The Clergy Project, then and now by John S. Compere

By John S. Compere

The Clergy Project is the brainchild of FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, Richard Dawkins (our planet’s best-known evolutionary biologist), Daniel Dennett (professor of philosophy at Tufts University) and Linda LaScola (researcher and co-author with Dennett of the 2010 groundbreaking study “Preachers Who Are Not Believers”).

It started with informal conversations among these four leaders of the secular movement about providing online support for former and current religious professionals who no longer believe in a supernatural being.

The formal launch was March 20, 2011, with 52 charter members. Initial financing was provided by the Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. FFRF took the new project under its wing and provided financial and organizational support for the first three-plus years of its existence. Four years later, the Clergy Project has become its own nonprofit 501(c)(3) with total active participants of 640, its own board of directors and seven active committees.

Participants come from 30 different countries and 43 of the 50 U.S. states. There are 39 Christian sects/denominations represented and a few participants from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Scientology. The male/female ratio is 86% to 14%, primarily because the idea of women in ministry has been strongly discouraged or forbidden by most religious groups until fairly recently.

All applicants are carefully screened. No attempt is made to recruit new members because the leadership is clear that the mission is not to try to convince believers to give up their faith. Instead, it’s to help those who, for their own reasons, are no longer able to believe try to figure out how to make a huge sea change in their lives. It may well be the most challenging career change anyone can make.

The percentage of those still actively engaged in ministry varies over time but is usually about one-third of total participants, with the other two-thirds being those who have left the ministry but who still want support and to be supportive of others in the same situation.

A generous grant from Todd Stiefel of the Stiefel Freethought Foundation has enabled transition assistance grants for qualifying current ministers who need help making a career change. They aren’t asked to sign a note but are encouraged to begin paying back their financial assistance when and if their new career allows them to do so.

Here are some comments from participants about what the project has meant for them. (Even though they are in leadership and are thus, by definition, open with their deconversion experiences, we are using only first names for reasons of privacy and varying needs for anonymity.)


When I deconverted, I thought I was alone. No one I knew could relate. At best they could not understand the reasons for my deconversion, and at worst they feared for my soul and either judged me or avoided me. The Clergy Project suddenly gave me a sense of being surrounded by people who understood. I no longer had to wonder if I was the crazy one.
The reality is that very few ministers still believe what they so naively and enthusiastically held dear when they entered seminary. But once one is in the role, and personal income depends on toeing the party line, the stakes are just too high to be honest about one’s own maturing of faith. I am convinced that most ministers, even if they have not gone so far as to deconvert, secretly hold views that are far from what their eldership would find acceptable.

Secondly, no one can understand the depth of pain and loss that those of us carry who have given our best years to the church, and great sums of time and money to become eligible to be ordained and approved by our denominations, only to arrive at midlife and find it all irrelevant. There are no do-overs. We can’t go back to business school, or follow natural dreams of normal careers.

No one understands the complete identity crisis, regrets and sadness that dog us daily. That is, unless they have been through the same experience. In my 20 years since deconversion, I had met maybe one or two people that got it, but the Clergy Project is an entire community of kindred souls.


I’ve only been with TCP since July 2014, so that might make me the official rookie committee member, though I had left the ministry and the faith two years before that. The wealth of support and community I found here was exactly what I was looking for.

After taking part in my first podcast interview as a member in November and helping out with the Facebook page in February, I joined the communications committee in March, focusing on administration of the public website and Facebook page.

My experience just keeps getting better and better, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!


I joined TCP almost three years ago, not because I felt alone after my “deconversion” (I have several atheist friends locally) but because I thought it sounded like an organization with which I would be happy to be associated.

I was very pleased when I was asked to be come a screener for prospective members and get a lot of satisfaction out of interviewing them and introducing them to the project. I look forward to many more years of being active in this organization.


Although it had been 40 years since leaving Catholicism and 18 years as a nun, I found that joining TCP in 2011 provided me with an appropriate place to seriously examine my transformative journey to atheism. The opportunity to reflect and put words to the rejection of religious belief, and receiving feedback from other members, was valuable in clarifying my thoughts.

In the process, a stronger appreciation of godless life emerged.


After a decade of struggling to transition a liberal congregation into one in which my beliefs could be shared with integrity, the Clergy Project came into my life. It reminded me that despite being an anomaly, I am not alone. The encouragement and support offered through its forums has been enormously helpful during the more challenging periods within my ministry.

Even the challenges from those who can’t imagine why I’d want to remain in the church have contributed to the confidence I now have in my leadership and the work I do in my congregation. [Gretta’s church followed her into humanism.]


Although some members, like me, have left their ministries due to changed convictions years ago, we still find a need for support from those who share this common experience. It is not easy to set aside deep-seated beliefs and a profession devoted thelping others in many ways other than religion as such.

The scars of being alienated from close friends and even family never fully heal. So, we are helped by the Clergy Project even as we are able to help younger members cope with what is nothing less than a traumatic experience.


Everyone’s story is different, but my pursuit of truth did not lead me to embrace atheism until six years after I left vocational ministry to return to my blue-collar roots. I was accepted in the project in November 2011. I’m a numbers guy, so I’ll share that TCP kicked off on March 9, 2011, with fewer than 20 charter members. [By its formal launch on March 20, it had 52 members.]

Four years later, we have well over 600 participants. I kept track from the start of member numbers, religious affiliation and states and countries of residence, frequently posting my observations. I now maintain the participants list and perform various forum administrative duties.

I’ve observed that not only can people be good without god, but that godless active and former clergy are the cream of the crop. By the providence of happenstance, I am most privileged to help keep this esteemed community going and growing.


Even years after leaving the ministry, I’m plagued by thoughts of the damage I wreaked during that time. Learning about TCP through Freethought Today let me know that I wasn’t alone in my circumstance or dilemma. Simply knowing it exists is comforting; being a part of it is fortifying.

I can give a little help to other “no-longer believers” struggling to claw their way out of the clutch of a religious career. And maybe (oh how I hope!) I’m compensating for some of the destruction I imposed years ago.

TERRY [board president]:

The Clergy Project has provide me an opportunity to be of service to those struggling with a new life without the supernatural and the community support that their current or former affiliations provided. Having been “out” for 30 years, I don’t have any struggles, nor do I have much need to discuss things with those with a similar background.

I participate first as a member supporting and encouraging those with issues and concerns, while volunteering what expertise I’ve developed over the years through careers in ministry, psychotherapy, website and social media consulting and humanist celebrant. TCP has enriched my life through close friendships with men and women around the world as we work together to accomplish our mission, separated though we are by the miles.

There are no dues. The project relies on financial support from those who share its goals and philosophy. To contribute by credit card, go to or send a check to Clergy Project, 8800 49th St. N, Suite 311, Pinellas Park, FL 33782.

John S. Compere, Ph.D., is a Clergy Project charter member and vice president. His book, Towards the Light: A Fifth-generation Baptist Minister’s Journey from Religion to Reason, details his deconversion more than 40 years ago.

Freedom From Religion Foundation