By Aaron Earls
Despite all the documented stress, few pastors leave the pulpit behind each year. On average, around 1% of senior Protestant pastors leave the pastorate each year for reasons other than death or retirement, according to a 2021 Lifeway Research study.
Unfortunately, some pastors are forced away from the pulpit due to moral failings. Specifically, a 2020 Lifeway Research study found large majorities of ministers themselves say pastors who commit child sex abuse or adult sexual assault should withdraw from ministry permanently.
But most of those who leave the pulpit do so for different reasons. They don’t leave because they committed a heinous crime. Many simply step away because they were overwhelmed by it all.
I don’t know of a pastor who begins their ministry with the plan to get burned out and leave it all behind. But some pastors will be part of that 1% every year. Here are six steps you can take to make it more likely you will join that select group (or you can avoid these characteristics and increase the likelihood you have a long, healthy ministry).
Go in unprepared
In a 2015 Lifeway Research study on pastor attrition, former pastors are more likely than current pastors to say they went in without the right expectations and preparations for their ministry assignment.
Almost half of former pastors (48%) say the search team didn’t accurately describe the church before the pastor’s arrival. Church members may often be blind to problems within their own congregation, or they may even be part of those problems.
Before going to a new church, pastors should listen to the search team and other churchgoers, but they should also gather additional information. Talk to other pastors in the area and former pastors of the church to gain a broader understanding.
Similarly, 48% of former pastors say their ministry training did not prepare them to handle the people side of ministry. Seminary classes can help pastors learn much of what is needed for ministry, but that should be coupled with experiential and practical knowledge. Those new to ministry should gain as much first-hand experience in ministry as possible before becoming a church pastor.
Expect and receive rockstar treatment
More than 4 in 5 former pastors said they worked hard to protect their image as a pastor. In some ways, this could be a good thing. Pastors should be concerned about their reputation in the church and community. Yet, a pastor primarily concerned with their image could be dangerous.More than 4 in 5 former pastors said they worked hard to protect their image as a pastor, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
Lisa Whittle, the daughter of a megachurch pastor who had a public failure, says there is one surefire way for churches to lose their pastor in 10 years: “Treat him like a rock star.” She warns congregations to not be so impressed with their pastor. “It’s a position that deserves honor and respect,” Whittle writes. “But save the awe for God.”
For their part, pastors can encourage a healthy perspective on their role and themselves or they can fuel unhealthy tendencies within the congregation.
Always say yes and never take breaks
One of the primary reasons former pastors give for being a former pastor is burnout. One in 5 (19%) say that is one of the factors that drove them from ministry.
Those still in the ministry and those who’ve stepped away both agree the job is demanding: 84% of current and 83% of former pastors say they feel on call 24 hours a day. Almost half of each group (48%) say the demands of ministry often feel like more than they can handle.Pastors who always say yes to added responsibilities in their church, set themselves up for burnout and hinder the spiritual growth of churchgoers. — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
Yet, former pastors admit they struggled with saying no when they should have. Almost 9 in 10 current pastors (89%) say they feel free to say no to unrealistic expectations. Among former pastors, far fewer (68%) felt they had that same ability.
Pastors who always say yes, set themselves up for burnout and hinder the spiritual growth of churchgoers. When a pastor always steps in to do a needed task, members assume the pastor will always do the job and often never take those responsibilities on themselves.
Unsurprisingly, 1 in 4 former pastors (25%) left the ministry because of conflict in their church. As pastoring involves broken people, conflict is inevitable. Yet fewer former pastors than current ones say they invested in processes and behaviors to prevent conflicts.
Former pastors list several areas in which they had conflict in their last church: conflict over changes they proposed (56%), conflict with lay leaders (47%), conflict with a church patriarch or matriarch (45%), conflict over leadership style (40%), conflict over expectations about the pastor’s role (38%), and conflict over doctrinal differences (23%). Only 12% of former pastors say they didn’t have conflict in their former church over any of these issues.
Pastors don’t have to go looking for conflict in churches. But if pastors want to maintain their ministry in their current church and beyond, they must invest in conflict-prevention during times of peace.
Sacrifice your family
When asked what piece of advice they had for current pastors to help them thrive in ministry, two of the top statements were “Invest in your family” and “Invest in your spouse.” They realized, many of them too late, that their family was a key to their success in ministry.Among former pastors, 33% say their family resented the demands of pastoral ministry and 42% say those demands kept them from spending time with their family, according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
Among former pastors, 33% say their family resented the demands of pastoral ministry and 42% say those demands kept them from spending time with their family. Former pastors are also less likely than current pastors to say their spouse is enthusiastic about their life in ministry together. All of this despite 74% saying they consistently protected time with their family.
After half a century of ministry, one retired pastor revealed what he called his greatest regret: “I failed to take care of my family.”
Allow pride to keep you from getting help
So many of the other issues can stem from a root of pride—believing that you and you alone can accomplish what needs to be done in the church. Two in 3 former pastors (66%) said the church would not have achieved the progress it had without them.
Again, in one sense, the pastor is vital to the health and growth of a church. In another, however, pastors who feel as if they are the exclusive means by which God grows a church set themselves and their church up for failure. They often take on more responsibility than necessary and fail to reach out to others for help.Former pastors are almost twice as likely as current pastors to say they felt isolated in their role (62% to 35%), according to Lifeway Research. Click To Tweet
Former pastors are almost twice as likely as current pastors to say they felt isolated in their role (62% to 35%). When asked with whom they shared struggles at least once a month in their last pastorate, slightly more than half (55%) said their spouse. Fewer than half said they met with another pastor (44%), close friend (40%), mentor (18%), lay leaders in the church (13%), another staff member (12%), a counselor (5%), or a Bible study group in the church (3%). One in 5 former pastors (19%) said they didn’t meet with any of these regularly to talk about the issues they were facing.
In their ministry, pastors come face-to-face with some of the worst in humanity. Trying to deal with it all on their own is a recipe for trouble. Ben Mandrell, a former church planter and current president of Lifeway, spoke about the need—and the hesitancy—of pastors to speak to a counselor.
“While the Word certainly calls us to lean on the Lord in times of trouble,” Mandrell writes, “Scripture also reminds us often that we are not an island, that we need to call upon the gifts of others to find healing.”
Pastor, don’t lose your ministry when you don’t have to.
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.