His ‘call’ turned out to be wrong number

My name is Craig. I’m a former pastor, and I’m not alone. In fact, there are dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of ministers across all denominations in the U.S. who are reaching the same conclusion that I have reached: I can no longer intellectually or ethically maintain a belief in the supernatural.

My path to this point was long and gradual. I grew up in a loving, supportive home, with parents who were never fundamentalist or demanding. The Christianity I knew was one of love and grace. My formative theology was a balance between classic Wesleyanism and mild versions of the Charismatic movement.

After college and a few years of marriage, I experienced what I felt to be a call to pastoral ministry. I know now that the guiding “signs” I received were due to confirmation bias on my part, yet I accepted the “call.” I entered into what would be over 15 years of ministry as the senior pastor of a couple of medium-sized evangelical churches.

Early on, even while in seminary, I encountered challenges to my faith. The first came, ironically, through a deeper study of the bible. I was confronted for the first time with higher biblical criticism, and I learned that the biblical text that I had always taken as the revealed word of God was filled with editorial, historical, textual and ethical problems.

Yet I accepted the resulting onslaught of cognitive dissonance as a test of my faith. I immersed myself in biblical apologetics to deal with my confusion, and this was enough to satisfy me for a while.

Gradually, over the next decade or so of serving as a pastor, other issues became more threatening to my faith. The doctrine of hell became more and more difficult for me to sustain. This was due mainly to my learning that the whole concept of hell is an amalgam of Greek mythology mingled with Jewish apocalypticism. The illogical and indefensible nature of the idea of hell led me eventually to maintain a universalist position, yet I still retained a belief in a supernatural God.

As I continued to serve in ministry, other challenges began to emerge. I was cut deeply by the incompetency and ineptitude of many religious leaders that I had met. Certainly, all people are subject to failure, yet I wondered why the Holy Spirit had not been able to create a more mature church leadership.

The supernatural claims of the bible were the next to fall. The scientific record demonstrated clearly that the Earth is billions of years old, not just a few thousand. Humans have demonstrably evolved from earlier species. If the church had been wrong on the geocentricity of the universe, couldn’t it also be wrong on issues such as evolution, cosmology or sexual orientation? How could the bible’s claims ever be trusted?

Possibly the final issue that confronted my supernaturalist beliefs was the problem of evil and suffering. The common evangelical position that evil is due to the fallen nature of humanity, which spills over to affect the innocent, was no longer sustainable for me. If God could do anything, why would God allow the will of sinners to triumph over the will of the righteous?

I intensely studied all major models of theodicy [why a “good” God allows evil] that have ever been proposed, and none of them held any water for me anymore. All models and analogies eventually fell apart, and suggested a god who was either impotent, evil or uncaring. None of those options was viable for me.

That left only one conclusion: God, or at least the God I had always imagined, was not possible. My supernatural beliefs were gone. For the past couple of years, I struggled over where this left me as a pastor. For pastors like myself, the choices are not often clear and easy, and the way out is often hard to obtain.

I finally decided that since there are not many churches that are open to a fully nontheistic religious interpretation, I had to leave the ministry. But this would prove to be a challenge of its own.

Secular jobs are not easily come by for former pastors. Many employers simply don’t understand what goes into earning a master of divinity degree. That degree requires nearly triple the credit hours of most master’s degrees and demands competence in such disciplines as administration, business, counseling, public speaking, literary criticism, ancient languages, marketing, financial management, human resource management, etc.

This knowledge, combined with the experience and discipline many pastors possess, would be invaluable to most employers. Unfortunately, many employers don’t yet understand this.

The ethical quandary of staying in the ministry as an unbeliever can be devastating. Yet, we are often faced with the higher ethical requirement of feeding our families and providing a healthy transition for the congregations we serve. Added to this is the existential crisis that many pastors face; after investing our lives in a worldview that no longer rings true, how are we now to understand ourselves? The answer varies for each person.

Only recently, I have finally found my way out of the ministry, through meaningful work with a nonprofit organization. It’s not a perfect fit, but it’s far better than staying where I was. But many pastors are still trapped, anguished by the uninformed criticism coming from the atheist community, as well as by the attacks coming from the religious community.

I was fortunate to become involved in the Clergy Project since its very early days. The community and camaraderie I have found on the forum have literally kept me going on some days. It is an invaluable resource for those who are still enslaved to a system that no longer makes any sense in their lives.

And, fortunately, my wife is in full agreement with my change in outlook, and has undergone her own transition to a secular humanist position as well. We are raising our young son to value critical thinking, rational discovery and humanitarian compassion.

My personal journey is far from complete. In fact, I am only beginning to discern where I go from here. I do not identify myself as an atheist, since atheism is a statement about what one does not believe. That label is fine for many, but for me it is more important to define myself by what I do believe.

I am working to rebuild my life based on critical thinking, naturalism and humanism. I am reshaping my ethics around what is best for the human community, rather than what is arbitrarily dictated by ancient texts. I am rediscovering what it truly means to be human — not made in the image of a god, but formed as an integral part of the beautiful, unfolding story of evolution.

And for me, that is enough.

Craig lives with his family in the southeast United States. For more information on the Clergy Project, go to clergyproject.org/.

Freedom From Religion Foundation