Five Conditions That Lead to Negative Departures of Pastors

I have written rather extensively on this blog regarding the short tenure of pastors in churches. Of course, many pastors leave churches for very positive reasons. They sense a call to another ministry opportunity. Or they retire from a church with a new phase of ministry in mind.

But too many departures of pastors are negative. Sometimes the pastor is fired. On other occasions, the pastor leaves under adverse conditions.

Oftentimes, we look at the immediate precipitating factor of the departure and conclude that to be the reason for the exit. But, in reality, there are certain conditions in the church that increase the likelihood of a departure well before it takes place. Here are five of those conditions:

  1. False promises made prior to the pastor’s arrival. Depending on the polity of a church, those promises are made by an individual or a group. Some pastors, for example, are selected by a pastor search committee. Members of that committee may make comments like, “We are ready to change to reach people for Christ.” Then the pastor finds out the church is really not ready for change.
  2. Lack of clear expectations established. It is astounding to speak with a pastor and leaders of the church and to hear the perceived expectations of the pastor. Those perceptions are often miles apart! I recommend that every prospective pastor ask this question before accepting a call to a church: “What frustrated you the most about your previous pastor?” This one simple question will provide a lot of insights regarding expectations.
  3. Lack of accountability of the pastor. Every person in an organization needs some level of real accountability. Sometimes churches have accountability on paper for pastors, but it does not result in real accountability. No leader in any organization should be left alone. It is a formula for failure, if not disaster.
  4. No advocacy group for a pastor. Too many churches have no group that is specifically supportive and prayerful for the pastor. In fact, a deacon or elder body often can be an adversarial group rather than an advocacy group. By the way, the best advocacy groups can also be an accountability group. They support and love the pastor, but they are willing to push back if necessary.
  5. Lack of full disclosure by the church. I recently spoke with members of a pastor search committee. They shared with me that a power group existed in the church that made life miserable for the previous two pastors. Should they disclose that issue, they asked, to prospective pastors? Absolutely! It is deceptive not to disclose major issues in the church, whether they are positive or negative.

When a pastor leaves a church, whether through firing or voluntary departure for negative reasons, it is rarely a single immediate factor that led to the exit. There are typically negative conditions that created the environment for the departure.

What has been your experience regarding negative pastoral departures? What do you think of these five conditions?

Posted on December 3, 2014

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  • Trout whisperer says on

    Unfortunately, there is often a very high degree of accountability on the
    Pastor. So much so, that we forget that the congregation is accountable as well. It’s always easier to place blame at the feet of others. Most of the scriptures are directed at me as an individual believer worshipping with others. A true assessment of ourselves would reveal that it’s not solely a pulpit problem, it is highly likely that it is a pew problem. Question is: who is your shepherd??

  • Every church in which I have served, both as pastor and as staff, told me going in that they were ready for change. It has yet to be true.

  • I can resonate with #4, an advocacy group. I was once told by a deacon chair that it is lonely at the top essentially placing me alone on an island. This is the worse thing a pastor can feel, alone on an island. I am thankful that the deacons at the church I presently serve and at the past couple of churches I have served are a faithful supportive advocacy group. Every pastor needs this. I pray that they will find it.

  • #5 rings so true. In my previous pastorate, the search committee casually glossed over the fact that eight staff members had left in the previous three years, all under stressful circumstances. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of recourse for pastors who get caught in such a trap. It is some consolation that it isn’t hidden from the Lord, and He will repay in His own good time.

  • Good article. The primary points in my covenant that I was given on hire were slowly and methodically taken away as time progressed to the extent of assigning anyone that wanted to lead in the ordinances could do so. That was the last straw for us. The lay leadership that was formed over the interim refused to surrender authority of the ministry to God and trust Him in the call. This crippled the ministry from the start. I had in place #3 on my own by setting up those that were directly aware of the ministry but were not officially connected to it so to provide an unbiased voice. #4 came along in the form of a retired pastor (not this ch) only in the last year we were there. He was not listened to as well. I continue to pray for them daily, and ourselves, as we follow God into the unknown.

  • When dealing with a church, and more specifically a pastor search committee, you will have totally different ideas of what is a “problem”. If you are a member of the “power group” mentioned in #5 above, you will never see yourself as a “problem”, and thus it will not be brought up to a prospective pastor. Talking to previous pastors is not always a true picture of the church either, especially if they have made certain church members their best friends and will do anything to cover for them. The bottom line is: has God called you to this church, and has He told you to leave. Sometimes we bail out too soon because we are frustrated or tired, not because God has told us to go.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Of course, we need to seek wisdom on how we are hearing the call of God. Sometimes He speaks through these circumstances.

      • That is true – these can definitely be the catalyst that God uses to move us. For us, it has been both ways. We have left churches because of #1 and #4, and yet in spite of numerous conflicts, we are still at our current church. For some reason God has left us where we are. Discernment is key in finding out if God is speaking for you to leave, or if you are to dig in and persevere.

  • In my experience as a pastor, interim pastor, and staff member, I’ve seen all 5 of these conditions at work. The thing that makes each of these situations difficult to overcome is they tend to be self-perpetuating. Many churches who loose or dismiss their pastor lack the internal health, leadership, or transparency to “fix” the problems that created their problem in the first place. Those churches who are unwilling or unable to secure a gift transitional pastor pass them on for the next pastor to deal with. This adds an extra challenge for “the next guy” and creates a negative climate in the church.

  • I think that number 4 (No advocacy group for a pastor) is probably the strongest “push” factor in negative departures. What is mentioned as other leaders being an “adversarial group rather than an advocacy group” undermines a pastor’s leadership and places him (or her) in the role of an employee facing a management group. We know that is not a biblical pattern. It would be good for a candidating pastor to request an advocacy group (with a clear description of what that means) before agreeing to join a congregation. Internal support for a pastor and family will help to overcome times of loneliness and vulnerability in ministry.

  • Regarding seeking permission to interview previous pastors/leaders: At one place of service, where I served as associate staff, during the interviewing process, I asked the pastor if I could talk to the person who previously served in the position I was interviewing for and was told no. Just one of a couple of red flags I ignored.

  • I’m an old guy that has been in several SBC churches, large and small, around the South but other than Deacons, I’m unfamiliar with a formal advocacy/accountability group specifically for the Pastor. In our current church, the Deacons are a “Board” concerned mainly with business matters and serving Communion. This article has made me aware of a need for our Pator to have more than just support in an individual unorganized way. How that will come about….

  • H. B. "Sunny" Mooney, III says on

    Pastors, as well as Search Committees, should do their homework. Obtain permission to interview former pastors and church leaders. Some feedback may arise that will give candidates and churches a realistic picture of who and what they are dealing with.

  • What ways should a pastor seek to be held accountable in a single staffed church?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jeremy: Find a person or a small group (deacons, elders, personnel committees, informal leaders, etc). Meet me with them at least monthly. Let the entire congregation know you are regularly accountable to them.

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