The Spiritual Landscape
Falling from Faith: When Pastors Stop Believing
An increasing amount of attention is being given to ministers who lose their faith. In less than a year NPR, CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Religion News Service, and ABC Nightly News have featured stories about "preachers who don't believe."
At first blush, given the numbers involved, the level of interest in the subject is surprising. Even "The Clergy Project," an organization formed to assist those who are confronting a crisis of faith, reports that it has all of 240 members. That's hardly a tsunami and it's hardly anything new.
There are probably a lot of reasons for the media's interest in the subject: Even with a global economic crisis, a few wars, and a presidential election, there are always a few slow news days. "The Clergy Project" probably has a fabulous PR department, supported as it is by The Richard Dawkins Foundation, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, The Appignani Foundation, The Center for Inquiry, The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, and Recovering from Religion.org. And beyond garden variety religious fervor, there is no religious fervor like that of a former believer. So, it's the kind of story that always draws a crowd.
But the stories are out there. Clergy do lose faith. So, "Why do clergy stop believing?"
In one sense there are probably as many answers to that question as there are people whose journeys end this way:
Some clergy who stop believing never did believe.
People enter ordained life for a variety of reasons. Some simply want to "help other people." Some enter seminary looking for answers to their own questions, never quite get an answer, but don't know what else to do. Whatever thin veneer of faith some people bring with them into the ministry, life erodes it fairly quickly.
Some fail to believe at all or struggle to continue believing thanks to churches themselves.
Far too many congregations do little or nothing to teach their members the Christian faith, or they teach them a brittle, fragile version of it that is bound to fail. The same could be said of some seminary educations. G.K. Chesterton famously observed that the problem for many people is not that they are "tired of Christianity," the problem is that "they have never found enough Christianity to get tired of."
Some struggle with immature and simplistic assumptions about God, providence, and suffering that persist long after they have pursued a formal education.
Those understandings are often not the product of mature adult reflection, but childhood memories and experiences. But after years of pastoral counseling and spiritual direction, I've concluded that it is hard to overestimate the impact that childhood experiences have on our spiritual lives, particularly if we are not helped to name and confront them.
Some struggle to integrate what they have learned in seminary.
It is one thing to study theology, church history, and Scripture. It is another thing to integrate that learning with our faith journeys. Not all seminary programs (and very few churches) make the effort to help students with that process. But in some ways it is both more demanding and critical to the well being of clergy than is the acquisition of knowledge about the subject.
Others stop believing for a deeper reason. There is a difference between studying God and experiencing God.
Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/