Clergy who stop believing – what can they do, what should they do, what do they do?


The good news regarding the launch of the Clergy Project project has prompted me to write this. I’ll come to the details later, but first lets put this in context.

Most clerics (pastors, priests, monks, nuns etc…), within religious groups, probably entered the vocation because they truly believed and were perhaps sure that God was calling them. However, what is quite common is that as time passes doubts can and do creep in. The thought that perhaps it might not all be true takes root and observations are made that there is in fact not one single jot of objective evidence for the reality of any supernatural entity … then what?

Trapped, locked into a pension, and with no means for earning a living, many just go through the motions and carry on, but instead attempt to live a good life and strive to look after those in their care from a more practical viewpoint.

Is it really like this, do we have evidence for this? Yes we do, Daniel Dennett, the American philosopher, writer and cognitive scientist, conducted a pilot survey and published it in March 2010 (You can get the actual paper [PDF] by clicking here to download from the Washington Post). They conducted an intensive (in confidence) interview with five clerics who are both non-believers and yet are still active in their ministry … here are some extracts to give you an idea of their thoughts and experiences …

Wes, age 42, has been the pastor of a liberal Methodist church in the Northwest for 10 years.

I’m interested in community, relationships. And I believe the argument could be made that that’s what Jesus was interested in anyway. So I can do that at the local church level. And I’m also there for people who are recovering Christians. There are a lot of people out there who have been damaged by Christianity. And they feel guilty that they’re not a Christian — or that they’re not practicing or whatever. I’m their ideal pastor, because they can come to me and be told that they don’t need to feel guilty.

Rick is a 72 year old United Church of Christ (UCC) minister who, when asked his opinion of why ministers do not pass on their knowledge of Christian history to parishioners, said:

They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to lose donations. They want to keep their jobs. They don’t want to stir up trouble in the congregation. They’ve got enough trouble as it is, keeping things moving along. They don’t want to make people mad at them. They don’t want to lose members. What they will often do is bring in someone like me to be a lightning rod, and teach it, and they’ll follow up on it.

Darryl is a 36 year old Presbyterian minister:

I am interested in this study because I have regular contact in my circle of colleagues – both ecumenical and Presbyterian – who are also more progressive-minded than the ‘party line’ of the denomination. We are not ‘un-believers’ in our own minds – but would not withstand a strict ‘litmus test’ should we be subjected to one. I want to see this new movement within the church given validity in some way. I reject the virgin birth. I reject substitutionary atonement. I reject the divinity of Jesus. I reject heaven and hell in the traditional sense, and I am not alone.”

Jack, age 50, has been a Southern Baptist minister for fifteen years and is planning to leave the ministry as soon he finds another way to support his family. He would leave sooner, if he had enough money to pay off his debts.

The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme. They have no trusted confidantes to reassure them, to reflect their own musings back to them, to provide reality checks. As their profiles reveal, even their spouses are often unaware of their turmoil. Why don’t they resign their posts and find a new life? They are caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament. Their salaries are modest and the economic incentive is to stay in place, to hang on by their fingernails and wait for retirement when they get their pension.

Pastors who are provided a parsonage to live in are even more tightly bound: they have no equity to use as a springboard to a new house.

Confiding their difficulties to a superior is not an appealing option: although it would be unlikely to lead swiftly and directly to an involuntary unfrocking. No denomination has a surplus of qualified clergy, and the last thing an administrator wants to hear is that one of the front line preachers is teetering on the edge of default. More likely, such an acknowledgment of doubt would put them on the list of problematic clergy and secure for them the not very helpful advice to soldier on and work through their crises of faith. Speaking in confidence with fellow clergy is also a course fraught with danger, in spite of the fact that some of them are firmly convinced that many, and perhaps most, of their fellow clergy share their lack of belief.

The good news is that clerics who feel trapped now have a new option, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have announced the formation of a new group to help clergy who have “seen the light” move beyond faith.

This was all started by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, researcher Linda LaScola and the ex-evangelical preacher Dan Barker. The folks from the 2010 study have also become some of the initial members of the project. They already have a couple of testimonials that you can read here.

The current administrators of The Clergy Project are “Adam” and “Chris,” both active pastors in Southern U.S. states who have lost their faith and are looking for an exit strategy. The logo for the group was designed by “John,” another active U.S. preacher. The toughest issue for these religious leaders is financial. Most of them would leave the pulpit immediately if they were able to change careers readily. Former clergy help by sharing their own success stories of finding gainful secular employment. Richard Dawkins writes …

“It is hard to think of any other profession which it is so near to impossible to leave. If a farmer tires of the outdoor life and wants to become an accountant or a teacher or a shopkeeper, he faces difficulties, to be sure. He must learn new skills, raise money, move to another area perhaps. But he doesn’t risk losing all his friends, being cast out by his family, being ostracized by his whole community.

“Clergy who lose their faith suffer double jeopardy. It’s as though they lose their job and their marriage and their children on the same day. It is an aspect of the vicious intolerance of religion that a mere change of mind can redound so cruelly on those honest enough to acknowledge it. The Clergy Project exists to provide a safe haven, a forum where clergy who have lost their faith can meet each other, exchange views, swap problems, counsel each other — for, whatever they may have lost, clergy know how to counsel and comfort.”

The Clergy Project exists in three parts:

  1. a confidential forum by invitation-only (They take considerable care to protect the confidentiality of the existing members, No more than two “screeners” (who are current members of the group) know the actual identity and location of each member (held in strict confidence), and each active clergy must use a pseudonym within the group.
  2. a public website announcing and describing the project, with instructions on how to apply for membership; and
  3. a Facebook page where nonclergy members of the public can potentially interact with the Clergy Project.

The scope here is all religions and not just Christianity, a former Muslim imam who lives in the U.K. will possibly join The Clergy Project.

In summary, I applaud this because they are reaching out and helping people in a uniquely tough position, so they have my heartfelt congratulations and also I give my best wishes to the troubled clerics.

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