When Clergy Struggle With Faith
CAUGHT IN THE PULPIT:
LEAVING FAITH BEHIND
by Daniel C. Dennett &Linda LaScola
Geoffrey W. Sutton
Have you ever listened to someone disclose their deep spiritual doubts? In Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Faith Behind, Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola systematically disclose and analyze the deconversion experiences of 35 clergy and seminary interviewees who participated in their qualitative study. Encouraged by a pilot study in 2010, the authors pursued a broader sample. This book summarizes the results from 90 interviews between November 2008 and June 2012. Daniel Dennett is a professor of philosophy at Tufts University and Linda LaScola is a clinical social worker.
The authors organized the book into seven sections. In the four introductory chapters we learn that the 35 persons are all Caucasian clergy. There are Jewish Rabbis but most are either Catholic or Christian clergy from literal or liberal denominations. From the authors’ perspectives, literal groups view Scripture as inerrant whereas liberal groups are inclined to consider Scripture through the lens of metaphor, symbolism, and poetry. Prototypical literals are Pentecostals, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists and prototypical liberals are Unitarians and Episcopalians. The authors acknowledge that there is a range of literal to liberal views held by different people within any faith tradition. The 90 interviews resulted in 120 hours of recordings. Their study is not based on a representative random sample because they were dependent on volunteers willing to risk disclosure. Nearly half of the participants still ministered to congregants. The authors make a point of keeping strict confidentiality.
In section two, Landa LaScola presents a selection of five biographical sketches—a Presbyterian, two Lutherans, a Catholic Priest, and a Mormon Bishop. Of particular relevance to current social trends and psychological exams is the comment by the priest: “During my psychological evaluations, I was asked by the examining psychologist if I was gay or straight, and I said, “Straight.” I lied (p. 48).” He estimated that about 50 to 75 percent of other students in the seminary were also gay. In section three, Daniel Dennett offers his perspective on the evolution of religion and the challenges faced by seminary professors and religious leaders in a world with increasing knowledge about science and an increased sensitivity to ancient tales of genocide (e.g., Noah), which obviously pose challenges for those tasked with teaching or leading members of literal faith traditions.
Both authors present findings that track the path from seminary to pulpit ministry in section four. Seminary professors express their difficulties in teaching students from literal faith traditions. Student comments reflected four themes: (1) fascination and enthusiasm linked to new views of biblical knowledge; (2) deeply troubled—a response to the complexities of faith traditions; (3) seeds of doubt; (4) a focus on coursework without much evaluation. After entering the pulpit many found their congregants were more interested in simple and pleasant stories of faith rather than more scholarly analyses. And others reported a disturbing awareness of dishonesty and corruption among church leaders. A chapter that might be of special interest to clinicians is the review of burnout and depression. There are several references to mental distress that I wished the authors had examined in more detail. Some appeared distressed by their experiences in ministry while others were struggling with spiritual matters and a loss of meaning. A former Greek Orthodox monk described a long history of depression. He described the experience as an existential crisis and reported that his therapist diagnosed his condition as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Linda LaScola discusses emerging themes in section five. She focuses on the problems faced by liberal clergy in dealing with matters of metaphor, myth, and truth. Several comments point to the broad acceptance of science and an appreciation of the language of Scripture regardless of perceived differences with scientific findings. Linda’s comments on the liberal’s dilemma seems apt: “Now they’re feeling boxed in: bounded on one side by fundamentalists and on the other by the New Atheists (p. 153)”
Part six contains an update on those who participated in the 2010 pilot study. All five were still active clergy. Two fundamentalists want to leave the ministry. A Presbyterian pastor was unable to find other employment. A Methodist declined a follow-up. A United Church of Christ chaplain revealed his views publicly but suffered no negative consequences. In the final section, Dennett discusses an inner shell, which isolates clergy from their congregants and even themselves. The oft quoted Clinton phrase, “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” describes the unwritten rule of not probing too deeply on matters of personal faith. Another maxim is a variation on the physician’s “do no harm” restyled as “do not undermine anybody’s faith.”
The book contains some interesting end material. There is a brief bio for each participant, an overview of qualitative research methods and personal stories of the authors. Overall, I think the book will be of interest to many readers because of the focus on the spiritual journeys of those deep in various faith traditions. If the authors are right about the small number of participants being the tip of the iceberg then there are likely many who would benefit from confidential consultations—especially those struggling with burnout and depression.
The challenge of getting a sizeable representative sample of clergy and conducting quantitative research appear substantial when the risk of unemployment rests on maintaining strict confidentiality. Nevertheless, the basis exists to explore the links between spirituality and mental health as well as the traditional psychology of religion topics such as meaning, conversion, and deconversion. This qualitative study provides some insights worthy of further research. One can easily see that the difficulties faced by clergy might extend to leaders and high-level employees within religious organizations.