Willow Creek

A GetReligionista looks back on some of his — and his colleagues' — most-clicked posts of 2018

A GetReligionista looks back on some of his — and his colleagues' — most-clicked posts of 2018

I write more than 200 posts a year for GetReligion.

My pieces range from our bread-and-butter critiques of mainstream news media coverage of religion to our weekly Friday Five columns highlighting each week’s major (or just plain quirky) developments on the Godbeat.

At the end of each year, I’m always curious to see which posts caught the attention of the most readers.

What makes a GetReligion post go viral? In 2017, key ingredients included Joel Osteen, same-sex wedding cakes and the Mark of the Beast. The previous year — 2016 — Donald Trump’s “Two Corinthians,” Merle Haggard’s Church of Christ mama and a rare opening of a Chick-fil-A on Sunday were in the mix.

2018? Well, let’s check out the top five posts for GetReligionista Julia Duin, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly and myself.

We’ll start with Julia, for reasons that will become obvious:

5. How journalists can nail down the rest of the Cardinal McCarrick story – for good

4. Cardinal Ted McCarrick, Part II: The New York Times takes a stab at this old story

3. Catholic News Agency pulls off investigative coup in the 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick saga

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

1. The scandal of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and why no major media outed him

See any common thread there? That’s right — McCarrick and the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal were huge news and big traffic drivers to GetReligion in 2018, as was the related #ChurchToo news that also made headlines.

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Monday Mix: McCarrick deep dive, Willow Creek future, Catholic losses, religious freedom worry

Monday Mix: McCarrick deep dive, Willow Creek future, Catholic losses, religious freedom worry

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: 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. "Decisions could be made by one [Vatican official] who says: ‘Screw this, I’ll reroute it through the basement.’" Washington Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein takes a deep dive into “How the Vatican handled reports of Theodore McCarrick’s alleged sexual misconduct and what it says about the Catholic Church.”

Boorstein’s compelling overture:

In November 2000, a Manhattan priest got fed up with the secrets he knew about a star archbishop named Theodore McCarrick and decided to tell the Vatican.

For years, the Rev. Boniface Ramsey had heard from seminarians that McCarrick was pressuring them to sleep in his bed. The students told him they weren’t being touched, but still, he felt, it was totally inappropriate and irresponsible behavior — especially for the newly named archbishop of Washington.

Ramsey called the Vatican’s then-U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, who implored the priest to write the allegation so it could be sent up the chain in Rome. “Send the letter!” Montalvo demanded, Ramsey recalls.

He never heard back from Montalvo, and Ramsey has since destroyed his copy of the 2000 letter, he said.

“I thought of it as secret and somehow even sacred — something not to be divulged,” Ramsey told The Washington Post. It wasn’t the concept of a cleric occasionally “slipping up” with their celibacy vow that shocked Ramsey, who believes that’s common. It was the repeated and nonconsensual nature of the McCarrick allegations.

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Friday Five: New editor for RNS, Sutherland Springs gunman's wife, Pennsylvania grand jury and more

Friday Five: New editor for RNS, Sutherland Springs gunman's wife, Pennsylvania grand jury and more

Nearly four months after the firing of Jerome Socolovsky, Religion News Service has hired a new editor in chief.

The name will be familiar to regular GetReligion readers: Bob Smietana.

Smietana, as a news release from RNS notes, is an award-winning religion reporter and editor who has worked for The Tennessean, Christianity Today and, most recently, Facts & Trends, a publication of LifeWay Christian Resources.

Smietana served as president of the Religion News Association from 2013 to 2015. He is extremely familiar with RNS, previously serving as a correspondent for the news organization and as a member of its board of managers.

From the release:

Smietana credits RNS with first launching his career, and expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to now lead the organization, expand its footprint and mentor the next generation of religion journalists.

“The American religious landscape is being transformed before our eyes,” Smietana said. “For more than 80 years, RNS has covered religion with accuracy, insight, empathy and independence. As a result, RNS is perfectly positioned to document that transformation and to help our readers navigate this new world.”

Smietana’s appointment concludes a national search, which solicited more than 130 applicants, helmed by Nicole Neroulias Gupte, chair of the RNS Board of Managers.

“After considering many qualified candidates for this position, we were impressed by the breadth and depth of Bob Smietana’s religion journalism experience, his passion for this beat and commitment to our organization,” Gupte said. “We look forward to working with him as RNS grows its staff and coverage areas, including implementing our Global Religion Journalism Initiative and other exciting projects.”

Smietana is a friend of mine and a longtime reader of GetReligion. We appreciate his willingness to praise us when he agrees with our critiques and engage with us when he disagrees. We hope that continues in his new role.

Full disclosure: I occasionally write freelance stories for RNS.

Now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

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Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

Catholic drama is epic tragedy: Why is Willow Creek meltdown so important?

At this point, two of America's hottest religion-beat stories have become wedded at the hip, at least in my mind.

I am talking about the latest round of the four-decade scandal in the Roman Catholic Church centering on clergy sexual abuse of children and teens -- the vast majority of them male. Now we have a new #MeToo angle, with numerous reports of sexual abuse and harassment of seminarians and young priests, and some of the attackers have ended up in the episcopate.

The poster-male for this story, of course, is former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the American hierarchy's most powerful networkers and media stars over the past 50 years.

Then there is the #ChurchToo fall of the Rev. Bill Hybels, a superstar megachurch leader who helped create the "Seeker Friendly" evangelical movement of the past couple of decades.

But you know all of that, and I wove those subjects together the other day in a post with this headline: "Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle."

It will not surprise people who listen to "Crossroads" that host Todd Wilkins and I returned to these topics in this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Look, everyone knows why -- in terms of news -- the Catholic crisis is as has hot at Hades. This is the biggest religion game in town. It's the religion-news Olympics. But why is the Willow Creek story so massive?

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Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Friday Five: Lifetime achievement winner, Willow Creek drama, Spikeball Mennonites and more

Talk about a slam dunk!

The Religion News Association announced its 2018 William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award recipient this week.

What a fine choice the RNA made:

When the Vatican ordered the bishop of Pittsburgh to reinstate a pedophile priest, then Pittsburgh religion reporter Ann Rodgers received the decision even before the bishop himself.

When an evangelist was making false claims about miracles in a Houston hospital, Rodgers did the hard yards of investigation and spotted the fake.

And when she was invited to join Pope Francis’ Palm Sunday procession in St. Peter’s Square, Rodgers waved a palm and reported back to Pennsylvania on the experience.

In addition to serving as president of the Religion News Association during a time of significant transition and growth, Rodgers faithfully served on the religion beat in New Hampshire, Florida, and finally in Pittsburgh, Pa., for more than three decades.  

For her many years of work in religion newswriting and service to RNA, Rodgers will receive the William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award at the 69th Annual RNA Conference in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 15.

The William A. Reed Lifetime Achievement Award was created in 2001 and is presented to individuals who demonstrate exceptional long-term commitment and service to the Religion News Association and its members, and to the field of religion newswriting.

Read the rest of the release.

Let's dive into the Friday Five:

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Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle

Who you gonna call? New York Times offers a spiritual piece of the Bill Hybels puzzle

It would be hard to imagine darker days for believers who truly want to see repentance and reform on issues of sexual abuse in religious institutions.

Are you a supporter of traditional forms of church life, in part because you believe that local pastors and churches need supervision and structures of accountability?

Uh, consider the pain, confusion and fog surrounding the fall of Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick. Are the top Catholic shepherds doing a good job protecting the sheep?

Are you a supporter of free-church evangelicalism, because you believe ancient forms of Christian faith are cold and locked into patterns of decline?

Well, that brings us back to the ongoing efforts at Willow Creek Church to learn what did or did not happen behind closed doors during interactions between women and the church's founder and superstar preacher Bill Hybels.

How do the leaders of an independent megachurch investigate the private affairs of the man who created their empire? Who has the authority to discipline a superstar? You can see that struggle at the top of the latest New York Times story about this ongoing drama:

Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago announced ... that it plans to launch a new independent investigation into allegations that the Rev. Bill Hybels, the church’s influential founding pastor, sexually harassed female co-workers and a congregant over many years.

The announcement came one day after The New York Times reported on accusations from Pat Baranowski, Mr. Hybels’s former executive assistant. She said that Mr. Hybels had sexually and emotionally abused her while she worked at the church and lived with him and his family in the 1980s.

Heather Larson, one of two top pastors at Willow Creek, said in a statement: “It was heartbreaking yesterday to read about the new allegation against Bill Hybels in The New York Times. We have deep sadness for Ms. Baranowski. The behavior that she has described is reprehensible.”

The church’s other top pastor, the Rev. Steve Carter, resigned on Sunday. He said he could no longer work at Willow Creek in good conscience.

So, who you gonna call?

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She kept stacks of journals: Bill Hybels drama enters a shocking new #MeToo chapter

She kept stacks of journals: Bill Hybels drama enters a shocking new #MeToo chapter

Is there any phrase that investigators -- in police departments, newsrooms or even in churches -- fear more than "he said-she said"?

We are talking about accusations in which one person insists that something happened. The only other person with first-person, direct knowledge of what happened is the person on the other side of the alleged incident. This person denies the facts presented by the accuser.

What is the investigator supposed to do?

Here is a hint of where we are going in this post: One of the best editors I ever had would always say something like the following, whenever I brought in a story in which crucial voices disputed what happened behind closed doors. This editor would say: Is there anything on paper? Can we prove that one or more of these people shared this information with others?

Hold that thought.

The big story, in this case, is that there has been another #MeToo development linked to the painful exit of the Rev. Bill Hybels, the founder of the massive Willow Creek Church outside of Chicago -- one of the most influential institutions in "moderate" or even "progressive" evangelicalism. Here is the dramatic double-decker headline at The New York Times:

He’s a Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly.

Bill Hybels built an iconic evangelical church outside Chicago. A former assistant says that in the 1980s, he sexually harassed her 

The story opens with this anecdote:

SOUTH BARRINGTON, Ill. -- After the pain of watching her marriage fall apart, Pat Baranowski felt that God was suddenly showering her with blessings.

She had a new job at her Chicago-area megachurch, led by a dynamic young pastor named the Rev. Bill Hybels, who in the 1980s was becoming one of the most influential evangelical leaders in the country.

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Friday Five: tmatt's big milestone, Hybels' resignation, White House Bible study and more

Friday Five: tmatt's big milestone, Hybels' resignation, White House Bible study and more

Hey, it's the Three Musketeers!

Actually, the photo shows me between about 100 years of religion reporting experience — Terry Mattingly and Richard Ostling.

"What’s the symbolism of an empty glass?" quipped a Facebook friend when I first posted that picture from a GetReligion planning meeting in New York City last fall.

"I have no response to that," tmatt replied.

A speechless tmatt? That's a first.

I kid. I kid.

In all seriousness, I hope you'll join me in helping GetReligion's editor celebrate a major milestone this week. I'll offer more details on that in just a moment. But first, let's dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Three weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune's Manya Brachear Pashman and Jeff Coen occupied this spot with their in-depth scoop on allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church.

Here we go again: That dynamic reporting duo's report on Hybels' resignation in the wake of those allegations is this week's must read.

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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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