Continuing the conversation from before, I received this email from an atheist who worked for a church nursery. If you’d like to share your experience as an atheist in a Christian workplace, please shoot me an email.
When I was 16, I started working at a church nursery. At the time I was a junior in high school and I was still an ardent Christian. They started me as a floater and teaching assistant. I was put in whatever room needed the most help that Sunday or Wednesday. After a few months as a paid employee, I found out that the lead teacher in the 3-year-old room was leaving, so I was asked to be the lead teacher.
I left this church after 3 years of service still only making $7.50/hour when I knew that other churches paid their lead teachers at least $10. The congregation was in general very judgmental and unwilling to help in the nursery when we needed it. The quality of care went down because of this. So I got a different job working at a smaller church. This other church was closer to home, started me out at $10/hour, and the people were much nicer. Of course, by the time I took that job my problems became personal. I had been questioning my beliefs for a long time. Aside from the initial background check and the application I had to fill out, after working for about 6 weeks they handed me another form I had to fill out. This was the beginning of my personal problems with the job.
The first page of this form had you fill out the basics (name, number, address, etc.), but then at the bottom it had a long list of dogmatic claims and asked you to check any and all that you believed.
The second page was simply for you to list or explain what other ministerial work you’ve done, such as mission trips and the like. The last page was the one that surprised me. It was basically a questionnaire about which “sins” I had committed.
One question asked “Have you ever had a homosexual experience? Yes___ No___ If yes, please explain below:”
I didn’t see how this was relevant to my job at all. I’m bisexual, and at the time I was finally starting to accept that part of myself. I had had homosexual experiences before, but I was not about to tell that to my employers when it was none of their business. There were similar questions about smoking or drinking. It also had a question about pre-/extra- marital sex. I never turned in this form. In fact, I think I threw it away.
The first page was insulting to me, because it reduced what little beliefs I still had in Christianity to a mere checklist, and implied that if I don’t fit the whole checklist then I may not be fit to work there. The second page was insulting to me because it wouldn’t let me list any extra-curricular activities that weren’t specifically linked with church. I spent most of my time in high school in band, practicing, performing and helping teach the younger students, yet I could not use that teaching/leadership experience on the form. The last page, where I was asked to list and confess to “sins” that had nothing to do with my employment, was insulting and intrusive.
I worked for this church as the lead teacher in the 3-year-old room for almost three years. I loved teaching the children. The rest of my week I spent as a server at a restaurant or at school, so those kids were the highlight of my week. At this job, I was paid more, but I also had more responsibilities. I was in charge (mostly) of the curriculum. I put together the lessons for each Sunday morning and Wednesday night. I set the schedule for the day and put the crafts and snacks together. I had to stay a few weeks ahead so I could list my supplies for my boss. I also had to keep up with the bulletins (inside and outside the class) and attendance. When a child hadn’t attended for three weeks, I would send a letter to their parents. It was a lot of work but I still loved it… until I stopped believing.
It had been a long time coming. Over the course of my 3 years there, I went from liberal Christian to deist to agnostic to atheist. The last year there was the hardest. I felt trapped and alone. I didn’t tell anybody I was an atheist — no friends or family, not even my boyfriend. I had spirited, anonymous, debates online. I had always loved debating, and I had been debating Christianity and belief in god since I was about 11 or 12, but now I was on the other side.
Every day I worked there felt like a lie. At first, I tried to hide it by diving deeper into the work. I would come up during the week and work on lessons, months in advance. I would come up with intricate crafts and games to teach the kids. I always tried to find a way to link the Bible story to real life problems. I started almost completely omitting god, even in the songs we sang. One particular lesson that stands out in my memory was the one I taught of Moses’ sister watching over him while he was floating down the river in the reed basket. The curriculum I worked from wanted me to stress that god watches over them the same way Miriam watched over Moses, but it didn’t feel genuine to me. The kids can puppet-talk about god if you prompt them, but that day I changed the discussion. I opened it with this question: Who looks after you and takes care of you?
The children’s answers were: mom, dad, my sisters, my brothers, my aunts, my uncles, grandma and grandpa, my teachers. I just smiled and we had a long discussion about how each person looks after them. This was one of the first times I had changed the lesson to talk about their daily life instead of the abstract concept of god. The children loved it and I felt better. I had been torturing myself for months. When I first became an atheist, I was angry about the indoctrination that I had been put through as a child. I was just like these 3-year-olds. I didn’t want to be a part of their indoctrination. What would they think of me if they grew up and shed their beliefs as well? Would they remember me as a kind and good teacher, or would they resent me for being a part of the system that indoctrinated them? What of the parents that I sent letters to for low attendance? Are they still believers? Would they think I was just trying to coerce them into coming back to church?
I couldn’t come out as an atheist to my boss though. She’s friends with my mother. She is possibly the nicest person I’ve ever met, so I don’t think she would have judged me or thought badly about me, but I knew she would tell my mother. I was not ready to have that conversation with my mother yet. I finally quit, but I was able to use school as an excuse. I was taking journalism classes and most of the work was done outside of class time, so I didn’t have time for two jobs. I still miss the kids, and I miss teaching. If I could work at a secular preschool and have time for school, I would do it. I count myself lucky that I got out when I was young. If I felt trapped at the age of 22 and it was just my part-time job, then how must a middle-aged pastor who’s never done anything else feel?
The advice I would give to those in this situation is to make the best of it while you’re there, but search for a way out. Find a friend or family member in whom you can confide. They can help you and lend support when you need it. Mine was my boyfriend. He knew what I was going through, since he had become an atheist while studying at a Bible college.
My advice for everybody else is to support the Clergy Project.