Q. Why did you choose to make a film about a Protestant church?
A. The story of a congregations life is a very important part of the social fabric of our society. There are approximately 350,000 individual congregations of all denominations in the United States and about 40% of Americans say they regularly go to worship services. The popular television media doesnt do all that much in-depth reporting on the subject of religion. Its missing from the TV landscape.
Hopefully our documentary will shed some light on why these congregations have endured even though they are now faced with a more ethnically and religiously diverse nation. We decided to focus on a mainline Protestant church because of the historic importance of Protestant churches in American life.
At the same time, recent studies of religion in America have emphasized the decline of the Protestant establishment and with it a turning away from the social causes which these churches have long championed. The rise of fundamentalist religions has increasingly drawn away younger members from mainline Protestant churches with an increasing emphasis on personal seeking and worship rather than social justice. Finally one of the greatest challenges facing congregations today is that of finding effective ministers which is one of the themes of our film.
Q. How and why did you pick Philadelphia's First United Methodist Church of Germantown as the subject?
A. Philadelphia was chosen as the setting for the film as a representative American city, one that would not be seen as atypical like New York or Los Angeles might be. The First United Methodist Church of Germantown, or FUMCOG as it is known by its acronym, originated in 1796 as one of the first Methodist churches in America. Through the years it has gone through many incarnations and has been known to be a progressive Protestant church with a commitment to social justice.
The fact that FUMCOG has survived for hundreds of years lends it a kind of iconic status. The church has also cultivated an eclectic diversity in terms of race, gender and worship practices. Though outwardly very traditional in appearance, the church has actually been quite liberal in its theology and the causes it embraced. We thought that the contrast between the congregations liberal heritage against the backdrop of the historic and traditional setting would add a dramatic element.
We worked with a panel of theological experts who acted as consultants to the project. It was originally suggested by the Alban Institute, an interfaith research and consulting organization, as one of several noteworthy churches to survey in the Philadelphia area. This church was also recommended by Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit organization that helps care for and support older and historic churches that serve their communities.
Q. What stood out about the FUMCOG congregation that sealed your decision to film at the church?
A. When we visited the church, we discovered that a newly appointed minister had just started his ministry after the retirement of a pastor who served for 37 years. We felt that the experience of the new minister and his transition into the church would be a good story line to follow.
We had no idea how dramatic that story would eventually become. Classically this kind of pastoral change causes congregations a great deal of anxiety as the members struggle to accept change while trying to hold on to the past.
Q. Why do you think the new ministers worship style made so many members of the congregation uncomfortable?
A. The new minister, Reverend Fred Day, represented a style of worship that was more traditional and didnt seem to connect with many in the congregation
His predecessor, the Reverend Ted Loder, was a published poet with a very charismatic personality. He had served this congregation for 37 years. Many members had been with Rev. Loder during his entire ministry. A change in worship can be very personal for members of a congregation.
Q. The congregation eventually turned to outside consultants to help them sort out their differences about this transition. How did this affect the filming process?
A. It became very tense at the church as members of the congregation divided between those who opposed Reverend Day and those who supported him. It was very difficult for us to appear neutral in the matter. Because this was a stressful situation for so many people, we were largely shut out of the listening group process in which the congregation tried to resolve their differences. It was frustrating not to be able to witness this process that the congregation was sharing.
Through patience and sheer tenacity we did manage to film the final steering group meeting in which it appeared that for all their discussions, the congregation was still in conflict over Reverend Days style of ministry. It just became apparent at some point that there was never going to be a unanimous group who supported him.
Many left the church during this year while others stayed although remaining stubbornly opposed to his ministry. The dwindling membership resulted in financial stress as well.
Q. The other major factor in the documentary is that of the fully credentialed Associate Pastor Beth Stroud who announces in a sermon that she is living openly as a lesbian in a covenant relationship. Were you aware when you chose this church that she was a homosexual or that she would make the dramatic choice to reveal her sexual identity during your filming?
A. No, we did not know anything about Beths sexual identity when we picked the church for the film. This was a developing situation that occurred much later in our filming of the documentary. Her decision to announce her sexual identity occurred about nine months into the two year long filming schedule.
Its important to understand that FUMCOG is one of a number of reconciling churches within the United Methodist denomination. That means that FUMCOG fully accepts gay, lesbian and transgendered members. However the larger denomination does not allow gay or lesbian ministers in the Methodist church. Therefore, Reverend Stroud risks losing her credentials as an ordained minister by revealing to the congregation that she is a self-avowed homosexual living in a covenant relationship.
Q. Were you surprised when this happened?
A. Yes and no. We realized as the filming progressed that this was an issue of great importance to Reverend Stroud. Her partner Chris, her mother, father, sisters and many in the congregation were openly supportive of her taking a stand against the United Methodist churchs position forbidding gay and lesbian ministers. At the same time, we realized that it would be a fateful decision on her part as it could possibly end her career as a minister.
Q. What is her current situation?
A. Bishop Weaver filed a complaint against Rev. Stroud for being a self-avowed practicing homosexual and she faced a clergy trial with a jury of 13 Methodist ministers who found her guilty of violating church law and revoked her ministerial credentials. She remains at The First United Methodist Church of Germantown as a lay minister.
Q. What was your reaction to the verdict?
A. It was chilling to see how rigid and narrow the proceedings were to not allow any discussion of a broader interpretation of the United Methodist Churchs view of homosexuals in the ministry.
It was the end of her journey as a Methodist minister and it was fascinating as filmmakers to watch her transition. She never wavered in her convictions throughout--from her first step of announcing her sexual identity to her congregation, to meeting with Bishop Weaver and wrestling with his authority and her political beliefs, to finally a clergy trial. It was a rare life lesson to observe someone who is determined to live out their commitment no matter the consequences. It came as close as we have ever witnessed to be a question of faith.
Q. Do you have any final thoughts about making THE CONGREGATION?
A. It proved to be much more difficult than we had anticipated. You dont normally associate such tension and stress within a church setting. Everything is supposedly calm and peaceful but that was not our experience. It was rather ironic for us since we are very accustomed to filming in harsh settings like prisons or war-torn countries.
In the end, the most moving experience for us was the visit to the church by the Sinikitemba HIV choir from South Africa. Their strong faith and forbearance and beautiful singing seemed to overshadow, at least for a time, all the other things that were swirling around FUMCOG.