Ernst Toller is the pastor of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York, who is struggling through a crisis of faith. The film opens with him writing down his thoughts in a journal for a year, after which he intends to destroy it. He leads a 250-year-old Dutch Reformed Church which was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. It faces dwindling attendance under Toller’s leadership, which has taken the church away from its historical focus on Calvinist theology; it now serves mostly as a tourist attraction. As he tries to manage his own life issues, such as his alcoholism, Toller seeks a deeper experience through reading Roman Catholic writers (G. K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton) and mystical books (The Cloud of Unknowing). This leads him to seek support from Abundant Life, the nearby evangelical megachurch in Albany that owns First Reformed.
Toller, a former military chaplain, is also struggling with the death of his son Joseph, who was killed in the Iraq War; Toller had encouraged him to enlist. He meets Mary, who is seeking counseling for Michael, her radical-environmentalist husband. Michael further challenges Toller’s beliefs: He explains that he wants Mary to get an abortion, because he does not want to bring a child into a world that will be rendered almost uninhabitable by climate change.
Mary finds a suicide vest belonging to her husband in their garage. Toller takes it, promising to counsel Michael about it. Mary and Toller discuss going to the police, but Toller feels it would dramatically worsen Michael’s state. Just before their next appointment, Michael sends Toller a text message asking to meet in a local park. Toller arrives to find Michael dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. In accordance with Michael’s will and testament, a service is held at a local toxic-waste dump, where his ashes are scattered. Meanwhile, plans are underway to celebrate the sestercentennial of First Reformed with a service attended by the mayor, the governor, and Edward Balq, one of Abundant Life’s key financial backers and the owner of a polluting factory. At a meeting in a diner, Balq takes issue with Toller honoring Michael’s will and deems it as a political act, and the two argue over climate change: Balq dismisses it as “complicated”, but Toller sees it as a straightforward matter of Christian stewardship.
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