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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
    bAnn  November 3, 2019

    I appreciated your sharing some of your personal faith journey. You showed strength and courage in becoming honest with yourself and with others. “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face.” I assume anyone who has all the answers is a fake. We all should have doubts because we don’t know all the answers. I have found through years of searching some basis for my own continued faith in spite of doubts. I believe God is, I don’t really know much beyond that. I believe that Jesus was a messenger, or prophet who had a special relationship with his creator. I don’t believe he was God, although his message was from Him. I believe there is something of God, something good to be nurtured, in each human being. It hasn’t been easy to find a church which believes as I do. I finally decided that I wanted to honor him by worshiping in my manner wherever I went. I attend a Quaker church out in the country on Sunday morning. Things are often said that I don’t believe, and yet, God knows whether they are true or not. I don’t. I attend a Roman Catholic church every Saturday evening. I want to receive communion which isn’t given in the Quaker church. When I receive communion, I feel that I am making a continued commitment to being a follower of Jesus whose teaching is my guide. I don’t believe some things said in that church either. That’s all right. God knows. This arrangement has given me peace and I will continue this arrangement until something better seems obvious. People in each church know about this arrangement, including the priest. God does not encourage us to lie, most certainly not for Him.

  2. Avatar
    wje  November 3, 2019

    Good evening, Bart. Are there any attempts by the churches to reverse this problem? Does any denomination have a counseling program to try to help pastors who are struggling?

  3. 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 not everyone do It succesfully. Being enlighted not always is enough to be happy if You feel alone. We must do a Lot un order that the “lose” can became a “win” more frequently.

  4. Avatar
    kurtruthann  November 4, 2019

    In my research, it appears that the American Psychological Association (APA) has become a church itself and what an immoral one! They have their own courts referred to as family courts, DCFS or juvenile courts. They are destroying regular religions like crazy. They act a bit like sharia courts in that they can mostly ignore rulings from the supreme civil courts and society is drinking their kool-aid in raising children. They require certain ways of counseling or they can put pastors and other teachers in jail. Their doctrine is antithetical to the teachings of the Bible and is mutually exclusive. They are deceptive in that they don’t appear to be a church, yet they can tell a person what to believe and reject Bible teachings. No wonder the faith of many is dwindling, yet the APA contains the doctrine of despair. It is the repository of this moral relativism where there is no eternal truth. It is like in the movie “Coraline” where they want to replace your eyes with buttons and tell you that you are more enlightened that way. There seem to be other idols and secular churches around that everyone assumes to be true, yet separates people from their faith and testimonies in God and the scriptures. Beware!

    • Avatar
      Pattylt  November 4, 2019

      I’m not sure I understand your comment. I know many psychologists and psychiatrists are people of faith, Protestant and Catholic, Jewish and Muslim and religious patients are often referred to them as someone that shares their faith and can counsel accordingly. As a matter of fact, it has often been hard for Atheists to find Atheist counselors as they don’t want to be helped by telling them they should seek God or go to church. I’m sorry you seem to have had a bad match? It often takes many tries to find the right match between patient and counselor.

      Unless you are a Scientologist…I know they demonize the profession.

      • Avatar
        kurtruthann  November 9, 2019

        I am not a scientologist and my church works with them so it is my own opinion with what I see. I have had to deal with psychologists as well. Their DSTM comes out every year and it is the driving force behind the special rights of alternative lifestyles. This is a problem because the birth rate in western society is falling and Japan already has a falling population. The nuclear family with a father, mother and children that has been the foundation of society is crumbling. I am not talking of individual members of the psychology and social worker field, but the profession as a whole. The normalizing of many issues once considered taboo is not good for increasing the population to healthy levels within families and all the alternative lifestyles have one similarity…they have few or no children. Before the psychological profession became pre-emminent, it was the churches that provided counseling in most cases. Now the faith of the religious is failing as the psych. profession is increasing. There are gods in society that are displacing the true God. Psychology is a major one. Beware that some things are not as they seem.

  5. Avatar
    Apocryphile  November 4, 2019

    Just an aside – I watched the U-tube video of the ‘Defenders’ conference you recently attended. I think it’s fair to say they had a few logistical issues. I also learned that the most effective way to keep a scholar from giving his point of view is to take his microphone away. 😉

  6. Avatar
    Duke12  November 5, 2019

    Belief in a transcendent “something/someone” seems to be evolutionarily hardwired into our human brains — which, of course, doesn’t prove the transcendent is real, it just suggests that such belief has long aided human reproductive survival. The church I joined decades ago is so much a part of my identity and the source of most of my relationships, that I’ve chosen to stay on the “inside” and just keep a low profile. Been doing that for nearly 10 years now. I feel I can recite the Nicene Creed in good conscience, since no part of it is testably unproveable. Being non-clergy has its benefits as well.

  7. Avatar
    bwarstler  November 12, 2019

    Yes, I’ve lost my traditional faith. But I still go to church because I believe we should serve and support one another.

  8. Avatar
    tbone  November 14, 2019

    a good site for ex-mormons or mormons going through a faith transition is mormonstories.org
    often when a member of the church of jesus christ of latter day saints delves into the truth claims & history of the church they find out what they “knew” to be true is not true. it’s very jarring, & the healing/recovery process takes a long time. some convert to christianity, some throw “the baby out with the bathwater” & become atheists. it is a crushing blow to find out that something you once “knew” to be the truth is not true. it’s a problem of “emotional epistemology!”

  9. Avatar
    concordbjf  May 28, 2020

    Is anybody familiar with nonprofit(s) that are near-equivalents of “The Clergy Project”, but for the laity?

    I’m very interested in supporting such an organization, largely because I was a layman who “lost my faith” after reading some of Ehrman’s books, and partly because I have mixed, complicated feelings about financially supporting more educated clergy who are losing their faith instead of their less educated, nonclerical counterparts.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2020

      I get asked that on occasion, and have actually asked the leaders of the Clergy project, but haven’t heard of anything — apart from the kinds of things Bart Campolo is doing. I’d suggest you contact him.

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