But DeWitt, 42, is beginning to develop a national profile in the small universe of organized unbelievers, for he’s a rarity: a former preacher, an erstwhile Pentecostal pastor from small-town Louisiana who little by little lost his faith right there in the pulpit, even as he exhorted others to fervent belief.

Now DeWitt is out of the pulpit, and public about his nonbelief. He has begun to do a little speaking, telling his reverse-conversion story around the country before local humanist groups. More than that, he is the unpaid executive director of Recovering from Religion and works with The Clergy Project, a website that invites and privately counsels other doubting pastors behind a password-protected firewall.

Atheism is his new ministry. He said he does not personally proselytize for nonbelief, to adopt a term from his former world.

“I don’t consider myself an evangelist at all. But I’m still like a pastor. I pastor people who come to me and pastor them where they are,” he said. “I life-coach them. I’m pastoring more people now than I ever ministered to before in either of my congregations.”

Whatever lessons DeWitt offers as a life-coach, they are hard-won — and still developing. By DeWitt’s account, his coming out has been disastrous.

A religious town

DeRidder, population 10,500, is the picture of rural Louisiana. The economy of surrounding Beauregard Parish runs on timber, cattle and paper manufacturing. It is a deeply religious place. Two-thirds of its population report membership in some church, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives; if that sounds low, the national average is a little less than half, said ARDA researcher Chris Scheitle.

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