Editor’s Note: Yes, you heard that right – There’s recently been an in-person Clergy Project Conference. I’m not saying where or when or how many people were there, but I will say I was there and it was wonderful to meet people in person and to talk openly in a real-live group. Fascinating.
By RJ Twain
If you didn’t know the Clergy Project was holding its very first conference, there’s a reason for that. Despite all our progress, leaving the church still costs. Divorce, rejection, and financial hardship were mentioned again and again as former clergy spoke. Our name tags included markers to show whether we could be safely included in pictures and recordings. All this was expected. What surprised me was the forward view. Despite the hurt and the loss, member after member spoke hope into the room, Bart Campolo most of all.
As our keynote speaker, Bart could have spent the time looking back at our shared experience, and all the ways our stories sound the same. Most of us desperately wanted to believe, but found faith slipping away from us, the death of a thousand unanswered prayers. For most of us, leaving the church was not a defiant rejection, but a reluctant acceptance that we could no longer force ourselves to believe, any more than we could will ourselves to believe the sky is green. But Bart only touched on that long enough to acknowledge it, and then moved forward to the more interesting question: What now?
His challenge was simple.
“You are the leaders you have been waiting for.”
We live in a digital age that keeps everything at our fingertips and everyone at arms length. It’s hurting us. From an evolutionary perspective, we are wired for community. We are happiest and healthiest in community, and former pastors have skills specially suited to our isolated age. We are bridge builders, team makers, Combine that with the rise of the nones, and we find ourselves in a time of amazing potential. Bart believes these secular communities could start around something as simple as a book group, but that the goal should be to create stable communities, drawing the best practices out of religion, while abandoning the dogma. He recommended three guiding principles:
- Building loving relationships
- Making the world a better place
- Cultivating a sense of wonder and gratitude
The objections arrived on cue. The responses are mine, not Bart’s. He was far more eloquent and kind than I am.
“We can’t afford it!”
“I was hurt by the church! I don’t want organized anything!”
Do whatever you need to do to heal. But preventing other people from finding community isn’t healing. Even if all you ever do is hold the metaphorical door, so that other people can enter a room you will never see, it helps, and it matters.
“Gathering atheists is like herding cats. We’re freethinkers, not joiners.”
Is there only one kind of beer in the world? Only one kind of bar? Find what works for you. And if you don’t find it, build it. We are the leaders we have been waiting for.
It was a bracing challenge, especially for me. Lately I’ve been doing plenty of blending in. Back in the day, they used to call it “passing.” If I keep my mouth shut, I can pass for a Christian just fine. And most days, that’s what I do. Why give people one more reason to dislike me? I finally have a job, do I really want to risk it just for the privilege of self expression? My mom no longer cries whenever she sees me, and my brother no longer threatens to punch me. Do I really want to undo all the progress by bringing up the fact that the absolute center of their life means nothing to me?
And yet, Bart is right. We do need community. I miss it every day. I want that in my life, not just for me, or my kids, but for the world. Meeting face to face with fellow Clergy Project members wasn’t even the first step on that road, but it is the place I decided to take a first step. For that, I’m grateful.
Bio: RJ Twain – Occasionally funny, sometimes even on purpose. Raised in an evangelical home, RJ moved slowly to the theological left during his time in ministry, until he moved so far left he fell off the edge. Today, he’s a humanist, a rationalist-in-training, and a member of the Clergy Project.
>>>photo Credits: BartCampolo.org; “Bryce Vickmark / vickmark.com”
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