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Peggy Wehmeyer: Blazing trails on America’s religion beat

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 program’s 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 don’t want you to be 60 years old looking back and wondering what it would have been like,’ " recalls Wehmeyer, 45. "My husband said, ‘Why don’t we switch roles? Why don’t I cut back my practice? I’m through with school and I’ll do what you do. I’ll come home; I’ll pick up the girls from school; I’ll take them to soccer; I’ll cook dinner. They’ll have a parent after school but it won’t be you.’ "

Such a concept was unfamiliar in the Christian circles they had frequented. None of Wehmeyer’s 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 attended church.

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. "That’s where I really began exploring my faith, studying the Bible and making choices about living that clearly reflected a commitment to my faith," Wehmeyer says.

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 the Bible.

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 Lauren’s 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 I’d 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 reporters there."

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. "It’s 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 they’re normal people. There’s a huge chasm because Christians don’t know a lot of people in the media, and people in the media don’t have many close friends or neighbors who are deeply religious."

Part of Wehmeyer’s 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, don’t 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 you’re 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 you’re 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. It’s supposed to be salt and light, right in the thick of things."

When she’s not working or rearing kids, Wehmeyer participates in a small group at her church. "We meet with a group of couples regularly, and it’s a very important part of our lives," she says. "We have meals with them; we fellowship with them; we share and pray together regularly."

As a working mother, Wehmeyer has to make a conscious effort to not stay focused entirely on her job. "I’m 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.

"I’m very grateful for the seven years I’ve had at ABC to do stories that matter to people of faith," Wehmeyer says. "I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m open to God’s leading."

John W. Kennedy is associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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