We won’t see the above headline any time soon, but it happens. By contrast, a friend asked me what I thought about this piece from All Things Considered yesterday. A United Methodist pastor in Florida named Teresa MacBain came out in March as an atheist.
First, I’m relieved that she had the courage of her convictions and resigned. Out of love, she might have done so quietly for the sake of the congregation that she has now wounded. On the other hand, maybe she wants to proselytize for her new-found lack of faith. If so, she’s off to a good start! The only other way a United Methodist pastor can attract national headlines these days is by coming out of a different closet!
Second, I wanted more information than the story provided. Is she an ordained elder or a (lay) local pastor? (The difference in theological training between the two is vast.) How was she doing in ministry? Did she have any trouble with the churches she served? Was she well-regarded among her peers? Did she get along with parishioners in her current church? Did she have friends in ministry in whom she could confide? If not, why not?
In his recent memoir Hannah’s Child, theologian Stanley Hauerwas said he used to wonder early in his career what would happen if he woke up one day as an unbeliever, having invested so much of his life into a faith he no longer possessed. What would he do? Christianity pays the bills. Unfortunately, I’m sure there are many clergy who, like MacBain, no longer have to wonder—they’re living it.
One thing is sure: No clergy person should get in a place in which they feel isolated. That’s a recipe for disaster.
On my first day of Systematic Theology class at Emory many years ago, my professor, a brilliant and intimidating German Lutheran theologian and pastor, warned us that we need a foundation for our faith that goes beyond mere personal experience. If your Christian faith is built only on your experience of God, he told this classroom of budding pastors, “there’s a chance you won’t even be a Christian ten years from now. Personal experience changes. You need a faith that’s more substantial than that.”
Even as he spoke those words, I imagined that most of the class didn’t believe him. If MacBain were sitting in his class ten years ago, I wonder if she would have believed him?
My prof didn’t think you could do the work of theology without apologetics. We need to be able to defend what we believe. We have to reason through why it makes sense. We have to know why we believe what we believe. “Because the Bible (or the church) tells me so” isn’t sufficient.
His message inspired me, and I bought in. That’s in part why I just finished this two-part series on evidence for the resurrection. It matters that we not simply take these foundational truths about Christianity “on faith.” As I said in Part 1 of “Reason to Believe,” we need faith, by all means, but it isn’t or shouldn’t be blind faith.
MacBain kept an audio journal of her experiences on her iPhone. In one, she said, “Sometimes, I think to myself, if I could just go back a few years and not ask the questions and just be one of those sheep and blindly follow and not know the truth, it would be so much easier. I’d just keep my job. But I can’t do that. I know it’s a lie. I know it’s false.”
“One of those sheep.” “Blindly follow.” Ugh. Is this really how you experienced all the people you loved and served in ministry? As sheep blindly following? That’s what you think of them? Not to mention your own husband, who continues to be a believer!
Rest assured, my eyes are wide open, Ms. MacBain.