Friday 4 November 2016

Faith Journey (part 10 and final)

This will be the final post recounting my journey from believing pastor to where I am now (secular, humanist, agnostic-yet-mindful of the mystery of life and existence, etc.). So here goes…

During the early months of 2015 I started pulling together a number of posts and reflections I had written, either for myself, my ALC colleagues, or for The Clergy Project forum. These would eventually constitute a pack of materials, addressed to the LCA leadership, outlining how my beliefs and worldview had changed over the last few years – summarized in a few pages but running in total length to over 60 pages. Having done this, I securely filed it and got on with the duties of seminary lecturer, dean of chapel, church theologian, etc. But all the time I knew my little pack of surprises was sitting there for a purpose, ticking away like a time bomb. After all, this is what I wrote to those who would eventually read it:

Over the last few years, I have tried to visualize various ways that I could authentically hold my views while continuing in my current, or similar, employment. These are some of the options that offer themselves, and they all present difficulties of one kind or another.

- Grin and bear it – just suppress my personal opinions and play the game
- Continue to hold the public line, but have a regular outlet to share with like-minded people
- Nudge the church in a progressive direction which, while coming nowhere close to my own views, would at least initiate some conversations
- Be open about my personal views, but promise to teach and work within the doctrinal parameters of the church
- Seek some other work within the institution of the church 
- Seek employment in a more liberal church

I’ve considered all of these options, and for a while I really did imagine I could function as a closet heretic within the LCA. However, I’ve recently come to feel that I should probably bow out from ordained ministry altogether.

By May of 2015 I came to the realization that for all my efforts, I was no more reconciled to my calling than before, and knew that nothing was going to change now. The prospect of a double existence was as unpalatable as it had ever been. And so it was, that in one of the more reckless decisions of my life, I threw caution to the wind and posted the pack to the national and local bishop.

When we eventually met on June 2, things moved very quickly. While I had personally (and probably naively) hoped for a lengthier period to transition out of ministry, this was not considered feasible. The upshot was that I had no choice but to resign from the ordained ministry within the next two days, which I did the very next day. After that I had till the end of the month to wrap up my seminary duties…and that would be that. Needless to say, the next days and weeks were traumatic, both for myself and my family, and I’m not going to rehash that here. I don’t even like thinking about it. However, I can say that the ALC leadership and community offered wonderful support during this difficult time, and for that I remain deeply grateful.

But despite the grief (self-imposed, but real all the same), what would occupy me over the coming months would be the practicalities of surviving now that unemployment loomed ahead. Since this blog is really about charting my changing beliefs and worldviews, I won’t give a tedious narrative of all that happened next. The following sums up some of the main challenges, decisions, achievements and milestones since leaving the ministry, some of which continue up to the present:

 * Communicate and try and explain my decision to unsuspecting (and bewildered) family members
 * Begin this blog, which I did on July 30, 2015, as a way of communicating with interested church members, and anyone else for that matter.
 * Start looking for alternative accommodation, as we were currently in an ALC owned house. As it turned out, we kept renting there till the end of the year, after which we moved into another unoccupied manse very nearby. Most fortunate!
 * Decide whether to continue my doctoral studies or not. The decision was to place the PhD on hold for a year. This gave me an opportunity to reshape the thesis direction. But as new employment and professional prospects emerged in late 2016 it became apparent that this was no longer viable. I am now in the process of withdrawing from the program. A little sad, but that’s life. (But don’t worry, Ricoeur and I, we’re still friends you know.)

But the most urgent task was to find new employment. Without income, nothing much else was going to happen. Except for bad things, of course.

Thankfully, I was in time to (successfully) apply for a research contract through ALITE (Australian Lutheran Institute of Theology and Ethics), an arm of my previous employer, Australian Lutheran College. Some LCA readers will know about this, and may even have participated in it. In short, it involved completing a research project (surveys, focus groups, literature reviews) providing a current snapshot of the LCA clergy – their wellbeing, the nature of their work and ministry, their training and professional needs. This entailed extensive consultation across the church and resulted in a series of reports with recommendations for LCA leadership. Most unusual given my recent exit – but all in all a fulfilling and valuable experience, providing part time employment for a good part of a year.

During this time, I was also offered a small amount work with Adelaide College of Divinity, writing a VET unit (Cert IV in Christian Life and Ministry) and marking papers for a Biblical Hermeneutics course. The latter was a satisfying academic experience.

But when these income streams eventually dried up the time came to seriously engage with the job market out there in the ‘world’. This was something I had never needed to do, being employed by the church since my early 20s. Things were not helped by South Australia having the highest unemployment and underemployment levels in the nation.

Nor were things helped by suffering a heart attack, which not only meant several weeks’ recovery, but quite reduced energy levels due to the medication I was now popping every morning and evening. This is a factor I’m only just getting on top of 6 months on. Thankfully, I didn’t go down the bypass surgery route, with 3 stents sufficing to keep my coronary arteries open instead.  

After putting in scores of job applications, I felt I had no choice but accept an agency cleaning job to earn some extra cash. These were an exhausting 10 weeks, and further drained me of energy that might be better put into job hunting. Still, it was the closest thing to a free gym membership you can get (those lost kilos are now creeping back, as they do!)

During this time, I also enrolled in a Diploma of Counselling to improve my job prospects. This was not something I would have anticipated doing some months earlier, but the process of job hunting and writing applications very much served to sort out the kind of things I could see myself doing – and not doing. As it turns out, I’m glad I made this investment – the whole field of counselling can be envisaged as a secular version of pastoral ministry. So far, I’m enjoying the study, as well attending the Australian Counselling Association National Conference in Adelaide recently.

BUT…the best news of all was to finally receive full-time work with the recently renamed Department for Child Protection. So I have now entered the public service, engaging on yet another significant learning journey. Furthermore, I feel there is a good deal of cross-fertilization between this employment and the counselling studies, not to mention the induction I’m currently undergoing.

So to sum it up, and to bring this personal journey to a close, I do feel I’m in the best place I’ve been for quite some years, at least since my doubts began gathering momentum around 2011. Of course, we never know what challenges life will throw at us next, but at least for now I can say that I’m no longer caught between an inauthentic religious role or financial impoverishment. Whether I continue to engage in theology or religious reflection remains to be seen. Perhaps it can be a hobby of sorts. It’s certainly not irrelevant to the field of counselling. In any case, I hope to blog some more about how I see the nature and role of religious/Christian faith, as time permits.

I hope you’ve found this an interesting read. And if perchance your situation resembles mine in any way, that you’ve found it helpful.


  1. Thanks very much for sharing your journey, especially your paper on Ricoeur's 'second naiveté'. His tripartite road map, and your explanation, offered a helpful metaphor for my own journey (though I prefer Ted Peter's 'postcritical reconstruction' as a more appealing label for the third leg). Your book list is also a huge help, though I'm adding more readings in 'radical theology', including Altizer and Hamilton.

    In that regard it’s unclear to me whether Ricoeur's 'return' is to a symbolic theism or nontheism. Like you (I think), having come through 'critical deconstruction' -- which I found fascinating and not at all a desert, per Ricoeur -- I can't now will myself into re-believing in a realist God. I'm curious to know your response, then, to Christian Atheism or Cupitt's Christian Nonrealism -- that is, non-theistic positions that remain ethically informed and inspired by Christian tradition, however symbolic and reinterpreted. I think Tom Krattenmaker's new book, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower, point in a similar direction. Thoughts?

  2. You’re welcome – very glad you took the time to read it!
    I think a lot of people puzzle over what Ricoeur’s return actually means, as he was rather reserved about his personal faith and convictions. But I think he leans more to the non-theistic side. For him the atheistic moment was a necessary one (although incomplete), and I suspect all symbolic talk for Ricoeur was ultimately a symbolic way of representing the human condition. Or, if it was more than mere anthropology, then a way of symbolizing ‘Being’. I also read that, at a personal level, he did not hold to the notion of a personal afterlife, so once again, everything the Christian tradition claims in this regard has been transposed onto the horizontal (human) plane. But I’d really need to read more about this.
    Apart from Cupitt, I haven’t engaged with the authors you mention. But Cupitt certainly resonated with me, and especially helped me recognize my dualist presuppositions. I think I’d want to re-read some of the Cupitt material I have before commenting further – that might make a good post when I get around to it. But like you, I also (as my blog journey explains) can’t will myself to re-believe in a realist or personal notion of God. Still, in my mind the emergence of existence, life, and consciousness are a kind of ‘triune’ mystery that prevents me from settling into a comfortable materialist atheism.
    I’m somewhat sceptical of the value of following a secularly interpreted Jesus – and that might be because I see him more in terms of the apocalyptic prophet (Alison, Ehrman) rather than the timeless sage or bringer of justice (Crossan, Borg). While it’s common to hear that people are keen on Jesus but not the church, I actually feel the reverse: I see value in how the Christian tradition (i.e., the church) can view the world, order its priorities, and present a particular vision of community, and so on. At least up to a degree. On the one hand, this vision is inspired by Jesus, but on the other, the Jesus who inspires the church tends to encapsulate whatever the church of the time already happens to value most highly (be it crusading against the infidel or promoting social reform or being our best friend or whatever).
    Anyway, till next time…