Clergy Project Milestone 1000 – The Elephant in the Room

Clergy Project Milestone 1000 – The Elephant in the Room September 5, 2019

Editor’s Note:  Pretty soon, no one knows exactly when, there will be 1000 members of The Clergy Project! Current count is 994. Here on the Rational Doubt blog, on that soon but uncertain day, we will mark the occasion with posts from multiple Clergy Project members, but it will start with a post from me. The current post is a preview, from TCP’s President, reposted with permission from The Clergy Project’s public site. If you’re a religious professional who does not hold supernatural beliefs, who has been hanging out here, thinking about joining The Clergy Project, perhaps now is the time to act. /Linda LaScola, Editor

** Update** Article about impending Milestone 1000 reported by Religion News Service:…


By Lon Ostrander, President, The Clergy Project

As we approach the milestone of 1000 Clergy Project participants, I recall that when I joined The Clergy Project (TCP) in November of 2011, I was only four years into my life as an out-of-the-closet atheist. Sixteen years earlier, I had been licensed as a minister in the Central New York District of the Wesleyan Church, and I pastored Wesleyan and Methodist churches for the next six years. After four years of preparation and six years pastoring, I left the pulpit as a believer and returned to industry in the interest of making a better living.

It was not for another six years, in 2007, that I discarded any residual belief in a god and embraced the atheist label. Not long after that, my wife started asking questions. She was not happy with my transformation, so trying to explain what happened was not productive. Our sons too, were religiously indoctrinated (thanks to me), so empathy was hard to come by. It was another four years before it occurred to me that I might do an online search for apostate clergy.

That’s how, in November of 2011, I discovered The Clergy Project.

I was in a tight spot, but I found that I was not alone. Here was an online community established for the purpose of offering mutual support and encouragement to people like me. I was elated and immediately applied to join. A few days later, a TCP screener contacted me to set up a time for an interview. I took the call in a school parking lot, while my grandchildren were inside rehearsing for a play.

In 2007 (when I first realized I was no longer a believer), TCP did not exist. Only the year before, Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins met at a humanist conference in Reykjavik, Iceland; there, they discovered a shared desire to help non-believing clergy in similar circumstances to Dan’s journey from preacher to atheist. In 2008, when writing the forward to Dan Barker’s book, “Godless,” Richard Dawkins again expressed his continuing desire to help non-believing religious leaders, both in and out of the pulpit. In 2011, it was only on a hunch that I decided to search the subject of apostate clergy; I was lucky to discover that TCP had been launched only eight months earlier.

Perhaps in those early days, an “under the radar” approach was warranted. But now, as we’re approaching 1000 strong, I think that we can and should do more. I don’t mean that we should evangelize believing clergy to our way of thinking. I’m suggesting that we are only the tip of the iceberg–that there are probably many more clergy out there, suffering in silence, with no idea that TCP exists. Could TCP become the proverbial elephant in every room that just cannot be ignored, pointing the way out of religion?

Speaking of elephants, I do like them (not that I’ve ever spent any significant time around them). I did go to the circus at least once in my childhood. I’ve seen them on TV and in movies, and I have observed that elephants are very large.

According to  Defenders of Wildlife:

Elephants form deep family bonds and live in tight matriarchal family groups of related females called a herd. The herd is led by the oldest and often largest female in the herd, called a matriarch. Herds consist of 8-100 individuals depending on terrain and family size. When a calf is born, it is raised and protected by the whole matriarchal herd. Males leave the family unit between the ages of 12-15 and may lead solitary lives or live temporarily with other males. 

This seems like a very workable social construct–and not only for elephants. The same source tells us that, “Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years.” We have all heard that an elephant never forgets.

As elephants are very large and socially evolved to live and travel in herds, they are particularly unsuited to being kept as house pets. If you had a matriarchal elephant in your living room, she would be very difficult to ignore. Thus, we are all familiar with the idea of an issue so big, so controversial, so problematic, that it just can’t be ignored.

What does all this have to do with TCP, you ask? We have talked before about TCP existing in a bubble that stays primarily within the secular movement. We have discussed the idea that most religious professionals are not even aware of our existence. Our ability “to provide support, community, and hope to current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs” (our stated mission) is severely restricted to those few who discover us.

I am proposing that we utilize the spectacle of TCP Milestone 1000 as the right time to promote the TCP brand. Ideally, everyone (particularly, every current religious leader) should be fully aware and comforted by the knowledge that we are here. The statement that, “we all have doubts,” is both cliché and code for,

“We don’t really believe what we are paid to preach to our congregants on a regular basis.”

I don’t know how many doubts it takes to make an unbeliever, but as many of us used to sing, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Well, it only takes a doubt to get the doubt fire burning.

I suspect that among current religious professionals, there are far more doubters than unquestioning believers. TCP doesn’t need to create apostates; we only need to be commonly known and available to the closeted religious professionals who already exist. We need only to be obviously present with the good news:

  • Unbelief is more than “okay.”
  • You are in great and excellent company.
  • TCP is right there in the room with you, offering to provide support, community, hope, and a wealth of experience to help you transition to a better and more rational, secular life.

Yes, my vision is for TCP to grow into being that ever-present and undeniable elephant in every room that can be deliberately ignored only with great difficulty and at the risk of triggering great embarrassment. By aggressive propagation of the TCP brand, we can become the obviously existent elephant in every room where religious services are conducted; in every room where church business is conducted; in every seminary classroom where the bible, religious history, theology, homiletics, comparative religion, and apologetics is taught; in every room where a young person is about to be bedazzled into pursuing a career in religious ministry which sooner or later will be regretted.

Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years. We, as TCP participants, are an intelligent and empathetic herd. We have decades of memories, vast quantities of experience, and mountains of lessons learned that can be of great benefit to the millions of doubting religious professionals around the world. We are doing a good thing at TCP; it’s up to us to make sure everyone knows we are here.

According to Daniel Dennett:

[The Clergy Project] will not only provide guidance and support and community for those who are trapped in their pulpits, but also provide a perspective on the clerical life that might alert many idealistic young people to the dangers and dissuade them from committing themselves to such a life. This in turn might starve the churches of pastors and priests, until they have to let in the sunlight and change the nature of ministry altogether.

We don’t need to engage in theological debate or atheistic evangelism. We only have only to be the obvious and undeniable elephant in the room.

It’s our responsibility to use TCP Milestone 1000 to propagate the TCP brand, and the harder the religious establishment tries to not think of the magnificent TCP elephant in the room, the larger and more relevant we will be. We know where we’ve been, and we appreciate how far we’ve come. An elephant never forgets, and the ever-present TCP elephant in every room must never be denied or ignored.


Bio: Lon Ostrander, the current Clergy Project president, introduced himself on the Rational Doubt Blog in March of 2018. He’s a former Wesleyan minister, now happily working in a secular job.

>>>>Photo credits: Own work, GFDL 1.2,;

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  • carolyntclark

    As a member of The Clergy Project community, I’m privileged to read the almost 1000 stories told by religious professionals who have seen through the make-believe and found a safe place to speak openly. Many have left their ministries and share the experiences of their journey. Others,for a variety of reasons, find it necessary to remain in the pulpit. There are painful accounts of the emotional toll this duplicity takes. Real understanding can only come from those who have lived the life and walked the same path. The Clergy Project is that unique place of validation and camaraderie.
    Thank you to the founding group who saw a need and responded.

  • Linda LaScola

    The Religious News Service published an article today about the 1000 member milestone, featuring two TCP members:

  • mason

    Well done Mr. President! We who are on TCP are very fortunate to have you as our fearless and sagacious leader.

  • Linda LaScola

    Don’t know why it got garbled, but this is what Mason meant to say:

    Well done Mr. President! We who are on TCP are very fortunate to have you as our fearless and sagacious leader.

  • ctcss

    Hmmm. I have mixed feelings about this post. While I admire the purpose of the TCP and am glad that it is there to encourage, comfort, and help former (or about to be former) clergy on their way forward to a different life and profession, I can’t help feeling that this is only part of what is needed to help solve the larger problem.

    As a believer (from a very non-mainstream Christian sect which has no clergy), I don’t really have a direct place in this problematic area. But in reading this post, I got the rather strong impression that there are other elephants in the room that are being ignored.

    One of them is that evangelism seems to like to lurk in the hearts of humans. The very nice and reassuring statement “I don’t mean that we should evangelize believing clergy to our way of thinking” is followed a little later on by

    Yes, my vision is for TCP to grow into being that ever-present and undeniable elephant in every room that can be deliberately ignored only with great difficulty and at the risk of triggering great embarrassment. By aggressive propagation of the TCP brand, we can become the obviously existent elephant in every room where religious services are conducted; in every room where church business is conducted; in every seminary classroom where the bible, religious history, theology, homiletics, comparative religion, and apologetics is taught; in every room where a young person is about to be bedazzled into pursuing a career in religious ministry which sooner or later will be regretted.

    Wow. “Aggressive propagation of the TCP brand” with all of the intended accompanying “great embarrassment” doesn’t exactly strike me as non-evangelical in tone.

    Admittedly, the question of God’s existence is still outstanding, and thus people will take different sides in the debate. That’s OK, and is as it should be. I don’t have a problem with intellectually honest debate and discussion. I just found it somewhat ironic that “not evangelizing” would turn so quickly into something that to me, is evangelizing.

    However, the bigger elephant in the room that struck me as being an issue is the latter part of what I cited above.

    in every seminary classroom where the bible, religious history, theology, homiletics, comparative religion, and apologetics is taught; in every room where a young person is about to be bedazzled into pursuing a career in religious ministry which sooner or later will be regretted.

    Really? Religious seminary instruction results in students being “bedazzled” so much so that they end up doing something very unwise? And please note, I am not assuming that “bedazzled” is being used dishonestly or inappropriately here. So the elephant I am bothered by is the fact that religious instruction is being approached in this way. If it truly is, then that might explain why students are being blindsided later on and then feel that they have no choice but to regretfully abandon ship.

    TCP strikes me as being in the business of providing lifeboats for people when they need them. That’s a very good idea, not to mention being a compassionate one. But when a passenger ship is being designed and built, the main idea is to engineer it to be seaworthy and safe to use so that the occupants can get from point A to point B without mishap. I don’t think anyone who books passage is interested in asking “So, at what point in this voyage am I going to need to abandon ship and wait to be rescued?” (Also, please note, the manufacturer or operator of lifeboats shouldn’t be working to sabotage (or failing to help improve) the passenger ship in order to improve their side of things. Everyone should be working to make things better, not hoping for the demise of the enterprise being engaged in by the other side.)

    So it strikes me (if what is stated above is true) that there is an awful lot of religious teaching that needs to be improved in order to make a seaworthy vessel so that abandoning ship is not a given. Personally, I don’t ever recall being bedazzled (or there being an attempt to bedazzle) when I was being taught. There was no desire to do so on my teachers’ part nor a desire on my part to be bedazzled. It was a fascinating subject that has a lot of depth and that requires a lot of honest study, practice, and follow-up questions and effort in order to more fully understand it. Bedazzling the students didn’t enter into it at all. Why should it?

    So, why isn’t better, non-bedazzling teaching being done? And why aren’t honest questions being considered and delved into? And once again, why is there no easily accessible venue for supporting, listening to, or offering helpful explanations or reassurances to those who have doubts?

    IMO, the ships are sinking because a need is simply not being effectively and compassionately met.

    So why, why, why is this even permitted, advised, or simply settled-for behavior? And I have yet to hear any satisfying answers to this from those here who have attended seminary or who have lived in the situations described. At best, all that is said is that it does happen, but no explanations or investigations into the “Why?” have been put forth. Unless, somehow, I missed them. (Linda, you were very successful at getting closeted clergy to admit their lack of faith. Did you ever consider asking believing clergy or seminary instructors why they weren’t there to help support faltering clergy struggling with doubts? Or why instruction of students didn’t give them enough grounding to see them through tough times? Bedazzlement seems a pretty poor substitute for sober guidance and insight.)

    Any thoughts?

  • Linda LaScola

    Speaking as someone who talked extensively with clergy who no longer believed, who had attended seminary, I can say that many were “bedazzled” while there. They determined that their legitimate questions about religions – raised by what they were learning in Seminary – were not enough to stop their studies and their career plans.

    Years later, they finally acknowledged their disbelief to themselves.

  • Linda LaScola

    As for “helping them through their doubts” — yes seminary, etc. does that a lot – but in the direction of returning to faith — something that eventually some people just can’t do. They simply don’t believe in god anymore, after a lot of sincere effort.

  • Linda LaScola

    Yes – ctcss — you missed the “why” which is found in the book Caught in the Pulpit – Leaving belief behind. But you might miss it even there, because you are so committed to the idea that doubts about religion, if handled properly, can be quelled and return to belief.

    It just doesn’t work that way for some people, despite their efforts and despite knowing that as clergy, they will be losing much more than belief in God. They are losing their paycheck, their social structure and years of commitment and study.

  • Linda LaScola

    Also, to be clear — I didn’t “get” anyone to admit their lack of faith. They already lacked faith before I ever talked to them.

    They explained to me how it happened and they were eager and very relieved to be able to talk about it in depth, in many cases for the first time.

    Now, with the Clergy Project, people like those who participated in the study have nearly 1000 people to discuss these things with. Alleluia!

  • mason

    There’s a very distinctive difference in, 1. evangelizing for TCP brand awareness to create awareness that their is help available for clergy who are already apostate, which is what TCP does, … and 2. evangelizing to deconvert believers or clergy, which TCP does not do.

  • mason

    “Or why instruction of students didn’t give them enough grounding to see them through tough times?”

    Especially grounding and help that would help restrain students from engaging in that very risky activity or reading the whole Bible themselves while daring to think, instead of keeping their brain in the theistic mode of blind faith and not requiring any evidence, rational questioning, critical thought, of even a psaltery sense of morality applied to the actions of the ancient Hebrew deity Jehovah & Son.

  • See Noevo

    Could TCP [and its reaching a 1,000 member
    milestone] become the proverbial elephant in every room that
    just cannot be ignored, pointing the way out of religion?


    Could the SDFD (having over 1,000 signatories) become the
    proverbial elephant in every room that just cannot be ignored,
    pointing the way out of evolution?

  • rationalobservations?

    Obviously the evidence of and for the past , current and ongoing mechanisms and results of material and biological evolution remain unchallenged by the tiny and shrinking minority of religiots who are in denial of the truth and are responsible for the lies and nonsense you habitually spout and link to.

    The Roman religion they called “christianity” was cobbled together from mostly pagan components and exclusively pagan feast days and festivals within the 4th century!
    This is the fact that you appear to contest but have been unable to prove through evidence of the existence of “Jesus” or of any of his later invented remarkable and newsworthy exploits that passed by every living person in the 1st century since none of them recorded any record of those fictional people and imaginary events.

    There is no evidence of, or need for, any of the millions of fictional gods, goddesses and god-men.

    Repeating evidence devoid and unsupported claims in support of any of the many fraudulent religions that are slowly declining worldwide and rapidly declining across the educated secular developed world – fails to validate those claims.

    The 13,820,000,000 year long history past, current and ongoing material evolution of the universe is an evidence supported and observed fact with no evidence of “design” or a supernatural “designer” within that chaotic and destructive history and observed current activity.

    The 4,000,000,000 year long history past, current and ongoing biological evolution of the life on Earth is an evidence supported and observed fact with no evidence of “design” or a supernatural “designer” within that chaotic and destructive history that has caused the extinction of 99% of all past life forms and observed current blood soaked battle for the survival of living things best equipped for survival.

    The action that caused the current life forms to exist is EVOLUTION. There is no evidence of, or reason/need for; any of the millions of fictional undetected and undetectable gods, and goddesses.

    The ever changing myths and legends of a fictional hero named “Jesus” were first authored by the Greek language scribes of Rome who first invented the prototypes for tales and bibles in circulation today.

    Your nonsense is unsupported by observation of the evidence.

    Your repetition of your ignorance and indoctrination inspired garbage is pointless – but please carry on as less ignorant folk read these comment columns and will undoubtedly benefit from the evidence that continually debunks your superstitious and ridiculous bunkum.

  • Lonborghini Funghini

    Ctcss, my friend, I think it best if you just do not think about The Elephant.

  • ctcss


    Somehow I am apparently not coming across clearly. Let me try to state what my complaint is about.

    Bedazzling others is not an effective, nor worthy method of teaching, nor is being bedazzled an effective means of learning. This is because being bedazzled answers no questions, it only is meant to entertain or to befuddle. (Trump, for example, loves to bedazzle his base.) Bedazzlement is therefore not a state that students should be seeking, nor should instructors use bedazzlement as a means of teaching. Furthermore, if instructors discern that a student is being bedazzled, they should make every attempt to help bring that student or students back to earth so the student can more rationally and soberly understand what is being taught, and also to help teach them how to avoid the pitfalls they may encounter in their study and practice of that area of study.

    For instance, suppose that Penn and Teller decided to found a seminary whose focus was on stage magic. Students entering this establishment would learn the best places to obtain tuxedos, capes, and top hats, along with the best places to obtain assistant clothing. They would also be shown how to obtain various props such as card decks, canes, swords, and such. They would learn how to create effective advertisements and how to put them into play so as to attract paying audiences. They would also learn how to charge for performances, how to manage crowds, along with safety measures to ensure that the venues they performed in didn’t have any untoward accidents. They would also be taught bookkeeping, money management, and tax regulations to help the aspiring student learn how to manage their business effectively, profitably, and legally.

    However, when it actually came to the stage magic itself, Penn and Teller (or instructors hired by them) would simply dazzle the students with their various astounding tricks, but would fail to teach the students how to actually accomplish the tricks themselves. The students would most likely be impressed and bedazzled, but would walk out not knowing how to accomplish the most important part of what it takes to be a stage magician because they would not understand the core concepts of what it takes in order to perform what is needed.

    IMO such a seminary would be a waste of time and money.

    And sadly, every time people have talked about seminary instruction here, I get the distinct impression that everything is taught to the students except the most important part which, to me, would be how to grow closer to God in thought and action, and to be able to help others to do the same. And when I have asked if seminaries offered instruction in how to grow spiritually (i.e. to grow closer to God), the answer was no, that was not taught. Granted, the question of God’s existence is still an open one in the general world, but remember, we are talking about religious seminaries here, not agnostic or atheistic enclaves. Shouldn’t religious seminaries be teaching students how to grow closer to God? Otherwise, how will those who graduate be able to stand before a congregation and be able to teach them about God and to help lead them towards God by example?

    So I am still confused as to how and why the students in seminaries end up being bedazzled while they are there. IMO, no teacher worthy of the name would ever want their students to be bedazzled (i.e mystified and uninstructed), so how is it that this happens? How is understanding conveyed under such circumstances?

    I should also mention that one of my pet peeves is encountering teaching that is bad or ineffective. And bedazzlement sounds like that in spades.

    Any thoughts or further insight into this?

  • ctcss

    But in many cases, it sounds like no one was there to help many through their doubts. They were pretty much left on their own, seemingly twisting in the wind. And why shouldn’t a seminary or a fellow minister not help in the direction of helping to shore up one’s confidence in God? Unless you are trying to say that everyone is basically a closet atheist and simply won’t admit that they are? I know that I am not, despite reading the entries on this blog. 😉

  • ctcss

    Linda, I am not in any way saying that doubts can always be quelled. I am simply noting that apparently in a number of instances, no help was offered at all! That is what is mystifying me.

  • ctcss

    Linda, I wasn’t trying to suggest that you gave someone the 3rd degree and forced them to confess. I was simply noting that you gave people the opportunity to say things openly (but anonymously) that they couldn’t otherwise say in public. I was simply hoping that you could also ask the people who apparently weren’t offering help why they didn’t? And also (as noted above) I am still trying to understand why bedazzlement was either engaged in or tolerated in a seminary instruction setting?

  • ctcss

    Mason, actually, I very much dare to think while I read the Bible. I think your dilemma with the Bible revolved around only allowing yourself to consider a very narrowly focused literalistic approach to it. Humans don’t restrict themselves exclusively to a literal use of language because it’s often too limited. That’s why poetry is used, and why different ways of talking about the same issue are useful. Life issues are often rather complex and even in one’s own life, it can take quite a while before one understands a situation, if even then. You seem to have seen the Bible as being a stenographic transcript of everything that went on, when it’s quite obvious that when a person is born in one verse and then passes away 2 verses later, an awful lot has been skipped over!

    The Bible wasn’t written by God on some cosmic Selectric typewriter. Rather, it is a collection of human accounts focused on humanity’s quest to understand God. Thus, it needs to be considered in whole in order to gain a clearer understanding of what may be going on. Why? Because humanity’s questions about God are quite wide ranging and not every answer is available to every person at every point along the way. That’s why it’s interesting seeing how the individual characters grow in their understanding of God as they progress through life. And sometimes it appears that it took multiple generations to gain a clearer sense of things regarding God. Which is why I am grateful that someone took the time to record these accounts and stories and parables and histories, etc., warts and all. I learn from the positive examples as well as the negative examples portrayed. For instance, you often see God being immoral, depending on the story being related. I see God being constant and loving but humanity being rather limited, frail, weak, dense, and ignorant. And since humans wrote the book, we see their (often ignorant and limited) view of God being reflected in the accounts. Which is why I try to understand what Jesus was teaching his followers, rather than looking at everything as an entirely accurate stenographic transcript of what happened, something that it is obviously not.

    Mason, we obviously do not see eye to eye on this issue, but I can safely say on my part, that it is not because I don’t think about these things as I read them.

  • Lonborghini Funghini

    To be fair, i think many seminary students have a default belief in the god of their tribe. At the same time, i suspect that all seminary students have serious doubts about the specifics of their faith, such as a literal six day creation, the virgin birth, transubstantiation or whatever. They may hope to resolve those doubts as they complete their ministerial training, or begin their ministerial careers but which may, or more likely may not, be resolved. The more proficient doubters will, sooner or later, realize that even their default belief in their god is untenable and optional at best. So why does not god teach students how to grow closer to himself? Why must said god depend on seminaries, or other ministers to shore up the students’ confidence in her, him or itself? Is god so preoccupied that the assistance of mere mortals is required. The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind. How many times does god fail to get involved before it finally dawns on us that there is no god. We can continue to make excuses for our failed gods until it finally occurs to us that the existence of our respective gods is not germane to ours. Sometimes the epiphany we get, is the one we never really thought about. Cheers!