A pastor loses her faith

NPR has launched a series of stories on losing faith, and Godbeat pro Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s piece on an atheist pastor gripped me from the beginning:

Teresa MacBain has a secret, one she’s terrified to reveal.

“I’m currently an active pastor and I’m also an atheist,” she says. “I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday’s right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that’s totally false.”

MacBain glances nervously around the room. It’s a Sunday, and normally she would be preaching at her church in Tallahassee, Fla. But here she is, sneaking away to the American Atheists’ convention in Bethesda, Md.

Her secret is taking a toll, eating at her conscience as she goes about her pastoral duties week after week — two sermons every Sunday, singing hymns, praying for the sick when she doesn’t believe in the God she’s praying to. She has had no one to talk to, at least not in her Christian community, so her iPhone has become her confessor, where she records her private fears and frustrations.

I kept reading, assuming that “Teresa MacBain” would be revealed as a pseudonym. After all, surely a pastor with such a “secret” would not share it with NPR using her real name, right? I recalled that first names such as “Adam” and “Jack” were used in 2010 when Religion News Service and our own esteemed tmatt reported on a study on unbelievers in pulpits.

Alas, as the story proceeds, I realized that the intro was a storytelling device — an outstanding one. It turns out that, in the course of her journey, MacBain has come out and revealed her lack of faith both to the atheists’ convention and, indirectly, to her church.

The story is told almost entirely from the perspective of the pastor, with the exception of input from her husband, who still believes but supports his wife:

But MacBain did go home. People shunned her. Job interviews were canceled. The Humanists of Florida Association offered to pay her salary for a year, but there’s no guarantee. Only two of MacBain’s friends called her and took her to lunch. Meanwhile, her family was a refuge, even if they didn’t all agree with her new views.

“I believe in God,” says her husband, Ray. “And to be honest, I pray for her every night, I got friends praying for her.”

But he says he adores his wife and defends her right to disbelieve. “That’s why I spent 23 years in the Army. That’s why I’m still a police officer. We have freedom of speech and freedom of thought. And God never forced anybody to believe, so who am I to step up?”

If the piece has a weakness, it’s the total lack of perspective from the church members who suddenly discover that their pastor is an atheist. I’d love to know their reaction, both to the news of their former pastor’s unbelief and how she chose to reveal it — to an atheist convention as opposed to the congregation itself.

Religion News Service (which received a $50,000 grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation to bolster its coverage of atheists) also covered MacBain’s “coming out party,” as the news service described it.

Like NPR, RNS did not talk to anyone from MacBain’s congregation. But to its credit, RNS did quote someone from another church whose pastor revealed his lack of faith:

Aus’ congregation, unaware of his change of heart until learning about it on television — on Palm Sunday, no less — decided to disband. Their final service was Easter Sunday.

“There was anger, yes,” said Joe Vingle, a member of Aus’ Texas church. “Some people had been with Mike for 20 years or longer. Those were the ones that were really hurt. They are feeling that everything they were taught by him is a lie.”

But Vingle said there was also understanding. “He is still a friend and I am interested in seeing where this takes him,” he said.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Martha

    I wanted to know more about those cancelled job interviews. If, for example, she had applied for (I don’t know what her qualifications are, so this is just off the top of my head) a clerical position or an accountant’s job or work as a legal secretary or as a nurse, then this is quite rightly scandalous behaviour, that she should suffer discrimination for the sole reason that she has admitted to being an atheist.

    However, if those jobs were for (again, I don’t know) a position in a seminary, or teaching Sunday School classes or work in an administrative capacity with the church organisation, that’s a different matter. In other words, it might well be that as an atheist, those who set up the job interviews now felt that she did not meet the requirements for work in or with a religious organisation.

    As it stands, we get the impression of a brave but persecuted rationalist in a nest of fundamentalist Bible-bashers who shun the non-believer even to the point of denying her the chance to earn a living outside the church.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I agree, Bobby – I found the whole story gripping, and I wish some congregants or church officials had been quoted. Her method of leaving the ministry both shocked and confused me. People leave ministry positions all the time, for all sorts of reasons, usually in a private, discreet manner (just like, well, most job terminations, whether voluntary or not). Announcing your rejection of your employer publicly while onstage at a conference of people strongly opposed to that employer? That’s unusual, to say the least. I’d be interested to know how secular employers (whether nonprofits or not) would handle a situation like that. In the context of the story, with Aus talking about people “cornering her” at Wal-Mart, it sounds harsh. But I bet that the UMC’s response is mild compared to how other organizations would handle such a resignation.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    I would also note that the story is light on details of how people responded to her. Hagerty writes, “People shunned her.” What does that mean? That they did nothing? That hardly seems like “shunning.” That seems fairly normal in a confusing situation like this. I’m impressed by the friends who did reach out to her. Or, conversely, did Aus try to contact certain individuals, who then rejected her attempts?

  • http://revbrentwhite.com Brent White

    Ordained United Methodist elder here. I thought the story was very weak (in part because you guys have taught me how to read or listen to these pieces). I blogged about it here in case you’re interested: http://revbrentwhite.com/2012/05/01/this-just-in-former-atheist-becomes-minister/

  • Jon in the Nati

    Daniel Dennett, Tufts University prof and one of the major figures of the New Atheism, did a study of this sort of thing a couple of years ago. It can be found here. I do not recall quite what publicity it got at the time, and who knows how accurate it actually is, but it does suggest that this is not actually news. Indeed, churches have concerned themselves with this sort of thing for a long time: in 1739, Gilbert Tennant preached a now-famous sermon entitled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry”, in which he says of unbelieving pastors: “These caterpillars labor to devour every green thing.”

    On another note, I find the ‘shunning’ bit here rather silly. While it is true that some (a very few) Christian churches practice a form of institutional “shunning” (for instance, the Amish, or some varieties of Brethren), I have a hard time believing that United Methodists are doing so. More properly, many of her friends and members of her former church are probably not really speaking to her, seeing as how she duped them and led them on for years and years. They’re not shunning; they’re just mad, and they have every right to be.

  • James

    Agreed, there definitely should have been interviews of the church members, and without it, it’s a fascinating, but incomplete story. It also allows bias to fill in the blanks, and many who read “shunned” will likely insert “by judgmental bigoted Christians.” But we don’t know what “shunned” means. Is it just the typical human reaction to feeling betrayed? Is it because they feel lied to? Is it because they have literal understandings of Mt. 18? Is it because they are so deeply hurt because she chose to reveal this to a distant convention, rather than face to face with those who, presumably, have loved and labored with her?

    We don’t know, those voices were needlessly silenced, but desperately needed to have a true picture of the situation “on the ground.”

  • Jeff

    A thought experiment: A secular-progressive liberal-Democratic politician spends years disbelieving in the rightness of abortion and homosexuality, yet continues to publicly serve as a spokesperson for the lifestyle left, until suddenly he or she “comes out of the closet” at CPAC or The Southern Baptist Convention, after which he or she is “shunned” by his or her former friends on the lifestyle left. Would any MSM news report on this story whatsoever fail to interview a single secular-progressive, a single liberal-Democrat, or a single member of the lifestyle left?

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    I’m surprised at the way this was reported. Well, not really surprised, but the way it’s built up strikes me as ridiculously slanted. Most people have commented on it already, or at least touched on it, but I think it’s worth highlighting.

    This isn’t the story of a pastor who lost her faith. It’s not even the story of a pastor who lost her faith, and then continued to live and preach and give the impression that she still had it. It’s the story of a pastor who did all these things, and then decided to – apparently, just over a week after giving her last sermon, gets up on stage at a convention of people who are not only non-believers but are part of a group that pretty aggressively attacks Christian belief, and talks about how ‘I’m going to hell with all of you’.

    And then there’s surprise that people are angry? And it’s implied that they just plain dislike nonbelievers, and not that this has anything to do with her actions? That’s questionable reporting, at least if the goal is balance.

    One thing I’d have liked to see questioned: how long was she in contact with humanist/atheist organizations? Specifically, did she get assurance before she went up on stage that she’d get financial assistance when quitting her role as pastor? Did that play a role in her decision?

  • http://crudeideas.blogspot.com Crude

    Actually, to put a finer point on one of the things I brought up…

    What bothers me about the reporting here is that it gives the impression that people were upset at the pastor merely for not believing in God, and that what happened was ‘one day she decided to just tell the truth’. There’s hardly the barest hint that the organizations she aligned with are not merely groups of non-believers, but are actively hostile to Christianity/Christians. To highlight things along the lines of what Jeff described, it’s the difference between no longer believing in an organization’s teachings, and joining an opposing organization that’s actually pretty hostile to the original one, and being shocked at the backlash.

    And just to back up the OP, not talking to the congregation is quite an oversight. I’d love to hear if any of them suspected this, how relations were before this happened, etc.

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    Not speaking to congregants or church officials cripples both stories — to me, beyond repair. Ms. Hagerty may be a Godbeat pro, but here’s she’s produced a puff piece that could easily have run in a glossy mag American Atheists or similar organizations might print to advertise themselves. The RNS story is a little better, but not much — and it’s wrong on who does the locking out in a United Methodist church.

    It may be that both writers sought comment from congregants or church officials but they declined to offer any. If so, that should have been said. I can’t imagine my journo profs reading this without kicking it back to me demanding I include a quote or a “no comment.”

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    I want to know why MacBain persisted in the role of pastor after she became an atheist. What were those stomach-ache sermons like? Did they challenge mainline teachings of her church on key Christian doctrine or the Bible? The question needs to be posed to MacBain, and the perspective of her congregation is crucial.

    The article as it is makes it look like she just wanted to keep her job. It also implies that the jobs she was seeking were in ministry, and not, say in insurance or banking or marketing. She felt she was qualified to do nothing else but work in a Starbucks.

    This issue and the questions she was asking about her faith show a flaw in her reasoning. If I am highly qualified on paper as a pastor and cannot find such work, is all I am qualified for otherwise dunking fries at McDonald’s? I think she had many potentially lucrative options she was unable to see. She might have to take an entry-level job, but there are many places in business where she could go. If asked why she’s leaving ministry, she can say for religious reasons that are personal and in fact illegal to ask about in a job interview.

    Now, this rigidity in her thinking parallels her crisis in her faith. It is quite possible for her to see difficulties in the religion to which she subscribed. But that does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that God does not exist. Darwin had the same problem. He understood that things change through natural selection, and he was right to oppose an interpretation of Scripture that asserted things were created in a fixed and final form by God at the beginning. However, the wrongness of that particular interpretation does not mean that God did not create things.

    I actually share MacBain’s view — I don’t believe in a task-master God, either. Nor one of injustice. Nor one that goes out of his way to torment people for an eternity. But that does not stop me from believing in God, who expects me to behave in a certain way, and who reminds me that I can by my choices separate myself from him forever. If MacBain was right in rejecting a certain description of God, that does not mean she was right in rejecting the very possibility of God altogether.

    I think the question: “Why did you persist so long as a pastor?” would be very interesting. Was it just for a job? Or was she still searching for an answer in a place that didn’t have it? Would she be open to hearing an alternative answer or is she now hard set?

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “But MacBain did go home. People shunned her.”

    Assume that the people doing the shunning (further assume that shunning was indeed what happened) were members/attenders of her church. Was it unbiblical for these folks to shun her?

    If the sheep discover that they had a wolf-in-shepherd’s clothing for a shepherd, are they supposed to embrace the wolf?

    Is it a sin to shun a wolf?

    It would be helpful if the journalist reported who was doing the shunning.

  • sari

    Does anyone here feel that operating under the grant may have skewed the reporter’s (or editor’s) perspective?

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    I was intrigued by the comment from the parishioner of the church that closed that the congregation felt “everything they were taught by (the unbelieving pastor) was a lie.” If a person doesn’t believe in God but says God exists, and it turns out that God does exist, then that’s subjectively a lie, but objectively the truth. So, for Christians, what was taught was not a lie, despite the opinion of the person who falsely believed he or she was lying. It occurs to me that churches led by unbelievers who nevertheless teach the truth are not ill-served. Or are they?

  • Jeff

    What the parishioner meant was that MacBain was lying the whole time she taught, since she didn’t believe what she taught. She was manipulating people in the pews, over whom she has power, betraying their trust, and abusing them. What she did ought to be against the law. Any decent and honorable person would have resigned very long before she did. She should be forgiven, but she she must first repent — before God and her parishioners both.

  • bob

    Is there any indication in the article about how long the person accepted the pay of the congregation “in good faith” when there was none? I’d like someone to discuss the possibility of recovering some of the money paid out when she was actively lying to the congregation. It would seem a contract was broken somewhere along the way.
    There’s a facebook group of clergy who have yet to become honest enough to admit this situation — they continue to “minister”. An utterly shameless bunch I think, without the guts to admit they’re taking money under false pretenses. If they haven’t got media attention they need it.

  • Pax et bonum

    Full disclosure, I am a Tallahasseean and an acquantaince of Teresa MacBain’s. Not at all close, I know her musically more than ministerially. (Having said that, I was intrigued by the NPR reporter picking up so much on her musical background–indicative of the good reporting overall IMJ.)

    I’m not terribly surprised that no one from her congregation (which is not mine) was interviewed. NPR reported 200 members, I think Sunday attendance a good bit lower…and all of them quite shellshocked and wounded from this. Why would they be speaking out now, and how would they be contacted anyhow? A perfunctory “calls to the church office were not returned” kind of statement would have been nice. But I think it’s understandable that those voices are absent–at least for now–and I don’t think it’s a weakness of the reporting.

  • Heather

    I know the answers to some of your questions. The interviewer Barbara chose not to use it. And that is her decision.