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John Compere: Clergy Project fills void after losing faith

The Clergy Project
John Compere (Submitted photo)

FFRF Member John Compere is a former member of the ministry who is now the vice president of the Clergy Project, a group “for current and former religious professionals without supernatural beliefs.”

By John Compere

couldn’t possibly identify the actual time when I became a believer.

I know that I went down to the front of the church when I was 8 or 9 years old to shake my father’s hand (he was the minister) and say I was giving my heart to Jesus, but that was just what I had learned I was supposed to do.

This was the moment when I supposedly became a Christian, a new person, a born-again believer. I was baptized soon thereafter by my minister father. But nothing really changed.

You see, religion was not just a part of my life in my family of origin. It WAS my life. Everything revolved around the church. I didn’t mind. It was all I knew.

I think I was 11 or 12 when I again made a trip down the church aisle to say that God had called me into ministry. I preached my first sermon when I was 15. It was on something like “God, Man, the Universe and the Meaning of Love,” a subject I, as a 15-year-old boy, knew a lot about!

People were kind and supportive and talked about what a wonderful representative of God I would turn out to be. But again, nothing changed.

I had imbibed deeply, from my earliest upbringing, in the notion, regularly pronounced in our home, that our only purpose for being in this world is to glorify God.

When I was ordained at age 18 while I was in college and began serving as pastor of a small rural church on the weekends, I was the fifth-generation Southern Baptist minister in my family. It was what I was “supposed” to do. As I wrote, I couldn’t possibly say exactly when I first began to believe in religion.

Doubts arise

But I know precisely when I first began to doubt. It was in my sophomore year in college. I had been asked to fill the pulpit in a large First Baptist church. The minister was a friend of my father. I got another student minister to go to my little country church for that Sunday so I could fill this “prestigious” pulpit at this big city church.

Before the service started, I was walking back and forth in the luxurious pastor’s study, going over the sermon I was to deliver. As I often did, I was practicing by saying the sermon out loud. I heard myself delivering a standard line about how “if anyone didn’t accept Jesus as savior, s/he was doomed to spend an eternity in hell.” Suddenly, out of the blue, it occurred to me, “Can that possibly be true? Are all the folks who were unfortunate enough to have been born in a non-Christian country (or family or area) simply destined to have to suffer torture forever?”

Oh my! I couldn’t let myself dwell on that at the moment. I had to go deliver my sermon.

But that night, as I was driving back to campus, the question returned. Don’t ask me why I had not ever asked that question before. I don’t know why I was so late asking such an obvious question.

Probably, as I said earlier, this was because religion was not just a way of life for me; it was my life!

In any event, I set out to try to find answers to this and other questions. I talked to my dad, to my religion professors, to my ministerial student friends. I got no satisfactory answers.

The essence of most of the answers I received was, “Doubt is natural, John. Go ahead and kick the rock. When you are finished kicking it, you’ll know it’s truly the Rock of Ages.”

But that didn’t turn out to be true for me. I kicked the rock, and I discovered it to be a huge pile of mythological mush!

Nevertheless, I continued on my predestined path as a young minister, serving two different rural churches while I was a college student. I even interrupted my studies to spend two stretches as a student missionary in Alaska (which was not yet a state, only a U.S. territory, in the 1950s), helping build church buildings in small Eskimo towns above the Arctic Circle.

While in seminary, I served as youth minister at the campus church and got to know my professors personally because their children were in my youth programs. I tried talking to many of them about my increasing doubts, without getting much help. I frankly think most of them were at least agnostics, if not closet atheists. But no one admitted it.

I often filled the pulpit at that campus church, which was very liberal for a Baptist church. At one point, I told the senior minister to please not ask me to fill the pulpit for a while.

The common phrase about effective sermons was to “preach from an overflowing cup.” I told the minister that if I preached at that time, I would only be banging an empty cup against the lectern. For sure, my cup was not overflowing!

After receiving my seminary degree, I served two different churches for a total of seven years. I continued my study of religion, and my doubts about its authenticity grew apace.

I concluded that if I continued in ministry, I would become like so many other well-educated clergy: publicly phony and privately cynical. Not a smart way to live out your life.

Kept nonbelief a secret

When I finally resigned my last church, I didn’t tell the congregation that I was no longer a believer. I thought that would be too cruel. I only told them that I was doing a lot of pastoral counseling and that I realized I needed to become a more effective change agent. And to do that, I was going back to graduate school to get an M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology. That was the truth.

It just wasn’t the whole truth.

Five years later, at age 37, I had my doctorate in psychology and began teaching at Wake Forest University and Medical School, having a private clinical practice, and occasionally speaking on psychology you can use!  My years in the pulpit helped me turn that professional speaking into a full-time career.

I learned about FFRF long after I had left the ministry and joined as soon as I learned about it. That led to my being among the first 44 members accepted into The Clergy Project as it was formed on March 20, 2011. By then I was retired and had written a book about my deconversion, Outgrowing Religion: Why a Fifth-Generation Southern Baptist Minister Left God for Good.

The Clergy Project was the brainchild of FFRF Co-President Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins, along with help from Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola. The Dawkins Foundation provided the money to get the project online, and FFRF took us under its wing until we became our own 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

We are currently at around 850 participants, all of whom must be either currently a religious professional or a former religious professional. All must also have experienced their own deconversion, since we are not in the business of trying to get anyone to leave the faith or her/his ministry.

Approximately 25 percent of our applicants are still in active ministry when they apply to join The Clergy Project. Many of these participants find a way to leave ministry after becoming a part of The Clergy Project, so their membership status changes from “active” to “former.” The number of Clergy Project members who are still active as religious professionals is 146.

We conduct an extensive phone (or Skype) interview before admitting anyone to our group, specifically to be sure the person is or has been an actual religious professional, not just active like a deacon or Sunday school teacher. Plus, all applicants must be comfortable identifying themselves as no longer believing in the supernatural.

Difficulty of change

The difficulty of changing out of a ministerial career to a secular one can hardly be overstated, perhaps the most difficult career transition ever. Religious believers have a terribly difficult time with the fact that a trusted religious leader no longer believes.

So, former religious professionals often not only lose their jobs and salary; they often lose their marriage, their family, friends and community respect.

One of the few Muslim imams who applied for membership in The Clergy Project said, “If it were to become public knowledge that I no longer believed, I would not only lose my career; I’d lose my head — literally!”

Now about to complete the seventh year of our existence, The Clergy Project has participants from all 50 states plus Puerto Rico. Although most of our group lives in the United States, we have members from 42 different countries.

By far the majority are males (86 percent), but this is not the result of any discrimination on our part against female applicants. Rather, it is the result that most religious communities have restricted “ordained” religious professionals to males throughout the centuries.

The Clergy Project is an all-volunteer organization. We have no paid staff. In fact, many of us make a monthly financial contribution so we’ll have enough funds to keep our operation going. Plus, we are happy to receive donations from people (like members of FFRF) who support our work.

The Clergy Project’s mission is to “provide support, community and hope to those current and former religious professionals who no longer hold to supernatural beliefs.” We do not actively seek new members; rather we are there to respond to the needs of those who seek us out.

If you go online to read about The Clergy Project, you will find a post by the current president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler. The post is titled, “The Sad Charade of The Clergy Project.” In this post, he says, “The Clergy Project is a magnet for charlatans and cowards who, by their own admission, openly lie to their congregations, hide behind beliefs they do not hold, make common cause with atheists.” He then goes on to claim there are two kinds of doubt — faithful doubt and pernicious doubt, with faithful doubt leading to a deeper understanding of the truth, while pernicious doubt leads to, among other things, cynicism and despair.

It’s OK to doubt if . . .

In other words, it’s OK to doubt if you know where you’re going to come out before you begin questioning what you’ve been led to believe. That’s hardly a genuine freedom to question long-held assumptions. “Charlatans and cowards,” he says.

Compare that accusation to this heart-felt excerpt from the bio of one of our Clergy Project members, whose identity is not revealed for obvious reasons:

“All my life, I tried everything to get God to love me. I prayed, fasted, attended church, and continued to try to convince God I was worth loving. I became a Methodist clergy because I was very good at public speaking and wanted to help the poor. I still miss that. I went to seminary while my three sons were teenagers . . .

The day I was told I was accepted for ordination I thought I had achieved the pinnacle of all that I had wanted and spent 10 years working on. Now, at last, I would experience God in a way that would prove to me it was real.

“What happened blew my world apart. You see, I was ordained two weeks after my oldest son was killed in a car accident. I had asked to hold off and wait a year to be ordained, but I was told I’d have to rewrite all of my papers if I waited. There was no allowance or ‘grace’ made for me in my horrible situation. My spiritual beliefs and searching for proof of God exploded, and I was left with empty darkness. I was sitting on a pile of rubble that was my life. I did all that work and gave my life to a God I only wanted to love me, and this is how I was repaid? People said that God must have loved my son to take him that way. They said it was God’s will, and he needed another angel. I kept wishing God didn’t love him at all, and I’d still see his smile and feel his loving arms around me.

I left ministry for good after having served for five years. I loved my parishioners and in my last act of service, I stepped down and never returned to ministry. On top of that, my 15-year marriage ended. I filed bankruptcy and lost everything I owned. The one good thing? After having lost my son, losing everything else didn’t matter.

“As I wandered around lost, voicing my unbelief, I suffered extensive shunning. I felt I was crawling on the ground, bleeding, trying to find a place to voice all my doubt and pain. I cried a lot, watching people I loved step over me, as I hurt, and act like they never cared at all. My putting doubt into words terrified them.

“I am very happy today and hoping to connect with others so that I can see I am not alone and grow in my love for myself and learn new ideas. I can’t wait to talk to you as I thought I was alone in my leaving ministry and no longer believing in God.

“Life is short. Let’s dance along the shores and enjoy the sunshine together.”

Does that sound like a “charlatan and coward” to you?

So, we at The Clergy Project will just continue to do our quiet work, trying to be available to current and former clergy who are honest enough to say that the evidence for their former faith simply doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

All the objective evidence suggests that religion is a man-made construct. Which is to say, God didn’t create man — man created God.