What’s a non-believing pastor to do?

A fascinating report titled “Pastors Who Are Not Believers” was released in March. Here is its setup.

Are there clergy who don’t believe in God? Certainly there are former clergy who fall in this category. Before making their life-wrenching decisions, they were secret nonbelievers. Who knows how many like-minded pastors discover that they simply cannot take this mortal leap from the pulpit and then go on to live out their ministries in secret disbelief? What is it like to be a pastor who doesn’t believe in God? John Updike gave us a moving account in his brilliant novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, which begins with the story of Reverend Wilmot, a Lutheran minister whose life is shattered by his decision to renounce the pulpit in the face of his mounting disbelief. But that is fiction and Wilmot’s period of concealment is short-lived. What is it like to be a pastor who stays the course, in spite of sharing Wilmot’s disbelief?

The full report details the psychology of what it’s like to be active in ministry when your thoughts about God don’t necessarily sync up with those in the pew. The report caused an interesting stir when it was released, leading the Washington Post to host a roundtable of columnists poking at these questions:

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?

It led John Mark Reynolds to opine,

It is the great mistake of the age to think that the believers are the ones invested with certainty. We are people of faith and living by faith is sure evidence that we don’t claim to know, if by knowing one means being beyond doubt.

Recently, blogger Rod Dreher picked up the thread.

I was thinking earlier this week that to choose to be a priest, and no doubt a pastor in many Protestant churches, is to choose to be poor — and, if you are in a church that allows you to marry, to choose for your family to live in relative poverty. In ages past, joining the clergy was a way toward social advancement. Not anymore. There is not much prestige in it these days, and most things you can do would make you more money, and give you far better hours. I cannot imagine choosing to be a pastor unless I believed wholeheartedly in the reality of God — however much I might at times, like Mother Teresa, feel the lack of His presence — and feel His calling on my life. A priest friend of mine told me that his bishop once said to him that he had to take his calling with utmost seriousness, “Because one day, you will have to answer to God for the souls of your flock.”

Dreher’s column was heavily commented upon, and he re-echoed it last Monday in the tantalizingly-titled (and even more heavily commented) How seminary ruins one’s faith. It features a rejoineder from an active parish priest.

[w]hen the only approach that one ever learns towards the Bible is criticism, then all you know how to do is be a critic. Is it any wonder you lose your faith in what the Bible teaches? Imagine going into a marriage with the only approach you know that of constantly criticizing your wife and questioning her motives and her honesty. It would be a short walk to divorce.

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