27 Sep 2013
Teresa MacBain

Teresa MacBain

Teresa MacBain made national headlines in 2012 by publicly declaring herself an atheist. What’s newsworthy about that, you ask? Her announcement made headlines because Ms. MacBain had been serving as a pastor to a United Methodist congregation in Florida prior to her “conversion.” So her story had shock value, and she embraced the celebrity that came her way as a result.

The American Atheists gave her the podium at their national convention (where she ridiculed the Christian belief in the afterlife). NPR did a sympathetic feature piece on her—which took care to emphasize the “hateful” response she received and the cold shoulder that church officials gave her upon her return from the Atheists Convention. She parlayed her media exposure into jobs as the executive director of the Humanists of Florida Association and as public relations director for the American Atheists. Heman Mehta of the Friendly Atheist Blog remarked on the “beautiful story” of MacBain’s journey to non-belief, and the Religion News Service did a lengthy piece marking the one year anniversary of her new life.

Humanist Community at Harvard logo_9-27-13The remarkable level of fame that Ms. MacBain had achieved seemed to be only increasing when it was announced that she would become the new director of the Humanist Community Project at Harvard University. She went from obscurity in the middle of Florida to being profiled in the New York Times.

That’s when things started crumbling. In fact, the NY Times article to which I’ve linked in the paragraph above is not the one you would have read when it first appeared on September 20th. The original article stated that Ms. MacBain earned a degree from Duke Divinity School. In talking about her service in the United Methodist Church, the story also made a comment identifying her as an ordained minister—I can’t reproduce the exact quote, unfortunately, as the original version of the story is no longer available online.

Interesting claims. Interesting, that is, in the sense that they are outright fabrications. I received an e-mail from Dean Richard Hays of the Divinity School at Duke yesterday which was distributed to faculty, staff, students, and alumni. In the e-mail, Dean Hays writes, “We have checked our records carefully, and confirmed that [Ms. MacBain’s] claim to have a Duke degree is fraudulent.”

Dean Hays goes on to write, “Here are the facts: Ms. MacBain attended one four-week session of our summer Course of Study program in 2010—i.e., year one of a five-year program designed to train licensed lay ministers. She did not return in subsequent summers to continue the program. She was never enrolled in our M.Div. program at any time. Ms. MacBain has subsequently acknowledged to the New York Times reporter that she misrepresented her credentials; she has done so in numerous other public venues.”

MacBain's profile on the Humanist Community at Harvard's website trumpeted her celebrity status

MacBain’s profile on the Humanist Community at Harvard’s website trumpeted her celebrity status

The Duke administration contacted the NY Times which led to the Times heavily redacting its profile of Ms. MacBain. The references to the Duke degree are gone in the new version of the story, although it still describes her as “the product of a divinity school.” That is unfortunate and misleading; the editors have included a note to the bottom of the article, but they should have taken out any reference to a divinity school entirely.

One sidenote: Because only the new version of the Times article is now available, I can’t be sure of the exact quote from the original version about her claims about ordination. I did, however, contact the Florida Annual Conference to inquire about MacBain’s claims to ordination. The response from the official who got back to me: “I can confirm that Teresa MacBain was never an Elder in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.” (For what it’s worth, the original NY Times article also referenced Ms. MacBain formerly patterning her life after a John Wesley “quote” which was—ironically enough—a common misquote that gets wrongly attributed to JW.) At any rate, the ordination claim certainly fits with Dean Hays’ comment about Ms. MacBain misrepresenting her credentials widely. The Religion News Service profile of her from last spring describes her as an “ordained minister” in the first line. If she was ordained at all, I can assure you that it was not in the United Methodist Church (which is unfortunately what the RNS story is suggesting by referring to her later in the story as “pastor of a United Methodist church”).

[Update: I have been given the original text of the NY Times article from a number of sources. The relevant paragraph reads as follows: “She tried to solve her dilemma — and answer God’s call — by earning a degree from Duke Divinity School and being ordained as a United Methodist minister in the early 2000s. She took her Christian mantra from the denomination’s co-founder John Wesley: ‘In the essentials, unity. In the nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.’” All three factual points in this quotation are false, as I explain in the comments section below.]

The New York Times' follow-up story on Sept. 26 reported on Duke Divinity School's challenge of Teresa MacBain's academic claims

The New York Times’ follow-up story on September 26th reported on Duke Divinity School’s challenge of Ms. MacBain’s academic claims

The results of all this coming to light have been predictable. The NY Times issued a completely new story yesterday covering Ms. MacBain’s deceptions. And later in the day, Humanist chaplain Greg Epstein released a statement saying that Ms. MacBain was no longer with the Humanist Community Project at Harvard. My guess is that her days as an atheist celebrity are over.

So why comment on this story at all? Is it to engage in a little Christian schadenfreude over the public humiliation of Teresa MacBain? No, it is not. I wanted to post this article for the following reasons, for anyone who cares to know:

  1. Ms. MacBain made false claims about her academic credentials to advance her career. She claimed to hold a Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School—an institution that, in addition to being one of the finest theological schools in the country, is also an official United Methodist seminary. The whole narrative of Ms. MacBain’s escape from the Christian faith that she so publicly trumpeted for 18 months implicitly indicts those communities and institutions of which she was a part. Since she was blatantly lying about much of it, the record should be set straight.
  2. Ms. MacBain also made false claims about ordination as a United Methodist minister. My guess is that she played on the public’s ignorance about how ordination actually works in a denomination like the UMC. That is, you can serve as a minister licensed by an annual conference to lead a congregation without going through either the academic or ecclesiastical processes to be ordained as an elder (or presbyter). But your licensure in such instances is of a very different kind than the office you would hold as member of the ordained clergy. (And this is why the district superintendent wouldn’t have been terribly interested in meeting with her following her address at the Atheists Convention—a comment presented in the NPR feature as indicative of those hard-hearted Christians and their narrow mindsets.) News reporters generally wouldn’t understand various levels of ecclesiastical office, for obvious reasons, so Ms. MacBain was able to pass herself off as whatever she wanted. She was lying about her ecclesiastical credentials just like she was about her academic credentials. Her claims allowed her (and the press) to put other institutions in a negative light and the facts deserve to be set straight.
  3. The media often depict the traditional Christian faith (and those who practice it) as backwards, hypocritical, unsophisticated, and unenlightened. When you read the various stories to which I’ve linked above, that’s the underlying narrative. I’m not surprised when I encounter it, even if it remains a frustrating bias in many media organizations. Those organizations can do what they want to do, obviously. But when they use a charlatan to advance that kind of perspective and the truth comes to light, it deserves to be pointed out broadly.

I am, as always, open to your comments and feedback.

31 Responses to Teresa MacBain: Setting the record straight
  1. Great article, Andrew. Thanks for helping to set the record straight on this matter.

  2. Excellent post Andrew. Thanks for bringing this to light.

  3. Per the Florida 2011 Journal, Macbain is listed as a Part-Time Local Pastor. Thus no degrees would be necessary to serve and likely wouldn’t be looked up by a DCoM or LLP coordinator.

  4. Timothy W. Whitaker September 27, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    While Ms. MacBain did not serve as licensed local pastor in the Florida Conference, I believe that she did serve as licensed pastor in the State of Florida in the Alabama-West Florida Conference.

    • Thank you for that comment, Bishop Whitaker. It is a bit confusing to me, though, because the NPR profile of Ms. MacBain suggests that she was serving as the pastor of Lake Jackson UMC in Tallahassee when she left the Christian faith. That was the reason I contacted the Florida Conference office to inquire about her ministry credentials. It is possible the NPR story was inaccurate, though, as it seems that many of the details included in the stories about Ms. MacBain are confused (and I know some of that may be from Ms. MacBain’s account of events and others may simply be confusions or inaccuracies on the part of the reporters).

    • Not to dispute, but she is listed as serving in the Florida Annual Conference in the 2011 Journal at Tallahassee in the Northwest District of the Florida Annual Conference. Check the 2011 Journal under Part 7: Directories.

      You were her bishop. Is this an error?

  5. Timothy W. Whitaker September 27, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Upon further recollection, I may recall a report of this incident by the District Superintendent of the North West District of the Florida Conference at the time of the meeting of the appointed cabinet immediately following her dismissal. I apologize for creating confusion because of my failure to remember. Since I am retired, I cannot provide any explanation for the response by the Florida Conference to Andrew’s inquiry. At any rate, this is an excellent blog typical of the astute perspective Andrew always brings to a topic.

    • Bishop Whitaker—I wasn’t trying to suggest that the Florida Conference office gave me anything other than a fully sufficient answer. I’m sorry if it appeared otherwise from the way I worded that section of my post.
      I actually communicated both by phone and by e-mail with officials in the conference office. In both instances, the folks with whom I spoke were courteous and helpful. I only quoted the one-line reply from the conference in my post to show the definitiveness with which the Florida Conference was sure Ms. MacBain had never been ordained an elder in the conference. In that sense, her repeated claims about both her education and her ministry credentials were refuted clearly and directly by the relevant bodies—in this case, Duke Divinity School and the Florida Annual Conference.

  6. A friend located an online copy of the original text of the New York Times article from Sept. 20th. Here’s the key passage that I was trying in vain to remember in the text of my post above:
    “She tried to solve her dilemma — and answer God’s call — by earning a degree from Duke Divinity School and being ordained as a United Methodist minister in the early 2000s. She took her Christian mantra from the denomination’s co-founder John Wesley: ‘In the essentials, unity. In the nonessentials, liberty. In all things, charity.'”
    Here’s what is wrong with that paragraph. Ms. MacBain didn’t earn a degree from Duke Divinity School. She was not ordained as a United Methodist minister. And John Wesley didn’t say the quote that she has attributed to him. Clearly, Ms. MacBain knew better with the first two fabrications. We’d have to give her a pass on the third one though. It is one of the most frequent Wesley misquotations out there—as evidenced by the fact that it actually served as the 1996 General Conference motto!

  7. Thank you, Andrew, for your clarity and precision in exposing the falsehoods in the Ms MacBain’s story.

  8. Pastor Al Johnson September 27, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    Shalom, I am glad this deception was exposed, God asks for Justice (Micah 6:8). One small point, as a full time local Pastor having completed the COS I am not a “lay minister” . The Certified Lay Ministry program is good and valuable but does not make one a Pastor. Local Pastors have full rights and authority in the charge to which they are appointed and are considered clergy. CLM’s are valuable lay folks yet, the training is considerably less.

    • Rev. Johnson—Thanks for that comment, and I agree with you wholeheartedly. The comment about local pastors being “licensed lay ministers” in the post was part of the quotation from Dean Richard Hays’ e-mail. I think he phrased it that way to differentiate on the issue of ordination specifically. But as your comment points out, it is never cut-and-dried in the UMC when we are talking about the office of local pastor.

  9. […] The full story is better examined at both Andrew Thompson and Get Religion. Andrew, in fact, has some comments from the presiding Bishop during her tenure in […]

  10. I recognize this is tangential, but given how little most people understand the United Methodist process of ordination, does this story give us more reason to simplify our denomination’s ordination process and / or structure?

    • That is a good question, John, that Jeremy Smith has just taken up in the last hour over at his Hacking Christianity blog. I jumped into that conversation right away, and here is an edited version of my comment on Jeremy’s post:
      “We need to do a great deal of work around our theology of ministry, and the various terms with all their ambiguities is a testament to that. The category of local pastor is historic to Methodism but is not biblical. Our separation of deacons from elders in 1996 is biblical but not historic to Methodism. Then there are the terms like minister and pastor that are ambiguous by their very nature (referring to pastoral roles more than ecclesiastical offices) … I’m convinced it is work that is best done theologically with the inevitable disciplinary changes to arise out of that. To start making changes at the General Conference level without substantive theological work beforehand is likely to just end up creating more problems.”

  11. It occurs to me that it’s likely that neither I nor many of the commenters here believe in the God Ms MacBain does not believe in.

  12. […] Thompson delves into the story of a woman who lied about her theological education and possibly her standing with the United […]

  13. Andrew, thanks for the blog. This situation is troubling and unfortunate. For me it speaks to the way in which white women (and men for that matter) are often taken at their word, without any confirmation or verification whatsoever. That no one verified Teresa’s credentials, after her “coming out,” is indicative of how white privilege works. I too am an atheist, and formerly an ordained United Methodist Church (UMC) clergywoman; and, in 2003 I formally returned my credential (deacon’s orders). That was ten years ago. Last year I sat on a panel hosted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation with Teresa, and I have watched her movement from one position to the next from a distance. It amazed me that she moved “up” in executive positions so quickly regardless of the fact that she had just embraced the term and the identity as an “atheist.” I also interacted with Teresa on an NPR program facilitated by Jamila Bey. I believe there is access to it online. Anyhow, at this point, I want to add some clarification. It is possible that one could be a part-time local pastor in the UMC and be on track to be an elder in the UMC (that was the case with me). Before I was ordained in 1998 as a Deacon on an Elder track, I was referred to as a local church pastor, and I was in seminary for the M.Div. When I was ordained as a deacon on elder track, I was still a seminary student, and I was already pastoring as a local church pastor; however, after ordination, I was appointed to pastor as a deacon on elder track, and my status as a local church pastor, at that point, ceased to be relevant) because two years from that ordination, as long as I served a church full-time, I would have been ordained an elder. You can think of deacon status as a probationary period. These words “local church pastor,” “deacon,” and “elder” are markers of achievement and status in the ordination process and in the UMC. How one is referred to will depend on when and how s/he entered into candidacy for ministry in the UMC. For example, when I was declared a candidate for ministry these two tiers existed. It is my understanding that these two tiers don’t exist any longer. More than likely, Teresa did the work of being a pastor, but she may not have approached it on the elder track – it doesn’t mean that she wasn’t a bona fide candidate for ministry. Unfortunately, there are many complexities associated with ordination in the United Methodist Church. The information that I am sharing does not take away from the fact that she misrepresented her credentials, but it is important for folks to understand that ministry in the UMC is not as cut-and-dried as it looks.

  14. Great job, Andrew!

  15. […] Minister and Wesleyan scholar Andrew C. Thompson on the story of the atheist Teresa MacBain. Click here for the whole story in which Rev. Thompson sets the record straight about Teresa […]

  16. […] an Methodist theologian, Andrew C. Thompson, who is also an elder in the church. At the end of a post on his blog Thompson pin pointed three reasons for wanting to bring the story of MacBain’s […]

  17. This is a very interesting nd helpful discussion but it seems as though there are a number of assumptions about what MS McBain’s intentions were. Has any one tried speaking directly to her?

    • Ms. Munson—I’d be curious as to what assumptions you think are being made in the post itself. (I can’t speak for the people leaving comments, of course.) I do suggest that Ms. MacBain’s falsifications about her education and ecclesiastical credentials were purposeful, but I think that is a fair assertion given that she made those claims repeatedly. Otherwise, I am not really interested in her intentions. What I am interested in is how her claims about her experience had the effect of giving her a level of public authority, which in turn lent extra weight to her critiques of the Christian faith (and cast the United Methodist Church and church-related institutions like Duke Divinity School in a negative light).

  18. There is no denying that Teresa Macbain lied about her credentials. But remember that her lie started when she was a believing practicing minister. So it is her character — not her particular belief or lack of belief — that is the issue. Dishonesty is no respecter of persons, religion or philosophy. I know you are not suggesting that atheism is discredited because of the faulty character of one of its adherents, because . . . if that were true, then all religions (including, maybe especially, Christianity) would be equally discredited. Christianity has certainly had its share of cheats and frauds. However, it might be pointed out that while there are indeed atheist criminals, the percentage of atheists in federal prison is only 0.02%, compared with 5% -10% of the population . . . meaning, those who profess belief in God are actually OVER-represented in the prison population. By the way, a person does not need a formal ordination or license to be considered a minister of the gospel, according to the bible. They just have to be “called.” In Teresa’s case, she actually did perform Christian ministry — such as worship, weddings, eucharist, hospital visits, and so on — and was viewed favorably by her Christian community as a minister. They and she say she was authentic in that regard. I guess it’s like the bumper sticker I see on the freeway: “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.” (We might also say: “Atheists are not perfect, just human.”)

    • Mr. Barker—Thank you for your comments. I agree with what you say in that Ms. MacBain’s belief or unbelief is not really the issue. (At least, it is not for me.) I’d also add, however, that her character is not where I’d locate “the issue” either. It is rather in what her claims regarding credentials lent her criticisms of Christianity in the public arena. She made what amounts to claims of expertise (both educationally and ecclesiastically) that tend to confer status in the public sphere. For her, those claims were about a particular degree attainment and a particular ecclesiastical status. In neither case were those claims even remotely true. She neither had a master of divinity degree, nor was she ordained in the United Methodist Church (as either deacon or elder). That was the point of the post that I wrote on this website; I thought the fraudulent nature of her credentials needed to be pointed out as regards her public statements regarding the Christian faith, the Church, etc.

      • My comment was not meant to be adversarial. With the NYTimes article and your blog piece as the only context, I did not see/hear her making those claims for herself. Mistaken information runs a spectrum from deceit through exaggeration to mistaken perception (as we’ve probably all seen at least once in a media report). I take it from the other comments that she clearly made these false claims herself.

        • Ms. Munson—Thanks for your follow-up to the comment you left several days ago. I didn’t take your first comment as adversarial. I just wasn’t sure what you meant by saying that a lot of assumptions were being made. I linked to a number of stories in the post where Ms. MacBain was quoted or referenced as having made certain claims about her credentials; you can find those by clicking on the hotlinks within my post. Also, (and as you mention) there have been some references in the comments section itself; I provided a link to a lecture that Ms. MacBain gave in which she references her degrees. I actually began to discover the breadth of media stories where she falsely cited her credentials first through Google searches, and then through following links within those stories.

      • Andrew — Thanks for the clarification. I see your point, and it is a valid point, but I don’t think it is a strong point. Your point could be made stronger by suggesting that a person’s character might influence our judgment about anything else that person might say, and I think this point has some merit in a court of law, at least to a jury. If a person is known to be a habitual liar, then the reliability of their current testimony (barring any other facts) is certainly weakened. Some have argued that Peter, after having lied more than once about Jesus, should not be afforded 100% confidence in his claim to have seen the resurrected Christ. On the other hand, a person’s previous dubious actions do not automatically DISPROVE anything and everything they say. Teresa might indeed be highly unreliable, but that does not mean her reasons for leaving the faith should be summarily discounted on those grounds alone. Her reasons for becoming an atheist should be taken on their own merit — otherwise we fall into the trap of ad hominem. – – – – – But I think the broader point you are edging up to (without actually saying it) is that since Teresa was not properly degreed or ordained, she has no authority to speak for the church she represented, and therefore her criticisms of the faith are either moot, or they don’t really apply to (or represent) the Methodist tradition. (“She’s an outsider, and does not speak for us.”) I was actually ordained to the ministry BEFORE I got my degree in Religion. There is no biblical mandate to obtain a formal document before you are “called” to preach. As a young evangelist, I was more of a soul-winner than most of my professors, many of whom had never led anybody to Christ through preaching. (I know there are different kinds of ministry, but that strengthens my point.) Regardless of her degrees, Teresa actually WAS a minister who felt “called” by God, and that calling was affirmed by the congregation that hired her and the people she served. Her calling to that church was affirmed by people who prayed for God’s guidance, and God did not bother to tell those people she was a fake. Because, although she was a liar about her degrees, she was not a fake in her beliefs and convictions. Her congregation loved her. I didn’t have a degree when I was first preaching, and neither did Teresa, but our ministry spoke for itself. So although I hate Teresa’s lies, I still admire her courage to question and doubt. What truly saddens me about Teresa is that she did not come clean when she left the church. Teresa’s philosophy may have matured, but her ethics still has a lot of growing up to do.

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