What's Tony Thinking

The Clergy Family


I’ve been watching, on Netflix, the Dutch series “Ride Upon the Storm” or, in Dutch, “Herrens Veje” (The Ways of the Lord). It is very well-done and powerful. It raises lots of issues — so much so that some Dutch congregations have used it as a starter for congregational discussions and adult education forums.

Its central character is a priest, Johannes Krogh, whose lineage as clergy in the State Church of Denmark (Lutheran) goes back 250 years. Johannes is a highly flawed man and priest but also a person of great power and charisma. Other lead members of the cast are Johannes’ wife, Elisabeth, and their sons, Christian and August. August is a young, 28 year old, priest.

In the initial episode, Johannes loses out in the election for Bishop of Copenhagen to a woman, Monica (as it happens the name of Augustine’s most influential mother). So devastated is Johannes by this turn of events that he goes on a binge of drinking and sexual acting-out. Not his first time nor the last. You could probably call this a study in “toxic masculinity,” and be right.

But one of the strengths of the series is that it maintains the complexity of characters and situations. Johannes is intensely loving and affectionate. And he is harsh and violent. He is a powerful orator/ preacher, and a very overbearing and manipulative father. Not the first such clergyman! Fertile ground for lots of father — son issues.

We also see the larger system, an established church, a church staff and a clergy family, that protect and enable Johannes. Again, none of this is simple or easily moralized. This isn’t a melodrama. But we see the costs to a clergy family not only of Johannes’ betrayals and temper, but the pressures on such a family to hide or deny any form of failure or imperfection. That pressure has weighed heavily on many clergy families.

Beyond these complex figures of Johannes and his family, “Ride Upon the Storm,” raises a host of contemporary issues confronting the church. In Denmark, as elsewhere, churches face shrinkage, aging and a loss of morale among clergy. The new bishop, Monica, brings a business approach to these matters. Her staff monitor the metrics and close underperforming churches as if they were bank branches. Johannes sees the decline differently, as a crisis of faith not economics.

Another element of challenge to the established church in Denmark is the large and growing Islamic presence in that society. Does the church hold to established norms about the primacy of the Christian faith or abandon them? How do religious leaders from the two faiths interact when matters go beyond superficial displays of tolerance? What happens when the shadow of Islamic terrorism falls over various characters?

When August goes to Iraq with Danish troops other issues arise. Will he, as the soldiers request, bless not just the soldiers themselves, but their weapons and vehicles? When he joins soldiers on patrol, will he use the weapon he carries?

Those issues get entwined with the questions of honesty and deception when in the chaos of combat, and pressured by the squad leader, August shoots and kills an Islamic woman. Returning home to Denmark August confides this to his father. Johannes insists that no one must know. Public knowledge — honesty — would be devastating for the family reputation and for August’s ministry. Covering up is also, and perhaps more, devastating.

There’s lots more. But one of the things that “Ride Upon the Storm” raised for me is how dramatically the clergy family itself has changed in my lifetime and career. Today significantly more than half the clergy in my denomination are women. While it may not be that high in every mainline Protestant denomination, I suspect it’s close. The patriarchal “Herr Pastor” is in many ways a thing of the past. I’m sure some women play ecclesiastical power games with the best of the old boys, but still it is different.

Not only are the majority of clergy in the UCC women, but many are GLBT. Another game changer.

A further difference is that, if one part of a couple is clergy, their spouse is likely working full time at his or her own profession. That has huge implications for hiring and moving clergy. And, yes, there was a time — not so long ago — when the clergy spouse (a woman) was really unpaid church staff. These days a clergy spouse may not even be involved in the church.

The older pattern of clergy family is probably still the norm in conservative denominations, but it’s a very different picture among liberal/ progressive/ mainline Protestants. And in that way, “Ride Upon the Storm,” does seem just a bit dated. It’s a world that in some ways doesn’t any longer exist, at least in the United Church of Christ and some other mainline Protestant churches.

Another thing that has changed some is the idea the clergy and their family are supposed to be “perfect.” That’s a terrible burden, whether it comes from outside or inside us (usually some of both). But while that pressure is less and has changed, some of it is still undoubtedly there.

Also still there is the challenge clergy and their families face in finding the line and boundary between their public and private lives. In one episode, August, now working as a “street priest” brings home a young Muslim, who is wanted by the police, to live in the apartment he shares with his wife, a physician. “He has nowhere else to go,” August tells his wife. For him, this is “being a Christian.” For her, it is crazy.

Like so much else, the clergy family has changed. And like almost all change, some of it is definitely for the better; some maybe not.


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