Preachers Who Are Not Believers , the new study by the “new atheist” Daniel Dennett and a colleague, has inevitably gotten a lot of attention—and I think rightly, because the problem it exposes is a real one, whether or not the problem of disbelieving pastors is widespread. From my years working in a seminary and many conversations with pastors, I suspect the number of pastors like those described in the study is small (1 or 2 percent, maybe), but that there is a much, much bigger group—especially in the mainline churches, but in the Evangelical churches as well—who waver between real belief and some mode of atheism.

Whatever the value of the study, it is a story with something for everyone. New Atheists get to claim that religious belief can’t really be sustained in the modern world; liberal or skeptical Christians find proof that the more traditional modes of belief need to be replaced by more modern ones; and conservative Christians are given evidence of treason in the ranks which seems to confirm their critique of religious liberalism.

And everyone gets the chance for an enjoyable exercise of shocked pharasaism, the feeling of enjoyable horror that such people exist followed quickly by the comforting thought that we would never be so dishonest as to take money and enjoy a special status by pretending to believe what we did not believe. I feel this myself, and I’m not sure how well I’ve beaten it down. For most of us, this is the grossest hypocrisy, but the feeling is just too much fun to refuse.

But all that aside, I think the study raises a matter that Christian laymen do not think about, or think about often enough: the spiritual difficulty of being a pastor and the effects of serving people who want more from them than any man could give.

It is not an easy job, and it is one with peculiar strains, stresses, temptations, and pains. A man can easily be driven to question or to disbelieve in God by sustained contact with God’s people. In its simplest form, being a pastor can send a good man into depression and being depressed will color how he sees the world, particularly how he wants to answer the question of the reality of the God who had (he thought) sent him into the ministry.

This effect of the pastoral life has only gotten worse in the last few decades, if I am right that people place higher and higher expectations upon their churches and therefore upon their clergymen. (And clergywomen, of course, though I think the dynamics can be somewhat different there.) This I have seen in churches to which we belonged, and pastors from several denominations have told that this has happened to them.

As the idea of the church as an alternative community or a substitute family has grown, partly because so many churches present themselves (indeed, market themselves) this way, people have grown to expect more of their churches, and those expectations have gotten more and more ineffable. Many people see the local church as a haven in a heartless world and expect it somehow to meet their needs and make them happy, and when it doesn’t, because it can’t, they feel hurt and get angry. Sometimes, and I have seen this, almost enraged.

The pastor, as the one in charge, inevitably receives the effects of their anger – though not always directly, which just makes it harder. Their problems are somehow his fault. Were he St. Francis of Assisi, they’d somehow be his fault.

Those of us with other callings can’t easily imagine what a life given to the care of a church and its people can do to the men called to it. I have heard the stories and seen the real pain pastors suffer because I used to work in a seminary and spoke in a lot of churches, usually staying with the pastor. One sees good men in anguish. You can see how easily they could fall into depression and begin questioning not only their calling but the reality of the God they had gone into the ministry to serve.

Much more could be said about Dennett’s study, and by no means am I trying to excuse men who pretend to believe in God when they don’t, and by this deceit take the money and respect of good people who trust them to mean what they say. They are in a hard place, but that doesn’t excuse what is in essence theft.

But I think that the study does provide us a chance to reflect on the life our pastors live, and what exactly it is they have been called to do, reminding ourselves that they were not ordained to make us happy. It is a spur to do more to encourage them, and to reflect on whether we have demanded of them what we should have demanded only of ourselves and asked of God.

Articles by David Mills

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