Deconversion Stories: Richard Thrift. LCMS Lutheran pastor.

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Richard A. Thrift



The road from religious entrenchment to freedom has been one hell of a journey, pardon the pun. I pastored churches belonging to Lutheran Church-Canada and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod for 20 years. Besides receiving a Diploma in Theology from Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharine’s, Ontario (1984) and a M.Div. degree from Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana, (1988) I also received a B.Th. (1980) from Ontario Bible College, Toronto (now Tyndale University College & Seminary). Before that, I attended Elim Bible Institute, Lima, New York (1973-1975).

I grew up in Middlesex county, Virginia, in a small community called—I kid you not—Christ Church. You had to drive real slow to appreciate how small it was as the “Welcome” and “Come Again!” signs were back-to-back. My family was Southern Baptist in background. (Now, you’re probably wondering, “How did a SBC guy become a Lutheran?” Well, pull up a chair and I’ll tell you.) You can’t grow up in the south and not be influenced by the SBC. My maternal grandfather was a lay preacher and I have memories of him preaching from the pulpit when the church couldn’t afford a regular minister. My father’s people were SBC as well, but they weren’t as invested. My paternal great-grandfather was excommunicated from the local SBC church for dancing…among other things. And my paternal grandfather would always pull out a bottle of whiskey when the minister visited just to get on the holy man’s nerves. So even though I grew up in the Bible Belt, it wasn’t quite the buckle.

As a child and a teenager I was involved in the church just like all the other kids in the county. In those days the only distraction we had was the local movie theater which was open on Sunday night, much to the chagrin of church leaders. There was no internet and we only got three channels on a black and white TV.

Then the day came when I got my driver’s license. (Remember when you got yours?) A whole new world opened up. I kept one foot in the church and the other on the move. I taught the senior men’s bible study on Sunday morning after partying Saturday night. (No big deal, they slept through most of it anyway.)

One thing lead to another and by my late teens I was dealing in drugs. I had some funny things happen during that period, but I’ll same them for another time. To shorten the story, I went to a Christian rehab program in Hampton, Virginia (1972). Proclaim Center, just like Teen Challenge, focused on substituting one addiction for another: drugs for god. So after repeating “coca-cola, coca-cola, coca-cola” a bazillion times, I received the gift of the Holy Spirit, feathers and all, as Luther put it. And I was free—”Free at last” from the bondage of Satan and drug addiction. Ha.

From Proclaim Center I went to Elim Bible Institute. There I met the woman I would marry, a Canadian. (God may have delivered me from drugs, but he couldn’t find a way to control my hormones.) Elim comes from the Finney, revivalist, fundamentalist, Pentecostal Holiness, Charismatic tradition. But while other students were having visions, dreams, and ecstatic experiences, I wasn’t getting any of that stuff. I wondered if something was wrong. Maybe god didn’t like me after all. So I focused on the intellectual, academic stuff.

Maybe god can be found in—DOCTRINE.

And that’s where I discovered Lutheranism. When it comes to doctrine, Lutherans, especially conservative, Missouri Synod types, have got a monopoly. Lutherans are so doctrinal, if Martin Luther came to one of their churches, they would nail him to the church door as a heretic. But doctrine made me feel secure. In Myers-Briggs language, I’m an INTJ (actually, I’m borderline N and S, which explains my personality disorder), and we INTJ types like security. Doctrine made me feel secure. It also made me stupid.

Speed up a few light years, an immigration to Canada, a marriage, two children, a neurotic Chesapeake Bay retriever and a Lutheran church that’s schizophrenic. While I pastored a church in Mississauga, Ontario, my wife threatened to end our marriage because of the conservatism of the LCMS. After about six months of sleeping in the guest bedroom, we compromised. She joined a Lutheran church belonging to those tree-hugging, tofu eating, liberals in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, sister/brother church body to the ELCA. In the Kitchener-Waterloo area, there is a seminary which she decided to enroll, with the goal to become an ordained minister in that church body.

You can imagine the eyebrows rising among my LCMS brethren. Thankfully… or not, a church in Kitchener was seeking a pastor. Their one and only minister for 25 years was retiring. (I can feel you pastors shuttering as you read this.) To add disaster to calamity, the minister I was to follow preached on the dangers of “My Little Pony,” spoke in tongues and declined any improvements to the parsonage during his tenure. 25 YEARS!

To provide a sense of security to my children and my dog, I took the call to Kitchener so my wife could go to seminary. First thing I did at the parsonage was to put the doors back on the hinges. First thing I did at the church was reintroduce the liturgy. First thing the congregation did was look for other churches to attend.

During this time, somewhere in the deep recesses in my mind, I began to doubt. Upon my wife’s insistence, I took a course or two at WLS and discovered there where two creation stories. Fancy that. After all those years of Christian education, but there, in black and white, two creation stories. Oh, yes, and don’t forget the flood s-t-o-r-i-e-s. The more I learned, the more questions entered my mind.

My years at the Kitchener church didn’t improve things between my wife and myself nor with the congregation. In 2004, I called it quits with everything and returned to the USA to lick my wounds. I wondered why, why is this happening? I’m not a bad person. Where’s the god who did great things for everyone else? I suspect I got the same answer everyone else on The Clergy Project received: nothing.

When 9/11 happened people wondered why would a good god allow that to happen? The same question was raised in 2004, with the Indian Ocean tsunami and again with hurricane Katrina, Columbine, Sandy Hook, not to mention the Holocaust of World War II and all the holocausts and inquisitions down through the ages. I remember one church member saying he prayed god would give him a parking spot close to a mall entrance and god answered his prayer. At the time I thought, yeah, about the same time someone died from starvation somewhere in the world. God of the parking spot. That’s what faith boils down to for some people.

For some years after I left the ministry, I held on the hope there must be a god and I’m just in some wilderness. Still, my mind argued there is no god. It just took a bit longer for my feelings to catch up.

And they did after I finished reading Losing My Religion by William Lobdell. Lightening didn’t strike Lobdell when he realized there is no god. In fact, Lobdell seems to be all the happier because he has thrown off the shackles of religion. Then I read Dan Barker’s book, Godless. Another person, even more entrenched in religion, who walked away from faith and turned to reason. No scratch marks on him either. So on January 21, 2013, I became a born again human. I let go of god and lightening didn’t strike me either. I mourn the loss of years invested in wishful believing, but I can put the remainder to make this word a better place without imposing religion.

In Albert Camus’ book, The Fall, the character, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, says, “Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful.” It’s daunting leaving everything you’ve thought true…your whole world view. You truly are in a wilderness, but you are not alone and our days need not be dreadful. The Clergy Project can and will provide comradely and emotional support. That’s why I’m here and I encourage you to join others who have gone through similar experiences.

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