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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!

Why I’m To Be Pitied for Being the Wrong *Kind* of Fundamentalist!
Women Are To Be Silent and Submissive!



  1. Avatar
    Scrutinizer  November 1, 2019

    It seems, Muslims go through the same experience like Christians do when they loose their faith. Shows how we all share the same human feelings. Religion is what diverts one from their natural human behaviors. I am an Ex-Muslim turned agnostic. It took me over five years after the first spark to let go. I was a knowledgeable devout Muslim. Only my wife and kids know that I left the faith. It took my kids a whole day to give up the faith. When I asked my kids if they were convinced about leaving Islam, they told me that if I said the religion is false then it must be false. Whaaat? That’s it? It all hinged on me? I guess they figured that if their dad, this knowledgeable and devout Muslim, says its false then who are they to argue about it. My wife continued praying for a month just in case I changed my mind. After which she stopped.

    You know, most Muslims and Christians hardly read any religious materials. If they did, they’ll figure out there are so many problems with their religion. Luckily, the internet is educating people and a lot of people are finding out the truth. I guess the internet not only killed Blockbuster and other brick and mortar stores, it’s also killing religion.

  2. Mizraim Martínez
    Mizraim Martínez  November 1, 2019

    I can relate in part to that experience as I was a former Jehovah’s Witness. Leaving the Witnesses is really difficult because all witnesses you knew can not even say hello to you anymore and even your indirect family should (some do) not talk to you.

    I’ve wanted to ask something about the texts found in Acts 5: 42, 20:20. The Watchtower (Jehovah’s Witnesses) uses them as the base for their house to house preaching work but they also think that all first century christians were going in pairs knocking from one house to the next to preach.

    Acts 5:42 says that the Apostles taught “from house to house” acording to the Watchtower New World Translation (NWT) in greek is “καὶ κατ’ οἶκον οὐκ ” (Westcott and Hort).
    Acts 20: 20. Paul says that he taught “from house to house” (NWT) in greek “καὶ κατ’ οἴκους” (Westcott and Hort).
    Luke 10:7. Jesus sends 70 by twos and tells them “do not keep transferring from house to house” (NWT) in greek “οἰκίας εἰς οἰκίαν” (Westcott and Hort).

    I don’t know any greek, but in the 3 instances it’s not exactly the same greek words. Does it mean the same idea? I don’t think first century christians were systematically preaching from house to house, but can you point to reasons why this would be problematic?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      No: Acts 5:42 means that taught and preached in private homes (not door to door); same with Acts 20:20 (they are talking to members of the community, not to strangers); Luke 10:7 is referring to where the disciples are supposed to stay on their journey: in one place, not from first in one house and then after a time in another.

  3. Avatar
    mdostal1  November 1, 2019

    About 20 years ago, the pastor of our Catholic church went through this painful process. One Sunday he delivered a homily on the ” loaves and fishes” and he exclaimed, “IT WAS NOT A MIRACLE IT WAS SHARING!” He left parish work and became a counselor for priests in the diocese. I think there may be even less options for RC priests than Christian pastors. His views actually got me thinking, which eventually led to the loss of what was left of my faith (not a bad thing for me).

  4. Avatar
    scandler7  November 1, 2019

    Are you going to write more on this?
    I sure as hell hope so…

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      Not sure. What more would you like to hear?

      • Avatar
        scandler7  November 5, 2019

        I’ve met lots of people who say they lost their faith. It always seemed to me they meant they lost faith in some institution, but…okay. So as a person who has not lost his faith, and doesn’t belong to an institution, and doesn’t believe God “allows” suffering but is trying to save us from it, all I can say to them is that living by faith is walking on water. Not like, is. But to walk on the water, one must first get out of the boat. So I guess what I would like to hear would be some getting-out-of-the-boat-and-walking-on-water stories.

        • Avatar
          TheFranciscan  November 9, 2019

          I resonate with your statement. Losing your faith is not the end of the journey.

          • Avatar
            scandler7  November 11, 2019

            Thank you. For me it was the entrance to a much deeper, certainly much more interesting faith.Jesus said no one comes to God except by me, or through me. In no wise does he say to stop at the cross and set up camp (see “stumbling block”).

  5. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  November 1, 2019

    I had a friend who was a Presbyterian Minister for 15 years and for the majority of the time he became an atheist. He stayed because he wanted to help people and offer them comfort in their dark times, much like the couple whose son committed suicide.

    Losing ones faith can be very traumatic and yet I know for some people becoming an atheist has been a freeing experience.

  6. Avatar
    timcfix  November 2, 2019

    I believe I have run across a few of these people of God. One that I remember was a Catholic priest from Ireland. As those stories from Ireland go, a priest is abducted to hear the confession of a person the IRA was going to execute. After doing that confession he would probably have to hear the confession of the executioner. Such were the times in the fifties. Anyway he always seemed to be going through the motions of priesthood. My mother told me she believed he had girlfriend, at least my mothers sons were safe.

    • Avatar
      timcfix  November 3, 2019

      It’s been 24 hours. If you want to scratch this go ahead. None of my comments mean didly to me.

  7. Avatar
    dankoh  November 2, 2019

    Just curious – is the Clergy Project only for Protestants? All Christians? What about rabbis who have lost their faith?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      Ah, yes, I meant to say that: it’s for any religoius professional, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, whatever….

  8. Avatar
    quadell  November 2, 2019

    > And one thing outsiders may not think about as much. You are trained to do nothing else.

    I had never considered this. As a late-teenager, losing my faith was difficult enough — it separated me from many of my closest friends and drove a wedge between my family and me. But it must be such a terrible burden to have a livelihood based on your faith, and to have a family depending on you. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. Avatar
    mikezamjara  November 2, 2019

    Dr Ehrman

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Have you read Stuart Kauffman’s “Reinventing the sacred”? He is an atheist and evolucionist that proposes a way to reconcile believers and non believers to find common goals.

  10. JMJ
    JMJ  November 2, 2019

    It seems to me that most Christians, including priests and pastors, are secular Christians and are living out their faith based on what they’ve been taught by secular Christians, and when they really THINK about what they’ve been taught they realize the many levels of lies they’ve based their faith and their lives on and become disillusioned. In one of your books you mention that some of the original churches, before Rome took over, were more spiritual, and then when the Roman Catholic Church came into being they gradually replaced the more spiritual bishops and priests with secular ones. If most Christians today were truly spiritual I wonder if what causes disillusionment in secular Christians could actually strengthen the spiritual Church? I for one believe so.

  11. Avatar
    aar8818  November 2, 2019

    It is a very difficult transition indeed. I was a very strong and committed christian involved in a music ministry and have become what you can classify as agnostic. I find it hard, probably impossible for me to will a faith back into existence as I think that people are subject to what they believe, and it is such a hard pill to swallow for so many reasons. I still love the concept of God and christian worship music. Formerly, in my conservative circles, Bart Ehrman was seen as some sort of bad guy but I always found his arguments justifiable and persuasive. Now I cant get enough of his literature. I eat it up. My favorite is probably “How Jesus Became God”. I also thoroughly enjoy the blog and read almost every post.

  12. Avatar
    pmwslc  November 2, 2019

    Great post! Your understanding and compassion are evident. I’ll bet this post will bring great relief to someone.

  13. Avatar
    Damian King  November 2, 2019

    Hey Bart, I wanted to ask, what stops you from calling Gospels “Historical”? Scholars agree with the basic outline of the gospels, they agree it contains actual history, and is the primary source for the biography of the most important person to have ever lived historically, so what is the hold up?
    I understand that they are not historical in the modern sense, but by the standards of their time, do they not absolutely qualify as historical and their authors as historians?
    I understand that the gospels have a theological agenda, but so do historians of the ancient times… For example, Josephus. I could go even further… let’s look at Plutarch. He wrote an entire biography about a person who probably did not exist (Romulus). Plutarch is regarded as a historian, and his writings as histories… What’s stopping you from concluding that the gospels are historical?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      I do think they are historical records, and often say so. But I don’t think they are historically *accurate* or *reliable* — even though they do have historically reliable and accurate material in them. (If a person gives you bad directions 30% of the time, so in those instances you end up in the wrong place, you would not call them reliable; even if they are *usually* right!)

  14. Avatar
    shannon@gawsystems.com  November 2, 2019

    This is a very insightful (and disturbing) post. I frequently wrestle with how obviously sincere yet learned clergy propagate what they logically know to be a fallacy. I have always naively hoped they just knew something I did not.

  15. Avatar
    KazooGuy  November 2, 2019

    I think these hurting and seemingly lost at sea people may be the most valuable people in our society right now. How can we help?

  16. Aractus
    Aractus  November 2, 2019

    Bart, saying you “lost your faith” is negative framing. That’s what a fundamentalist says about people who leave their religion “they lost their faith”. They even say that about people who simply change to a more liberal theology.

    I completely reject the idea that I “lost” my faith. You should too. That’s negative and what a naysayer would say. The phrasing is designed to denigrate and stigmatise. There are areas of the deconversion experience of changing your beliefs that as you say can be traumatic, but that doesn’t make it negative.

    The problem is, and this is articulated in “Caught in the Pulpit”, that people often don’t have the positive language to affirm what they believe.

    I didn’t “loose” anything, and certainly not compared to clergy who lose their careers, or Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who are excommunicated by their families. I haven’t lost “salvation” because I don’t believe the world was created perfect and fell into sin through Adam, requiring the need for redemption.

    I’ve been freed from negative dogmas, matured and grown, and I’ve got a much greater appreciation for the world than is possible through the narrow, or wide, lens of religion. I embrace western cultural values that I believe are more meaningful and precious than outdated biblical ideals about the world – like freedom, democracy, common law, and tolerance. I used to be a very judgemental person, deconversion has allowed me to free myself from that. I’ve grown to appreciate academic biblical literature, something most Christians don’t embrace at all. All of that for me is possible because of deconverting – which means I’ve gained heaps and embraced the positive. I’ve not “lost” anything except attachments to negative dogmas. I didn’t loose my faith, I just replaced it with a value structure I’m happier with.

    So please, stop with the negative phrasing – we didn’t “loose our faith”. We deconverted – that’s the most neutral way of saying it. If you want to say it positively we matured and have grown past religion, replacing faith with more firmly grounded ideas about the world.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 3, 2019

      Well, I also frequently say that “I finally saw the light”!

      De-converted is also a negative way of putting it though. I think there are lots of ways to say the same thing. But in *some* contexts “lost my faith” is what makes best sense. Most of the time I actually think that I became an enlightened humanist.

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  November 3, 2019

        Well, when we “lose our faith” we really lose a Lot, that is the point of the post. If we want that our “lose” to became a “win” we must rebuild our lives and nota everyone do
        It succesfully,

    • Avatar
      apaclady  November 5, 2019

      Wow. I love your post. Especially the replacing “loosing faith” with “deconversion” and “we matured and have grown past religion, replacing faith with more firmly grounded ideas about the world.” Thank you for that.

      I have never thought to re-frame my thinking in such a way. Freedom from negative dogmas and growth and appreciation, meaningfulness – all very powerful. Thanks again.

  17. Avatar
    Omatseyin Binitie  November 3, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I don’t know why some Christians lose their faith & others don’t but I’m glad you’re not bitter. Some people become absolute enemies of all things Christian when they leave the church but you still talk about the Bible in an unbiased way. Plus I get more truth from listening to you than some Bible believing teachers. I may not agree with your conclusions but your reasoning is sound. Thank you sir & keep up the good work. I hope I see you in heaven (if Nebuchadnezzar can be saved, why not Bart Ehrman!)

  18. Avatar
    Matt2239  November 3, 2019

    Good read. The challenges people who are employed as religious leaders face when in a crisis of faith in their own lives is harrowing. Seems our systems, as good as they are, prefer those in business, politics, and religion whose belief systems are malleable, to say the least.

    There was a moment about 19 years ago that stuck with me for a while. During a presidential debate, George W. Bush answered that his favorite philosopher was “Jesus Christ,” who people in a secular context might refer to as Jesus of Nazareth. His reply was of course wholly inappropriate because the questioner didn’t intend such a low-brow, uneducated response (Dubya, of course, is himself a Yale and Harvard man).

    But he was right. Christianity is a philosophy in addition to being a religion. And you don’t have to worship in a Christian church to accept that a Christian church is a valuable asset to a community, or that celebration of Jesus of Nazareth’s traditional birthday is strictly a religious event.

  19. Avatar
    timcfix  November 3, 2019

    Well I know what not to write about.

  20. Avatar
    veritas  November 3, 2019

    Ever since joining this blog a few weeks ago,it is the first time I actually read all the responses.The reason being that I,like most,have become a skeptic.I am not sure of what to believe.Most of the posts herein are the stories we have come to realize in our own personal journey.I know some use the word “Agnostic” and so do I at times.Bart I think you also called yourself that for awhile but may be leaning more towards non belief(Atheism) now.Agnostics,the meaning is one who claims neither faith or disbelief in God.Having this position I think, leaves the door open to both belief and non belief.It is like a couple signing a prenuptial in a marriage, the back door is left open for divorce,erasing all the love you may have had for this person.My point being, can someone revert back to belief after falling away? Some case of divorced couples have written about remarrying the first partner again after experiencing other partners and finding that spark once again.Bart,you are truly a wise Professor.Your dual experience as a Pastor/humanist is allowed people like myself, to confess and share these beautiful stories.You somehow bring that out in people.I can also appreciate why other scholars hate debating you.It also makes me think how much we need to be accepted and hear each other in times of despair,when we may feel alone in this journey.One thing I must ask.You have stated that the bible continues to be a very important teaching in your personal life, and you try and live to some extent by its message/teaching. Why is this bible story important to you,personally? I ask this because I tell people that some things are a profound mystery,we may never get answers.I also tell them,if I was on my deathbed,the Jesus story be more comforting and easier to accept than anything else out there!Your fan I remain……(You probably already knew)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2019

      Ah, I think of my self as both an agnostic and an atheist. But for kind of technical reasons. Search for atheist on the blog, and you’ll see my posts about it.

      The Bible is important to me personally because I think at the heart of it is a message that I’m committed to, of loving others and helping those in need.

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