Pastors who once were christians


Not long ago I commented on the number of Atheists who once were christians I had come across on the web and in real life. Recently, I’m finding former pastors.

Many of these guys are still struggling with doubt, unwilling to give up their job and let down the people who depend on them, but also unwilling to keep up a pretence.

What’s going on? And what’s the answer?


Pastor burnout

Surveys and assessments in both the US and Australia suggest that pastor stress and burnout are increasing. In the US, it is estimated that at least half of pastors entering the ministry will leave long before they retire (Richard J. Krejcir, 2007), with some estimates saying 50% will give up before 5 years and only 10% make it through to retirement (Pastoral Care Inc, 2009). 1,500 US pastors quit ministry every month due to stress, extra-marital affairs or conflict in thier churches (DJ Chuang, 2010). In Australia there are as many ex-pastors working at other jobs as there are pastors working in ministry (John Mark Ministries, 2003).

It is not made clear how many of these leavers have also lost their faith, but we can only presume it is a significant number.

Various diagnoses and remedies can be found, but it seems that most of them accept the status quo of how ministry is done, with pastors leading and preaching and congregations hopefully following and listening. I can’t help feeling a major problem is how ministry and church is conceived, and radical change is needed, but here I am only examining loss of faith.

Loss of faith

Based on a small sample of observations I have made on the web, a few themes emerge.

1. Do converts know why they believe?

In a strongly christian culture, as is found in many parts of the US, it is possible to profess faith in Jesus and even become a pastor without having ever adequately considered the options and reason for belief and disbelief. Converts will usually have some reason why they believe, but it may not stand up to the scrutiny they may give it later in life, in response to doubts or hard questions.

I have already suggested (Why do some christians give up belief? in the Training disciples to stand series) that our discipleship and evangelism should include some intellectually respectable apologetics. This applies double for training of pastors.

2. Defending traditional belief

Many traditional beliefs are under increasing criticism. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead his followers into truth (John 16:13), and we see examples of this in Peter’s dealing with Cornelius (Acts 10) and the early church’s decision on following the Old Testament law (Acts 15). One of the strengths of christianity over two millennia has been its ability to adapt, over and over again.

But today it seems that evangelical christianity has become so defensive that attempts to re-think some matters of doctrine and living are met with a strong and implacable resistance. Too many christians and churches have become bound by rules rather than living in the freedom of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6). Pastors are especially vulnerable here because their employment may depend on conformity.

One result is that pastors are often called upon to defined and teach doctrines and practices which they can no longer believe in. Is it any wonder that some respond to this black and white approach by choosing to leave the faith entirely? If evangelical Christendom was less fearful and more flexible, it needn’t be that way.

In confirmation of this, I find that many pastors and lay people who have quit the faith still believe christianity must hold a hard line on many of the doctrines that they personally reject – relating to such matters as the inerrancy of the Bible, creationism, homosexuality, hell, hard-line evangelism, etc.

3. Passivity

A strange pattern I have observed is that some who are in the grip of doubt and recognise that it is slowly leading them out of faith, appear to be very passive. They seem to be observers rather than active participants in the process.

I tentatively put this down to a lack of adequate reasons to believe in the first place. If asked why they believe, they seem to have little to say. So when a difficult question arises (most common is the commands of God in the Old Testament to kill masses of people in the promised land), they focus on the very real problems presented by these passages, and seem to have little to put against it as a reason to believe.

It is here that the benefit of competent apologetics could be felt. CS Lewis said (words to the effect) that when confronted with a doubt, we need to ask whether this doubt changes any of the reasons why we believe. If it doesn’t, then it remains a doubt or a problem, but not a reason to change belief. I have always followed this approach, and while troubled by the OT killing commands, they don’t change my belief in Jesus. But some doubting pastors don’t seem to know how to address their doubts. They are almost like a rabbit caught in headlights.


Pastors often feel isolated, and unable to reveal their doubts. There are websites to help pastors retain their faith and ministry as there are websites to help them leave both. Churches and christians need to be less judgmental and more supportive. We need to change the way pastors are seen as ‘presidential’ leaders, but in the meantime, we need to make it very clear we are walking with pastors on the same journey, sometimes with the same doubts, but always with the same Spirit.

And when a pastor does give up ministry, and even faith, then is not the time to judge them and criticise, but to show grace and empathy.

Do some reading

Here are a few websites to give you the flavour of what I’m talking about:

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  1. […] Pastors who once were christians « the Way? Not long ago I commented on the number of Atheists who once were christians I had come across on the web and in real life. Recently, I’m finding former pastors. Many of these guys are still struggling with doubt, unwilling to give up their job … — Tue, 05 Jun 2012 04:20:15 -0700 […]

  2. Christianity today is more a social movement than a spiritual one. Thus “defecting” Christians often end up in atheist “groups” of one kind or another. Such people are generally defecting from Christians rather than from Christ. This is because their faith was in Christians rather than in Christ. Thus they replace Christians with their new atheist friends. I see this phenomenon repeatedly on the Internet. Common examples are John Loftus and Luke Muehlhauser and the “flocks” they maintain on their websites. These former Christians and their new atheist groups operate with all the same dynamics as Christian groups (mutual reinforcement, keeping clear boundaries with “outsiders,” etc.) except that their doctrines are different. I think of them as just more “denominations.”
    The solution, of course, is for each us to truly trust Christ. To trust Christ is to live daily in His loving and righteous presence – thinking, saying, and doing nothing except that which we believe He would approve. If we do this, as Brother Lawrence outlined in his collection of notes called “Practice of the Presence of God,” God will speak in quiet whispers to our hearts and we can be daily sustained by the nourishment of His word.
    I commend Christ! He is everything we might reasonably hope He would be…and more. And His sanctuary is open not on Sunday mornings and weeknights, but 24/7 anywhere on the earth that we might go.

  3. Hello Mr Gantt, nice to see you here. I liked your contributions on the exchange with the Mythicists, especially with Dr Carrier.

  4. Good post. A lot of these things I have touched on personally and are things I am considering in relation to my own crisis of belief. Thanks for your comments over at my blog, I appreciate your sincerity and not being judgmental like most would be; it is greatly appreciated.

  5. G’day Mike, I agree with pretty much all you say here. Churches satisfy social and emotional needs as well as spiritual (sometimes!), and unbelievers have these as well. My only question of you would be this:
    Granted that “The solution, of course, is for each us to truly trust Christ.”, how can those of us who believe help those who doubt on an intellectual level keep trusting a Jesus they doubt was anything more than a fellow human?

  6. Thanks for your positive comment, questionablefaith. You are obviously one of several people I have “met” who prompted my musings on this matter. I do sincerely wish you the best in your journey.

  7. Unless I believed that Jesus was raised from the dead, I wouldn’t have a sound basis for trusting Him as a mere human being. He claimed to be sent from God. He claimed to be the Messiah of Israel. He claimed that anyone who believed in Him would be blessed. He declared that we needed to love Him more than we loved anyone on earth. If He were a mere human being, He would be a narcissist and s megalomaniac – and therefore completely unworthy of any devotion, or even favorable attention, from fellow human beings.
    We must continue to sow our seed…and trust Him to give the increase. And He Himself is the seed we sow. We cannot control whether someone else capitulates to doubt; we can only control ourselves. And if we do that, it is probably the best help of all we can give to someone else who is doubting.

  8. I and know others appreaciate your words of encouragement, I can say on my end, you have been the one christian who has visted my blog to respond and answer questions…even if I agreed. Thanks,

  9. The real answer why so many reject Christianity (or any religion for that matter) is the lies. The tales of deconversion all have a familiar ring. A Christian begins to question aspects of the bible’; maybe something innocuous at first, and when no satisfactory (or honest) answer is forthcoming it leaves a gap.
    I would imagine it is worse for Pastors as they probably feel they have no one to turn to. And it is their job, of course. The self-imposed isolation must increase emotional stress to chronic levels.
    What a deconverted Christian such as Nate went through is horrendous, and he is not alone, so I believe. The stories sound worse than when gay people ‘come out’.
    But all these people have not really ‘lost’ anything. They have discovered something.Truth.
    Ask Nate.

  10. arkenaten,
    All the “deconversion” stories I have read are an abandonment of false or error-riddled conceptions of Christ. Moreover, the person is typically exchanging his faith in one group of people for faith in a different group of people. That is, the person merely trades one group’s conception of truth for another group’s conception of truth.
    Truth is truth no matter whether there is a group to affirm it or not. Truth is independent of human judgment, else it cannot be truth.
    If a human being would know truth, he merely has to look to God.

  11. @Mike
    The primary avenue for seeking biblical truth is the bible, an error strewn collection of analogous tales interwoven over an ancient pastiche with very little historicity whatsoever.
    Decnvertees do not ‘swap’ faiths as a rule – certainly none that I have read or personally encountered – they give up believing in a god…ANY god – and please remember, your Christian god is merely the one you believe in and is not exclusive.
    There are thousands. Always bare that in mind. You will balk at this, I understand, but then, so would a Muslim, HIndu, Jew etc etc.
    If you follow the link I have provided you can read Nate’s story.(if you haven’t read it already)
    SAeveral of the commenters are also deconvertees.
    Their stories are truly enlightening of the visceral hold some religious cults hold over people.
    You are correct though, truth is most certainly truth, but is has nothing to do with gods.

  12. arkenaten,
    I linked to Nate’s story but I can’t justify the time to read something that long (It’s 11 parts and he’s still not finished.). As I said, I’ve read a number of deconversion stories so the possibility that he’s going to say something I haven’t heard before is remote.
    You misunderstand faith, thinking it is something that only has to do with God. Everyone has faith – what differs is the object of that faith. For example, your statement that the Bible is “an error strewn collection of analogous tales interwoven over an ancient pastiche with very little historicity whatsoever” is every bit as much a statement of faith as the Apostles’ Creed. Everyone is trusting someone. You’re just not being honest with yourself about who you are trusting.
    You misunderstand truth as well for once you say that you know “it has nothing to do with God” you demonstrate that you are only willing to follow truth wherever it leads if it doesn’t lead to God.

  13. Smile. Spoken like a true believer. Good for you.
    Again, you refuse to acknowledge that your god is one of many, by simply derailing and introduce the capital G.
    Expected, but not very clever.
    You decline the opportunity to understand why people turn away from (in this case) Christianity) with an arrogance that is almost routine and demonstrates EXACTLY the type of behaviour why people turn away from religion – and this goes for most religions, so please do not think your’s is anything special in this regard. It is not.
    Oh, and a cursory glance of two of Nate’s posts, 10 & 11 will be will be quite sufficient to understand the trauma caused by such despotic religious attitudes.
    I do not missunderstand faith at all but will not entertain it where it relates to anything religious. Thus, the statement re the bible stands. And this applies to the Torah and Qu’ran too. And any other religious text you care to mention.
    You will not find truth re: your Salvation within the covers of a book. It isn’t necessary any way.

  14. arkenaten,
    Out of deference to you, I read parts 9, 10, and 11 of Nate’s story. Just as I suspected, it is the typical narrative of transferring allegiance from one kind of community to another. What Nate lost faith in was not God but rather in his church as representing the truth of God. He simply found another community that he thought did a better job of representing truth. Faith in God, by contrast, is about God, not about people..
    I myself walked away from church almost twenty years ago. And I was a pastor, so the tearing away was arguably more difficult than Nate’s – but at least as difficult. Yet I did not walk away in order to walk with a different group of people; rather, i walked away from church in order to walk with the God whom the church proclaims but doesn’t follow.
    Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life. If you wish to know God, know Jesus. This means thinking like Him and acting like Him. It’s amazing how much goes on in church that has nothing to do with thinking and acting like Jesus.
    Church is an organization interested in self-preservation. And, because of this self-interest, it ends up getting people to follow it instead of following Christ.

  15. Unfortunately your reading was highly selective and you failed to understand the reason WHY he walked away from his church, and you appeared to pay scant heed to his own personal upheaval.
    Your somewhat unsympathetic and rather callous remarks illustrate a contempt that is not becoming of a so-called Christian and former pastor.
    However, fortunately,I am NOT a Christian and I can feel sympathy for the bloke so let me enlighten you to save you going back and having to read it properly without prejudice.
    He first began to have doubts about the faith, not the church. Further biblical
    investigation did not alleviate this doubt, merely compounded it.
    When he finally realised his faith had collapsed and he elected to leave the church the church withdrew from him and his wife.
    This was when the serious trama began.
    It could have been any church. It was the biblical errancy he began to question.
    This example is played out in similar fashion with so many deconvertees.
    He did not “…walk away in order to walk with a different group of people;”
    He left because of the impossibility of resolving biblical textual conflicts .
    In Nate’s own words( used without his permission)…..I think what he did took a lot of courage.
    Respect is due.
    “Having our family relationships ripped apart has been simply awful; there’s no getting around that, and we wish it could have been avoided. But despite the difficulties we still face in those relationships, things are peaceful within the walls of our home, which is much more important. We see the world very differently now — everything just makes more sense. The world contains much more beauty and wonder than we had realized before. I know many people have that experience when they come to religion, but for us it was different.”

  16. Nate doesn’t need my sympathy; he has located and connected with his new support network. They will provide him with abundant comfort and affirmation.
    His is a story of estrangement from former sources of succor. Churches are filled with people who have become estranged from family and friends because of a pursuit of truth in Jesus Christ. It this conversion pattern gets reversed once in a while in cases of deconversion, do the deconverts deserve more sympathy than the converts?
    It’s true that Christians can be a hypocritical bunch at times. Former Christians, however, are typically bitter as well as hypocritical.
    I have more sympathy for Nate than I do for you simply because he is merely trying to survive whereas as you are trying to deconvert others as well as keep yourself deconverted.
    Society today is in an advanced state of decline. Only repentance toward God is able to reverse that decline. Jesus Christ is the only enduring means of repentance. That is, what matters in life is doing the right thing, and Jesus Christ points the way.

  17. Oh dear. What a siily person.
    I do not try to deconvert anybody. You are free to believe whatever you like, truly.
    Nate is not ‘trying to survive’ as the excerpt I included clearly demonstrates. he is comng to terms with his family but has also has found wonder and beauty in a world where before he perceived confusion and often, lies.
    “ the deconverts deserve more sympathy than the converts?”
    I personally feel sympathy for both. The latter I have already explained why, the former because what often drives people to the church and or religion is not some altruisitc version of ‘truth’ or even a more mundane persuit of Jesus. No. They go because they have been/are involved with drugs alcohol divorce death or physical/sexual abuse and believe that religion is often the last resort/place of refuge.
    Society is far from in decline. It may be going through an economic downturn, but this is common. It’s merely a cycle, that’s all. Nothing to be too upset and certainly not be afraid. The doom and gloom brigade is nothing new. Your mentor was considered an apocolyptic preacher as were many before and many after.
    I feel sympathy for you in this regard. Anyone that dwells on this Revelatory nonsense needs to get out and smell the roses. Embrace life for what it is.
    Your passing will leave hardly a ripple, neither will mine. So one ought to say, “What the hell, enjoy it while you can.” And smile for your god’s sake.

  18. @Mike.
    “ well as keep yourself deconverted.”
    Apologies. I missed this. A real gem.
    Sorry, never converted and certainly am not trying to keep myself “deconverted.”
    My goodness, what a shuddering thought? I had truly never imagined that some folk might honestly believe I deconverted; a renegade soul (sic) form the Church.
    How novel. Well, there’s a first for everything I suppose and it did make me smile. Thank you.

  19. Isaiah heard your song long before you sang it. It’s called “Let us eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die.” (Is 22:13; 1 Cor 15:32) Count me out as I have found a better song to sing: “The Lord is my strength and my song” – Exodus 15:2

  20. The last resort of the befuddled in the head…quoting the bible. Sigh…
    I think Noah may have left a passenger behind, MIke, as you really have missed the boat my friend.

  21. In an insult were an argument you would have many arguments to support your position. Strip them all away and you’re just whistling past the graveyard.

  22. I believe you mean to say ‘If’ an insult….etc
    LOL! Good one MIke.
    By allowing emotion to overcome , your argument very quickly becomes polemic.
    I don’t believe, so I don’t really care what you say, I am just happy for Nate his wife and all those other unfortunate folk who had to suffer the vacuous diatribe that is religion. And once again, I must stress, this applies to ALL religion. Christianty holds no special place in world religion other than numbers, largely achieved by the often brutal expansionism of the church and colonialism.
    But you are going to have to put up a stronger defense of your position than what you have laid on the table so far .
    I can hardly imagine anyone in Nate’s position agreeing with what you have written so far.
    In fact, all you are doing is strengthening the position of those who turn their back on all the nonsense you espouse as truth.

  23. How ironic that the fellow who has made no case for his point of view complains that I have made no case for mine. I actually have, and it’s laid out in great detail on my blog. When you produce yours, let me know and I’ll take a look.
    “It takes no skill to tear down a building, but it does take skill to build one.”
    I’ll leave you now to Eric. You just keep repeating yourself to me. Fresh insults don’t equate to fresh arguments.
    By the way, I didn’t take the insults personally and I didn’t take them emotionally. I just recognized them for what they were – and what they weren’t.

  24. “”How ironic that the fellow who has made no case”
    Sorry, you have lost me completely. The çase’ in point is ap
    tly demonstrated by those who leave the church, ánd or deconvert.
    I have no case to make, but merely cheer for them on the sidelines.
    You said….Former Christians, however, are typically bitter as well as hypocritical.””
    As a former Pastor and now (is seems) serious evangelical wouldnt the appropiate thing to do would be to ask WHY they are bitter and hypocritical?
    If everything in your ‘world’ was a land of milk and honey there wouldnt be so many denominations and so much dissent within Christianity let alone the church.

    You appear to miss the main thrust of Unklee’s post merely to launch into polemic about Jesus, which doesn’t solve the issue at all, but rather compounds it as by then these people have lost faith and uped and left.
    There really is NO serious case for religion. It satisfies an emotional need for some but comes unstuck when its member ask the really tough questions.
    You never got that as a Pastor and you aren’t getting it now, MIke.

  25. In fairness to Nate, he is neither abrasive towards Christians nor has he surrounded himself with a parrot support group. I don’t think that changing his faith from one group to another is an accurate label.
    Arkenaten, you are being pretty abrasive to Mike, mostly insulting and as Mike noted, offering few arguments here. What do you intend to accomplish with those tactics?

  26. @ IG
    “All the “deconversion” stories I have read are an abandonment of false or error-riddled conceptions of Christ.”
    This was dear Mike’s first reply to me.
    A ridiculous piece of polemic right from the start.
    Initially, he refused to read Nate’s story, even though a link was provided and
    his further comments stressed the ‘Church is not Jesus’ angle and showing contempt for Nate’s new ‘support group’.
    The man is an ex-preacher with issues and now he decidess to play judge and jury?
    “Hallelujah, forgive us, Mike for we are sinners”
    You’re right about Nate,. He is incredibly tolerant of the hypocrisy and rejection he left behind.
    Based on that tolerance he has more moral fibre, more ethnics and more forgiveness and down to earth goodness than Mike will ever understand.
    Perhaps he ought to engage Nate and learn a few lessons?
    You wish to side with a person like Mike? Be my guess. .

  27. I am not picking sides. I simply state I think you were being needlessly and ridiculously insulting to Mike. Here are two examples:
    “The last resort of the befuddled in the head…quoting the bible. Sigh…
    I think Noah may have left a passenger behind, MIke, as you really have missed the boat my friend.”
    “Oh dear. What a siily person.”
    You will find that Mike didn’t respond to them by insulting.

  28. Yes I agree. I don’t necessarily agree with what Mike was saying, but you have been so unnecessarily insulting that I have considered trashing your comments.
    We each have to decide whether we want to show courtesy and understanding, or add to the nastiness and aggro in the world, but I would like my blog to the former please.

  29. Mike’s biblical refrain was meant in one way only, condescension.
    Unklee’ your own little tete a tete with Mister Mike over the Chik thing debacle over homosexuals perfectly demonstrates Mike’s holier than anybody attitude; even towards fellow Christians.
    Oh there were no nasty words but the assinine comments were there, bubbling under the carefully chosen adjectives – and by his judgement you don’t quite fit the mould for him now do you, Unklee ?
    Mike is a hypocrite.But I will try not to make a fool of him next time, I promise.
    Besides, he does a pretty good job without my help.
    f you feel more comfortable, go ahead, trash my comments, It is your blog, after all. I understand perfectly.
    He had nothing good to say about Nate and considering what the bloke went through I found his remarks callous and offensive,
    People like him deserve little respect.
    But maybe for you it is, Rather a Christian like Mike than a non-believer, right?

  30. “People like him deserve little respect. But maybe for you it is, Rather a Christian like Mike than a non-believer, right?”
    I think I should give respect out of who I am (or want to be) rather than out of what the person “deserves”. Why should I allow other people’s behaviour to determine mine?
    You will notice, when having a discussion with Mike on a matter on which I disagreed with him, as with you, I have tried to avoid making insulting remarks. I think we ought to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.
    While I disagreed with Mike, I don’t recall him being discourteous. Most you are courteous also, but occasionally you haven’t been. That is all that concerns me, (1) because I think the world needs more courtesy and less aggro, and (2) because I think aggro discourages other people from commenting.
    So I don’t want to make a big thing of it, but I thought I would support “ig”.

  31. The thrust of the post was sympatheic towards those who leave the church/faith.
    Mike was hostile and unsympathetic from word go.
    He used terms like trust christ etc but he shows no empathy and for Nate.In fact he showed little more than thinly veiled contempt.
    He critised some Christians for being hypocrites yet failed to see the irony of his own behaviour!
    Once he started citing biblical verse he had lost the plot, falling back on scripture when he could find nothing helpful to say other than stating the best thing to do for those who had ‘capitulated’ was hold faith.
    The bloke is a twit.

  32. It is not my task to censor people’s opinions, even yours. And you are free to criticise. But calling people names is not polite, and I doubt you’d do it in face-to-face conversation, so please don’t do it here.
    Have you thought that you might come over pretty much the same as you describe Mike, yet I don’t call you names?

  33. What I say in writing would state face to face.
    I cannot understand your standpoint. MIke is callous toward those who leave the church, his language is condescending and you criticise ME because I say he is silly and befuddled in the head?
    Go figure?
    If he was in the least bit sympathetic to Pastors and people like Nate’ merely acknowledging how it tore his family apart for goodness sake, he would gain a modicum of respect. As it is he comes across as fundamentalist.
    Such folk have little if any tolerance of those who fall outside their hardline god belief – a standpoint I am more than sure you are aware of.
    His own words….
    “It’s true that Christians can be a hypocritical bunch at times.” Oh really,Mike. You don’t say? ( well, actually he did, didn’t he?)
    This has nothng to do with censorship, but allowing his notion of Christianity to influence his response to those folk who experience a severe crisis of conscience.
    The man is a twit. And because I am a gentleman he should consider himself lucky I include the 24th letter.
    Your god forbid he ever finds himself in a similar situation.

  34. Ah well, your behaviour, and Mike’s are no concern of mine, except where they make my blog a less comfortable place for others. Agreement and disagreement have nothing to do with it, but courtesy does. So I won’t say any more, but I will consider censoring anyone who gets too nasty in a personal way – and you have gone close a few times.

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