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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  • Scott Kinnard says on

    I don’t regret my decision to leave ministry. And I don’t regret my years in ministry. I do, however regret going to Bible college and Seminary. It was a waste of time and money. If I could go back and talk to my 19 year old self, I would’ve told him to get a real degree or learn a trade first. I didn’t leave because of a sin issue. Not every pastor who is burnt out or leaves is dealing with a sin issue. I was young when I started. Seven years later when I met my wife, things changed. Ministry families don’t get private lives. They are constantly under the microscope. My wife grew up as a PK and went through a lot of bad things. I knew that to be the best husband I could be, I would have to step away. Wasn’t even a hard decision. While I don’t regret my time in ministry, I can’t say I miss it as a whole. There are certain things I miss at times but nothing to the point I’d ever be willing to go back. Plus, how many pastors who openly do not want kids can really last in ministry? You should see the looks I’ve gotten over the years.

  • I left my pastoral position of 16 years this past September.

    I truly believed it was just time for me to set out of my pastoral role. Little things that did not bother me in the past really became an irritant to me. I don’t believe I was being honest to the church in my role and that my change could hopefully help the church get some excitement back.

    I believe I have a change in call – out of the pastorate into my new role facilitating LifePlans, speaking and writing. Without a doubt, I know I was being faithful in stepping out of my pastoral position!

  • I am so have to be alive in sharing this wonderful testimony to the world. I was HIV positive over 4year I have being in medication and I try to look for cure to my problem i have gone through different hospital with no good result, Till i saw a testimony on the internet on how a traditional doctor named [email protected] help someone to cure a bad illness so i contacted him for help he give me all his laws and rule that if I get cured I should write about him and that is what am doing now, this man ask for some information about me, Also told me what i needed to do which i did within the next 15hours i started seeing changing’s in my body and i was no longer having the pain that i was to my body became normal and few weeks later i went for test and i have been cured fro HIV It’s just like a dream to me and i will advice anyone in need of help to contact this great DR.Antogia he is the best.

  • Provide a mentor training ongoing relationship with an older Pastor for young Pastors who enter your Association. Focus on relationship building principles, which most have no clue about. Train the older Pastors how to lead these. This can be approved and required by a Pastor Search Team as they extend the call to a Young Pastor.

    Provide relationship building training for Deacon bodies. Most don’t know how to develop healthy relationships between Deacons and Congregations or Deacons and Pastor/Staff.

  • Harral Landry says on

    About 15 years ago because of a combination of several reasons listed above, I left the pastorate also. Now, I shall be retiring shortly with enough money to live on. I still feel the calling and it haunts me almost daily. I am now wiser and will not have to work two jobs to survive. My question is a simple one I hope. How do I get back into the ministry?

  • Dr. Rainer, thank you for this post. I left the healthcare industry 10 years ago after sensing God’s call to full-time ministry. 10 years, a seminary degree, and two churches later, I’m wrestling with the question of whether I was ever truly called to ministry. I enjoyed teaching the Bible and I had a strong desire to see folks come to faith in Christ, so I told my pastor that I thought I was called to the ministry. He basically gave me a pat on the back and 3 months later, I was enrolled in seminary. Looking back now, I wish that the pastor and other church leaders had taken the time to really help me examine my “calling.” Having spent a great deal of time in self-evaluation since that time, I’m now convinced that I am not called to full-time ministry, and I’m looking to transition out of the ministry and re-enter the business world in the near future. So, I say all of that to ask if any research has been completed with former pastors who expressed a “change in calling” to discover how extensive their “calling” was evaluated by their church leaders prior to them entering into ministry? From my experience, I believe that if church leaders spent more time evaluating potential candidates for ministry, it might help to dissuade those eager souls from entering the ministry if they are not called to do so.

    • Well said, Jay. I wish all prospective pastors would read Jeff Iorg’s book on calling before they make a major move. God’s best to you as you return to marketplace ministry.

  • Thomas M. Folkert says on

    As someone who has been stung as a Chairperson of Search Committee, I’d like to make the following observations here:
    1. If there was any misrepresentation, it was the clergy who misrepresented himself to us, not vice-versa.
    2. Ultimately there was an attack, almost literally from the congregation, but the initial attack came from clergy who didn’t want to work, who insisted on ignoring phone calls from parishioners, not responding and not fulfilling the leadership mantra that was the basis of their being called.
    3.Our candidate was given bad advice by the bishop which ruined this person’s ability to interact with the congregation.
    4.Our candidate was a 2nd career clergy, so he already had a change in calling. Another was headed in his direction.
    5 Our candidate was not underpaid, in fact it was the best paying gig he had ever had, which is why he was reluctant to let go when things didn’t work out. Then when it came time to sever the relationship, the bishop paid him, from church funds, a half million severance after 18 months of service.
    Don’t get me wrong. I support clergy strongly. There should be some evidence of servant-hood in them. If they want an executive career, they should go sell life insurance or work for a bank.

  • One thing to note regarding the #1 reason for leaving the pastorate as change in calling. When I left the church to become a chaplain I was listed as one who left the ministry in statistics. When a former pastor left the pastorate to become a DOM he was listed as leaving the pastorate, but not ministry. When another former pastor left to plant a church he was listed as leaving the ministry; two years after the church launched he was listed in the statistics as returning to ministry. When a former pastor left the church to become an IMB missionary he was listed as leaving the ministry. When the population where I currently live declined 40% and unemployment went from 6% to 25% every pastor that went from full-time to bi-vocational or volunteer was listed in the statistics as having left the ministry.

  • I’ve been a pastor for 20 years, and I guess my biggest frustration has been in the area of unrealistic expectations. People have to realize that the pastor is not some sort of genie who can cast a magic spell over the church and cause it to grow. It takes hard work, commitment, and sacrifice on the part of both pastors and laypeople. Frankly, many people today are unwilling to do that. The pastor is an easy scapegoat in such situations, so he gets the blame.

  • This makes me so grateful to be a United Methodist. I got bounced by a church but was able to land elsewhere. I give much credit of that too divine intervention, but a bit also to church structure which is honest about pettiness in the church.

  • I fall into the #4 category. I pastored for 20 years and now I am a Director of Missions. The spark for associational ministry hit me in just my 2nd year of pastoring my first full time vocational church. I was asked to be on the search committee for a new DOM, listening to the other pastors on the committee talk about what we wanted to be looking for my heart jumped, “That’s the ideal ministry!” To be a pastor to pastors and a helper of churches. But I was young and didn’t feel I had the experience yet. So I continued to pastor. The desire began to grow again after 15 years in the pastorate. I have now been a DOM for 3 1/2 years and love it. And, while I still have the opportunity to preach often, have no desire to go back into a local church pastoral role.

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