I sensed God calling me into pastoral ministry at age 19.
There was nothing else I wanted to do with my life except study, preach, and love God’s people.
And back in the mid-1970s, there was far more expected of a pastor than there is today.
Pastors attended or taught an adult Sunday School class … preached at Sunday morning worship … preached at Sunday evening worship … and taught a midweek Bible study … on top of all their other duties.
The consensus back then was that if God called you to church ministry, He called you for life … and if you tried to leave the pastorate, you’d be severely criticized.
One time, a colleague left church ministry to do something else, and my district minister scowled and muttered, “God calls a pastor for life.”
But a set of alarming statistics about pastors are screaming at God’s people right now. Let me share just two of them with you.
The first statistic comes from Gary Pinion’s book Crushed: The Perilous Side of Ministry and makes me want to weep. He writes:
“Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years. Ninety percent of pastors said their seminary or Bible school training did only a fair to poor job preparing them for ministry.”
When I became a solo pastor in 1981, I hit a crisis 18 months into my ministry that made me feel like quitting. But God had called me to pastoral ministry, and I was determined to fulfill my calling.
But evidently many rookie staff and pastors are leaving ministry far sooner than they ever expected.
The second statistic is one I read for the first time last week. It’s from J. R. Briggs’ book Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure:
“For every 20 pastors who go into ministry only one retires from the ministry.”
In other words, only 5% of all pastors will begin and end their career in a local church.
Who is to blame for this situation? The pastors themselves? Church boards? Congregations? Denominations? All of the above?
Let me share three prescriptions for this sad state-of-affairs:
First, Christian leaders need to put together formal training and support groups for pastors’ wives.
My wife Kim didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife. She wanted to be a missionary. But because she loved me, she was willing to set aside her own dream.
And when I became a pastor, she threw herself into church ministry as a volunteer.
Kim bought a host of books on how to be a pastor’s wife because there weren’t any mentors nearby. (She eventually junked them all and said, “I’m just going to be myself.”)
When I was stressed at church, I would come home and share my concerns with my wife, but who did she have to share her stresses with?
Many men end up leaving pastoral ministry because their wives are tired of sharing their husbands with an institutional mistress, and because they cannot endure how often dysfunctional church life invades their home.
Every pastor’s wife wants to know that she and their children are more important than the church, and if push comes to shove, that her husband will choose his family over the church.
But if the pastor chooses the church over his wife, she may (a) quit going to church, (b) threaten divorce, or (c) find someone else.
I believe that many men are leaving church ministry because their wives are extremely unhappy about what ministry is doing to their family.
How can we rectify this?
Second, pastors need better training on preventing, managing, and resolving conflict.
Why are pastors leaving church ministry? In their book Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry, Hoge and Wenger write that conflict is first on the list:
“… ministers are experiencing a lack of support and support systems, especially when they are coping with conflicts. They are well aware that parish ministry is fraught with conflict, and they expect to deal with a host of different opinions, ideas, and ways of doing things in their congregations. But what they are not prepared for is the lack of support they find when they come under serious attack by congregational factions or families or are falsely accused of misconduct. Some have felt betrayed by a church hierarchy that seems to show favoritism or ignore destructive behavior by other ministers or officials.”
The seminary that I graduated from does not offer core courses on congregational conflict, yet if the statistics are accurate, the great majority of its graduates will leave church ministry due to their inability to handle conflict.
And because pastors haven’t been trained in conflict management, they are unable to train their board members, staff members, leaders, or congregations as well.
So when conflict breaks out in a church – as it always will – neither the pastor nor the leaders have been trained on how to handle matters biblically … which may result in the pastor’s expulsion and the church’s devastation.
I recently asked a top church conflict expert what is being done to prevent major conflicts in churches. He told me that he just launched a program along this line. Good for him … but he’s rare.
I believe that most pastors think they know how to handle conflict … until they are personally attacked or falsely accused … and then they fall apart. They don’t realize that nearly every conflict in a church ultimately involves the pastor.
Until Christian churches recognize and address this issue, we’re going to lose more and more pastors.
How can we rectify this?
Finally, churches need to do all they can to prevent pastoral burnout.
Pastors are experiencing burnout at a rapid rate. Burnout is not first a physical or spiritual issue, but is primarily an emotional problem.
Toward the end of my last ministry, I was told by a Christian counselor … after extensive testing … “You’re severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”
At the time, I castigated myself for letting things get to that point. I was angry for allowing burnout to pursue and tackle me.
I had a daily quiet time with the Lord. I exercised vigorously five or six times a week. I went on regular dates with my wife and took all my vacation time.
But in my case, I burned out because:
*I did not know how to work with business-oriented board members.
*I felt that my ministry was being evaluated solely by the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash.
*I tried to lead a building campaign and earn a Doctor of Ministry degree … simultaneously.
*I was the sole caregiver for my wife for many weeks when she had medical procedures and surgeries … and I tried to work at the same time.
*I could sense that my ministry was being undermined, but I tried to ignore it and remain above it all. Mistake!
I don’t believe that burnout happens to pastors because they work too many hours.
I believe that pastors burn out because of the intensity of ministry … going from crisis to crisis … and because pastors don’t believe they’re allowed to make any mistakes.
Pastors who burn out must share some of the responsibility for their condition, but the truth is that churches tend to stand by and watch their pastors burn out without offering any kind of intervention.
During my last pastorate, right before my burnout diagnosis, it was obvious that I wasn’t myself. I lost my drive and energy … began to isolate myself from people … and became uncharacteristically irritable.
I longed for one leader to ask me, “Jim, you don’t seem like yourself. Is everything all right? How can we pray for you and assist you?”
Is that an unreasonable desire?
But that kind of compassion and understanding never came. I felt like the church was content to squeeze every last drop of energy from me before casting me onto the scrap heap.
I tried to talk to several leaders, but they offered zero assistance. They could not relate to what I was going through. (I’m not trying to blame anyone … just share how I felt.)
What could I have done differently? To this day, I don’t know.
Thousands of pastors will quit church ministry in the next year because of burnout. The problem is not just personal … it’s also institutional.
Pastors are breaking down not only because of their own internal expectations, but because they tend to absorb the expectations of everyone in the church … and that’s just lunacy.
How can we rectify this?
I wanted to be in church ministry until retirement age, but I only made it 36 years. At first, I felt that I had failed, until I looked around and realized that 36 years wasn’t too bad.
Caring for pastors’ wives … providing better conflict training … and encouraging churches to do what they can to prevent pastoral burnout.
Those three prescriptions will go a long way toward helping pastors stay in ministry much longer.