May 1, 2012

Faith leaders' lost faith

People of faith lose faith. This is neither new, nor news.

It's intrinsic to belief, to what belief has to be to be belief, that however much one has it, and one hangs on, it's never so certain, so owned or ensured, that it couldn't just disappear. "They ought to make it a binding clause," Phillip K. Dick once said, "that if you find God you get to keep him." That's not how it works, though. There's no "they," and no rule, and no way to bind the finding of God so the "God" found will always be God, or the found always found, the belief believed forever. People lose faith. It's a gift, if it's anything, that can for any reason or no reason just go away. Faith goes away. Not always, but sometimes: sometimes suddenly, and sometimes like a slow realization you've it's long since passed.

Even faith leaders lose faith. Maybe even especially faith leaders.

Sometimes, like Jim Casy in the beginning of Grapes of Wrath, preachers and ministers find they "Ain't got the call no more,"  and then what are they to do? Casy says:
"I ain't preachin' no more much. The sperit ain't in the people much no more; and worse'n that, the sperit ain't in me no more. 'Course now an' again the sperit gets movin' an' I rip out a meetin', or when folks sets out food, I give 'em a grace, but my heart ain't in it. I on'y do it 'cause they expect it."
"I figgered there just wasn't no hope for me, an' I was a damned ol' hypocrite. But I didn't mean to be."
It's hard to say exactly how often this happens. Numbers are easy to come by: reliable ones probably impossible.

One study says 33% of pastors felt burnt out in the first five years on the job, but that was only the percentage of those who stayed in ministry anyway, and didn't include those who quit. A survey of a specific evangelical group -- the Independent Christian Church -- found that half of all ministers who enter ministry will leave shortly thereafter. Other studies have placed attrition rates as high as 80%: of those graduating from seminary and starting in ministry, only 20% will still be ministers in five years, and of those who continue on, 40% will have extra-marital affairs, and 70% will struggle with depression. Reportedly, among the Southern Baptists, nearly 100 ministers leave the ministry every month, and ten times that number call an anonymous hot line for help and counseling. According to a New York Times study, 57% of ministers "would leave the pastorate if they had somewhere else to go or some other vocation they could do."

How much of that is loss of faith is hard to say. Though some of it is, we know.

The most commonly cited reason for leaving ministry is disillusion. Which can be disillusion with the people served, with people served with, with service itself, or with the forms and structure and practical reality of "ministry." Or it can be with belief.

The Clergy Project, an online support group for ministers who've lost their faith, reports it has more than 200 members. Not a huge number, all told, but not insignificant either. Who knows how many have left pulpits because they not longer subscribe to the beliefs they were in those pulpits to propound, or how many who are in pulpits still are struggling with belief. There are some, though. Leaders of the faith lose the faith. It happens.

Besides literary examples such as Jim Casy, and famous historic ones -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, for one -- there are several recent examples, people who have made their stories public. Stories that have made the news.

Five pseudonymous men shared their stories with Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola two years ago, for example, in a study entitled "Preachers Who Are Not Believers." Their accounts give us (despite some of the problems with the over-simplified gloss of the interpretation of what it means for these people to "believe" or not), a glimpse at faith leader's loss of faith.

Now, just in the last week, several more such stories have made the news. All associated with The Clergy Project, which is associated with Richard Dawkins and with Dennet and LaScola's study, and thus with New Atheism, but now, notably, they're using real names. There are more details, more explanations, and more of an account of what happened.

There are three ministers who've made the national news this way in the last day or so, following their debut at the American Atheist convention, and a push from The Clergy Project:
  • Jerry DeWitt, Pentecostal minister from Louisiana, and was profiled by USA Today.
  • Mike Aus, a Lutheran minister from Texas, who announced his atheism on MSNBC on Palm Sunday. 
  • Teresea MacBain, a Methodist minister from Florida, who outed herself at the the Atheist convention, and has had her story told by NPR.
All of them have their own stories, stories they've now told at least partially in public, and have their own reasons. Despite all being influenced by the New Atheists and connected to The Clergy Project, there's a bit of variety. DeWitt says his first problem, theologically, was with hell. Aus mentions Christ's virgin birth and the problem of evil. MacBain says her faith just had "so many holes in it," and she questioned whether Jesus was the only way to God, and whether there was really proof God existed. All of them ended up, though, at the point where they could say with Casy,  "the sperit ain't in me no more."

And of all of them got to the point where they decided to say that publicly. 

This, more than anything, is the most striking commonality, to me. All three ministers who lost their faith went public before they told their congregations. They told strangers and journalists before they told important people in their lives, including co-ministers, oversight committees, friends, and family. 

Neither MacBain nor Aus' congregations knew about their ministers' doubts or disbelief until they saw them announcing atheism on TV. DeWitt's knew when he shared a photo of himself with Dawkins online. None of these three had resigned their positions before denying the faith they were paid to lead, nor met with any person in a position of authority in their congregations or their denominations to discuss what they were thinking or going through.

None of them appear to have had any friends.

At least not friends they could be honest with -- the performance of being a minister turned out to be all consuming, and basic intimacy, basic honesty, appeared to them impossible.

Not that this is somehow causally connected to ministers losing their faith or is at all unique to ministers who lose their faith: burnout studies suggest that 70% of Protestant ministers have no close friends. More than a few say they wouldn't know who to talk to if they needed to talk to someone. They wouldn't know who to turn to, with the messy, real, wart-y parts of their lives. Some 90% feel unqualified for their jobs, like they're faking competence, playing a part. More -- 94% -- say they feel pressure to present a perfect family.

This is stark, stark isolation.

And isolation of someone who's responsible for some sort of community life, for solving other people's isolation.

This comes up in "The Preachers Who Are Not Believers" report, as well. A number of the people interviewed said they had struggled with figuring out who to talk to, when they began to have doubts. One ministered described very cautiously testing someone to see what reaction he'd get. Another described struggling with the idea that his doubts might harm those who heard, hurting their faith and their life. Even at the moment of needing to talk, he couldn't give up responsibility for what others heard. In maybe the saddest case, a minister described how, though he was reading basically nothing but New Atheist books and thinking about his lack of belief all the time, he couldn't tell anyone. Not even his wife:
"I couldn't ask for a better wife. I was very fortunate. We get along great. We support each other, and always give each other words of encouragement, and just support each other in every way we can think about.

"She doesn’t need to hear this right now. It's not going to serve any of us. I feel like when the time’s right, I can talk to her about it. She won't like it, but I will share it with her. And after I share it with her, I will start sharing it with other people. But she’s going to be first. Because I know it's going to be --- it's going to turn her life upside-down…she's a very dedicated Christian. Very devout."
Given that kind of isolation, one wonders if these ministers "came out" as atheists in the way they did because it promised them the kind of human contact they'd been deprived as ministers.

MacBain, who grew up in a minister's family and had herself been a minister for nine years, noted she had "never felt so appreciated and cared for" as when she announced her atheism to an audience of people she'd never met. Aus, a minister for more than 20 years, who'd ministered to some of the same people for 20 years, said, "The most important thing to me was knowing I wasn't alone .... It was that fundamental sense of community with people who were experiencing the same things I was."

Whatever intellectual formation their crisis took, it's very practical form was estrangement from the people around them. These "coming out" experiences are not incidental.

People convert when they feel they've come home, sometimes, and they deconvert for that reason too.

People lose faith. That's part of faith. I don't think that's new, or know that it's news. It's worth trying to understand, though, if you want, and I do, to understand what belief means in practice, and what it's like, and how it's experienced in the world. And part of it -- part of believing and part of losing what one thought one had in believing -- is these leaders' sense of complete, confounding isolation. Their sense of estrangement, and their experience of being a faith leader as entirely preformative, entirely fraudulent enterprise.

For them, it was knowing you have no answers when you're job is to have them all. That you, somehow, were supposed to be that "binding clause" for others, that they would get to keep the God they'd found. The guarantor of others' faith. But instead, you were just a person.

As a character says of the Timothy Archer in Philip K. Dick's last book, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, "The bishop is tired. The bishop is always tired. The bishop is too tired to answer the question, 'Is there any proof of the existence of God?' No; there is no proof. Where is the Alka-Seltzer?"

Or as another religious leader says in that book: "When people come here to listen to me speak, I offer them a sandwich. The foolish ones listen to my words; the wise ones eat the sandwich. This is not an absurdity that I tell you: it is the truth."

That's part of it, I think, that exhaustion and depletion, and disbelief and disbelief in the value of belief, and just not knowing, but needing some human connection as honest as a sandwich.