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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  • Ken Qualls says on

    I could relate to some of those points. God blessed me in that he allowed me to pastor four churches over the past 35 years. They were small churches most preachers didn’t want and involved a lot of driving. I was never asked to leave a church and pastored two of them twice. Most of my ministry I was a single parent raising two children. Much of my stress came from being a divorced pastor and other pastors and leaders didn’t always appreciate that. People don’t have to say anything to let you know how they feel about you. I also had the privilege of knowing many fine men of God who encouraged and strengthened me. Being bi-vocational and living so far from other churches in my associations left me out of most activities. All of a sudden I was old, my kids were grown and I was tired. After 15 years the last church I pastored closed after all but three members had died or moved away. I now fill in whenever I can. My greatest joy in pastoring has been seeing God work in peoples lives in many different ways.

    • What a glorious joy it is indeed when our Chief Shepherd will say to you, “well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” Mat.25:21

  • Curtis Bryant says on

    Hello Thom,

    I am a 34 year pastor. This has helped me and can certainly help other pastors.

    Also, the Thomas Nelson Publishers once published the “Christian Life New Testament.” It is out of print, but it is a Bible which needs to be re-published for its fundamental teaching. It is an exceptional tool. Having worked in the publishing industry for years (R. H. Boyd Publishing and the Sunday School Publishing House) I would consider a workbook for the instructional tool.

  • Brad Ford says on

    Wow I needed this and like the others I agree, this would make a great book, may God bless!

  • There is another alternative. Ever heard of “spiritual abuse”? I’ve been physically struck by a pastor, “preached” to for stupid stuff like “wearing a beard”, threatened, and gossiped about between “preacher buddies”. Our congregation was often warned of “touching God’s anointed”, reminded constantly that our church was the best and most biblical in the area, and that if we left the church we would “lose our families”. The last straw was when the pastor tried to manipulate me into conceding something to him personally and he tried to use other church members and my own family to do it. According to the Bible, guys, there were to be “elders” (plural) “ruling” churches instead of a single manipulating dictator like a “Diotrephes”. There should be no desire to “rule over them” and no “us vs them” attitudes in a New Testament church at all. How does this type of organization develop? Some people actually LOVE to be controlled and, apparently, even abused. Jeremiah 5:31

  • WOW…thank you for sharing some gut-checking details about pastoral ministry. I am the wife of a former pastor….not to be confused with a former wife of a pastor. I watched while our church killed off my husband and that was 7 years ago. We are not the same people and we are not okay. Although I was so very grateful when we learned he was being let go, it was more of a death blow to him than a you’ve been delivered experience. I have come to a place where I know without a doubt that there needs to be help provided to pastoral families as there are more and more ‘dead’ bodies laying outside of the church building that use to stand on the platform then ever. I am hoping to develop a program to provide a retreat and reprieve partnering with horses in an experiential way to help bring about transformation. I have become convicted of that even more today as I just received a text from my daughter that her and her pastor husband have decided to separate after only 3 years in the ministry. Praying for them and all of our church leaders…

  • I read this. Read it again, and read it one more time and will read it over and over. I have experienced these issues multiple times over my 16 years of ministry. How many would say #3 could be the seed to the other 7 issues? Obviously my reading of Scripture and prayer do not control the ways other people act, but it does control my response. When I’m sensing these realities creeping back into my life, I have to return to the Word. Do I always, certainly not and that is troublesome. Someone said it above though, if you want to quit, don’t read the Bible.
    But how can I keep from being so busy? I find that all the technology and gadgetry to help me actually make me busier.
    Then the people need this, people need that, and it is hard to say no. I feel guilt when I say no. I am up at night wondering if that “no” to my church member is the next flaming arrow that will be shot across the bow from the back row of the church house. The arrow that will set ablaze my undoing. But then again, the Scriptures remind me to remember my first love (Christ), the One who loved me, the One who love me so much that my flaming arrows of nastiness nailed Him to the cross. He is the One who loves these cartels and He died for them too. Jesus, help us to love the unlovable and set us aright in your church with a sense of righteousness, truth, and love.
    Brothers, stand fast and pray, pray and stand fast. I love you and I am praying for you as you pray for me. Sorry for the ramble, just the thoughts of a pastor.

  • Thomas W. Brown says on

    Thanks for the comments, but these issues do not always apply to every church. At our church we have a different situation. Our pastor is 85 years old and refuses to step down. Some people still support him, but a number of others do not, but no one wants to push the issue, including the denominational leaders, for fear that given his age it will result in his death, literally. He is not in good health, so many keep hoping he dies soon, which is sad in and of itself. His preaching is very bad, because he has dementia. He is also incapable of change, and while I do not believe that the Gospel message should change, the way the message is presented does have to change if the church is to attract younger people (most of our members-9-in total, are in their 70s and 80s as well). My hope for our church is that he sees the light soon, but unless this happens, the church is doomed to close forever. I have tried to make some changes, but the pastor just will not make any changes whatsoever. And, on top of that he can no longer perform any of the functions that may be required of a pastor, such as visiting the sick, conducting funerals, etc. He has been a member of this church for most of his 85 years, since he was a little boy. He just does not see that his selfish desire to continue in the pastorate is going to result in the church closing its doors for good when he is gone. Please pray for our church. By the way the church is over 112 years old and was once a very active church in the community.

    • My parents’ church went through a situation like this years ago. Their pastor was an elderly man, and was a very fine pastor in his day. Unfortunately, his mind was clearly getting less sharp, he was showing less leadership, and he kept forgetting the most routine things. He was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and the deacons knew he had to be dealt with. My Dad was a deacon, and he confronted the pastor and told him – as gently as he could – that it was time for him to step down and make way for a new pastor. Dad thought a lot of this pastor, and it tore his heart out, but it had to be done.

      In short, sometimes confrontation is in order. If it all possible, though, it needs to be handled by someone the pastor knows and trusts. That’s why my Dad was give the job in this case. People knew the pastor would listen to him.

  • Bullying is bullying whatever it is dressed up as. If you don’t have a senior member of your church who you can turn to, then walk away, they don’t deserve your gifts.
    When it happened to me I walked away. It takes time to heal, but my life is much better now, and I’m giving more to people who appreciate it.
    With love and prayers,

  • I totally see this Thom! Should we expect anything different though? Should we ever expect these problems to go away on this side of Heaven’s gates?

    As a previous unbeliever, the reality of the opposition to things that are of God within the body of Christ all but destroyed my young faith. Unrealistically there was a thought that all believers would be holding hands and singing “kumbaya.” Instead, I’ve had my eyes open to the reality of the times we live in…. “because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) That seems like the Lord was talking directly about our world today, doesn’t it?

    As a pastor now, I know that the people I serve are sinners, just like me. I know that I am called to love them without condition, but wow it is a difficult mountain to climb. People say pastors gotta be “thick-skinned,” yet there is that constant dripping of any of these eight patterns not to less common ones… BUT will this ever end in our churches for good? (see Matthew 7:15, John 15:18-25)

    I’ve been ready to quit and depressed, plenty of times… but something happened unexpectedly that has helped me with all this. I was teaching a biblically based recovery program for the first time with a couple that was struggling. What I found blew me away and left me in tears before the Lord. I need recovery. We all do in some way. You see, the program got me into the Word with scripture that applied directly to the issues I was wrestling with and didn’t even realize. The scriptures turned my heart from the hurt I receive from people, back to the Lord.

    I’d highly suggest a personal and serious read through of the Celebrate Recovery (CR) material, or some other biblical recovery program, for any pastor that relates to the eight common patterns above. You can do it alone, though it’s not recommended. The point is to get into the Word in a way that speaks to what you don’t even know you need to hear.

    Since walking through the scriptures in this way I have a new found boldness in my ministry and a freedom in the Lord. It is completely awesome, and well… totally freeing!

    That’s my 2¢, I hope it’s valuable to someone.

  • Thanks Thom. This gives me hope to continue in ministry.

  • Tim Smith says on


    It would be interesting to see someone address the issue for church member who came into a church without realizing that the pastor was near being ministry deceased.

    As a church member, I and my family are now member of a church with the pastor displaying the damage you listed prior. That condition obviously hurts the church and its members when a pastor is no longer able to shepherd effectively.

    I understand the giving of grace and love in this situation. I do. Does it ever get better? My pastor know he’s in this situation and reminds people regularly. He will go to great lengths to share it over and over; even when some of us weren’t here during those times and don’t know how to process a one-sided account… other than to extend more grace and love.

    In addition to more prayer, grace and love, what more is a church member in this position to do? Where can we get encouragement to persevere with a hurting shepherd? The roles are feeling reversed and many of us don’t feel qualified for this unexpected situation.

  • Pastor Tombstone says on

    Please delete this comment as it has my picture.

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