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Church Colleges & Universities Culture Opinion

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Celebration Church, Small Is Beautiful, and Wins For Investigative Journalism

Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be.

Lawsuit Crazy.  A Florida judge has dismissed the defamation lawsuit filed by former Celebration Church pastors Stovall and Kerri Weems on the grounds that the suit concerns an ecclesiastical matter and is therefore outside the court’s jurisdiction. 

This decision is an example of a civil judge showing more understanding of the Bible than the pastors who brought the suit.  The judge, Marianne Lloyd, rightly determined that this case should never have been in her court in the first place.  

Here are a few lines from her ruling: “As pled, these claims would require this Court to impermissibly examine the inner workings of Celebration Church, including the church’s internal financial policies and bylaws, as well as the duties and actions of Pastor Weems.  Because the Plaintiffs’ claims on their face as currently written require this Court’s involvement in ecclesiastical, doctrinal matters, neutral principles of law cannot be used to consider the issues at hand. As such, this Court dismisses without prejudice the Plaintiffs’ complaint.”

Cases dismissed without prejudice may be brought again at a later date.  However, we hope and pray that it won’t.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.  We did two stories this week involving Christian ministries who have defrauded the government of taxpayer funds.  I won’t rehearse both stories here, except to mention that one involves a ministry in Mississippi that may have taken as much as $10 million as part of a poverty alleviation program.  The other involves four co-conspirators in Georgia who took government funds intended for theological education.  

What these two stories have in common is the protagonists’ use of religion to take large sums of money from the government – and that means from you and me, the taxpayers.  There’s all kinds of blame to go around here, from those who took the money to those government officials who doled out the money so freely. (One of those officials, John Davis, the former executive director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, pled guilty to two federal charges and 18 state counts of embezzling money.  He is cooperating with authorities, which means that more charges are likely.)

I think a key lesson for scrupulous ministry leaders and donors is this:  Don’t be seduced by big money – whether from the government or from “red meat” fundraising campaigns.  Can we not fund God’s work in God’s way?  

Small Is Beautiful.  And to prove you don’t have to be big to have a big impact, I submit for your consideration Evansdale Hope Church of the Nazarene.  This small church in Iowa has only about 30 members, but that hasn’t stopped it from serving in a big way.  It recently held its second annual Bless Evansdale Day. More than 600 residents from the community—twice as many as the year prior—gathered at tables set up outside the church to receive free school supplies, clothes, haircuts, and food. 

Wins for Investigative Journalism.  It’s also worth noting that investigative journalism of Christian organizations had a couple of wins this week.  The Mississippi story I mentioned above would not have happened without the intrepid reporting of Anna Wolfe, an award-winning investigative reporter at the nonprofit Mississippi Today.  And a documentary made by VICE News about the alleged sexual abuse cases at Kanakuk camps in southwest Missouri won a 2022 Emmy award for “Outstanding Hard News Feature Story: Long Form.”  The 17-minute film, “A Christian Summer Camp’s History of Abuse,” features interviews with survivors and gives details about litigation and settlements that have occurred.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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