Peggy Wehmeyer: Blazing trails on Americas religion
By John W. Kennedy
Peggy Wehmeyer is a trailblazer. She is the first and only full-time
religion reporter on an American TV network evening newscast. Yet she
does not see this as her most important role. Rather than allowing a
high-profile job to dictate her every waking hour, Wehmeyer has placed
a priority on being a mother to daughters Lauren, 16, and Hannah, 14.
When ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings offered Wehmeyer
the job as the programs religion correspondent in 1993, she did
not jump at the opportunity. She had been reporting for TV station WFAA
in Dallas two days a week, preferring to invest more time in mothering
than in reporting. Wehmeyer and her husband, Mark Woods, who had just
finished his Ph.D. in psychology and had a private practice, were determined
not to work 80-hour weeks. But they prayed about the job offer.
"Mark said, I dont want you to be 60 years old looking
back and wondering what it would have been like, " recalls Wehmeyer,
45. "My husband said, Why dont we switch roles? Why dont
I cut back my practice? Im through with school and Ill do
what you do. Ill come home; Ill pick up the girls from school;
Ill take them to soccer; Ill cook dinner. Theyll have
a parent after school but it wont be you. "
Such a concept was unfamiliar in the Christian circles they had frequented.
None of Wehmeyers close friends worked outside the home. The family
agreed to try it on a six-month trial basis beginning in January 1994
and then to re-evaluate.
Jennings allowed Wehmeyer to work on her terms, out of her home when
not traveling on assignment. He had wanted a religion beat and recruited
Wehmeyer because of her work for the ABC affiliate in Dallas, where
she had worked for 13 years.
Despite being reared in the Bible Belt, Wehmeyer grew up with a non-practicing
Jewish mother and a nominal Christian Scientist father. The family rarely
At 12, Wehmeyer first heard the gospel at a Youth for Christ camp in
New York, but she had no follow-up back home in Texas. In college she
joined a Campus Crusade for Christ discipleship program. "Thats
where I really began exploring my faith, studying the Bible and making
choices about living that clearly reflected a commitment to my faith,"
She thought she would enter vocational Christian work with Campus Crusade.
After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977 with
a journalism degree, Wehmeyer began doing public relations work at Dallas
Theological Seminary, where she also took classes to learn more about
But Wehmeyer came to realize she also could serve the Lord in a secular
setting when she started working for WFAA in 1980. She and Mark married
in 1982 and two years later, at Laurens birth, she had a decision
to make. Few of the other young female reporters were bearing children,
and if they were it was right back to work full-time. They were on the
career track, not the mommy track.
"There was no way I was going to miss out on raising my children,"
she remembers. "So I knew Id either have to quit, which would
have been a terrible loss because I loved my job and my career, or cut
way back, which nobody had done. At that point there were no part-time
The news director at the station agreed to her request.
And she worked part-time until Peter Jennings called. She still works
a normal schedule, often from home where she writes her copy and screens
her tapes. She can edit and do her voice track at the ABC bureau in
Dallas. Most of her on-air features are for World News Tonight
and 20/20. She also reports occasionally for Good Morning
America and Primetime.
Nearly all the segments Wehmeyer films are her own ideas. While she
may be the lone religion reporter, Wehmeyer finds interaction with New
York producers stimulating. "Its been good for me to be exposed
to whole other ways of looking at the world. A lot of the people I work
with come from Ivy League schools. I come from a very different culture.
It makes me rethink my beliefs.
"As we interact, myths are often dispelled. When I take my producers
and crews out on stories that involve Christians, they realize, once
they talk to them, that theyre normal people. Theres a huge
chasm because Christians dont know a lot of people in the media,
and people in the media dont have many close friends or neighbors
who are deeply religious."
Part of Wehmeyers job is to alert the network when a story has
a religion angle. For instance, producers tended to view the abortion
debate or the euthanasia measure on state ballots as strictly political
rather than religious issues. "My job is to call and say, Hey,
dont ignore the religious community on these big moral, ethical,
political issues. "
Most of the stories she files are about aspects of the Christian faith.
"I feel compelled to be fair to other religions and to show how they
intersect with the culture," she says. "But 86 percent of this country
is Christian and some of the most active Christians happen to be evangelicals."
And Wehmeyer happens to be one.
The most important thing, whether youre in the workplace or home,
is not to lose your bearings, to keep your priorities in order, to try
to set time aside each day to stop and reassess where youre headed
today, what your priorities are and what really matters," Wehmeyer says.
"And to live authentically."
As a Christian in the secular marketplace, Wehmeyer encourages fellow
believers to try to influence society rather than retreat from it. Instead
of complaining about the liberal views of the media, for instance, Christian
schools should be training students to enter the field, she says. "The
church ought to be focusing on how to be a part of a larger culture.
The church is not supposed to separate itself from the world. Its
supposed to be salt and light, right in the thick of things."
When shes not working or rearing kids, Wehmeyer participates
in a small group at her church. "We meet with a group of couples regularly,
and its a very important part of our lives," she says. "We have
meals with them; we fellowship with them; we share and pray together
As a working mother, Wehmeyer has to make a conscious effort to not
stay focused entirely on her job. "Im in my home office, the kids
are 20 yards away with my husband, and as soon as the news is over at
6 we sit down and have dinner," she says. "I have to learn how to shift
gears and talk to my daughters about soccer and tests. The four of us
may go out and play softball in the park." Such a schedule would not
be feasible if Wehmeyer had moved to New York.
In late May, Wehmeyer learned that ABC News had decided to end the
religion beat and not renew her contract in October. The layoff will
be one of 125 in the news division of the network this year.
Although saddened that the network is diminishing its coverage of religion,
Wehmeyer is glad she had such an opportunity. She is confident that
God has an equally challenging role waiting for her in the news media.
"Im very grateful for the seven years Ive had at ABC to
do stories that matter to people of faith," Wehmeyer says. "I dont
know what the future holds, but Im open to Gods leading."
John W. Kennedy is associate editor of the Pentecostal