Ugh — when ‘reality’ TV looks inside clergy homes

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I know, I know. “The Sisterhood” is a reality television show about pastors’ wives.

I know, I know. That piece on the Style page at The Washington Post — “‘The Sisterhood’ is more religious entertainment than reality TV” — is primarily a review of this alleged fact-based reality show, not a true news feature about a serious issue in church life.

What we are talking about, of course, are the glass houses in which most clergy families live. This is delicate, serious territory.

All that aside, I actually would like to praise this Post piece for noting several serious holes in this oh-so-unreal reality show.

However, GetReligion readers will not be surprised to learn that the article does not spotlight the fact that the show is — despite focusing on the lives of Atlanta-area preachers’ wives — almost completely lacking in content about the beliefs of these women or the practice of their faith.

Right up front, readers are told:

“The Sisterhood” is a new reality show on TLC about pastors’ wives in Atlanta. The city is the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ministry and the show promises a rare window into the lives of several “first ladies.”

So far — we’re four episodes in, halfway through the inaugural season — a pastor has given his spouse a pair of handcuffs, a first lady has pointed out the first house where she smoked crack and there’s been a nice chat about sexually transmitted diseases.

Can we get a fan in the first pew? This is so not mama’s sweet hour of prayer.

More on those handcuffs in a minute, since that’s a rather important plot twist that gets mangled.

The key is the whole National Geographic-explores-strange-people approach that is given to what the creators see as an exotic and mysterious niche culture in American life. Right, this is a land in which pastors, priests, rabbis, imams, etc., are out of the mainstream.

So what, precisely, is the edgy Bible Belt niche explored in this series? That’s where the key racial and doctrinal elements come to the forefront, creating heat and controversy:

None of these first ladies are at major denominational churches, such as Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian or Methodist. Instead, they’re all at what are loosely known as “prosperity churches,” with names like the Oasis Family Life Church, Emmanuel Tabernacle, Work with Wonders and The Good Life Ministry. Two of the couples were between churches during filming.

Actually, “Episcopalian” is a noun and the adjective form of this word is “Episcopal,” but never mind. Let’s continue, since is the point where the Post team offers some serious information to readers. This is the heart of the report:

Three of the five first ladies are black (one is white and one is Latina), giving the show a predominantly black viewpoint, and not everyone is thrilled about the portrayals. First ladies at historically black churches are particularly high-profile positions, with an emphasis on social standing, decorum and, well, class. Sophia A. Nelson spent six months working on a story in the current edition of Essence Magazine about the private lives of first ladies. She says those women are in a sometimes claustrophobic social niche with a challenging set of unwritten rules of conduct that cover every aspect of their lives.

“There is a code among these ladies, and that’s why [the show] is so off the mark,” says Nelson, the author of “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.” “They would never go on TV and talk about their sex lives. They’d rather die than put out that imagery.” …

Cast member Ivy Couch, the recipient of the handcuffs, is a Spelman College graduate with a degree in English. She’s a little bit impatient with the idea that the cast is — how to say this — trifling. She offers the handcuff incident as a case in point.

They were filming on Father’s Day last year, she says, and on camera she gave her husband, Mark, several gifts. He surprised her with several gag gifts in return, including a white T-shirt, hunting gear and the handcuffs, as part of an inside joke about things he knew she wouldn’t use, she says. But after editing, the only thing that’s shown is him giving her the handcuffs, with the implication they’re part of sexual play.

The gift, in other words, is turned upside-down.

Moving on. The bottom line is the bottom line: What are the real issues that dominate the lives of these women? What are the unique strengths they possess, as well as the unique pressures that come with the role they play in the lives of their religious communities?

TLC isn’t interested in the least, it appears. The Post team at least knows that there are serious issues in there that need to be addressed. Do any of them have to do with Christian faith?

As I have said here from time to time, with a cynical sigh: Oh well. Whatever. Never mind.

Now, I freely admit that I take this whole issue rather seriously for a logical reason: I grew up in the home of a Bible Belt, Southern Baptist pastor. I have also written many column about the pressures that clergy work under, including two just last month (click here or over here).

Also, days after my father died, I updated an earlier news column that I had written as a tribute to him and to other pastors and their families. Here is how it ended. I hope GetReligion readers can see how this might relate to a so-called “reality” show about pastors, the spouses of pastors, etc.

Why was I proud to be a pastor’s kid? This may sound simplistic, but I believe churches need to hear it — again.

* My father was a pastor — not a preacher, CEO, entertainer, clinical counselor, self-help guru or crisis-management consultant.

* He preached the Bible, not his feelings and experiences. Today, many urge pastors to make their lives open books — often forcing a faked extroversion that has little to do with reality. This has more to do with life in an era of mass-media confessions than solid teaching or evangelism.

* My parents were united — for 58 years — by their love and commitment to ministry. Today, many churches place so much pressure on clergy schedules and spirits that they weaken the very foundations of their personal lives. This has led to clergy divorce rates that are as shameful as in society as a whole.

* My father wasn’t a workaholic. It wasn’t until college that I talked with other “PKs” and discovered how unusual it was that I spent many, many hours with my father. I’m convinced this was linked to a more balanced, realistic approach to ministry.

* He kept on loving God, his work and his people. I have never known a pastor who didn’t wrestle with fits of melancholy. Good pastors are realists who face the reality of pain and sin. And then many heap criticism on them, micromanage their lives and expect miracles.

Truth is, I rarely saw my father move mountains. But I did see him preach, teach, pray and embrace sinners. I was proud that he was a pastor. I still am.

Obviously, as you can tell, I was proud of my mother, as well.

So, do the wives of clergy deserve this kind of niche-cable TV attention? It’s a free country and I know that. Nevertheless, I would urge the Post team to keep and eye on this show and, down the road, offer some serious coverage of the real women who live their real lives in ministry.

Get real.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    How can a show show the lives of people without talking about what they believe, especially when what they believe is what they do? Even The Taste asks people about their philosophies of life and cooking.

  • Jerry

    If there was ever a situation where scare quotes are justified it’s here. “reality” tv shows have as much similarity to real life as my dog has to a tree.

  • Daniel

    “Why do you read GetReligion?

    “Yes, we’re fishing for compliments. But hey, it’s our birthday, so indulge us, OK?

    “And if you’ll say something nice, we’ll let you offer a little constructive criticism, too.”

    Even though these questions were posed on “Nah-nah-nah-nah: Navel-gazing at ninth anniversary”, I wanted to post and ask my questions on this article, because of my disgust with Phil of the Phil Hendrie Show.

    I once called Focus on the Family, to find out whether The Phil Hendrie Show had ever been covered on PluggedinOnline. They said it was not the bailiwick of pluggedinOnline, and they didn’t know where to refer me for analysis of the show. ‘The Sisterhood’ would be perfect fodder for the kind of entertainment provided by Phil Hendrie. I read GetReligion sometimes looking for analysis of the social and cultural impact and implications of phenomena like Phil Hendrie and ‘The Sisterhood.’
    Why do people pay attention to this kind of programming? And what might be the long term effects of watching this kind of television or listening to this kind of radio? What types of topics have been covered? And what is the audience reaction? Why would reality based ‘acting’ be considered less threatening than serious argument or debate, or propositional reasoning? The topics are serious, but the spin is satirical and, at times, libelous. Why would this topical kind of comedy find a place in a medium formerly reserved for the talk show format? As far as the characters depicted on such shows, in some cases by choosing real people who have volunteered to be filmed: “What are the unique strengths they possess, as well as the unique pressures that come with the role they play in the lives of their religious communities?

    TLC isn’t interested in the least, it appears.” And neither is Phil Hendrie. They would only be interested insofar as it contributes to their shtick. Style wins over substance, and usually trumps insightful reporting.
    or have I missed something here?
    One of the points Tmatt made that has to do with what I’m asking here is that the people portrayed have made “their lives open books — often forcing a faked extroversion that has little to do with reality. This has more to do with life in an era of mass-media confessions than solid teaching or evangelism.”
    If this results in nothing more than in spoofing Christian points of view, and spoofing the Christians who hold them, where are we headed?
    Does the imagined point of view of the presenter trump the real situation being depicted or mimicked?

  • Martha

    I can definitely vouch that Church of Ireland ministers’ wives don’t live like this (unless my sister is not telling me everything) :-)


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