Snakes handle a church

FumcogHere’s a quick way to take the theological pulse of churchgoers. Imagine you’re attending an urban parish with a reputation for liberal theology and political activism. Your new senior pastor begins the Lord’s Prayer with “Our Mother and Father in heaven,” baptizes children in the name of “the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sustainer,” attends an anti-war rally in Washington and offers unequivocal support when the associate pastor announces from the pulpit that she is a lesbian.

Is your senior pastor a traditionalist who could imperil the progressive future of your church?

Several members of First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pa., concluded that about the Rev. Fred Day, who in 2001 became the beleaguered successor to the Rev. Ted Loder. Loder led FUMCOG — the acronym sounds like something out of C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, but that’s what members call it — from 1962 to January 30, 2000, which meant almost certain trouble for any successor.

FUMCOG is the subject of The Congregation, a documentary by Alan and Susan Raymond that premiered Wednesday night on PBS. Many of the reports and reviews on The Congregation focus on the coming out sermon of the Rev. Irene Elizabeth “Beth” Stroud, and her subsequent defrocking by a court of the United Methodist Church.

No report I’ve seen explores the question of what made Day so unbearably traditionalist.

The New York Times provides the most amusing detail about what the parent PBS channel sought from the filmmakers:

WETA, the Washington PBS station, had offered the Raymonds the topic, and it did not want a congregation “on some new fringe, not a born-again church in a movie theater, not a snake-charming one,” said Dalton Delan, WETA’s chief programming officer. “Mainstream” was the mandate.

The filmmakers reinforce that definition of “mainstream” in a Q&A posted on the film’s website:

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.

The most detailed criticism of Day comes from one man, left unidentified, who complains that the pastor offered a “15-minute prayer” after his sermon for Martin Luther King Day. Blasphemy! During a committee meeting, Day mentions that a young woman believes he quotes too much Scripture during FUMCOG’s worship services, and that she has appreciated how one may attend the church without having to believe in God.

There are vague complaints about changes in the church’s liturgy, but it never becomes clear what the liturgy was before Day’s arrival. FUMCOG also offers a jazz service, so it’s difficult to perceive Day as a liturgical crank.

The ironies of this sad tale were not lost on David Zurawik, television critic for the Baltimore Sun, who wrote on Wednesday:

The church board calls in consultants, and what the “experts” do to Day through a process they call “the talking cure” is downright brutal. It is more like public humiliation with far too many members of the congregation willing to use the new minister as a scapegoat for their own failure to find a way to serve God — and deal with mammon.

It’s also worth mentioning that several FUMCOG members speak in Day’s defense. The most eloquent woman says she believes Day’s leadership style actually is more collaborative than Loder’s.

Day spends most of the documentary in a mode so unguarded and non-defensive that he sounds more like a Rogerian counselor than a pastor who has been targeted for a purge. By film’s end, he confesses that he has reached a point of exhaustion after three years of trying to lead a divided congregation. He declines an opportunity for reappointment at FUMCOG.

In another Q&A on the film’s website, Day retains his gracious tone:

Man, there are people in Haiti that don’t have a house right now, there are people in Iraq that are dying of car bombings, and my stuff pales in comparison. And it’s just about being a servant and that doesn’t mean it’s easy, but I think, you know, there’s some perspective to again recognize that it’s not about me, it’s more about the church, and the church finding a way to be faithful and catch a vision and move into the future.

“It’s not about me”: Such a radical, perhaps even threatening, notion in a congregation’s life.

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  • Chris Walton (Philocrites)

    Copyediting alert! It’s the Rev. Ted Loder, not Lober, and he’s well-known among mainline and liberal Protestant ministers for his books of prayers Guerrillas of Grace, My Heart in My Mouth, The Haunt of Grace, and Wrestling the Light.

  • Trent Williams

    I too was somewhat perplexed by the references to Day as more orthodox and traditionalist that Loder. Although I am generally in sympathy with the more liberal theological perspective, I was at a loss trying to understand what the problem was; the filmmakers never made it clear what the specifics were, they only gave vague impressions of liturgical conflict. Day stuck me as quite progressive theologically.

    As a pastor myself I found it painful to watch as he was subjected to public criticism repeatedly. I think the biggest problem was the shadow cast by a long-serving and beloved pastor, and in the inevitable comparisons the new minister always comes up short. It is an unfortunate but not uncommon reality in the Church.

  • Elizabeth Josephine Weston

    Some months ago this blog mentioned Rabbi Friedman’s book, “Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue.” On the strength of that posting I read the book and it seems as if this congregation is a textbook case of what Rabbi Friedman talked about. Although I haven’t seen the program it sounds more like bad psychology and theology is just an overlay. Someone should recommend this book to Rev. Day.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for that important correction, Chris. I have no idea why “Lober” lodged itself in my brain, even as I repeatedly visited the film’s website for research.

  • Ned H Benson

    Alban Institute folks, much experienced in consulting with congregations going through difficult pastoral transitions, would call Day “an unintentional interim.” Anyone knowledgeable about the difficulty following a 30-year beloved former pastor would have predicted the turmoil at FUMCOG. It ABSOLUTELY ain’t about Fred Day.

    We Presbyterian-types are often amused by our Methodist colleagues failure to take appropriate advantage of their own tradition’s strength in “itineration” of clergy. We are often plagued by 30-year pastorates; there’s no excuse for a Methodist Church to endure it.

  • Lee Lybarger

    It is apparent that Fred Day amounted to what we, in the Presbyterian Church, would refer to as an interim pastor. This is function he was performing whether or not he or FUMCOG realized. I am glad that my denomination mandates such a procedure as they do in certain other denominations e.g. ELCA. I find it unconscionable that that the UMC does not have a provision for interim pastors. It was especially needed in the case of FUMCOG.

    Elder Lee Lybarger

    Delaware, OH

  • Stephen A.

    Yeah, that Pastor Day was quite the traditionalist. I suppose irony was intended.

    This story reminds me of the time, back in the 1980s, when I ventured into a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship for a few months to experience the joys and revelations of all of humankind’s religions’ search for the Divine. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

    It was about the time “Pastor Emily” was arriving after the leadership of several lay ministers. Pastor Emily was much like the Sr. pastor here, she called God a “mother/parent,” etc, and was sufficiently anti-Reagan in her long, political diatribes from the pulpit to give her *street cred* with the Left.

    Trouble was, she mentioned the word “GOD” in the first place. A counselor was called in from the Boston HQ to heal the congregation after such a traumatic “heresy.” She left soon for another posting, but not after some destructive sessions were held to bash her for “forcing religion down our throats.”

    I came to understand that religion-bashing was standard for that denomination, and left rather quickly, too.

    This documentary was barely watchable, except as an illustration of the quagmire of psychobabble these denominations have become.

  • Michael Bush

    It is immoral for a pastor to stay in any one place longer than twelve years, because this kind of thing almost invariably happens when they do. Day is right: it is not about him. Nothing he did or didn’t do was ever going to be right. It was about Loder. This congregation has very few problems that would not have been prevented if Loder had left no later than 1974.

  • Tom Paine

    Some of those posting cannot fathom the senior pastor being called a ‘traditionalist.’ Grant it that most ‘traditionalists’ are conservative, but my take on the Rev. Loder was that he was more liturgical than his predecessor. It would explain the complaints over ‘long prayers’ and the Bible being used a great deal.

    I applaud First UMC Germantown for being open enough to share their struggles in such a public venue. Regardless of one’s theological perspective, the documentary is extremely valuable in watching congregational dynamics. I was impressed that the documentary only contains narration in the opening and closing minutes of the program.

  • Sarah Guiles

    This was an interesting documentary in several ways. As a Presbyterian, I also was surprised that Methodist polity does not provide for an interim for congregations in transition between called pastors. Hopefully this documentary pointed to the benefits of such a policy for the UMC.

    It also occurred to me that Rev. Day may have been viewed as a ‘traditionalist’ due to his education-Houghton College and Gordon-Conwell Seminary(FUMCOG website). Both institutions are considered to be evangelical and theologically conservative. Yet, he appeared to embrace many of the more progressive liberal positions of the mainline denominations and was willing to pastor a ‘reconciling’ congregation of the UMC.

    To me the most insightful statement that he made was when he said the members of his congregation were ‘refugees’ from ‘somewhere else’(other churches/denominations) where they

    had been offended by polity/policy that they didn’t agree with leaving them with a sense of hurt or rejection. That would help explain the congregation members almost hyper-sensitivity to change. The social contract of this congregation appears to be “OK, we’ll agree on various social positions and advocacy issues and to give time, talent and treasure to these, BUT

    having been ‘victims of conscience’ in other congregations we insist that the ‘experience’ of church be comfortable and self-affirming.”

  • JoJo

    The United Methodist Church does not “call” pastors so there is no interim period to speak of. Clergy are appointed by the bishop of the conference each year and new assignments all take place at the same time.

    Smaller rural churches see more clergy turnover than larger urban churches. That works out OK since small congregations see themselves more as a cohesive body of laypeople rather than identify themselves with the senior pastor. While the itinerancy is a pain to deal with, especially in these more modern times, Ned is correct that TUMC creates problems for itself by not moving clergy around more frequently.

    United Methodist churches receive many new members from other denominations. I have met newlywed couples, one Catholic and one Baptist, who joined our church because they didn’t feel welcome at either of their home churches. We accept baptisms from practically every Christian faith and our communion table is open to all believers. Some people may incorrectly interpret this openness as wishy-washy theology. Our understanding is quite the contrary, of course.

  • Stephen A.

    I can in no way force myself to see this pastor as a “traditionalist,” especially (not in spite of) his education at conservative institutions. But I suppose being a traditionalist is a matter of perspective, and among extremists of the left -or the right – anyone can appear a bit dowdy and old fashioned.

    One more thing about this docu-trauma, it occurs to me that once one does away with God, liturgy, ritual and traditional understandings of theology, one ends up with the guy in the film who stood up bellyaching about how the order of service MUST be changed because EVERYONE said so.

    Denominations who put all things to a vote (including, eventually, theology) are failing in this nation at an astounding rate, and this film is a reason why.

    That guy didn’t seem to realize that his congregation isn’t the “audience,” GOD is the audience.

    Stephen A.