‘The Good Shepherds’ looks at church wealth, raising hackles as debut looms
SYRACUSE — With the debut performance looming, a musical that takes aim at the wealth of organized religion is raising hackles among some.
The first performance of “The Good Shepherds,” written, composed and directed by a pair of Cache Valley men, David Nolan and Chris Metz, is set for Thursday at the Syracuse Arts Academy Amphitheater. It zeroes in on the sizeable apparent investments of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, arguing that the money could be better spent helping those in need.
“We think if they’re claiming to be the one-and-only true church of Jesus Christ, we feel they should be acting more like Jesus and lifting up the poor, lifting up the needy and doing the things that Jesus actually did in the bible,” Nolan, the creator of the musical, said in an interview.
The musical tells the story of a news reporter working undercover to write an investigative piece “on religious organizations whose charitable contributions pale in comparison to their immense wealth.” Though using the Latter-day Saint church apparatus and its finances as a backdrop, the message of the musical is meant more generally as a critique of the financial resources of some religious organizations.
At any rate, some Latter-day Saint members have expressed dismay as production of “The Good Shepherds” has proceeded. The musical — to have debuted in Ogden before Nolan and Metz opted to put it on in Syracuse instead — garnered broad attention after Salt Lake Tribune and Washington Post articles about it late last year.
“People in our cast are afraid to share it on social media because of the misunderstanding of what our message is and potential family members, friends backlashing on them,” Metz said. “I’ve gotten in several arguments with friends trying to explain to them them what the actual message is, and just not having any grace on their end to say, ‘Oh, I hear what you’re saying and I believe what you’re saying.’ They think there’s some sort of secret agenda in there when there’s not.”
Nolan said some of the cast members of “The Good Shepherds” have been ostracized from family for taking part. A tithe-paying Latter-day Saint church member, he was inspired to write the musical after he was largely rebuffed in his bid for help from the church when he fell on hard times, learning soon afterward from a Wall Street Journal article that Latter-day Saint investments hovered in the $100 billion range.
“If we are to that point as church members that we cut off our family members for participating in a production, then that’s just disgusting in my opinion,” said Nolan, still a Latter-day Saint adherent despite his unsettling experience.
A Latter-day Saint media representative said the church had no comment when asked about the production, a response that didn’t surprise Nolan. “Questions just aren’t really allowed within Mormon church culture,” he said. If a member’s views and questions capture broad media attention “like mine have, then your questions are no longer acceptable. So I guess it just depends on the magnitude of your questions and how many eyeballs are looking at your questions.”
Kassi Bybee, general manager of Peery’s Egyptian Theater in Ogden, where the musical was to have originally debuted, said she had received some feedback from the public on the production.
“Why would we bring it into the community?” Bybee said some people asked. “I did have a couple people question that.”
However, the sticking point that prompted Nolan and Metz to bring the production to Syracuse, she said, stemmed from the fact that Peery’s Egyptian Theater officials couldn’t give them additional dates to perform the show beyond Thursday, Friday and Saturday, its scheduled run. Barring that kerfuffle, theater officials would have allowed the performances at the county-owned facility.
Nolan cited “confusion on both ends, honestly.”
Both Nolan and Metz have long been involved in the arts, music and theater, though generally as sidelights to their day jobs. Nolan runs a landscaping company while Metz develops software. They have bankrolled and spearheaded production out of love of art and because they believe in the message of the production.
The main character, the newspaper reporter, is trying to expose the “hidden wealth” of churches while, as her investigation unfolds, she also sees the good deeds many church members are doing. “There’s as much good as well as things that need to be fixed. … It’s really all about coming to an understanding that we can all do more,” Metz said.
Nolan is still a Latter-day Saint church member while Metz has left the church, and the aim, both say, is to have a message that resonates with everyone, whether associated with the Latter-day Saint church or not. “We certainly don’t condemn any part of the dogma within the church. We ask a lot of questions and hope people can draw their own conclusions,” Metz said.
The Feb. 8, 2020, Wall Street Journal article that spurred Nolan said the Latter-day Saint church had assets of $80 billion to $100 billion as of late 2019, citing former employees of Ensign Peak Advisors, the fund for church investments. Officials the Wall Street Journal interviewed “said it was a rainy-day account to be used in difficult economic times,” the newspaper reported.
Nolan had been offered $40 from the church when he sought assistance. Seeing the Wall Street Journal article soon thereafter “sent me reeling,” he said. “As someone who had given so much to the church, it just kind of felt like a punch to the face. I started writing songs to try to pull myself out of that depression and a lot of good songs came out of it, and here we are.”