Episode 2: Astead Herndon on navigating the career pipeline as a young, black newspaper reporter
In this episode of “Can These Bones,” co-host Laura Everett talks with Astead Herndon, politics reporter for The Boston Globe, about why he’s committed to helping other young professionals navigate this legacy institution.
When Astead Herndon decided to dedicate his career to newspaper reporting, he knew he was committing himself to a declining industry. Now that he holds the enviable position of political reporter in Washington, D.C., he’s dedicated to helping other young people through the career pipeline. In his conversation with “Can These Bones” co-host Laura Everett, he talks about the parallels between the newspaper industry and the church, the barriers faced by African-American journalists, the approach he takes to using social media, and the challenges of covering the Trump White House. He also gives Everett advice on how to manage her email.
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Listen to all the episodes and learn more about the hosts.
More from Astead Herndon
Boston Globe: Herndon staff profile
Boston Globe articles (may require subscription):
“President Trump keeps blocking people on Twitter. Is that legal?”
“Trump is making lexicography great again”
“Decoding the lyrics -- about cheating, back stabbing, and Kanye -- on Jay Z’s new album”
“How do you memorialize the fallen in a war without end?”
“Trump has ushered in an era of political shamelessness”
“What Trump’s words say about him”
Laura Everett: From Faith & Leadership, this is “Can These Bones,” a podcast that asks a fresh set of questions about leadership and the future of the church. I’m Laura Everett.
Bill Lamar: And I’m Bill Lamar. This is episode 2 of a series of conversations with leaders from the church and from other fields. Through this podcast, we want to share our hope in the resurrection and perhaps breathe life into leaders struggling in the “valley of dry bones.”
Laura Everett: One of the things we wanted to do when we launched this podcast was to broaden our conversations, to talk with people in the church who were finding life in dry bones, but also to talk to people in other institutions and other fields.
Bill Lamar: I get so much life from talking with persons who live lives different from my own and who serve institutions different from the one that I serve. I love reading books and listening to podcasts from different fields to get a fresh look at what I’m trying to do at Metropolitan AME Church and in my community.
Laura Everett: I love serving the church. It’s the great calling on my life, and I get so much joy from doing it, but there are weeks at a time where I can go with only talking to people who are already involved in the church or only talking to other clergy.
I need to talk to people who are in other institutions; I need to learn from them to know how to do my job better at the Massachusetts Council of Churches.
Bill Lamar: Laura, today’s guest is a voice from another field, a wonderful field, the field of journalism. Astead Herndon, who covers politics and the White House for The Boston Globe, joins us today. Laura, you know Astead and wanted to have him on the show. Why?
Laura Everett: I’ve always been fascinated by the parallels between what the newspaper industry and what the church are facing today. And I think Astead has an interesting take on the necessity of the newspapers and the need for change in ways that will help us think more clearly about the church.
Bill Lamar: Let’s listen to your conversation with Astead Herndon of The Boston Globe.
Laura Everett: I’m thrilled to have with me Astead Herndon, who is a national political reporter for The Boston Globe. He joined the Globe in 2015 after a summer reporting internship. Astead is a graduate of Marquette University and has previously worked at CNN.com and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Now, I know [you] Astead from your time in Boston, back when you were on the local beat. Astead has written explainers ranging from Senate health care [to] a decoder of Jay Z’s “4:44.”
Astead, welcome to “Can These Bones.”
Astead Herndon: Thank you. I appreciate you having me.
Laura Everett: So let’s dig deep and talk about this messy industry. I was raised by a journalist and became a pastor. And you were raised by a pastor, and you became a journalist.
Astead Herndon: Yes.
Laura Everett: Right?
Astead Herndon: Yeah.
Laura Everett: And the joke in my family is that Everetts love dying institutions. My father was a newspaper editor; my mom was a print graphic designer; I work for the church.
We, for some reason, my people, my family, feel very strongly about these older institutions.
And you come from a church background -- your father founded a church. You know how hard it is to start something new, but you went to a traditional institution. Why give your life to newspapers?
Astead Herndon: So my father founded a Pentecostal church in the Church of God in Christ when I was 1 or 2. So the church and me are very much the same age. And one of the benefits of that is that while my sisters, who are both older, have experience before Hallelujah Temple, which is the name of the church, my whole experience, both family and so much of my life, has been singularly driven through this institution and my father’s experience with founding it, and all the pluses and minuses that go along with that.
And while certainly it is true that it is a tough thing to sustain, and that has been very clear to me, it has also been very clear that the passion, the self-actualization, the centering that the church gives him was more than worth it for all the struggles that came along with it.
And so for me, joining something that I cared about was more important than tagging along to something that may stay afloat for longer.
So that leads me to media. But even within media, there are a lot of, you know, shiny new objects every day. There are a lot of digital outlets, there are a lot of verticals, and they certainly have their place.
I’m a big reader of them. I am a big fan of them. But for me, there’s nothing better than newspapers. There’s nothing that grounds our democracy more, that breaks new information, the kind of rush, the bedrock that they are -- it still means more to me than the kind of precarious situation that newspapers find themselves in.
And so while certainly, you know, sometimes I look over at friends or other outlets that are making money through the roof and are thinking here’s another shiny new object, hiring for this or that. And then I think back to where those places are getting their information from -- where, even now, are the bedrocks of holding power accountable? -- and I always come back to newspapers.
And so to tie it back to my father, I think that the kind of passion, the kind of self-worth, the, like, self-identity I now have as a newspaper reporter still matters more to me than the questionable business model -- you know, not even questionable -- the sinking business model we have found ourselves in.
Laura Everett: Right. That sense that this is [worth] giving one’s time, one’s history, one’s education, one’s intellectual curiosity for, even at a moment where the credibility of newspapers or the credibility of religious institutions is being undercut in many ways, that there’s something in the sort of foundational claims that these institutions make that’s worth spending time with.
Astead Herndon: I think of the quote, “There’s nothing that’s wrong with America --” I’m misquoting this, but it’s something like, “There’s nothing that’s wrong with America that what’s right about America can’t fix,” you know?
And I feel like that around newspapers. I’m the first to criticize, I think, the shortcomings of newspapers. But what I believe about them is I believe that -- and I could certainly, if I asked my father about his experience in the church, I think he would say the same thing -- the parts of it that you believe in, the part of it that’s right, I still believe can overcome the shortcomings.
And I enjoy feeling part of the solution. And so it’s not just about writing stories that I think need to be told, but it’s also being the kind of reporter, pushing my institution to be the kind of institution -- I try to make the Globe a place where I think we do more right than we do wrong.
Laura Everett: I think one of the core commitments of Leadership Education and this podcast as we ask, “Can these bones live?” -- we know the answer to the question, or we have faith in the answer to the question, which is that there will be new spirit that is breathed into some pretty rickety old bones. But [one of our core commitments is] that we believe the bones are worth saving.
When you look at your own institution, at newspapers in general, where are the places where you’re really feeling like bones coming on bone, things are connecting?
Astead Herndon: Journalists are very bad at solutions. We are very, very good at pointing out all the places where we have failed and pointing out the places where we continue to fail.
But you get journalists around the room and say, “How do you fix it?” and we all kind of look -- like, “Fix it?” You know, like, “Who -- that’s someone else’s job. Someone gets paid a lot more money than I do to think about solutions.”
And so … but that’s all inadequate now. I think that it’s all part of -- I mean, as I was saying before, I think we have to actively work to be part of the solution.
And so to go back to your question, the places that I have seen us be part of the solution -- I’ll mention a couple of things.
First is that we need to be better at our job. We just need to -- that’s kind of a cop-out solution, but when someone messes up in the industry right now, it is so overblown in a way that’s really not their fault. The first thing that we need to do, and I think we have done in the last year, is prove ourselves worth it by being good at our jobs.
You know, when you look at so much of the information that has come out, the pertinent information about the Trump administration, about Trump himself -- that’s come from newspapers, almost exclusively. And I think that that’s important.
The second thing is we have to let the old inner industry hatchets die, and I think we’re seeing more of that. We’re seeing more collaboration between newsrooms. We’ve seen a lot more sharing of work through newsrooms. The easiest and most classic example of this is the Post and the Times are sharing each other’s work. And you know, that’s kind of unthinkable 20 years ago.
But right now, the enemy is not the newsroom across the street, and that’s so clear -- that we are both under an attack from a president who likes to use us as a punching bag but also we have a real trust problem within the industry. And that doesn’t matter if you’re the Times or the Post.
I also think, the thing that I’ve seen some of but I hope we get even better at is about transparency.
We’ve seen stories -- well, the first one I think of is when Mike Flynn was found to have lied to Vice President Pence, it wasn’t just anonymous sources that they put in that story. They listed, “We had four administration officials from this department, three administration officials from this department …”
I don’t know if those are the numbers, but that was the idea. And I think that that’s increasingly important.
Laura Everett: And that’s the change?
Astead Herndon: And that’s the change. The change is that we’re not just asking you to blindly trust us that we know who these people are. We are giving you more information about how we got this, and who these people are, while still protecting their identities. And we’re getting much more of that.
And so I think it’s easier for a reader to understand how the reporter gets to that point, because before, the reader was being asked to trust the outlet, to say, “Hey, this is The Boston Globe, so if this person is telling me this thing is true, it is likely true.”
And we’re just not at that -- we don’t have that institutional credibility anymore. So I think what is incumbent upon us is to prove ourselves. And I think we’re doing more of that, but I hope to see even more.
Laura Everett: So let’s talk about some of the stories that you’re writing, because I’ve noticed some shifts, and how your stories have changed, and what could be possible, right?
There are some pretty well-trod paths: you went from being a metro reporter in Boston to being a journalist in D.C., a national political reporter, part of the White House press corps. You could be doing the synopsis of the daily -- well, sometimes-daily -- press briefings.
Astead Herndon: Yeah.
Laura Everett: But instead, I see you building out some of these really smart, bigger-picture ideas.
You’ve written things about -- asking questions: How do we memorialize the dead of the war on terror? How do you memorialize the dead in a war that won’t end? How does President Trump’s language change our lexicography?
You’ve written stories about if tweets are now presidential speech, is it legal or moral or wise for the president to block people on Twitter? And you’ve written about how President Trump’s regular refusal to apologize has been permission-giving for other politicians.
So as you have done some of this shifting from events-driven, sort of “straight” reporting to bigger-picture, wider-context, how have you changed as a journalist, and how are you coming to these ideas? Where’s this coming from for you, Astead?
Astead Herndon: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it’s a unique place that I’m operating in right now, because there is a temptation for news outlets to write about whatever the daily scandal is -- because there is a daily scandal. If your bar for what scandal is is the same as it was 10, 15 years ago, that threshold will be crossed every other day.
And so you can find yourself in a kind of reactive state to everything that happens, and summarizing kind of the news of the day. Our added value was not going to be writing another story about what happened today.
In the end, you’re not super adding to the ecosystem. Like, the added value is very marginal, and especially when you’re working at a paper that will still take their stories and put it in.
So we were thinking, why don’t we just increasingly take their news-of-the-day stories, and then people like Astead and Matt [Viser] and Annie [Linskey], the people who are in D.C., write other things, write interesting things, tell new stories, and then we have two for the price of one?
I don’t have to go to the press briefing and, when she stops talking, charge out a bunch of words that nearly thousands of people are writing at the same time. I just leave. And so it’s been very helpful.
But to get to your point, it also is difficult, because everything I do here is idea-driven. I have, obviously, people I talk to and people who help me get ideas, but it is incumbent upon me to find things that are not being said and to tell them in a different way, but to still do that journalistically, because you’re not a columnist. I can’t just say, “This is what’s happening.” I need to find different things, new stories, that I can prove, and to report on.
And so it is, it’s fun, but it’s also hard. You start noticing that [Trump’s] use of “huge” is now a joke for my mom, and it’s like how -- there was not a singular word that Barack Obama said that my mom could make the joke and we all got.
That’s a Trump thing. That’s his unique way of talking, his kind of -- you know, the way he just blanketly covers all of media. It’s just the way he seeps into our lives.
And so for me, staying in tune with that, and staying in tune with how he is affecting people, is how you get the most interesting stories.
Because as much as -- I mean, D.C. is a real bubble for the game of politics. Everyone is, you know, pretty obsessed with the kind of horse race of politics. But for our jobs, for my job, that’s not interesting, you know? If I was going to pitch stories about who’s up and who’s down every week, I would be unemployed.
And so it is important, I think, for me, to figure out the ways in which politics matters to people and to stay in touch with maybe people who are unseen, with people who have been historically ignored, and find stories that tell that side of it.
And that’s the way that I continue to come up with things; it’s kind of by -- it’s a part of being humble about, I don’t have all of the ideas about where this man matters, and many of them come from people he has imposed upon, and how can I tell that story?
Laura Everett: And part of what’s such a gift to me about your work is that both in your writing and in your social media presence, I see the marks of a real person, with humor and wit. You’re an actual human behind the notepad. So I’m really grateful for that in you.
Astead Herndon: I appreciate that. I think that’s something that different reporters have different takes on, but in my view, I like that. I like being able to connect with audiences and for them to feel that not only are they getting reporting and a kind of insight into what’s going on politically right now, but I also want them to feel as if they are connected to the person who is writing this.
For me, I think in this media age, it’s important for us to try to put all our cards on the table.
Laura Everett: So that’s a conscious decision for you, about what amount of your sort of personal interests -- I get a lot more European soccer in your Twitter feed than I might otherwise consume -- but it’s, right, like it’s a personal decision for you to share more of who you are as an individual than just what you’re covering that day?
Astead Herndon: Exactly. I think it certainly is a conscious one. I think it comes about in a couple of ways.
One is that I’m just younger mostly than other folks doing my beat, and I think that I’ve come up with social media in a different era and lens. I had Twitter in high school, and so even when it became professional, it was frankly hard for me to strip all of that away.
But then the second thing is, especially when writing about politics, I think that it can be hard for people coming up, especially people from marginalized communities, people who don’t see themselves represented, to see the path, and to see themselves in some of the people who are writing this.
And so for me, as I talk with younger reporters or work with younger reporters, or people see my Twitter feed or something, I enjoy that it says that you can like this stuff and still be qualified to write about the Senate health care bill.
You know, you can like rap and still feel just as part of the White House briefing room as everyone else. Because sometimes that stuff hasn’t been allowed, and it sometimes isn’t now. And I want to be able to kind of create a situation where people can see themselves and feel like, you know, they can get there as well.
Laura Everett: So you’ve got a real sense of the visibility of your profile as a young, black reporter in the White House press corps?
Astead Herndon: Certainly. I think that it kind of comes with the territory. It happened before the White House, honestly.
There’s such an underrepresentation of African-Americans and just nonwhite people generally in traditional newsrooms that even when I was on metro or local, that was something that was very clear to me from the beginning, that there weren’t many people who look like me who had my experiences who are in this place.
And that only becomes magnified when I got to D.C. And so now there are other ways people can see me. I’m on television every now and then; I am -- you know, you can turn on the briefing and see, “Who’s the black guy with the beard in the back?”
And so the way that people can see you is magnified, but the kind of intention around understanding where you stand in wanting to create a sense of connection between yourself and your audience and understanding the kind of role you play as someone who is visible -- that started before D.C.
And truly, not because of anything special about me, but because of just the general underrepresentation that is true in media.
Laura Everett: That’s so helpful. I share some of that experience as a woman in ministry in some spaces, where the body that I’m in raises questions when I walk into a room that would not be there otherwise.
Astead Herndon: Yeah, that is a similar experience. I think that, you know, this stuff is so fluid. So where I may have certain privileges I experience as a man being in this place, I think being black and being young adds another element.
And I certainly, when I speak to other reporters who come from different backgrounds, who are women, who are Jewish, who are Muslim, we can talk about our experiences as being analogous.
That in a space that is so predominantly white and male being politics right now -- I mean, you look at the people we are questioning in power, almost overwhelmingly rich, white and male -- there’s another dynamic that’s created.
And for a reporter, where your job is to get information, where your job is to tell a story, many times the final product is very removed from all the stuff that happens before.
So one of the things you have to -- I have had to -- be conscious about is knowing that my identity plays a role in my job but still being able to navigate and still being able to produce what I’m expected to do.
Laura Everett: I want to ask you about some of the pipeline problems. And I’ve noticed you and other journalists I admire thinking about diversity in newsrooms, and you in particular have pointed out some of the economic barriers for increased diversity, like unpaid internships.
And it strikes me that for those of us who work in legacy institutions or traditionally or primarily white institutions, in some spaces, like historic churches, there’s an interesting analogy about both a stated desire for diversity and the reality that there are hidden barriers for access, or barriers that are hidden to the people who are in power. How have you navigated that?
Astead Herndon: Yeah. I mean, it’s very clear to me. So first, many of these places, your first route is an internship, and many of those internships are unpaid. And for many of these institutions, they couch that in the language of the struggling nature of media in general.
They say, “You know, we don’t have the money,” or, “It’s so hard to get a job that you should take this as an opportunity, as an experience; we’re paying you in exposure” -- all of these things that seem kind of innocent. And you can see how a powerful institution could kind of wipe their hands of paying people, especially in this environment.
But for people who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, or for people who just really don’t have the means to be able to take that on, that’s a killer.
I know so many students who -- particularly in the National Association of Black Journalists -- who could not get to the second or third step of the paid internship because they were stopped at the first one. They could not leave their work-study job in college; they couldn’t find a way to pay rent if they were working 20 hours a week in a capacity where they weren’t getting paid.
And so it’s tough, because I think on the back end, places like the Globe, we make enough money to live in Boston at that internship. And so a lot of the more powerful institutions can say, “You know what? We pay our interns.”
But the thing that happens here is that places like the Globe also require you to have three internships before that. And so inherently, they’re already cutting off a group of people who wouldn’t be able to make it.
I’ve noticed that when you’re talking to journalists of nonwhite backgrounds who have “made it” or have a stable job at a traditional legacy outlet, you can usually pinpoint a moment when someone took a risk on them, had to accept their nontraditional upbringing or background.
For me, it comes at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I could not take an unpaid internship that would qualify me for the Milwaukee Journal internship, which is the biggest one in the city, so I couldn’t do the kind of traditional lead-ins that most of the other Marquette students did to get you to that point.
But what they said was, oh, I had taken a year off and I had done AmeriCorps, and they valued that kind of, you know, frankly, weird experience for a college student of [serving] in a school for a year.
And so for an education reporting internship, they said, “You know what, it doesn’t matter that you have never been in the newsroom before; we’re going to take a shot.”
And there’s usually a point like that, that allows you -- where someone sees things kind of out of the mold that traditional media usually does and allows you to get your foot in the door. Because other than that, I don’t get newsroom experience, and I’m probably not where I am right now.
Laura Everett: I really appreciate you naming those barriers. And appreciate that even as an established but emerging journalist, you are already taking interest and being intentional about mentoring the generation of journalists behind you.
Astead Herndon: Yeah. I think that that’s something that, for me, is kind of a nonnegotiable. It was so clear to me both then and still now. These more stable reporters who really helped and really took an interest in helping me navigate what is a very messy industry -- having a lot of experiences very quickly in this industry has given me some tips that I think I can pass along to other people.
Some experiences, both in journalism, some skill-building things, but also just the knowledge of how to navigate, which is something that I think, especially, as I keep going back to -- people of nontraditional or marginalized backgrounds can often not have that.
They are usually the first -- I know that I certainly am the first of anyone I know around me -- to be a journalist, to be in this media space.
And so we are in an industry that has still not figured out how to make money, still not figured out how to be sustainable and profitable. And until that happens, we’re all treading water.
Laura Everett: As a final question, Astead, I want to ask you -- talk to me about your phone.
In this moment where people who are working for major institutions are toggling between being highly connected and [doing] the work we need to do to be wise and listen carefully, what -- do you turn your phone off? Do you -- how do you manage that component of your life? Because you are an excellent and regular tweeter, and we want to encourage everybody to follow you.
I aspire both to be highly connected and accessible and to listen carefully for those big trends. And I am not my wisest and sanest self when I’m highly connected, either.
So tell me what you do, so I can be a better pastor.
Astead Herndon: It’s hard. So first off, I’m frequently on my phone during the weekday, because that’s just how work goes.
I have, I’m sure, more than a dozen unread emails in the course of this conversation. And a part of that is just the way journalism is. There’s an expectation for you to always be plugged in.
Last week, I got edits on a story at like midnight on the weekend, and they were asking me to have them done before the morning. You know, so there’s a part of it that I just like cannot, cannot remove, and is just a component of the job.
But last year, I had some friends who actually were like -- had an intervention with me, and were like, “You need to get off your phone, Astead.”
And we are at this place, and we come here every weekend -- it was our favorite soccer bar from my favorite team -- and they’re like, “You’re invested, but you’re not here.”
And it was one of those moments when at first you’re really upset. Because I’m very defensive, like, “Oh, you’re on your phone, too. Look at that!” And then I thought about it, and I tried to ...
Laura Everett: I’m just trying to do my job, you know?
Astead Herndon: Right, right, right. And I thought -- I’ve tried now to make weekends largely phone-free. I try to do things that are personally active and physically active, that just take away my phone, right? If I’m hiking or playing basketball at the gym, I’m not going to be on my phone, right?
But I’ve also made a conscious choice that when I am around the group of people who mean the most to me, that’s going to be phone-free. And that had to be a conscious effort, because otherwise I would’ve lost some friends.
And so what I’ve done is set up alerts. I can put my phone on a mode where if my boss emails me, it comes through, or if the Globe’s general extension is calling me, it comes through.
But I’m limiting every tweet. I used to have -- and this is probably the last thing I’ll say -- I used to have every Twitter notification on for a long time. Because I was like, “Oh, I want to -- I don’t want to be one of those reporters who only read when verified people tweet them; I want to read everyone.”
And it was just stupid; it just got to a level where I was spending hours and hours reading Twitter mentions. Not even responding, but just reading them.
And I just -- and this is like a month ago -- I put on more intense filters where I very rarely see things that I don’t need to see anymore. And that’s part of me trying to limit the amount of intake I have on my phone.
Laura Everett: Well, look, we are really grateful for the careful reporting you are doing, the wide range of voices you are listening to, the people you are encouraging to this noble profession, and the time that you took to put down your phone and have a conversation with me.
Astead Herndon, I’m so grateful for the conversation we’ve had and the good work you do. Thank you.
Astead Herndon: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Bill Lamar: That was my co-host Laura Everett’s conversation with Astead Herndon, political reporter for The Boston Globe. Laura, he really has some thoughtful things to say about the state of the newspaper industry and how it affects young journalists.
Laura Everett: The parallels with the church and the newspaper industry are fascinating. These are legacy institutions with a mission that’s still critical, but institutions that are struggling to find a new form, and often struggling to find a new economic model for their mission.
And when Astead said that the passion he has as a newspaper reporter matters more than the business model, that sounded to me like the language of vocation and call.
Bill Lamar: Astead also touches on the talent pipeline in newspapers. Again, something that’s common to so many institutions -- the challenges in getting ahead or even getting started with that first internship, especially if you are in a marginalized community or are not the typical white, male candidate.
You know, all of our institutions struggle with how to identify and cultivate the next generation of talent. In my own study and thought about how we do it in my own world, it’s been really the apprenticeship model. Young talent has been scouted, and the elders and those who are more senior in the profession of ministry and preaching bring them alongside and teach them and pour into them.
The difficulty, though, is that often the talent scouted is limited to male talent. And I think that we see that in certain precincts in the church, but I think also what we have to do is be invitational.
You mentioned, Laura, the language of vocation, and that always arrests me, that we have to be “calling” institutions. So in a real sense, we cannot wait for persons to hear, but we have to be speaking to them, pointing them toward ministry, pointing them toward service, and pointing them toward really the beauty of the life and the challenges of the life that make for great possibility for individuals and for communities.
And I feel like in our own denomination and in other places, we are trying to be more careful to extend the call, to cast a vision, and to take the work of calling unto ourselves. When we see bright persons, asking them, “Have you considered this kind of service?” And I think therein lies the strength of the church and the institutions that we care about.
Laura Everett: Part of what I heard in Astead’s journey to the position that he’s in now is the number of times that people reached out to him, people in leadership. People took a chance on him. He said, you know, he didn’t have a typical background when he had that first internship at the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal; he had done AmeriCorps.
And so sometimes I feel like I’ve learned, in identifying folks and recruiting people, that I want to look for the skills rather than the credentials. That when I look for the skills in people, it means I’m looking at other life experiences, other than academic institutions or certain kinds of programs or certain pipelines that have worked for the church but have limited the number of people who are called.
The other thing that came through so clearly for me in Astead’s conversation was the emphasis on mentoring, that both he has had people who have mentored him and, even as a young reporter, he is mentoring people who are coming up behind him.
And to do that is really a testament to the life abundant, that these jobs are not things to hold on to and cling to and protect but an invitation to invite more people into this work that is so important.
Bill Lamar: It’s been fascinating for me, and I know you’ve seen it as well. I mean, we think ourselves to be young, but I guess we’re not as young as we used to be.
Laura Everett: That’s right.
Bill Lamar: But [I’ve seen] the number of seminarians who are coming and wanting to see what the institutional life is like, what the life of pastoral ministry is like. And I think that both of us -- we’ve spoken about this -- we have taken it upon ourselves to be invitational.
And the work of mentoring is difficult work; it requires an attention and a presence that will encourage these persons.
The sad thing about mentorship, on the opposite side of the coin, is when we’re not invitational, when we’re not present, we could indeed be extinguishing a fire, a faith, an imagination that could help the church be stronger. So it’s something to take very seriously.
Laura Everett: I also heard in Astead, gosh, that affirmation that this is worth giving one’s life to. He gave a really robust defense of newspapers and why they matter. And as a millennial, as a younger journalist devoted to this older institution, he sees both the value and the shortcomings.
And I heard in that the sort of loving critic who believes enough in the institution that they want to change that. I know when I’ve mentored younger folks who have a sense of the things that are wrong, I can get defensive about this institution I love.
But [it’s important] to receive some of that criticism, sometimes with a grain of salt, but also with an openness that these are folks who have just as much right and ability to call us to the kind of institution that God longs for us [to be].
Bill Lamar: And definitely being willing to hear the criticism. And what I tend to do is to point them historically to the challenges that the institution has faced but also to the ways that, beyond the challenges, we really by the grace and mercy of God have continued to go forward.
And I try to cast the vision that for the rest of their tenure of service, they indeed will be vacillating between having great highs, great lows, being very clear about the direction of the institution and having internal challenges about that clarity.
And being able to walk in the midst of those things while remembering your vocational clarity and the vision about what you can be, where your community can be, and what your institution can be. Having that understanding, that missional understanding, if you will, can keep you in the midst of those polarities, which can really, really, really be debilitating.
Having a clear vision always helps to give strength in the midst of it all. And that clear vision is sometimes -- helps me to hold on.
And I was very thankful that in Astead, we hear a young person committed to an older institution, and I am seeing that in my own life, and that does indeed bring me great hope.
Laura Everett: Now part of what is so fun about this interview is we got into some of the nitty-gritty on what it is like to lead and serve in this kind of way. I got to ask Astead about his phone.
He has an active social media presence, he is on call a lot of the time, and I think every busy person can relate to Astead’s friends staging an intervention about his phone. It has not gotten to that for me, but I’ll be honest, sometimes my wife will go on Twitter to find out where I am. I’m not proud of that.
But it’s real, right? You know, this reality that we need our electronic devices to do our ministry but at the same time we can sometimes become beholden to them. And so it was really helpful for me to ask Astead about how he manages his information consumption and his availability.
So, Bill, have you learned anything that’s working for you?
Bill Lamar: Well, it’s very interesting. I have some friends who have spoken with me about my being tethered to my device.
What I try to do is to keep ahead of the emails and the text messages, and I am telling myself often that I’m just trying to stay ahead of the curve. And really I think that in a sense, the constant stimuli, the ringing noises that an incoming message has come, almost has been a Pavlovian distraction in my situation.
So what I have taken to doing is turning down alerts and trying my best to not depend on the phone every five minutes or 15 minutes. I really, for a moment or two, put myself on a technology diet, because I’ve thought often about a phrase that one of my professors would use, “the tyranny of the immediate.”
And in the tyranny of the immediate, distraction of the phone and messages has kept me from thinking the kinds of thoughts and having the sustained reflection that allows me to do my work with any kind of meaning.
And so while the device is helpful as a tool of communication, I think one of the difficulties if we do not untether ourselves is it keeps us -- it becomes an enemy of reflection and thought. And with all that’s going on in the world, we need to be reflective and thoughtful about what we’re saying and how we’re moving in the world.
So I applaud the devices for what they can do, but I also fear what will happen if we are not clear about how these devices lead us away from sustained thought and, many times, from deep conversations that can become transformational for us and for our institutions.
Laura Everett: I think a lot about that, too, and the sort of pastoral response that I want to have to people, that gift of careful listening, the kind of listening that I believe God does to us, the practice of pastoral attentiveness.
And I know that when I’ve got my Twitter alerts coming in, or text message after text message and email alerts, that I’m not giving the kind of pastoral attentiveness that I want to. I’m not being the kind of pastor I want to.
I like being highly connected. I think it’s part of what has allowed me to do my job well, to make the vibrant church visible, to tell the stories I want to tell. At the same time, that hyperconnectedness sometimes gets in the way of me being a good pastor.
You know, one of the things I’ve actually changed on this is I noticed that some of the older generation perceived my checking of my phone as disrespectful, even when I was just checking to see what time it was.
And, Bill, I’ve made some changes, and instead of checking my phone, I actually bought a wristwatch so that I can look on my wrist and see what time [it is]. And you know, I don’t think it’s disrespectful to check my phone, but I recognize, for some of my older members of the community, that they perceive it as not being attentive.
And so you know, I’m willing to make that kind of adaptation for the good of the whole.
Bill Lamar: Laura, for my benefit and for the benefit of our listeners, could you tell us what a wristwatch is?
Laura Everett: They’re ancient devices. [Laughter] Very funny, Bill.
Thanks for listening to “Can These Bones.” I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. There’s more about Astead Herndon, including some of his writing, on our website, www.canthesebones.com.
Bill, who are we talking to next?
Bill Lamar: Laura, I had a fascinating conversation with Albert Reyes, president and CEO of Buckner International, a global ministry serving children and senior adults.
Laura Everett: I’m looking forward to it.
“Can These Bones” is brought to you by Faith & Leadership, a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. It’s produced by Sally Hicks, Kelly Ryan Gilmer and Dave Odom. Our theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Funding is provided by Lilly Endowment Inc.
Listeners, we’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts about this podcast on social media. I’m on Twitter @RevEverett, and you can find my colleague Bill at @WilliamHLamarIV. You can also find us through our website, www.canthesebones.com.
I’m Laura Everett, and this is “Can These Bones.”
This transcript has been edited for clarity.