What's Tony Thinking

Trying Again: Retired Clergy Losing Faith


Came across an article not long ago about retired clergy who no longer affirm the core affirmations of Christian faith. The author, Martin Thielen, is himself a retired Methodist minister. He writes of a group of his retired colleagues —

“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% of my retired clergy group have, to a large degree, lost traditional faith and left institutional religion.”

Wondering if this was an anomaly specific to his group, Thielen did a wider survey and concluded that his group was more typical than not. I have noticed a similar thing among some, not all, retired clergy. Thielen’s explanation is that now retired clergy enjoy a freedom that allows them to say what they think.

“When 81% of retired clergy (who took this survey) have lost traditional faith, and 41% 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.”

Thielen, who hosts a website called DoubtersParish.com is sympathetic to his colleagues who “have lost traditional faith.” But it does occur to me that if the main thing that was keeping someone from disavowing the faith is a position and a paycheck, it must have been an unhappy calling and one which didn’t serve the church all that well.

For whatever reason, my experience has been different. I have, if anything, become stronger in my trust in the gospel and more centered in what God has done in Christ, what theologians call “Christology” as the years have gone by.

Some of this may be because I am constitutionally a bit of contrarian. If most are going this way, I will trot off on the opposite path. But in another sense I am like my colleagues. I too have a greater freedom now than I did when a part of the UCC where, as Thielen notes, many “never affirmed traditional faith.”

Often my experience in the UCC was that it was easier for clergy and laity to go with the flow and say “oh no, I don’t believe all that stuff,” and then content oneself with embracing whatever was the latest liberal or progressive enthusiasm. But that seemed to me to lack something in integrity.

While sincere struggle and questions — and honest doubts — always have a place, holding a leadership position in the church while dissing or dismissing the faith . . . well something about that didn’t seen quite right, i.m.h.o. Have the courage to find yourself another job, for goodness sake, was my thinking.

In my case, retirement has not only allowed me to travel in circles — outside the UCC — where the gospel of God’s grace in Christ is celebrated, but to continue my own efforts to understand what the gospel is and what it is we Christians claim about Jesus Christ. For instance, I’ve been able to spend more time reading theologians like Barth and Calvin and their interpreters. And I have found fellow travelers in places like Mockingbird ministries, podcasts like “The Same Old Song” and “Crackers and Grape Juice.”

Another aspect of my own move in the direction of what I would call “generous orthodoxy,” and perhaps of some colleagues disavowal of the same, is that I believe that much of the mainline church has long slighted what I would call “proclamation” in favor of “exhortation” or moralism. Often the faith (as readers of this blog have heard me say before) was more about what we human being should or must do (moralism/ exhortation) and less about what God has done and is doing (proclamation). More, that is, good advice than good news. We put the imperative ahead of the indicative. “Salvation,” as Calvin reminded us, “is all about grace (God’s doing); ethics (our doing) is all about gratitude.”

Moralism is, I concluded, both exhausting and self-deceiving. Its preponderance in both mainline and (in different ways) evangelical circles has as much to do with church decline as anything.

In a declining church where people often feel overwhelmed with life and their to-do lists, their foibles and failures, it has seemed to me there is an urgency of grace, the good news of God’s mercy for the broken and the imperfect — which is all of us. Needing this myself, I cling to the faith and to the cross.

I do not cling to a faith of “you should” and “you must” or “thank God we are enlightened progressives and aren’t like those terrible, hateful evangelicals.” That’s all pretty boring. But to celebrate God’s faithfulness, to proclaim God’s mercy for sinners, to trust that in Christ “all things are made new,” and to be a part of a community of the forgiven, I’m down with all that. More than ever.


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