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In the Spirit: Group helps clergy members who are 'closeted atheists' find a new line of work

In the Spirit: Group helps clergy members who are 'closeted atheists' find a new line of work

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Every Sunday, “Adam” says things to his parishioners he no longer believes.

The evangelical pastor lost his faith a few years ago but is still in the pulpit, unable to devise an exit strategy from the profession he’s devoted his life to for 25 years.

“I’m trying to find the best way out that causes the least amount of harm,” he told me by phone.

Adam is a pseudonym. I was put in touch with him through the Clergy Project, a national effort begun in 2011 to assist active clergy members who are closeted atheists. He spoke with the State Journal on condition that his name not be used because of the risk to his livelihood.

Adam recently was awarded the Clergy Project’s first “Employee Transition Assistance Grant.” The $2,500, paid directly to an employment services agency, is helping Adam write a professional resume, practice interviewing skills, determine his transferable skills and network with prospective employers.

“He’s the whole reason we exist,” said Dan Barker of Madison, a co-founder of the Clergy Project and himself an evangelist-turned-atheist. Barker is co-president of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Unlike the foundation, the Clergy Project is not a proselytizing organization — it’s not out to create atheists, Barker said.

“We’re a support group for those who’ve made the decision on their own,” he said. “We’re a landing place for those who’ve changed their views and need help in their transition.”

Ministry is so all-encompassing and all-consuming that a career change affects every aspect of one’s life, Barker said.

“In almost any other job, if you change your philosophy or your religious beliefs, the rest of your life usually doesn’t change,” Barker said. “But clergy members who change their views are in a real risky position. They can lose their livelihood, their status, their friends, their family.”

Adam, a staff preacher at a large fundamentalist church in Tennessee, said his wife is aware that he is struggling with his faith, but even she doesn’t know the extent of his dilemma.

“Some days, I get so frustrated with the situation, I think it would be best to just lay it all out there and deal with the fallout,” Adam said. “But I don’t think that would be fair to my family.”

Last week, the Clergy Project logged its 425th member, all carefully screened, Barker said. Of those, 316 are former clergy members, 109 are still active.

“There are a lot of Pentecostals, some Catholics, a few rabbis. There’s really no pattern,” Barker said. “Some are from extremely fundamentalist denominations. Other denominations are so liberal the clergy members are able to stay on even as non-theists.”

One female clergy member who is now an out atheist kept her job at a Christian church, Barker said. “Her denomination is uncomfortable with it, but her congregation loves her and doesn’t want her to leave.”

Barker said true-believers should not view the Clergy Project as a threat. “We’ve even heard from some who appreciate it. They say, ‘This is a way to cull the phonies from our midst.’”

Adam said his transition from firebrand to atheist was relatively quick. He took a quiz in a Christian book in 2008 and realized he was ill-equipped to defend his creationist views. That sent him to the Internet where, for the first time, he read deeply about evolution. Within six months, he’d changed his views.

“I never, ever imagined this would happen to me,” he said. “I was so strong in my faith.”

He realizes some parishioners will be very upset with him when he comes clean. “I know there will be anger. The reason: I’m not who they think I am.”


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