On the first Sunday morning of October, pastor Steve Scott looked far beyond the surroundings of his western Wisconsin congregation to find worthy subjects for their prayers.
FALL CREEK, Wis. — On the first Sunday morning of October, pastor Steve Scott looked far beyond the surroundings of his western Wisconsin congregation to find worthy subjects for their prayers: recent natural disaster victims in Indonesia and the Philippines.
There's nothing unusual about clergy taking inspiration from headlines, but for Scott it's instinctive. He spent 23 years as a journalist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, most of the last five as religion reporter for Minnesota's second-biggest newspaper.
"What you get with Steve is someone who is able to take current events and use them as a launching pad for sermons and biblical study," said Glen Mabie, a parishioner and a former TV newsman in the nearby city of Eau Claire.
Scott's previous job seemed tailored to his lifelong interest in faith and spirituality and he figured it would be his for decades. But in 2005 his newspaper eliminated the beat, a step many other newspapers are making in lean times. At least seven other metro dailies also cut religion beats, and many others ended or trimmed weekly religion sections, according to the Religion Newswriters Association.
Scott, now 49, was reassigned to cover several St. Paul suburbs. He was "petulant ... pouting ... not very professional," he recalled. When the paper offered buyouts at the end of 2006, he took the opportunity without knowing what he wanted to do next.
He was interested in religion even before he covered it as a reporter. His father, who died when Scott was 6, was a Methodist pastor; after his death, Scott's mother for many years was organist at a Methodist church in Eau Claire, where Scott sang in the choir and was active in the teen youth group.
Once at college Scott stopped worshipping regularly, but he said he never stopped believing in God, and he minored in religious studies.
Even as a sports journalist, Scott kept that interest alive. In 1999, a year before he got the religion beat, he took a seminary class at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. He did so because it "sounded fun."
Scott likes to talk about the notion of a calling. Though the term is most often applied to clergy, he believes it's pertinent to anyone trying to figure out how they can best use their abilities to make the world a better place.
"I absolutely believe, as corny as it might sound, that I was called to be a journalist when I was 14," he said.
But one's calling can change, he said.
The buyout money gave him a few months to think about what to do with his life, and soon he returned to the seminary. He planned to earn a master's degree and approach religion as an academic. He got work as a consultant for North Presbyterian Church in Eau Claire, but when the pastor there died unexpectedly, the congregation asked Scott to take over.
"We can see the signs when we look back that there was something more coming for him," said the Rev. Ann Scott, Scott's wife since 2007 and a Methodist pastor in nearby Chippewa Falls. "We weren't exactly sure what that was. But we believe now that God was at work."
Scott serves every Sunday at the churches in Fall Creek (9 a.m.) and Eau Claire (10:30 a.m.), tackling the challenges of two tiny, graying congregations. Next summer he'll become a full-fledged Methodist minister and get his own congregation somewhere in Wisconsin.
At the Oct. 3 service, he apologized to his parishioners for the chill in the sanctuary.
"You'll be happy to know if you weren't at the church council meeting — we discussed the furnace," Scott told the 15 people scattered through the pews. He vowed it would be fixed soon.
These days, Scott earns about a third of his Pioneer Press salary. It could approach half once he's a commissioned minister; he won't be ordained until the end of a three-year probationary period.
Would he still be at the newspaper if he'd never lost his religion beat? "That's a lot of ifs," he said.
Twice called to professions that are suffering declines, Scott ponders another "if" question about journalism and religion.
"Cynically, some of my friends have asked me: 'What are you thinking? You left the newspaper business, and you're going into the church business?' They sort of share a demographic of a certain age, and they're both wondering why young people don't seem that interested.
"Perhaps there's a point. But I believe in newspapers, and I believe in the church, and despite their flaws, if we didn't have either one ..."
Scott trailed off, not completing the thought.