When Is It Time for a Pastor to Leave a Church? Seven Scenarios

I am reticent to write this article. I do not want to encourage pastors to leave churches too early. Frankly, many pastors have shared with me that, in the aftermath of their departures, they realized they had made a mistake. They left too soon.

Many times the departure takes place between years two to four of a pastor’s tenure. That is the typical period when the “honeymoon” is over and some level of conflict, even crises, have begun. Many pastors who made it to years five and beyond express thanksgiving that they did not depart in those more difficult early years.

I confess that I left a church too soon. My family’s income was below the poverty line, and I was too proud to express my financial needs to any trusted church leader. The church’s income had tripled in my three-year tenure, so I could have easily been paid more. And I have little doubt that some of the leaders in the church would have gladly helped. My stupid and sinful pride got in the way.

So I have asked over thirty pastors why they left their previous church. Obviously, my survey is both informal and small. Still, the responses were both fascinating and telling. Here are the top seven responses in order of frequency, and they are not always mutually exclusive.

  1. “I had a strong sense of call to another church.” This response was articulated in a number of different ways, but the essence was the same. Slightly over half of the respondents left because of the “pull” rather than the “push.”
  2. “I became weary and distracted with all the conflict and criticisms.” What leader has not been here? What pastor has not been here? It is often a death by a thousand cuts.
  3. “I no longer felt like I was a good match for the church.” One pastor shared candidly that he felt like the church outgrew him. He said he had the skill set to serve a church with an attendance of 150. But when it grew to 500 after eight years, he felt that his leadership skills were not adequate to take the church any further.
  4. “I left because of family needs.” One pastor moved closer to his aging parents who had no one to care for them. Another indicated his family was miserable in their former church location.
  5. “I was fired or forced out.” This story is far too common. Of course, some of the other factors in this list overlap with this one.
  6. “I was called to a different type of ministry.” Some left to take a position other than lead pastor in another church. Others went into parachurch or denominational ministry. I am among those who left the pastorate for denominational work.
  7. “I was not paid adequately.” I related my own story above. Let me be clear. The pastors with whom I spoke were not seeking extravagant pay, just adequate pay. And like me, most of them were uncomfortable broaching the issue with any leaders in the church.

What do you think of these seven factors? What would you add? What have been your experiences?

Posted on July 14, 2014

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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  • Micah Rogers says on

    I wouldd also suggest you add, when the people refuse to be part of growth, even historically, saying, “we can’t. We might offend them” or, “that’s your job to grow the church”, AND have refused for years

  • Rev. Reginald Gabel says on

    Satan is alive and well in our churches. Pushing members and ministers in the wrong directions with wrong motives and ideas. He will sneak up on the best. Praying we will lift each other up and not tear each other down. Praying ALL OF US, will fall on our knees and ask our Lord for His direction. God’s Word tell us not to laugh when someone falls, may we lift up pastors and churches who fall to temptation. Who is my brother?

  • Rick Sellers says on

    Ironically, this article was posted July 14, 2014, just a couple months following my departure which should have been much different. After 26 years I was facing severe burnout and the church refused to let me take time off (sabbatical) even after being medically advised to do so. It caused my wife and I to enter into some serious financial depression which we have worked hard to climb out of. I am deeply saddened by the number of pastors I know of who have experienced the same kind of pain. Praise God for His healing, which I continue to need each day. I pray that my wife will be able to find healing but so far she has continued to suffer from the painful experience. In 2018 God blessed me with the opportunity to reenter pastoral ministry part time with the hope of moving forward in His grace.

  • I been at this church about 12 years me and my wife started the church it went good for a while but people it was a few but it seems like they in this city don’t want to go so lately few one Sunday next two or three next I am worn down thinking about let it go.I am very disappoint it not going good what can I do.

  • Please what should I do?

    I am a young minister in my church where I was baptised. Before I received my call, I relocated to another place to work and I attended church at the new place, then I had the calling. So I told the pastor there and he said it is a calling. But the pastors there were four so I decided to return to my pastor because he is an evangelist and has planted three churches and needs pastors to work with. So I returned to him. Later he started hating me so badly. Later one elder came to me and told me he had a revelation about my calling so we should be prayer partners and things will be fine. So I agreed. He told me the pastor and his son are saying I have been sent to destroy the church. What he said was confirmed from the pastors daughter to that they are saying I have been sent to destroy the church. I tod her that is not true and I can’t do that. She said she told the family in a nice way but she does not know why he was still behaving towards me like this. So we were praying about it. After two years, this elder who became my prayer partner went to tell the pastor that he has found out to be true I was sent to destroy the church. But this is never true. I proved to him I have no church intention. I strongly fear to do evil. I cannot do this. So they planned to sack me from the church. So when I heard it I went to the pastor and told him I was not sent to destroy the church but rather to him him. I really weeped bitterly. He understood me and said he has forgiven me. Later he told the son and the son says no so he should sack me from the church. He really made his father very angry against me. Yet the pastors wife knpw I am innocent. So I have been in the house for sometime now. I am very confused. Please if I leave the church am I doing the right thing. And will I succeed? I have prayed and waiting to hear from God. But it’s been a month now they want to know if I am coming back and I don’t know what to do now. Please someone should help me.

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