Why Retired Clergy Lose Faith and Leave Church
By Martin Thielen
“Be merciful to those who doubt.” — Jude 22 NIV
October 3, 2023
I belong to a support group of seven retired mainline clergypersons. Six of the seven no longer affirm historic, creedal, orthodox, traditional theology. The same six members of the group no longer actively participate in a congregation. If you do the math, that means 86 percent of my retired clergy group have, to a large degree, lost traditional faith and left institutional religion.
For a long time, I assumed this dynamic in my support group was an anomaly. Surely, I thought, this is not typical. So, several months ago, I decided to take an informal survey of retired clergy to help find out. I asked them two questions: “Do you still affirm traditional doctrines/theology? Why or why not? Are you still actively involved in a church? Why or why not?”
Before sharing the results of the survey, a significant disclaimer needs to be made. This was not a large or a scientific survey. Instead, it represents the responses of about one hundred retired (almost all mainline) clergy who read DoubtersParish.com, ProgressiveChristianity.org, and Baptist News Global, a (non-Southern Baptist) progressive Baptist news service. In short, the responders to this survey already trend “liberal/progressive” theologically and ecclesiastically. Had I surveyed retired clergy from conservative evangelicalism, the results would likely have been significantly different.
With that important disclaimer, I’d like to share some of the findings of the survey. Overall, it identified the following three categories of retired clergypersons (with percentages):
- Those who affirm traditional theology and participate in a church (19%)
- Those who do not affirm traditional theology but participate in a church (40%)
- Those who do not affirm traditional theology and do not participate in a church (41%)
Three major trends that surfaced in the survey will now be reviewed, followed by a tentative attempt to explain why so many retired clergy have lost traditional faith and left church.
A Majority Remain in Church
Fifty-nine percent of the retired clergy who took this survey still participate in a local church. This includes clergy who retain traditional faith and those who do not (see percentages above). A few representative quotes from respondents follow:
- “I am still active in a congregation. How can a good son abandon one’s mother?”
- “I believe in the church, in the sense that we were never meant to go it alone in our faith.”
- “I certainly don’t believe all that is preached from the pulpit but have stayed for the social connection.”
- “I appreciate the mission work and the camaraderie. It is affirming for me.”
- “I am actively involved in my church, partly because it has jettisoned dogma.”
- “I go mostly because it is a communal activity in which I have participated all my life.”
- “The church is where community can be found, care received and practiced, and prophetic voices can be heard. The church can be frustrating, but it’s also the place where I learned to love Jesus, my neighbors, the Bible’s story, and the power of hope.”
A Significant Minority Have Left Church
Although 59 percent of retired clergy who responded to this survey remain in church, 41 percent have left. For people who devoted decades of their lives to institutional religion, this seems like a large number. A few representative quotes from respondents follow:
- “The church is not going to change. For example, the language used for worship is so gendered and theistic. When people ask me what I did before retiring, I tell them I am a retired pastor who no longer goes to church.”
- “Today’s church has become a political pawn in the American culture. It has lost its voice and credibility in the world. Other cultures often see the American church as an instrument of imperialism.”
- “Churches are prejudiced, racist, they don’t think, they are comfortable with 1950’s understandings of the Bible and theology, and they spend almost all of their money on themselves.”
- “The church has abandoned the example and teachings of Jesus for power, politics, money, and the status quo.”
- “My experience is that many churches continue to offer only white worship, white music, and white liturgy, thus resembling a white country club that really doesn’t want to do any hands-on work with the least of these.”
- “I found parish ministry to be very draining, and I’m still feeling the need to have my own well filled up with peace and beauty rather than theological squabbling, meetings, committee work, and toxic relationships in troubled systems.”
- “I’ve shoveled enough church crap to last a hundred lifetimes. I’m finished, and it’s absolutely liberating.”
A Large Majority No Longer Affirm Traditional Theology
The biggest surprise of this retired clergy survey, at least for me, is that 81 percent of the respondents no longer hold traditional (historic, creedal, orthodox) theology/doctrines. A few representative quotes from respondents follow:
- “I no longer believe the doctrines of the church. Instead, I follow the life, teachings, and example of Jesus.”
- “I believe in a nontheistic God who is universal energy.”
- “I am closer to the Jesus of The Jefferson Bible and The Jesus Seminar than to the Jesus of The Apostles’ Creed.”
- “Sometimes I’m not sure if I still believe in God, but I’m sure I still believe in Jesus.”
- “I no longer affirm the doctrines I learned in junior high Sunday school like heaven, hell, virgin birth, physical resurrection, ascension, or the second coming.”
- “I cannot reconcile reality with traditional doctrines, nor do they make logical sense anymore. Some of the traditional doctrines I find to be morally corrupt and inconsistent with a loving God.”
- “I still possess a belief in God, but it is not bound by what lies in the formulated canon of Scripture.”
- “Far more important than any creed or system of beliefs or principles is having a moral compass and great kindness.”
Why Have So Many Retired Clergy Lost Traditional Faith and Left Church?
When 81 percent of retired clergy (who took this survey) have lost traditional faith, and 41 percent have left church, you cannot help but ask why. There’s no one definitive answer. For example, numerous respondents never affirmed traditional faith in the first place, especially those in the noncreedal, highly progressive United Church of Christ. But the primary explanation respondents gave for losing traditional faith and leaving church is that, as retired clergy, they now have the theological and ecclesiastical freedom to do so.
For example, when you are a professional minister, even if you are fed up with institutional religion, you obviously do not have the freedom to leave church. Retirement allows you, for the first time in a long time, to make a decision about your church participation. As already noted, the majority choose to stay. After spending a lifetime working in church, most clergy want to remain connected to their life’s work. However, retired clergy who have grown disillusioned with institutional religion are now free to cut their ecclesiastical ties—and many do. As one respondent said, “I am not involved in a church. Short version, I had enough. Retirement provides freedom not to.”
This freedom is even more pronounced when it comes to theology. For active clergy, not believing in traditional doctrines can create major crises on many levels. Therefore, most clergy attempt to avoid this painful reality, even if it requires not being fully forthright with themselves or their congregations. However, once they are freed from vocational constraints, many of them come to the realization that they no longer affirm traditional beliefs. Very few become atheists. However, many of them, like those in this survey, become far less orthodox. As one respondent said, “Although I struggled with doubt my entire career, I convinced myself that I still believed in the core tenants of historic Christianity. But when I retired, I realized that I didn’t.”
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
While writing this article, I came upon a provocative quote by Upton Sinclair. Although he was not specifically referring to religion or clergypersons, it certainly applies. He said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
I don’t share this quote in a judgmental or cynical way. Instead, I share it to illustrate how difficult it is for doubting clergypersons to understand and admit (to themselves or others) that they have lost important tenants of their religion. Why? Because, as the quote suggests, losing those beliefs can result in the termination of your salary, which is no small matter. But it goes much deeper than that. Losing faith can also lead to a loss of call, vocation, identity, community, purpose, meaning, reputation, and even family relationships.
For someone with “Reverend” in front of their name, admitting that he or she has lost faith feels overwhelmingly frightening and threatening. As a result, most clergy find a way to hang on to some semblance of faith, if only by their fingernails. But when they retire, such fears and constraints dissipate, giving many of them the freedom to acknowledge (perhaps for the first time) that their faith has significantly strayed from traditional orthodoxy.
A Case Study
Let me share a specific example. A few weeks ago, I read a book by a clergyman narrating his struggle with doubt. I won’t go into many details, but he laid out numerous factors that led him to doubt his faith. They included the usual suspects (questions about the Bible, the problem of suffering, skepticism about a theistic God and a divine Christ, difficulty believing in supernaturalism, and the massive failures of institutional religion).
By this point in the book, most readers would expect to turn the page and discover that he has given up on faith and resigned as a minister. Instead, the author makes a surprising shift. Instead of jettisoning his religion, he decided to take a “leap of faith” and “trust” Christianity. Given his massive doubts, I’m sure many readers felt a bit of whiplash.
However, his decision to retain faith in spite of debilitating doubts will not surprise most clergy. The cost of giving up his faith was too high a bar, the price too steep. He acknowledged as much when he admitted that he could not bring himself to leave his vocation, which is all he knew and which he was good at. Nor could he bear to leave his denominational tribe and the community it provided. He also loathed to give up the spiritual comfort that traditional faith offered him. So he found a way to keep faith alive, although just barely.
When I read his story, which was published twelve years ago, I thought to myself, I bet his perspective changed when he retired. My hunch proved correct. An online search revealed that he recently retired. I then read several of his current blog posts. He no longer talks about “a leap of faith” or “trust” in God. Instead, he talks about his “slowly dissolving faith.” He clearly no longer believes in traditional Christianity, and he’s deeply frustrated with institutional religion.
I do not criticize this man for hanging on to a minimum of traditional faith while serving as a minister, only to let it go upon retirement. Instead, I can empathize with him. When we are still in the ministerial arena, it’s extraordinarily difficult to acknowledge our deepest doubts to ourselves, much less to others. The stakes are simply too high. Therefore, many doubting clergy—often subconsciously—defer and deny such threatening thoughts.
However, according to the participants of this survey, when we retire, and gain the theological and ecclesiastical freedom that accompanies it, our perspective often changes. And that, more than anything else, appears to be the primary reason so many thoughtful and well-educated clergy, upon their retirement, release (at least some) traditional faith, embrace (at least some) nontraditional faith, and rethink their relationship with institutional religion.
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