I’ve always thought preaching was the most revealing and daunting responsibility the clergy carry out. You reveal not only your speaking abilities. You reveal the depth of your scholarship, thought and faith. It’s a weekly display of one’s innermost capacities laid out before the whole world. Those who don’t understand this, or worse who think they can get by with something less than their best, are fooling only themselves. In a media-saturated world we have become acculturated to critique. Acceptance or rejection are second nature. To preach today is to enter into this culture and lay bare your soul, risking many outcomes–disagreement with deeply held beliefs, criticism for not doing it well and outright rejection. That’s daunting.
I think this dynamic, writ large, is why I found the documentary The Congregation about First United Methodist Church in Germantown, Pennsylvania, which aired on PBS last night, such a courageous step by these pastors and congregants. They allowed filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond to document the struggles of a pastor who is grappling with his effectiveness as a preacher and leader, a congregation in transition, divided and stressed, and another pastor who comes out of the closet, declaring her lesbian orientation. It is a remarkable struggle and the documentary captures it with poignancy and integrity.
Facing these multiple challenges the congregation genuinely seeks to address them but first it has to identify them. Therein lies the drama, and a touching story.
In an open talking session brutal honesty surfaces some–but not all–of the problems. The senior pastor, The Rev. Fred Day, is critiqued, painfully in my opinion, and almost brutally. The worship style is dissected and the congregation’s storied history is recalled.
What is not shown is whether the members also understand their roles as leaders to bring the community towards health. This may have been part of the talking session and got edited out by the filmmakers. But the issue that cuts even deeper than the effectiveness of the lead pastor or the sexual orientation of The Rev. Beth Stroud, is whether this community of faith can recover their balance and return to health. Can they become an outward-looking missional people facing the real, vexing and complicated problems that daily confront each individual and the wider community?
I think they can. Their history as a vital congregation is a resource. They were shaped by a social witness over the past thirty years that gives them a track record. They face financial struggles but Rev. Day states at one point that when they are presented with a significant case for giving, they respond. And even in their division, most display remarkable gifts. And confronted with multiple dilemmas, they chose to spend money on consultants to try and get at their problems rather than repair the leaking roof. They listen to each other and express opinions with sensitivity. There is richness of talent and insight in these people that finally led me, even in the severity of their struggle, to hope.
Making a documentary such as The Congregation is a collaborative process requiring the active participation of those whose story is being told. The people of First United Methodist Church, Germantown demonstrate an openness and confidence that is quite remarkable. They allow us to sit in on their struggle. Ms. Stroud talks us through her “coming out” sermon, reflecting a theological understanding of preaching that is deep and grounded in strong faith. Rev. Day reveals unusual restraint as he comes to terms with the critiques of his leadership and preaching. I thought to myself, “Wow, one the hardest jobs in the world is to be a local church pastor.”
It’s paradoxical that even as they contend with the de-credentialing of Ms. Stroud as a “self-avowed, practising homosexual,” this congregation embodies an openness that lives up to the claim this denomination makes–people of open hearts, open minds, open doors.