Five Common Themes in Churches with High Pastor Turnover

This reality is becoming increasingly common. More churches are losing pastors after only a brief tenure. Even more troubling, many of these same churches are seeing these patterns repeat themselves with each consecutive pastor.

I recently worked with one church that had six pastors in nine years. Not one of the pastors made it to the third year. They wanted my help to determine what was wrong with all these pastors. My suggestion that they might be the problem was not received well.

Though no two churches are alike, we are seeing common patterns and themes in these high pastor turnover churches. Here are five of the most common themes:

1. They think it’s the pastors’ fault. It is difficult to help these churches. There is none so blind as he or she who will not see. The church I noted had not even considered that losing six pastors in nine years might point to the problems with the church. They were offended that I even suggested that possibility.

2. They see the pastor as a hired hand for the church members. Many of these church members tell the pastor what to do. They expect the pastor to respond quickly and obediently. I get nauseated when I hear a church member say, “We pay the salaries and the bills around here.” That attitude of selfishness and entitlement is deadly to a church.

3. They have a power group that desires to retain power. Woe to the pastor who challenges the power group, even if that challenge is based upon sound biblical principles. It won’t be long before that pastor leaves. Some will leave quietly. Some will challenge the group. Most will lose and still leave.

4. They see those in the community as outsiders. This mindset is congruent with the view that the church is like a country club, where the members get their preferences and desires met. The church rarely tries to reach those in the community lest the outsiders mess up their church. By the way, pastors are outsiders too. They come and go. And if they try to stay too long, they will soon have major challenges on their hands.

5. They have established traditions and methodologies they refuse to give up. One such church had run out of space for their community groups. There was a class, however, in the biggest room in the church other than the worship center. That class had been in that room prior to the Apostle Paul. They occupied less than ten percent of the room. If they were willing to leave, the one room could have become five rooms. They refused. It was, after all, their room.

Many churches are struggling to find pastors. Many of those churches have experienced high pastor turnover. Word travels fast among pastors. At some point, the pool of those pastors willing to come to your church will dry up.

Any change will have to come from the hearts of the church members. They must understand it is not their church. Until that point comes, pastors will leave quickly.

If they are even willing to come at all. 

Posted on May 10, 2021

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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  • Lottie Bell says on

    I just left a church that was not fm. I asked myself what I always enjoyed about church all my life.
    I enjoyed the testimonies, the old beautiful hymns, (I do not like their new songs which they think you have to stand up for all through) and I loved the times around the altar where Gods spirit was so present. I also liked the word preached that was really into the word and not all all about family, home, and projects etc.
    I decided that we did not have any of that and that there was not much left.

  • James Schnell says on

    What happened to the Call Committees preparation as what qualifications they were looking for and potential Pastor preparing a truthful call document. My guess is long time members of the congregation are too steadfast in what the new pastor should take over from the past or retired pastor.

  • Ellen Haley says on

    I relate to the power groups. The stress that they have on any staff person is tiring at best.

  • Reginald Gabel says on

    I truly believe that it is a combination of several things. These churches did not become this way over night. Years and years of issues cause these problems. I agree with the 5 points but we should, in my opinion add a few others. 1. pastors who use churches as stepping stones, there goal being ‘getting a larger church’ instead of growing one. Of my watching pastors getting their Doctorate, 20 of the 22 moved to a larger church within a year of receiving it. As I watch churches go from pastor to pastor, very seldom does the pastors have the same vision for the church. They come in basically telling the church they have been going in the wrong direction and sets a plan to redirect the the church, he leaves and the next one has a new directions. (not saying change isn’t needed) 2. Many churches are on a defensive mode. They read the data of pastors leaving after a few years, so, after a ‘few’ years, they expect the past to leave. 3. Ministers seem unwilling to dig in for the long hale. Maybe we should be like Moses and stay with the people even during the desert times. 4. We are not on the same page. As I talk to pastors and church members, I see that there are so many ideas of what the churches ‘main’ purpose is. Seem there should be many purposes with ‘equal’ importance. 5. I see little blame given to Satan, who pushes sin. We are in a battle for sure and my prayer is for our pastors and churches to work together. To first fall to our knees and make our churches ‘houses of prayer’. Praying everyday we ALL keep our eyes on our Lord and strive to live for Him everyday.

    • Good thoughts. High turnover is not always the church’s fault. Pastors who change churches every few years tend to have a limited number of sermons that they preach over and over, and they never learn to weather storms. Such trends are detrimental to their spiritual growth.

  • These bullet points all five apply to our church in Alaska . I just finished my undergraduate May 2019, and am working towards my M-DIV . I hail from Louisiana, and have been living, and working in the mission fields of Alaska since 2016. My first two years were in another churchAlaska , the most Kingdom Minded community of believers I have ever experienced. This coming August will make three years. The other church has burned through a pastor every 18 to 30 months. Most recently the pastor who broke the record and endured almost 9 years of persecutions, before being starved out because the power families, and many of their followers who withheld tithes. Please pray for us .

    • Rev. Reginald Gabel says on

      I will be praying for you.

    • That’s sad. My first pastorate had a running joke about what to do with a troublesome pastor: “Cut his pay and starve him out.” They only said it to tease me, and we always had a good laugh over it. Alas, it’s no laughing matter in some churches.

  • Barry Gordon says on

    Dr. Rainer,. Always grateful for your Godly wisdom and insight. Helps me keep my eyes open for things that I might otherwise miss. Church answers is a God-send for me. Thank you

  • Jim Scrimger says on

    I believe these issues are found in most struggling churches.

  • Leon McJiggetts says on

    In many ways, the church is a family business. In a family business, non-family members usually are the first to go in a disagreement. In the church, the pastor is not always the family member.

    • In a way, it is better the pastor is NOT part of the family. There is the whole issue of dysfunction in a family and once the pastor is assimilated there is a strong potential for loss of objectivity and inability to shine a light on things that are wrong. I feel it is a delicate balance though – a parish needs to feel that their pastor is committed to their complicated identity as children of God and people firmly engaged in the world.

  • Sandra Butler says on

    Thank you

  • What you said is so true. During my three decades with a single church I came to the conclusion that if God didn’t want me there He could remove me. As for those who have tried to run me off, I determined that they would have to prove in a very public way that I had done something immoral, illegal, or unethical. Most pastors allow church bullies to have their way by not standing up to them. Consequently, they simply leave quietly and tell people that God called them elsewhere. I have known many good, qualified, talented men who, after two or three preacher-eater churches, leave the ministry altogether. Shame on churches that destroy these servants of Christ, many of whom are young and inexperienced.

    • I agree pastors should stand up to church bullies if they can, but I do add one word of caution: he should protect his family at all costs. Unfortunately, some bullies will try to get to the pastor by harassing his wife and children. If they’re willing to stoop to that, then the pastor is probably fighting a losing battle, and it would be wise for him to move on.

  • Marva Usher-Kerr says on

    Thanks for this! Sometimes even those in higher places in the churches don’t see the problems.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you, Marva.

    • CHURCH ( Capacity 1200+/-)
      PASTOR (6yrs)
      ESSENTIALS (Power Group 30-40ppl)
      MEMBERS (COUNTRY CLUB MINDSET 100-125ppl. Including Power Group)
      CHANGE (None)??????????????????????
      I’m a Member HELP!!!!!!!!
      This can’t continue it’s not right