A pastor on the ropes, rapidly losing confidence in his ability to preach. An associate pastor who comes out of the closet and announces that she's been living in a lesbian relationship - an action that violates church law. And a financially strapped congregation so bitterly divided and confused by its changing circumstances that it uses money it needs to fix its leaking roof to hire consultants to help make sense of the muddle.
Those are the major players in Congregation, an eye-opening backstage documentary by Oscar-winning filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond premiering tonight on PBS. While time spent at church, synagogue or mosque is often thought of as a respite from the enormous change and uncertainty engulfing the other major institutions of school, work and family, that is definitely not the story here. Congregation is the gripping saga of a church desperately struggling to adapt to 21st-century American life - and, in the process, not doing so well by some of its members.
The congregation on which the Raymonds trained their cameras from 2002 to 2004, the First United Methodist Church of Germantown in Philadelphia, made headlines earlier this month when its associate pastor, the Rev. Beth Stroud, was found guilty of violating the church's ban on practicing homosexuals being ordained. She was defrocked, but remains a lay minister at the church.
Stroud's story is not the one that the Raymonds came to tell. But once it pops up before their cameras - with Stroud acknowledging her lesbian relationship during a closed-door meeting of First United board members - they tell it with poignancy, passion and balance.
Stroud is shown splitting ethical hairs in the board meeting as she verbally dances around acceptance of her own dishonesty in allowing herself to be ordained. "It's a choice I made [to hide the relationship] in response to a calling [to the ministry]. But I don't think it's ethically unassailable," she says.
But the Raymonds also show Stroud on the night before she comes out to the full congregation at a Sunday service. Alone at her computer, talking through her sermon as she writes, she seems vulnerable and uncertain, but determined to tell the truth without further waffling. Her performance in the pulpit the next day is the film's most powerful moment.
Along with Frederick Wiseman, the Raymonds pioneered the cinema verite style of filmmaking for television. Their 1973 PBS film An American Family, chronicling the ups and downs of the Loud family of California, is considered by many the birth of reality television.
To their credit, the Raymonds do not let Stroud's story dominate their film. Despite the more controversial and sensational aspects of her narrative, it is only part of a larger story they are trying to tell about organized religion in America today.
That story features the Rev. Fred Day, a traditionalist minister in his 50s who comes to First United in 2001, replacing a more liberal and dynamic minister who retired after 37 years at the church. The congregation that was founded in 1796 and has spent most of the 20th century committed to a ministry of social justice now finds itself losing members, cannibalizing its endowment and wondering whether it can survive.
As Stroud puts it in a moment of deep discouragement: "Maybe the true gospel is that we don't have enough money, and we're broke, and the building is falling apart, and we can't fix it. And then, at the end of the day, everybody's car gets broken into."
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.
When: Tonight at 9:30
Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67) and WETA (Channel 26)
In brief: A poignant and illuminating look at a church struggling to survive.