When a Pastor Needs A Pastor

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As I’ve said many times, I never wanted or intended to become an atheist.  Just after I got over denying my atheism I tried to make one last go of faith to at least see if I was wrong about God’s nonexistence.  So I contacted a pastor on Facebook whom I’ve never actually met and who knows absolutely no one that I know.

Derek is a pastor that I met via a Facebook group.  The group that we are both in is very left of center morally and politically. He is the resident pastor of this band of atheists, vegans, feminists, LGBTQ, environmentalists, and over all self proclaimed progressives.  He is well loved in this group and rightfully so.  He does an awesome job pastoring these very non-religious people in the moments they need a pastor.

Oh, he’s a Universalist.  A mainline pastor who belongs to a historic denomination that no longer holds to the moral (or theological) standards of old.

On his blog he writes how he used to be an atheist, but decided to believe after all.  As I was just admitting to myself that I was an atheist, I decided to see if he could change my mind.  I’ve copy/pasted our conversation below. It’s been edited for length.

Me: Honest question. Let’s be straight with each other, I would venture to say most of us pastor types have HUGE doubts. I saw on your blog that you spent some time as an atheist. What made you change your mind? Sometimes as pastors we give bs answers to personal question because we think people need to believe that we believe. But I’m having a small crisis and could use some straight talk.

Him: No problem. My atheism ended when I had a moment of… contact, I guess you could call it, with God. I also call it a smack upside the head, a reminder of a core truth.

It was pretty devastating because I had built a life around pretending to be Christian (PK, you know how it is) and having to rebuild around an actual relationship was like razing a building to the ground and starting over from scratch.

Me: So…I think we’re both familiar with religio-speak…can you be a little more specific, but in plain English?

 I’m trying to shed Christianese in an effort to be more honest about God, and I’m having a hard time processing a reality with God without spiritual language…if that makes sense…
“Christianese” is the language of devout christians.  We use words that are English, but nobody in the rest of the English speaking world would use these words in the manner that Christians do.  Like the term “waiting on God”, in Christianese it means being patient to see how God will guide your next steps.  In regular English it’s gobledeegoop.

Him: I heard God ask me what the hell I thought I was doing. I didn’t have an answer, and so started rebuilding.

Me:This is stupid, I know..but… when you say heard? Like how? To clarify, when I was 19 I once thought I heard God. Not audibly but like an epiphany sort of way. You?

Him: It sure felt like I heard an audible voice.

Me: Shit. That almost pisses me off. Not at you, but at God.

BTW, you may have noticed by now that I swear. I swear a lot.  I’ve never met a pastor who didn’t.  We just don’t do it around you.

Him: right ear, to be specific.

Everyone gets it different, though. I have yet to hear two people with the same story. There are definitely times when I would have preferred an epiphany, so I could rule out some other kid being in trouble, getting yelled at, and me hearing a voice.

Me: No, you want the voice.  Voices are good…well, unless your schizophrenic.

Him: There’s always something, though. Something else it could have been. There isn’t a method that precludes doubt.

Me: You see, I teach that, but I don’t believe that.

Like burning freeking bush and the parting of the red sea or the Resurrection of Christ…those are a hell of a lot more to go on then what I’ve got.

Him: Isn’t the Bible a long record of people seeing the Glory of God up close and then still getting it wrong?

Me: That’s what I teach anyways. I recently even had a sermon title “Miracles Don’t Produce Faith”

Him: Look at the Gospel of Mark. It’s original ending was the apostles running away, scared, at the sight of the empty tomb.  Thomas Sunday is always my favorite sermon to preach.

Thomas Sunday is the Sunday after Easter, where Thomas doubts that Jesus rose from the dead.  He straight up says, “unless I put my fingers in the holes in his hands and his side” he will not believe.  Of course Jesus comes to the rescue.  For him anyways.

Him: I joke a lot about pastors needing atheist days. Like sick days.

“Hi, sorry, I can’t come in today, I don’t believe in God. No, just a flare up, I’ll be fine tomorrow.”

Me: Well I need faith insurance for when I get sick… lately I feel like I need disability benefits.

Him: Does your church do sabbaticals?

Me: Nope. My wife has a theory of sabbaticals… they’re vacations of no return.

Him: My peer group swears by them, but I’m at least seven years away.

What IS important is that you give yourself permission to doubt. I mean real permission. Where you acknowledge it as just a part of faith.

Me: I imagine this is what falling out of love is like. I’ve been fortunate (blessed?) in marriage, but I imagine this feels something like a beginning of a divorce.

Him: Hmmm.  You do a lot of marriage counseling?

Me: A lot, no. I usually refer out, but I do prelim stuff & pre-marriage stuff.

Him: I get a lot of it, but mostly because my people are stubborn.

Me: Oh, so you must have humans in your congregation.

couples-counselingHim: Think of this as a troubled marriage. Remember that love is a choice, and remember how you chose in the past.

Me: Well but this is a long distance relationship with someone who never calls anymore.

Him: Do you remember what it was like when you talked a lot? What that looked like?

We’re talking about prayer here. Calling and talking are euphemisms or chrisitianese for prayer.

Me: It was messy, always was. Perhaps not always the best relationship, but one nonetheless.

Him: Don’t evaluate it, describe it. What did the calls look like> How did they go?

Me: That’s what’s tough…it was always hard. I eventually became to guy who was like “Well God told me…” and I was wrong. Like so wrong. I got over that stage but never reconnected.

Him: You’re still grading it, still evaluating. Hard, easy, messy, these are all evaluators.

 If this were marriage counseling, you’d be the guy who can’t stop grading his wifes performance, rather than simply saying what she did for him.

Me: I feel like the person complaining about the quality of communication.

Him: You’re a screw up. We all are. We are sinners preaching to sinners in the desperate hope that our own sin and theirs doesn’t get hopelessly in the way.

And it is fine to be unhappy with that, but in order to build you need to get passed her being BAD at it, and find the part that you liked, what attracted you in the first place.
Yep, still talking about God and Prayer.  He’s continuing to build on the marriage metaphor to help me understand “my relationship with God.”  I’m a little jealous of his skill in this.

Me: hmmmm

Him: This is, of course, all predicated on one thing.

Me: Which is?

Him: Do you want to save the marriage, or just shoot for a divorce that is as clean as possible?

This is not the first time I’ve heard deconversion metaphorically compared to a divorce, but it’s certainly to the most poignant use of the phrase.

Me: Problem is there is no “clean”.

My flirtation with Atheism is weird

So I’m married to God but flirting with this hot chick Atheism.  Let’s just keep riding this wave of metaphor.

Him: There really isn’t. We rarely stay “friends” with our spiritual exes.

Me: It doesn’t feel like a choice as much as an epiphany

 Well…I kinda work for mine…so there’s that.  A very sad epiphany by the way.
That’s where I first realized that my loss of faith wasn’t so much of a choosing to not believe, as it was a loss of the ability to believe.

Him: Yup. We who have gone pro have an especially tough row to hoe.

 Can you express the epiphany in a single sentence?

Me: No one is there.

Him: [Is this epiphany] As strong as the one when you were 19? [The one that turned you into a Christian?]

Me: Oddly, yes. I wasn’t raised a Christian, come to think of it I was 17. I was invited to a youth group trip.

 But yes, just as strong but a billion times more…umm… entangled?  Like falling in love and getting a divorce

Him: When you pray, what do you do?

Me: Well, I’ve stopped. But a few short weeks ago I’d simply ask if anyone was listening.

Him: Do you mind if I give you homework?

Me: It’ll bug me if it is the same thing I tried, but I ain’t got nothin’ better to do.

Him: Firstly, this is a book I use when I don’t have my own words for prayer. It really can help… like a lectionary for prayer, rather than preaching. http://buff.ly/1dYh44J

Secondly, get a hold of a journal or diary and write your prayers. Think of them as letters to God. Be brutally, painfully honest.

Communication is a two way street. But we’re used to instant returns on our communications. So try a form where you are used to a bit of a lag.

Me: Explain

Sorry, that was apparently my inner Dalek. EXPLAIN! EXPLAIN!!

Him: haha


Imagine you were at a conference or something on the eastern seaboard. You’re a long way from your wife and trying to talk to her but you just can’t. The phone just isn’t working. You wouldn’t assume that she had ceased to be, or even that she didn’t want to talk, you would find a new way to communicate.

Labyrinths, Mandalas, Lectio, painting, music… there are countless ways and variations to pray.

Another example would be the picture that’s hanging on your wall right now or something that has been on your office wall at the church forever you never even look at it anymore, though it is still as there as it ever was. When we only experience input in one very specific fashion, it quickly blanks to nothing.

I don’t know why, but this is when I decided to drop the hammer…

Me: For the purpose of full disclosure,I should probably mention I’ve already…er…hired a divorce lawyer? I joined The Clergy Project. I haven’t taken them up on the job retraining yet.

Him: And that’s fine. It’s a good precaution to take. You still have to do right by your family, after all.

Then we return to talking about “the picture on the wall.”

Me: You see, there’s the problem. I feel like God should be WAAAYYYY more active than a picture on the wall.

Him: Oh, God is. But we can be really, really good at ignoring things. And if you always expect God to speak in the same way, eventually, you don’t hear God speak.

Me: Are we though? Are we? Or are we good at seeing things?

Him: Like good at seeing nothing?

Me: In sense yes, seeing when there is nothing.

Him: Could be. Again, because we’re doing faith. I don’t know why God set things up this way, but easy answers aren’t apparently a part of the Plan.

Me: Yeah, I’m really not liking the plan.

Him: I mean look at all the people (even the supposedly religious) who just say “fuck it” and build a cohesive worldview around something concrete, like homophobia or greed, or whatever? We both have ’em in our churches. I have one lady who I am fairly certain actually worships our flower beds.

So I ask again. Is this a marriage [faith] you actually want to save, or are we past that, and just trying to negotiate the divorce. And be totally honest.

You’ve fallen out of love. Do you want to love again?

Me: It’s tough because the analogy breaks down a bit. I’d walk through flames if I knew someone was on the other side. And in a marriage situation, there’s no way you’d only ask me as a husband to be the only one making an effort.

Him: You will never KNOW. Some days you will believe so hard it is like knowing, and love so hard you won’t care. Others, less so.

 Actually, were this a marriage, you would hear me that way.
 Because you can’t control how God will act, all we’d really talk about is what you were doing.
 You’d get really irritated with me for always “Taking God’s side.”

Me: lol

Him: Here is my honest belief.

God exists, and IS trying to communicate with you, nearly constantly. The connection has been lost. And because we always walk a doubt tightrope, anyway, you’ve lost the connection. (I say that because I’ve done it myself.) I believe you can fix your antennae, as it were, and tune back in to what God is saying to you.

Me: You see, that pisses me off. Like the creator of the Universe can speak light into existence, but somehow can’t figure out how to communicate in more obvious methods?

Him: Well, if God did, there goes OUR job security… :/

Me: I’d be ok with that. In fact I’d prefer to make that exchange.

Him: I wouldn’t. I’m pretty sure I’d be utterly unemployable. (Just kidding, of course.)

Me: Yeah, but I also really do feel utterly unemployable…which is sinking feeling.

Him: We pastors tend to make great social workers. My uncle employed social workers and said that burnt out pastors made the best ones.

The point, for you, is you need to look at your relationship with the Lord independent of the entanglements. Career wise, staying is the smarter move, at least at the moment, but that’s a crappy reason to be a pastor. Can you accept a relationship with the LORD where, so long as you are doing it right, there will always be room for doubt? If yes, and you want to give rebuilding a try, then great, I’ll help you in that process any way I can. If no, then you need to work on getting out. Maybe another epiphany will come along later, maybe it won’t. But if you feel like every sermon is a lie, that can lead to a devastatingly dark place, which can crush everything else in your life.

Me:  Thanks for your time.

Him: Good night.  I’ll be praying for you.

If you’re wondering I never did the homework.  I had no energy to even pretend to pray.  This was the last time I had a serious conversation where I attempted to find reasons to believe.  After this conversation I become much more comfortable considering myself an atheist.  I guess you could say I filed for divorce from God at the end of this conversation.

Derek’s a good guy. I admire the fact that he seemed ok with me becoming an atheist.  He sensed I was looking for reasons to believe and so he tried to persuade me to believe, but at the end of the day I got the sense that it didn’t really matter to him if I believed or not.  I don’t think he think’s faith is that necessary to the average person.  I still don’t quite get his liberalism.


25 thoughts on “When a Pastor Needs A Pastor

    • I’m with you there ratamacue0. I read somewhere the other day that liberal Christianity is in essence re-making god in ones own image. The biggest issue I had is that once one decides that some of the Bible is not divine, it is then hard to know which (if any) parts are divine. That is it is the start of the slippery slope.

      I notice that some people leave fundamentalist Christianity and move to liberal Christianity, but it seems to be mostly a transition point, not a final destination.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. That was so interesting to read. As an atheist i do try to wrap my head around priests and nuns describing their call to service. They always sound so impassioned, it boggles the mind to think of what that is or was for them. It’s like i don’t think they are lying, yet i don’t believe in this God they speak of.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Godless Engineering and commented:
    “BTW, you may have noticed by now that I swear. I swear a lot. I’ve never met a pastor who didn’t. We just don’t do it around you.” — Pastor “John”



  3. Reblogged this on The Secular Round Table and commented:
    “BTW, you may have noticed by now that I swear. I swear a lot. I’ve never met a pastor who didn’t. We just don’t do it around you.” — Pastor “John”



  4. I’m in the middle of a messy, complicated deconversion myself. And I just can’t accept the reasoning of most believers anymore.

    For instance, the “God told me” or “God revealed himself to me” argument/”proof” is meaningless. Anything can be proven with such “proofs.” And that which proves too much, proves nothing at all.

    The Christians I know would never allow the epiphanies or the “God told me”s of a different God/ belief system to prove said God/ belief system. Somehow, though, they (we) are unable to see that OUR anecdotal “proof” is just as anemic as is theirs!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. What fascinates me, his liberalism didn’t change his answers from what I’d expect in counsel from former pastors in my Independent Fundamentalist Conservative Evangelical churches. His answers to do not appear to be any different. Especially this: “[…]Him: You’re a screw up. We all are. We are sinners preaching to sinners in the desperate hope that our own sin and theirs doesn’t get hopelessly in the way.[…]”

    I don’t like the metaphor. Your wife is not God. 🙂

    HIs comment about having a “contact” moment. Was it with the Christian God, the Muslim God, a Hindu God or any other of the god(s) out there? Why the God he settled on? (Basically rhetorical questions. My thoughts.)

    None of it really helps one hold on in my opinion.


    • I think, and I don’t want to put words in his mouth of course, that he was trying to speak in their shared language, their shared belief system – which does teach that everyone commits sin and thus, is a sinner. He never stated anything about hell, damnation, eternal torture, Pascal’s Wager or any number of other things that a more fundamentalist pastor might have brought up.

      I’m an atheist and a Unitarian Universalist. The Universalist portion of that comes from the original philosophy of Universal Salvation. Early in the church history, when it was still a Christian church, the Unitarians could not envision a god that would send his children to hell and torture them for eternity. They believed that all people, no matter their sins, would eventually reach heaven. Over time, the Unitarian and Universalist churches merged and changed, becoming less christian and more accepting of all beliefs, and non-belief. When god is mentioned is a UU church, it is usually referred to as, “The universe, the unknown and unknowable, that which binds us, god of many names” or similar wording.

      Sorry, not trying to preach or anything (I’m an atheist, why would I preach?) – Just trying to provide some context that others might not get who are unfamiliar with the UU church. The Thinking Atheist has a podcast about the UU church, BTW.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think Derek would feel to threatened if you challenged him on the “which god” point. He’s the first to admit that he worships in a Christians context because that’s how he grew up. He’s a universalist so if a Muslim gave him the same story, Derek would affirm it.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I found this to be a fascinating read. From my experience, the “pray about it” expression for reconnecting with god doesn’t work because prayer at that point is out the window. No sense in praying to a god that I don’t believe in.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m an ex Catholic atheist and I felt pissed reading this.

    Derek is obviously intelligent and eloquent, but I can’t help but feel he’s being intellectually dishonest (which I think is what a lot of “shepherds of God” are). Like his response to your point about how God can’t communicate using more obvious methods: he said if God did, then, “there goes OUR job security…”

    Like, wtf? Way to dodge the question Derek. And of course his answer also implies that God is being intentionally mysterious – at the expense of, oh, BILLIONS of lost souls – so he can keep you guys on a payroll. Seriously?

    Ok, maybe Derek was being jokey and I’m being a bit too harsh.

    But that other part where his Christian upbringing shone through really got my goat:

    You’re a screw up. We all are. We are sinners preaching to sinners in the desperate hope that our own sin and theirs doesn’t get hopelessly in the way.

    BULLSHIT. As someone who took great pains to escape the indoctrination of his childhood, I would just like to say – fuck that shit. Sin is an imaginary disease they say you have so they can sell you an imaginary cure. The concept of sin is founded on the entirely baseless – and not to mention, stupid – idea that God created humankind “perfect” but we chose (of course when I say “we” I meant Adam and Eve, but yeah, the Abrahamic religions believe in guilt by association) to reject God by disobeying him. Yeah, well, could any Christian out there who believes this crap provide some evidence for it please? No?

    Yup. This sin thing is completely unsupportable. And it’s so damaging too – it perpetuates a fatalistic view of humanity, and is perennially exploited by the unscrupulous and the insane to justify transgressions against other people.


    I’m sorry, I don’t like Derek at all. He’s smart, but maybe too smart and too slick for his own – and other people’s – good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The concept of “original sin” doesn’t have to refer to a literal interpretation of the Adam and Eve myth. For me, original sin is a metaphor for mankind’s inherent flaws. We are at turns greedy, selfish, prideful, and a few other things that can undermine our relationships and better natures. “Original sin” is the most primitive and reptilian parts of our brains that we must see beyond and grow out of if we are to engage positively with our world.


  8. The pastor seems to be advising you to keep talking to the god he believes in, and suggesting that if you don’t get a reply at the time you will at some point in the future. This future reply requires you to be vigilant however, because it might be via art or music or something else.
    What a way to recommend someone go through life. Send out a message of some sort to the creator of the universe, and then practice vigilance for a reply in case the message the creator of the universe sends back is so subtle you might miss it. Making it your fault if you miss the reply of course, because, you know, the creator of the universe can never be blamed for being so poor at communication.
    Or, as you and I and many others have concluded, the most likely explanation is there’s nothing there.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. By the way, you’re following me on Twitter @brigadam. I have no idea why I picked such widely different handles to use on SM. Cooee is an Aussie term so there’s that, and the Twitter handle is descriptive if where I live.
    You sound much more positive than your earlier blog posts and that’s a beautiful thing. I won’t stop worrying about you yet though.
    I’ve never believed and the micro cultures I grew up in, in the UK & Australia, didn’t contain believers that I was aware of. I didn’t call myself anything because there wasn’t a belief system in my life I had to be in opposition to. The rising influence of fundamentalist religious ideas has changed that. I look forward to the day I don’t need a label any more.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. One of my favorite books EVER is called Angry Conversations With God by Susan Isaacs. In her book she takes God to marriage counseling because she wants a divorce… read it – its funny at least 😉 will maybe bring you some laughter if nothing else.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. What struck me as I read all Derek’s suggestions was that, like your friwnds, his advice is based on the presupposition that the god you used to worship exists.
    I’ve been through marriage counseling, and it was hard, but it helped. That’s fine, but my wife was there. She exists. If I’d come to a marriage counselor alone, and the counselor had never seen any evidence that I was even married, and I deferred or deflected most questions by saying that I had to get in touch with my “wife” somehow, because she’s perfect and she makes all our decisions, but I’ve never seen her or spoken to her . . . how could they help with that “marriage?” At some point, they’d switch the focus to finding out whether she existed as anything more than my delusion.


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