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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  • My pastor search committee became my pastor relations committee. They meet as needed to handle issues that I may need resolved (increase in health insurance premium I need covered) or simply to allow me to get their input on any areas that they feel I may need to do a better job. It’s been a real blessing to me. When people need to step off this committee, I am permitted to chose the replacements.

  • anonymous pastor says on

    I pastor in a small church and have no accountability at all other than the obvious: changing the sign, weekly email, visitations, sermons on Sunday, etc. While I would certainly appreciate a godly support group in my church, I think it would turn into being a time to tell me the “other” things I could be doing. By the end of it, I would have 120 hour work week. In a form of self-accountability, though not ideal, I log my hours and what I’ve been doing. I do this for myself and for any complaints I may get in the future. Typically I work between 50-55 hours a week. This will be higher if I had a great amount of visitations or the unexpected funeral. Depends on the week.

    But Dr. Rainer, I do want to add that ministering in a church like mine was still by the providence of God and His good pleasure. There is much to learn in a setting like this and I have more free time to study what I need to rather than the lack of time with leading a large church. There are churches a pastor attends where we can stay and put in our roots deeply. Then there are others that are a blessing and still need God’s Word taught and proclaimed but are training grounds to eventually move on (mutually beneficial for both) As a my previous pastor and professor said to me, this just seems to be the way God works.

  • It’s the expectations point I most struggle with. I have served our church as pastor for over 10 years now. When I was first called we had less than 20 people (4-5 families), and I did everything from preaching and teaching to mowing the grass, running mic cables for the sound system to leading worship. As we have grown, others have stepped in, but there is still a propensity for me to see a need and meet it. Since we have all volunteers, special projects often don’t get done unless I’m involved on some level. Plus, since we’re still small (80-90) I’m very accessible, which is very good, yet it also can make me the one everyone comes to for everything… everything. We have other leaders in the church, and I try to refer to them on most things. I think it’s the nature of the post. Pastors are here to represent Christ in many seasons of life and situations, pointing the flock to the Savior. It makes it hard to know what to expect (especially in a small church where we don’t have “staff”), and everyone you talk to has a different set of expectations. It makes having real friends in the church a challenge too because it seems there’s always a ministry angle or expectation woven into it. Those are tough, and sometimes lonely waters to navigate.

  • Thom thanks so much for this great article that all Christ-Followers need to be aware of. My wife & I are so passionate about caring for our pastors that we’ve founded a ministry that will exist to educate, epuip, & encourage churches to create Pastor Care Teams. I would love to hear any feedback as to how this type of group might impact your church. Feel free to email me at [email protected]

  • Having a plurality of elders (Biblical model) would work out many of these issues.

    • But only as long as they are also qualified to be elders according to the biblical model! What I found at my former church was that too many were unqualified, and we lost a very good young pastor we’d called four years prior. He and I have remained good friends, and three years after his resignation we have substantially healed from all that happened, but whenever I see an article like this about pastors I find myself drawn to it.

  • Garry Medford says on

    Having been recently forced to resign from my first church after being there almost three years, I can fully attest to these five things in the article. Clear expectations were never really explained until I was asked to resign, and which were somewhat different than what the Pastor Search committee said. There was also no accountability group inside the church (a friend outside of the church served to be my accountability partner), and there was no advocacy group either. The church said they wanted change, but nearly every time I tried to introduce some changes, the leadership balked at it. One member even told me a few months ago that “we are a dead church. There are sparks of fire every now and then, but then they die out quickly.” Yet, through this experience, God has shown me much that I need to do also to serve Him better.

  • “No advocacy group for a pastor”

    I don’t think churches realize how important this is. My single biggest frustration at the moment is that my deacon board (which functions like semi-elders) only ever passes on negative feedback to me. They are the complaint delivery system for the church. The problem is that these complaints are always vague, ambiguous and anonymous. This means, of course, that they are completely unhelpful. They don’t give me enough information to know what, if anything, really needs to be changed, just enough to know that “people” are unhappy with “things”. The thing is, I see many signs of positive spiritual growth in the church (increased participation in prayer and Bible study, growing worship services, increasing understanding of the Gospel). So I know there are God is at work in the church I just don’t know if anybody else notices it!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I hope you can form your own advocacy group, TJ. I haven’t gotten to the point that I refuse to listen to people who say “they are saying . . . “

  • Phil N. Paine says on

    Hi Tom –

    I pastor a small church and am dealing with all 5 of these! How can I survive and flourish — or should I consider moving on? It’s affecting my family too.

    I am, as my pseudonym suggests, “feelin’ the pain.”

    Thanks for any help.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Phil –

      I am reticent to offer an opinion without more details. I will make one observation though. Your family is your first ministry. If they are suffering because of your present role, it may be time to move on.

  • I just recently left my last church due to false promises made by Senior Pastor who resigned during a sabbatical. Another major reason was the church had failed to live up to its salary obligations and I had not been paid in three months. I could no longer let the church become in debt to me any longer.

  • One more is a small but vindictive faction of members. Their influence far exceeds that of the other 90% of the congregation. Somehow, church leadership often fears them and caves in to their desires. They can run off any pastor no matter how good he/she is.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Unfortunately, you are right, Mark. It has too many times.

    • Yep, when a small faction exercises that much power over a congregation, you’re probably fighting a losing battle.

    • Mark,
      Unfortunately, what you describe can be very characteristic of many small churches especially. A few years back I became a member of a small rural church and it didn’t take me long to discover the pecking order and who was really in charge. I also learned that this very small percentage of the congregation basically made the decisions for the church and they were not shy in letting you know it was THEIR church. Leadership was basically hand-selected based on ones ability to follow orders and function as a “yes-man” for those at the top of the pecking order.
      I learned also that this was a church that went through preachers like people change their socks. Whenever a pastor would come along that actually had the nerve to preach the Gospel and refused to be anybody’s yes-man his career at the church was short-lived.

      • That happens more often than people realize. I was at my last church eleven years. A few churches in my association went through three or four pastors in that same amount of time.

  • I would also recommend asking if the church has ever tried something and fallen flat on their face, no matter how long ago it happened. My husband spent months preparing our church to take on an endeavor that had been attempted 20+ years prior. It’s failure had devastated the church — i.e. a huge debt and loss in membership, among other things. No one bothered to tell him until the very last minute, preferring an ambush at an open business meeting instead.