Autopsy of a Deceased Pastor

They are the walking dead.

They are dead emotionally.

Their vision and passion is dead.

Their spiritual life has little life at all.

They are burned out.

Many have died vocationally. Others are waiting for burial.

Autopsies are not a pleasant topic. I get that. But I would be negligent if I did not share with you about the numbers of pastors who are dead in ministry. You need to know. You need to grasp this reality. You need to pray for them. You need to walk alongside them.

How did these pastors die? My figurative autopsies uncovered eight common patterns. Some pastors manifest four or five of them. Many manifest all of them.

  1. They said “yes” to too many members. In order to avoid conflict and criticism, these pastors tried to please most church members. Their path was not sustainable. Their path was unhealthy, leading to death.
  2. They said “no” to their families. For many of these pastors, their families became an afterthought or no thought at all. Many of their children are now grown and resent the church. They have pledged never to return. Their spouses felt betrayed, as if they were no longer loved, desired, or wanted. Some of these pastors have lost their families to divorce and estrangement.
  3. They got too busy to remain in the Word and in prayer. Simply stated, they got too busy for God. Read Acts 6:4 again in the context of all of Acts 6:1-7. The early church leaders saw this danger, and they took a courageous path to avoid the trap.
  4. They died a slow death from the steady drip of criticisms. Pastors are human. Yeah, I know; that’s an obvious statement. We sometimes expect them to take the ongoing criticisms from members as if they were rocks. But a steady drip can destroy even the most solid rocks.
  5. They were attacked by the cartel. Not all churches have cartels, but many do. A church cartel is an alliance of bullies, bully-followers, carnal Christians, and even non-Christians in the church. Their goal is power. Their obstacle is the pastor. Many pastors have died because cartels killed them.
  6. They lost their vision and their passion. This cause of death is both a symptom and a cause. Like high blood pressure is a symptom of other problems, it can also lead to death. Pastors without vision and passion are dying pastors.
  7. They sought to please others before God. People-pleasing pastors can fast become dying pastors. The problem is that you can never please all the members all the time. If pastors try, they die.
  8. They had no defenders in the church. Imagine a dying person with no medical intervention. That person will die. Imagine pastors without members who will stand by these leaders. Imagine pastors where members are too cowardly to stand up to cartels. If you can imagine that, then you can imagine a dying pastor. By the way, this form of death is often the most painful. The pastor is dying without anyone to help or intervene.

Autopsies are not fun. Talking about dying is not fun.

But if you are a church member, you can be a part of the solution.

Will you?

Posted on October 10, 2016

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Thom,
    I read your blog this morning and have experienced and am learning the same sort of things in the ministry. I was intrigued by your point of being attacked by the cartel! Good stuff! Keep encouraging the brothers! God bless,

  • Rev. Kevin Wilson says on

    As sterling as all of your articles are, it’s a shame there isn’t a curriculum in seminary addressing the realisms of pastoring at least there wasn’t when I attended 29 years ago. I spent the 3 years necessary for an MDiv in a Southern Baptist seminary and there was no true, real life preparation. Not a class or even a seminar. At the very least, this website should literally be required consulting beginning on day one of seminary. I’ve survived, so far, 25 years in the same church because I chose to stay in a small church. Stay on your face and knees guys!

    • Kevin,

      I think one of the answers to that struggle would be what Eugene Peterson suggested and that is seminary professors should be required to hold at least a part-time local church position. I taught as a full-time ministry professor for five years while at the same time being a PT worship pastor. The stories and applications just spilled out in discussions with my students. It didn’t have to be in the curriculum – though we did have more than one course in the curriculum that dealt with “practical matters” of ministry. I also taught as a seminary adjunct while engaged full-time in ministry. When your teachers are fully engaged in ministry, it will bleed out into the classroom.

      The reality, however, is that many ministry and theology professors are not gifted to serve in local church ministry. (None of my colleagues when I taught undergrad ministry held any local church positions.) And academia doesn’t encourage their professors to work in the local church. They expect research, writing, and presentations. And, I have to tell you, teaching is a real grind that demands hours and hours of work. Hard to fit in a PT local church position.

      It’s a problem. Peterson knew a thing or two…

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Kevin. The humbling aspect of this blog is that leaders from two-thirds of the churches in America read it at least once a year. That is huge responsibility for me, something that can only be done in His strength.

    • Jim Yearsley says on

      Kevin, you are very right about the shortcomings of seminary preparation. I have come to realize that the first pastoral call after seminary is also the final class of preparation. That first pastorate can an usually does set the tone for future ministry (for good or bad) because it is where the new pastor has to learn the real aspects of ministry. I wonder how many pastors reading this remember the small panic they felt when their first parishioner was dying and the pastor really wasn’t sure how to design a funeral?

      I spent a good bit of time pondering how seminary preparation got to this point. I now suspect that it is to some extent because they (seminaries) have lost clear sight of their purpose. They have confused their role with that of the “divinity school’. Seminaries began as ‘seedbeds’ for the preparation of preaching pastors. Instead they have tried to become divinity schools where scholars should be trained to become theologians and then teach in seminaries. Those are to complementary but separate functions.

  • Tim Earle says on

    Thanks Thom a well-timed article. Everything in it so loudly speaks to the Church today. I have struggled now with two cartels in two different Churches. You are right in when I finally shared my hurts and thoughts, praise God some people finally took a stand. The first Church was a too late, but the one I am in now things are turning around. There is still a lot of road ahead but it will be much better. Thanks for being an advocate of the whole Church.

  • When the gifting of one man is emphasized and the presence of the Spirit within the many is de-emphasized, is it any wonder that the one man will be burned out, will be the target of criticism, will be in the cross hairs of those looking to seize power?

    The very way that most churches choose to organize and gather leads to these things. If the fruit is burned out pastors, critical or apathetic bodies, and political wrangling… maybe the tree is bad.

  • I am working with pastors and have a heart for ENCOURAGEMENT AND EQUIPPING. The one thing that I am finding is a HUGE reason for this burnout and leaving ministry is the fact that many pastors have not been disciples and are not actively involved in disciple-making. The small from of 3 men that I disciple gives me energy and strength each and every week – I can’t wait until 11am every week at lunch for 1.5 hours with these guys. It is a ministry of life and obedience to the great commission. The Lord started the church the way He wanted it and now he wants the church the way He started it! Disciple-Making is key, not to mention it gives you some really solid folks in your corner!!!

  • Richard Ryan says on

    Having a good Monday. My wife and I received a pastor appreciation gift yesterday at start of church. I’m new at this pastor stuff, but all of those things have been part of my ministry. They can be lethal. My message was about growing where you are planted, from Jeremiah 29:1-7. I’m not the best seed, and I may not be in fertile soil; my task is to amend the soil as best I can and pray for rain. Keep the faith, no matter how small.

  • Good article. I think a good follow-up article may be to give practical steps on how church members can help restore a pastor or staff member who exhibits some or all of these traits.

    My fear is that some members may see the charge to take action at the end and think ousting the pastor is the solution (“he’s dead so get him out”). No. Defend, pray, encourage, support speak truth in grace – all of these are a start.

    Thanks Thom!

  • Thanks for writing this, Thom. I’m glad to say that thing can change, though, and cartels can be broken. It happened in the church I served for eight years, up until earlier this year. There were a few old men who had a track record of not liking the previous pastor (who was there for 27 years), and they didn’t see the change they wanted when I came. Thankfully, most of the church was supportive, and despite my inexperience and mistakes early on, the leadership rallied around me when I shared my hurts and asked for their support in dealing with the bullies. They gradually left the church, and thankfully my final few years there were the best, happiest, healthiest, and most productive. I continue to pray for all those in tough situations. I know the sleepless nights spent in prayer, but there is hope, too.

  • Of course you would write this on a Monday ????

  • I’m there now and planning to leave the ministry after 22 years.

    • I hurt for you. Though I don’t who you are, God does. He hears my prayers for you and your family.

      • Rev. Richard B. Ashley says on

        I, too, promise to pray for you. As hard as it is for you to continue, please do not quit. God’s grace is sufficient for what we need. God Bless You Brother!

    • Dear Pastor,

      I hear you. More than once in the last week, I’ve considered the same thing after more than thirty years in the ministry. I’ve been the victim of the “cartel” and no one stood up for me (#8). In addition, at my age of 61, I am finding it very hard to secure a new position. God has graciously provided an interim position for me to rest and heal. I take meds for depression and I’m seeing a counselor.

      Through all of this, God has been very present. I know it is a privilege to share in “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” of betrayal and rejection for righteousness sake. I do not know what the future holds. This is, indeed, a crisis of faith for me. But I know God will be faithful and lead and provide for me and my family.

      You must discern God’s pathway for you and your calling forward. But let me also say that there are many pathways toward healing for you. The psalms are my anchor and prayer language. My counselor has given me perspective, accountability, and strategies for moving ahead in health. Dear brother, receive the promise of Psalm 138:7-8:

      “Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
      you preserve my life;
      You stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
      and your right hand delivers me.

      The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me;
      your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.
      Do not forsake the work of your hands.”

      God’s grace, peace, comfort, and discernment for you, dear Brother.

      • Bob, I was reading the comments and did a double take when I read yours. Your comment could have been written by my husband, who is also Bob. He is just a couple of years older so I knew he did not write it, although our situation is so similar to yours…the “cartel”, the difficulty in finding another church at his age, and the interim church that has ministered healing to our hearts. After 16 years in a long term pastorate and a home we have loved, we have accepted a call to another church. We have had nearly a year as an interim which I feel has been God’s provision for them and us. It is bittersweet to leave the ones who we have loved and who have loved us these past 11 months.

    • Travis Johnson says on

      I don’t know who you are, but I’m in tears right now praying for you and for your family.

    • Rodney Courson says on


      I write this with a lump in my throat and tears on my face; because I DID quit. I walked away. I came into my home on a Sunday night after resigning and tossed my Bible on the dresser and told God, “I’m through.” I stayed away for almost 7 years. Occasionally going to church but never getting involved. I was most miserable. Worse than the dreaded attacks I had been receiving as a pastor.
      One day, I was reading my Bible (tip: if you really want to quit, stay away from the Bible) and ran across Jonah 3:1-2, ” Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a SECOND time: “Get up and go to Nineveh, and deliver the message of judgment I have given you”.
      With that, I repented, remembered the calling God has on my life, and restarted by His glorious mercy and grace. I pray for you. I beg you, if you know God has called you, you’ll NEVER be happy doing anything else!
      My prayer is that you pick up God’s infallible, inerrant word; stick you nose between those blessed pages and breathe in His Holy Word, and breathe out the promises of Almighty God. You’re too called to quit. Refresh, rediscover, and surrender it all at the feet of Jesus!
      We are soldiers in the army of God! Let us soldiers share ammo, share our strength, and lift our wounded. Let us live to fight another day. After all, it’s all rigged by God…we win!! Call me or anyone. Message me, text me, whatever you need.

    • I’m sorry to hear it, but I do ask you to reconsider. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a break from ministry; if you’re genuinely burned out, some time to heal and refocus may be very much in order. If God has called you, though, don’t quit.

    • Harlen Johnson says on

      I know the place where you are at, my Brother. I am there right now myself. I have been in the ministry for 20 years, and I have had enough of “ministry”. I don’t want to stop; however, I am afraid that if I don’t walk away and heal, then I am going to become a “deceased” pastor. I am praying for God’s direction.

    • I hurt for you my Brother! I was on the edge not long ago myself! Through the support of my wife and The Holy Ghost I was able to hang on. The Lord carried me to another Ministry and it truly is worth it all!

    • This retreat saved my ministry after experiencing Nos. 4, 5 and 8. There are also scholarships. Definitely go.

  • Larry Teasley says on

    Sounds like the abstract for a new Book! Thanks, Thom.

    • We’ll see. I’m not headed in that direction right now, but thanks for the encouragement.

      • Yes! Please write this book and provide ways to address these issues.

      • I am a Pastor who was given a Church where a few people gossip and it’s about me and it’s a daily struggle just to continue in ministry, it’s more discouraging to fight against people who gossip then it is the Devil. They are supposed to be serving with you, instead they are serving there own agenda. I am walking in love and praying God will set them free.

      • Dear Brother
        Stay encouraged I’ve been pastoring since 1997 and I went through a transition 2008 and we just relaunched recently Dream Center Church and I specifically recall God speaking to me before we relaunched that it’s coming a time real soon that it will not be popular to be a Pastor only those who are called will be able to handle the persecution. So remain encouraged because in church there are 2 types of people armor bearers and pall bearers, so don’t let them bury your purpose gravitate to your armor bearers. Be Blessed!

      • those members of my church who does not gives faithfully their tithes and offerings i fired them gradually for this members will bring curse to my church

      • Mark Stevens says on

        I suffered through my first church and it was painful. My second church was a lot nicer. Finally, I migrated back to where God wanted me, Chaplain in prison ministry. I have a number of inmates that are true armored brothers who stand and defend the ministry. When trouble comes through the door, I kick them out. We have a thriving ministry inside the fences. I’ve baptized nearly 200 this year. God is blessing and I’m one very happy Christian Chaplain just watching Him work.

      • Would be a great book! Look forward to reading!

      • Ha! You guys are getting ahead of me.

      • Angela Jones says on

        Mr. Rainer, this would definitely be a wonderful book. #8 is what some members of our Prayer Ministry talked about today. Some of us contemplated leaving our church because some of the people are so cold and stone hearted and it really saddens us. But I told them if we left we wouldn’t be here to protect our Pastor of whom we love dearly. I just don’t understand how people who claim they love the Lord but can have such dry bones. We weep and wail constantly for our church. Please pray for us.

      • Dr Mark convoy says on

        This was me

    • Praying for you and all church body.

      Our church is in a dead state, leaders and those in position have set the word and prayer aside.

      If the few of us who obey the word and pray, we believe our church body will be healed and we can win souls to Jesus.

      Thanks for truth that many refuse to receive.

      As for me and my house, we will serve the True and Only Living God.

      Blessings to you

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