The Clergy Project: A Safe Harbor for Unbelieving Current and Former Clergy

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11

As a former Pastor, there is still much of the Bible that remains in my memory, albeit from a completely different perspective. I often use scripture in my writing because sometimes one cannot help but chuckle at the irony, as is with the verse I used at the top of this article. I chose this particular one because it best fits my journey from a Clergyman to the ranks of the unbelieving community. While there are many who have made this journey, each of us have individual perspectives that are based on our own experiences. One of the most frightening experiences for many who have abandoned their religion is an unnerving sense of aloneness.

Most ministers rarely have any meaningful contact with unbelievers, save for the few we meet in our “fishing expeditions” at the grocery store or during “seeker services.” Thus, all to often, when suddenly outside of the fence of Christian fellowship, there seems to be a complete lack of support. This can be a very depressing place, and it is only exacerbated by the belief that there is nobody else out there who could possibly understand the rather unique situation of being an unbelieving member of the Clergy. I know that for me, personally, I thought I was the only preacher on the planet who didn’t believe in god. That was many years ago, but fortunately  those who are still in the Clergy (or were former Clergy) now have a place to go.

The Clergy Project…

By now, many of you have heard of this organization. From their own website:

The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs.  The Clergy Project launched on March 21st, 2011. Currently, the community’s 280 plus members use it to network and discuss what it’s like being an unbelieving leader in a religious community.  The Clergy Project’s goal is to support members as they move beyond faith. Members freely discuss issues related to their transition from believer to unbeliever including:

  • Wrestling with intellectual, ethical, philosophical and theological issues
  • Coping with cognitive dissonance
  • Addressing feelings of being stuck and fearing the future
  • Looking for new careers
  • Telling their families
  • Sharing useful resources
  • Living as a nonbeliever with religious spouses and family
  • Using humor to soften the pain
  • Finding a way out of the ministry
  • Adjusting to life after the ministry

Yes, it is all of that, but so much more. It is a safe harbor in a tumultuous sea of animosity that can easily drown a person who was once considered a spiritual leader, as well a venue for those who, for various reasons, need to maintain their roles in ministry. It’s difficult enough to live a double life, but to do so with no support can result in problems that run the gamut from awkwardness to clinical depression. I know. I’ve been there.

A Little History…

As Greta Christina pointed out in her wonderful article on Alternet, The Clergy Project was an outgrowth of a pilot study done in 2010 by Linda LaScola and Dr. Daniel C. Dennett. The study was called “Preachers Who Are Not Believers”, and it addressed the existence of non-believing clergy. From there, The Clergy Project has exploded and has been featured on  MSNBC, NPR, Religious News Service, CNN and other outlets.

I am intimately involved with this project, serving a couple of different roles within the organization, and the interaction I have with some of the membership reveals the reason why it continues to grow, and will very likely do so at an exponential rate. When a current or former member of the Clergy discovers the existence of The Clergy Project, it’s almost like a coal miner who’s been picking away at the walls of a cave and suddenly strikes diamond. It is difficult for the layman to understand the profundity of this. It is not an insult to the rest of those who have become enlightened, but the circumstances surrounding the enlightenment of the Clergy have rather unique complications.

The fact is that Ministers, Pastors, Priests, etc., are seen as “spiritual leaders,” and exert a tremendous amount of influence on their congregations, as well as their trust and confidence in matters that can be, and often are, quite personal. The perception by the congregation and church elders can range from a “perceived threat” to betrayal, and the subsequent reactions can bring out the worst in them.

Port Of Call…

For the individual who earns their living behind the pulpit and in the public eye, the ramifications of “coming out” can be financially and socially devastating. Some are able to weather those storms and have revealed their unbelief. Others cannot, and remain within the Clergy. Either way, Clergy or former Clergy, if the Clergy Project were nonexistent, there would be virtually nowhere for us to turn.

Having nobody to interact with during any major life change can be a harrowing experience. There are support groups for almost every aspect of loss that an individual can experience, and the Clergy are no different. For me, I began asking questions which led to more questions, none of which had answers that served to validate anything about my suddenly wavering faith. The more my faith disappeared, the more disenfranchised I became, and the more I sank into depression.

There was no such thing as “The Clergy Project” back then, and it took a bit of time for me to regain confidence in myself and to begin the journey to reintegrate myself into society. Fortunately, for many, this journey need not be taken alone and it need not take as long. The individuals that make up the membership of The Clergy Project, including the staff, make it so that there is always a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen and a community that understands.

From Teresa MacBain…

Teresa is the Executive Director for The Clergy Project. She’s been interviewed dozens of times on TV and radio. I would like to share this video with you:

Final Thoughts…

The Clergy Project was made possible through a donation from The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. It has been a long time coming, and it’s success is not only a testament to the growing numbers of unbelieving former and current clergy, but to the hard work and unwavering effort that the staff have and continue to put into the project. I am proud to be a part of this project, and urge any former or current clergy to get involved.

The Clergy Project seeks ongoing donations as it expands to meet the needs of this rapidly growing community. While The Clergy Project is in the process of incorporating, donations can be made through The Freedom From Religion Foundation or the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. You can donate online at FFRF or at RDFRS (Please choose ‘Clergy Project’ from the special fund drop down menu.)

You can also donate by mail at these two organizations:

Freedom From Religion Foundation
Attn: The Clergy Project
PO Box 750
Madison, WI 53701

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science US
Attn: The Clergy Project
2776 South Arlington Mill Drive
Box 815
Arlingon, VA 22206

I will leave you with these words from Dr. Richard Dawkins:

“The Clergy Project exists to provide a safe haven, a forum where clergy who have lost their faith can meet each other, exchange views, swap problems, counsel each other – for, whatever they may have lost, clergy know how to counsel and comfort. Here you will find confidentiality, sympathy, and a friendly place where you can take your time before deciding how to extricate yourself and when you will feel yourself ready to stand up and face the cool, refreshing wind of truth.”

  2 comments for “The Clergy Project: A Safe Harbor for Unbelieving Current and Former Clergy

  1. Steerpike
    June 14, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    There’s no way to verify, of course, but I suspect the percentage of atheist, or at least doubting, clergy is way higher than anyone suspects. These are individuals who are, by and large, intelligent and well educated, particularly in things like logic, rhetoric and forensics. They are also intimately familiar with their own holy books and traditions, including the logical flaws inherent in them. They tend to be honest and idealistic, and to value Truth-with-a-capital-“T” for its own sake. That’s why many of them entered the clergy in the first place. Apologetics is an intrisically dishonest occupation: it’s all about salesmanship and diverting attention away from the flaws in the product–it is unlikely to sway a knowledgeable skeptic. If you could somehow conduct a survey of clergymen’s “hearts-of-hearts” I suspect you would find skepticism, if not outright unbelief, in a majority of them. Maybe a large majority.

  2. September 12, 2012 at 1:10 am

    I’m sure glad I wasn’t deceived to the point of turning to a futile false atheistic view of the world. I am spiritually alive and experience the supernatural as a born again Christian and I rightfully thank God for that.

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