Gretta VosperThe Rev. Gretta Vosper leads West Hill United Church, a Protestant congregation in Toronto, Canada. She was ordained in 1993. She’s also been in the middle of a controversy within the church: whether an atheist can lead a Christian congregation. Vosper has led the church since 1997, but came out as an atheist in 2013. Since, her fate within the church has been under review as she faced an ecclesiastical church hearing to determine whether she would be removed from her position. In November 2018, the church and Vosper came to a settlement which allows her to remain in her church.

According to The Toronto Sun, the details of the settlement are confidential. But the Right Rev. Richard Bott, leader of the United Church in Canada, reportedly is pleased with the resolution. Vosper can continue to serve as a leader in her church, without any restrictions. Her supporters are relieved and believe that the United Church’s mantra of inclusivity has been upheld. Critics are concerned that a person who doesn’t believe in God is leading a Christian ministry that is all about God.


Preachers Who Have Come Out as Atheist


Religious leaders who have lost their faith might seem like a rather novel concept, but it’s more common than you’d think.

Jerry DeWitt, a preacher in DeRidder, LA, found himself questioning his faith. He publicly came out as an atheist in 2011. His loss of faith cost him everything: his job, his connection to the community, even his wife, although they allegedly reconciled later. He received threats of physical harm from former friends and neighbors. He paid a high price for his “deconversion.” Now an author and former executive director of Recovering From Religion, DeWitt still carries those emotional scars with him.

Dan Barker came out publicly as an atheist in 1984. Prior to his deconversion, he was an ordained minister and evangelical Christian. Today, he is the co-President of Freedom From Religion Foundation and has taken on prayer in public schools and nativity scenes on government property.

Teresa MacBain came out as an atheist in 2012 after leaving her Methodist ministry. Even after coming to the conclusion that she no longer believed in God, it wasn’t easy for her to leave her profession. Although her close family was supportive of her decision, friends and extended family were not. After publicly coming out as an atheist, MacBain found it difficult to find work, but was eventually able to find employment in organizations that support humanists and offered secular alternatives to church. However, it’s been reported that she has returned to her faith and is now a musician in a local church band.


What’s an Atheist Pastor To Do?

 

A religious leader who has lost their faith might feel like by coming out that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose. That is why the aforementioned Dan Barker started The Clergy Project in 2011. The Clergy Project’s goal is to “create a safe and secure online community of forums composed entirely of religious leaders who no longer hold to supernatural beliefs.” It’s an anonymous community where pastors can explore their lack of belief without judgment. It’s estimated that membership has increased ten-fold in just a few years.

Some suggest that pastors are especially vulnerable to doubt and disbelief. It starts in seminary where study of scripture goes deep. Looking at religion through a scholarly lens is much different from the emotional approach to faith that many laypeople take. It is estimated that many enter the seminary as believers and leave as atheists. Still, some push their doubts aside hoping to overcome them with experience.

Why do pastors stay in a job that doesn’t align with their beliefs? After years or even decades in the position, they stay in the pulpit out of fear of losing their vocation, their sense of purpose and their friends, family, and congregation. Walking away from a church is not easy when you still have faith. Publicly admitting that you doubt Christianity, especially as a faith leader, can lead to community ostracization, death threats, job loss, and more.

Unfortunately, this is a tricky issue with no one-size-fits-all answer. Those in this unenviable position will have to weigh the potential fallout of coming out against the relief of finally being honest about their beliefs. In a perfect world, no one would be ostracized or threatened for their religious views, but unfortunately, that is not our reality.

 

Still, no one should suffer in silence.

Category: Society, Church

minister, communication, relationships, religion

Add Your Comment

To post a comment you must log in first.