We have names for them: "Dropout pastors." "Runaway shepherds." Those who "put their hand to the plow and look back." But are these disparaging descriptors telling the whole story? Statistics on pastoral attrition rates are notoriously difficult to pin down—often differing dramatically from denomination to denomination. (A frequently-cited 1998 report from Focus on the Family noted that 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failures, spiritual burnout or contention in their churches.)
Recently, Ministry Today sat down with some pastors who've left vocational ministry, to get their side of the story. Those we interviewed are not from a headline-making list of pastors dismissed because of moral errors. They're still following Christ—and even leading others to do the same. They're just not getting paid for it anymore. Some left just in time to avoid ministry burnout. Some waited too long. Others reached the conclusion that God has called everyone to ministry, and they can serve in other ways.
Scott George recently resigned as pastor of Destiny Church in Orlando, Florida. His 20 years in full-time ministry included 10 years in youth work and 10 years pastoring. He served at Calvary Assembly of God and Orlando Christian Center (both in Orlando), MetroChurch in Edmond, Oklahoma, and Word of Faith in Dallas—all before planting nondenominational Destiny Church. How did George reach the conclusion that God wanted him to plant a church?
"After 10 years in youth ministry I sensed that it was the right season to plant a church," he says. "With four small children I needed to settle down and limit the travel away from family."
Garrett Bain grew up a preacher's kid. His father's years of pastoring offered many chances for Bain to understand life in the church world. When Bain graduated from Bible college, no one told him that it might be OK to not enter full-time ministry. After a few jobs in the secular workplace, Bain entered the world of pastoral ministry. He served as a youth pastor of an International Pentecostal Holiness Church in Virginia for two years. Why did Bain enter that vocation?
"I felt 'called' somewhere around age 16," he says. "I'm sure that the fact that my dad was a minister also had something to do with it."
Greg Rice now works as a teleprompter. He has his own business after spending years working with a recording company. Before that? Rice worked as youth pastor, served on a church staff and then was asked to leave his position in an Assemblies of God church because the congregation had too many ministers to pay and not enough people attending. His decade in vocational ministry began because Rice sensed a "strong desire to minister," and he was also "encouraged by others" to pursue that.
So, how did each of these reach the conclusion that it was time to leave their church-based positions?
Bain explains how church leadership decisions helped make the choice for him. The church board decided they wanted a youth and children's pastor, Bain recalls. "I was barely a youth pastor, spending a lot of time visiting the senior citizens in the church," he says. "I definitely was not gifted to become a children's pastor."
Rice says, "I'm not sure that God wanted me to leave the ministry, but circumstances were that I couldn't stay in the full-time ministry, so I had to investigate other careers."
George reached the conclusion that God wanted him to leave the pastoral position when he was "having an internal struggle between the local family church and the outreach program we had established in our community." He remembers, "I felt as if it was impossible to do both effectively. My gifts and talents were needed for both but my heart was moving toward the outreach." He resigned as pastor and devoted his gifts in a food-distribution ministry.
What do these stories tell us about the reasons people leave full-time ministry? For one, there are healthy and unhealthy reasons: There is conviction. Some realize—often after years of painful struggle—that God never intended for them to serve in that capacity, or that their time in that slot has now concluded.
Another reason is conflict—and the pastors interviewed here reinforce it. Those in most key roles have battled conflict. Conflict comes wherever people are. But, when handled incorrectly and when battled privately with no help from outside the sanctuary's walls, the conflict causes a heartbreaking goodbye. Many never return. Fears control any possible dreams for ministry.
Improper training and preparation—or coaching—for ministry can also lead to early exits. Leaders should be taught much more than success stories and easy schemes. They must learn about life in the world of pastoring before they land there.
Then there's control—a board member, a long-term member, a new member, a member who seeks to make all decisions. Pastors endure births and deaths and marriage and divorce; they also are stared down by control freaks who insist on all things going their way.
Crisis. A sickness, a disease, a disability, a death. Churches can, and should, learn to bless leaders who leave under a crisis and not just wave goodbye with gladness. Seeing a counselor, allowing experienced clergy to mentor them, attending conferences for personal rather than congregational growth and reading books can help in addressing each of these trends.
Many of the leaders we spoke with were caught unaware by the challenges of ministry—prepared for the "hard skills" (e.g. preaching, counseling, study), but wanting the "soft skills" that often make or break the career pastor (e.g. connecting, leading, prioritizing).
"I wish I had learned at an earlier age how to connect. I don't mean 'connect' as in being a friend (which is necessary too), but connect as in 'I hear your heart,' " Greg Rice notes. "In pastoral training they usually teach that you need to connect, but not how to connect."
"For me it was the cost of pastoring—the toil it takes on you and your family. I'm not sure that the price is worth it at times," Scott George recalls. "I knew change had to happen when in right conscience I couldn't encourage my boys to follow in my footsteps."
"I wish someone had told me that my giftings didn't fit the normal pastoral mode," Garrett Bain notes. "I'm an extreme introvert, and compassion is not my strength." All of this begs the question, Are we expecting more from our pastors than God does?
Are we pushing rather than welcoming people into ministry?
Are we asking pastors to accomplish feats that only God can do?
Are we effectively training those entering ministry the crucial importance of mentoring, intimacy with God, family time, joy, Sabbath rests, personal time, days off and accountability groups?
Are these words experiential for today's leaders: laughter, peace, rest, naps, forgiveness, friends, silence?
Do pastors seek God's approval rather than congregations' applause?
George notes how church life has turned into a "circus act." He says pastors are expected to "juggle as many balls as we throw to you and don't drop any," and "to be as sharp and dynamic as the evangelist on TV." He believes many congregations have this expectation: "Everything I see the evangelists do on TV, I expect you to do."
Today's divorce numbers frighten each of us. Clergy also score high for marital problems, as the pulpit pressure seems to destroy or damage so many marriages and families. I asked these leaders why do such high numbers suffer from pressure, tension and often divorce? One pastor we spoke to remembers when he reached the conclusion to move away from a paid clergy position in a local congregation.
"After my wife divorced me and left me with three small children to raise, it was obvious I could not fulfill a pastoral ministry position," he says. "I needed to concentrate on being a dad."
Through painful years of taking care of his children, this pastor still uses his gifts to volunteer in churches and serve in a religious university.
Bain says, "It seems there is a lack of boundaries. After I quit, my dad told me that he wondered how long I could last considering the schedule I was keeping. One island of sanity was taking my day off seriously. If I was with a group of people and we were getting ready to eat, someone would say something along the lines of, 'you're the professional, why don't you say the blessing.' My response was, 'Someone else can pray, today is my day off.' Laughter would usually follow, and then came the uneasy silence while everyone realized I was serious."
Rice thinks ministers "let 'the ministry' come first, before their marriage and family." He believes however, there is more to it than that: "The ministry is a 'calling' that is intimately personal; it's difficult to separate 'the ministry' from God. Even if you know the dividing line between God and ministry, it's still difficult to maintain a balance because the line runs right through the center of your heart."
George emphasizes "the toll ministry takes on the family. It becomes your place of work, but it is also their place of worship. The demands you can't escape; wherever you go the pressures follow you."
Did any good events encourage these pastors during their seasons of ministry? Yes, they remember lives changed in positive ways, though that often happened through years of endurance and acceptance. They remember people who respected them, prayed for them, encouraged them and accepted them despite their own frailties. Weddings, baby dedications, prayers answered, conversions, seasons of growth, mission trips: each of these leaders remember names, taste the food and see the smiles from times of joy.
Most of those I interviewed doubt they will ever enter a church-related full-time ministry position again, though they hope to stay involved as helpers in local congregations and in the large market of Christ's body. A few are open to the possibility of returning to the roles where pain damaged them before. Some refused to answer; for one man just the thought was too much to discuss.
Patrick Lee works for a media communications corporation. He began a full-time church ministry career because of his passion for serving people and through the advice of others. The pressure of leading volunteers and not living up to expectations made ministry difficult for him. As he now enjoys employment as a manager in the business environment, he looks back and says: "I never bore the fruit I expected. Now I wonder if some of my expectations were wrong based on how the ministers, seminaries and others defined success."
Lee also believes that many churches "set impossible standards for ministers and their families." He says: "Christians are much more difficult to please, and ministry seems so much more about pleasing and judgment. By comparison, in the business world many people are more grateful for what you do for them."
How can today's pastors avoid burnout, stay in the ministry (if that is God's plan) or leave on good terms if they are playing the wrong position on God's team? Paul Slater (www.Change-Career-With-Purpose.com), a chaplain in San Diego, helps pastors feel appreciated and also guides them toward new careers. Here are a few of his recommendations:
George plans "to take the God-given skills, abilities and talents that were instrumental in full-time pastoring in another arena that is searching for the gospel to be seen in action."
"Seen." "In action." Those words remind us of both sides. The pain of ministry from being "seen" and trying to perform "in action." They also echo the heart of these leaders who hope to be seen by both God and people as followers of Christ who are still in action of ministry no matter their titles are on business cards.
Though many ministers have left the field, they are still playing the game on a winning team. And many are glad they finally found the right position to be more effective in working toward victory.
Chris Maxwell (www.chrismaxwell web.com), a pastor for 19 years in Orlando, Florida, recently changed his career. He is now campus pastor of Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, and writer for LifeSprings Resources. His latest book, Changing My Mind, tells the lessons he learned through his battle with epilepsy.
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