There has been a recent article about a United Church of Canada minister who is an avowed atheist. The denomination is trying to determine if she is still effective in her ministry. For those unfamiliar with the UCC, it one of the most liberal denominations in Canada, although I know a number of strong evangelical pastors within that denomination.
This is not the first time that something like this has come up. One survey suggested that 2% of Anglican priests in the UK don’t believe in God.
The way I would like to respond to this is to reflect on some important questions.
Why are Pastors Becoming Atheists?
I think that the first place to start is the phenomenon of pastors turned atheist. This is happening far more often than those atheists who decide to stay in the pulpit. I am assuming that these pastors believed in God when they went to seminary and were ordained. What happened?
It makes me wonder about the need for a safe place to question. Everyone has doubts, but it is often unclear what is to be made of them. Simple denial of doubts is not healthy. While people in the congregation can go to the pastor, who does the pastor go to? There needs to be some way to allow pastors to express their questions and to be pointed to some helpful resources.
What is the Purpose of a Pastor?
Why do pastors who lose faith remain in the pulpit? It seems that they enjoy the community and find the helping of others to be rewarding. That is good, but that is not the full meaning of the pastoral vocation. Without giving up on the other roles, a pastor should be helping people in the congregation to grow closer to God. That is rather difficult if you don’t believe that God exists. I would suggest that a loss of faith should lead to the voluntary walking away from the pastoral role. You can still help people without being in a position that has been traditionally God-centred.
What is the Purpose of the Church?
In this, I am including the role of the denomination. Should a church or denomination support a minister that is now an atheist? I am not suggesting that there be an angry and intolerant response. The church should support the minister in terms of praying and encouraging that they come back to faith. But that should not include remaining in the position. This is not about punishing the pastor. There are jobs that require certain things. A police officer who is blinded, should not continue to patrol the streets. An athlete with a broken leg should not run a race. In the same way, a Christian leader should not continue in their role if they no longer believe in God.
I believe that we will see more and more of this. Churches should be prepared to respond with love and grace, while maintaining the standards expected of pastors.