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For Clergy, Losing Faith Can Be an Occupational Hazard

posted by mconsoli

NEW YORK (RNS) For some clergy, it is the problem that dare not speak its name.
Affected pastors say they cannot be themselves among their congregations or colleagues, sometimes even with their own families.
It’s a huge and burdensome secret with the potential to destroy their careers, they say. They think they’re not the only ones, but feel terribly lonely.
No, it’s not some kind of sexual secret — it’s loss of faith.
Daniel C. Dennett, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University outside Boston, and Linda LaScola, a Washington-based clinical social worker, researcher and psychotherapist, are the authors of a recent study entitled “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.
There used an admittedly tiny sample — just five pastors, all Protestants — of clergy who tell their congregations one thing, but secretly believe another.
“One of the things that was striking was how much like gays of the 1950s these pastors are,” Dennett said. “In most cases, Linda was the first person these pastors had ever discussed this with. They were very lonely.”
Dennett and LaScola state upfront that they themselves are not believers; indeed, Dennett is at the forefront of the “New Atheist” movement. His book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” tried to explain the human search for the divine as a part of basic evolutionary survival.
Yet the two remain “sympathetic and fascinated” observers of faith, intrigued by the idea of active clergy who “don’t believe what many of their parishioners think they believe and think they ought to believe.”
The five respondents all have master’s-level seminary education; three were from liberal denominations and two were from more conservative, evangelical traditions.
Defining the blurry line between “belief” and “non-belief” was a challenge, Dennett and LaScola wrote. Two ministers felt they had crossed a self-defined line, saying they no longer deserved to be called believers. Three said that while they may not believe in a supernatural god, yet they believe in something.
“Wes,” a United Methodist minister, said he now sees God as “a kind of poetry written by human beings.” He distinguished himself from an atheist by acknowledging that the word God “has value in some contexts.”
One key point on the road to unbelief was scholarly studies of the historical origins of the Bible — it “does not fit with what is taught in Sunday school,” Dennett said.
“Darryl,” a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, said his seminary studies “blew open” Christian doctrine, leading him to realize there was “a variety of thought that went in every different kind of direction” in Christianity. “Adam,” of the Church of Christ, learned that there is variation in biblical texts and remembered wondering whether church founders picked the right one.
All five clergy “set out to do good” when they entered the ministry, Dennett noted, which is why they struggle so deeply with their current situations. Although Darryl still described himself as a “Jesus follower,” he also says he rejects “heaven and hell in the traditional sense,” the virgin birth and the divinity of Jesus.
“They care, that’s the problem,” Dennett said. “There is a deep anguish and guilt and a sense of loyalty to the church as well as a desire to protect members of the congregation.”
So why not simply abandon the pulpit? Several ministers, nowhere near retirement age, said they needed the job to put food on the table.
Others said such a step would be devastating to their families. “Jack,”
a Southern Baptist, said leaving the church would turn his wife’s world “upside-down.” Adam said he tells himself, “Just keep doing it … just keep along with it … tell yourself that this is for the greater good for the people I care about … you’re doing good in your community; you’re respected.”
Dennett and LaScola claim that neither denominational leaders nor congregations seem much interested in the depth and specifics of a clergyperson’s faith — and for good reason.
“When a congregation is searching for new pastor, they are much more interested in pastoral skills, a way with people, inspiring sermons.
They tend not to give the candidate the third degree about theology,”
Dennett said. And the last thing a bishop wants to hear is that “one of the front line preachers is teetering on the edge of default,” the pair wrote.
The Rev. Patrick Malloy, an Episcopal priest and professor of liturgy at General Theological Seminary in New York, agreed that “search committees do not give applicants the `third degree,”‘ yet said “that does not mean they are indifferent to the applicant’s faith.”
Malloy said he knows a number of Episcopal bishops, and “I can tell you that not one of them would take a `don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach” to a clergyperson’s faith, even while they might respect “a breadth of opinion” and even “honest doubt.”
Respondents and others who spoke to Dennett and LaScola said they believe they are the tip of an iceberg, so the pair plans a follow-up study, given the necessary funding and willing subjects.
“We would like to get more denominations, more stories,” he said. He would like to talk to Roman Catholic priests, for example, where “there is a premium on doctrinal fidelity, but (also) a long tradition of intellectual sophistication among Catholic thinkers,” Dennett said.
They also want to know whether it’s harder for a man (or woman) of the cloth to lose faith in more conservative denominations than in more liberal ones.
“Is it true that in the more conservative denominations that … the gap between what they believe and what their parishioners believe is more painful? It’s likely, but we don’t know.”
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • pagansister

    Ministers/priests/rabbis can all get burned out and begin to doubt. I’m surprised that more don’t leave the profession.

  • Richard

    This article really struck a cord with me. I was once a born-again evangelical but over the years I began to have doubts. The more I read about the origins of the Bible and of the historic Jesus the more I began to doubt what I had been brought up to believe. Now I consider myself a follower of a man called Jesus. I no longer believe the supernatural stories in the Bible and consider them myths but I like what Jesus had to say about how to treat others. But I don’t tell my Christian friends what I really believe because I know they would be appalled. So I keep my real views to myself.

  • gregory

    “Preach faith until you have it, then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” — Peter Bohler

  • nnmns

    This does not surprise me a bit. The more you know about Christianity the more chinks you’ll see (unless you’ve been fortunate enough to not have it drilled into you as a child, in which case no matter how little you know it looks fishy). I’m sure the same is true for Judaism and Islam.
    And also, after years of counseling people to trust in God and such you may notice that doesn’t work so well either.
    I’m guessing there are a lot of clergy in that state or quite close to it.

  • Diamond Girl

    This was spot on with me. Still considered a leader in my church, I no longer believe in the christian god or practices. I am a great supporter of an individual’s beliefs however I find it amazing that people believe the things that they do. I understand the appeal of Jesus’s teachings for they were quite popular even before he spoke them. Jesus just had a better PR guy.

  • cknuck

    No one can be “once a born again Christian” you can believe and then change your mind but to be born again means a relationship. You can’t have a relationship with Christ and then not believe in His existence, it’s kind of like not believing in an relative all of a sudden. By the way you simply cannot know “more about Christianity” without knowing Christ. As much as some people’s egos would love to pretend they have knowledge unobtainable, (lol)it is actually possible that they simply don’t know God and He may have no interest in letting them know Him.

  • nnmns

    So if you have a relationship with the Flying Spaghetti Monster (talk to it, imagine it’s talking back to you, maybe feel better because of your imagining) you can’t decide the FSM doesn’t exist after all? Man these religions and imaginary friends should have warning labels!

  • Rob the Rev
  • cknuck

    nnmns you might not think that comparing God to your flying spaghetti monster is a insult so don’t be insulted when I compare you to a demonic force.

  • nnmns

    Who’s insulted by it cknuck? You or your god?
    And I’m definitely not insulted. It’s nice to be thought of as a force.

  • cknuck

    everything is a force even a pollution could be considered. I guarantee you won’t like where this is going.

  • nnmns

    Again, ck, who’s insulted? You or your god? If it’s you that would be your problem not mine. I refuse to avoid saying anything that might insult someone since some people choose to be easily insulted. So get a thicker skin.
    If it’s your god, and by some infinitesimal and highly perverse chance that god actually existed it should be way to big to be insulted by anything I could say. I’m sorry if your god is that small, cknuck.

  • nnmns

    And now, so long from here.

  • Dark Horse

    I’ve always thought that if there was a god who consisted of all the characters religionists subscribe (there are hundreds of gods to choose from), he, she or it would have done a much better job of everything. All religious texts are seriously flawed; human and animal anatomy demonstrates numerous examples of very poor design, there are weeds in my garden, I’m getting arthritis, and people all around the world are being killed in the name of a god.
    It seems that anyone with half a brain, even those brainwashed from early childhood, would have to enventually realise what a crock of old cobblers the whole religion thing really is; the oppression and subordination of women, the many horror stories about god in the holy books. It defies belief. While it would be wonderful to have a supreme entity that loves us, looks after us and comforts us, it’s simply not the case. To believe otherwise is contrary to the evidence and a delusion.

  • cknuck

    nnmns quote, “I’m sorry if your god is that small, cknuck.”
    nnmns jerks like you do get under my skin because they are cowards. You cannot wait to get an opportunity to say stuff like that and to me that is what punks do, so who is small someone who surfs the web for such opportunities to slide in insults that they would not dare to say in person or a God who inspires the folk who love Him to help and care for others?

  • cknuck

    DH people kill people and they do those deeds for money, power, and land, not for God.

  • Ruairi

    I haven’t been reading in here for ages, but wow today I read some of the stupidest stuff imagined.. started out with the guy who said that if your a Facebook user your a”moron”. Apparently millions of people don’t know anything compared to that one guy. His name wasn’t even worth remembering.
    Now Cknuck has lived up to everything I recall about him.. which is not using his head at all.
    People have been killing each other over “God” for more than a thousand years. Each event trying to prove that their god is the best one. Yes ck.. your god has been used for killing many times over.. Crusades, inquistions, witch hunts… all in the name of God. Very specifically your god.
    So how can you say otherwise?

  • cknuck

    Ruairi, I’m glad I have lived up to your expectations, with your closed minded agenda that’s not hard at all.
    In the first place the people who prey upon people to delude with enough religious zeal to kill another are not religious people they are by in large greedy people. You are probably one of poor deluded saps that still believe Hitler was religious. Well the people that were the real power behind your precious Crusades were in it for money, power and land, not in even a remote form of service to Jesus Christ. As we have seen historically it is not hard to find needy humans to follow almost any cause, they follow humans not God. The witch hunts were about power and fear CLOAKED in religion even a half of brain can figure these things out unless they have a agenda to poke holes in Christianity then they become as blind as those poor fools who follow greedy humans falsely in the name of any god.

  • Ruairi

    Why would anyone think that Hitler was religious? The crusades aren’t mine… they belong to your church. Im sure money and power were part of the mix, but you still dont want to face the fact that they were done in the name of “God”… your God.. not mine.
    The only thing I have against Christianity is most of it’s followers who insist that they are the only right way… your way or no way. Thats not how it works for most of the world.
    I have my own beliefs and im as secure in them as you are in yours. and I know that I havent condememed anyone in the name of a God/Goddess. I’m not that stupid.. I know what the results would be.

  • Wannabe Theo

    On this issue, I agree with cknuck. Almost all wars, including the Crusades, are about naked agression and a desire for wealth, resources, security and/or power. Wars are often given more noble sounding justifications to sell them better, and make the agressors look better in the eyes of history. “Fighting for God” was a justification that sounded pretty good in the Middle Ages; not so much today, but back then it did. Nowadays, we’re more likely to claim political or human rights motivations for our wars of agression, and I mean all countries, not just the U.S. But the underlying motivations are the far less noble fear and greed which have motivated war throughout human history.

  • cknuck

    Even our most recent wars like Iraq was a personal pursuit and Bush did a great job of selling it to both the religious and fearful but in the end it was just a personal pursuit.
    Ruairi quote, “they belong to your church.”
    No they weren’t that is a blatant lie, you don’t know my church, the people or what we are about. The very thing you accuse Christians of doing you do. I don’t know your religion but I will never comment on it or claim any superiority over it so you are just peeing in the wind my friend, I don’t know why but have at it.

  • Elspode

    Religion has always been used as a motivating factor by those who stood to gain from conflict vis a vis power, money and property. Those who were behind the conflicts didn’t start them over religious faith, but those who fought and died were motivated by such imagery.
    Religion is not only the opiate of the masses, it is the motivational force which makes them the unwitting and earnest tools of the powers that be.

  • Ruairi

    Yes those who started it were interested in power and money but those who actually doing the fighting were doing it for their God. Not that they had much choice.. you either believed or were killed or shunned.
    As to my quote.. “they belong to your church.”.. your church is part of a Christian organization that has taken many forms… so perhaps what I meant was your choice of religion. It doesn’t matter where your own church has gone.. it is still part of the group called Christians.
    Oh and I never said my way was a better way .. it is for me though.

  • cknuck

    The whole religion opiate thing is a manipulative device almost religious in nature. One glance at the human condition and one could name several opiates of the masses.

  • cknuck

    Ruairi you obviously have no idea of Christianity or the depth faith nor the perfection or imperfection or any of the many dimensions of Christian faith, give up while you are ahead.

  • Ruairi

    Isn’t it rather strange.. that the ONE Right Relgion… has so many diffences? We are talking history though.. Christians used the church to get people to do what they wanted done.. People who they even consider “sheep” doing what they are told to do in the name of God.
    No matter how you try to get out of it.. that is history of your religion.

  • cknuck

    u r so stuck on stupid R, real Christians have no desire to get people to do what they want done if what they want done is evil then they are not Christians. Do you actually know what the word means?

  • Ruairi

    Aww yes.. the true Christian calling names.. I am hardly a stupid person. I am well educated and have studied religions beside my own and yours.
    The point is you don’t wish to have any responsibilty for the history of Christianity. What you belive to be a Christian in 2010 has no bearing on what Christianity was in earlier years.
    Even today there are still people who call themselves Christians who do their best to hurt others… It may not be your way of being Christian but it still exsists. I have experianced it and so have many others whom I know.

  • cknuck

    R studying religion is a lot different then having a relationship well educated or not that may be a leap you might never understand. No I don’t take responsibility for Crusades or any other nonsense that religious or greedy groups may have perpetrated it’s a silly notion for you to try to imply what I believe to be a Christian is already defined in the bible so 2010 has nothing to do with it. I cannot account for the negative experiences you have had with Christians or people who call themselves Christians but I do know that just because a person proclaim to be a Christian don’t make it true.

  • cknuck

    pardon the grammar, my lack of education shows up dramatically when I am trying to hurry I’m hoping you caught my meaning i have a huge meeting in minutes.

  • Ruairi

    I understand typing in a hurry.. I am dylesic and the more I am tired the more weird typos come up.
    But for one last comment. I grew up Christian.. I did all the right things at the right times.. and was “born again” and yes you can turn from that.. I found it a false path. Doing only what others wanted, not what was right for me. I know your going to say that I didn’t know Jesus.. maybe not the one you believe you know. I do know I was an active person in the church and finally got fed up with the hypocrasy at not one but two diffrent churchs /even demominations. They all believe they are Christian. Just as you do.
    Oh and if we are not all still responsible for the events of the past why are we as a country still paying restution to the Native Americans, Japenese camp victiums .. and pretty much still be held liable for the Civle war. The Christian religion is still resposnsible for the actions done in its name. You have a choice to be Christian.. in the past it wasn’t a choice it was a matter of law, forced participation. Many died because they didn’t want to be Christian. This is facts not fiction.

  • cknuck

    R I have never killed people over religion, and who gets to say what we are responsible? Some groups got restitution and some did not, who would pay African Americans retribution for what our ancestors went through? I don’t know who comes up with a figure or amount but what price is fair and who should pay the price? When we were kids I can remember “do overs” I do believe we in our limited capacity had grace built in and there should be a lot more “do overs” in adult life.

  • cknuck

    By the way thanks for being kind and civil

  • JNWesner

    When I joined the Humanist Society of New Mexico several years ago our president was a former minister. A few years later another former minister joined the group. Both had given serious thought to what they had been taught, and were expected to teach others. They found themselves unable to believe traditional Christianity. Though I was never a minister, as a layman I went through the same change. First I questioned hell, then heaven, then bits of the Old Testament, and finally most of what was expected of me. But I’ve lost nothing; those men had to give up their careers in order to remain honest. I respect both greatly.

  • anthony buzzard

    Having pondered these issues for the past 50 years, I suggest that failure of faith in the pulpit may be due to the fact that the original, pristine faith of Jesus and the NT was not learned in the first place. What seminarians may not know is that the faith of the original believers has become overlaid by centuries of confusing, post-biblical, Greek philosophical traditions, which create a huge gap between Jesus and what is preached in his name. Jesus warned in the starkest terms of the “the many” clergy who will have thought that they were Christian when in fact they were not. See Matt. 7:21ff. Rather than abandon faith, why not re-examine the NT documents and discover the real God, the real Jesus and the real Gospel. These have been obscured by the tyranny of post-biblical dogma, which rules in the seminaries.

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