Ask Richard: Atheist Considers Chaperoning a Church Wilderness Trip May 9, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist Considers Chaperoning a Church Wilderness Trip

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I have been recently asked to chaperone a former pastor’s youth group canoeing wilderness trip. I do not attend his church but have always kept in contact with him after leaving the church of my youth because he is just plainly an excellent human being. He does not know that I am an atheist. I am however an avid outdoors woman who has a lot of youth wilderness tripping experience under my belt. The church background that I came from is very open and quite easy going, but I am afraid if I say yes I would be doing something wrong. The most important thing to me is that these youth come away with some appreciation and skills for the great outdoors. I would never dream of having my non-belief be involved with the trip as that may be considered a violation of the parents trust that are sending these kids under their church’s leaders guidance. Any advice?

Thank you!

Dear Janice,

You’re the wilderness expert, not the religion expert. Your job is to teach the kids how to not drown or get lost in the woods, and to instill in them a deep respect for nature in all its gentleness and brutality, its beauty and ghastliness, its fragility and strength.

In wilderness we are confronted with the fact that the universe not only doesn’t care about us, it isn’t even aware of us. Its utter mindlessness is what we find simultaneously so awesome and so fearsome. We add mindfulness to the world. In wilderness we make decisions that could be pivotal several times a day, so our minds should not be clouded by fearful thinking or wishful thinking.

So I think that the realism and rationalism that tends to come with atheism makes you all the more qualified for teaching the kids the skills and the understanding that they’ll need.

I wonder if the high regard that you still hold for the pastor might be making you feel guilty about not being fully open with him and letting him assume that you’re still a believer. If it bothers you, you could out yourself and take all the risks that go with it, but be clear that that would only be about your personal relationship with him.

There is no ethical reason for you to do so because your duties as wilderness expert would not involve your beliefs, and you are conscientious about keeping them separate. You would only be doing something wrong or unethical if your duties included any kind of religious instruction where your lack of belief would constitute hypocrisy. Whatever the pastor or the parents might assume about your personal beliefs is not your responsibility in this case.

The pastor will teach the kids how to save their souls, and you will teach them how to save their asses. Have a wonderful time, and help give them great life-long memories and valuable life-long lessons.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I agree that Janice’s participation in this trip shouldn’t be a problem, but she should carefully consider just how “open and easygoing” this church – and perhaps more importantly, the kids’ parents – really are. Will she be expected to participate in prayers or grace before meals? Will someone notice if she doesn’t chime in with an “amen”? Will there be awkward silences when someone talks about the wonders of God’s Creation? I hate to sound suspicious, but someone on the trip is bound to notice things like these, and there’s always the chance that a kid will tell his or her parents, and those parents might not be as “open and easygoing” about having an atheist on a youth group trip. Again, it shouldn’t be a problem, if Janice will indeed only be expected to teach wilderness skills and not religion, but that doesn’t mean it won’t.

  • Nursejohio

    “The pastor will teach the kids how to save their souls, and you will teach them how to save their asses.”

    This. Exactly this. I would, as someone on fb mentioned, be concerned about if there were spiritual aspects to the trip though. Will there be prayers for a safe journey down the river, mealtime grace, or general “don’t let a bear eat us” that she’ll either have to fake or be outed by?

    If the pastor really does come from an open type church and is a ‘good even with god’ person, I’d think a private meeting before the trip would be beneficial. If he is a respectable person, OP will still be able to teach the youth safety in the wild and not have to worry about a mid-trip call out for not praying with the group, or feeling a hypocrite for going.

  • Laura

    I must also respectfully disagree, Richard. This exact same situation happened to me 20 years ago when I was asked to be a camp counselor by the youth coordinator at my parents’ church. She knew I no longer attended church, but didn’t know why. She probably figured it was because I was away at college most of the year. I didn’t think my atheism would be a big deal.

    But it sure was. My refusal to participate in an altar call got me drummed out of the camp after just two nights.

    Janice, my advice to you would be to ask some VERY pointed questions up front about what the spiritual aspects of the camp will be, and whether you will be responsible for leading any of them, or expected to participate in them. And what the consequences will be if you refuse for any reason. You don’t have to give them a reason, of course, but just telling them you might respectfully decline might be enough for the pastor.

  • ewan

    Even if the OP and her former pastor were completely OK with each others’ beliefs there’s the risk of the children asking questions – what do you do if you’re showing them something and one asks why god made it that way? Do you say he didn’t, lie, or stare at your shoes and mumble a bit?

    I can’t see a good way out of a situation like that, and it sounds like the sort of thing that’s going to come up on a church nature trip.

  • There ARE secular summercamps and other wilderness programs to take part in. I couldn’t spend any time in a Christian program. Religion spoils everything it touches, imho.

  • Nakor

    @ewan: That’s a good point; certainly something to consider beforehand. Perhaps the best response there is to simply ignore the word God, and try to explain why something is the way it is in more naturalistic terms. (For example, if the child asks why God made plants green, you can give a brief explanation of — depending on age — either chlorophyll, or just ‘green stuff that sucks up sunlight’.)

  • Janice,

    Since you no longer go to that church and since the pastor asked you to chaperone the trip, I would assume that the pastor is really looking to you as a naturalist/safety guide and nothing more. I would communicate to him that you will be happy to serve in the role as a naturalist/safety guide but you will defer all questions of religion to other active members in the church. Then if any questions come up on the trip, you have a way out in deferring any religious discussions to someone else. You can just say “I’m here as your nature guide, not your religion guide”. You will probably find that the kids are having so much fun being out in nature that they will be content to enjoy nature on its own terms.

  • Kurt

    I think Jeff P’s advice is spot-on, assuming your friendship can handle him finding out about your atheism. You will need to have a ready response for the kids because rest assured – there will be “devotionals,” bedtime prayer circles, and general framing of the wilderness as God’s creation.

    Best base – the kids ask you intelligent questions and you have a spirited discussion about your beliefs as you experience the wilderness. Worst case – the kids go home and tell their parents about these discussions, and the parents proceed to nail the pastor’s balls to the church steeple and get him fired. This is why you must tell him in advance, and see if he is willing to risk it.

  • Parse

    I agree with Laura and Heliconia (and probably anybody else that agrees with them between the time I start writing this and actually post the response).

    The pastor, and any other adults going on the trip should at least be aware that Janice doesn’t want to participate in the religious aspects of the trip (if she doesn’t want to out herself entirely).
    What happens the first time some well-meaning parent asks her to lead prayer? Or one of the kids catches her silence when she should be ‘nodding along’ to prayers? The smart ones will notice; the smart troublemakers will poke at this.
    I think it would be beneficial for Janice to help out with the trip – she’ll act as the ‘trained professional’, and help kids get out, enjoy, and (hopefully) get hooked on nature. Also, there’s the stereotype-busting that such an act would perform (I don’t believe, but I’m willing to work with you for the above goals). She should just make sure that the pastor is okay with it as well.

  • Freemage

    Count me in with those who think Janice needs to have a chat with her pastor friend before accepting this responsibility. She should, honestly, take the opportunity to out herself if at all feasible, even while stressing, as she does in the letter, that her disagreement on the subject of faith in no way diminishes her regard for her friend as a person.

    Then, once that’s over, she could move on to a frank discussion of the job. Having been to some of these camps before, I’ll note that they vary widely in approach; some are essentially outdoor, month-long Sunday Schools, while others are more typical summer camping trips with a tendency to select religious songs for the campfire and a lodge-like church where everyone attends on Sunday morning, but little religious reinforcement beyond that.

  • I have a degree (and, as of this Friday, two degrees!) in youth ministry, so this question really caught my eye. Richard, I agree with your recommendation to Janice, and I would add the following, from the perspective of a youth worker:

    If you feel comfortable enough with the pastor, I would definitely tell him about your atheism. I can’t make any claims about how he will react, so like Richard said, you have to gauge that based on your own relationship. I just know that I would want to known this fact before doing something like asking you to lead in prayer, or to help guide small group discussion or something similar that would put you in an awkward position to either have to “fake it” or out yourself right there.

    That being said, I don’t even know if I would want you to remain “closeted,” if you were comfortable with others knowing about your atheism. If this church is as open and easygoing as you describe (side note: may I ask what denomination, if any, it is? If not, no worries!), the kids there most likely are not brainwashed or overly naive. They know that atheists exist. They probably have friends from school or the neighborhood who are atheists, or at the very least are agnostic/indifferent. While the primary adults I would seek out to help lead the group are Christians, I think it would be extremely helpful for them to see someone from a different faith/secular tradition in a positive leadership role. This whole “fear of the other” is what makes most Christians react the way they do to anything outside of their norm. They’ve never seen that there are good, upstanding citizens who aren’t from their faith background, and they don’t know how to process it.

    Ultimately, as Richard noted, this comes down to your level of comfort and relationship with the pastor. I can tell you that if I were the pastor in this situation, and you were a good friend who was as qualified as you seem to be in outdoor leadership, I would go to bat for you if there were concerns from parents or others within the church. I care about the kids in my congregation too much to let someone with less wilderness experience (i.e. myself) lead them into potentially dangerous situations just because I didn’t think they could handle interacting with someone with a different background. But if the pastor doesn’t know, then he can’t treat you with the respect you deserve, and will most likely unknowingly put you in an uncomfortable position at some point during the trip.

    I hope this helps. Again, if my assumptions about the open-mindedness of the pastor or the church are too generous, then that changes everything, but only you can be the judge of that in this situation. Good luck, and if you go, I hope you have an awesome time!

  • Robster

    Every churchy trip for the kiddies is planned as a reinforcement of the nonsense trotted out from the pulpit. The kiddies will be told that they’re in gawds own wilderness and that the fairy is looking after them in the form of a guide, yourself. Be careful about joining the chorus of supporters of the nonsense. You will by implication be supporting the warblings if the pastor, so be very careful. If he’s aware of your atheism, he may see the outing as an opportunity to get you back on board. Pastors and their ilk have one mission only, that is to con as many as possible in their fraudulent belief system to get more bums on pews and money in the tray. Could you live with yourself knowing that you may have assisted in this mission to prepare the kids for a life of guilt and death worship and the emptyness of faith? Suggest to the pastorly person that he allow you to take them to a real museum and teach ’em the joy of truth through science. then take them to Disneyland and show them a real fairy.

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