The Clergy Project

The Clergy Project title=
The Clergy Project
Reads 2555

By Robert Bernstein

" The Clergy Project" was the latest presentation by the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara.

It is a challenge for anyone to leave their religion. But it is an even bigger challenge if you are a clergy person.

Lon Ostrander was in that position before The Clergy Project existed. As a clergy person he could not share his new views with his congregation. It was not appropriate to be outspoken and to celebrate his "new found liberty".

The Clergy Project (TCP) shows clergy in this situation that they are not alone. Not being alone was a big theme in his talk.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) was co-founded by Anne Nicol Gaylor and her daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor, in 1976. Dan Barker was a minister in several denominations and then came out publicly as an atheist in many letters. He does not recommend that!

Here is one of my photos of Dan Barker when he spoke to the Humanist Society in 2008:

Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor were on Oprah Winfrey's "AM Chicago" show in 1984. He and Annie Laurie married three years later.

In 2006 Dan Barker and Richard Dawkins met at a humanist conference in Iceland. They, along with Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, had the idea for what became The Clergy Project. It finally happened for real in March 2011. In November 2011 Ostrander became about the 100th person to join TCP.

Here was Richard Dawkins at UCSB in 2012:

And here I was with Daniel Dennett and UCSB Professor Jonathan Schooler in 2013:

Ostrander was excited to have other people in his position to talk to. In 2012 TCP became a 501C3 non-profit under Dan Barker. In 2018 Ostrander took over as president and has been elected twice since then.He was brought up in a Christian family out in the country. Their family was invited to a Pentecostal church. They stayed with that until the family moved to the city of Elmira Heights, NY in 1958 when he was eight years old.

There they were invited to join the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARB) church that had a brand new building. He noted that the sermons were more boring than the Pentecostal sermons! He married there and divorced, then went on to marry his current wife of 44 years.

In 1994 he was at a church camp at a business meeting that did not interest him. He felt a warming in his body like what London cleric John Wesley felt in 1738. Ostrander felt this was a sign to join the ministry.

He attended Indiana Wesleyan University and "dove in head first". He was middle aged with a family and he feels he probably neglected them. He did so well that he was allowed to serve as a minister. He sold their house and moved to Georgia.

There he got into trouble for talking to Black people. Moved to Loganton, PA where he got into trouble for talking to Amish people!

He ended up back in Elmira. He was supposed to be ordained after seven years, but they didn't. Had him jump through hoops three more years. Wouldn't say why. Ostrander at this point told them "I always loved and respected you. I still love you." He had lost all respect for the church.

He bailed out of being a minister, but he was still a believer. He looked at other denominations and realized none of them had the answer. It was six years after leaving the ministry that he made a list of things that he believes. Starting with "God exists". He realized that first item on the list was not true for him. He felt fortunate that he was no longer a minister, so he didn't have to face dealing with his loss of belief while being a minister.

He took the label of "atheist" for himself. No more prayer. Sleep in Sunday mornings. His family was disappointed. His wife is still a believer. Some things they have to avoid discussing!

He found TCP with no intention to lead. He was just glad not to be alone.

TCP has an online forum and a hidden Facebook group. Counseling through the Secular Therapy Project. Vocational transition counseling. But the main purpose of TCP is not to feel alone.

Maureen is head of their screening committee and was in the audience for this discussion. Applicants are matched to screeners of a similar background. He went on to give several example cases.

Example 1:
Southern Baptist. At age 14 he was already committed to full time ministry. He was now 33 and had a podcast for people leaving Christian fundamentalism. He doesn't know what to do now. Unprepared for real life. Unemployed. Has a son half time. Credit card debt.

Marriages are often collateral damage, Ostrander explained.

Example 2:
Had started ministry with the Church of Christ. He moved to different denominations. He worked as an IT manager, but he "felt a call to ministry".

Ostrander noted, "There's some troublesome words!"

He sold everything and took his family to another state. He preached on street corners. He was about to do a mission in South America. But then he had doubts. In 2012 he pulled out of the ministry. He is now divorced with four children and a huge debt. Feels lost, alone, depressed.

Example 3:
Muslim. His father was an imam in the village. At age 8 he could recite the Koran. By age 16 he was an imam. Hopes for support now that he has been "banished".

Example 4:
Painful and lonely. That is worse than realizing that your life was wasted believing untrue things.

Ostrander said these stories are typical of their applicants.TCP has 1,170 participants now. Some clergy members are a year or two to retirement and they sometimes will stick it out and collect their pension. But some have been retired for 10-20 years and they still want to join TCP!

It is hard to get good statistics on TCP people as they don't hear much from half of them. About 14% of TCP are female, which is higher than female participation in religious leadership in general. Women catch on quicker!

About 96% are Christian since TCP is North America based. About 30 denominations. 2% former rabbis. TCP also has former Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Native American tribal believers, Raelians, Wiccans and Zoroastrians. Probably others.

They have participants in 49 states (not North Dakota) and Puerto Rico. Seven Canadian provinces and more than 50 countries.

As far as he knows, no one has ever passed screening for TCP who got in to cause trouble. Some people waver and aren't sure if they believe or not. TCP will refer them to Recovering From Religion. TCP is for people who know they are atheists.

Participants can use pseudonyms and avatars if they want. But most use real names and photos.

It can be difficult and hazardous to disclose new views to employers, followers, family and friends. He recommends taking it slow and making a plan. There may be failures, but he hasn't heard of many.

Priests who were celibate often move on, get married and have kids. It is more difficult for older people to adjust to a new lifestyle. It is also harder for more fundamentalist denominations. They have greater depth of indoctrination and control. Leaving is traumatic.

How can HSSB help? Help spread the word that TCP exists!

His TCP vision is that TCP would be so widely known that it is common knowledge everywhere. Including every madrasa, seminary and church board.

One participant said he felt more love in TCP than in the church he left!

TCP is entirely volunteer. You can donate on their web site. But spreading the word is the most valuable contribution.

At this point audience members offered their stories and asked questions. Maureen Hart, a former nun, told her story of leaving the convent and marrying a Catholic atheist. She met Dan Barker at an FFRF conference which led to her joining TCP. She appreciated bonding with other former nuns and reflecting on what they believed and didn't now.Jonathan Young asked if there were backsliders or if people went to new nonsense or Eastern teachings. Ostrander said maybe 0.1%.

Maureen said that some go to the Unitarian Society to have community.

Bonnie was forced to attend Sunday school as a child and she wondered how many people go into the ministry without really believing it. Ostrander thinks that is rare. Perhaps they hope someone smarter will explain during their training! But the professors probably have even more doubts!

Wayne asked what secular work TCP people go on to. Social work, psychology, computer nerds, teaching. Some go back to what they really wanted to do before entering the ministry.

I asked Ostrander what is his day job. He represents clients wanting to buy public transit vehicles. He loves it. In the past he was assigned abroad and in other states. But now he comes home on weekends.

I asked if he could say more about his "warm feeling" experience. He said maybe it was temporary insanity! He said it never happened again.

Maureen told the story of Dave Warnock. His wife was a member of a strict congregation. Convinced daughters not to see him. He had to divorce.

Ostrander offered Dave's advice: Carpe the f-ing diem!

For more information about upcoming events with the Humanist Society of Santa Barbara or to become a member, please go to

Login to add Comments


Show Comments
Blue Onion Feb 11, 2022 09:49 AM
The Clergy Project

SINCE BOTH POSTINGS (2/10/22, about noon)...

Post; Best Stroller Walks? received 1,715 "reads"
Post; The Clergy Project (with "by Humanist Society" shown with Headline) received 673 "reads"
Go figure...

a-1644611372 Feb 11, 2022 12:29 PM
The Clergy Project

What do you think this means BLUE ONION?

sbrobert Feb 11, 2022 09:31 AM
The Clergy Project

Core values are expressed through religion, yet it is inexplicably taboo to discuss what matters most to us. The result is people holding beliefs that are truly bizarre to anyone outside those beliefs. There are tens of thousands of these bizarre belief systems, mostly in contradiction to each other.

A religious person will reject all of them except the one they hold dear. An atheist is a person who believes just one less of these bizarre beliefs than the religious person.

It is possible that there is hidden truth behind some of these religions. A thoughtful atheist is open to learning these truths. But the surrounding absurdities would need to be excised.

LUVADUCK and TOOT I agree that atheism is one of the last taboos for elected office in the US. People can accept an elected official who believes in a religion they totally reject and find absurd. But not a person who steps beyond all absurdities. Interestingly, this is no barrier at all in European countries that have no official separation of church and state.

Luvaduck Feb 11, 2022 07:10 AM
The Clergy Project

I read somewhere that an atheist would have more problem being elected to a public position than any other religious conviction. The second least belief was agnostic. I can't comment on the truth of this as I don't remember where or when I read it, but it's an interesting question.

toot Feb 11, 2022 09:04 AM
The Clergy Project

There's a greater chance that Trump is the world's leading authority in Boolean Algebra than there is of an overt atheist being elected to any significant office in the good ol' USA – Bernie Sanders notwithstanding.

Please Login or Register to comment on this.