Posts Tagged ‘why pastors leave church ministry’

I write a lot about the toll that forced terminations have on pastors and their wives … both personally and professionally.

I also write about the effects that pushing out an innocent pastor has on an entire congregation and its future.

But there is one group that I … and many in the Christian world … tend to forget about when it comes to pastoral exits: the average churchgoer.

Several years ago, I met with a longtime friend at Starbucks.  My book Church Coup had just been published and he wanted to discuss what I wrote.

My friend told me that he and his wife had been attending a church where they really liked the pastor … but seemingly overnight, the pastor disappeared … and the word was that the pastor did not leave voluntarily.

The church quickly hired a new pastor, and once again, my friend and his wife really liked him, but within a short period of time, that pastor was pushed out as well.

My friend and his wife were both hurt and sickened by what they had experienced.  He admitted that the two of them were not currently attending a local church although he didn’t rule out going to church sometime in the future.

My friend would be an asset to any church.  He has an earned doctorate … has taught in a Christian university … and for decades has been a key leader in one of America’s greatest institutions.

But somehow, I doubt that those who pushed out those two pastors even gave someone like my friend a second thought.

I suppose the only way to find out how the average churchgoer feels about their pastor is to call a public meeting and let each person vote on his future … either to give him a vote of confidence or to vote him out of office.

If and when a church does take that step, they’re almost always shooting themselves in both feet … as well as the heart.

Since most church leaders don’t want a pastor-board or pastor-staff rift to become known, they’ll work behind the scenes to try and checkmate their pastor privately.

But … and I ask this question all the time … how many people attend that church because of the pastor … and how many attend because of the pastor’s detractors?

Let’s say Sonrise Church averages 300 adults every Sunday.

And let’s say 15 people … that’s 5% of the congregation … want Pastor Paul to leave.  (That’s a typical percentage.)

And let’s say out of those 15 people:

*there are two board members and their wives.

*two are the associate pastor and his wife.

*there are three couples who believe the associate should be the pastor.

*there are three older individuals who have been in the church since its founding.

Then let’s say that out of the 300 who attend Sonrise:

*240 (that’s 80%) attend that church because they love Pastor Paul’s sermons … leadership … and personality.

*30 attend because they’re loyal to the church as an institution.

*15 attend because they’ve been there for more than 20 years.

*15 want Pastor Paul to leave.

Let me ask several questions about this situation:

First, why do most people attend Sonrise Church? 

They attend Sonrise because of Pastor Paul … pure and simple.

They may have initially come to Sonrise because of a personal invitation or a marketing tool, but they have made Sonrise their church home because they like the pastor.

Virtually nobody attends Sonrise because of the church board or the pastor’s detractors … and it’s highly likely that the great majority of the people couldn’t even name one board member.

Second, how likely is it that those 240 people are aware that 15 people want to get rid of Pastor Paul?

It’s not likely.  Those 15 know they must act in secrecy or risk having their plot exposed.  While they speak almost exclusively to each other, they are open to increasing their ranks if they know for certain someone feels as they do.

But if even a handful of those 240 discovered the plot, they might ream out the plotters, or contact Pastor Paul or another leader with their findings.

Third, why don’t the 15 leave the church quietly instead of trying to force out their pastor?

I wish I knew the answer to this question.  It would save everyone a lot of heartache.

My research and experience tells me that the 15:

*believe they are smarter and more spiritual than their pastor.

*believe they know the direction the church should go in the future.

*believe that one of their group should be the church’s true leader, not the pastor.

*believe that they somehow “own” the church in a greater way than others.  (This is “my” church or “our” church, not “their” church or “his” church.)

*believe that the pastor is either a “bad man” or a “bad leader” and deserves to be sent packing.

Fourth, how likely is it that the 15 are aware of the love and loyalty that the 240 have for Pastor Paul?

Again, it’s not likely.  Most of the 15 have closed ranks and only socialize with each other.  They don’t socialize with many people from the 240 … and when they do, they either discount their feelings or disagree with them.

If someone came to any of the 15 and said to them, “Most of the people in this church have great affection for Pastor Paul,” they would respond, “I don’t think that’s accurate.”  But they’ve isolated themselves from others for so long that they can’t accurately measure reality.

Finally, what’s the best word to describe the feelings of the 15 over against those of the 240?

Sinful … with selfish a close second.

Most of the time, when a faction pushes out an innocent pastor, they are thinking primarily of the wishes and desires of their own group rather than the church as a whole.

In fact, the faction is blind and deaf as to how the average churchgoer feels about their pastor.

I have heard the following statements from non-leaders whose pastors were forced out:

“The spirit has gone out of this church.”

“I don’t think I will ever be the same.”

“I’m so hurt that I can’t bring myself to go to church anywhere.”

“He was the best preacher I ever heard in my life.”

In their book Church Refugees, Dr. Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope claim that a high percentage of Christians are now “the dechurched.”  To save what’s left of their faith, they’re “done” with the local church, and never going back.

I wonder how many of those people were driven away from a church where a small percentage of bullies organized to take out their pastor.

The Book of James ends this way:

My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.  James 5:19-20

The implication in this verse is that the “wanderer” has left the fellowship because he or she did something wrong.

But it is entirely possible in our day for someone to wander away from church … or their faith … because of the way that professing Christians treated their pastor.

Thirty years ago, I attended a conference led by Win Arn called “How to Close the Back Door to Your Church.”  I learned a great deal.

One of the things I learned is that a church needs to track its attendees closely.  Once someone misses a few Sundays (at my last church, it was two), they need to be contacted right away.

Once people have missed six to eight Sundays in a row, they are nearly impossible to get back because they have reinvested their lives in other things … and have concluded that “the people of that church don’t care about me.”

When a faction in a church … whether it’s the official board, or just 5% of the congregation, succeeds in forcing out their pastor … the last place they’re focusing is on the average churchgoer.

They’re focusing on keeping the staff in place … selecting guest speakers for future Sundays … finding an interim pastor … and putting together a team to search for a new pastor.

So it’s easy for people who are angry … or bewildered … or hurt to slip out the back door and never be seen again.

It’s getting more and more difficult to win people to Christ these days.

How tragic for Christ’s kingdom if we bring some through the front door … and lose even more through the back door … because we keep beating up our shepherds.


















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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.








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Did you know that being a pastor may be “the single most stressful and frustrating working profession?”

That’s the conclusion of Dr. Richard J. Krejcir from his study of 1,050 pastors at two pastor’s conferences back in 2005 and 2006.

(You can find the study, titled What is Going on with the Pastors in America? at http://www.truespirituality.org.  If you can find a more recent study, please send it to me.)

Here are some of Dr. Krejcir’s discoveries:

*90% of pastors stated they are frequently fatigued and worn out (not necessarily “burned out”) on a weekly and even daily basis.

*89% of the pastors surveyed considered leaving the ministry at one time.  57% said they would leave if they had a better place to go – including secular work.

*77% of the pastors surveyed felt they did not have a good marriage.

*71% of pastors stated they were burned out and that they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.

*38% of pastors said they were divorced or currently in a divorce process.

*Only 23% said they felt happy and content on a regular basis with who they are in Christ, in their church, and in their home.

Dr. Krejcir’s findings are also supported by the following research which he distilled from The Barna Group, Focus on the Family, and Fuller Seminary:

*1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.

*80% of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.

*80% of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave within the first five years.

*70% of pastors constantly fight depression.

*70% of pastors do not have close personal friends with whom they can confide.

*50% of pastor’s marriages will end in divorce.

*50% of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could.

*Most statistics say that 60% to 80% of those who enter the ministry will not still be in it ten years later, and only a fraction will stay in it as a lifetime career.

Krejcir concludes:

“The results of the survey are that pastors face more conflict, more anger, and more expectations than ever before.  At the same time, they work long hours and have little pay, little reward, and produce their own dysfunctional families because of their absence.”

Which of these statistics most impact you … and why?

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