Review: 'The Calling' a hopeful portrait of religious leadership

Becoming a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam is no simple matter. The Calling, a new four-hour documentary premiering on PBS, follows seven men and women on their paths to becoming religious leaders.

By Eileen Campbell-Reed

Becoming a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam is no simple matter. The Calling, a new four-hour documentary premiering on PBS, follows seven men and women on their paths to becoming religious leaders.

Over the course of 18 months they attend seminary classes, do the work of their vocations, travel, study and face major challenges in both their religious traditions and their complex personal and family lives.

Series Director and Executive Producer Daniel Alport and his multi-faith film crew have put together a compelling account of the lives of young adults as they pursue a call to faithful leadership. Moments of humor, anguish, bewilderment and grief come through with authenticity. Aimed to an audience of English-speakers the film uses subtitles during non-English and soft spoken moments. The pace is quick and each story compelling.

I previewed an 88-minute cut of the mini-series, during a community cinema event. This cut features four young Americans from evangelical Christian, Muslim, Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths.

Rob Pene is a student at Asuza Pacific University (California) studying to be a pastor when his father, a village chief in American Samoa, dies. Pene is faced with the dilemma of taking on the village leadership mantel or continuing to prepare for ministry.

Tahera Ahmad is a student at Hartford Seminary (Connecticut) in the Islamic chaplaincy program. She struggles with questions of authority and with the expectations of the Islamic community about her role as a single (and later engaged) woman.

In his sixth year at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas, Steven Gamez is ordained as a deacon and later as a priest. His practice of ministry brings him face to face with a host of theological and practical questions from celibacy to the meaning of a child's death.

Shmuly Yanklowitz studies Jewish Law five to six hours every morning at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School (New York). He spends the rest of his time advocating for justice, including a campaign to treat immigrant workers fairly at a kosher meat packing plant. 

The particularity of each story has an interesting effect of showing (rather than merely telling) the many similarities across traditions of becoming a religious leader. School is important, but not adequate alone to teach religious leadership for pastors, imams or rabbis. Experience with actual situations of ministry or leadership are crucial for the learning. The interaction of family dynamics, social and religious formations and unexpected life events contribute significantly to the way that religious vocations unfold.

One of the most compelling features of the film is the way that questions arise quite naturally in the flow of student study, action and reflection. Ministry and religious leadership do not provide easy answers for leaders or those they serve.

The film's companion website, What's Your Calling?, raises additional questions and tells the stories of numerous individuals. People in video clips respond to questions like: "How can diversity strengthen service? What challenges do your neighbors face? Have experiences of failure helped to shape your calling?"

The film, companion website and the general approach to this project all raise questions about how religious ideas of vocation and calling have permeated American culture. They also raise questions about the outer limits of this line of thinking. For example a religious view of work or life purpose is clearly not universal. Yet the idea of vocation complicates other economic, social and political views of work.

The work of religious leadership generally suffers from a poor image in the media. Daily I read through local news stories about pastors and ministry. Unfortunately the stories too often feature arrests, indiscretions and other legal and ethical failures of professional ministers. Yet thousands of men and women work faithfully and imaginatively leading religious communities, advocating for justice, serving the needy and negotiating financial, moral and relational crises.

These pastors, priests, rabbis and imams rarely are featured in news stories for the daily way they live their callings. This documentary dips into that world and presents a realistic yet hopeful portrait of religious leadership and calling.

The Calling will have a national two-night premiere on the Independent Lens Series on the Public Broadcasting System. It airs Monday and Tuesday evenings, Dec. 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. CT, 9 p.m. ET and 9 p.m. PST. (Check local listings for PBS station information.)

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