rest of it one day while I was busy with something more important (probably playing Words With Friends on my iPad). 

Suffice it to say that I haven't made it to the part featuring Queen Elizabeth II and the Rev. Billy Graham. (Right now, Tamie and I are in the middle of "Greenleaf," an Oprah Winfrey-produced drama featuring a black megachurch in Memphis, Tenn. That series reminds me of "Dallas," but with religion, not oil, as the family business. But I digress.)

Back to "The Crown": The Washington Post published an excellent Godbeat piece on it this week. More on that in a moment.

First, thought, let's dive right into this week's Friday Five:

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Tax-free housing for ministers unconstitutional? Chicago Tribune has the newsy scoop

Tax-free housing for ministers unconstitutional? Chicago Tribune has the newsy scoop

If you're like me, you may not be real familiar with the clergy housing allowance.

However, my minister friends assure me the allowance — a U.S. tax break — is a big, big deal.

Elimination of it would "significantly increase the tax burden, and hence, diminish the spendable income, of ministers everywhere," Dallas preacher Gordon Dabbs told me. "If and when it goes away, I would expect to see staff cuts at some churches and, almost certainly, some choosing to leave full-time (paid) ministry as it will no longer be financially viable for their families."

Why do I bring this up now? Because the housing allowance is facing a federal court challenge, as Chicago Tribune religion writer Manya Brachear Pashman highlighted in a meaty story earlier this week:

Chicago clergy are fighting a federal judge’s recent ruling that tax-free housing allowances for clergy violate the separation of church and state.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago will be asked to weigh in on the challenge to the so-called parsonage allowance — an Internal Revenue Service benefit that allows clergy to exclude from their tax returns the compensation earmarked for mortgage payments, rent, utility bills or maintenance costs.
The ministerial tax break has been on the books for more than 60 years and is cited by many houses of worship, particularly smaller, independent ones, as an important financial underpinning to carrying out their mission.
But it has become the latest target of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a self-proclaimed guardian of church-state separation based in Madison, Wis., that challenged the tax break, and won, in a Wisconsin court.
“This is a huge privilege and benefit for churches because tax-free dollars go further,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “They have been allowed to pay lower salaries when it’s all taxpayer subsidies. Clergy pay less, and everyone else pays more.”
Chicago-area clergy say an end to the tax-free housing allowance would drastically reduce their take-home pay, limit how close they can live to their houses of worship and impede their ministries, which often offer safety nets for the communities they serve.
“The housing allowance makes all the sense in the world,” said the Rev. Chris Butler, pastor of Chicago Embassy Church, a small Pentecostal congregation on the South Side, who plans to appeal. “If I’m looking to be God’s pastor to this community and be available to folks inside and outside the congregation, in a city like Chicago, whether I’m doing that as a pastor or an imam or the head of a nonprofit organization, it makes all the sense in the world that I live in that community. In a lot of these kinds of organizations, my church included, we’re not making the world’s biggest salary. This allowance is so important.”

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