Christian Pastors Who Have Lost Their Faith

Christian Pastors Who Have Lost Their Faith November 4, 2019

Editor’s Note: The Rational Doubt Blog is completing its “TCP 1000 Member Milestone” series with an essay from Bart Ehrman, one of The Clergy Project’s original and best-known members. I first heard of him in 2005, well before TCP’s founding, when he wrote the bestselling book, Misquoting Jesus. I later met him at the 2011 American Humanist Conference, when he was receiving the organization’s Religious Liberty Award. He helped me find and properly approach seminary professors to be interviewed in the Dennett-LaScola study.  He also has graciously allowed the Rational Doubt blog to republish public posts from his blog, including the current  one, that he wrote with both doubters and non-believers in mind.  The post below differs only slightly from Bart’s original, indicating that TCP accepts as members only religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs.  Doubters are welcomed here, on the Rational Doubt blog. Thank you, Bart, for all you do and I look forward to your post when TCP celebrates Milestone 2000! /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By Bart Ehrman

You may not know this, but if you’re in a Christian church – whether it’s a traditional Roman Catholic church, Episcopalian, Southern Baptist, Independent-Bible-Thumping-Fire-and Brimstone-Fundamentalist – your priest/pastor may be losing his/her faith, or already lost it.  And yet still be in the pulpit.  There are some times when you might suspect something was up.  Other times, you’d have no clue.

I’ve been there, on both sides of that equation.  I won’t talk about the loss of faith on the part of pastors who were preaching in front of me every week.  But I can say something about myself, in the pulpit, desperately trying to hold on to my faith, and seeing it ooze away from me, while preaching every week on the radio.  It’s not a pleasant feeling, and can lead to massive confusion, self-doubt, self-condemnation, and uncertainty about what to do and where to turn.

I was never a permanent ordained minister in any denomination.  I was *trained* to be a minister.   Many of my classmates at Moody Bible Institute went off, directly from there, to be missionaries and pastors, and are still serving the church now over 40 years later.  Our education there involved not only Bible and theology classes, but also courses on preaching, Christian education, evangelism, and so on.

I myself was not sure what I would do when I graduated.  Missionary?  (I considered it.)  Pastor? (Maybe?).  More education?  (Yup, went that route)?   My final year at Moody I became a youth pastor in a church in Oak Lawn IL, led Bible studies, prayer meetings, and trillions of social activities with high school and college kids and young adults.  I did if for three years (while finishing my degree at Wheaton.)  Loved it.  But didn’t think I wanted that to be my life.

Then I went to seminary.  I had decided at that point not to go into ministry, but to get credentialed to teach at the university level.  My idea was to have a different kind of ministry, in a secular setting, as an evangelical spokesperson with academic credentials.  I had known a lot of professors teaching among the evangelicals; I wanted to be an evangelical among the (secular) professors.  A Christian mission to the secular academic world.

In the course of my seminary training I was not allowed to take only the topics I was really interested in – history of early Christianity, Old Testament, New Testament.  I had to take courses in preaching; pastoral counseling; church administration; Christian education, etc.  I received the same training as everyone else, most of whom were training for lifelong ministry.  It was a Presbyterian seminary, so most of my friends from those days were heading to the Presbyterian ministry and are still there.  I myself was active in an evangelical church in those days, running the adult education programs.

When I got into my PhD program I continued on in the church.  By that time we had moved to an American Baptist Church.  It’s an interesting denomination – not as consistently conservative theologically or politically as the Southern Baptist church has now become.  My church was certainly conservative in many ways, but it was in Princeton and there was a broad range of theological and political views there.  I was at the time heading toward a more liberal view of things in every way, as I advanced in my education.

During the second year of my PhD program the pastor of the church left, and the governing board asked if I would serve as an interim pastor for a year.  So I did.  Preached most weeks.  On the radio.  Performed church duties and services (funerals were not high on my list of pleasurable pastimes….).  Visited the sick and grieving.  Organized and ran the whole thing.

And was losing my faith.  I don’t need to explain why here.   Just one very quick anecdote.  One Sunday I gave a sermon dealing with how a certain passage of the Bible tried to explain why there can be such intense suffering in a world created by a good God.   Afterward, a parishioner came up to me, a lovely man with a gentle disposition, with tears in his eyes, and gave me a hug.  He and his wife were stalwart members of the church.  Their seventeen-year old son had committed suicide the year before, and they didn’t know how to handle it, how to make sense of it, how to have faith in the light of it.  This kind soul simply appreciated someone actually talking about the hard problems in church, even if there were no obvious answers.

Pastors confront this kind of thing all the time.  It really beggars belief what some pastors deal with, getting into the horrible lives that so many people have to deal with.   And some of these pastors lose their faith.  For a variety of reasons.  It happens.  All the time.  These are humans.

But what do pastors do when they are losing their faith?  How do they keep ministering to those in need?  Keep preaching every week?  Assuring mourners at funerals?  Keep following the church rituals: baptism, communion, and so on?

In my case it wasn’t so bad.  After a year, the church found a pastor, I left to go to another church, my slide continued, but I didn’t have to feel like a hypocrite standing in the pulpit preaching something I wasn’t as sure about any more, let alone preaching something I didn’t believe and counseling people in a faith I wasn’t sure I held.

Others are not so lucky.  It is very, very difficult to lose your faith emotionally and socially – what you have always believed is getting sucked away from you, and you have based your entire life on it.  You may have a deeply religious spouse, and kids, and parents, and friends; everyone looks up to you for spiritual guidance and support; you are to be a model and the model is crumbling.

And one thing outsiders may not think about as much.  You are trained to do nothing else.  If you leave the pulpit, you can’t just find another comparable job.  And you’ve never done or thought about another job.  You aren’t trained for another job.  You haven’t developed your skills for another job.   And you have a family.  And you are the sole or a main supporter.  And your kids need a place to live, and clothes, and food, and ….   And how are you, literally, going to survive if you lose your faith?

It is a horrible situation to be in.  Some simply gut it out and hold on to what little faith they have as best they can.  Others feel forced to be a hypocrite for the good of everyone else, to continue to comfort and help those in need and doubt, to avoid destroying the emotions and lives of family and loved ones, and so on.   Yet others realize they simply can’t live with themselves, and so they admit the problem, leave the church, and try to figure out a way to mend all their relationships and move on, somehow, but not always successfully.  Some heart-breaking stories out there.

Most of you will not know, but there is an organization that came into existence eight years ago to deal with precisely this problem.   It is called The Clergy Project.  You can find its public page here: http://clergyproject.org/.  There is also a nice Wikipedia page devoted to it and a Facebook page.  It’s worth checking out.  It is designed to help clergy who are either still active or who have left the ministry, who have lost their faith.

It’s an amazing project.  To join, one does have to be or to have once been a religious professional who now does not hold supernatural beliefs. Applicants are carefully vetted.  (No trolls!!)   People in this situation can join *completely* anonymously.  The group is massively protective of identities: no one needs know who you actually are, unless you are ready to come out.   The group provides lots of vital services. There is an online support group with others in the same boat.  There are counseling services.  There are career development opportunities for retooling (pastors actually have a lot of skills, well-honed, that are useful in other careers, if they can figure out how to redirect them).  There are monetary grants for career transition.  And so forth.

For those who are doubting their faith but still have not completely lost it, there is a public blog, Rational Doubt – With Voices from The Clergy Project, with posts written by members of The Clergy Project.   It is edited by Linda LaScola, one of the Project’s founders, who conducted academic research with non-believing clergy with Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University.

The group is justifiably pleased just now that they have now reached a milestone of 1000 members.  It’s a great accomplishment, as the numbers continue to grow.   Members come from a large range of Christian denominations and groups, but not only there: it also has Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Scientologists, and others!

I know a lot of people on the [Ehrman] blog have also lost their faith.  Others have started to have some doubts.  Yet others are completely committed to their faith, as much as other.  We represent a broad swath of the religious and non-religious community.  And hopefully being together in this format is helpful to people, no matter what their commitments and views.  Whatever our views, it is important to be supportive of one another, and to realize there are others in our boat with us.  The Clergy Project does this in a very focused way.  We do it in a different way.  The goal for both is to help people think through matters of importance to their personal, religious, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual lives, both to help them come to what they really think is the truth and to support them as they move forward in life thinking and believing as they do.

======================

Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.  Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project.  He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog.   Bart posts five times a week on everything having to do with the New Testament and early Christianity, from a non-faith perspective. He hopes you will check the blog out and think about joining.

>>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill ; Photo Credit “Bryce Vickmark / vickmark.com” © Bryce Vickmark. All rights reserved. www.vickmark.com 617.448.6758

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  • davidt

    I got out into nature chucked everything into the ocean said screw religion science everything and whammo I got it. The three worst places to understand the Bible in culture are:
    3. The university
    2. Church
    1. Everywhere else.

    A long walk contemplating the Lilly and breathing is healthy. Stay in culture and you haven’t left church. You might even begin to understand John Muir. “Off to the woods I go to lose my mind and find my soul”. He also said ” in stepping out I really was stepping in. Culture makes that so hard to do but we must if one is to understand Joseph and Jesus as a man. “Screw the word of God and you culture* and that became the word of God in flesh. Agape love a very misunderstood topic to say the least.

  • Jim Jones

    I like to watch the video of Elvis singing If I can dream. That moves me.

    A relative likes “forest bathing” (walking in nature).

  • I have a son who is a minister, but frustrated with the particular denomination. All preachers in this denomination are technically “lay” preachers. He has an associates degree in Bible from a denomination-associated Bible college.

    He recently obtained a business degree from a secular university, but can’t get anyone to call him back for an interview. Maybe it’s because he’s over 30 and just now getting a degree. It’s hard to say, exactly. He seems to think when people look at his resume they assume he’s a religious nut. Many of the things he’s had to do as a minister relate directly to management, and his college grades were excellent, so if they were to hire him at entry-level they’d be getting quite the bargain.

    But if he’s having trouble and has gone to the trouble to qualify himself for secular work at a relatively young age, I can see how close to impossible it would be for someone who has reached middle-age and has no credentials for a secular job (even though they probably have plenty of practical experience). As much as I would like to see certain preacher-friends be shocked into reality (the cognitive dissonance is there, I can hear it in their sermons!), I would also feel very bad for them if it happened.

    And I can’t imagine that my son will be a believer forever. He knows too much, and he’s too willing to change his mind based upon what he reads. I hope he finds that job soon.

  • Linda LaScola

    And I hope you point him to this blog, with so many posts from clergy who have made the switch to secular jobs.

  • Linda LaScola

    I just saw this mini-blog post Bart Ehrman was kind enough to put up on his blog:

    Losing *Your* Faith?

    Are you having a difficult time, losing your faith? Having doubts, but still trying to hold on? Or not sure if you want to hold on any longer?

    A couple of days ago I mentioned the “Clergy Project” the organization for clergy (“religion professionals”) who have lost their faith and no longer believe in the supernatural. One of the founders of the project, Linda LaScola, has reminded me that she edits a blog that is completely public (for anyone interested) for just folk like you (not just clergy), called Rational Doubt – With Voices from The Clergy Project. The posts on the blog are actually written by members of The Clergy Project.

    Moreover, if you’re interested more in who these ex-clergy are and about the phenomenon of religious professionals losing their faaith, you may want to check out the book that Linda produced with the justly famous philosopher Daniel C. Dennett of Tufts University, called Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind. You can find it at https://www.amazon.com/Caught-Pulpit-Leaving-Belief-Behind/dp/1634310209/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

  • mason

    When I left the Evangelical cult I began a lifetime of discovering wonderful, inspiring, fun, meditative, rowdy, transcending secular music including If I Can Dream. Still enjoying that journey.

  • Jim Jones

    Has he had experience preaching to a congregation? Or teaching? If so, something that might help him find work right now:

    Look into counseling, seminars and workshops.

    A couple of books worth reading:

    1. How to Develop and Promote Successful Seminars and Workshops: The Definitive Guide to Creating and Marketing Seminars, Workshops, Classes, and Conferences 1st Edition by Howard L. Shenson

    2. How to Run Seminars and Workshops: Presentation Skills for Consultants, Trainers, and Teachers by Robert L. Jolles

    You can buy them for not much more than shipping costs (both are/were a penny plus shipping on Amazon) or try your local library. They’ll give you a good background.

    Shenson tells you how to be profitable. Jolles tells you how to be a successful trainer.

    There are firms that hire speakers to deliver training etc. It does often involve travel, but it can be well paid and it doesn’t involve 40 hour weeks.

  • Ministry is one of the worst imaginable jobs ever for anybody. The rate of burnout is HUGE, and pastors stand at big risk of maladaptive coping measures (like unapproved sex, substance abuse, etc). Christians themselves treat their leaders worse than dog doodie. There’s a huge dichotomy between the ideology’s consideration of pastoral power and how it works out in reality, and I think that disparity, too, plays into the problems sincere ministers face as their everyday reality.

    In response, evangelicals — who treat their ministers even worse than the norm — can only hand-wave away all of it. It’s downright hilarious, but it also indicates a lot of damage faced by very real people, most of whom got into ministry with good intentions. The insincere ones who are just in it for power don’t seem nearly as bothered by such mistreatment; their focus remains on gaining so much personal power that they don’t deal with any of that stuff, which they consider collateral damage at best.

    I really sympathize with the pastors who get chewed up and spat out by the evangelical machine. Though some groups operate without regard for formal training or education, most require both – and both are largely totally inapplicable to life outside the ministry world. The experience they gain only becomes applicable elsewhere through resume-wizardry and expert reframing. It’s a hugely expensive proposition for most of them at that. And the relationship damage they suffer for going through all that trouble will take many years, if not a lifetime, to undo.

    It’s so far past unfair and cruel. And I’ve been reading and listening to enough Christian podcasts to know that we folks on the outside are getting only the barest glimmerings of the world ministers endure. I think back to all the young women I knew who literally prayed for “Jesus” to send them husbands in ministry (or planning to enter various jobs in ministry), and it just gives me the chills.

  • mason

    The world of Evangelical Show Business religion is a micronism of America right now … winners take all, … and then there’s the left over also rans …
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/94b582ad60c06851c4362fdb0a2f7a777161fb0167ab9d91bd02f6f117058b67.jpg

  • Thanks for the advice, Jim. He would be an excellent trainer! I had not thought of this at all, and I don’t think he has, either.

  • Jim Jones

    I admit it isn’t for everyone but it’s worth checking into.

  • Linda LaScola

    Also, his resume might scream out “pastor” instead of focusing on his skills. I suggest that he get input from a professional resume writer.

  • Lonborghini Funghini

    Thank you Bart for sharing a glimpse into your personal journey and recognizing The Clergy Project and its vital mission to religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs. We are so fortunate to have you among us and yes, we are already seeing some applications come in referencing this same post on your own blog. In addition to follow up articles here and on your blog, i suspect there may be another Bart Ehrman book here? Thank you again for all you do for TCP, free thought, and biblical scholarship. Cheers!

  • Adrian Krag

    Thank you – I wish I had read your material when I was first turning to rational thoughts and beliefs. I think the most important thing for everyone to understand, is we don’t decide what to believe. I think many people make that mistake, assuming it’s our fault that our world view has shifted. It’s not. Our beliefs, the real ones come from what our senses tell us and how our brain and DNA interpret the information. We can pretend to believe, but that’s what faith becomes. This is true for both the enlightened as well as the deluded. We need to remember that when dealing with staunch believers. They didn’t choose to believe, and they will not choose to change. Information will force itself upon them. Given data, like you and others present, some will see, some will change and some will pretend.

    When an honest man discovers he is wrong, he either stops being wrong, or he stops being honest.

    Adrian

  • mason

    The vast majority of believers are bullied and brainwashed into it when they are credulous trusting children under the control of adults they respect. Such was the case with me. As an adult and later as an Evangelical pastor I took an honest look at what I was believing and discarded the all nonsense I’d been bamboozled into.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/042954469bfc48a97ace7c11b5acb3ae3c2a8a43f60ccb03d6ab670d7922020a.jpg into.