If you look to prominent former pastors Teresa MacBainJerry DeWitt, and Catherine Dunphy, the answer may seem obvious: Stop hiding your secret. Tell people you don’t believe in God. You’ll be okay!

But is it really always the best option?

I asked those well-known former pastors a series of questions to find out if there were legitimate reasons not to come out of the closet if you were an atheist still in the pulpit. They didn’t brush off the questions and say that coming out was always a good idea. Instead, they gave me honest answers as to why, at the very least, it deserves a second thought, while still encouraging those pastors to work through the difficulties.

As pastors, what were the biggest problems with coming out as an atheist?

Teresa MacBain: I think there are two big issues that affected me. 1) The loss of relationships. The majority of my long term relationships abandoned me immediately. I really have a hard time still dealing with the grief involved. It’s not so easy to turn off the love you have for a person, especially ones you’ve had a relationship with for many years. Add to that the fact that a number of these people responded with hate mail, compounding the hurt. 2) The feeling of “lostness” after leaving a lifetime of church and ministry. I spent 44 years embedded in a religious life. When I left all that, I realized that I had no idea how to exist apart from church. It was the world in which I existed. I’m still trying to get a handle on the new normal. Basically, my entire world has been turned upside down. Everything about life is entirely different. That’s not so easy to get over.

Jerry DeWitt: I describe my life losses as “Losing the Four Fs.” The first F was Finances. Even though I had stopped pastoring, was only evangelizing part time, and was working a fulltime (secular) job, my coming out as a non-believer cost me my livelihood. Religious county administrators pressured my boss into firing me. My family lost almost all of our income which eventually put our home into foreclosure, which I only avoided by filing Chapter 13 bankruptcy.