Perils and Pleasures of Opening Up that Closet Door

Perils and Pleasures of Opening Up that Closet Door October 21, 2019

Editor’s Note: This Clergy Project member came out in grand fashion – by writing a book after he retired from ministry. There were repercussions. He survived!  Linda LaScola, Editor

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By Bob Ripley

It’s no fun being closeted.

Whatever keeps you behind a closed door, whether it’s your sexuality or your secret, it is generally considered a good thing to come out.  Be who you are.  Be open.  Be honest.  Be authentic.  Celebrate who you are or, if it’s your secret that is hidden, deal with it in the open.

That said, coming out is not always a good idea.

I’m thinking here about closeted clergy.  Not those who are gay or have behaved badly, but those who have changed their minds and no longer believe in a god.

Ever heard of them?  Not likely.  That’s because they are closeted.  They have weighed their doctrines and found them wanting.  They have sided with the growing number of census participants who tick the box beside “none” in the question of religion.  But to go public means that they would lose not only their job but perhaps also their families, friends and their very identity as a person.  Research shows that there is a sense of loss akin to a death when someone no longer believes in a supernatural deity.

By the time I heard about The Clergy Project in 2014, I had retired from active ministry after more than three decades.  I was testing and examining the faith I once espoused but doing so only in the privacy of my study.  I was documenting my epiphanies in what would eventually be the book,  Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher’s Deconversion.

While I was not desperate for the fellowship of unbelievers, I thought that it might be helpful to hear the experiences of others who had not yet gone public about giving up the ghost, so to speak.

I remember have some trepidation about being interviewed on the phone before being admitted to the online forum.  I understood the cautions.  Active clergy could be easily outed by someone who discovered, albeit surreptitiously, that they no longer believed and wanted to harm their priest or pastor.  But I’d never tried to join a group that wanted to interview me before granting membership.

No sweat.  I had a lovely chat with the interviewer who simply wanted to confirm my bona fides.  What I learned from the Clergy Project, however, were some heartbreaking stories of those who struggled to continue in ministry when they privately no longer believed what they preached and those who shared their struggles with a spouse and whose marriage suffered.

Once I came out publicly five years ago with the publication of my book, however, I learned the importance of the Clergy Project.  I received emails from clergy I’d never met who shared similar struggles but who, for valid reasons – fiscal and familial – could not go public.

What I did not say then, but would say now, is that if you are a minister who no longer believes, you are not alone.  In fact, and the reason I’m writing this now, is that the number of participants in Clergy Project has gone from those 52 charter members to 1000.  Think of that: 1000 clergy who no longer believe, many of whom are still closeted.

Clergy struggle.  We all do.  But a growing number, it seems, struggle with something you might not imagine:  Unbelief.

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Bio:  Bob Ripley was a syndicated religion columnist, broadcaster, former preacher and author of Christian devotional material.  His book, which came out in October 2014 is titled Life Beyond Belief: A Preacher’s Deconversion. Find out more about the book and his other writing here.


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  • Pofarmer

    Even for those who aren’t clergy “coming out” is difficult. It nearly cost me my marriage. Most of my neighbors don’t know, although my closest friends do. The social pressures of being in the Bible belt are intense.

  • Tawreos

    Sadly, any time people have need of a closet the best advice for coming out of it is to make sure that they are in a place where they can handle the fallout that can come from coming out. Since not everyone is in a place where it is feasible, or they are not ready to face the fallout I hope it helps to know that even though we don’t know who you are there are people out here that have your back and support you until you are able to find a way to leave the closet on your terms.

  • mason

    “Be who you are. Be open. Be honest. Be authentic. Celebrate who you are or, if it’s your secret that is hidden, deal with it in the open. … That said, coming out is not always a good idea.” Excellent caveat and article Bob!

    When I first joined The Clergy Project in 2012 there was still those who would encourage, even push members to come “out” and I quickly saw how this was very bad advise. Within a year or so I made it my mission on TCP to warn TCP’s about any delusions they had about what they imagined would happen when they made the “big announcement.” We eventually moved moved “Coming Out Issues” to the very first topic in our valuable Forums archives. Participants shared their stories, of the repercussions of their coming out; divorce, child custody battles, shaming and harassment in the local community etc. etc. The TCP culture changed from “Yeah, ya’ll come out, do it, tell the world!” to “If ya’ll got and sense of self preservation you’ll think long and hard about coming out, and read all the various posts about coming out in the Forums. (the “ya’ll” is mine; I’ve lived in the South for 30 years now.)

    I’ve screened several applicants who had the most horrendous incidents to share e..g., a big red A painted on their house, vicious criminal lies spread, fired from their new secular job, their dogs head cut off, their family shunned if they went to the Mall. Coming out as a former Evangelical or any brand of fundamentalism is the most risky, and being in a Bible Belt state increases the risk exponentially. It’s amazing how vicious sweet ol’ Christian ladies can be when they show their fangs. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8520119daea2479e431dd6430af7c20554c74d3d09c9f8f1826d7252d976bde0.jpg

  • mason

    A nice couple, neighbors with two small children, living near me in Naples Fl ended up divorced after she went to the big local Baptist church on Airport Rd,, got saved, and gave her husband the “get saved or else” ultimatum. He had grown up in the Evangelical nonsense and rejected it very young and wanted nothing to do with that culture screwing up his kids brains. After 6 months she announced, “Bible says I can’t be unequally yoked” (evidently she thought they were oxen) and divorced him. Evangelical nonsense causes family division by the millions, especially now with the current divisive political environment in the US.

  • Pofarmer

    It can happen with fundamentalist Catholics too, beleive me, I know that one.

  • mason

    Yep, fundamentalist Christians, Jews, Muslims, the cursed bane of humanity.

  • Linda LaScola

    I recall that the marriage was only legitimate if the non-Catholic spouse was willing to be married in the Catholic church (outside of the altar, of course) and promised to raise the kids Catholic.

  • Pofarmer

    Now can be married in the church but they still make you sign the paperwork. Looking back I don’t think I would do it again

  • The thing I find odd about that is that, as well as the unequally yoked verse, there are also commands to stay with the unbelieving partner unless they want to leave (which is not to say marriages will work out after such a fundamental change in relationship dynamics).