February 22, 2008
Cognitive Dissonance Among the Clergy
What happens when clergy begin to doubt
While Bruce Gierson’s article, "An Atheist in the Pulpit," in the most recent issue of Psychology Today often devolves into a spiritual travelogue of clergy de-conversion, it does alert us to some of the personal and practical dilemmas raised when persons involved in professional ministry come to realize they doubt their beliefs.
Given that Gierson is writing for Psychology Today, it should come as no surprise that the story focuses on the "deeply inauthentic" feelings and accompanying "psychic stress" that results from a disconnect between a minister's public preaching, pastoral care, or performance of the liturgy, and his or her private doubts or disbelief. His clergy characters are often cast as heroes who live by Shakespeare's line--"to thine own self be true"--and uphold the "inviolability of the individual conscience." Better to be true to self than keep one's commitments, however far removed they now seem.
To be fair, I have sometimes wondered, in my contemplation of ordained ministry, but what would I do when those desert seasons of doubt and despair come, as they regularly have, in my own life? Would it be OK for me to hide in and behind the liturgy, in and behind the text, in and behind the prayers of the saints gathered around me, at least for a time? I'm not sure I ever came up with good answers to those questions, or the basic question behind them: Is there room for doubt in the life of a minister of the Church? I'm not talking about settled or aggressive disbelief, but those dark periods that befall many Christians. In short, I'm sympathetic to the plight of ministers who find themselves unable to be for their flock what that flock often want them to be--a paragon of faith and hope.
It's a shame that Gierson never addresses this question from the other side of the pulpit, except through the perceptions of the clergy he interviewed. If a minister is bold enough to share his or her doubts with a congregation, what should the congregation do? Should they come alongside and pray for their minister? The answer to that seems obvious enough. Should they help him or her organize a sabbatical or leave of absence? If the minister is willing to continue, would the congregation mind knowing that their pastor was, for a time, working from obligation or a desire to keep a commitment, rather than from a living, burning, hearth of faith? (Would any marriage last were not a similar commitment in place?) And, if the minister did eventually come to a place of settled disbelief, how should that be handled?
These are by no means easy questions. It's good that Gierson is raising them, if only indirectly.