Why Pastors Leave a Church After a Major “Success”

February 3, 2020
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By Thom S. Rainer

“I can’t believe he resigned.” 

The recent comment to me was from a church member of a seemingly healthy church. The pastor had been at the church seven years and decided to leave the congregation. In this particular example, there was no significant conflict. There was no pressure for him to leave. To the contrary, he was loved by most of the church members. 

But he quit. 

Not only did he quit, he decided to take a break from church leadership and took a job in the secular world.

“But what was really strange,” the church member commented, “we had just celebrated one of our biggest accomplishments in years with the building of our new worship center. It was really a success in many ways.” 

The church member obviously did not know that her pastor’s resignation was not that uncommon. In fact, we hear from pastors almost every month who decide to leave their churches when things are going very well. Simply stated, pastors sometimes leave in the aftermath of some seemingly big accomplishment, such as the construction of a new building, the adoption of another church, or the meeting of a major financial goal. Why? Why do they leave when things seem to be going so well? 

We asked pastors these questions. They gave us one or more of these four responses: 

  1. The pastors were burned out. The accomplishment took every ounce of their energy and then some. They were burned out and worn out. They simply did not have the energy to resume a more normal ministry.
  1. The pastors’ families suffered. Because the pastors spent so much time and energy on the successful project, their families were neglected. One pastor told us he had to resign to save his marriage. He had neglected his wife. “When the building program was over, I went home at a normal time,” he reflected. “We felt like strangers in the same house.” 
  1. The pastors lose their zeal for normal ministry. “We took two years to finally adopt a church near us,” a Florida pastor shared with us. “The process was both challenging and exhilarating. I wasn’t burned out, but I lost my motivation to do the things a pastor is supposed to do. Preaching and pastoral care no longer gave me fulfillment.”
  1. The pastors lose their connection with the majority of the congregation. A pastor in Indiana shared with us his neglect of most of the church membership. He was so focused on a major building program that he gave all of his attention to the few members leading the fundraising and providing leadership for the construction of the facility. He felt disconnected from other members once the project was completed and celebrated. 

These four reasons should serve as cautionary tales for pastors leading major efforts in their churches. Don’t burn both ends of the candle to lead the effort. Don’t neglect your family. Don’t neglect “normal” ministry. And don’t forget the rest of the congregation not directly involved in the project.

Some pastors leave their churches after successes with major projects. 

But most of those pastors could have done things differently and still be at their churches.

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14 Comments

  • This was Elijah’s problem. A major success and he was burned out. God called him to heaven on a chariot of fire. I have also finished a very difficult assignment. For sure I need a break for the next year. I have also thought of getting a secular job just to relax.

  • Michael Deutsch says on

    Thom – I Know my question is going to be off topic, but am not sure where and how to address it, so I thought possibly you or others could respond . . .

    Very simply, as a pastor, or with other full time pastoral staff, should our time on the ‘job’ be to read the Bible or read books?

    I know that’s overly simplistic and complicated at the same time, but any thoughts would be appreciated.

    Thank you,

    • I offer, at least for discussion, the vow of an Episcopal clergy when they are ordained (briefly). The job of a clergy is to (1) proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus and to fashion your life in accordance with its precepts; (2) love and serve the people among whom you work; (3) preach and declare forgiveness to penitent sinners; (4) pronounce God’s blessing; and (5) other ministrations entrusted you.

      The ways we do that are to (1) be diligent in the reading and study of Holy Scriptures; (2) labor with others to build up the family of God; (3) pattern our life after the teachings of Christ; and (4) persevere in prayer, offering your labors to God.

      Reading the bible is important. Knowing and working with others is important. Observing sabbath is important. Not doing everyone’s job is important.

      An old Anglican theologian, Jeremy Taylor gave advice on daily living “Read not much at a time, but meditate as much as your time, and capacity, and disposition will give you leave…” Essentially, simply reading isn’t what builds our ability as pastors but reading and understanding the application of those readings in practical terms is important.

  • Durward Blanks says on

    I believe some are called for a unique purpose. It may be a bit uncommon, but I see some pastors that have a specific calling, such as Church Development. Once that goal is reached, it’s time to let the next sheperd come in and follow up the next steps.
    It’s not uncommon in the business world to have a leader come in to take a company to through a certain mission, then move on.
    I believe it can be the same for our Church communities.

  • Dora Pargo says on

    Where is God’s calling in any of these thoughts??

    • Dora,

      Pastors are human. They suffer from burnout, depression, and anxiety. Their need to step away from the ministry does not always indicate that they are unfaithful to the Lord. Rather, it merely shows their vulnerability, and that they often carry more than their shoulders can bear. This is why the universal church needs to understand that the ministry requires everyone and not just the pastoral staff.

  • I stayed after a major success (for 5 years) and it was awful. Knowing what I know now I would have resigned the Sunday after the dedication of our new worship center.

  • Rich Kincl says on

    Perhaps a large percentage of the pastors “stay”…..as the accomplishment has renewed their vision, increased their focus, and been a great source of encouragement.

  • Leu Gilbert says on

    We had a major issue over leadership and many members left. We made it through the storm (a few dark years) and things appeared to be going well – and they were. But I left and took another congregation. I could’ve stayed (spent 15 1/2 yrs) but I just couldn’t imagine staying after what I (we – wife & family) went through.

  • Dennis J Smith says on

    Once the major success is achieved the “norm” has changed and there are new and higher expectations for the pastor. An extended vacation does not help the pastors
    anxiety about this new expected job performance.

  • Jerry N Watts says on

    No argument with any of these truths….that said, after a “Major Success”…a wise lay-leadership might offer the Senior Pastor, who has carried the load, some extra time off to rest, relax, and regenerate, spiritually-emotionally-and physically. This may be a great investment in the future of the church…

  • Cotton Mathis says on

    Sometimes after a major success in a church, another church sees it and calls the pastor to that church, hoping the success can be repeated.

    It is not always bad.