Dennett and LaScola claim that neither denominational leaders nor congregations seem much interested in the depth and specifics of a clergyperson's faith -- and for good reason.

"When a congregation is searching for new pastor, they are much more interested in pastoral skills, a way with people, inspiring sermons.

They tend not to give the candidate the third degree about theology," Dennett said. And the last thing a bishop wants to hear is that "one of the front line preachers is teetering on the edge of default," the pair wrote.

The Rev. Patrick Malloy, an Episcopal priest and professor of liturgy at General Theological Seminary in New York, agreed that "search committees do not give applicants the 'third degree,"' yet said "that does not mean they are indifferent to the applicant's faith."

Malloy said he knows a number of Episcopal bishops, and "I can tell you that not one of them would take a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach" to a clergyperson's faith, even while they might respect "a breadth of opinion" and even "honest doubt."

Respondents and others who spoke to Dennett and LaScola said they believe they are the tip of an iceberg, so the pair plans a follow-up study, given the necessary funding and willing subjects.

"We would like to get more denominations, more stories," he said. He would like to talk to Roman Catholic priests, for example, where "there is a premium on doctrinal fidelity, but (also) a long tradition of intellectual sophistication among Catholic thinkers," Dennett said.

They also want to know whether it's harder for a man (or woman) of the cloth to lose faith in more conservative denominations than in more liberal ones.

"Is it true that in the more conservative denominations that... the gap between what they believe and what their parishioners believe is more painful? It's likely, but we don't know."

c. 2010 Religion News Service. Used with permission.

Publication date: June 22, 2010