The Clergy Project is an organization that doubles as a secretive support group and a rehabilitation program of sorts. What started as an anonymous online community devoted to helping pastors looking to escape the pulpit has grown into something more large-scale in nature. The faith leaders who join have secretly turned away from their faith, but have few options for gainful employment.
So, these religious-leaders-gone-astray continue preaching until they can find a way out of their current positions. While the group, which describes itself as, “a safe haven for active and former clergy who do not hold supernatural beliefs,” has already launched scholarships to help non-believing clergy, a new “Employment Transition Program” is launching next month.
According to a press release explaining the new initiative, the project will be implemented through Rise Smart, a career services company. Those participating in the effort will be religious leaders who are currently members of The Clergy Project. These individuals will receive six months of assistance, ranging from resume help to skills assessments. In the end, a recruiter will help to place them in new, non-theistic positions.
With a $100,000 grant from the Stiefel Freethought Foundation (SFF), the organization is working to setup a framework for the program that will ensure it operates both now and in the future. The SFF, run by atheist millionaire Todd Stiefel, has been responsible for funding a plethora of groups and projects associated with the activist movement.
TheBlaze interviewed the advocate this week to learn more about his part in this effort. First and foremost, we asked Stiefel what led to his $100,000 gift to the transition program. He explained that the pain the clergy feel, including the loss of family, friends and career, moved him and his organization to action.
“Talking to some of the pastors — some of the ones were were in the process of trying to escape and those who had already gotten out — to hear them talk, it was emotional,” he said. “To hear their stories — people who have essentially de-converted or converted to a different faith system [was emotional].”
Stiefel explained the difficulty that some pastors face when they realize they no longer subscribe to the faith. Many remain, in their view, trapped in the ministry, as they need to continue making money, feeding their families and paying their bills. But, inside, these people desperately want to leave the confines of their faith systems, as they no longer embrace the existence of a higher power.
The atheist activist told TheBlaze that job training is the key to their ability to flee the pews.
“I was really mostly hoping to help all of these people out of a really tough situation — and frankly I hope a secondary motivation is that these people will become future leaders in freethought movement,” Stiefel explained.
The activist also spent some time explaining the transition program, which does more than simply provide direct funds. Instead, Stiefel described it as, “taking the concept of teaching people how to fish rather than giving them fish.” It’s about educating new-found non-believers in how they can survive in the secular world — a concept that is foreign, especially to those who have spent years, if not decades, in religious ministry.
One of the more complicated aspects of The Clergy Project is its secretive nature. As mentioned, the clergy continue at their jobs and seek out the online community for emotional assistance and help in finding the best way to exit their churches. But in the meantime, congregations rely upon these individuals and trust in them.
It’s a conflict of epic proportions. One side is desperately trying to escape, while the other has no idea about the internal battle raging inside of their coveted faith leaders. This dynamic will inevitably leave people on both sides of the debate with some emotional harm or baggage, ranging from anger and frustration to feelings of abandonment.
Watch a Methodist pastor describe her transition to atheism:
Currently, Stiefel says the project has 400 current and former faith leaders from around the globe (about two-thirds of them are active and desperately trying to leave their positions). And if and when these clergy members exit, it’s only natural to assume that the congregations they leave behind will be devastated. TheBlaze asked Stiefel if he understands the feelings that these parishoners will have, especially considering that they will likely feel as though they’ve been lied to by their faith leaders who continued preaching despite being covert non-theists.
“I can understand how somebody could be frustrated if they didn’t understand the story or think through what they would do under the circumstance,” he responded. “Yes, I think some people might find that frustrating.”
Stiefel said that critics should ask themselves what they would do in a similar position. Many of these preachers, he noted, put their children first by continuing in ministry to bring in cashflow. And with few resources for them to escape into something more secular, they feel they have no other option. The atheist activist believes this Employment Transition Program offers a potential avenue.
Stiefel also encouraged believers left behind by these preachers to consider how they treat them in the wake of their departures. Regardless of their feelings, he said it’s important to support them as they transition into secular roles.
Editor’s Note: Todd Stiefel previously participated in a Blaze series called, “Ask an Atheist.” The secular activist answered readers’ most pressing questions about faith and non-belief. Be sure to read part one, part two, part three, part four and part five.
This story has been updated.