Inspiration from the First Clergy Project Conference

Inspiration from the First Clergy Project Conference September 28, 2017

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!”

Start changing lives today; 10 years from now the money won’t be a problem.

“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.


mark twainBio: 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.

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  • alwayspuzzled

    One of the primary functions of community is mutual validation by the members of the community. There are many internet sites – Godless in Dixie, Rational Doubt,,, – that perform exactly this function. Perhaps face-to-face validation has a more authentic feel. And admittedly, there cannot be a Rational Doubt potluck or beer bash.

  • mason

    Thanks for the report and article RJ. For those wanting the community experience I think Bart delivered a succinct and on point work assignment.

    Yes, there is a need/longing, regularly expressed by many like yourself on The Clergy Project, for the community/group/”fellowship” lifestyle they left when becoming an apostate. Some other apostates are still stuck career wise in a group they now find absurdly irrational and nearly impossible to tolerate day by day.

    Personally, I’ve never missed the church community group experience and I’ve always met my and my family’s social needs through friendships and groups based on real (not fantasy/delusional 🙂 ) common interests. And the idea of ever again not having my Sundays free again has always been downright repulsive. There’s an active Humanist Group locally that meets Sundays that I have as a group friend on Facebook, but I don’t have any interest in attending the group.

    Part of recovering from any fundamentalist religion, and making a successful transition, requires learning how to function as a secular human and that takes time and effort. I do sometimes wonder if some of those who long for the community, sans the theistic nonsense, realize that what made the community so special was the nonsense. When a person is raised on opium it might take a while to learn how to get high naturally.

    There are lots of options for apostates to get involved in groups like the Humanists, Universal Unitarian, or the one I think has the greatest potential for growth, Sunday Assembly. These groups will require charismatic leaders and lots of work and funding to be successful.

    There are now video Meet-Ups hosted by and exclusively for Clergy Project participants and I’ve found them very interesting, informative, and fun, Some people really enjoy large crowds. One thing I discovered once I was out of the churchgoing thing was that I really don’t like crowds.

  • ElizabetB.

    I am so glad you’re on the way, RJ! and sorry the way’s been so tough!!!!!! I hope and trust that just what you’re looking for will appear soon — discovered, or at your instigation! Meantime, another plug for digital connections…. this one (R.D.) has been a very meaningful one for me. I haven’t felt so isolated in my perspectives, and I’ve been introduced to two books that have proved to be very helpful in trying to figure out where I am in thinking about religion, and the religion I grew up in — Alexis’ review of Crossan’s “How to Read the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis through Revelation” and Mark Rutledge’s mention of Gordon Kaufman’s “In Face of Mystery.” I deeply appreciate the conversations on this site; …so thanks!!!!!!

    • mason

      Interestingly, I never struggled with the divine violence, beginning to end, in the Bible when I was a believer. It’s was quite apparent that Bible God had a great proclivity and fondness for revenge, bloodshed, religious genocide, animal and human sacrifice, and various other and sundry types of violence, often neurotically triggered by the most trivial human activity or cultural practice. 🙂 Also, did I previously recommend one of my very favorite books, “The Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan?

      • ElizabetB.

        Yes, you did… I think the mention of ‘demons’ made me not explore it (some people I interact with believe strongly in demons — ‘spiritual warfare’ — which I reject in that sense, & think about as seldom as possible). But since you recommend it in this connection, I just checked the small public library here & am shocked to see that it’s included! Will pick it up manana! & ….thanks, I think : )

        • mason

          I always wondered if the title had off put some potential readers, and now you’ve confirmed that. Evidently the publishers, Random House, Ballantine Books, had no concern about the title, but I think they goofed and it did deter potential readers, even though the author is Carl Sagan. 🙂 Will be interested in any feedback you have about TDHW. Cudos to your small public library? the full title is “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”

          • ElizabetB.

            Yes… I think you’re right — the title seems dark and gloomy, not the awe-inspiring vistas that he is countering pseudoscience with in the first pages I’m reading. Such a talented writer! First impressions are that I share his perspectives, but his scope is much wider than my knowledge is — as he describes attitudes in Communism, Asia, etc,; and I think his warnings of the dangers are a helpful wakeup call for me — to take even more seriously the controversies over Texas textbook selection, for example. — I’m almost glad he’s not having to suffer through our fake news era…. but wouldn’t it be great to have his eloquence in the conversation! You’re right, a great read; Thx!!

          • mason

            I’m glad you’re enjoying his brilliance and incredible writing skills. I really think this should be a must book for all. Yeah, I’d hate to view his consternation I think it would fuel more eloquence. “the awe-inspiring vistas that he is countering pseudoscience with in the first pages” quite a lovely line Eliz.