John Harkey Gibbs
Early in the summer of 1982 prior to my beginning seminary in the fall, I was appointed as a licensed local pastor to a part time pastorate in a small town congregation. My first year of seminary completely stripped away my naïve faith and provided nothing to take its place except skepticism and doubt. I didn’t become an atheist at that point, but I did reject much of Christianity. I came to believe that the divine incarnation and resurrection of Jesus were crass fabrications. I could no longer fool myself into believing in anything supernatural. While cognitive dissonance prevented me from the envelope too far and fully working out in detail what I did and did not believe, whatever was left of my belief in God was pretty far away from a traditional position. I gravitated toward Joseph Campbell’s writings on myth and a sort of a Jungian, metaphorical understanding of God.
I resonated with the idea that some truths can only be embodied in stories and folklore that have been passed down and shaped over many generations. I studied cultural anthropology in order to broaden my understanding of religious ritual and to explore the generic role that shamans, priests, and other spiritual leaders have historically played in society. Science may have made it impossible to believe in the literal truth of scripture, but the need for the sense of meaning that spiritual traditions have long provided remained. I didn’t consider it my job to point out to my unsuspecting parishioners that religion was all myth; instead, my goal was to shape a community around the symbolic meaning of God.
In the fourteen and half years of my ministry, my predominant experience was feeling trapped. I didn’t believe the message I was expected to preach, and I had lost confidence that I would ever be able to fulfill the dream of making a significant contribution to the world, which was the whole reason I became a minister in the first place. Routinely witnessing the racism, the homophobic rage, and the hostility toward the poor led to a deep erosion of everything I could feel good about with regard to being a representative of the Christian community. I would carry this feeling of demoralization with me through all my years in ministry. My ultimate rejection of religion would have a lot to do with finally coming to the conclusion that hatred is endemic to the religious mindset and is an inevitable byproduct of the very nature of religion, rather than being an aberrant expression around the margins.
Feeling trapped was grounded in a miserable dilemma. I wanted out, but the very experiences that caused me to want out mercilessly battered my self-esteem and left me feeling utterly disempowered. I couldn’t imagine myself succeeding at anything, so I clung to the security that having a regular paycheck provided. There were aspects of the job that I loved, but overall, the whole experience was psychically draining. I suffered from deep depression, for which I was hospitalized once. My job performance was poor – not surprising, since my heart wasn’t in it. I went through three divorces. As a matter of survival, I lived a double life, religious and secular, drawing what strength could get from my non-church friends. In order to stay alive intellectually and to be true to myself, I would, early in the week, give myself complete freedom to read whatever I wanted to read, no matter how radical or heretical, but as Sunday approached, I fearfully returned to more conventionally acceptable sources so I could come up with something to say that my parishioners could relate to. I entered into a graduate program at a local university, partly in hopes of expanding my career horizons, but mostly out of the need to be around people with whom I could be myself.
In the final years of my ministry, The Jesus Seminar and Bishop John Shelby Spong were getting a lot of media attention. The Jesus Seminar was a group of biblical scholars who examined the Christian bible critically and challenged the historical veracity of much of what Jesus is reported to have done and taught. Spong advocated a version of Christianity that abandoned many of its historical teachings, rejecting even traditional theism. I was less interested in the debunking than I was in the implicit assurance that I was not utterly alone, that others shared my longing for a broad understanding of religious involvement, and that there might be a way to actually be part of a receptive and affirming Christian community without having to pass a test of strict orthodoxy. Perhaps my version of Christianity would never be mainstream, but I imagined that, at least one day, I might be able to integrate my private beliefs with my public commitments.
Meanwhile, I had been appointed to a congregation in a small town. In the end, my ministry wouldn’t survive my having to live in a fishbowl, but while I was there, I sensed an opportunity to finally make the kind of difference in people’s lives that could actually justify my having become a minister. There was an impetus within the town to come together as a community and take some steps through the municipal government that would serve the greater good. Getting involved was politically risky but invigorating. Even though most of the instigators were members of my congregation, what they wanted to do was bitterly opposed by other members of the community. I put all my eggs in the basket of decisively salvaging the aspiration that had initially led me to the strange vocational path on which I had so painfully been limping along. Perhaps inevitably, what I experienced was disappointment, frustration, yet more demoralization, and a lot of fear, as I had no safety net, no place to land if my career crumbled underneath me. My anger got the best of me. I was fed up with small-minded hypocrites who, in the name of the god of love, hated homosexuals, ethnic minorities, atheists, secular humanists, liberals, feminists, and almost anyone who was different from them. My acute dissatisfaction compounded an already brewing personal crisis. I was sinking fast. Not surprisingly, I was removed from my pastorate by the bishop, although I was not required to surrender my ordination.
In the ensuing years, I was adrift vocationally, spiritually, and socially. It felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. The identity crisis that had plagued me during all the years of my ministry didn’t go away and perhaps even deepened. I found it hard to convince employers that my skills and experience could translate into secular work. I worked jobs that didn’t even require any college credits. I even made a couple of doomed attempts to reenter ministerial work. I indulged in serial relationships with churches, mostly out of a need to fill the void that my departure from ministry had created, but I was unable to find a comfortable niche anywhere. Being neither clergy nor lay, I had a hard time just sitting in pew, and getting more involved was painful and ultimately unsatisfying.
Seven years after my departure from church work, I got into a relationship with a woman (whom I would marry in due time) who had grown up Church of Christ and had no use for religion. She wasn’t opposed to my attending church, but she had no interest in tagging along with me. I stopped going; however, I had one last rally. There was a meeting house of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) near our home. I imagined they would be different from “churchy” churches and would be progressive, both of which they were, but still I hit the same old wall. Like heroin addict hitting bottom, I was up against my moment of truth. And in the same spirit that a recovering addict concedes that she can’t use at all, I resolved to not yield to the ever present temptation to look for my “fix” in church, and I thoroughly smashed the seductive idea that it would ever turn out differently. After a year or so of wearing my new religion-free identity, I notified the Board of Ordained Ministry in my conference that I was letting go of my ordination.
Eventually coming to the point of identifying myself as an atheist was more like a gradual awakening to a truer understanding of who I was all along than a conscious decision to reject belief in God or than being persuaded of the nonexistence of God. God had just become a nonissue. Getting there was a gentle journey along which I was fortunate to have my wife as a co-traveler. Not everybody is so lucky. And then in the spring of 2012, I heard a member of The Clergy Project being interviewed on the radio. It had never occurred to me that there might be a whole tribe of apostates like me and that we could be connected with each other. I had stumbled upon that tiny sliver of humanity who can precisely understand my deepest pain and longing because they’ve been there themselves. My involvement in TCP has made a significant contribution to my life. The Clergy Project, as the name suggests, is a work in progress. We are still figuring out how to effectively address many of the challenges that our members face; nonetheless, simply experiencing the in-depth identification has been powerfully affirming and healing for me. Most of all, I relish the opportunity to be a part of building a rich and wonderful community and to be there for those who, like me, have been wounded by religion.