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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  • While I have experienced #3 and #5 I am now leaving my current pastorate of 6 years due to a different reason. The “lay leadership” of this church is not committed to the great commission. Most of the time they are not even committed to attending worship services, Bible study or prayer services. They talk the walk but do not walk it. After being here for two years and being in the community I found out that the reputation of this ministry was, to say the least, not very good. People have been told in the past that they were in the wrong church because of their ethnicity(color of skin); because they didn’t dress properly (suit & tie) and more. While there are a few that actually want to worship the one true living God and reach out there are many who worship the church itself and what has been done in the past. Since the late 1800’s I am the 3rd longest serving pastor here.

    • Thom Rainer says on


    • I say to you, don’t give up on those in the congregation that are committed followers of Christ, that may be the reason why you are there.
      There are ways of weeding out those who are not committed. I am a lay leader at my church, and we have the same situation with some of the other leaders, they want to be there when they want to be there.
      I have watched over the past year our new pastor having to deal with this and I feel he has done an excellent job, he has always said he would rather have a church of 20 committed followers than of 300 pew sitters.
      Don’t forsake the few for the many.

      • It is very difficult to work with a mindset that you are alone. 2Cor 6:1-2. I have always believe that if you’re are in the “prison of God’s purpose” as Jemimah,then let it be so. God is responsible for the results. It may be that the generation that receives the Word of God gladly is the only ones you can build up in the faith. Numbers may be lacking but the power of God is sufficient.

      • Heat, I’m not giving up on the few (7 at best, including my wife). With a few others(including the 7) in the county I live in we have begun a parachurch ministry. We live in a county in NC that has a poverty rate above 20%. We will be helping all the churches in the area in their ministries reaching out to others. It is, for lack of better words, a “helps” ministry. We will have a food pantry that will be available to the local churches to utilize as none of them have their own food pantry. Another part of the ministry will be home repair for the elderly and those who truly cannot afford the costs involved in repairs. A third part of this ministry will be a clothes closet. We will hold an open giveaway 3 or 4 times a year plus it will be available for emegencies (fires, disasters, etc,). And for the fires/disasters we will have some household furnishings. We have been blessed with the use of 2300 sq. ft. of storage/office space at no expense plus an old school gym to use for the clothing giveaways. This is a ministry that is in it’s birth stage but has already begun making an impact in the community. A 4th aspect of this will be a nondenominational (Biblical & conservative) Bible study which again has the backing of local churches and pastors as most of them do not have Sun. or Wed. evening services and there are people who want more. This will be a ministry that evolves as the Lord leads. The name says it all “God’s Will.” We want to do and follow His will.

      • Dennis Smith says on

        I am blessed to have a small and elderly congregation. I have found a hugh need for Sunday and Wednesday services. So many churches in all denominations no longer offer these services. We always have more people attending on these nights than on Sunday morning. I counted 6 different denominations on one particular occasion. We focus on Jesus and not the color of the paint on the walls.

      • Paul Hebert says on

        What does the Spirit of God say? He is the one who commissions and calls Pastors of God’s chosing. This is all in Acts 13. Is there no one in this forum who knows the Holy Ghost. Our communion with Christ is essential to know what God wants you to do…all that I have read here has only to do with changing circumstances or shifting environments…nothing about what Christ says…sadly disappointing and very unspiritual.

  • I’m aware that my comment will probably fall under one of the seven categories already mentioned.

    One reason is that the pastor may leave is because he discovers that the doctrine of the leadership conflicts with that of Scripture. The sign on the front of the building may indicate that this is a church that follows a certain doctrinal bent, but it isn’t until the pastor is hired that he may discover two years down the road that the leadership there does not even believe or follow its own doctrine.

    This is one reason why a lot of questions need to be asked during the interview process.

    I know of a minister that came from a very conservative church from the south and became a pastor at a church of the same denomination only it was located in the upper Midwest.

    He was not there long when he discovered there were people serving in ministries within this church who were at the same time living blatantly open, unrepentant and wanton sinful lives. This was a situation that would not have been tolerated at all in the churches down south, but when he challenged the leadership concerning this he was met with strong resistance by the leaders as if this was a common practice and no big deal. Being unable to convince this leadership otherwise, he resigned his position.

    Had this pastor asked more questions during the interviewing process he could have saved himself the grief of dealing with this unknown situation later.

  • Frank Winfrey says on

    I serve as pastor in a small church now for almost four years and I live 44 miles one direction from my church. I commute twice on Sundays and once on Wednesday each week in addition to times when I am needed. The pay package for a full time position is a reasonable package for a pastor living in the community or even if the church still provided housing which was sold in 1996. So long story short, four years serving with absolutely no increase to my compensation certainly causes some stress in providing for my family. But what pains me the most is the refusal to pay a social security offset which I requested when I first went there. I wonder what it will take to help smaller, rural churches to comprehend that the number printed on the budget for pastor is an inaccurate reflection of what actually supports his family.

    • Even though many pastors are hesitant to involve a lawyer, they should when it is matters of the language of their contract/call/etc.

  • I was at my former church for just over 13 years. God was so good to us. It was evident to me that my task was completed and the course that God had plotted for that particular congregation under my leadership took 13 years, but we arrived at our destination. There was no doubt in my faith that we had finished our task.

  • To add to the earlier pastor’s idea of “completion,” I think there comes a time when the ministry just ends, not necessarily because you did a great job or a poor one, but you are just no longer going to be effective there. God’s door of opportunity in that location has come to a close, and He is sending you somewhere else. Sometimes churches need different leaders for different seasons, and one set of gifts is better for one season than another.

    That being said, I think the challenge is to tell the difference between “these people won’t listen and I’m tired of them” and God closing the door and moving a person forward. I’d like to see some wisdom from you and others on how to tell the difference.

    • Steve, thank you for your response:
      To add to the earlier pastor’s idea of “completion,” I think there comes a time when the ministry just ends, not necessarily because you did a great job or a poor one, but you are just no longer going to be effective there. God’s door of opportunity in that location has come to a close, and He is sending you somewhere else. Sometimes churches need different leaders for different seasons, and one set of gifts is better for one season than another.

      That being said, I think the challenge is to tell the difference between “these people won’t listen and I’m tired of them” and God closing the door and moving a person forward. I’d like to see some wisdom from you and others on how to tell the difference.
      This was a great response and fit me well at this current place I’m at in the Lord, there are some great responses here

  • Thom, no you did not post this on a Monday.

  • Have you ever felt like they will not follow scripture? They are a great group of people to be around and may even acknowledge their sin. I guess this is where conflict and criticism normally come in.

  • Tom Genovese says on

    The number of men that succeed replacing men who have been in a particular ministry for more than 10 years, is very low as well. It is difficult for people to look to another pastor when they had a pastor that they loved and followed for a number of years.

  • I’d love for you to do a post on bad, or at least insufficient, reasons for leaving a church. This is something I discuss a lot with my seminary students.

  • I really believe that number 1 is the only LEGITIMATE reason to leave a church. It has God as it’s author and the others are more about the person.

    • Be gracious my brother. This might help:

      1. “I had a strong sense of call to another church.”
      2. “God called me away due to all the conflict and criticisms.”
      3. “God impressed upon me that I no longer felt like I was a good match for the church.”
      4. “God wanted me to attend to my family needs.”
      5. “God allowed me to be fired or forced out.”
      6. “God called me to a different type of ministry.”
      7. “God impressed upon me to financially support my family as the head of the home.”

      Not as objective anymore.

  • The first church I pastored I stayed 8 years. Not 1 argument or criticism. The second lasted 2 years. I left because the total distance travelled each week was 150 miles.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks Bryan.

    • Les Ferguson says on

      Could you explain the context for your second church and why 150 miles/week was too much. I come from an area where clergy either travel very few miles to their Parishes or travel between 15 and 20 miles each way. Did you feel that being 15 miles from your Parish prevented you from fulfilling your responsibilities as Pastor?

      • jonathon says on

        That 150 miles per week could be split up a nimber of different ways.
        * 1 roundtrip per week, on Sunday Morning.(75 miles each way);
        * 2 roundtrips per week: Sunday Morning and Wednesday Night);
        * 3 roundtrips per week: Sunday Morning, Wednesday Night, Sunday Night;
        * 4 roundtrips per week: Sunday Morning, Sunday Night, Wednesday Night, Thursday Night. (38 miles away each);

        That said, in the last year I have become convinced tbat if the pastor lives more than two blocks from the church, s/he lives too far away from the church to connect with the local community.
        (That applies equally to rural, semi-rural, sub-urban, and urban churches.)

      • 2 Blocks? I appreciate the sentiment but thats crazy. I live 3 miles from the building. I have members that live farther away than that. I am there at least 6 days a week and can “be there” pretty quick if needed. There are some homes I can get to quicker than my church’s building. I also pastored a church where I lived 30 miles from the building. That WAS difficult. But I did it 4 years.

      • Two blocks from the church!?! A pastor can be involved in the community and live 15 or more miles from the church. I happen to live 15 minutes from the church. This is a great buffer for me and my family. I have lived in two parsonages in my ministry, both were right next door to the church and it was a constant struggle- if somebody needs in the church, they come over to get you to let them in (regardless of the time), since the parsonage is a part of the church property some members feel it is easily accessible and they should be able to walk in anytime they want unannounced just like the would the fellowship hall. It begins to put a strain on your family and your ministry.
        My grandfather was what we would call a successful pastor back in the ’70’s,’80’s and ’90’s. He gave me some great advice, that I would like to pass along as it relates to your comment. He told me, “To buy a house that was convenient for me to get to the church, but not for the church to get to me.” This is simply to protect your family time. Because, after all, we are husbands and fathers before we are pastors.

  • I think I would add leaving due to a sense of completion – that the ministry has been taken as far as possible and the pastor would be better utilized somewhere else. This would not necessarily pertain to senior pastors as much as other ministry leaders.

    Left my last church due to #5, and it is, sadly, too common.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Good add. Thanks.

      • Bob Keller says on

        You could also add my current situation which I am calling a, “Spiritual Dilemma.” I have been serving as pastor of a little country church now for six years. When I came here the attendance was around twenty, with just one child for the 3 to 5 minute kid’s time that I love to do at the beginning of the service. In the first year the church doubled and the second year trippled and it went from that one child to 25 to 30 children filling three pews. Now three years from that the church seems to be reverting backwards. If the wind blows a certain direction they use it for a reason to miss church. They will put everything ahead of God and several of my top Deacon and committee chairs are seldom in church. So, I find myself questioning if they have gotten used to me and are no longer excited. I love the people here and I know they love me, but I would rather leave the church than be the reason it slips into dormancy. Maybe a fresh face would excite them and turn things around. I am praying heavely for God’s direction.

      • Jeff Hicks says on


        I’m curious what you were led to do. Interestingly I find myself in basically the same position you describe. Had great growth but have now suffered some unwelcomed changes.

      • Guys I’m in the same boat and haven’t even been at my church 2 yrs. low attendance when I arrived, grew, now people miss for the most silly reasons. Last sun attendance was an all time low.

    • Jon I think you could see that as a form of #3. I was associate pastor of a church that had been through revitalization and was healthy and growing. While I was there the senior pastor, who had initiated the revitalization, realized that his calling and gifting was to bring about revitalization. Now that the church was revitalized, he didn’t know what to do next. He began to feel he had completed the work he was called to do and that he was called to move on to the next ministry.

      That church is currently healthy and growing with an intentional interim pastor and the former pastor is thriving in a new ministry (and I’m in a revitalization work myself).

      • my question to u is this; will God ever tell a pastor to leave his position at the church , for a job in this world, Government/City Council job ect… and why would he do that when he put u in the I position.

      • Toby Thomas says on

        Not sure if this is an answer or a thought inspired by your question.

        I guess we have to ask ourselves, “Why wouldn’t God tell a pastor to leave his position for a job in the ‘marketplace’?” “Is being used by God to minister as a pastor greater than being used by God to minister to people in our day to day work-life?”

        Why would He do that? — Perhaps for the same reason He put a person in the position as pastor; for His glory in the circle of people that ‘marketplace’ job would give you opportunity to influence.

      • R. D. "Blue" Mauldin says on

        I came to the pastorate at 52 and have spent 11 years walking the church from “mission” to church with building with no debt.

        My other life was in criminal investigation (both sides of the aisle of the court). I found that I had access to the inner workings of many more people there than I have to churchmen. Why? Unsure if fault lays with me or others, but in other life, could just say, “That’s malarkey and both of us know it” preparatory to showing someone need for more than “every man a law unto himself”.

        All of which leads me to the question, “Is it more holy to be a Christ-seeking plumber or a Christ-seeking pastor?” Answer is obviously God sends lights that belong to him where light is needed. Good and needed post, Toby

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