Facebook Logo Twitter Logo YouTube Logo
Support | Community | Hope
For current and former religious professionals without supernatural beliefs.
  • Interior page slideshow

    Clergy Project Milestone 1000 – The Elephant in the Room

    As we approach the milestone of 1000 Clergy Project participants, I recall that when I joined The Clergy Project (TCP) in November of 2011, I was only four years into my life as an out-of-the-closet atheist. Sixteen years earlier, I had been licensed as a minister in the Central New York District of the Wesleyan Church, and I pastored Wesleyan and Methodist churches for the next six years. After four years of preparation and six years pastoring, I left the pulpit as a believer and returned to industry in the interest of making a better living. It was not for another six years, in 2007, that I discarded any residual belief in a god and embraced the atheist label. Not long after that, my wife started asking questions. She was not happy with my transformation, so trying to explain what happened was not productive. Our sons too, were religiously indoctrinated (thanks to me), so empathy was hard to come by. It was another four years before it occurred to me that I might do an online search for apostate clergy. That’s how, in November of 2011, I discovered The Clergy Project. I was in a tight spot, but I found that I was not alone. Here was an online community established for the purpose of offering mutual support and encouragement to people like me. I was elated and immediately applied to join. A few days later, a TCP screener contacted me to set up a time for an interview. I took the call in a school parking lot, while my grandchildren were inside rehearsing for a play.

    In 2007 (when I first realized I was no longer a believer), TCP did not exist. Only the year before, Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins met at a humanist conference in Reykjavik, Iceland; there, they discovered a shared desire to help non-believing clergy in similar circumstances to Dan’s journey from preacher to atheist. In 2008, when writing the forward to Dan Barker’s book, “Godless,” Richard Dawkins again expressed his continuing desire to help non-believing religious leaders, both in and out of the pulpit. In 2011, it was only on a hunch that I decided to search the subject of apostate clergy; I was lucky to discover that TCP had been launched only eight months earlier.

    Perhaps in those early days, an “under the radar” approach was warranted. But now, as we’re approaching 1000 strong, I think that we can and should do more. I don’t mean that we should evangelize believing clergy to our way of thinking. I’m suggesting that we are only the tip of the iceberg–that there are probably many more clergy out there, suffering in silence, with no idea that TCP exists. Could TCP become the proverbial elephant in every room that just cannot be ignored, pointing the way out of religion?

    Speaking of elephants, I do like them (not that I’ve ever spent any significant time around them). I did go to the circus at least once in my childhood. I’ve seen them on TV and in movies, and I have observed that elephants are very large.

    According to Defenders of Wildlife:

    Elephants form deep family bonds and live in tight matriarchal family groups of related females called a herd. The herd is led by the oldest and often largest female in the herd, called a matriarch. Herds consist of 8-100 individuals depending on terrain and family size. When a calf is born, it is raised and protected by the whole matriarchal herd. Males leave the family unit between the ages of 12-15 and may lead solitary lives or live temporarily with other males.

    This seems like a very workable social construct–and not only for elephants. The same source tells us that, “Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years.” We have all heard that an elephant never forgets.

    As elephants are very large and socially evolved to live and travel in herds, they are particularly unsuited to being kept as house pets. If you had a matriarchal elephant in your living room, she would be very difficult to ignore. Thus, we are all familiar with the idea of an issue so big, so controversial, so problematic, that it just can’t be ignored.

    What does all this have to do with TCP, you ask? We have talked before about TCP existing in a bubble that stays primarily within the secular movement. We have discussed the idea that most religious professionals are not even aware of our existence. Our ability “to provide support, community, and hope to current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs” (our stated mission) is severely restricted to those few who discover us.

    I am proposing that we utilize the spectacle of TCP Milestone 1000 as the right time to promote the TCP brand. Ideally, everyone (particularly, every current religious leader) should be fully aware and comforted by the knowledge that we are here. The statement that, “we all have doubts,” is both cliché and code for, “we don’t really believe what we are paid to preach to our congregants on a regular basis.” I don’t know how many doubts it takes to make an unbeliever, but as many of us used to sing, “it only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Well, it only takes a doubt to get the doubt fire burning.

    I suspect that among current religious professionals, there are far more doubters than unquestioning believers. TCP doesn’t need to create apostates; we only need to be commonly known and available to the closeted religious professionals who already exist. We need only to be obviously present with the good news:

    • Unbelief is more than “okay.”
    • You are in great and excellent company.
    • TCP is right there in the room with you, offering to provide support, community, hope, and a wealth of experience to help you transition to a better and more rational, secular life.

    Yes, my vision is for TCP to grow into being that ever-present and undeniable elephant in every room that can be deliberately ignored only with great difficulty and at the risk of triggering great embarrassment. By aggressive propagation of the TCP brand, we can become the obviously existent elephant in every room where religious services are conducted; in every room where church business is conducted; in every seminary classroom where the bible, religious history, theology, homiletics, comparative religion, and apologetics is taught; in every room where a young person is about to be bedazzled into pursuing a career in religious ministry which sooner or later will be regretted.

    Elephants are extremely intelligent animals and have memories that span many years. We, as TCP participants, are an intelligent and empathetic herd. We have decades of memories, vast quantities of experience, and mountains of lessons learned that can be of great benefit to the millions of doubting religious professionals around the world. We are doing a good thing at TCP; it’s up to us to make sure everyone knows we are here.

    According to Daniel Dennett:

    [The Clergy Project] 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.

    We don’t need to engage in theological debate or atheistic evangelism. We only have only to be the obvious and undeniable elephant in the room.

    It’s our responsibility to use TCP Milestone 1000 to propagate the TCP brand, and the harder the religious establishment tries to not think of the magnificent TCP elephant in the room, the larger and more relevant we will be. We know where we’ve been, and we appreciate how far we’ve come. An elephant never forgets, and the ever-present TCP elephant in every room must never be denied or ignored.

    Michal Pleban

    Why did I stop believing in God? The shortest answer would be that I ran out of excuses for him. Pentecostal Christianity stresses that God is actively involved in the believers’ lives, answering their prayers, communicating with them, and changing events around them. As a teenager, I loved this idea. I was raised in traditional Catholicism, where God, while powerful, was very distant. I always thought that if there is a God, I wanted to have close contact

    NealH

    nealh-profile

    My religious life began in a Southern Baptist Church in Erwin, TN, a small town of five-thousand or so. My family left this church and began attending a Presbyterian Church when I was twelve years old when my brother and I came home after church to inform my parents that all Catholics were bound for hell.

    I became very involved in spiritual activity during the time of the “Jesus Movement.” From there I went to Asbury College in Wilmore, KY and acquired a degree in Religion and then went on to Asbury Theological Seminary. I decided not to follow the typical course into pastoral ministry and opted for a specialized curriculum in historical theology. My focus was on Eastern Orthodox history and theology.

    Mary Joyce

    I was a “cradle” Catholic.  My mother was divorced and not allowed to go to Mass, but she sent all seven of her children to Mass on Sunday and to Catholic schools.  I never understood that but I think going to Mass was the trade off for being allowed to attend Catholic schools which my mother thought were superior to the public schools. Sometime around 3rd grade I was apparently telling relatives that I was going to be a nun.This is what I did the summer I graduated from my Catholic, all-girls high school.

    Drew Bekius

    DrewBekiusLawyer2 copy

    DISCLAIMER: Drew has served as President of The Clergy Project.

    In many ways, my story is as stereotypical American evangelical as it gets. Complete with altar calls, Bible camps, and purity rallies. Or at least it starts off that way.

    I was raised in a small Baptist church in small-town Central Minnesota. Prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer” when I was just three years old. Somehow spontaneously finding ourselves in the bathroom, I prayed that prayer with my mother, kneeling over the bathtub’s edge and repeating her words as my own, confessing my preschool-age sins while asking Jesus to come into my life and grant me the forgiveness I was told I had so desperately needed. From there it was a childhood of Sunday schools and AWANA programs, of youth groups and Bible studies.

    Carolyn Shadle

    carolyn-shadle I am a senior (age 74 at this writing) and only recently admitted to myself that I am an atheist.  I was brought up in a conservative (aka fundamentalist) Presbyterian church but went to a “liberal” Presbyterian college (The College of Wooster) where I was introduced to a more scholarly approach to scriptures.  From there I earned a Masters in Religious Education at Union Theological Seminary. 

    Ranier

    rainer The son of recent German immigrants, I was born in Western Canada in 1956. My mother grew up in a fundamentalist Christian home where guilt and shame were generously dispensed by her mother and later also by her grandfather. My father was a skeptic and nominal Lutheran who found it hard to stomach Christian hypocrisy and thus

    Calvin King

     I’m a former Mennonite minister who served in two congregations in Kansas for a total of 30 years before resigning and entering the business world as a human resource manager. I distinctly remember reading through the Bible in 6 months when I was eight years old. I was surprised by God’s anger and destructiveness. Still I believed.

    Robert Crompton

    robcromptonIt was November 1965 when, while still in my twenties, I walked out of the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a disfellowshipped person.Because I had come to disagree – quite strongly, in fact – with many of the teachings of the Watch Tower Society, I was summoned before a judicial committee to give an explanation for myself. They probed and questioned, and questioned me again. Surely this was all just to cover up some other wrong-doing,

    Mark

    My life was the church. I grew up in the church. I went on numerous mission trips. I got a college degree designed to prepare me for church ministry. I worked as a youth pastor for several years. I got my masters degree in seminary. Finally, I found a great job as the senior pastor in a fantastic, growing evangelical church.  It was a wonderful place to work and I loved my job for over half a decade.

    Ches Smith

    ches In Southern Baptist circles, they say “once saved, always saved” as if there’s no going back. They say something similar about alcoholics so I can’t help but picture myself seated in a circle in the middle of a gymnasium, waiting for my turn to stand up and say, “Hi. My name is Ches and I’m a Jesuholic.” Anyway, I’m from Houston, married with three children, and I work as a computer tech at a middle school. I have a background in art and I’m also an

    John Laughlin

    john-laughlin John serves on TCP’s Screening Committee. Where to start??? I grew up in the home of a Southern Baptist minister in North Carolina.  I started Wake Forest College (WF) in 1960 and graduated in 1967. I would say that is because I am a slow learner but the truth is I dropped out of college in the fall of my sophomore  year and spent the next 3 years in the US Army (doesn’t mean that I’m NOT a slow learner!).  I Was

    Vic Milne

    My single-parent mother was not excessively religious, but she sometimes told me Bible stories with the assumption that they were true. She also sent me to a fundamentalist Sunday School because it was the nearest church. She attended church for a while but then stopped going. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was turned off because the congregation leaders canned the pastor in a very dirty way—gave him a pair of airline tickets to visit

    Terry Plank

    Terry Plank I went from agnostic to believer to atheist.  After my first 2 years of college and marriage  I became a “born again” Christian in the Church of Christ. Eventually I became an elder in the church, & after 5 years in retail management after college, I earned an M.Div. at Fuller Theological Seminary, and served 5 churches as a pastor. One of those churches included a street ministry in Venice CA in the 70’s.

    Gretta Vosper

    grettaI am one of the lucky ones and am able to be honest about my beliefs in the congregation I serve, a congregation of The United Church of Canada. I have served West Hill, www.westhill.net, for fifteen years. About three years into my ministry there, I was awakened to the reality that many of my congregants had not assimilated the progressive “metaphorical” understandings of Christianity that I had been exposed to throughout my

    We've reached 1,000 participants!

    The Clergy Project has just reached a milestone of 1,000 verified non-believing clergy (current and former) participating!

    To read more, please check out this article on the Rational Doubt blog.