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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  • This article depicts a very sad, hopeless state to be in. God intended for pastors to shepherd His people. There are many that are able to do this in a way that brings glory to God. The dying pastors, on the other hand that are trying to lead their church to glorify God, have apparently given everything they have to an unresponsive or even power seeking “flock” that refuses to support their pastor. This is their pastor, who spends time with God to get direction for their spiritual care. He also listens to their sorrows, officiates weddings and funerals, often without a trusted friend to confide in when life starts getting out of control. He carries many burdens, which over flow into his family relationships. The church needs to wake up, support their pastors, and diligently pray for them and their families.

  • All the guilt and shame that some many heap upon those here who have discerned a different and healthier way to live their Christian vocation is sad.

    “Read the Bible more!”
    “Suffering is a privilege!”
    “I quit and regretted it; you will, too!”
    “You’re the problem pastors, with all your gossiping and bad behavior!”

    Clergy can’t even have a bit of grace for EACH OTHER. (Let alone the lay person at the end who blasts pastors as the problem.) How in the world can we expect lay people to have it?

  • As someone who attended a church that was led by a wicked shepherd I can truly tell you that it goes both ways, pastors.

    You don’t like it when they gossip about you? Stop gossiping about them. You don’t like it when they attack you? Stop attacking them.

    I understand your position is difficult. People can be cruel. But stand up for yourself! Talk to these people. Talk to them about the dangers of gossip and how unholy/wicked/evil it is. Show them verses in the Bible about such things. “They know not what they do.” Feed them!

    When you signed up for the position of pastor you accepted the lowest position in the body. The lowest. Not happy washing feet? Don’t like it when they throw rocks at you? It’s part of the job. Why are you surprised?!

    Kill the sin in your churches! Kill it! And do it all in the name of our Lord Jesus! Enough is enough with the cry baby’ing from the pulpit. “Oh its too hard. Oh theyre so mean.” No kidding! The heart is wicked! Kill the flesh! Kill it! Teach them how to do it! By God teach them how to do it! Please! We’re begging you!

    And for the love of God…..if you need a break……take one!

    We killed Jesus! Why wouldn’t we try and kill you too? Repent! Get over yourselves! Enough is enough from some of you.

  • On church staff (non pastor, ministry team/, support staff). Our new pastor became under fire shortly after launching changes in our declining church (800 – 1000 people in the last decade.) We defended, supported, and held him up the best we could, but less than two years into his pastoring – he has resigned. We are struggling with feeling like we failed him & are grieved beyond words over this loss. The loss continues as good leaders & God-fearing people are leaving our church body one by one. We are struggling with how to serve in the church family; how to support what we know is wrong and sin that needs to be addressed. Staff left feels powerless; lay leadership is weak and some are guilty of bullying pastor. This has also taken a toll on our family life. The sadness and stress feels overwhelming at times. Prayers are appreciated.

  • Timothy Holtz says on

    I knew my first pastorate was done when the biggest insult one of my kids could come up for the other one was to say “stop being such a deacon!”. My second pastorate ended when I was pinned against the wall of the sanctuary by a long term member upset about a flowerbed. When I asked why no one did anything to help me the answer was “we wanted to see what you’d do.” The emotional blackmail of the unmotivated by the unstable is unnerving. Maybe someday the Lord will lead me back to ministry until then I struggle.

    The Most precarious position known to man. The average pastor is faced with a congregation of truly great saints plus half a dozen neurotics. If one neurotic really gets after the Pastor, the congregation will reluctantly side with the sick person. It is not long after such an experience the Pastor moves to another field of service.
    This is one reason we are living in the Post-Protestant era. The hope of our nation rests in pastors who will buck this condition fearlessly and congregations that will manifest enough maturity to side with their ministers. The churches that have shown this equibalance have been blessed beyond belief.” Jess Moody

  • Marion Cornett says on

    I have pastored Southern Baptist Churches for 30 years. The stress, constant power struggles, griping, backbiting, unrealistic expectations, and emotional strain have broken both me and my wife. Our Doctor, who is a deeply committed Christian man, recently told us that for the sake of our health, both physical and emotional, we need to step away from ministry. I recently resigned my church. The hard part is we have no job, no income, no place to live. I feel at peace with the decision to step back but am concerned about our future. PLEASE PRAY FOR US.

  • Seminaries should offer training in boundaries. I’m sure most of those commenting have heard of the book ‘Boundaries’ by Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend. It is a completely invaluable resource for anyone. What would probably benefit those in church leadership is ‘Boundaries for Leaders’. I know that Drs. Cloud & Townsend also offers leadership training for all types of leaders, including ministry leaders. My husband has the book and it has helped him a great deal. Leaders get burned out because they don’t have strong boundaries in their lives and ministry. Knowing when to say ‘yes’ and when to say ‘no’ protects from burnout.

  • Praise the Lord it was only #4 & #5 that I’ve had to deal with, and I had a strong, committed group of #8’s.

    After only 6 months in my ministry, after growing the church by nearly 50%, as the cartel and it’s allies started to lose control of “THEIR CHURCH” as others were voted onto boards and committees, the extremely negative criticisms and outright lies began to fly. They’d say it so loud and so often that they believed it to be truth.

    If it wasn’t for that band of allies that said to me, we don’t want you to walk away, we understand why if you did, but please don’t do it for the sake of the church, if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know if I could have survived the attacks.

    I pray that the Lord’s people will rally behind their pastor, especially if he’s faithfully preaching the Gospel and lives are being changed. Sure, the dynamics of the church may change, but sometimes…change is good.

    I personally know pastors in our area that haven’t survived such attacks because they had no allies standing up to the so-called righteous ones. I’ve prayed with them, counseled them, and cried with them. Some are no longer in ministry, and it’s a sad statement of the state of the church.

    If it wasn’t for the call of God and the filling with the Holy Spirit, I don’t know how anyone could handle being a pastor in most churches today. Stay in the Word, continue to speak to the Father, listen for His voice, and follow His lead.

    Prayers for all those hurting.

  • Pastor’s don’t always see what’s coming, sometimes not even becoming a pastor. I am one of those who, until the last few weeks before it happened, did not expect to ever become a pastor. And yet, through circumstance and God’s design, here I am. I have no formal training but that is not required by God. Not that it isn’t sometimes beneficial, but it is only man’s institutionalization of the church that seems to require it.
    I felt called to the role of pastor because the body of Christ I serve was on the verge of collapse due to the failures of leadership that came before me. Concerns for my own leadership are well defined in several of the Eight topics that appear here.
    One of those who commented here is one who went before me. I miss him and despite the circumstances of his failure, I love him still. I only hope that the body of Christ, the church, will rise up to support and defend their pastors whenever they can do so without violating God’s Word. The future of the church rests largely on their willingness and desire to do so. It is God’s church and we must all serve diligently with the same grace and forgiveness that God provides to those who receive Him.

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