Reader: I am a layperson (not an ordained member of the clergy) working for a religious nonprofit that requires its employees to be members of the faith in good standing and to provide a reference from our clergy to prove it. In the past year, I have lost my faith and no longer practice the religion. I love my job and would stay if I could. But my status is up for review soon, and when it is discovered that I no longer attend services, I will be immediately terminated. According to policy, I could be terminated today if it were discovered. I had hoped to find another job before now, but I haven't yet.
If I quit, I might not qualify for unemployment. If I wait until my reference expires, I will be fired, and I don't know how to justify that to prospective employers. If I tell my boss sooner, I may be fired on the spot. Part of me thinks the company should have to deal with the consequences of its draconian policy, though I realize those consequences will fall mostly on my immediate co-workers, who will be left with my unfinished projects. How do I handle this?
Karla: It’s hard to believe any organization can afford to dismiss a good employee who is devoted to the mission, regardless of how you spend your day of rest. But under a doctrine called the “ministerial exception,” courts have generally ruled that if an employer “is an extension of the church and it is clear that adopting or adhering to the church’s mission or doctrine is part of the job, the organization can insist upon it as a condition of employment,” says employment lawyer James P. Reidy of Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green.
So that’s the deal: Keep the faith, or lose the job. Confess now, or await the inevitable day of judgment.
In your situation, confession may be good for more than the soul; it could buy you time. Of course, much depends on your employer’s attitude toward human frailty.
Instead of announcing, “I’ve quit the church,” what if you were to confide privately to your boss that you’ve been having a crisis of personal faith? If you do this, management may be willing to leaven your organization’s “draconian” policy with mercy and grant you extra time to either reconsider or prepare your projects for handing off to your colleagues. A good-faith effort to avoid blindsiding your higher-ups may also net you a better professional reference for your job search. Finally, even if you are fired, you still stand a better chance of qualifying for unemployment benefits than if you quit (although laws vary by state).
Prospective employers can handle the truth, as long as you present it matter-of-factly and without bitterness: You loved the work, but when you parted ways with the religious traditions that work was based in, you had to leave the job.
For what it’s worth, I think your refusal to fake just enough piety to protect your paycheck is admirable, although it means you may never be an effective politician.
PRO TIP: The “ministerial exception” doctrine prevents certain employees of religious employers from suing for discrimination. See eeoc.gov/policy/docs/qanda_religion.html.