May 24, 2013

United Methodist Reporter, 1847 — 2013

A major United Methodist institution suddenly bites the dust.  (Photo credit: "My Life, Such As It is" http://mairedubhtx.wordpress.com/)

A major United Methodist institution suddenly bites the dust. (Photo credit: “My Life, Such As It is” http://mairedubhtx.wordpress.com/)

By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)

I was as taken aback as everyone else by the rather sudden announcement that UMR Communications, along with its signature publication, the United Methodist Reporter, is permanently shutting down – almost immediately. And thus a beloved, 166-year-old denominational institution comes to an end.

Official explanations have pointed to the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis and growing challenges print media outlets are facing in all segments of American society.

But this is also a key part of the larger narrative of decline in which the U.S. portion of the global United Methodist Church is living.

Ever since our present denomination was formed in a 1968 merger, we have lost tens of thousands of U.S. members every single year. When a denomination loses nearly one-third of its membership and about one-fifth of its congregations (in the USA), that is going to eventually trickle up. U.S. United Methodist seminaries, for the most part, are facing the prospect of ever-declining enrollments. The last of our denomination’s Cokesbury bookstores shuttered their doors last month. Local congregations, districts, and annual conferences have been slashing budgets. United Methodists are increasingly waking up to the fact that we can simply no longer afford our bloated denominational hierarchy, and that recent modest cuts will not be enough.

The U.S.-based United Methodist Reporter simply could not escape the fact that it catered to a shrinking constituency with less and less money to offer.

It is too soon to say that United Methodist media endeavors are now becoming extinct. Remember, Cokesbury is still an active online book retailer – which is more than can be said for Borders. United Methodist Communications (UMCom), a completely separate entity from UMR Communications, endures on, directly funded as an official part of our denominational structure.

But UMCom’s non-independent nature necessarily makes its work amount to PR for the official channels of our denomination. It is not entirely fair to list this among UMCom’s faults, since this is simply how that entity is organized.

In any case, it was very healthy for our denomination to have a relatively “non-partisan,” respected, widely read, and at least partially independent media outlet devoted to United Methodist affairs. The Reporter’s more independent nature gave it a degree of freedom that we will never see in UMCom (as presently constituted) for offering a forum for a truly broad range of diverse views and for practicing that very important communal spiritual discipline of constructive denominational self-criticism. For example, a series of Reporter exposés by Associate Editor Roy Beck in the 1980s were particularly helpful for shining some desperately needed light on corruption and abuses by United-Methodist-apportionment-funded church agencies.

In recent years, there have been instances of staffers demonstrating clear biases against evangelicals. For example, in 2007, the Reporter ran what was basically a puff piece by Managing Editor Robin Russell promoting the “Renewal or Ruin? The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Attack on the United Methodist Church” without bothering to get the facts straight or attempt to hear the other side. The Reporter even uncritically passed on a laughably false rumor about the IRD having “attempted to intimidate” the filmmaker. (Read all about that here). Russell professionally moved on from the Reporter a couple of years ago. Before Russell, the Reporter was edited by Cynthia Astle, who is hardly shy about her disdain for many evangelical United Methodists. Astle moved on to coordinate an online news project which promotes her liberal biases while including some token moderate and conservative guest contributors in an apparent attempt to attract a wider audience.

But even in this latter period of the Reporter’s life, it has run some very helpful regular columns helping our denomination rediscover our Wesleyan roots, along with continuing to run contrasting guest editorials representing countless grassroots United Methodists whose values often find no expression in the pronouncements of our official denominational agencies. While not perfect, the Reporter invaluably provided a unique forum in which large numbers of the general United Methodist public, of all theological persuasions, read thoughtful arguments from opposing sides of key issues facing our denomination.

It is a sad day for our denomination.

I invite readers to join me in praying for the 39 employees who recently have lost or soon will lose their jobs, and who may not be able to even receive severance and vacation pay (due to lack of funds).  And for their families.


9 Responses to United Methodist Reporter, 1847 — 2013

  1. eMatters says:

    I don’t like to see people lose their jobs, but the fact is that the UM Reporter was part of the problem. In a weird way I’m grateful to them and their accurate representation of the theological liberalism that has ruined Methodism. Before I learned on the Internet more about what the national UMC was about, I started getting the UM Report (I didn’t even know it existed. It was probably because I was leading a church committee or something).

    Seeing promotional pieces for John Shelby Spong, Bishop Sprague and others made me realize that something was horribly wrong with my denomination. They must have had a couple Bible believers on staff because they published a few of my letters to the editor, but the overall slant was clearly heretical.

  2. Donnie says:

    Can’t say I’m too upset about this. While I’ve only read the web page in recent years, the UMR’s voice was overwhelmingly liberal and wasn’t any different from the typical things posted on “official” web sites. Its supposed replacement UM Insight is an even worse offender.

  3. It is a sad day, but it’s been moving in this direction for a long time. In all fairness, print journalism of all stripes is dying a slow death due to the digital age providing more choices and a general (well-earned) distrust of the establishment media.

    I do remember that absurd “Renewal Or Ruin” attack on the IRD…those of us who are familiar with the IRD knew immediately it was little more than grossly unbalanced propaganda, but the uninformed viewed this as representing some sort revelation.

    I forget who (Truman?) said that a lie can get half-way around the earth before the truth can get its pants on. That’s what politically-motivated propagandists in this denomination have banked on for years.

  4. Vince Talley says:

    I won’t shed too many tears over this.

    Back when I was active in the UM church, I remember one of their magazines running an article “When Is a Cracker a Cookie”? The article was about the sugar content of Ritz crackers – and, more generally, about the excessive sugar content “hidden” in foods. I don’t know if UMs were/are any more likely to provide Ritz crackers at church suppers than Americans at large, but the article sort of symbolizes one of the key reasons I left the church – majoring in minors. Why is it any damn business of a UM periodical – or any Christian publication – what people choose to eat? Aren’t there bigger issues – like SPIRITUAL issues – that take precedence over people’s choice of snacks? On the one hand, this piddling over matters that ought not to be the church’s concern at all, on the other hand this caving in to the demands of feminists and gay activists. Somehow “Go and make disciples” got pushed off the table.

    No big loss. New ways of communication take the place of the old. One less liberal-slanted periodical is no big deal. If people honor the memory of John Wesley, then let them promote the biblically based principles he stood for, and those principles are of minor importance to just about anything that bears the name “United Methodist.”

    • eMatters says:

      I missed the all-important Ritz cracker expose’, but it reminds me of a “sermon” from a pastor at my former church. She spent the entire message explaining why families should eat dinner together. That’s a valid point, of course, but only as a side note. No exegesis at all.

      • raybnnstr says:

        LOL. I can see why that was your “former” church, eMatters. And you’re right to put “sermon” in quotes. In my experience, the typical “sermon” in a liberal church could not possibly have taken more than 15 minutes to prepare. Maybe if the pastors weren’t so wrapped up in their left-wing politics they’d have more time for homiletics.

  5. I am not going to belabor obvious problems. The Holy Ghost has departed and that does not grieve the remaining members. Ichabod.

  6. johns79 says:

    Cokesbury exiists as an online retailer as it has a captive audience. Many books used in the seminaries are only available from Cokesbury and many UM churches still routinely by its materials for their christian education programs. It won’t last. Too often I hear from elders, deacons and laypeople that the material put out by Cokesbury is “crap”. I don’t buy it because it is overpriced.

  7. eMatters says:

    My former church mainly bought from Cokesbury. A leaders guide to teach the book of Daniel taught that the book was written after the events it prophesied. And the author didn’t even acknowledge a single counter-argument! I was left wondering why non-Christians would write study guides and why Christians would buy them.

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