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Is there a place in the church for clergy who have lost their faith?

Is there a place in the church for clergy who have lost their faith?

On Faith discusses a book and study on clergy who have lost their faith but have continued to preach. Is there a place of them in the church? And how can the church support them in their faith crisis?

If you’ve ever been lured by your own basic goodness into a situation where you (or your neighbor or both of you) must suffer unjustly, think how your predicament pales next to that of the preachers Linda LaScola and I describe in our 2010 pilot study of five Protestant pastors, “Preachers Who are Not Believers,” and our 2013 book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, which reports on 35 participants from diverse religious backgrounds.pulpit-cover1.jpg

How many little white lies, how many whoppers, how much dissembling, how much systemic hypocrisy have they accumulated in their quest to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?

None of the secretly non-believing preachers and pastors who have poured out their hearts to Linda in confidential interviews went into the ministry for the money — a laughable goal — or for fame and glory or political influence. A few of them may have been particularly attracted to a career in the clergy by their self-assessment as natural-born preachers, relishing the spotlight for their eloquence or indulging their love of ceremony or showmanship in the service of God. But when their faith wanes, they pay a heavy price for their play-acting, since their congregations include many — or so they must assume — who would feel deeply betrayed to learn that their speech acts had been less than the candid truth.


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Rod Gillis

@ If you’re still alive, a “destination of atheism” is as illusory and temporary …”

To continue with the metaphor, life is a journey, so you get off the train at what you believe is your destination. If you find that it is not, then fine get back on the train and go back or continue on. However, if a preacher moves to an intellectual position that s/he is an atheist then the Christian community needs to respect that position and say, if you change your mind come back and we’ll talk about ministry.

An atheist in the pulpit does nothing for anyone’s integrity. In fact, it strikes me that it is perverse, and likely some sort of acting out behavior, perhaps even emotional abuse directed at seekers and believers alike.

Chris H.

Let’s admit that there is a difference between doubt and conviction that Christianity is false and that those who are convinced should leave. When a priest doesn’t believe and someone comes wanting advice on divorce, cancer, etc. and the priest says, “You aren’t worried about what the Bible says are you? Get the divorce if you want.” Not helpful. Or how can someone who doesn’t believe in the afterlife help someone who does, or wants to, face death? Most of my family no longer attend church although they were very faithful when I was young because of “advice” priests gave them to stop believing parts of Christianity. If it isn’t real, there’s no reason to waste Sunday morning.

Perhaps instead of trying to keep them, we should give them the time away and let them come back some day if they change their minds, not just keep them in the pulpit lying the whole time. Jesus’ story of judgment, “Did we not…Away from me, I never knew you…” is not a ringing endorsement of those just going through the motions, even if you aren’t actually performing miracles.

Chris Harwood

Harriet Baber

I’ve had priests “come out” to me–not using the word “atheist” but making it clear that they didn’t believe anything that would normally be regarded as theism. They had the idea that because I was a philosophy professor I would of course think that they were clever for rejecting theism. And that I, of course, agreed with them.

That was a big part that drove me from the Church–not clergys’ disbelief as such, but the facile assumption that the religious beliefs of most Christians, including their congregations’, were just plain stupid. And adding insult to injury, the smug conviction that it would be cruel to disillusion the poor souls who held these views: the benighted laity. No, we had to be gently weaned from our naive superstitions, if that, but most importantly be led to recognize that realreligion was just a matter of working for “justice, freedom and peace.”


“Journeys take us to a destination. When a priest reaches the destination of atheism…”

Rod, haven’t you ever heard this old saw? “How do you know whether you’ve completed your purpose in life? If you’re still alive, you haven’t.”

Same w/ “destinations”. If you’re still alive, a “destination of atheism” is as illusory and temporary as a “destination of [Brandname] theism” [or a “destination of agnosticism”, for that matter].

What’s tomorrow’s destination? (ad infinitum)

JC Fisher

Eric Bonetti

Concur with Ann. Of all the clergy I know, one of the most helpful in growing my own faith is a priest who has been absolutely transparent about his doubts and challenges. From him I have learned that my doubts and insecurities are more the norm than the exception….and I love and respect him for being able to discuss those openly and create a safe space for my own fears and anxieties.

Eric Bonetti

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