The Wizard is Us:

When your Supreme Being turns out to be an illusion, you have to choose whether to keep it going or look for the nearest exit. What to do?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

A friend once expressed surprise that I would leave the Christian faith if my experience was largely positive. Not only was I devoted as a follower of Jesus, but I even had a few years of experience in various kinds of ministry, most of which were positive as well.

So why on earth would I leave it? Ironically, it was that very devotion to my faith which finally led me out of it entirely. I left at least in part because I had a Wizard of Oz moment.

To be precise, it wasn’t one single moment. It was a painfully slow process of realizing that the Big Giant Head calling the shots and making everyone tremble was really just a guy behind a curtain, pulling levers, pushing buttons, and speaking into a microphone to keep up a good show.

You have to be standing in the right place to even see that. And like Dorothy, those of us who have held leadership positions should know as well as anyone else that this whole thing is rigged for dramatic effect.

Peeking behind the curtain

A whole host of people live behind this curtain, pulling levers and pushing buttons to keep the mirage of a Big Giant Head commanding the rest of us, inspiring us with awe, and generally “running” Oz. The biggest difference here is that these people are unaware that if they were to quit doing what they are doing, the Big Giant Head would practically disappear.

Most of them labor under the belief that they truly are serving the Big Giant Head and that if they were to quit, two things would happen: 1) He would be disappointed with them, and 2) He would somehow get along just fine without their work. That’s what makes these folks different from the charlatan after whom the book and film are named. Except for a few notable exceptions, they just don’t know what they’re doing.

But once in a while, a funny thing happens to a person in ministry. Like Dorothy and her friends, you get to see behind the curtain. You expected to see something magical, something wondrous, something unexplainable. But instead you just see a guy standing there, operating machinery.

You find out we are the ones doing these things. We keep it going, and if we were to stop propagating it, it would go away almost entirely.

I’m sure someone would eventually replace the Big Giant Head with something similar because, frankly, it works. It’s a time-honored technique for maintaining order. But surely there are better ways of governing the behavior of societies?

People who spend their entire lives in the pew watching the leadership do their thing may never have a moment like this. It is possible to go through life watching the show, never realizing how these things come together and evolve. Things just seem to magically happen and they almost always fall right in line with what you were taught to expect from the Big Giant Head.

But those of us who have pressed in further, studying the Bible, studying Christian history, studying for ministry, and experiencing multiple church environments should know better. We have seen the kind of work that goes into making these things happen, and the magic is generally lost on us.

The view from the stage

In much the same way, I’ve seen how beliefs form. I’ve witnessed theological developments happening in real time, right under my nose. I’ve observed with my own eyes the dynamic wherein groups of people come to believe something, and it grows and codifies into dogmatic assertion.

Any student of history can do the same thing, really, but religious leaders in particular have a front-row seat to this phenomenon. In fact, they have a better vantage point than that: They themselves are on the very stage whereupon these things happen.

I read somewhere that when preachers retire they rarely stay active in church. The most obvious reason for this is that it’s hard to go from being in charge to just sitting there, listening, while somebody else does what you used to do. Talk about having to quiet your inner critic!

But there’s something else going on here, too. By the time a minister reaches retirement age, he or she knows too well what goes into making a church run, and it’s virtually impossible to just sit back and be spellbound by the magic of religious theater. It’s lost on them. They’ve had their Wizard of Oz moment, and there’s no going back.

The whole religious enterprise is the same show writ large on the pages of history, but not everyone is ready to see that. For many, that’s just too big and too costly an intellectual step to take. But for me it wasn’t so difficult. Having pressed as deeply into the mysteries of my faith as I could, I got far enough into it to see that there’s a guy behind the curtain, and he’s us.

But what do you do now? What happens when the minister is the one who no longer believes the stuff he or she is supposed to be preaching? What then?

Finding help after you leave

This happens way more often than you think. When you’ve built your whole life on an idea like this, like Steven Covey said it’s like you’ve climbed a ladder to find it was leaning against the wrong wall.

Once you’re up there, it’s easier to just stay up there and make the best of it. But what if you can’t? What if the show is too much for you to fake? Most ministers, when threatened with the loss of everything they have come to hold dear, cannot make that last step. The cost is just too high. The drop is entirely too far down, and you may not even survive the fall. Something will almost certainly be broken.

At times like these, you need somebody to call. And who you gonna call? The Clergy Project, that’s who.

I know from experience that the “fall from grace” can be devastating, and the consequences can be rough. But there are hundreds—maybe even thousands of people out there struggling with the same conundrum, and they need a network of supporters they can talk to about their challenges.

They need a listening ear, and maybe some wise advice about how (and how not) to go about wrestling with their difficulties. I believe I can elucidate from experience several things not to do. But even that is helpful, isn’t it? It seems that what people like them (and me) need most is a way to connect to each other so that we are not alone in our trials. So if you’re in a situation like I’ve described, maybe you should drop these folks a note.

Dorothy didn’t do it alone. Neither should you.

Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...