Six Things You Need to Know about Pastors Who Leave Their Ministry

I had no idea he was a former pastor.

He emailed me on a business matter. I noticed his email said nothing about his ministry, so I asked about his ministry in my response.

“I am out of the pastorate,” he responded. “And I have no plans to ever go back.”

From my perspective, this man would have been one of the least likely to leave the pastorate. Not only did he leave, he is adamant he will not return.

LifeWay Research recently released a study about pastors who left the pastorate before they were retirement age. You can read more about the study here, but I want us to look at six key issues from the study that are vitally important.

  1. Nearly half (48%) of those who left the pastorate said the search committee did not accurately represent the church. I have heard this information anecdotally, but I did not expect the response to be this high.
  2. More than half (54%) of the respondents said a church member had attacked them personally. Consequently, one of four said they left the church because of conflict.
  3. Nearly half (48%) of the former pastors said they had not been trained for relational and leadership issues. We hear this from current pastors and staff as well.
  4. Four in ten of those who left the pastorate said they had a change in calling. We hope to delve into this issue later.
  5. One in eight of the former pastors left for financial reasons. Many pastors are underpaid. Many pastors leave the pastorate as a consequence.
  6. One in eight of the respondents left because of family issues. Again, we have covered this issue several times at the blog and on the podcast.

How do we respond to these issues? How can we be greater supporters of our pastors and staff so they don’t feel like they have to leave the church? Let me hear your thoughts.



The online survey of former senior pastors was conducted Aug. 11-Oct. 2, 2015. The sample lists were provided by four Protestant denominations: Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and Southern Baptist Convention. Each survey was completed by an individual who has served as a senior (or sole) pastor but stopped serving as senior pastor prior to age 65. The completed sample is 734 former pastors. The study was sponsored by the North American Mission Board and Richard Dockins, M.D.

Posted on January 13, 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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  • I left because of conflict with the Sr. Pastor. I took the call to the church as associate pastor/worship pastor. The Senior pastor had served for 38 years and needed help. The idea was for me to be able to help him with support ministry and cultivate relationships with the members so that when he retired, they’d have someone ready to step in.

    All was good for a year. Then one Sunday the pastor took a week vacation. When he got back, his brother (a member) made a comment about how the message that I delivered challenged him in a new and fresh way, and said so in a public forum. Fast forward a few months and I was out the door. Now I can’t get back even though I still desire to serve because my resume sets me up as a quitter and a failure. That’s the only reasonable explanation that folks come up with, so I don’t get a second glance.

    • If I could encourage you at all brother, press on. I’ve given a lot of thought to what it would look if I found myself in your position as past experiences have left me feeling that as a very real possibility, but alas, I’ve yet to cross that bridge. I do know though that if God has called you into the ministry and your are willing to go, then there surely is a place for you to serve. The place God has for you will hear your heart, hear your story, and hear God in bringing you in. It is possible that your search could be incredibly broad, but again, if you are willing, God will make a way. Before I ended up in the middle of nowhere, I sent my resume out to over forty churches across the country because I also felt there were potential questions that would arise based on my experience and it would hinder my appeal, and yet, God knew exactly where he wanted me. I assure you that I never would have thought of the place we ended up nor would I have picked it, and yet, God is doing amazing things simply because we said yes. May you say yes brother and go wherever it is that God is leading you. Blessings.

    • I’m sorry you had to endure that, but I agree with Forrest. If God has truly called you, then He has a place of service for you somewhere. I know the waiting can be very frustrating and discouraging (been there and done that), but it does pay off in the end. Hang in there!

  • Judith Doran says on

    And I would bet you would find even more causal factors if the survey broke out women pastors.

  • I find myself at this exact moment preparing to present my resignation at the next business meeting. The reason for this is that the church TOTALLY misrepresented its ministry when they invited me to assume the pastorate. In the two and one half years there, I discovered that there is absolutely no willingness to change in any way, and some openly express that they are unhappy that the church is no longer what it was when it was formed in the early nineteen hundreds.
    I have not been able to see any baptisms nor additions to the congregation due, apparently, to the open conflict between members who insist upon having dominance in the congregation.
    At this moment, I have no other opportunity in view, but I am convinced that my ministry to this congregation is finished. It’s never easy, but it is necessary.

  • Christopher says on

    I tend to think that “change in calling” is a generic response that pastors throw out because it’s hard to argue with. The reality is that most of those pastors are just fed up. If I were to leave the ministry (and it has crossed my mind) it would be because of unstated, unreasonable, and unbiblical expectations and the downright hostility that results when those expectations are not met. In particular it would be the expectation of the pastor to be everyone’s best friend the moment they meet and the negative, even hostile, impressions that are formed when that doesn’t happen.

  • Over on Jay Guin’s blog, there was a discussion recently of what the preacher/pastor is supposed to do vs what they actually do vs what people wished they would do. I am the one who brought up the topic. If you don’t define the job and expectations in objective terms, you are asking for trouble. The early departure, the reasons for which Dr. Rainer has written about here, is a given. The preacher/pastor is not always totally sure what he/she is supposed to do and some people may be expecting something completely different.

  • Matt Lawrence says on

    When we find reason to distance ourselves from another because we find something to disapprove of in them, we withhold the very ingredient they require to have the winsome personality we wish they had. Churches that don’t treasure their pastors are writing a sad epitaph on their own tombstone: we don’t love people here.

    Thankful for you, Thom.

    • The antithesis of that is true as well. If you have people (or leaders) who demand that the pastor treat some people differently (and as a lower of Christian) than others, you have the same sad epitaph. The introduction of class warfare into the church is not good.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thank you for your kind words, Matt.

  • Robert Ivey says on

    I understand all of the reason given for a person leaving the pastorate/ministry and they are very real. But the one phrase that I have always personally had a problem with is when a person sights leaving the pastorate/ministry because of “burnout.” As one pastor in chapel at SEBTS preached one day “how can you ‘burnout’ if you have the unending fire of the Holy Spirit burning in you?” That statement has stuck with me for 20 years and I have looked at those who I know who have used the expression “burnout” and often what I see when a person uses “burnout” as their reason, is if you look deeper their is a bigger “sin issue that has lead them to “burnout.” So I would like to distinguish the category of “burnout” by adding an additional category of “burn-up,” when a pastor truly tries to do it all on their own spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, these individuals truly “burn themselves up” in ministry. This leaves “burnout” as category for those who because of an on-going sin(s) they no loner burn in ministry for their fire has been taken from them by God.

    • I respectfully disagree with you. I do not think ministry burnout is caused by a “sin issue.” People can get burnout from doing the same job for decades with no change. Perhaps one’s talents can be used in a better way such as pastor to seminary professor or chaplain. Perhaps the experience can be better used to teach/train others.

      • Also respectfully disagree. Ask any bivocational pastor about “burnout” and I think you’ll get a better idea of the real issue.

    • Sometimes, fire comes from congregants, not just from the Holy Spirit. I watched my Pastor deal with this, often getting it in the back, and it was brutal. Fire was still being directed toward him in meetings, even after he’d left. My family had to leave too.

  • I have a ministry to pastors’ wives and have been working with them for over 10 years. I would say this about sums it up. The only one I think would not reflect the true problem of itself, is that 1 in 8 leave for financial reasons. This may have been true in the survey, however, many pastors’ families are struggling so much financially, they can barely buy clothes for their kids, or the wife is working a full-time job WHILE being expected to be by her husband’s side constantly. When my husband was at one church, my Mom was buying us groceries (this was several years ago)…and non-Christians were meeting some of our needs.

    Another point is the fact that the minister is being attacked personally. I would assume “personally” means his family is also being attacked? Because I can tell you – that is happening on a huge scale and the women come to my ministry bruised and battered emotionally, wanting to run away from everything.

    I’m wondering what the percentage is for those leaving the ministry for moral failure. I get the collateral damage in precious souls for that also.

    • As a pastor’s wife in a small church, l have a full time job so we can have health insurance. We have a school-age daughter that my husband homeschooIs in addition to his pastoral duties.
      Not only is it tough from a schedule standpoint, we struggle financially. l think our people don’t realize how hard it is to pay our regular bills, much less random things like car repairs and medical bills. We have a good group of people, but it is a small Congregation. It’s discouraging and hard to trust God at times when good tithing members move away. The church hasn’t been able to give him a pay raise for 5 years. I feel badly for him because it is so discouraging.
      l am concerned too for my girl who sees this, and I pray that she can keep her eyes on Jesus and her heart soft.
      As for me, l often feel isolated. I don’t want to further burden my husband with my issues, l can’t go to my pastor (see above, LOL), deacons, friends at church, friends outside of church, family… so I just pour my heart out to God, but sometimes I really want someone to give me a hug. l get so tired in my soul.
      When he first took the church we went through personal criticism, and because we were unable to pastor in the same way as the retiring pastor, about 20-25 core people left in the first 2 years. He almost quit multiple times, and our family went through an emotional rollercoaster. People complained that he didn’t visit every family every month (they weren’t sick or shut-ins), our then 5yr old daughter didn’t let one of the older men tickle her (Good for her), l wasn’t having Bible studies with the ladies (40 hrs a week, housework, 5 year old, and I seldom missed our monthly Ladies’ Missionary meeting), etc. Those people left, and while it hurt in many ways, those that stayed are good people. We are trying to keep on going, trusting God to bring in good people and grow his church.
      Thank you for understanding the challenges of pastor’s wives.

      • D,

        Loneliness (from isolation as you mention) is the #1 problem among pastors’ wives. I’m sorry you’re struggling with this, along with all the other things you mention. You are not alone. I hear these same struggles from pastors’ wives on a weekly basis.

        I’m praying for you.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Laura –

      I agree. One in eight seems low.

  • Dr. Jim Robertson says on

    Hi Dr. Thom,
    Thanks for the list. Though I have pastored three churches in my ministry the two that I left do not necessarily fit any of the six. I left my first church because I felt the total leading of God to just step down. It wasn’t a desire to go somewhere else and I had no other job lined up. There was nothing going wrong in the church, in fact things were going great. When I think of it I often wonder how long I would have stayed if not for that strong leading of God. Not only did I know the need to step down by I also knew the profile of the man who would replace me. Within six weeks God sent that church their next pastor that fit what I felt God would do in that church perfectly.
    The second church I left because I honestly felt I was outside the will of God. Again much was going good, many things were accomplished, and all that the search committee wanted of me was completed within 16 months. But through it all it just seemed like I was outside the will of God. So I stepped down. Again no job waiting in the wings, I did have a place to move to, but in the end it was not because of anything going wrong. I am currently at my third church for more than ten years now, that too has been a leading from God to remain in the New England region.
    Out of curiosity did either of these two (a leading from God and/or being outside the will of God) surface as reasons to leave a ministry in your research? Just wondering. Thanks for your work.

    • We minister in the Christian school. We left each ministry on good terms with the parents, students, and church not fully understanding why God allowed us to feel as though it was time to move on. That is hard to explain to some people. But one night at supper (our fourth ministry – four years into it) our children (teen age) asked that very question. My husband explained that things don’t always have to be awkward or at odds in a ministry for God to move his servants on. As the discussion played out, the before we left each ministry was contrasted with the after we left the ministry was discussed. We had visited the previous ministry for a service while on vacation. It had definitely changed its focus. One of our oldest sons stated that he thought God was protecting us from the situations that took place in each school and or ministry after we left. In looking back at each of the first three ministries we were where God wanted us and He protected us by allowing us to move on. My husband and i, knowing more than what the boys could see, had to agree. I will point out that each ministry we considered serving in was considered with a life long commitment in mind. We never planned to move on but to retire from that ministry.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jim –

      Go to the link where the full study is published. It should answer your questions.

  • As a successful pharmacist with several pharmacies as I prepared to accept the call to pastor, I was shocked when one of my classmates in seminary told me that I had to dog the people. I responded if I had to do that, I would not accept the call. It ended up after 13 years as being pastor. Doing all I could for the church. Being as the Chairman of the board of trustees, the cheapest. I was dogged by the Un-official leadership and removed. We have to somehow get to the point where their is mutual respect in all churches between pastors and the leadership. Leadership that feels it has been taken advantage of by previous pastors have the tendency to take it out on future pastors. Pastors who have been abused either leave the ministry or take it out on the churches they pastor in the future. Hurt people hurt other people. Those hurt pastors or leaders that come from congregations that have been hurt could mess up a healthy church.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Exactly, Leonard. Mutual respect.

      • Bryan Hudson says on

        I couldn’t agree more. I’d like to add this also as a response to Mr Rainer’s article. Many Baptists look for men who are qualified, and then they themselves try to call them. This in and of itself is a recipe for disaster. This is essentially what happened to me circumstantially, however, circumstance is not a calling. Life falls apart, so go preach–my testimony is–that’s not in the book, and it doesn’t work. John Mark was correct in the book of Acts to turn away from Paul’s call. If he hadn’t one of the most influential gospels would have never been written. I’m currently in a church where–some–former pastors were abusive and as Leonard stated “Leadership that feels it has been taken advantage of by previous pastors have the tendency to take it out on future pastors.” That’s what’s happening to me right now, and I’m going to a time appointed by my real Employer, will walk away. Leonard, I’m one of those “Pastors who have been abused”…who will… ” leave the ministry”. dogged by the Un-official leadership, having unrealistic expectations laid on me. Well, I wasn’t called to abuse, I wasn’t call to be a scapegoat, matter of fact I’m certain that job is taken already.
        As Baptist’s we need to grow up a little bit more spiritually. Look for those who have the “will and the to do” of His good pleasure. Not just because he fits a certain “type”. Otherwise we’ll keep getting what we’re getting.
        Leonard, you’re right “We have to somehow get to the point where their is mutual respect in all churches between pastors and the leadership.” I think part of that comes from improving the process by which leadership is selected.

  • James H. Diehl says on

    Dr. Thom, This isn’t about your current article but the one from a day or two ago~~~~~”What musical instrument do you like the least in the sanctuary”. Here’s mine: The SMOKE MACHINE ! “I WAS BORN IN THE FIRE AND I CAN’T STAND THE SMOKE”!! Let’s get the smoke out of the sanctuary and bring back the Holy Spirit’s fire!
    ~~~~~Dr. Jim Diehl
    Church of the Nazarene
    General Superintendent Emeritus

    • Paul Koss II says on

      I can see no earthly or spiritual reason for “smoke” machines. I don’t attend worship to be entertained. I’m there to commune with my Lord and a group setting of felloewship.

    • I’m with you. I can tolerate the contemporary music if its proponents are willing to tolerate the kind of music I like, but I think the psychedelic lighting and the smoke machines are a bit much. I also fear that we’re using physical stimuli to stir up people’s emotions and then attributing the results to the Holy Spirit. That could come back and bite us in the you-know-what, if it isn’t already doing so.

    • What in the name of heavens a “SMOKE MACHINE” in the Church#$%^&*(()).

  • It is my understanding that Baptists as a whole use to train and raise up there own pastors. It is my feeling that far to many churches do not see their own as suitable for the position of pastor because they know their flaws and still see them as a kid. In the church I was raised in more than 50 of us were attending seminary. Only a couple remain in that church. We would have far fewer misunderstandings of the pastor from the congregation and the congregation from the pastor if we would get back to raising our own ministers. We waste years looking for the most qualified, and then getting to know and trust the most qualified. If church is done right then there should be several young men who are being prepared by the older leaders to become the next pastors. The older leaders should also be preparing the congregation for the next pastor.

    • I agree with Bob. It’s like being at a job where there is a higher paid position. Instead of the company hiring within, they go outside the company.

      • Sometimes if there is an entrenched power structure, it is better to hire from the outside. The new person would not be beholden to any particular group nor have been a part of previous problems.

      • This is true, Mark. However, most of the time that new pastor does not know of the power structure, and is forced to deal with it too. Also, If I was part of the congregation I would not want someone who had been there and was holden to the power structure. I’m not saying there is not a time to ever go outside of the church. Thanks for your thoughts. They are good.

    • I agree with you. Missionaries on the foreign field are EXPECTED to train their. Why shouldn’t churches in the US do the same? I have been on the mission field for over 16 years. We do not have the luxury of big Christian colleges and seminaries. We have one seminary that are churches use for training. However, the best training is in the local church.

      • I am just beginning my 18th year in pastoral ministry.
        I have experienced the many reasons to leave, the power struggles, the poor financial support, having to deal with the mess of years of lousy doctrine and congregants who ought to be mature leaders of the church but have not progressed past infanthood.
        But for the man called to this ministry, look to the Word. He is either qualified and called to the work or not. It will be God the Holy Spirit who will bear him along to do his work of pastoral ministry and nothing will sway him.
        If the man does not continue it will not be God who is to blame. He is sufficient for all our needs.

      • Or the woman, of course.

    • Right on..

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