What happens when clergy lose their faith? It happens more often than most people might think. Most clergy have to struggle with un-belief at one point or another during seminary. Not all resolve the question before they are ordained. Often time the situation returns again and again; at least according to other clergy that I speak with informally.
Sam Harris, a well known atheist voice, interviews Tim Prowse, a former Methodist minister, about how he lost his faith and eventually left the ministry. It was a process that began in seminary.
“[Sam Harris] It sounds like you lost your faith in the process of becoming a minister—or did you go back and forth for some years? How long did you serve as a minister, and how much of this time was spent riven by doubt?
[Tim Prowse] I didn’t lose faith entirely during the ministerial process, although a simmering struggle between faith and doubt was clearly evident. This simmering would boil occasionally throughout my seventeen-year career, but any vacillations I experienced were easily suppressed, and faith would triumph, albeit, for non-religious reasons. Besides the money, time, and energy I had invested during the process, familial responsibilities deterred any decisions to alter course. These faithful triumphs were ephemeral and I found myself living in constant intellectual and emotional turmoil. By not repudiating my career, I could not escape the feeling I was living a lie. I continued to juggle this stressful dichotomy to the point of being totally miserable. Only recently have I succumbed to the doubt that has always undergirded my faith journey.
After I read your book, The End of Faith, I could no longer suppress my unbelief. Since I’d never felt comfortable in clergy garb and refused to accept a first-century worldview, your book helped me see that religion could no longer be an instrument of meaning in my life. I’m sad to say, Sam, this conclusion did not result in an immediate career change. I didn’t break from the church immediately, but rather feigned belief for two more years.”
Yesterday, in an informal conversation with a number of clergy we were talking about that cycle of faith, doubt and re-conversion. And how often it happens for some people. How have you heard about clergy finding their way back to faith? Was it through a different theological lens? Was it through recommitment to a part of ministry like service to the poor? Is this something you’ve experienced?
And more to the point I suppose, what sorts of things ought the larger church be providing to help in these personal struggles?