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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  • You should write a book about church cartels or bullying in the church. I would even put an order for an advance copy. Great article and very sad to see.

  • Elizabeth says on

    1 1
    2 123
    3 0
    4 123
    5 123456789 10 11 12 13 14
    6 0
    7 0
    8 1234567
    Last number is accumulated responses to that question.
    a pastor’s question: How many would say #3 could be the seed to the other 7 issues?  None did.

  • Carl Kincaid says on

    After 10 years in the ministry, my wife and I have stepped away from the ministry. The Cartel like so many others on here, had their way. Between them, almost losing my wife in childbirth, and our oldest daughter to Type 1 Diabetes and having no income for 10 months (due to the poor finances of the church we were at), we couldn’t take anymore. We sold a lot of our possessions just to afford the U-Haul out of town. We have since moved into my sister’s basement where now, a year later, we are still trying to rebuild financially and emotionally. We are called to the ministry, I know it, and regardless of everything we have experienced we still want to be in it and won’t be happy and fulfilled unless we are. But frankly I don’t know where to go from here. I want to return to the ministry, but I refuse to put my family in a situation like that again. So I don’t know where to go or what to do. I’m scared to search for a position on the internet because it seems the only ones that will hire me are the ones that have cartels and are looking for their next piece of meat to devour, while the positions that seem more secure either never post a position because they already know who they want to hire from word of mouth or they want ridiculous amounts of education (doctorates) and experience (successfully led a congregation of several thousand for 5+ years) that if you had, you probably wouldn’t be looking for a job anyway. So here I sit, managing a Taco Bell of all things for income, frustrated, and not knowing what to do. I know this post is old and no one may even see this, but as I tearfully write this I just had to spill because my wife and I put all our eggs into the basket of ministry regardless of everyone telling us to have a back up. “NO! God is my Back Up!” I’d confidently say. So I turned down the scholarships to do other (high paying) things because I felt called and I loved the ministry and people so much. And now I make tacos for a living…

  • Timothy Cline says on


    Great article! I have been in vocational ministry since 1989. I have served as an international missionary in a tough environment, as well as in churches of all sizes. My last 2 pastorates (and present pastorate) have been to serve churches after they have had long-termed pastors before me. Long-term pastorates are great, unless you are the pastor who comes next. This means following the “hero,” while you are held under deep suspicion and viewed as an unwanted consolation prize. It is just plain difficult, but I believe that the Lord uses me in these particular situations. Here are some thoughts and practices that have helped me:

    1. Stay in the Word no matter what. I carve out time every morning at home for God. I tell my church up front that God gets my mornings. If a church is not willing to do that much, then I need to move on anyway.

    2. I exercise. I haven’t always done this in the past, but have found that it cured my high-blood pressure issues.

    3. I try to live by the Davey Crockett motto: “Be sure you’re right, and then move ahead.” This means that I do listen to others, and I do receive input from my leaders and members and staff. However, in the end, I will be held accountable by the Lord, so I have to do those things that I know will benefit the people of God. If my direction is not convincing enough to persuade my congregation, then I need to rethink what I am proposing anyway. My congregations have sometimes blocked some of my best ideas, but they have also saved me from doing some dumb things too.

    4. I love my wife and my boys. Take your faith home with you, and leave your troubles with the Lord. This doesn’t mean that my wife does not know my hurts and problems. It does mean that we always end troubling conversations with words of confidence in God’s sovereign plan for His church. At the same time, I seek to rehearse WIN stories to my family. They love to hear these!

    5. When I get really down, I try to go find someone to tell about Jesus!

    I want to encourage my fellow pastors who are bi-vo: The problems are larger and more plenteous in a larger church. There is no church that is easier than another. The challenges are unique to every church and every size of a church.

    Press on, brothers! (1 Peter 5:4)

  • I did it for thirty-six years. In the last six months, my children moved away, I went through a divorce, and I took a leave of absence. I’m not coming back. I have to say that many people have been good to me. But I’m done.

  • Andrew McLaughlin says on

    Having read “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” I feel that this is a very timely sequel. I am presently on a break from ministry (holiday) to reassess things and to try and get on to a spiritual level again. Full time ministry not only suffers from the subtle pressures within the local church family, but also from denominational structures and other pastors who fail to understand pressures being faced by individuals and who fail to come alongside those who are struggling and can be rather condescending in their comments, especially those who are now leading large congregations with a plethora of leaders who assist in the daily work of the church. Some do not have that privilege and are expected to do everything from clearing the drains to attending to spiritual needs. I already lost a marriage through ministry and found that the church failed to provide pastoral support to my ex or to me. Now I am in full time ministry again, as a single man, facing the expectations of an aging congregation, an apathetic community and a denominational structure that seems more concerned with economics than encouraging local ministry. Local clergy are also more interested in their town centre ministries at the exclusion of suburban churches. Perhaps I am not a “deceased pastor” but certainly experiencing terminal symptoms. Hence my brief sabbatical.

  • Ricky Aldridge says on

    I think there should be another issue addressed in this list. That is the Pastor who is being forsaken by the Leadership of the Church as many Denominations choose to compromise the scriptures in this age. He is being totally left out to dry, treated as a troublemaker and Seditionist . Like a Dinosaur in the wrong age He is looked upon to be a liability because he holds fast to the Truth of the scriptures and those over Him try their best to move him out or retire him.

    I am one of those Pastors. I feel so alone. Like Elijah i feel the need of a juniper bush, and surely that Jezebel is after my head. To stand alone every Sunday , knowing you do not have the support of the church or leadership is a hard thing. Oh i know i have His support and that is what has kept me going. But every year it is everything i can do from saying this is it. 30 years is plenty, i have done my share…. It is plain to see i am not wanted, It is hard to fight that.

  • My father fell victim to #s 5 and 8 just recently. Thank God, he is not what I would call “dead” according to the criteria you outlined, but the way his former church and classis (presbytery) have been treating him–apathy, neglect, slander, cruelty, etc.–tells you that to them he’d might as well be. Their mandate as per the Church Order is to support and encourage him so he can return to ministry and take another call, but they’re treating him horribly and the classis is only furthering the abuse he suffered in the church. They don’t care about him, they’ve no regard for his calling as a minister of the Lord.

    I love my father and I continue to love and trust in the Lord, but as a result of what I’ve seen I have left once and for all the denomination I grew up in. If this is the way they treat pastors and their families–I’ve been the victim of veritable spiritual and emotional abuse, too, as well as slander and gossip (and I’m 23 with Asperger Syndrome)–then I am done with the CRCNA.

    Actually, perhaps you could come from that angle in an upcoming post–the way a pastor’s family might affected by each of the causes of death. In my case I have, like I said, left a denomination (but, I will note, not the fellowship of the saints overall–I have recently joined a URCNA congregation). That seems somewhat parallel to a pastor’s leaving the church/ministry.

    Full story of what happened to us at the blog my sister runs,

  • The numbers on my ministry tombstone say “2,4,5,8”

  • Jonathan LaFleur says on

    Thanks for this Thom, excellent piece. I think included in “Loss of Vision and Passion” is a lack of personal disciple-making. Some pastors lose their joy because they don’t know the satisfaction that comes from pouring your life personally into a small group of men who are growing in the Word and in the faith. I’ve had times where the only “ministry thing” that is giving me joy is my Monday night D-group that I pray with and walk with. Every pastor needs to be pouring into a D-group, it’s amazing how much you receive in return.

  • I am extremely grateful for your spot-on insight into the plight of the average pastor. This article causes us in the church to reflect and have conversations within our congregations about the pastoral assignment. A healthy pastor will make for a healthy church. Thom, I certainly hope this furthers out into a book. It is both much needed and well overdue.

  • I almost quit my pastorate & was ready to resign on the very date of my birth… but the night before, I had a dream that spoke to me not to jump into conclusion. So, I didn’t quit and that I do not regret. Now I’m back, refreshed, recharged, & have restarted. Only my family knew about my plan to quit. The members didn’t have any hint. 🙂
    1Co. 15:58

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