(RNS) This Easter, Teresa MacBain will mark an anniversary that’s uncommon for an ordained minister — her first year as an atheist.
Last March, MacBain, now 45, stood at a podium before hundreds of people in a Maryland hotel ballroom at the national convention of American Atheists and told them that, after a lifetime as a Christian and 15 years as a pulpit pastor, she had lost her faith.
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Her coming out was national news, and she expected it would cost her her position as pastor of a United Methodist church, and she expected she might lose some friends and family members. In the last year, she has lost all those things.
But there have been gains, too, including a new career, the embrace of a new community that she had been taught to distrust and a newfound sense of confidence.
This week, on the day the old Teresa MacBain would have marked as Good Friday, she will return to the American Atheists convention, in Austin, Texas, to deliver a talk she describes as “a road map of the last 12 months.”
If there are any pastors there who find themselves perched on the edge of going public with their own loss of faith as she did, she will have some advice to give them.
“Go for it, but be prepared,” MacBain said from her home in Tallahassee, Fla. “They should be prepared for unexpected love and acceptance from the freethought community and they should be prepared for the worst from friends and family and people you would have never imagined.
“They need to have their mind ready ahead of time to look for the small pieces of joy and the small victories and hold on to them because that is what will get them through.”
There have been many such small joys and victories in the last year, MacBain said. Chief among them is the acceptance she found in the local freethought community — atheists, humanists and other nonbelievers — after her former church fired her and locked her out of the building.
“The freethought community just wrapped its arms around us,” she said. “Not just me, but my whole family.”
That includes her two adult sons and her husband, who is still a Christian and stood by MacBain through her change of heart. He has become a regular at weekly freethought meetings where she said his beliefs are respected.
There has been a broader acceptance, too. Not long after coming out, MacBain was hired by American Atheists as communications director — a job she loved, but had to give up when her husband couldn’t find a job near the group’s headquarters in New Jersey. MacBain returned to Tallahassee earlier this year and is now the executive director of the Humanists of Florida Association, which has about 500 members.
While she no longer believes in the divinity of Jesus, she has not lost faith in what she calls “the philosophy of Christ.” Leaving religion does not mean she has left morality, she said. She still adheres to the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule and other moral teachings common to many world religions.
And she has found a new way to use her pastoral skills in the phone calls and emails she receives from people who have also lost their faith but are afraid to openly acknowledge it. “They say, ‘I heard your story and I am in a rough spot and I don’t know what to do.’ I am really happy that I am able to help them. That is part of the reason I became a pastor.”
Catherine Dunphy is the executive director of The Clergy Project, a support network for pastors who are questioning or have lost their faith and may be looking to transition out of a religious environment. She called MacBain a successful example to the project’s 425 members.
“It is a big upheaval,” Dunphy said. “She had to make a space for herself. It is not just a change of career, it is a change of lifestyle and there is grieving that goes hand in hand with it.”
MacBain knows that all too well. For almost every gain, there has been a loss. The biggest, for her, has been the many friendships she lost, some decades long.
“I don’t think anybody is ever prepared for that,” she said. “It is something I still deal with. When you care for somebody, the caring doesn’t go away because they have removed themselves from your life. That does not happen. Those have been very hard things for me.”
Another low: the emails, messages and phone calls from people who wish her harm. Anonymous people have threatened her with violence and rape.
“I had to shut down one of my email accounts because I could not stand to open it anymore,” she said. “I was a mess.”
And when she lost her faith, she also lost the tools with which she managed her life.
“For me, religion was everything, my entire world,” she said. “All my friendships, connections, family, all the places I went to deal with difficulties, to do good works, to find resources to raise kids — everything was contained within that environment. I miss that social connectivity, that network.”
Now, she said, she is reassembling that sense of connectivity in the freethought community. She travels to speak to atheist, humanist and other nontheistic groups nationwide, sharing her story.
“In the past, everything I accomplished I felt was a gift from God,” she said. “But I have learned that those things are actually who I am and skills I have, not something that has been mystically appointed to me.”
And that, she said, is something she does not expect to lose.