My work and my church

Journalist Elizabeth Hopkirk considers what you do if your church just doesn’t understand your work.

Is being a journalist a sin?

I don’t recall it being one of the seven deadlies and I can’t find it in that list of no-nos in Galatians 5. But that’s what Kathy*, a national television journalist, was told by her pastor when she became a Christian. He was convinced the media was evil and put enormous pressure on her to jack in her fledgling career and do something “more Christian”.

Kathy said: “He would pull me aside and say things like, ‘God would say to you that your priorities are wrong and your service should be for Him’. As a new Christian this did freak me out. After all, he was my pastor. But it seemed so opposite to what I believed God was telling me – that He was proud of the way I’d handled a very difficult working relationship – that thankfully I ignored him.”

In the end she left, but her next church was no less ignorant. When anti-social shifts made it impossible for her to commit to ministries, they questioned her faith and said the media was in Satan’s grip. Despite her experiences Kathy didn’t give up on journalism, or Christians, and has now found a church that supports her work.

Is her story exceptional? It is certainly extreme and if your church is like Kathy’s I strongly suggest you find another. But while most churches are not actively hostile – and may even be supportive – almost all journalists have had eye-rolling experiences: judgemental or dismissive remarks or a failure to appreciate the peculiar pressures and influence of our profession.

One radio presenter described being harangued at church for playing a “sinful” record on her Sunday morning show, though the music was chosen by a colleague. And a TV journalist spoke of her hurt when friends refuse to confide in her in case she “goes public”. “I sometimes tell people I’m a friend first, journalist second,” she said. “But I find it sad that I need to say it at all.”

Richard Woodall, a reporter on the Banbury Guardian in Oxfordshire, spoke for many when he said: “I guess I feel supported in my church, although I do not feel they understand in any way what local journalism is about. Christians generally have a false image of local media (the cat up the tree remark is so overused it’s unreal!) and I think the challenges involved in working there, and the exciting big stories which do occasionally crop up, go unacknowledged by most people in the church.”

Lucy*, a mother who makes significant sacrifices to work undercover exposing bad guys for TV documentaries, agreed. “How do church people react to my job? Well, since the basis of my job is telling the most horrendous lies it doesn’t go down very well at all.” Yet her church would surely applaud the finished programmes. So how do they think they get made?

There is this naivety as well as a suspicion among Christians which also makes them react defensively when they become the news and stops them pushing their positive stories. A newspaper reporter who did leave journalism to do something “more Christian” was banned by the boss of her mission agency from handling the media frenzy when one of their families died in a Himalayan plane crash. She decided to disobey orders and managed to secure positive front-page coverage in all the nationals. Some, including the Mirror, even ran a photograph of the family’s prayer card.

But be careful before you pray for a media-friendly church. Anna Faro, a daily paper reporter in Essex, has had difficult experiences at the other end of the spectrum. Her pastor was so keen on publicity he phoned her on holiday with what he thought was a splash. After several similar incidents she learnt to set strict boundaries to keep work and church/private life separate. But there continue to be major challenges. She sometimes has to write about her congregation, or about subjects very close to their hearts, and has been reduced to tears by their responses.

Most of these complaints are not peculiar to churches: few people outside the media have much of an understanding of how it works. I have relatives who are appalled that I do doorknocks, and friends who I just don’t bother telling. My first solution was to compartmentalise the two halves of my life. Deeply unsatisfactory. Then I discovered the group Christians in Journalism and it felt like a miracle: finally I had found people who could relate to me as a whole person.

As well as joining a group, don’t give up on explaining your job to your church. How can they be expected to know what it’s like if you don’t tell them? And have you always understood what someone “in IT” does? Have you never disapproved of the hedge fund manager or croupier in your church? One evening I chose to risk incomprehension and rejection when a girl sitting next to me at church asked about my day. I explained I had been doorstepping a gay priest. She could have been outraged on any one of several levels but instead said: “Gosh, your job is hard,” and listened as I gratefully poured out my moral confusion.

Once you have found people like this, ask them to pray for you, whether ad hoc or in a mutual prayer circle. Offer to give your church media training or organise “prayer for the media”. After all, the media shapes everyone’s lives, not just yours.

* Some names have been changed. | |