Sunday, April 24, 2005

"Lady, I don't care about the other churches."

It has become painfully obvious lately that a great many people, including quite a few in the media, think of the Roman Catholic Church as the mother of all political machines, and the Pope, whoever holds the title, as the granddaddy of all political bosses.

This, I think, displays a fundamental misunderstanding of religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular. (Can you say “understatement”?)

I think there’s a lot going on behind the general misunderstanding and corresponding hostility of the MSM toward religion, but today I’d like to look at just one aspect of the problem, one that is often overlooked but - here’s the grabber - it’s something that church people can tackle all by themselves, church by church, no coordination or outside cooperation necessary.

Here’s the background. There is an old saying in newspaper circles that all church page editors are agnostics – if they don’t start out an agnostic the job turns ‘em into one, the joke goes. Only it’s no joke. Not really.

I was a church page editor for a while in the 1980s. And if my experience is any indication, too many churches seem to choose their public relations people on the basis of trying to get troublesome people out from underfoot. I want to be careful here not to paint with too broad a brush, because many of the church representatives I dealt with were decent, considerate people – but I want to make clear that many of them weren’t. From what I understand, this is a common problem. And the nice ones tend to stay away and send you letters. The nasty ones make sure you know they're there, waiting for an excuse to pounce.

I couldn’t believe how hard it was, sometimes, to get some of these folks to work with me when I had a question. Writing about religion is a minefield in any case – but it would have been nice to be able to call up and ask if it was ever proper to call their minister a “pastor” without being treated like it was unspeakably rude of me to not know already. These folks tended to come unglued over things like that. If you’d refer in print to “Reverend So-and-so”, they’d fuss that it should have been “The Reverend So-and-so.” This list goes on. Every church seemed to have its own ways of using the words “bishop” and “elder” and “service” and “mass”, etc., etc. You can’t imagine what blows up in the faces of unsuspecting reporters and editors, even when they're trying to write about religion in good faith.

Of course, I usually just used what was written in the press releases, pared down when necessary. (Why do people write two-page self-congratulatory notes to invite the public to a church-sponsored picnic anyway? What, where, when, admission fee if any, does the trick. Really. If you're a super person, they'll probably be able to figure that out when they meet you at the picnic. Really. ;)

But the purpose of a newspaper is to make matters clear to the public, and reporters and editors therefore like to have standard words and phrases to use. You know, something that a person of average intelligence can understand without theological training. So if I came across some fancy phrase that didn’t mean much to my untrained self I’d call up and ask, “But what does it mean, please?”

“Don’t you dare touch that,” they might answer, which was no answer at all. I was willing to leave the phrase intact, but it needed explaining and I wanted a definitive explanation, and sometimes I’d more or less get dismissed as hopelessly ignorant. I knew I was ignorant, thank you very much. That’s why I called for more information, for pity's sake. Why rub it in, or bat a person down for asking?

I used the AP and UPI stylebooks for what help they could lend me, but I was dealing with several score churches and they all did multiple things their own specific ways, and many of them were sorely offended if you didn’t have a default mode that favored their particular way. It was nuts.

Adding insult to injury - or rather, injury to insult - when I did make a mistake a number of these people wouldn’t tell me about it. I was willing to make corrections, to learn, to add another bit of information to my astonishingly large stack of notes about how to write about this particular church or that one. But no, it was beneath them to deal with the person who had made the mistake. They’d march straight into the publisher’s office, first thing, and demand my head - unless they called for a boycott first as added leverage. That was also nuts.

And we aren’t talking major goofs here that sent people over the edge. More than once the only reason cited as grounds for drastic action was that their submitted story didn’t run in the upper right hand corner of the page. I’m not kidding. I wish I were.

They’d heard this was the primo placement spot (it is), and they didn’t think any other church should have it. I’m not kidding. I wish I were.

They’d scream because they didn’t get the upper right hand corner, or because I’d edited their article to fit the available space, and when I could talk with them directly (when they weren’t telling the publisher to fire me or organizing boycotts, but were actually consenting to talk to mere editor me), I’d point out that I had one page (occasionally two) with which to work, and news from several dozen churches to fit in, and I was trying to be fair to everybody. Often they’d reply, “Lady, I don’t care about the other churches” – and they quite obviously meant it.

Of course, not all church PR people I dealt with were like this. But the ones who were made up for their relative lack of numbers with their outsize sound and fury.

Think about it. Newsrooms are often manned primarily by people with not much religious background - and week after week after week, year after year, for many of the people in these newsrooms their most impressive exposure to "Christianity" is one hellion after another who marches in and makes life unpleasant over the strangest little things that they didn't like about that week's church page.

In my humble opinion, this is not good. It is not smart. It's also very hard to understand why churches would court disaster like this in the first place.

This last bit is something of an open letter to church leaders:

I understand entirely the occasional need to cast around for something that will make some wretched bully in your congregation feel important in a more constructive way. I know that making such people feel like they are responsible for something can sometimes solve a host of ills on your end of things. But I hope you’ll resist the temptation to make them a public relations officer for your church.

If you happen to be choosing your PR people on the basis of propping up their feelings of self-worth instead of on the basis of who would make a good liaison person with the news business, at a guess the main thing you’re accomplishing is convincing people in newsrooms that Christians, for the most part, are very hard to get along with, and maybe aren’t worth getting to know.

If I might say so, perhaps it’s time to stop thinking in terms of placements on the page and making church members feel useful, and to start thinking in terms of ambassadors and teachers and good role models.

The ball’s in your court.

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