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Christian Pastors Who Have Lost Their Faith

You may not know this, but if you’re in a Christian church – whether it’s a traditional Roman Catholic church, Episcopalian, Southern Baptist, Independent-Bible-Thumping-Fire-and Brimstone-Fundamentalist – your priest/pastor may be losing his/her faith, or already lost it.  And yet still be in the pulpit.  There are some times when you might suspect something was up.  Other times, you’d have no clue.

I’ve been there, on both sides of that equation.  I won’t talk about the loss of faith on the part of pastors who were preaching in front of me every week.  But I can say something about myself, in the pulpit, desperately trying to hold on to my faith, and seeing it ooze away from me, while preaching every week on the radio.  It’s not a pleasant feeling, and can lead to massive confusion, self-doubt, self-condemnation, and uncertainty about what to do and where to turn.

I was never a permanent ordained minister in any denomination.  I was *trained* to be a minister.   Many of my classmates at Moody Bible Institute went off, directly from there, to be missionaries and pastors, and are still serving the church now over 40 years later.  Our education there involved not only Bible and theology classes, but also courses on preaching, Christian education, evangelism, and so on.

I myself was not sure what I would do when I graduated.  Missionary?  (I considered it.)  Pastor? (Maybe?).  More education?  (Yup, went that route)?   My final year at Moody I became a youth pastor in a church in Oak Lawn IL, led Bible studies, prayer meetings, and trillions of social activities with high school and college kids and young adults.  I did if for three years (while finishing my degree at Wheaton.)  Loved it.  But didn’t think I wanted that to be my life.

Then I went to seminary.  I had decided at that point not to go into ministry, but to get credentialed to teach at the university level.  My idea was to have a different kind of ministry, in a secular setting, as an evangelical spokesperson with academic credentials.  I had known a lot of professors teaching among the evangelicals; I wanted to be an evangelical among the (secular) professors.  A Christian mission to the secular academic world.

In the course of my seminary training I was not allowed to take only the topics I was really interested in – history of early Christianity, Old Testament, New Testament.  I had to take courses in preaching; pastoral counseling; church administration; Christian education, etc.  I received the same training as everyone else, most of whom were training for lifelong ministry.  It was a Presbyterian seminary, so most of my friends from those days were heading to the Presbyterian ministry and are still there.  I myself was active in an evangelical church in those days, running the adult education programs.

When I got into my PhD program I continued on in the church.  By that time we had moved to an American Baptist Church.  It’s an interesting denomination – not as consistently conservative theologically or politically as the Southern Baptist church has now become.  My church was certainly conservative in many ways, but it was in Princeton and there was a broad range of theological and political views there.  I was at the time heading toward a more liberal view of things in every way, as I advanced in my education.

During the second year of my PhD program the pastor of the church left, and the governing board asked if I would serve as an interim pastor for a year.  So I did.  Preached most weeks.  On the radio.  Performed church duties and services (funerals were not high on my list of pleasurable pastimes….).  Visited the sick and grieving.  Organized and ran the whole thing.

And was losing my faith.  I don’t need to explain why here.   Just one very quick anecdote.  One Sunday I gave a sermon dealing with how a certain passage of the Bible tried to explain why there can be such intense suffering in a world created by a good God.   Afterward, a parishioner came up to me, a lovely man with a gentle disposition, with tears in his eyes, and gave me a hug.  He and his wife were stalwart members of the church.  Their seventeen-year old son had committed suicide the year before, and they didn’t know how to handle it, how to make sense of it, how to have faith in the light of it.  This kind soul simply appreciated someone actually talking about the hard problems in church, even if there were no obvious answers.

Pastors confront this kind of thing all the time.  It really beggars belief what some pastors deal with, getting into the horrible lives that so many people have to deal with.   And some of these pastors lose their faith.  For a variety of reasons.  It happens.  All the time.  These are humans.

But what do pastors do when they are losing their faith?  How do they keep ministering to those in need?  Keep preaching every week?  Assuring mourners at funerals?  Keep following the church rituals: baptism, communion, and so on?

In my case it wasn’t so bad.  After a year, the church found a pastor, I left to go to another church, my slide continued, but I didn’t have to feel like a hypocrite standing in the pulpit preaching something I wasn’t as sure about any more, let alone preaching something I didn’t believe and counseling people in a faith I wasn’t sure I held.

Others are not so lucky.  It is very, very difficult to lose your faith emotionally and socially – what you have always believed is getting sucked away from you, and you have based your entire life on it.  You may have a deeply religious spouse, and kids, and parents, and friends; everyone looks up to you for spiritual guidance and support; you are to be a model and the model is crumbling.

And one thing outsiders may not think about as much.  You are trained to do nothing else.  If you leave the pulpit, you can’t just find another comparable job.  And you’ve never done or thought about another job.  You aren’t trained for another job.  You haven’t developed your skills for another job.   And you have a family.  And you are the sole or a main supporter.  And your kids need a place to live, and clothes, and food, and ….   And how are you, literally, going to survive if you lose your faith?

It is a horrible situation to be in.  Some simply gut it out and hold on to what little faith they have as best they can.  Others feel forced to be a hypocrite for the good of everyone else, to continue to comfort and help those in need and doubt, to avoid destroying the emotions and lives of family and loved ones, and so on.   Yet others realize they simply can’t live with themselves, and so they admit the problem, leave the church, and try to figure out a way to mend all their relationships and move on, somehow, but not always successfully.  Some heart-breaking stories out there.

Most of you will not know, but there is an organization that came into existence eight years ago to deal with precisely this problem.   It is called The Clergy Project.  You can find its public page here:  http://clergyproject.org/.  There is also a nice Wikipedia page devoted to it and a Facebook page.  It’s worth checking out.  It is designed to help clergy and other religious professionals who are either still active or who have left the ministry, who have lost their faith.

It’s an amazing project.  To join, one does have to have been a religious professional (not just Christian, but in any religion) who now does not hold supernatural beliefs.   Applicants are carefully vetted.  (No trolls!!)   People in this situation can join *completely* anonymously.  The group is massively protective of identities: no one needs know who you actually are, unless you are ready to come out.   The group provides lots of vital services.  There is an online support group with others in the same boat.  There are counseling services.  There are career development opportunities for retooling (pastors actually have a lot of skills, well-honed, that are useful in other careers, if they can figure out how to redirect them).  There are monetary grants for career transition.  And so forth.

The group is justifiably pleased just now that they have now reached a milestone of 1000 members.  It’s a great accomplishment, as the numbers continue to grow.   Members come from a large range of Christian denominations and groups, but not only there: it also has Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Scientologists, and others!

I know a lot of people on the blog have also lost their faith.  Others have started to have some doubts.  Yet others are completely committed to their faith, as much as other.  We represent a broad swath of the religious and non-religious community.  And hopefully being together in this format is helpful to people, no matter what their commitments and views.  Whatever our views, it is important to be supportive of one another, and to realize there are others in our boat with us.  The Clergy Project does this in a very focused way.  We do it in a different way.  The goal for both is to help people think through matters of importance to their personal, religious, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual lives, both to help them come to what they really think is the truth and to support them as they move forward in life thinking and believing as they do.

I post five times a week on this blog, almost always on the New Testament, the historical Jesus, the literature and history of Christianity in the very early centuries of its existence.   You get tons of information here, going back over seven years.  Joining costs very little, and every penny goes to charities helping those in need.  So think about joining!


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Comments

  1. Avatar
    jmmarine1  November 1, 2019

    You have mentioned this before on the blog and elsewhere; what about those ministers educated in critical approaches to the Bible who never breathe a word of it to their congregations? Are they afraid of alienating those without the ability to further pursue critical scholarship and make up their own minds? Are they afraid that they might be called into account and possibly lose their job if the assembled church board proves too conservative to persuade (lose their job at the church and possibly within the larger denomination)?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      Yes, these tend to hold on to their faith at a more sophisticated level than they think their congregations are ready for.

  2. Avatar
    craig@corbettlaw.org  November 1, 2019

    I joined TCP ten years ago I guess. It provides the support people need in a difficult situation. Good organization. Fortunately I had a profession to fall back on.

  3. Avatar
    jogon  November 1, 2019

    That was really interesting Bart – out of interest what year did you consider yourself to be no longer a Christian and were any of your trade books released when you were a Christian?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      I’m not sure what year it was. I suppose it was in the later 90’s??

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 1, 2019

    Wow’1 Your more personal blogs are always, always, your best ones. I am still waiting to read your spiritual autobiography. Your journey is similar to mine except you have much more biblical and foreign language scholarship than I. Other than that, there are many similarities. My loss of faith had a lot more study of science and evolution in it.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      They certainly are the most popular! But, alas, I’m an inveterate scholar/historian at heart, hence my main passions….

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 1, 2019

    Did you have any use of your training as a minister when you began teaching? I think all teachers should have some training in public speaking, and some of my teachers at Uni *really* needed it.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      Oh, yes — made a huge difference in my communication skills. Think I’ll post on that.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  November 1, 2019

    If the “Many Worlds” interpretation of quantum physics is correct there may be an alternative universe in which Bart Ehrman is a famous Christian apologist!

  7. Avatar
    ShonaG  November 1, 2019

    Why would a presbyterian minister hide it from his congregation, that’s the whole point its up to his congregation if they’re fine with him having doubts or even not believing there isn’t anything anybody else can do unless they want to commit spiritual fornication and go against the will of the congregation. You have humanist (clergy) for funerals already.

  8. Avatar
    cmdenton47  November 1, 2019

    I was the Treasurer for an Episcopal Church for seven-and-a-half years. When I lost my faith I passed on the job to a successor and stopped going to church. I am still dealing with the guilt of being part of what I essentially regard now as a swindle.

  9. Avatar
    Loring  November 1, 2019

    I am a former clergy who left ministry due to a loss of faith. From the beginning of Bible College to leaving ministry was 20 years. My Bible College and first seminary (of three) were fundamentalist. Before I finished my first seminary, however, I had moved from fundamentalist to evangelical.

    As my theology changed, I progressed through an evangelical denomination (seminary & ordained) and into a mainline denomination (seminary & ordination transferred). Bart’s post sounds so familiar to me. As my faith eroded, I realized I couldn’t continue to stand in the pulpit, saying things I didn’t believe. I think the hardest sermon I ever preached was my final Christmas Eve sermon. I knew what my congregation wanted to hear. But I knew I didn’t believe it. What to do? Should I say the story wasn’t true? Didn’t happen? Would they call the bishop and tell him to remove the heretic? Should I dig out an old sermon and just say words that I no longer believed? In the end, I tried to walk the line between our views. I used language I knew they would take literally, but which I could mean figuratively. It was the best compromise I could achieve. But it was very stressful.

    As I thought of leaving, I experienced the “I’m only trained to be a minister” issue! What else could I do with eleven years of theological training? I felt stuck. I thought my only option was McDonald’s! And there were the family issues that Bart mentioned. My in-laws were all very conservative Christians. How would I explain to them why I was leaving ministry?

    I sought help from a parishioner (!) who was a career counselor. She changed my life! She told me that I was failing to distinguish between my knowledge base and my transferable skills. Sure, a new career wouldn’t care about my knowledge of theology. But as a pastor, I had developed skills in communication, organization, administration, etc. Skills that I could transfer into a new career. I might need to add a new knowledge base (more school!), but I had options beyond McDonald’s!

    After 9 years of pastoral ministry, I returned to grad school for 2 years and earned my library science degree. I’ve been an academic librarian for 22 years and I love it! Leaving ministry was very difficult—but it was the best career decision I ever made. As for my faith, eventually it totally eroded.

  10. Avatar
    rivercrowman  November 1, 2019

    Thanks for the link to The Clergy Project! Contains a great resource list.

  11. Avatar
    Hogie2  November 1, 2019

    Thanks for sharing about the Clergy Project, I’ve heard many good things about it. When I left youth ministry nearly 30 years ago because of a church split, I was fortunate to get a sales job working for a friend of the family, as I wasn’t trained for anything else. Years later I was an interim pastor after the death of a pastor and now feel fortunate that the church ended up voting in someone else as pastor (they didn’t like my position that tithing wasn’t a New Testament requirement). It was difficult enough losing my faith as a former church leader, and have often wondered what it would have been like to loose it as a full time pastor. So glad there are resources out there!

  12. Avatar
    fishician  November 1, 2019

    I know my transition was hard enough; I can’t imagine how rough for someone whose livelihood and support of their family is also dependent on their religion. Question: do you think your training in preaching and counseling is one of the reasons you are so effective in reaching the general public, as compared to most scholars?

  13. Avatar
    Brittonp  November 1, 2019

    I recall reading Farrell Till’s story of how went from minister in the Church of Christ to atheist and publisher of the Skeptical Review. It’s worth reading. His story can be found on exminister.org

  14. Avatar
    flshrP  November 1, 2019

    “Religion does three things quite effectively: divides people, controls people, and deludes people”. Carlespie Mary Alice McKinney, “Why They Think I’m Crazy: Except When They Really Think About It”.

    I think religion does its most damage by dividing people. Religion is divisive to its core: believers/non-believers, orthodoxy/heresy, us/them, sinners/saints, the saved/the damned, gays/straights, and on and on. Religion is riddled with these false and pernicious dualisms.

    Then there’s the horror of the control that religious fantasies can have over believers:

    “If I can convince you to believe absurdities, I can persuade you to commit atrocities” Voltaire (paraphrase).

    And religious belief is the pathway to delusion:

    “What a fool believes he sees
    No wise man has the power
    To reason away.
    What seems to be
    Is always better than nothing.
    Nothing at all.”
    Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald, Doobie Brothers (1979)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      Didn’t realize Kenny Loggins wrote that. What a great songwriter he was. (Didn’t he do House at Pooh Corner when he was 16??)

  15. Avatar
    godspell  November 1, 2019

    I’m always a bit baffled by the phrase ‘lost his faith.’ My father was sad that I’d lost my faith when I told him I believed Jesus was a man. To me, it was never that specific, so new information couldn’t threaten it. I knew Jesus was always there, telling us we could be better, and if he wasn’t perfect, so what? Nobody is. Life isn’t, so why would the source of life be? What’s so great about perfection, anyway?

    Nietzsche said that religious faith was dying (actually he said it was dead–in the 19th century–and people were just pretending to still believe), and some would try to replace it with science, but science could never fill that gap in us. Just another god that would fail.

    Frankly, I see more evidence people have lost faith in science, globally speaking, than in God(s). Given that science is actually succeeding in ending life as we know it (when God/gods just threatened), that’s understandable, no? But really, the problem is not what we believe but how.

    My faith, such as it is, is fine. But I’d never make it as a minister/priest. Tough job. People looking at you like you must have the answers. Ask better questions.

  16. Avatar
    Boltonian  November 1, 2019

    Must be tough. A couple of JWs came my door the other day, as they often do at this time of the year. One merely preached at me and when I mentioned that the gospels were written anonymously, he opened his Bible and pointed triumphantly at Luke, which has as the title, ‘According to Luke,’ at which point I said there is no point in continuing the conversation and turned to the other one. He was interested in my questions and wanted to discuss a few wider things, such as metaphysics, science (physics and evolutionary biology mainly). He also asked me some very intelligent questions back about the nature of belief and spirituality etc. I felt that he was struggling to hold onto his faith but desperately wanted to, perhaps for all the reasons you have given. If I have given him a shove in direction of doubt or, possibly, agnosticism, should I feel guilty? My justification is that he knocked on my door with the intention to get me to see the world his way, so he should expect some push back. I have less sympathy than some, I suppose, because I have never known what it is like to believe.

    • Avatar
      mombird903  November 3, 2019

      My Mother-in-law was a devout atheist and old hippie before hippies were in vogue. One day she was as usual dressed in something funky and probably see through when the JW came to the door. She opened it and said, “Yes, let’s talk about Jeesus.” That ended the visits! I wish I had the nerve to try it.

  17. Avatar
    Apocryphile  November 1, 2019

    Very intriguing – it’s hard for me to understand or relate to the gut-wrenching trauma some people experience when losing their faith. I was raised Catholic, had a brief encounter with “Jesus people” my freshman year in college (calling them Jesus ‘freaks’ is probably a bit anachronistic-sounding these days), but whatever faith I still had after I graduated was never tied to any doctrine or set of beliefs. I knew that what was really important in Christianity, or any religion, was far deeper, and had to do with living honestly and treating others with fairness, respect, and dignity. So, for me “losing my faith” wasn’t a traumatic affair at all (I don’t even remember how or when I did) – I think I simply always knew what was really important in life and what was not so important, and always had a strong inner sense of what was fundamentally right and wrong – and that this would always transcend any specific religion. And this continues to be enough for me now.

  18. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  November 1, 2019

    If you are preaching that nonsense about God taking all his anger and rage about sin out on His son on the cross which is then supposed to reconcile us all back to God then no wonder you have lost your faith. This idea is not only ridiculous but is actually offensive to God. God said human sacrifice was an abomination. Jeremiah 7:30-34, 32:35.
    It is as ridiculous as saying that the Silver Cross mother is reconciled back to the Nazis after they capture and torture her son and then put him to a horrible death.

  19. Avatar
    gbsinkers  November 1, 2019

    Spent some time today reading stories on The Clergy Project. As someone who lost their faith it was therapeutic to read similar stories from others, even though I was not clergy, just a lay leader in my church. Thanks Bart for bringing this to our attention!

  20. Avatar
    Stylites  November 1, 2019

    This is a beautiful, sensitive, extremely helpful piece. I think you could write it so perfectly because of your own walk. It should prove valuable to a number of readers. As one who went through an extensive period of retooling my faith into something radically different from what it was originally, I know personally how painful and especially lonely the journey can be. The Clergy Project should assure those making a journey from a faith that no longer works that they do not need to make that journey alone. We are greatly indebted to you for making this organization known to your readers.

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