Falling from Faith: When Pastors Stop Believing

Some will argue, for example, that they simply found Christianity, or religion in general, untenable. Fair enough.

But abandoning religion for atheism is hardly the rational choice in a world of otherwise irrational choices. Curiously, one of the prerequisites for "The Clergy Project" is that participants reject any belief in the supernatural. So much for free and open inquiry.

I am more interested, however, in a different question: "What are we doing as a church to form clergy who can navigate the complexities of life and faith?"

After all, it is not just clergy well being that is at stake; it is the spiritual formation of the people in the pew as well. If clergy cannot navigate those waters for themselves, they can hardly help others.

I explored this subject a number of years ago with church leaders and laypeople with little or no success. I don't think that the case I made was a weak one at all and the recommendations I made were hardly lacking in strategic focus. The problem seemed to have had more to do with the perceived need.

If church is about services, programs, and patterns of giving, then the questions of spiritual growth and nurture seem abstract and secondary. And if that task seems abstract, you can't begin to imagine how hard it is to engage people in the effort to think about what it takes to prepare people for ordained life or sustain them in their efforts.

Perhaps it is just too much to expect. People demand quality healthcare, but they don't want to think what it takes to achieve it or pay for it; and they are even more innocent of the moral, intellectual, and spiritual complexities faced by those who provide it. So why should ordained life be any different? In the final analysis, it is easier to watch clergy drift or run away and then replace them, than it is to contemplate the task of nurturing them.

There are exceptions, of course. People will point to the foundations and institutions that provide significant support clergy wellness. Others will point to the isolated denominational effort here and there. But those efforts can only reach a select few, either through direct gifts or the creation of new programs.

What continues to be missing, in spite of their noble efforts, is a systemic effort that will reframe the process of preparation itself. There will always be a certain number of clergy who fall from faith and others who quietly give up church, even if they don't abandon their faith. But until an effort is made to fill in the missing pieces, a number of those people and their ministries will be lost to us thanks to our own lack of imagination.

5/28/2012 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • The Spiritual Landscape
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  • Mainline Decline
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  • Frederick Schmidt
    About Frederick Schmidt
    Frederick W. Schmidt is the author of The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Life in Hard Times (Abingdon Press: 2013) and several other books, including A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). He holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He and his wife, Natalie live in Chicago, Illinois. He can also be reached at: http://frederickwschmidt.com/