Monday, May 14, 2012

When Faith Departs

At the end of April National Public Radio offered a piece on religious people coming "out of the closet." No, it's not about Christians who are gay. It looks at clergy who have lost their faith, an obvious vocational dilemma. Wouldn't that be akin to a paleontologist who believes in a seven-day creation?. How can a minister/pastor/priest fulfill his or her responsibilities without a belief in God?

I actually have tremendous sympathy for clergy who get to this place. I would go so far as to say that most of us have moments of profound doubt and "dark nights of the soul" where we simply have trouble believing in a personal and caring God. It is an occupational hazard because we see it all, and think about it all. We are required to ask the profound questions of faith and answers often elude us. We watch good people suffer and die and miserable human beings prosper. We function in an institution where some individuals are mean as stink and yet claim to love Jesus (not moi of course!) It's enough to knock the faith out of the most pious of leaders.

What we hope and pray is that we will find our way back to a sense of the loving embrace of the God of life, revealed in Christ. From my perspective, so far so good, although I have developed some major speed wobbles along the way.

Despite my appreciation of the dilemma of doubt and disbelief I do feel that if this becomes a persistent state, it's time to move on. Yes, it can be scary. Yes, it means a loss of income, vocation, status. Some people just won't understand. But there has to be honesty and integrity.

The pastor featured in the NPR piece, Teresa McBain, was nine years in the ministry before realizing she couldn't continue:

"On my way to church again. Another Sunday. Man, this is getting worse," she tells her phone in one recording. "How did I get myself in this mess? Sometimes, I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I'd just keep my job. But I can't do that. I know it's a lie. I know it's false."

Later she concluded:

"I got to come out. I got to get out of it. It used to terrify me, what people's reaction would be. But it's been so long now and I've done this for so long, I don't even care."

McBain left the ministry with the support of her husband, who still believes. She founded an organization called The Clergy Project for clergy who no longer believe, which is a  good thing. She continues to look for work a year later and many people have shunned her, which is very sad.

I would support any colleague who realized that they no longer have faith in God. And I would pray that their faith would flourish again.

Does this surprise you? Unsettle you? What are your thoughts? Should a denomination provide some support for a minister who needs to exit ministry because faith is no longer there?


sjd said...

I can see this, and understand. It's like being a cop. You see everything that thankfully most of us don't.
Constant exposure to negativity will jade the best of us. This is why I don't pay much attention to the news, except for sports.
Perhaps I'm an Ostrich sticking my head in the sand, but there is little i can do about wars, dirty politicians, and natural disasters.
I pay attention to my family, my job, and my friends. These things give me a good spiritual outlook.

IanD said...

I have often wondered about how often this happens. Reading your courageous posting shows me that it does, and it actually makes me feel relief for all those times my own doubt has taken over.

Interesting stuff!

Lori-Ann said...

Doubt is an on-going struggle for many of us, and I can't imagine how difficult this would be for clergy. I wonder as well how difficult it is for clergy to work under circumstances where they have faith in God but not in relgious institutions.I am thinking here of the embarrassment some must feel over stories such as the recent ones about the Bishops, first attacking nuns, then Girl Scouts. The Bishops failure to follow Jesus must be all the more difficult to swallow for someone expected to upport all church doctrine blindly.