I am an ordained, fundamentalist evangelical Christian minister — and an atheist. It might seem counterintuitive to read such a sentence, but a surprising number of ministers are rejecting religious belief.
None of us became ministers expecting to leave religion behind; we were authentic, strong, sincere, faithful clergy and practitioners of our faiths. Changing our minds about religion does not make us inherently bad or immoral people, uncharitable, dishonest, hostile, lacking in knowledge or common sense, deviants, or any of the other epithets frequently used to malign nonbelievers.
The Clergy Project is an organization that provides a support community for non-believing (atheist and agnostic) clergy and former clergy from all religions and denominations around the world. The organization, started on March 21, 2011, has more than 260 members and receives over 40 applications each month.
Members of The Clergy Project go through an extensive screening process to ensure prospective members actually are non-believers and are clergy or former clergy. Members are classified as either “active” (active clergy) or “alumni” (former clergy).
This organization is not meant to proselytize or change the beliefs of active clergy but to provide them with a support group that can aid them as they attempt to trade their religious careers for secular careers.
The idea of active clergy who no longer have religious beliefs might strike you as dishonest. However, one must consider all of the difficulties of their situations before passing judgment, as well as remember that such major changes in life are the result of lengthy processes rather than snap decisions.
Leaving one’s religion can result in varying degrees of consequences for even non-clergy, but the consequences are much greater for clergy. Most clergy have families to support, so their principle concern is finding employment. Another important concern is the loss of spouses, friends and family who might react negatively or hostilely to such drastic changes in religious belief.
Fear of losing my friends and family and of possible hostile reactions in the community were major concerns for me. Indeed, when discussing my background, I’m frequently attacked and pre-judged by believers who seem to consider my change of mind to be an attack on their religious identity.
The clergy involved in The Clergy Project are extremely concerned with maintaining their integrity and being honest with their families and congregations. However, they also feel responsible for trying to maintain the unity of their families and providing for their needs.
Furthermore, most clergy have seminary degrees that do not apply to secular careers. Thus, career changes for clergy often entail starting over completely with their education, job training and professional skills. These conflictive responsibilities, combined with the stress of changing one’s worldview and beliefs, can lead to a great deal of emotional turmoil.
The Clergy Project offers a support network that can provide encouragement, strength and experienced counsel to active clergy going through such traumatic processes.
I became involved in The Clergy Project in the fall of 2011 as an alumnus — several years after I left my career as a minister —in order to help active members make the transition more smoothly. Members of my family have been evangelical Christian ministers for many generations, which is a legacy I was all too happy to share.
I served as a minister in various volunteer and staff positions for several years before and after my ordination, including significant amounts of mission work in Central America. Throughout the majority of these years, I never questioned my beliefs whatsoever. In fact, I loved church the whole time I was involved, and always remember my experiences fondly.
My decision was not about the comfort and community offered by religion; I simply chose to follow the facts wherever they would lead me. I was encouraged in this task by several verses from the Bible that encourage searching for the truth (John 8:32, Ephesians 4:25, 1 Thessalonians 5:21).
We must acknowledge the courage that these clergy demonstrate by willingly following their commitment to the truth despite the probability of personal loss.
Whenever I discuss my background, the most common question everyone has is “What caused you to change your mind about religion?” Like most clergy involved in The Clergy Project, I did not become a non-believer due to personal tragedy, horrible experiences with religion, ignorance of Scriptures or doctrine, or a desire to be free of religious restrictions.
An overwhelming number of clergy reject religion as a result of many years of serious religious study. We reject religion for intellectual rather than emotional reasons. The passion for ethics and truth that lead us into our occupations as clergy also lead us out of religion. When I became a minister, I committed to the truth wherever that might lead. Through my religious studies, I came to know the truth, and the truth set me free.
Joshua Everett is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.