Editor’s Note: Imagine my delight when this Clergy Project member told me that he had been a “secret reader” of the Rational Doubt blog before leaving the clergy. For me, it was literally a dream come true. I had hoped that doubting clergy were finding solace here, knowing that they were not alone. I also hoped that once they determined they no longer believed, they could find more solace, as well as comradarie, in The Clergy Project. Thank you, “Thomas” for letting me know and thank you for writing about it here.
By “Thomas Rhodes”
Typically it takes a butterfly thirty days or so to move from the egg stage to full maturity. But my metamorphosis took much longer. The process actually lasted three years. In reality it was much longer than that, but the earmarks of my transformation from a Non-denominational Protestant Pastor of twenty-five years to a convinced Non-Theist was a long incubation of many deaths. I didn’t know it at the time, but my natural skepticism had begun to spin a cocoon around my being.
I searched for answers to the angst of religion and to the haunting silence of a supposedly loving God. Each time I confronted the silence, the cocoon spun faster. Secretly I would open up private tabs in my internet browser, looking for something other than what I knew. Quickly I began to find all kinds of forbidden devils to dance with – and no it wasn’t porn. But to the faithful in my congregation this would be worse than porn – it was the ultimate heresy – it was questioning the very existence of God himself.
My soul felt as if I was committing adultery. Then on one of my searches I found my first dance, the Rational Doubt Blog. Honestly I can’t remember all the steps that led to my heresy, but Google was a willing accomplice. To read other ministers who had the same thoughts, the same doubts, the same pain, was like my first kiss when I was in fifth grade: rapturous and unforgettable.
After each blog reading, I knew this was a tribe that was willing to examine Christianity’s claims, honestly and truthfully. I found myself saying, “Amen.” It was habit of course, but this Hebraic word of agreement was the only word I could muster. Day after day I found more dance partners. They were endless. Then, just like a miracle, I found a book hidden in my sixteen-year-old son’s room. Normally I would think,
“The Holy Spirit led me to finding this devilish work.”
But as you could guess, this kind of theology didn’t practically work in this situation. Apparently he put on his dancing shoes as well.
The dancing devil was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t let him know I found it, but on Tuesday’s, which was my sermon prep study day, I would sneak his yellow copy. Not only was I running with the Devil, but my first born son was running along side of me.
Skepticismis a dangerous word in the lexicon of a pastor. We are the ones who should have the most ironclad faith. Doubtis another word of heretical foul play. With these ingredients swirling around in my soul, I knew that the chrysalis stage of my cocoon was taking shape.
Though I continued to preach every Sunday, I no longer lied to myself. I knew I was entering dangerous ground. But as I have always told my son and the congregations I have served,
“We should always follow where the evidence leads.”
The cocoon was spinning faster.
Many Christians love to provide testimonies that point to the moment they decided to follow Jesus. Some tell the story of when they walked the aisle to that fiery Southern Baptist altar call. Some tell the story of that Damascus Road experience when they first saw the light. More often than not, they can recall the date, the time. Somehow this recall seems to validate the so called “miraculous.” And maybe there is something to this date and time motif. Because I remember that moment, or at least that understanding, when I crossed into the land of no-return, the land of the free.
Traveling to visit relatives, I looked to download a new audio book for our trip. This was my usual pattern, so that I wouldn’t be alone as the family slept during the four hour drive. Surfing Audible, I stumbled upon a book with a provocative title, at least provocative to this secretly doubting pastor. The title was Godless – How an Evangelical Pastor Became One of America’s Leading Atheists by Dan Barker.
Once everyone was napping, I put on my headphones. My wife was asleep in the passenger seat and my boys were snoozing in the back. Within moments, Dan Barker, my new dancing partner, was sharing not only his metamorphosis but was telling my story too. For several hours I listened. I refrained from crying. I couldn’t show my emotion and joy. But somewhere along the highway, I was born-again. I am not kidding. After all my doubt, all my skepticism, I somehow crossed a line. No fireworks. No angels. No white lights. But a deep sense of relief flooded my soul. After three long years, the cocoon was shedding. My metamorphosis was nearing its completion.
I was ready to fly. No longer was I tortured by the mental gymnastics of retribution theology. No longer was I looking over my shoulder wondering why God loved to play cat-and-mouse. No longer did I have to worry that the flames of Hell were flickering below because I drank too much wine last Saturday night. I was flying now, I was free!
Much has changed since then. I wish I could say that I won the lotto and I’m sipping Daiquiris on a beach somewhere. Though I think that is now a legitimate prayer, if there ever was one. The reality is that this career transition has been very hard on our finances. I’m no longer a pastor. I’m not preaching every Sunday. I’m a non-theist, still transitioning out of ministry.
Currently I serve as an executive in a religious non-profit that is more authentic than most, and have done my best to ensure that I am not in a teaching role of any kind. Though I still find it difficult to hide my secret, I just work hard, keep my nose clean, and stay humbly quiet – which I’m finding is a very good recipe for workplace success. But after doing ministry all my life, the reality feels like a slow divorce proceeding. I no longer believe, but the transition is taking a little longer than expected. It is my hope and goal to be in another position very soon, so that like the Monarch Butterfly I can be free to migrate when and where I choose. To know that my destiny, my journey, is the responsibility of choices that I make and not the choice of God, has become the greatest freedom of all.
P.S. I am deeply grateful to Linda and all the leaders in the Clergy Project who have been so kind, compassionate and caring. It has been such a refuge knowing that there is this Fight Club of ex-clergy who are courageous enough to get in the ring, shed some blood and then buy each other drinks at the local pub.
Bio: “Thomas Rhodes” I grew up an atheist – no churches, no Christmas services, no Easter services. My very loving parents raised me with a healthy moral base of common sense, void of God. Then, during a crisis in my life at the age of 17, I became a committed Christian. I earned a B.A. in Biblical Studies and a Masters in Theology. For the next 25 years, I worked as a non-denominational Associate Pastor and Senior Pastor. Then, through a long and arduous, three-year process, I moved from Senior Pastor to committed nontheist. I reside in the Midwest with my beautiful wife of 30 years and our two boys. I love to read, BBQ and spend time on the lake.
>Photo credits: By Fri Tanke – http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/images/christopher-hitchens-29854, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45188781
By Brent Nicastro – http://www.ffrf.org/uploads/images/Barker_Nakoma_cropped.jpg, CC BY 1.0, $3