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 relating most to #3. I’m mid-way into the 4th year of the first church I have been a Sr. pastor and also the first church I have been the solo pastor on staff. I was a youth pastor for 17 years; 2 as a volunteer and 15 on a staff. The youth ministry I left after 10 years was successful from the numeric standpoint; in fact larger than church I now pastor.

    The church God called us to was a older, dying church in Eastern Iowa. We had candidated at 3 churches total and this was the one God kept giving us vision for as we prayed where He would have us go. The church is 65 years + and has never been large; a history of 200 or less. When we accepted the call there were 28 people remaining. We were early 40’s at the time and a lot younger than anyone in attendance. It was hard to get past their expectations of, ‘we have a young pastor’s family, now we’ll grow’.

    The reason main reason the church was in such advanced cancer was because they had stopped being missional years prior. The Sr. pastor they had before me had left nearly 4 years prior and most of the group (100-120) had left during his tenor. For nearly a 10 year period, prior to our arrival, the church dwindled to the final 30 or so.

    I say all that to say, we came fresh to become a more outward focused church. There were a few who left initially because becoming a missional church took them out of their comfort zone. The first 3 years we immersed ourselves into our neighborhood. We have slowly seen the numbers increase now averaging about 50. About a year ago, the mood seemed to change; feeling that I may have been pushing my volunteers too hard I pulled back and slowed our roll a bit. I also started sensing a feeling of failure within the main group. Almost a, “hey, we’ve been small for so long, this is who we are”. I do believe that they believe their church has had it’s ‘hey day’.

    This is where #3 comes in to the mix. I still have the same urgency to continually engage our neighborhood and community. I’m not so sure that urgency is here? My wife and I are praying fervently for the Lord to give us direction. Is He closing the door on this chapter of our journey? My transition from my last youth pastorate to this one was so positive. My pastor, elders and church were all on board. It was a serious case of blessed subtraction. As hard as it was to leave, they knew they were apart of my equipping and calling to a Sr. pastorate.

    I’m not so sure we will find that same level of excitement and support here. where I am right now? I think the prospect of me pursuing God’s next call would cause fear and frustration. Not that I think that highly of myself; I believe the concern would be if they can financially afford to endure another pastoral search as we rarely make budget and savings are getting thin.

    So, with all that said and #3 in mind, could you give some tips on how a pastor starts the process of moving on? When do you let the cat out of the bag?

  • My family attends a church where the pastor has been the senior pastor for over 34 years. He is stepping down at the end of this year, and we have a search committee active to find a new shepherd.

    I wondered if you had any advice to help find “a good fit” – for both the church and the pastor. We want someone that is willing to be bold, to stretch us, to help us grow. Yet, we also want he and his family to be comfortable in our town and church body. Obviously, we have to be honest about who we are. Is there a way to communicate that well?

  • Hello Dr. Rainer

    I love your website and this article in particular. However, I do not want to post my concern on this comment section. I am in need of a response from you as soon as possible. I am therefore asking if it is possible I could get an email address so I may send my concern by mail and you use that same forum to respond. I am awaiting. Thanks so much.

  • Donnie Hicks says on

    Why a Pastor leaves…

    I feel we often forget of the freewill God gives us. Sometimes we give too much credit to Satan and not enough to God allowing things to come on us.

    Paul said I am perplexed
    But not in dispair

    Pauls ship came apart. Sometimes we spend so much time trying to hold something together that God is taking apart.

    When Paul’s ship came apart and after a snake bite folks got saved.

    My point….

    Start with the man in the mirror. The enemy just wants us to stop advancing to freeze us sure to retreat or quit but just stop and stand.

    If the church is not advancing in my heart I feel it’s time to go.

    Less services, less outreach, less salvation, less support, less,less,less.

    We are called to be set apart equipped for the job.

    We cannot die with them in the comfort zone the battle zone yes.

    Sometimes our boat of comfort is the very thing stopping us.

    Truth is…

    A man knows when he owes another man
    A man knows there is a God Romans 1

    A man knows when it’s time to go!

    God Bless

    Just use me in the gap Lord.

  • ndi isaac says on

    Hello, Rev. It’s illuminating reading your article on when a pastor leaves the church. I also think that one of the reasons also is when the climatical conditions are not favorable. This is what my Family have been facing for two years today. We have hardly had two months free from pains. Thanks Rev. Ndi Isaac, Cameroon, West Africa.

  • Rev.cassius crittenden says on

    Iam a paster looking for a church to preach lost souls and or à church with leavingor give up and walk out on a chirch.

  • @mrjvalenz says on

    Blessings to all and my prayer: may Daddy continue to invade you, yours and His daily.

    Food for Thought: A good add would be “Retirement and Resigning”. I am Hispanic, and in our culture of service to the Kingdom if we do not go until we have nothing left we have fallen short. This is a result of much ministry “burn-out” as well as the ability to stunt church growth, and denying a community a facet of resources.

    I believe in seasons and see them celebrated all over: military, business, non-profits etc… to name a couple. All entities, scouting, recruiting, employing and compensating for the day of farewell. The greatest testament to business started with 12 very different but talented men. All retired before their time, in my book. But, there is something to say about living to leave well. Churches like board members should be informed to such and consider these servants of our Lord in there time of need. Resignation is a right, as retirement a privilege and who more privileged than the redeemed of God. Either or, is not something to be ashamed of but rather something to celebrate.

    Please, keep in mind these are thoughts of a humble presbyter as I have served His sheep in my culture.

    Thank you, for the much needed article and transparency.
    your servant in Christ,

  • I am not a pastor, just a sheep. But the one thing not discussed here is self evaluation ,if you are biblically qualified to hold your position as sheperd. The word “must be” is stating an ongoing qualification to the biblical standards that God Almighty put in place. An ongoing, daily thing. Are these leaders doing that? Sheep follow the example set by their leaders. I have high respect for the leaders who are leading “well” and the result is healthy churches, but when leaders are not biblically qualified (meeting Gods qualifications, not mans), and leading poorly, I have seen very unhealthy churches. Your sheep are looking to you for guidance and protection. This is a very high calling, not to be taken lightly. It holds stricter accountability than for other believers and rightly so, your sheep are watching your example. Your EXAMPLE holds much weight. You must be modeling Christs example, just as the apostle Paul said he was doing. If you don’t want to be held at a higher standard, please do not take a position as elder/teacher. That said, some people have absolutely hardened their hearts to follow Gods instruction on this matter and I can see why someone who is trying to lead this way leaves a church because the other elders refuse to obey these instructions. I think every circumstance is different and we shouldn’t make conclusions on a few comments, you weren’t there, you don’t have all the facts and for someone to give them all would probably require a book to write. I am begging you all, who hold an elder position, please first search the scriptures on Gods elder qualifications only (not yours, not someone else’s), FIRST evaluate your OWN hearts against that to determine if YOU are actually in Gods will on that area first and foremost. If you have mis-stepped, then repent. If you are still living in those qualifications, then evaluate your situation and seek God for direction. Proverbs 3 5-6 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, do not lean on your own understanding, acknowledge Him in all your ways and He will direct your steps” By all means seek counsel from other leaders, just make sure they are biblically qualified and are giving sound biblical advice. The church isn’t a business, it’s a living body, and God has given wise counsel in His word. Deviate from it and you are out of His will, which obviously all of you are seeking. HIS WILL. He has given it in His word. Abba Father, please help these men to search their hearts, please help them to see Your will in Your word, please give them wisdom on each of their individual circumstances, please bring them wise godly counsel to surround them, for those who have strayed from Your will, please help them to see it and give them courage and humility to repent and redirect their steps. Discipline those who are rebellious and willingly reject Your counsel so that they will come to their senses, return to You and their soul will be saved in the day our Savior Jesus Christ. Do this Father, for Your names sake and for the sake of Your sheep so they will be fully equiped for every good work. Dear Jesus, for the sake of Your beloved bride that you died for, for Your Glory LORD. In Jesus precious name. AMEN

  • Jose Pena says on

    I am pastoring right know and I am toward up because of the decision I need to make whether to continue or to stop pastoring. I have been pastoring for about 6 years now. our church is not afiliated with any church , we are independent and is ran by the pastor and the church staff, we have a vision in place , we have several program in place base on our vision. but i feel that the leaders are not 100% involve and the reason i say this is because some come in late, are not setting the example in this areas of commitment. we are a congregation of 37 we are renting a banquet hall, so we have the task of setting up and tearing down, son when people in charge are late or don’t come at all the task me and my family doubles. there is the demand of getting our own space but people don’t give enough for us to go to another, Its think is affecting my my wife, me, my marriage. it getting overwhelming. I have not made the decision still trying to evaluated, but I am considering spending more time with family member, please advice.

  • I have been at my first servant position for 8 years, the majority of the congregation are 70 or better and I am in my early 50’s the membership has dropped due to deaths and people young people moving away. The old guard is set in their ways, they have not intrest in ministering to folks on the outside,they only want to have programs. On a high attendance Sunday about 30 attend with about 45 being on the rolls. This is a 4 Sunday church however I am looking for another place to serve that is a 2 Sunday church however, they average 200 in attendance on Sunday, and they have all age groups attending less that 20 to 35 crowed. Should I take the 2 Sunday church if offered ?

  • Pastor's Wife says on

    Thanks Thom for this post. My husband (Pastor) and I are prayerfully considering if it is time for us to move on from our 5 year ministry. We have made it through some hard times in this ministry, but frankly we are beginning to feel that they just can not afford to keep him, the one paid staff they have.

    There have been great successes in our current ministry and even more strife and conflict. The church was in turmoil when the previous pastor (of 25 years) left. He left the church strangled by a mountain of debt left by his manifest destiny plan of “if you build it they will come.” When that didn’t happen – he left. The church had an interim for 2 years. During that time your would expect that much of the conflict in the church should have been dealt with (even if you couldn’t get rid of the debt) but was not. The first 3 years of our ministry were spent cleaning up the mess AND taking all the bullets for things that we had nothing to do with.

    Things are more unified now, but frankly, there is no great passion for The Lord in these people – and financially they just can’t afford to keep the doors open and pay staff. My husband has not received a raise since he arrived. They do not provide any benefits, or reimburse any pastoral expenses. Anytime this is mentioned to the Elders or Finance Committee they say ‘we just don’t have the money, or our research suggests you are paid fairly’ (which we have shown them is incorrect per annual our denominational surveys).

    I work for the church for free (about 20-30 hours a week) – filling whatever hole there is in the ministry. We have considered that I should just get a job to help our family finances, but I am not sure my husband could bear the weight of all the work without my help.

    We do know The Lord has provided for us – because we have all that we need and some of what we want – which is a lot more than some. The combination of #2, #3, #4, #7 are the reasons we are prayerfully seeking God’s will for us to stay or go. We have a child graduating this year and we don’t know how we will afford college next year, or for our other child down the road.

  • I’m a pastor of a church which after years of successful ministry has suddenly launched into a campaign of gossip and slander against me. I hate going to work. I not only want to leave this church, I want to leave the ministry, because I see how terrible Christians can be in the name of customer service.

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