The Story of The Clergy Project
The Clergy Project is the first and only known project of its kind, and like most ground-breaking endeavors, it is the result of the combined efforts of several key players spread out around the globe.
The dreams that would one day give rise to The Clergy Project stretch all the way back to the mid-1980s with a former Christian minister who had lost his faith in God. His name was Dan Barker, and after coming out publicly as an atheist on a 1984 episode of AM Chicago with Oprah Winfrey (watch it here), he began receiving contacts from scores of other clergypersons around the country who were also closeted nonbelievers. Barker started meeting with them, compiling their stories, and dreaming dreams of what could be done to help a growing number of desperate peers. Along the way, Barker’s work with the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and his 1992 book Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist continued bringing him into contact with an increasing number of closeted nonbelieving religious leaders.
But it was in 2006 while Barker was speaking at a humanist conference in Reykjavik, Iceland when the famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, just preparing to release his landmark The God Delusion, first heard Barker tell his preacher-to-atheist story. The two of them met after the talk, and Dawkins shared his desire to help nonbelieving clergy in similar circumstances. A viable solution did not readily present itself that day, and the subject was tabled. But when Dawkins later wrote the foreword to Barker’s 2008 book Godless, he again expressed the ongoing burden he’d felt to find a way to help.
Barker’s desire to assist his peers never waned, and neither did the stream of nonbelieving pastors who reached out to him for support and advice. In 2008, award-winning feature writer Bruce Grierson did a piece for Psychology Today entitled “An Atheist in the Pulpit,” which featured the stories of Barker and others (read it here). Propelled by both the Grierson article and the release of Godless, Barker kept crossing paths with an increasing number of nonbelieving clergy.
Eventually two ministers in particular reached out to Barker. In 2009, an anonymous worship pastor serving a large Church of Christ congregation called FFRF and asked to speak with Barker. He identified himself with the pseudonym Adam Mann, and it would be another seven years before he would reveal his true identity (see below!). The following year, a senior pastor at an evangelical church also contacted Barker. He would embrace a one-name pseudonym, simply going by Chris. By this time Barker’s dreams were beginning to solidify toward the development of a still undefined network, and with a little explanation that day on the phone, he put Chris into contact with Adam. Within the year, Adam and Chris would become active players in The Clergy Project’s formation.
Propelled by Research
Dawkins had not been the only hard-hitting atheist interested in the plight of deconverted religious leaders. In fact, for years he had been in talks with philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett, whose own Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon also topped 2006 best-seller lists. Together Dawkins and Dennett traded dreams of what it might look like to build something of a “halfway house” for nonbelieving religious professionals who were looking to transition out from religious life.
In turn, Dennett partnered with qualitative researcher Linda LaScola for a pilot study published in the January 2010 issue of Evolutionary Psychology, entitled, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers” (read it here). Their work featured the case studies of five active clergypersons who were secretly nonbelievers, with three of those five coming from the list that Barker himself had been compiling for over twenty years. One of those study participants was Adam Mann.
Shortly after the 2010 study was published, the LaScola interviews continued, adding thirty additional participants. This list would include several more individuals from Barker’s contacts, along with a few more future Clergy Project leaders such as Jerry DeWitt under the pseudonym Johnny and John Compere as Jeb. The results of this full study would eventually find publication as the 2013 Dennett and LaScola book Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (then expanded and updated in 2015).
Dreams Becoming Reality
Barker and Dawkins met again in the June of 2010 while both were in Copenhagen for the Gods and Politics atheism conference. Their plans started off quite modest, considering all the challenges involved. Dawkins suggested he could raise some funds to help with the transition of a few closeted clergypersons with the idea that they could then use that work to simply amplify the issue. They drew initial sketches of an awareness campaign but were unsure how quickly plans would materialize.
Barker and Dawkins left that meeting to investigate next steps and begin further networking. Robin Elisabeth Cornwell, then-executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDF), was quickly added to the mix. Dawkins would later call her “the unsung hero behind the scenes.” Barker would call her “a tireless and creative organizer… [who was] primarily responsible for the nuts-and-bolts of getting the project off the ground,” adding that “without her hard work… none of this would have happened.” It was at this time when Adam Mann and then Chris also joined the team, working anonymously on the other side of computer screens.
Then there was the big meeting, the one where everyone’s various dreams, ambitions, and ideas were brought into focus. On a Sunday morning in January 2011 Barker, LaScola, and Cornwell gathered at the Mitsitam Café in the National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. And there they drafted the Online Community of Forums that would become the manifestation of The Clergy Project’s mission. It would consist of a private, members-only website that would serve as a safe space where nonbelieving clergy could gather to support one another in discussions that could range from practical steps of career transition to more philosophical discussions revolving around topics like ethics and humanism. And there would be two requirements for admission, that one is both a nonbeliever and also a professional religious leader, either currently or formerly employed as such.
Following that meeting everyone set right to work at a pace that would have the entire Online Community up and running in just three months’ time. Cornwell drew upon the funds and technical support of RDF to oversee the website’s construction. Adam Mann focused on website design and forum structure while Chris likewise took an active role in planning.
Meanwhile, Barker and LaScola set to work on reaching out to twenty years worth of contacts, explaining their new project to scores of deconverted religious professionals and inviting them to join in all the excitement. LaScola crafted an application process as she and Barker began screening applicants to authenticate qualification and safeguard against any participants who could jeopardize the rest of the group’s anonymity.
Throughout the team’s journey, their project remained nameless. Several naming attempts ended without conclusion as the project churned forward. Finally, the team settled on the most appropriate name available. Just before launch, they decided to officially name it—you guessed it—The Clergy Project.
March 20, 2011: The Day Community Was Born
The Clergy Project’s Online Community of Forums was launched on March 20, 2011. Barker’s and LaScola’s contacts had produced a bold, new colony of fifty-two charter members, and each one received a personal invitation via email with instructions on how to access the secret online platform, along with a series of five heart-warming welcome letters from various Project cofounders (read them here). Then as those next months unfolded, each of the forum’s fifty-two participants dove in with unbridled excitement as a website that was hidden to the rest of the world surged with life and connection.
A Project Becomes Its Own Organization
Over the months that followed, many realized the need to reach back out beyond TCP’s fifty-two initial participants. LaScola trained a team of Project participants to take over screening for the next batch of applicants, and in October ClergyProject.org was launched as a marketing tool to help get the word out on TCP’s existence and to provide an application portal for new participants.
Both websites were built by RDF and maintained with their technical support, but since no one on the RDF team was a former religious leader, they couldn’t be allowed access. It was Adam Mann who kept things running smooth on the inside while Chris played a leading role in forum moderation. Meanwhile, as word about TCP began spreading and subsequent donations began collecting, FFRF stepped up to assist with the Project’s financial side.
With The Clergy Project’s rapid growth, an ad hoc Board of Directors was assembled in April 2012 to discuss and initiate next steps. Among others, the ad hoc board included Barker, Dennett, Dawkins, Cornwell, Adam Mann, DeWitt, Compere, Teresa MacBain, Catherine Dunphy, and Robert Parham, along with representation from Recovering from Religion (RfR). At that April meeting, it was decided that The Clergy Project would initiate steps toward becoming its own independent organization. MacBain was appointed Acting Executive Director, and it was decided that Barker would chair the ad hoc board moving forward with Dunphy as Secretary and DeWitt as Officer-at-Large.
Organizational evolution would continue. Later in 2012 it would be decided that TCP’s Board of Directors would be composed only and entirely of forum participants in order to ensure the organization’s continued focus on the best interest of its deconverted religious leaders. In August, Dunphy would take over as the new Acting Executive Director. In 2013, the Stiefel Freethought Foundation provided a $100,000 Transitional Assistance Grant (TAG) to make career development services available to Project participants. Hardship grants were also soon made available.
A shift was made in March 2014, dissolving the Acting Executive Director position and designating The Clergy Project a volunteer-led organization that would be operated by a Board of Directors with rotating terms and a series of active committees. Terry Plank was then selected as Board President with Compere as Vice-President, Gretta Vosper as Secretary, and Parham as Treasurer.
Two new blogs would arrive around this same time. ClergyProject.org launched its Our Stories, a running collection of the deconversion accounts of Project participants. And in partnership with TCP, LaScola launched a new blog as well. Calling it Rational Doubt: With Voices from The Clergy Project, it was featured on the Patheos platform and would serve to provide Project participants an additional outlet to share their evolving views of the world.
In January 2015 The Clergy Project received final approval for 501(c)3 status, allowing donors to make tax-deductible donations directly to the organization. At this time TCP assumed from RDF full responsibility of support and oversight of both the Online Community of Forums and ClergyProject.org. TCP also assumed full financial oversight from FFRF.
The Clergy Project’s next exciting step took place in the January of 2016 when it held its very first Annual Meeting, complete with nominations and an election of three new Directors to the rotating board. That same month, a new service was launched for TCP participants, providing twelve sessions of cost-free counseling with a licensed psychotherapist through RfR’s The Secular Therapist Project.
Oh, and one more exciting revelation! At the 2016 FFRF national convention Adam Mann took a big, bold step out of the atheist closet, publicly revealing his true identity as Christian minister Carter Warden. Following his talk, Barker joined him for a little musical jubilation as they performed a couple of Warden’s songs. LaScola and Dennett then joined Warden and Barker on stage for a TCP cofounders discussion panel. It was truly a night worth celebrating. Watch the whole thing here.
Led by a dedicated group of volunteers, The Clergy Project continues its Mission to provide support, community, and hope to current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs. Nearly every week, new participants join TCP’s ranks as its leaders work to stay one step ahead of the game in meeting needs and providing assistance.
Please consider partnering with The Clergy Project in the advancement of its Mission. You can do so by making a financial contribution here. TCP is still early in its infancy and regular contributions are invaluable in planning further steps for the work of The Project. Join us!
Daniel C. Dennett’s Predictions for The Clergy Project
“In the short run, it will not only provide guidance and support and community for those who are trapped in their pulpits, but also provide a perspective on the clerical life that might alert many idealistic young people to the dangers, and dissuade them from committing themselves to such a life. This in turn might starve the churches of pastors and priests, until they have to let in the sunlight and change the nature of ministry altogether. Ideally, individual churches or whole denominations might quite forthrightly forsake the double-talk and hypocrisy and make it clear to young and old within the church that these rituals are symbolic celebrations of life, illustrated with strange and wonderful myths that can inspire us to live better lives, and that there is no obligation to try to believe in their literal truth. Then church services could evolve into a new kind of theater, intended to refocus folks’ attention on things more important than their mundane projects, and inspiring them to contribute their time, effort, and yes, money to making the world a better place.”
Daniel C. Dennet Interview. As recorded by Catherine Dunphy in From Apostle to Apostate: The Story of the Clergy Project. Durham: Pitchstone, 2015. Pg 47.