A friend recently expressed surprise that I would leave the Christian faith if my experience of it was largely positive. Not only was I pretty devoted as a follower of that tradition, but I even had a few years of experience in various kinds of ministry, most of which were positive as well. So why on earth would I leave it? Ironically, it was that very devotion to my faith which finally led me out of it entirely.
I left at least in part because I had a Wizard of Oz moment. Well, technically, it wasn’t one single moment, it was more of a long, slow “moment” in which I began to realize something over time: I came to realize that the Big Giant Head that was calling the shots and making everyone tremble was really just a guy behind a curtain, pulling levers, pushing buttons, and speaking into a microphone to keep up a good show. You have to be standing in the right place to even see that, and like Dorothy and her friends (and her little dog, too!) those of us who have held leadership positions should know as well as anyone else that this whole thing is rigged for dramatic effect.
There are hundreds, no, thousands of people behind this metaphorical curtain, pulling levers and pushing buttons to keep the mirage of a Big Giant Head commanding the rest of us, inspiring the requisite awe, and generally “running” Oz. But the biggest difference here is that many (I’d say most) of them are doing this completely unaware that if they were to quit doing what they are doing, the Big Giant Head would completely disappear. Most of them labor under the belief that they truly are serving the Big Giant Head and that if they were to quit, two things would happen: a.) The Big Giant Head would be disappointed with them, and b.) The Big Giant Head would get along just fine without their work. That’s what makes (most of) those folks different from the charlatan after whom the book and film are named. With some exceptions, they just don’t realize what they’re doing.
But once in a while, a funny thing happens to a person in ministry. Like Dorothy and her friends, you get to see behind the curtain. You expected to see something magical, something wondrous, something unexplainable. But instead you just see a dude standing there, sweating. You find out we are doing these things. We, the People. We are what keeps this thing going, and if we were to stop propagating it, it would go away almost entirely. Oh, I’m sure someone would eventually replace the Big Giant Head with something similar because, frankly, it works. It’s a time-honored technique for maintaining order. But there are better ways of governing the behavior of societies. That’s a subject for another day, however, and I’m digressing…
People who spend their entire lives “in the pew,” so to speak, watching the leadership do their thing may never have a moment like this. It is possible to go through life, watching the show, as it were, never realizing how these things come together and evolve. Things just seem to magically happen and they almost always fall right in line with what you were taught to expect from the Big Giant Head. But those of us who have pressed in further, studying the Bible, studying Christian history, studying for ministry, and experiencing multiple church environments should know better. We have seen the kind of work that goes into making these things happen, and the magic is generally lost on us.
I imagine something similar happens when movie makers go to see a movie. Those of us who have never made a Hollywood film can still sit in a theater seat, watching as the lights dim and letting the sights and sounds wash over us as mere spectators. Movie magic can do some wonderful things. But what if you were a director, or a producer, or a special effects coordinator? I imagine it would be analogous to watching a 24-hour behind-the-scenes documentary about each movie before you watch it. Wouldn’t you eventually begin to see each scene as a movie set, with hairdressers, make-up artists, key grips and boom mic holders around the edge of every shot? Or what if you always had to view the unedited version of the film without the score or sound effects? What if you first saw each scene with the green screen behind the actors, who consequently look nothing like real people standing in the midst of a breathtaking backdrop? Sometimes I wonder how movie makers can still keep their sense of wonder and magic at the movies. Surely some do. It must take a willingness and an ability to forget what you know, putting yourself into the movie like it’s real each time, even though you know good and well that people made this thing. It’s a work of art.In much the same way, I’ve seen how beliefs form. I’ve witnessed theological developments happening in real time, right under my nose. I’ve observed with my own eyes the dynamic wherein groups of people come to believe something, and it grows and codifies into dogmatic assertion. Any student of history can do the same thing, really, but religious leaders in particular have a front-row seat to this phenomenon. In fact, they have a better vantage point than that: They are themselves on the very stage whereupon these things happen.
I read somewhere (sorry, I forget where) that when preachers retire they rarely stay active in church. The most obvious reason for this is that it’s hard to go from being in charge to just sitting there, listening, while somebody else does what you used to do. Talk about having to quiet your inner critic! But there’s something else going on here, too. By the time a minister reaches retirement age, he or she knows good and well what goes into making a church run, and it’s virtually impossible to just sit back and be spellbound by the magic of religious theater. It’s just lost on them. They’ve had their Wizard of Oz moment. There’s no going back.
Of course, not everyone then takes the next logical step which is to see how the whole religious enterprise is the same show writ large on the pages of history. For many, that’s just too big and too costly an intellectual step to take. But for me it wasn’t so difficult. Having pressed as deeply into the mysterious wonders of the Christian faith as I could, I got just far enough into it to realize that there’s a guy behind the curtain, and he’s US.
But what do you do now? What happens when the minister is the one who no longer believes the stuff s/he’s supposed to be preaching? What then?
This probably happens way more often than we’ll ever know. When you’ve built your entire life around a proposition, an idea, and you later come to see that it’s erroneous, it’s like Steven Covey said: You’ve spent your whole lifetime climbing a ladder only to discover it’s been leaning against the wrong wall. Once you’re up there, it’s easier to just stay up there and make the best of it. But what if you can’t? What if the show is too much for you to fake? Most ministers, when threatened with the loss of everything they have come to hold dear, cannot make that last step. The cost is just too high. The drop is entirely too far down, and you may not even survive the fall. Something will almost certainly be broken.
At times like these, you need somebody to call. And who you gonna call?
The Clergy Project, that’s who.
This project is still relatively new, and in some ways it’s just getting started. But I want in. I know from experience that the “fall from grace” can be devastating, and the consequences can be rough. But there are hundreds—maybe even thousands of people out there struggling with the same conundrum, and they need a network of supporters they can talk to about their challenges. They need a listening ear, and maybe some wise advice about how (and how not) to go about wrestling with their difficulties. I believe I can elucidate from experience several things not to do. But even that is helpful, isn’t it? It seems that what people like them (and me) need most is a way to connect to each other so that we are not alone in our trials.
So if you’re in a situation like I’ve described, maybe you should drop these folks a note. And while you’re at it, some of you may also want to contact Recovering from Religion, another support network for people who have been on the receiving end of the harsher side of religious community. Take advantage of the growing social networks of skeptics who know that we need each other, and that we draw strength from our connection to each other.
Dorothy didn’t do it alone. Neither should you ;-)