Ask Richard: Atheist Becomes Minister to Support His Family January 5, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Becomes Minister to Support His Family

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Dear Richard,

Hi. I frequently read your advice through the Friendly Atheist blog and would like to thank you for all your thoughtful insights. I am writing to you to see if you can help me with a situation. I could use your advice or advice from others because I am not sure what to do.

I am a recent Bible college graduate who started to question my faith in my junior year. My wife was upset at first but is now very supportive. I decided that I would spend the next year or two to decide where I stand, either as a Christian or as an atheist. My wife supports that (she hopes I will return to faith.) However, it’s been almost 2 years since I first started having doubts, and I am positive that I am and will be an atheist.

My wife and I are expecting our first child soon. I have a B.A. (although I feel that the degree is more B.S.) in Preaching and Bible. When I found out about her pregnancy, I took a job at a local church where I have great health insurance benefits and decent pay to provide for her and the baby. However, the position is being a minister to youth and children. Although I love the job, I don’t like knowing that I am perpetuating a system of superstition and ignorance, especially to young children. The church is fundamentalist so I can’t just get away with teaching moral principles under the guise of Christianity for too long. I would like to leave the position as soon as possible. It just doesn’t feel right living out a lie especially for a cause that I no longer support.

My wife is very supportive of me. However, I know she wants to be a stay-at-home mother. She has a B.S. to teach elementary school kids. With my degree, I can’t really provide for her and my child unless I am working for some kind of church organization.

I am planning on going back to college to focus on a career in Nanotechnology and Bioengineering. My original plan was to wait until my youngest child is in kindergarten (about 10 years since we’d like to have 4 kids) to go back to school.

So I guess my question is, what should I do? Do I stick with the original plan and wait it out since that is what my wife would like the best? Do I go back to school even though this would force my wife of giving up her dream of being a stay-at-home mom? Is there any way I could afford to go back to school and still provide for my family while still being able to see my family and keep my sanity? If you have any advice, I’d really appreciate it. Thank you so much.


Dear Thomas,

With a baby on the way, it’s important for you to reliably provide for your family, but there are some problems with your original ten year plan.

From the impression I get from your letter, I don’t think you’ll last for ten years as a secret atheist preaching to kids at a fundamentalist church. I wouldn’t expect you to last two years. Atheists often don’t have much tolerance for hypocrisy in others, and they can get very, very uncomfortable when they sense it in themselves. Either you’ll go nuts, or your employers will sense that you’re not suitable for the job, or both.

The two paths you are considering are the most extreme, either you work for several years at a job that is going to increasingly bring you guilt and tension for being a fraud selling out your principles, or your wife has a child and works full time while you go back to school. One person gets all that they want while the other person gets nothing of what they want.

The two of you can discuss the pros and cons of these options, but I would like to suggest a middle way that you don’t seem to have fully considered. This would be where neither of you get all that you want, but neither of you get nothing of what you want. You both make some sacrifices, but neither makes all the sacrifices.

Perhaps you should treat this the way you would if the field you were in suddenly became obsolete. Many people have been faced with that situation. The first thing they do is to look for work that is as closely related as possible to their education and training. If they don’t find anything right away, they gradually look further afield, for work that uses as much of their marketable skills as possible. They may not really like the work they end up getting, so the wiser ones take education or training while they work, to build a new career while they pay the bills.

Just for the present, grit your teeth while you work where you are, and actively, diligently look for a different job. The first place to look for would be a less fundamentalist church or school where you could, as you say, “get away with teaching moral principles under the guise of Christianity.” You might be able to pull that off for a while. However, you might still have a nagging sense of hypocrisy, and the mental and verbal gymnastics you’d be constantly doing might wear you down, and if so you’d need to move on again. Perhaps a Unitarian Universalist church would hire you. The pay and benefits might not be as good, but you would not have to lie and fake things.

If that doesn’t work out, then there’s the going further afield stage. Your B.A. must have given you some secular marketable skills, such as the ability to write, to do research, perhaps some basic math skills, computer skills, and most importantly, people skills. As a youth minister you have the ability to talk with people, to help them feel comfortable, to explain something to them clearly, and to convince them to try something. These are the skills of consultants, agents, salespersons, trainers and teachers. Depending on the state requirements, with just a little supplementary education perhaps you could be a schoolteacher. Your wife may be able to help coach you. It may not be exactly the work you wanted, but hey, it’s work. Think imaginatively and visualize new ways you could use your skills.

When you find work, any work, immediately start studying for your later career. Take night classes for nanotechnology and bioengineering now, not ten years from now. I worked full time and went to night school to get my second M.A. It took longer than the usual two years, but I wasn’t in a race. I took care of what was immediately needed, and I also built for the future. It will take you longer than the full-time student route to get the education that you need, but as your situation changes you can shift your work and study mixture.

I know you’ll be tired, and I know you’ll have less time with your wife and child. I know that it will be tough. I’ve been there. You’ll cherish and savor the family time you have, and you’ll not squander a minute of it. But you will be moving forward, and you won’t have to do it by being a complete fraud.

Now there’s the issue of your wife’s dream of being a stay-at-home mom. Even if you keep your present job, raising your planned four children on your income alone is likely to be very challenging. You and she may be willing to sacrifice having convenient and pleasurable things, but your kids will need things not even invented yet, in order to make their way in a world not even dreamed of yet. They will need an education that will give them the ability to be flexible and adaptable in a world where change is accelerating. That will cost.

Look at the numbers honestly and realistically, income versus expenses, and then try to do the impossible: Add on the expenses of things you can’t predict. If you and your wife can anticipate the need for a second income instead of waiting until all the utility bills are printed in red, it will be easier. If it looks like it will be necessary, your wife may be able to find work that she can perform at home, or after the first child is a toddler, you may have to use a day care service, or get help with child care from a family member or neighbor.

One of the most important problems I can foresee is the possibility of resentment growing between the two of you. You will need to be continually openly and lovingly sharing your thoughts, hopes, fears, and disappointments. Disappointment left to itself breeds resentment.

Despite your wife being supportive of you examining your beliefs, she may be disappointed about your loss of faith, the consequent eventual leaving of your present ministry job, and the consequent need for her to work at least part time. That last consequence, as I said, may be necessary anyway, but she may see it as a direct result of your atheism.

Resentment is not always instantly swept away by logical examination of the facts, so the two of you will need to discuss these things at length several times, focusing on long-term goals that aim for the best possible benefit for all concerned, not just your or her short-term needs and desires.

Thomas, you are lucky to have a wife who is supportive and understanding, and she is lucky to have a husband who has integrity, even if right now that’s causing a snag in your original plan. While being a man who holds on to your principles may cause the two of you some difficulty now, it may preserve your marriage in the long run. Men who too easily compromise their principles can also too easily compromise their vows. Aim for the long goal. In the end, you’ll be a good professional, a good provider, a good husband, and a good role model for your kids.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • A BA in Preaching and Bible may not land you your dream job in nanotechnology or bioengineering but don’t sell yourself short. Assuming you have good people skills and are proficient with computers, you may be able to get an equal-paying (equal benefits) job in a totally unrelated field (perhaps even tangent to bioengineering). Then as Richard says, you could adopt a 3rd way to further your education to work towards the position you really want. Life is a journey. You don’t have to have it all figured out before you start.

  • littlejohn

    Look, life sucks. Deal with it. I’m a socialist who has a journalism degree. Despite what the wackos on Fox tell you, most media outlets are very conservative. I’ve written crazy right-wing editorials for newspapers I hated working for. I’m unemployed now. I would love to have a job, even if it were for some nutbag bunch like The Wall Street Journal. Just take their money and laugh (quietly) all the way to the bank. Very few people actually love what they do for a living. That’s why they call it “work.”

  • Jude

    I led Sunday school singing for a couple of years as an open atheist–open, that is, to the minister. When you’re raised in a fundamentalist church, you know all the right words to say, so I treated it like an acting job. I also knew a minister who was an atheist. He never felt it was hypocritical to don robes and spout nonsense each Sunday, although I’m not sure why. I know that he loved the Bible and loved teaching about it even after he lost his faith. I love singing and the Bible, so it worked for me for awhile. Anyway, you both have degrees. You can keep the insurance until the baby comes, then work as substitute teachers if nothing else until you figure things out.

  • GribbleTheMunchkin

    First thing to do might be to re-evaluate the 4 kids.

    With yourself in a good job, supporting 2 kids will be hard. With 4 you will have to be in a really good job or you will have to compromise on them (only some get to go to college, etc).

    Secondly, you have the moral aspect of large families, one of the things that i find most abhorrent in religion. The world is massively over-populated already. Having more than 2 children because you want to won’t ruin the world, but if everyone thinks like that we are looking at further massive population increases. The majority of the worlds most pressing issues, energy, food, water, land, economy, jobs, education are due to over crowding. Having smaller families might be a more sensible and more moral choice.

  • Trace

    “…there are some problems with your original ten year plan.”

    I’ll say. Richard offers excellent advice.

    My wife and I homeschool our son and more often than not have had to survive on one salary (it can be tough). I now work part time from home but for a while, not too long ago, I taught evening classes in a nearby community college.

    I don’t know how things are in your state, but here in NY you can open a home based day care center. Would that be an option for you and your wife? My niece did that for a while when her children were little, it allowed her to make some money while staying at home. Just a suggestion.

    Good luck.!

  • Becky

    Have you thought about finding a Unitarian church? The minister in one of the ones nearby is an out atheist, yet still does sermons, weddings, etc.

  • ursulamajor

    I agree about the children. It sounds as if you plan on having them in pretty quick succession. Maybe you could wait for a few years before you have more. That way you could have some financial wiggle room with getting more education.

  • ATL-Apostate

    Harsh as it sounds, I would put the “4 kids” thing on hold indefinitely until you have a secure means to provide for that many kids.

    A colleague of mine makes ove $200k, has 5 girls, and it is a challenge for him to get by financially. He’s not on food stamps, and his kids don’t go without food and shelter, mind you, but he drives a 20year old car and they rarely go on vacation. Raising 4 kids on a youth minister’s salary, in this day and age, is not realistic – unless you want to “live off the land” like the Amish or something.

  • Jamie

    I think you need to discuss your options and family plan with your wife. You won’t get far without her help, insight and love.

    That might make the question of your personal beliefs a whole lot harder, but if you can’t honestly face these issues with her, you’ll face them without her, trust me.

    I totally agree with Richard on that point.

  • Lynne

    I think the home daycare is a really great suggestion for you. My mom stayed home with 4 kids, until my youngest brother was about 1 and my parents realized their financial situation was not sustainable. My mom then ran a home day care until all the kids were in school, when she went back to work. A lot of her daycare clients were neighbors who went on to become close family friends, and my brother is still best friends with one of the boys my mom used to watch. Since your wife wants four of them, I am guessing she loves kids, so this might not even feel like a “job” for her. And it could be good for your kid too, to get some regular social interaction.

  • Stephanie

    You wouldn’t be the first or the last atheist who preaches/ministers in a church. There are many who do, who have either lost their faith or like you, decided to preach for the money. My suggestion is to do what you got to do to keep your head afloat but start looking at an alternative career immediately.

    FYI: Dan Dennett is doing a research project regarding 6 ministers/priests/bishops who are non-believers but still hold positions in a church. They are in the closet, so to speak and their names will not be released in the research info. It will be interesting to see the results.

  • Mark

    When you work in a side show you don’t have to believe that the alligator girl is an actual alligator. You work there to make a profit. That’s what religions do, acquire and maintain wealth and political power. Soak them for all their worth and laugh your way to the bank.

  • Nancy

    Go and get your engineering/science degree ASAP! In parts of the country, the economic engine seems to be powered by churches. People leave technical or management positions to become preachers. That is not good for our future!

  • Amy

    I am in a situation similar to the one Jeff spoke of – I have a degree in psychology but got a job working in a financial institution as a loan officer. Another coworker of mine has a degree in biology. My employer hires people who have ‘college degrees’ – they really don’t care in what, they just care that you’ve shown that you have the determination and drive to stick with it and get that degree.

    Our pay is decent and we have great benefits, so I stick with it for now even though I do eventually have plans to pursue another line of work. Another plus with my employer – they will reimburse employees for any college classes they take provided they pass the course. It has to be somewhat related to the financial industry, but that encompasses a whole lot.

    I also like the idea of a home daycare – there is decent money to be had there while also providing your wife the opportunity to stay home with your kids.

    Best wishes for all of it. I personally cannot imagine working as a minister, especially when it involved lying to small children.

  • muggle

    First of all, don’t have kids you can’t afford. Seriously. WTF? I agree that it’s disgusting to have more than two with the world already overpopulated but if you must insist on being selfish at least wait until you can provide for them. Or is your sense of entitlement that out of wack? Trust me, I know shit happens even when you think you can well afford them but you’re even admitting you can’t. #1’s a done deal but you shouldn’t even be thinking about any more when you don’t even know how you’re going to take care of this one.

    Secondly, “your wife wants” Are you totally whipped or what? She doesn’t get to decide what you do for a living. I’m sorry she just does not get to dictate that to you. As long as you’re earning (and sorry but this may mean you can’t go to school yet) and paying your part of things and presumably doing something legal, you get to pick your career. Anyone who thinks I’m being harsh, turn it around. What would you think of the man dictating what his wife did for a living? Same difference unless you’re totally sexist against men.

    And so what she wants to be a stay-at-home mom? I don’t care. She’s got baby number one to think about. She doesn’t get that option when she’s got that mouth to feed. And she does. Stamping her little foot about staying home and sexistly demanding that her husband bring home the bacon doesn’t releive her of her responsibility to that child. Ever.

    I would disagree about automatically saying go to school at night while putting all that on the wife’s shoulders. If she agrees fine, but if she doesn’t want to be like a single mom when she’s married, well, you made your bed sleep in it. You only get to go to school at night if she’s willing or if you can make some other arrangement. Too bad, too sad but baby comes first.

    I’m amazed at the number of people who think it’s okay to go ahead and promote the evil that is religion. Has anything done greater harm in this world than religion? Might as well advise pushing dope. There’s a reason he’s feeling guilty for preaching. He should.

    Frankly, I’m not optimistic about this couple’s survival as a couple. They both seem more concern with what they want than what’s best for the family. And like they’re trying to fill that void between them with kiddies who don’t deserve to be created as a stopgap to distract mommy and daddy from not looking at the fact that they’re not jiving as a couple.

  • I’d consider going for a master’s degree rather than a second bachelor’s. You can finish in 1 – 2 years and give yourself a perfectly respectable, marketable set of letters for your resume.

    But even without one, you can usually get a job with a B.A. in just about anything. Try looking at the administrative/secretarial positions at your local hospital. Those typically pay well and offer benefits.

    As far as the other three (hypothetical) kids go, postpone that dream for now. You’ve just graduated from college–you have lots of time. And frankly, four kids in (quick calculations… ten years minus five years…) FIVE YEARS? That’s a recipe for turning you both crazy. But if you’re willing to space them that closely anyway, you have even more time to produce the other three.

    (And do realize that your ideal number of children may well change after this one arrives!)

    Going back to school with kids is hard. Good luck.

  • @ muggle: But what about teh MENZ? Really? Aside from your logic flaws and blatantly sexist attitude, it seems that you have a complete misunderstanding of the situation. I hate to tell you this, but I’m pretty sure it directly says in the letter to Richard that his wife is “very supportive.” Both members of the couple have dreams and aspirations, and both deserve consideration. It’s not “sexist against men,” it’s advice that applies to a couple. And don’t you dare tell me asking this guy if he’s “whipped or what” isn’t sexist, or that the wife “wanting” certain things is an attempt to control her husband’s career—again, they’re a couple, and they have each other to consider.

    That being said…

    I like the idea of night classes, but as someone who works three part time jobs and goes to college full time, I know it’s a bitch to keep up with. So I would suggest staying where you are until you can secure another job, and then move as quickly as possible, and then go from there. I would bet that once your mind is more at ease with the work you do, you would be more able to deal with the added burden of further education and such.

    I also agree that both members of the couple will have to make sacrifices, but that both will get at least part of what they ultimately wanted. That way, they can’t resent each other. Good for you that your wife is willing to work with you and is supportive of your plight. Good luck.

  • prospera

    I agree with Rebecca. You CAN get a job in other areas with a BA. Have you considered a government job at the local, state, or federal level? Some jobs may even have a program to pay for your additional education.

    Also, I disagree with a comment above about always putting your family before yourself. Of course your family is very important, but you also should not be expected to be a martyr. Life is a balancing act. And sometimes, you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help your loved ones with theirs.

  • Steven

    I suspect that once baby #1 arrives this couple may reconsider their plan to have four children. Love might be infinite but time and resources are not.
    Teaching sounds like a promising option for a career change. I’m unsure what the pay and benefits are like for teachers in the U.S. (they are pretty good in Canada at around $50,000 to start plus healthcare, pension, etc.). I also think running a home daycare would help the wife to make a financial contribution while being a stay-at-home mom. It would also help her determine if she really wants four kids of her own. I wish this couple the best of luck in creating a plan that works for both of them.

  • Elzigzag

    Look, life sucks. Deal with it. …..Just take their money and laugh (quietly) all the way to the bank. Very few people actually love what they do for a living. That’s why they call it “work.”

    Ha ha ha. That’s what I call practical counselling. I loved the “laugh (quietly) all the way to the bank” part. Oh man! That was really fun.

  • Marshmellow

    Here are a few options:
    1. Become an Anglican Priest – Most of the Church of England vicars don’t believe in the Ressurection or the Virgin Birth.
    2. Get into sales. After all your current position is sales and marketing of god.
    3. Do what most atheist preachers do – if referring to the Bible use the term Jesus and if referring to your own opinion use the term God.

  • muggle

    Sexist, fucking how, exactly, Beth? Because I dare say women don’t get to put themselves before men any more than men get to put themself before women. Ideally, it should be a goddamned partnership.

    But, frankly, they’re both fucking children, having children just because…

    Of course, Steven’s right. They might consider that when they find out the hard way that kids are something more than playthings.

    I’ll say it again, I doubt very much this couple is going to last. They’re both too self-centered.

    And people there’s a difference between being a martyr and pulling together as a family. Damned it’s sad you don’t realize that.

  • Thomas

    Hey everyone,

    Thanks for all your thoughts and ideas, I really do appreciate them. My wife and I are talking about a lot of the ideas y’all threw around. I feel a lot better being able to get some advice.

    Muggle, you are one of the most pleasant people I ever met. It’s nice to know there are people out there who really care about others like you do. It’s so great to know there is someone out there who knows so much about the maturity and relationship between two people she never met before. God bless you 😛

  • Bill Green

    Or he could become a Humanist Celebrant.

    Hatches Matches and Despatches and also offering support and promoting Humanism/Atheism at the same time. The 60% or more of the US population who are not ‘religious’ need support mechanisms and public recognition of life event.

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