At Hacking Christianity, we often study bad.hacks of the Christian system, ie. actions or beliefs that hurt the Christian witness to the world. Most of them, not surprisingly, deal with hypocrisy. So imagine how much Newsweek’s “On Faith” section this week caught my eye with its intriguing conversation about what happens when clergy (or religious leaders) lose their faith and continue to lead a church.
The conversation reflects the same conversation in ordained ministry circles (especially at the level of my process that I’m at): what role does doubt play when it comes to doctrinal beliefs? What are the beliefs that are non-essential for conformity? Can ordinands affirm Christ as God’s son, yet reject blood atonement? What are the essentials and at what point might clergy, whose own spiritual beliefs are often in process, see a divergence from their own tradition? Newsweek seems to present three understandings:
At one extreme of orthodoxy, you’ve got the presumption that clergy believe everything their faith tradition understands as doctrine. Thistlethwaite calls them robots who believe everything 100%, Hirschfield comments that such faith is “nothing more than static answers” which makes “God as its footnote.” Carter wonders if the role of preaching is to be “a mere vessel for the transmission of orthodoxy?” I would almost claim that such a position makes doctrine an idol and a faith merely responsive, not reflective. While there are tons of people close to this belief (including an unfortunate number on boards of ordained ministries), 100% doctrinal assent is hard to sustain.
At the other extreme of orthodoxy is the divergence of the preacher’s belief with the expressed belief of the tradition in which they are. The predominant sentiment is that such a position is unsustainable over the long run. Cal Thomas succinctly tells such people to resign and go sell something. Hirschfield says the same, but only when the clergy subscribe to “new articles of faith which demand the denigration of the previously held beliefs.” Again, such a position is as difficult to sustain as total assent…the dark night of the soul has to end at some point, and you either see yourself in a tradition or you don’t.
I think most clergy (honestly) find themselves between these two extremes. Perhaps the happy middle is clergy who are honest about their struggles with faith…while it is in process! Honesty is the best policy (Gaddy), while also respecting the roles of the pastor/parish (Hirschfield). Honest struggle can lead to what Carter talks about: the joy of about being a wounded healer, ie. a “beggar helping other beggars find bread.” Finally, such struggles might be the vocation of the clergy, as Hirschfield reminds us:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best when he remarked that, “the purpose of religion is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”. Applied to here, that teaching translates into the demand that spiritual questions and doubt should afflict the spiritually certain, while spiritual answers and faith should offer security to the afflicted.Rabbi Hirschfield
Finally, the practicum: what ought clergy who wrestle with this do? Newsweek’s panel responds with essentially:
- If ones beliefs are held in question, be honest about the process while relying on non-parish members to be completely honest with and seek guidance.
- If ones beliefs become more solid and they are not compatible with the faith tradition, find an exit from that parish/faith tradition…it is not sustainable.
- All clergy should have a spiritual mentor who can talk us through the dark times and help us make these decisions along the way.
- Clergy who grew more divergent the more they learned about the faith. Part of the ordination process is becoming very intimate with the essentials of the faith, but it is usually in the practice of ministry that we learn about the non-essentials that can be big deals. What do they do? Their “essentials” are in unity while the “non-essentials” are not. Do they stay?
- Clergy who speak too much of their doubts and the parish reacts badly. I know of a church where expressing doubt is like blood in the water and the clergyperson was forced out. Such a fear or experience would cause clergy to not be honest about their beliefs while they are dealing with such things.
- Clergy who express doubt all the time on the expression of our faith while holding sacred and true the abstract ideal of our faith. They are comfortable with their faith in abstract but wrestle with how to live it out in actuality. For example, Emergent Christianity holds doubt and mystery as essential components of a healthy faith (yes, such perspectives are mentioned a lot on this blog though I don’t consider myself emergent).
- Clergy whose faith traditions change over time and no longer speak to them. For instance, the fundamentalist takeover of the Baptist Convention certainly exiled women and progressives from their tradition…and it wasn’t the clergy’s fault! (EDIT: Gaddy talks about this a bit)
During my ordination process, I talked about being open with my doubts and concerns from the pulpit. I was told that people who were looking for answers wouldn’t get much assurance from my sermon. I think such a sentiment reflects the first extreme: that we are to be 100% sure of our answers and offer answers to people. But for those of us who are more comfortable in the mystery of faith (which is NOT the same as refusing to take a stand or make up our minds), offering honest conversation about sustaining ourselves in our doubts is a clear pastoral duty. There’s got to be a happy medium here, and this conversation was a reminder to offer a balance between doubt and assurance in the preaching moment.
At the end of the day, honesty and integrity are the most important qualities of a clergyperson. The first sermon that I got responses from nearly 100% of the congregation was when I preached openly and honestly that I doubted that Abraham passed the test of Isaac’s sacrifice…people admitted to wrestling with child sacrifice for decades and had never verbalized it! By being honest about doubts but strong about my faith convictions, it opened up conversation that had sat dormant for 30 years or more. Wow.
I don’t know if I will ever find myself in this situation of losing the faith in my tradition…Wesleyanism is so embedded it will be hard to chip out of me. But I hope clergy friends and former clergy friends can know that whatever they struggle with, there are good people out there to talk to and to find our way together through. Heck, drop me an email and I’d love to talk about it. But find a community to talk about it and together you can find a way through the dark, dark night.