What Should Pastors Do When They Don


For HumanistNetworkNews.org
Mar. 31, 2010

It's a question that you have to ask anytime you hear pastors say something ridiculous: Do they really believe that? Sadly, the answer is usually yes… but it's not always the case.

Author Daniel Dennett and clinical social worker Linda LaScola have interviewed several current pastors (current!) who have doubts about what they preach:

With the help of a grant from a small foundation, administered through Tufts University, we set out to find some closeted nonbelievers who would agree to be intensively–and, of course, confidentially–interviewed… For this pilot study we managed to identify five brave pastors, all still actively engaged with parishes, who were prepared to trust us with their stories. All five are Protestants, with master's level seminary education. Three represented liberal denominations (the liberals) and two came from more conservative, evangelical traditions (the literals).

They admit this is a self-selected survey, but what is amazing is the fact that any–in fact, several–pastors don't believe what they have made their living preaching.

I wanted to know where they found these pastors:

Ultimately, the five participants came from two sources: two from a list of clergy who had originally contacted the Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC) for general information, and three from people who had personally contacted Dan Barker, co-director of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

You can read what the pastors had to say here (PDF).

The quotations from the pastors are heartbreaking. In some cases, they've been entrenched in their faith for so long that they don't know what else to do. As one pastor puts it, it's like trying to switch your major when you're so close to graduating; why not just finish up what you started? Once you're locked into the role, it's very difficult to leave.

Here's what one pastor said:

Here's how I'm handling my job on Sunday mornings: I see it as play acting. I kind of see myself as taking on a role of a believer in a worship service, and performing. Because I know what to say. I know how to pray publicly. I can lead singing. I love singing. I don't believe what I'm saying anymore in some of these songs. But I see it as taking on the role and performing. Maybe that's what it takes for me to get myself through this, but that's what I'm doing.

He calls it acting. I call it being a hypocrite. He's lying to himself and everyone in his church.

I know this isn't the same thing, but I entered college planning on becoming a doctor. I was accepted into a special program that gave me a "free seat" in medical school right out of high school. If I maintained a certain undergrad GPA and earned a certain score on my MCATs, they'd retain my med school seat and I wouldn't have to go through all the trouble of applying everywhere. I did all that. And I went to med school. I honestly never even considered any other careers.

During that first year, my grades were fine, but the passion and interest I had previously just went away. I had been teaching MCAT classes full-time and I loved it. Teaching made me really happy. Medicine stressed me out.

I couldn't imagine leaving med school, though. How would I break that to my family? Everyone who knew me in high school knew I had wanted to become a doctor… Hell, even if I wanted to become a teacher, I didn't know how to go about making that happen. Oh, and try telling your girlfriend that you're thinking about leaving med school to become a teacher. Woo! That's fun.

Anyway, I knew I had to do it or I'd regret it. I probably could've been a good doctor, but I'd always wonder about the alternatives. I took a year off of school to explore teaching. I got certified. I moved home for a bit. I started working with atheist groups more. The eBay thing happened during that time off. It took two (emotionally tough) years in all, but I eventually started teaching. It's been three years now. I'm so glad I made the change.

I understand what it's like to be in a position you feel trapped in. You have a lot of time and effort (and money) invested in your current life, and changing it is a big risk. But if these pastors don't believe what they're preaching, they owe it to themselves and their congregations to step away and try something else.

Here's an excerpt recounting what another pastor said:

He is planning to leave the ministry as soon he finds another way to support his family. He would leave sooner, if he had enough money to pay off his debts.

If somebody said, "Here's $200,000," I'd be turning my notice in this week, saying, "A month from now is my last Sunday." Because then I can pay off everything.

In the meantime, he is quietly pursuing another career. His wife is aware of his plan to switch careers, but he hasn't told her yet of his reason for the change. He thinks she will be both upset and supportive of whatever he wants to do. Mutual support has been the pattern in their marriage.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if an atheist group could offer a program for current pastors who wanted to leave their faith to get back on their feet in another line of work?

What do all these pastors have in common? The authors write:

The loneliness of non-believing pastors is extreme. They have no trusted confidantes to reassure them, to reflect their own musings back to them, to provide reality checks. As their profiles reveal, even their spouses are often unaware of their turmoil. Why don't they resign their posts and find a new life? They are caught in a trap, cunningly designed to harness both their best intentions and their basest fears to the task of immobilizing them in their predicament. Their salaries are modest and the economic incentive is to stay in place, to hang on by their fingernails and wait for retirement when they get their pension.

They need help. They need to know that it's ok to leave the church. It may take a while to get back up on their feet, but there are other places out there that need their skills–communication, counseling, teaching, leading.

If you have some time, read this document. And you can read what other commenters have to say about this general situation at On Faith.


Hemant Mehta is the Chair of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Board of Directors. He has worked with the Center for Inquiry and also is an SSA representative to the Secular Coalition for America. Hemant received national attention, including being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, for his work as the "eBay Atheist." Hemant's blog can be read at FriendlyAtheist.com, and his book, I Sold My Soul on eBay, (WaterBrook Press) is now available on Amazon.com. He currently works as a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.