What Do You Do When Your Church Is Attacked in the Media?

February 11, 2010 by

2010_02_11edyoung.jpgThere’s nothing quite like sweeps week investigative journalism from the local TV news for over-the-top drama, tenuous facts and hit job reporting–especially when the focus of those reports is your church. Doh!

That happened to Ed Young and Fellowship Church last week. “Prominent Grapevine pastor linked to luxury,” read the headline, and the story was packed with melodrama and even the disguised voice of an anonymous source! The accusations include a secret church jet, a 10,000-square-foot “parsonage” and a $1 million salary.

Ed Young’s response? Initially he ignored the story and insisted he has no secrets. Then at Fellowship he addressed specifics from the platform (jet is leased, home is 7,000 square feet [take a tour!], salary isn’t close to $1 million, etc.) and two board of directors shared their confidence in Ed, as well as the level of accountability and integrity the church leadership has.

We’d send out our own investigative team of reporters, but we’ve all got better things to do. The real story here is what your church can learn from this mess. So we asked two Center for Church Communication board members, Kent Shaffer and Kem Meyer, to offer their perspective.

Before we get to their advice, the point here isn’t to pick on Ed Young and Fellowship from afar with no context or experience. As Kem shared when I asked for her input, “My heart here isn’t to use Ed and Fellowship as an example, but to take the opportunity to use this as a case study for me to ponder and learn from.” If your church were attacked in the local media, how would you respond?

Kem Meyer:

When faced with criticism and accusations, it’s a fine response line between too little (e.g., ignore it, act like it’s not there) and too much (e.g., hijack the home page, defensively counterpoint every single point). Every circumstance needs to be looked at individually, no two situations are exactly the same. There are a lot of variables at play; proximity, topic, source, etc. And each of these variables needs to be considered and weighed appropriately. But regardless of how any of that shakes out, here are a couple of bullets that apply to every situation:

Full disclosure is always the best policy.
When there is nothing to hide, a direct answer to a direct question is the way to go. The goal isn’t to get agreement on the answer, but to answer the question unapologetically. It reinforces the message “there is no cover-up here. It is what it is.” In this case, it would be great for someone to stand up and say “Yes, we own a plane, and this is why we own the plane, and this is how we pay for it, yada yada…” Without information—people just make up their own truth. And then they start to believe it.

It’s important to listen to the chatter.
If there were a report about my senior pastor, I would make sure we watched the report—in full—as a senior management team. It’s responsible to listen to what people are saying in public spaces about your church and leaders. It’s not a self-centered, off-mission indulgence, but a window to the full picture. What we learn when we listen—good and bad—is the only way to discover the full picture about public perception (which is their reality). Sometimes we discover that the picture we’re drawing isn’t telling the story we think it is and we get a chance to course correct. We still are in control of which audiences we respond to and which to absorb, but without looking through that window—we risk making decisions on incomplete or inaccurate information about ourselves.

Kent Shaffer:

In sports there is an expression, “you have to be good enough to beat the referee.” You have to be above reproach and go the extra mile to avoid the appearance of foul play. Both in sports and the limelight, people’s perceptions often trump the reality of a star’s actions and motives.

People are funny when it comes to religion and money… sadly, because of religion’s long history of financial abuse. Depending on your culture, theology and lifestyle, lavishness in the church may be an abomination or a way to show respect to God and one’s pastor.

I recommend that churches, particularly influential ones, strive to be above reproach. Avoid letting your financial behavior become a stumbling block that turns some people off to Christ. Join the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Have personal accountability partners. Give generously and then give some more.

If you church does come under fire for perceived financial irresponsibility, address it immediately, honestly and humbly. Seek council, and if you did do wrong, publicly apologize and commit to correct the wrongs (much like Toyota is doing with their recalls). Don’t ignore the media or you will likely appear guilty even though that may be far, far from the truth. Old school public relations would ignore bad publicity or just shout louder, but in today’s wired world where almost anyone can have a platform (i.e., Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.), the best solution is to authentically engage your accusers through meaningful conversations online and offline.

Public relations that engages people doesn’t make the problem disappear or get everyone to think just like you. But it is real, honest and undeniable, and most importantly, it causes people to respect you (even if they hate you). It is not easy. And there is no perfect formula to follow. But to some degree you should be putting forth effort for a few weeks via multiple channels to share the truth from your side of the story.

Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks

When Kevin isn't busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998, runs the hyperlocal site West St. Paul Reader, and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.
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16 Responses to “What Do You Do When Your Church Is Attacked in the Media?”

  • Dawn Bryant
    February 11, 2010

    Great advice. As a church communicator and 12-year veteran of PR for a Fortune 100 company, responsible businesses would handle it exactly as Kem and Kent recommended.
    To take it one step further, utilize your teams, especially your professional communicators, to be your reputational watchdogs. Run things by them. Trust their instincts. They know your audiences well — the friendlies and the tough crowds — and they can often accurately predict what perceptions of certain actions or data will be.
    By fully engaging your teams, you can even avoid business decisions that could be inaccurately perceived. Being proactive now can help avoid reactive firestorms later.
    It doesn’t always work that way, but it sure does help.

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  • Mike
    February 11, 2010

    10000 sq ft. home, 7000 sq. ft. home. It’s still really big for one family. A lease on an 8 million dollar plane is still a lot of money. His disclosure should still turn heads.

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  • Marc Aune
    February 11, 2010

    After watching Young’s “Cribs” video, I would like to know the context in which it was made. While it had some humorous moments, it didn’t feel like it was meant to be a parody of the MTV show. The end result left me feeling like he was just another rich and famous pastor (with an exceptionally large collection of shoes). I would love to be wrong in this case. Anybody know the answer?
    Even if there was context to this video (perhaps it made sense as a sermon illustration, for example), why post it in a place where no context can be given?
    For being such an effective communicator of the gospel from the pulpit, it is surprising how ill-equipped Young appears to handle communications off the stage. In his blog, Young writes: “We have not seen the piece that was aired, nor will we give credence to it by watching.” It may sound like a strong statement to his supporters, but it is really just a convenient excuse to not deal with the issue, be it real or fabricated. He also writes that he did not respond to the investigative reporter when questioned because the “report was made based on fragments of information gathered out of context and anonymously…” Why not take the opportunity to set things straight and put information in the appropriate context?
    As Meyer stated, this is a great case study from which all church leaders can learn.

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  • Chris Burgett
    February 11, 2010

    I am a bit disappointed in Kevin Hendricks for suggesting that Christians not pick on Ed Young. If two thousand years of church history teaches us anything it is that Christians can’t wait to sit in judgment on other Christians. It makes them feel like God.

    That said, preachers not giving full disclosure has been a problem for years. I’ve known churches where the pastor and his wife count the offering and handle all the money. Churches where the pastor, alone, handles everything confidential and has no system of accountability. This is not a smart way to do business and has ruined the careers of more than one man.

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  • Jon Allen
    February 11, 2010

    We have had our fair share of negative publicity for our church. I won’t go into detail, but we have been through something as a church that no other church has experienced that I am aware of.
    We have found every step of the way that honesty is the best policy. And because of our response, we have emerged stronger than when we began. We were open about our situation and unapologetic about our response. Those who agreed with us became sold out for the vision of the church and those that disagreed (very few) left. That’s okay with us, I’m sure they found somewhere that was a better fit.
    People will always find something to complain about. At one point we had someone absolutely furious that our lead pastor owned a 400,000 house on the lake. What they didn’t realize was that he had bought that before becoming a pastor and was struggling to even keep it. People just love to jump to conclusions without all the information. That’s why our policy is just to make sure that the accurate information is out there and let people decide for themselves. If they disagree with us, we can live with it.

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  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    February 11, 2010

    Chris, no matter where we land on this we get criticized. Either we’re picking on Ed Young or we’re giving him a free pass. It all turns into gossip and finger pointing and isn’t very helpful.
    Instead I tried to keep the focus on what your church can learn from this, as opposed to debating the merits of the accusations against Ed. There’s clearly a time and place for that–we do need to challenge leaders and hold them accountable–but I don’t think this is the place for that.
    Marc, I don’t know much about the Cribs video other than the YouTube description. I just thought it was funny this big TV report talked all about his secret, lavish house, yet he’s given an online tour of the house before.

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  • Kelli Munn
    February 11, 2010

    Kim’s advice is spot on and as Kent’s comments indicate, an equally important question is “how can churches be prepared for such attacks, minimize their damage, or even prevent them?” PR – especially at mega churches that can easily budget PR counsel/staff — should be a management function. Counsel should be at the table discussing the potential impact of the pastor leasing a plane and launching for-profit businesses – regardless of the need for or rationale for doing so — and advising him/her of how best to address perceptions that might emerge — from the congregation, community and, yes, the media. When this is done he/she is at least half-way prepared to answer questions when they arise.
    I also agree that, regardless of the propriety involved in these actions, Young’s initial response to the media wasn’t helpful to the situation and defied best practices. I’m guessing he didn’t send a rep to talk to the media when the church was getting good press about his sermon series or to the Today Show. I would give him a high grade, however, for addressing the charges and publicity quickly and directly with his congregation via multiple channels. Like Kent indicated some people are funny about the personal wealth of pastors. Clergy in much lower income brackets have been criticized for much less. Fair or unfair those perceptions must be figured into the PR equation when decisions are made.

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  • Kirk Longhofer
    February 11, 2010

    I think the biggest mistake made in this particular situation was the decision not to have Young to address the allegations. A conversation, not on camera at least initially, with the reporter involved, might very well have changed the tone and focus of the story. Addressing the airplane questions in a more straight forward manner up front might have killed it all together.
    Responding only with a statement or through a spokesperson can backfire quickly… chumming the water for a reporter already circling.

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  • Steve
    February 11, 2010

    Wow. what a post.
    Totally agree with Kem and Kents remarks (Is it just me or is it mildly disturbing that you choose the K twins?)
    I take another position. This isn’t a criticism of Ed Young or his church. Just an observation.
    As soon as a news report has the words, church, private jet, large salary you can’t compete.
    The horse has bolted.
    Expanding on the reason why you have a private jet or explaining that your salary isn’t quite as big as reported just becomes noise. There isn’t enough air time, or column inches. People only see. Church, Private jet, BIG salary.
    No amount of tidying up the message will bring you back in the public’s eyes. However untrue the reporting is.

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  • Michael Buckingham
    February 12, 2010

    Great response and great lesson learned.
    I think pastors should be taken good care of, the bible says we should take care of them.
    I do think there’s a limit. Part of the gig is to keep that in check. Personally, 7000 sq. ft…wow, that’s tough for me to swallow. A private jet? I understand he travels a lot, but why not fly first class with people he might even be able to show Christ to?
    If he, and the church board, think that these things are justified, then they should be clear. If you’re going to lease a private jet, that should be known to all. Transparency is key.
    Because you’re not spending your money. You’re spending the tithe.
    As someone who believes in tithing, I also believe in understanding how that money is being used. I don’t need line items, but part of being a good steward is knowing that I can trust the church leadership to be wise and faithful with that tithe.

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  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    February 12, 2010

    C’mon Steve, the K triplets: Kent, Kem & Kevin. ;-)
    I agree with you, Michael, but at the same time I think it gets difficult when we start judging another person’s supposed wealth or luxury. Your definition of a luxury car is different from mine and that’s different from the Junky Car Club’s definition. We all have our own reasons and justifications and it gets kind of ugly when other people start judging those.
    I agree a 7,000-square-foot house seems excessive. But more than what you have, it’s how you use it. Ed has four kids. Maybe they host large groups of people all the time and need the space. Maybe they have family/friends/whoever spend the night all the time. Sometimes I think my house is too big.
    Whenever I start thinking stinginess is next to godliness, someone reminds me of the woman who poured out the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. The disciples were horrified–we could have sold it and fed the poor!–but Jesus commended the woman’s action. Not comparing Ed’s house to the woman’s perfume, but I think you get the idea.
    Like I said in the post, I think the real thing to focus on here is how you church would respond, not the specifics of Ed’s situation.

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  • Ted Bragg
    February 15, 2010

    The liberal press is out to destroy the church and Christians, plain and simple. When they got a whiff of Young’s lavish lifestyle, it’s like blood in the water.
    I’m surprised they haven’t taken Joel Osteen through the meatgrinder yet.

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  • Art
    February 16, 2010

    My pastor has 3 kids of his own, has adopted 4 more (nieces/nephew), and now has his ill mother-in-law and her 70 year old sister living with him. His house has maybe 2500 square feet. He also makes well under 100,000 a year.
    Ed Young needs a reality check. He is paid too much and lives too lavishly for a minister of the Gospel.

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  • none
    February 17, 2010

    The “Cribs” video is from Ed’s old house and was done in context of series done in 2003. The news report only mentioned one of Ed’s homes which is over 7000 sq ft and is now worth over a million. It was built in 2004 for $650k.

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  • Tre Lawrence
    February 24, 2010

    Nice write-up. Key points addressed.
    When I was a teen, my pastor lived with his wife and 5 kids in a two-bedroom “flat” that was less than 500 square feet total.
    My point? Before we throw rocks at pastors for the “lavish” lifestyle, let us remember lavish is a very relative term. While there is an increased need for Godly accountability, I’d be careful about lobbing projectiles at folks who may very well work very hard to obtain what they have.

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  • Brendan
    March 24, 2010

    The lifestyle isn’t the big issue in the story. This is:
    “He also sold the church’s membership mailing list to a newly-formed, for-profit company called EY Publishing.”
    That is the kind of thing that anyone involved in church communications should cringe over. Your membership list is not a marketing tool to be sold for profit. It also must be guarded against unscrupulous people who know its value.

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