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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  • I’m a pastor’s wife and my husband just resigned from our church after serving for almost 13 years. This was our first pastorate. We have 3 children, and it was very tough, but just felt that God directed us that it was time. We left on good terms, but I’m dealing with so many emotions and hurt that I didn’t expect after being gone for a couple months. Are there any books that you can recommend for dealing with the aftermath of leaving and the emotions that come with it?

  • I’m right there with #2; I am exhausted with all the internal conflict and and constant criticism of everything I do. “Death by a thousand cuts.” That’s me. I don’t know how much more I can take. I have been pastor of this church for nearly 20 years, I am trying to move the church forward, reach out to the next generation, involve younger people in leadership, but the old guard will not have it. They are attacking me on all fronts and making my life miserable. A deacon in the church has left and is guiding the rebellion from the outside. I cannot fight this battle much longer. I am praying about stepping out of the pastorate and working a secular job. Your book, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” fits this group to a tee. It has become control at any cost and after I leave I fear this church will further decline as the old guard, all in their 70’s and 80’s resumes full control. It’s what they want. Pray for me.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I hurt for you, Dan. I am praying for you at this very moment.

      • Thank you, Brother Thom, I appreciate that very much. I have read some of your articles and recently discovered your blog. What I have read has been a great encouragement. I’m a 92 grad of SBTS. Sorry we have never met. Your book, “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” was a real eye opener. I see much of those danger signs in my church and I have seen them in many other churches. I have flat out told the church, from the pulpit, that unless things change, the church may be extinct in 5-10 years. The old guard isn’t listening and continues to oppose me on the most minor changes I try to make that might result in church growth. In 20 years, the church has declined from an average worship attendance of 110 down to about 75. We’re in a small Virginia community surrounded by churches suffering a similar fate. I’ve had to take on a part-time job to make ends meet (another source of conflict and criticism), we can get by if I resign, but it’s all very hard. My wife and I love this church; we’ve devoted 20 years of our lives here. Raised our children here. This has become home. It’s heartbreaking to see the church declining and these people (Sr. adults who are quickly dying off!) opposing me and creating constant friction and conflict in the church. If I resign, the few young families we have probably will not stay. My wife and I are praying for guidance and sort of waiting to see what happens. I am just worn out brother. I’m tired of the attacks and criticisms. The deacon who turned on me used to be my friend. Sharing this is a real comfort.
        Thanks again brother. I didn’t mean to ramble on so.

      • Thom Rainer says on

        Dan: You are not rambling. I’m grateful you feel the freedom to share on this blog. You are not alone. There are many other pastors in similar situations. Even more importantly, God is with you. I don’t know what He has planned for you next, but i am praying that it will be the greatest years of your ministry.

  • I NEED QUICK RESPONSE PLEASE and thank you in advance. small church with about 35-50 each Sunday in church. we have a young first time pastor with a masters degree. we came 4 years ago but never new the previous pastor of 19 years. the only paid people are part time sec. and pastor and cleaning guy. Church budget is 100k and we pay 54k total compensation to our pastor. we have a extra income from a rental 36k but church voted a long time ago never to be used for salayries and the whole church voted on how to use that money. Missions building maint. evangelism ect. The main foundation people about 7 families are not happy with his leadership and he prefers to talk everything with e-mails and face book instead of face to face. He has lobbied his closes friend in the church who is on the personal commity to get a 14k raise and use that (special money) as the source knowing it would split the church. I am also on the personal commity. We have voted down his request and tonight I have been elected to tell him. in three years the church has not grown and money has not grown. I believe 54k total is fair wage considering how small and he never spends any hours at the chuch office, really maybe 1-2 hours a week. Need opionion???? fast

  • I have been pastoring the same small church for 21 years. The current membership is 35, and only half attend regularly. And less than half attend prayer on Wednesdays. I have been tempted to quit many, many times, and there are days that I feel so discouraged and heartbroken that I can barely stand it. I am a bi-vocational pastor and my tithes/offering is largely what sustains the Church. The saints who attend regularly are the only reason why I stay, particularly because I do not have the kind of fellowship that I have longed for with the elders of the Church, even after years of praying together, sharing, tears and confessions. I often feel like my labor has been in vain in this area and what is so heartbreaking is that I could deal with the size of the Church if I felt I had a strong and growing relationship with the elders. I am here still because of the faithful few who would likely not go to Church anywhere at all if I left, or so they say, but my deep lonliness and feelings of failure and rejection are overwhelming at times. I make a very good living as a NYC Banker, and I have been told that I am an excellent speaker. Thankfully I do not ‘need the pastorate’ for the money or for a ‘sense of self.’ I would be fine financially if I left, and I am not without a ‘life’ for want of a better term. I would just be heartbroken I think to see the past 20+ years of my life ‘go down the drain’ (again, for want of a better term). Please pray for me as I want to ‘finish my course with joy’, however I have not experienced too much joy of late. Just heartache after heartache and much disappointment. Thank you in advance for those of you who will pray for me and my husband, who also has been one of true faithful of the church, along with our adult children and their families.

  • I just now read your post and I am searching for the will of God currently. Thank you for all the input.

  • Deltaboy says on

    We left a church after an Auto accident and the deaths of my in-laws less than a year later back in 2008. We have supplied the past 3 years as needed but just this Summer updated my resume and started looking for a new place to serve.
    I have been Bivocational my entire career and I never made over a thousand dollars a month.

  • How about “Lonely”. Sometimes there is a big gap between church members and meaningful friendships.

  • Isn’t the pastorate an interesting calling/profession? It seems every day I struggle with the do I still like doing this after 30 plus years or not. Two years ago I was serving bi-vocationally and really loved my “Secular” job…but I knew it was time to leave the church. Which meant leaving the secular work as well. I ended up in a full time church in a typical small town…and just yesterday I told my wife that I love/hate the ministry all at the same time! It is very tough, to be sure…and there are always a million reasons to leave…all very good ones…and usually very sound. But there are also many reasons to stay. Like the Facebook comment from a lady we helped last year who moved away…and now has found Christ and is loving her life! To the youth we taught 25 years ago…now writing us notes of thanks and encouragement. It’s the block party and VBS we just had that went beyond the church’s wildest expectations. It’s the lady I just talked to on the phone who is getting out of the hospital who I just baptized a month ago. Yes, the ministry is a pain in the behind. No doubt about it. I love it. I hate it. The pay stinks. Taxes on it stinks. All of us knew that going in. But I am called to it. And my hope is that one day I will hear “well done, good and faithful servant”. I have been blessed by a wife who shares in my calling. I am blessed with children who grew up as ministers kids and STILL love the church! Yes, I could have many a great living doing something else…but praise God…He knows right where He wants me…and for now…that is right where I am.

  • Pastor Keith says on

    It is my conviction that the only reasons for a pastor to leave a church is that he is voted out, his health declines or he becomes too old to lead. My conviction and position on pastors leaving a church is not all that popular with my peers and we have debated this numerous times as this is a reoccurring event in our area. My conviction and position on this matter is derived from the men of God in the bible that lead the people of God. They were inadequate in their abilities, they were rejected, verbally assaulted, people murmured and complained about their leadership, they weren’t taken seriously by the people they led and the list goes on as to how they were mistreated but at no time did God lead them to leave the people that they were leading.

    This is what guides me in this. God is all knowing and all seeing. He knew what would happen in the place that he sent you before he sent you but still he sent you there. When what God already knows is going to happen happens, that doesn’t give us grounds or reasons to leave. In all of the post that I read I do not recall anyone saying that God sent them to the particular church that they left or that God sent them to the church they currently pastor but rather “I took on this church” or “I became pastor” and etc, brethren we must be led by God for this vocation by which he has called us or more and more of us will burnout, resign or checkout of life because of the overwhelming pressures and stress of being a pastor.

    Each time this subject has come up among my peers it’s always event related, someone has left a church and I sit quietly and listen to them tell the story of why they left and this and that and the story always has something to do with “they wouldn’t follow me” “they refused to raise my salary” “there’s a bigger church that’s interested in me” I’ve only heard once or twice “God said it was time for me to leave” but as I continued to listen and the other shoe fell and it was actually one of the other reasons why they actually left.

    I do not believe that a pastor that is God focused can become noneffective in the place where he plants him, he must continue to evolve with time and remain relevant to the people that God has placed him over.

    I think the problem in our society is that there are way too my evangelist that are becoming pastors rather than continuing to do the work of an evangelist. Being a pastor takes a special anointing in order that you my be able to bear the people that God has given you charge over.

    There are those who have left one church for another and they highlight their success there as validation that they were right about leaving as do people in marriage who divorce and remarry, they often highlight the success of the subsequent marriage as validation that they were right about leaving but they never take into consideration that the second marriage is better because of the lessons you learned in the first one and truth be told if you had gone to counseling and applied some of these lessons then you could have turned around that marriage as well IF this is he marriage that God led you into and not that you just got yourself into.

    This is just my humble take on the matter, not throwing rocks at anyone just conveying my conviction, the same conviction that I approach my current pastorate with. I am in my second year of my second pastorate, the first was a church plant that was dissolved prior to my relocation due to military service. I am thoroughly convinced that I am where God wants me to be and I told the congregation that no amount of money, nor any disagreement with leadership can make me leave because for me to leave would be for me to disobey God however, they could vote me out and I would become the best darn Sunday school teacher kids have ever had this side of heaven but I absolutely would not leave because my assignment is in this field.


  • I am 77 years young-came out of retirement after some 40 years in the ministry. 2008 i was asked to pastor a little country church in Maiine. The church was closed for thirty one years. 2009 we became a real church in 2009-Joined the SBC in 2012-here it is 2014, and God has kept us here. Many times I felt like giving up. The honey moon was ovfer, and many heart breaking events tok place. However-God has not released us yet from here, and now we have a small body of true believers, a secured foundation. Just think what could have happened if we had left? When God want us to leave He will give us that Peace, Amen.

  • May I had another consideration. I have a lot of respect for pastors. What if the pastor’s health is not fair and the church is not growing.

  • I work for what is termed para church but we work through local churches. Over my lifetime I have been a member at 5 churches involving more pastors than that. One concept that helped me was when the Lord showed me I was and that sometimes people relate to leadership out of personal need and this can cause hurt and confusion. One example was a need for affirmation that caused competition. If we understand it, sometimes all we need is to recognize and adjust our attitude and sometimes it can be talked out. Understanding the stages of relationship is helpful and conflict that can be resolved leads to deeper relationship.
    The Lord has spoken to my heart with these thoughts – If it is different than you expected are you still going to be faithful? – Doubting others motives can become accusations. – The gift of prophecy or vision needs to be worded in such a way that others do not perceive it as – you or it are not good enough. – Hearing the words Leading from the second chair, helped me think about some situations creatively. Sometimes doing something right can cause in others when you are not there, that person expressing that pain can third parties to criticize. That doesn’t mean you did it wrong.
    Biblical characters were encouraged when they were down. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was so because George was mostly overcoming obstacles. See if the Lord will bring someone you can pray with confidentially. The gospel became real to me when I started working with inmates and saw the need of those who did not have it. If you did not show up it would leave a huge hole in many lives even if they did not know it. Be encouraged.

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