Non-Believing Clergy: Now What Shall We Do?

Part 19 of the OnFaith Forum “Disbelief in the Pulpit.”

In this OnFaith Forum, Disbelief in the Pulpit, we asked contributors: What should pastors do if they no longer hold the defining beliefs of their denomination? Do clergy have a moral obligation not to challenge the sincere faith of their parishioners? If this requires them to dissemble from the pulpit, doesn’t this create systematic hypocrisy at the center of religion? What would you want your pastor to do with his or her personal doubts or loss of faith?

I get the impression that most — if not all — of the early commentators haven’t read our report. They are unanimous in favor of honesty (and apple pie) and are happy to condemn hypocrisy in the pulpit, but few of them show any sign of appreciating what terrible predicaments our good pastors are in. Resign, leave the church, find a congregation more in harmony with your creed, they urge — but apparently without having read the profiles of those they are advising.

Let’s suppose that Martin Marty and Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong are always utterly forthright when they hold forth in churches, “speaking truth to power,” challenging the conservative “common Christianity” that they have moved beyond, but how often — if ever — have they had to face a congregation that could ruin their careers if pushed too hard?

Besides, they and others temper their calls for courage. Brad Hirschfield says that “Responsible religious leaders must find a balance between helping their congregants to wrestle with tough questions and offering them secure answers.” In other professions that is known as spin doctoring. Borg encourages the clergy “to be discerning”: an elderly congregation might be better served with a less forthright challenge to the views that have comforted them, but in “intergenerational churches with a potential future” he calls for a more aggressive approach. From the pulpit? No, that would upset the old folks; in “adult theological re-education.”

Yes, we discussed that approach in our report, and our pastors engage in it. But how should they deal with their duties in the pulpit? Borg gives no advice about that. Similarly, Janet Edwards sees the conflict and calls for “afflicting the comfortable” but gives us no examples of how she does this afflicting from the pulpit while sparing those who are afflicted.

Martin Marty sees that “Anything done to help bad-faith clerics move along and out would be good for congregations and causes of truth and integrity.” Obviously, but how does he suggest we do this? Richard Dawkins has proposed the creation of a fund to provide retraining and support for those who find their consciences can no longer permit them to fulfill the duties of a minister. I hope that Marty would make a handsome contribution to that fund and encourage all his colleagues to do likewise. And how will he draw the line between “bad-faith clerics” who should be firmly removed from their positions and those good-faith clerics who are just in the temporary doldrums of doubt?

Mother Theresa soldiered on, and that is the standard private advice given by mentors to ministers who find themselves in this predicament. Inevitably they are advised to keep saying the liturgy, keep hanging in there, until faith returns. And if it doesn’t? Well, then, you’re a “bad-faith cleric” and should be ashamed of yourself for your impostures. You have, says David Wolpe, “a simple obligation to explain that to the congregation.” Simple indeed, but just when does the obligation arise, and how does it balance your obligations to your spouse and children?

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite tempers “don’t fake faith” with “Don’t use your congregation as your spiritual advisers.” How do you follow both policies? You hang in there, keeping your specific doubts and convictions to yourself apparently. If and when “you as a pastor . . . no longer subscribe to most of the fundamental teachings of your faith tradition, you need to work through those struggles individually with a spiritual advisor. It may be that you need to find a different spiritual home where you can affirm the majority of the church teachings.” Most of the fundamental teachings?

It is precisely this tolerance that creates the slippery slide to perdition that has caught our victims. If it weren’t for this “wiggle room” (as one of our informants calls it) few would make it through seminary. And while this spiritual advising is going on discreetly backstage, what do you say from the pulpit? You say what our brave pastors, and no doubt many other pastors, say. You find disingenuous circumlocutions that get you through Sunday morning without telling any outright lies.

It is a nice irony that of the first dozen commentators only Max Carter, the Quaker (whose tradition has no ordained “hireling” clergy) and Rebecca Goldstein, a Jewish atheist, see the torment of these clergy for what it is. Denial is an amazingly powerful force.

We hope that volunteers for our future (confidential) studies will not be put off by the reactions this pilot study has provoked.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Daniel C. Dennett
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