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Clergy who lose their faith

Clergy who lose their faith

What happens when the religious leader in a community loses their belief in God? For some it’s a secret they hide. For others it means the end of their vocation. For some it’s a temporary thing. And for some it’s become a reason to seek support from others in a similar state.

Talk of the Nation yesterday interviewed a former Methodist pastor who lost her faith after nine years in the ordained ministry. She now describes herself as an atheist and she’s left the church. When she went public with her news, there was a quite a controversy in her community. She ultimately found help in a group called “The Clergy Project”, an online support group for current and former pastors who’ve lost their faith.

From the show’s transcript:

“BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: You know, it’s really hard to tell how big a phenomenon this is. Apparently in The Clergy Project, there are a couple – there are around 200 past or current clergy who have anonymously come forward to this Clergy Project, this group, and said, you know, I want out, or I am out, and I can help other people get out.

I think since the story aired, about another 25 have joined, as well. So it’s hard to know how big a phenomenon it is partly because who do you talk to if you’re a clergy, right? It’s not something that you talk to people openly about. I mean, everything – your whole world, your friends, your community, your career, everything depends on being a clergy. So I think this is one of those secrets that people really hold in. It’s hard to know.

I suspect, given the reaction that we’ve had to this story, that there are a lot of people out there who have the kind of questions that Teresa has talked about, and other people that I interviewed for this story have talked about, as well.

I suspect there are some people, a lot of people out there like that, but they maybe haven’t wanted to address the questions, and so it’s still fairly private.”

It’s a long transcript but worth spending the time to read. There’s been a lot of thought given to wellness financial stability for clergy with the hope that keeping experienced people working in the church will be good for the congregations they serve. But are there any major initiatives within the Episcopal Church to support clergy going through a crisis of faith? What about for the laity? It’s probably not enough to say that their clergy will provide all they need in such a moment.


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You define the very difference between non-theism, and the ex-Methodist pastor’s anti-theism.

You not only remain in TEC, but you would like to see it grow (with or without theism).

The woman in the story, I believe, wants to see the UMC, and all Christian churches, and all theist faith organizations, DIE. Become extinct.

[Re the atheists’ convention: how long does one attend those, I wonder? Beyond the period of Convert’s Zeal? Then inevitable atomization sets in…]

Fundy theism is destructive, and fundy antitheism is sterile. Scylla and Charybdis.

God bless TEC, and all who (like God ;-)) choose to pitch their tents within it!

JC Fisher


Disbelief, it seems, is an essential part of faith. Just as one cannot have death without life, or courage without fear, the two are inexorably intertwined. Indeed, often the most spiritually sensitive seem to be the most susceptible to doubt, so I would think more, not less, of someone in this situation. And I certainly would not encourage someone to leave his or her calling or vocation over this very normal struggle.

In many of these situations, though, there’s a larger issue behind the scenes, which is interpersonal conflict or burnout, coupled with isolation.

My sense is that this situation is increasingly prevalent in the church, given how often our clergy have to do more with less. This pattern is exacerbated by what I suspect is an over-correction on our part of setting boundaries. While 20 years ago one’s priest was an integral part of one’s extended family, present for all of life’s great milestones, and a frequent dinner guest within the parish, today clergy increasingly try to firewall their home and “clerical” lives. I’m not sure that’s good, either–just because someone wears a dog collar doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy social contact within the parish, be seen as fully human, or receive love and care from parishioners, but all within appropriate boundaries.

I’d add that the most effective priests I know all share one characteristic–they are remarkably transparent, even about their own struggles. Yes, this is an art, and a tricky one at that, since psychological nudity is very unhealthy. But those who master transparency find the connections that they make build their own faith, while engendering highly effective pastoral relationships.

Eric Bonetti

Apps 55753818692 1675970731 F785b701a6d1b8c33f0408

I find it fascinating that the very things that cause one person to believe can cause another person to not believe (here I’m referring to the “questions” the pastor the story speaks of). I also find it appalling how insensitive the pastor’s faith community behaved toward her after she revealed her loss of faith.

Cullin R. Schooley

Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

I have a couple of thoughts. First, why is it automatically assumed that to become an atheist or non-theist means that one departs the church and a religious life? For myself, as an “out” non-theist Episcopalian, I have not wanted to leave the church. The religious life remains very important to me. Could we not help these clergy to think more broadly? If my theist priests can effectively minister to me as a non-theist, could it not also go the other way? I cannot but imagine that there are other lay and clergy like myself who are “religious but not spiritual.” Perhaps if we were more open to clergy “coming out” and not assuming that they will be out of a job unless they recant their atheism and return as “recovering theists” we could come up with structures within the church. Unless we can have something close to that attitude, I do not think that “help” would be any more successful than programs to “help” people change sexual orientation.


Ooops, I meant Gerry Rafferty, of course (his band Stealer’s Wheel w/ “Stuck in the Middle w You”. Getting name confused w/ his song “Baker Street”!). But RIP (I think he passed away last year).

JC Fisher

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