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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  • Kate Maver says on

    Church people have a history of being sort of rotten to one another that goes all the way back to the beginning. The disciples argued among one another, Judas betrayed Jesus and got him killed. Sure we have the beautiful portrait of believers in Acts 2, followed by financial misdealings and trouble in the rest of the book. The Apostle Paul spends most of his time straightening the church out on all sorts of sinful shenanigans. Pastoring has always has the potential to be a rather brutal and unhealthy job with ridiculously high expectations. The very structure of the traditional church is, at its core, inhuman and unhealthy. I don’t blame pastors for leaving.

  • George Vasquez says on

    Very eye opening and close to my heart. In fact my wife and I are so passionate about this topic that God has called us to start a ministry that educates, equips, and encourages churches to create Pastor Care groups. We’ve already seen the impact these groups make and are praying each church makes this a priority.

  • There are many issues here, but a large one is the fact that we focus on logic and emotionalism in the church these days. This is the flesh, not the Spirit of God.

    Most people confuse their own thoughts and feelings as the promotings of God’s Holy Spirit.

    When we present the gospel and other teaching in scripture logically and emotionally, and then praise people for making decisions that are based on the same, we create an environment that is more worldly and dangerous than corporate America. (Which many pastors flock to.)

    The church as a whole needs to learn how to tap into their heart for decision making. This is where God’s imprint on mankind resides: their Foundational Core Values and Purpose.

    According to the Greek and the Hebrew the heart is the seat (or source) of a man’s emotions and thoughts. We need to use the heart to override the emotions and logic, and then we will begin to understand the process that enables us to tap into our spirit, which is where God’s full imprint residents in our new nature.

  • What is the incidence of pastors “leaving” the pastorate because they are over 55 and cannot seem to get a church to call them for a full-time position? I’m seeing a lot of this these days.

  • george k william says on

    The reality is that many of the pastors take this as abusiness but not by Gods call

  • Jason Kokenze says on

    I highly agree with the fact that we need to add a business/leadership major 4 pastors! I think this is great! I think it would also be valid not just to teach the preacher boys these, but also teach them on how they can develop other skills in the work world (ie carpentry, real estate, woodworking, etc, etc)

    I have been teaching bi-vocational ministries to many of my pastor friends, and especially my church planting friends! I think this is a necessity to teach pastors this for a few reasons!

    1. No longer is 80% of the church giving 20% of the giving… it is now 80% giving 90%. How long will churches be able to afford an assistant pastor, let alone a senior pastor?

    2. With the government being able to change things at literally any moment, how long will the non-profit status of churches be allowed? If this happens this is going to shutdown many churches, especially if they own property! On top of that, it will also affect the way they pay pastors!

    3. In the light of recent political changes centered around homosexuality, although we can put phrases in our articles of incorporation, constitutions, and by-laws….this can be overridden by the government!

    If any or all of these are made into effect…. Many men will leave the ministry! Being proactive in teaching these courses is a must. Many men outside of the ministry have no skill, so if they were to lose their pay as a pastor… they may end up having even more financial issues.

    I am a bi-vocational pastor, that does not take any pay from his church. My goal is to keep it that way. So in case something does happen, I do not have to put undo burden on my ministry or the people of it.

  • Reginald Gabel says on

    A great article. We can all come up with many stories that are not covered. There would be no way to cover them all, not even in a book. What I think we need to realize is that many pastors have a tough time, no matter the church size, the training or the make-up of the church. Many pastors hurt, there is not a “one answer fit all”… but we can as brothers of Christ, reach out and help.

  • A pastor's wife says on

    Dr. Rainer,
    This question is not necessarily directly related to this blog posting, but it can be a source of confusion about pastor pay. Has LifeWay ever done a study about how many churches DO and how many DON’T reimburse the 7.5% of the pastor’s social security that is required because he is considered self-employed for social security purposes? If a church does not offer the reimbursement, how can a pastor go about asking for that change without causing tension? Would like to see a blog post or podcast devoted to special tax issues. Thanks!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I have addressed social security issue on a few occasions, but not the church reimbursement issue. Still, I have a number of blog posts and podcasts devoted to clergy tax issues.

      • The problem with the church reimbursing half the social security is that it creates an endless loop of incremental increases in taxable income that more social security has to be paid on.

  • This is a great article with solid research. While there are many negative factors which influence a pastor’s decision to leave the ministry, I have often dreamed of an opportunity to support my family in the business sector and then be able to serve freely, without compensation, in the area of pastoral ministry for which God has called me. That could be a missionary, a pastor, speaking or teaching, administration, or even technology. The point is, as a 22-year-old I viewed my calling in the scope of a career.

    As a 40-year-old, I am starting to view my career in the scope of a calling. I no longer desire to work to get by and pay the bills, but rather to put my entire family in a position of serving but remove the chains and obligations of a church to support it, even though I am confident many churches are faithful to serve with full-time pastors.

    Ed Stetzer works for Lifeway, and pastors as a servant. It does not seem logical to many, but it’s very intriguing and I might say there are many of us who are rather jealous (in the most non-sinful way possible). 😉

    To run/operate/work for a corporation or sole proprietorship AND be able to serve people and pastor people while not being strained by lofty financial expectations of the ministry and raising family with those funds is a very admirable and enviable position to be.

  • Dr. Rainer, I wish the survey would have delved deeper into ‘Change in calling.’ As others have pointed out, that tends to be the generic answer that pastors give when they leave a church. ‘God’s called me somewhere else.’ This is often done in order to keep the peace and not burn any bridges. That is a kind of non-answer.

    As a 22 year church staff (12 years as a senior pastor), the reasons I would leave would be the ridiculous fights with the entrenched power structures. They want to grow, they say. They want to move forward, they say. In reality, many churches are an ‘ol boys club, and the pastor is the outside hired hand.

  • As I talk with Pastors at Churches in my area, it’s amazing how they navigate a Church full of people who have lost their love for Christ. Every needed discussion/decision is up for debate by people who have replaced God with the idol of Comfort. My heart breaks for these guys, as I know their love for Christ just isn’t resonating with their flock due to hard hearts.

    When you spend so much emotional energy battling the little things, it’s difficult to find the energy in casting vision for the big ideas.

  • Allen T. Cherry says on

    When I was called to ministry I feel like it was a life time calling. I have been through the hardships of dealing with people, even being forces(fired) to leave one church. God has always been faithful to remind me of whom I’m ministering for. I have never felt that I wanted to leave the ministry. I feel led to serve as long as my health and mental ability allows me to. Jesus said that they persecuted Him and they would persecute us.