Exit The Church But Don’t Talk About Fight Clu…The Clergy Project!

Exit The Church But Don’t Talk About Fight Clu…The Clergy Project! August 27, 2018
Photo by Pat Green

In the wake of being featured in a podcast last month, I found myself being contacted by The Clergy Project for the third time over the same thing. Criticizing it. This group dedicated to helping ministers and ex ministers who have lost their faith does good work. Like any group it is not for everyone. It is also not perfect. There is nothing wrong with that. But it is a little creepy that three times I have said something negative about my time with them I have heard from an executive member in the group.

The podcast is the Everyone’s Agnostic Podcast, hosted by Cass Midgley. In my interview with Cass I decided I was going to be wholly myself. In the interview he asked if I was ever part of the Clergy Project. I said I had been for a brief time, but I had left when I saw some people “swinging their d**** about”.  I said a few other things and we moved on. It was less than 45 seconds of over 1 hour 18 minutes and 15 seconds of content. But it was enough to earn me yet another reach out from a higher up in the group wanting to speak to me about my comments.

The last time this happened was a few months before that when I made a comment on another friend’s Facebook page. The time before that was on my own personal Facebook wall a few years ago. I never violated their terms of confidentiality. But the first comment earned me private messages by someone in the “IT Department” telling me my log in history and what pages I visited and when while I was a member. At the same time I had another person on the board telling me I was out of line for speaking out “against them”.

I had left because I felt some of the male members there were making sexist and bullying comments about a female member in the public world of social media. I felt it was untowards and I quietly left the group with a simple log out. Months later in a conversation on my wall the topic came up by an active member as to why I do not associate myself with the group. What I said was something to the effect of, “I felt some members were mean to someone and I realized it just was not the group for me.”  Next thing I know, “IT guy” who is not even a facebook friend was contacting me privately along with the other person. I blocked them and moved on with my life.

I do not remember what I said a few months ago on a friend’s Facebook wall, but the topic of The Clergy Project came up and I said something sarcastic. Again, I get a message from a board member. Four weeks ago I am on a podcast speaking of beautiful and honest things for over an hour and a snippet less than 30 seconds earns me yet another private comment.

With a rare and delightful exception on a social level with a few members, the only time I hear from current members on an official level is when I break the first rule of Fight Club and speak about Fight Club. Frankly, I find it rather creepy and I honestly have no clue why my opinion matters or should matter to them.

They have a website, press releases, and members interviewed regarding their role in the project. That is all right. But if you say something that is not outstanding about them, at least from my experience, someone finds out and approaches you.

With the exception of the first instance, which was intimidating, the approaches have been kind (albeit a little defensive) in nature. I never spoke about who was and was not a member and I never spoke about things said in the online forums per the membership agreement.

So yes, when I said what I said in the podcast interview, I feel that I was justified in my course and brief summation as to why I was there for a short time. Additionally, more than one former executive board member agrees with me. Beyond that, in my conversations with other members, both former and current, there are still misogynistic and bullying statement made to members. Especially women. Being a woman in ministry is an uphill battle with sexism, so the last thing someone needs is more sexism when they leave.

What is the Clergy Project?

From their public website:

In The Clergy Project’s Online Community, forum discussion includes everything from practical concerns like finding a new career path and discerning when and how to come out as a non-believer to one’s spouse to more philosophical conversations centered on ethics and humanism. Services are also available to participants regarding career development and the opportunity for free counseling sessions offered through The Secular Therapist Project.

Through it all The Clergy Project exists to offer you supportcommunity, and hope. Hope for a better day, for a next chapter far surpassing anything the previous could have offered. So welcome. Welcome to The Clergy Project. 

They do have resources and some people have been helped through it. Ex Clergy and Clergy who have had a deconstruction and change in their beliefs need resources. It is nearly impossible to explain to people what being a minister is like, but it is even harder to describe the pain and fear and isolation when you are a minister who has experienced a change or loss of belief.

In some cases it could mean a loss of a job and friends. In other cases it can even include a loss of marriage and contact with your family depending on the tradition you were or are a minister in.

When I left and started driving a taxi I knew I was suffering, but I did not know there were groups that you could reach out to. When I found out there were resources, I tried a few. Some worked out and others did not. Some that did not work out for me were a great fit for others.

What Do Ex Ministers Who Lost Their Faith Need?

I cannot speak to all ex ministers, but I can tell you some common threads that I faced and quite a few other peers in the same boat as me have faced. I am also including, what I wish I saw more of in groups that are intended to support us.

  • Adjustment Disorder Resources- Adjustment disorder is a real thing. Sometimes it is called “situational depression”. If left untreated, it can lead to severe depressive episodes and even suicidal thoughts. I was proactive on this front and sought help when everything felt overwhelming.
  • Codependency Awareness- Regardless the denomination, they often do not train ministers well in self care. Even when trained well in self care, you can end up in work environments that are so toxic and destructive that you find yourself as a codependent and not know it. This is a cycle that can be broken. When it is broken, you have healthier relationships, friendships, and even your parenting improves. This was a difficult cycle for me to break and I ended up using the resources of a center that I once trained and volunteered at when I was a minister and a court advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
  • Severe Mental and Emotional Disorders- This one is more difficult to deal with. There is a lot of low self esteem in the ministry. Low self esteem can be like “imposter syndrome on steroids”.  On the other end of the spectrum is something more dangerous. There are some in ministry who have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Sociopathic Personality Disorders and other troubling behaviors that include and are not limited to rape, molestation and abuse of others. These people are not only very difficult to treat but they are hard to diagnose.
  • Job Guidance-If you are a job recruiter, you need to read what I am about to say very closely. Post ministry people often end up relegated into entry level sales or entry level HR. Sometimes even lower. This has been the rule of thumb since the 1970’s and it seems to be accepted industry standard. There is an untapped resource of effective C level executives who simultaneously worked the entire C Level Suite more effectively and with less resources than many C levels in the fortune 500 list. You want an untapped resource and get a sweet commission for a great find? Hire an ex preacher in an executive role!
  • Safe Space to Be- There is a grieving process going on in ex clergy. Everything has been uprooted. The gambit of emotions varies greatly. Some feel anger over being lied to. Some feel guilt for being a cog in a corrupt wheel. Then there are some are scared and feel alone. There is so much.

 

What Ex Ministers Who Lost Their Faith Don’t Need

  • Enablers- Some have to break cycles and work on themselves in deep self care before they start blogging, vlogging and publishing. I see this all the time. They still have too much of the negative baggage of ministry that is toxic and destructive and they do not know it. Others can see it, but they enable them or remain silent. My friends did not enable me, some of the groups I joined did.
  • Bullies- There is an old phrase. “Hurt people hurt people!” Bullies in many ex clergy groups are not only rampant, but they are not checked for their dangerous and harmful behavior. Some of it comes from their own space of hurt, but at the point the victim becomes the victimizer, they need to be checked.
  • The Blind Leading the Blind- The mental health resources I spoke about. They need to be filled with Licensed Clinical Social Workers, Master Social Workers, Psychologists and Psychiatrists. Not another ex preacher who has some training under their belt from Stephen Ministry or something like it. You need someone who has been trained and understands the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5)  as recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. The job training needs to be done by people who are trained in professional job recruitment and can advise on resume creation, effective use of internet recruitment tools, and other important resources. We do not need someone who is kinda good with resumes, got lucky, and sounds like a mix of Tony Robbins and a high school career counselor.
  • It is great to speak to people who have and are in the same space you are in. There is so much to get from that sense of community. It is essential. But just as we were not qualified to speak about a god we no longer believe in and we were often not as qualified as we thought we were to engage in relational and individual counseling, we are not qualified or trained to effectively diagnose mental disorders and effectively consult others in career counseling. Dr Maya Angelou once said, “There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”

What Do I Advise Ex Preachers?

Over the last five years, I have lost count how many ex ministers reach out to me for help. I tell them the following:

“Get thee to a therapist right away. If you cannot afford one, get on medicaid or some other form of public aid and see one right now. If they suggest medication and a treatment plan, follow it. Find a group of people in a similar space. I recommend The Lasting Supper. It is not exclusively for ex clergy or atheists, but it is the best space that I have found for engagement when going through spiritual upheaval and hell. It is only $15 a month and worth every penny. That buy in makes it far better than so many oversaturated free spaces. Take self care seriously, more seriously than you ever have.

As far as the job front, if you can afford it, hire a consultant. If you cannot afford it, I don’t know. Let me know when you figure it out. The truth is that you may have to start over. I know some ex ministers that bag groceries and make coffee surrounded by co workers the same age as their kids. There is no shame. Capitalism in North America is a lot like the church in North America, it is broken and does not have much compassion. Run the gauntlet as best you can.

Don’t join any volunteer leadership opportunities like The Clergy Project executive board. Don’t try to be like {place famous ex minister name here}. You need to do you before blogging, publishing and trying to get on a speaking circuit. It ain’t all that it is cracked up to be and sycophants and parasites will exhaust you and make impossible demands on you just like they did when you were a minister. And this is a lesson I learned late, temper your social media. It will feed a lot of negative toxins in you that you are not aware of. I am here for you as a friend. But know that if I see too much toxicity that could hurt me and my family, I will ghost you if I have to. Some did that to me when I was in that state. They were right to do so and needed to look after themselves.”

I also specifically tell them to avoid the clergy project. Though there are a lot of good people there who mean well, there are some dangerous elements to the vulnerable. I have spoken to one too many ex ministers there who volunteered and took on too much. They took arrows for having a good heart. They wanted to change it and fix it and they left exhausted, hurt, and bitter. Many of us have already been there and done that and have the tee shirt from ministry.

Why I Wrote This

Being an Ex minister is hard. It feels lonely and like a divorce, it takes a few years for you to recover from the leaving. There is so much that we need and I am willing to help in any way I can. I know groups like The Clergy Project have no paid staff and do not have membership fees. I think an effective group should have paid staff and there should be membership dues and fees for services. Finally, I also think that there should be scholarships and funding for those who cannot afford those services and resources. There is nothing wrong with that.

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Epilogue

I know there will be some people who will only see the negative of what I said. They will be mad. Have at it. This is the last time I will speak of the group. There are some good people there who are trying to do good things. But I stand behind my critique.

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