Pastors In Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry

Why do pastors leave the ministry? Several common issues emerge from the research of Dean Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger: preference for another form of ministry, the need to care for children or family, conflict in the congregation, conflict with denominational leaders, burnout or discouragement, sexual misconduct, and divorce or marital problems. Of these factors, which form the basis for the central chapters of Pastors in Transition, two are especially important: conflict and a preference for specialized ministry. A close third is the experience of burnout, discouragement, stress and overwork. As the authors explore these factors, they provide significant insights into what can be done to help people stay in ministry.

Hoge and Wenger’s study is part of the larger Pulpit and Pew research project on the state of pastoral ministry, based at Duke Divinity School and funded by the Lilly Endowment. Hoge has authored two previous volumes (one coauthored with Wenger) on the status of the Catholic priesthood.

(Review from David Wood at The Christian Century)

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There are 39 Comments:
  • Posted by

    Here is a test comment.

  • Posted by

    I didn’t see disillusionment listed up there.  But for our seminary friends who dropped out of minstry (at least half) I believe many of them were idealistic about what ministry would be like.  They tended to have altruistic motives, and when they faced conflict (so I guess it IS listed) their idealism went crashing.

    A couple of them left the church for awhile completely.  One is now attending church and murmuring about ministry involvement again, another still will have nothing to do with the church.  And the others are involved at a lay level.

    ALL of these were gifted individuals and granted some of them should never have gone into professional ministry.  Others just couldn’t take it any more.

    We, after complete burn out in mega youth ministry, and then a negative church ministry experience, took a sabbatical and then went bi-vocational for 20 years.  We have just re-entered full time ministry in the last four.

    Our passion and drive and desire never went away.  But our maturity had to catch up before we could process it all.  We wouldn’t have chosen it any other way, though it was certainly tough, because we are better in ministry for it. 

    We still struggle with stress, discouragement, financial strain and conflict, but I think we are better equipped to deal with it.  And of course a strong walk with the Lord is essential.  Apart from Him we can do nothing!

  • Posted by

    How about a discussion about why ministerial staff leave the ministry.  Most articles of fatigue and frustration are focused at the Senior pastor. What about the staff minister who is a victim of Pastoral Power abuse. From a staff perspective many pastor today run their churches like a CEO and treat their staff like hired hands. This has changed from the philosophy of the 60’s & 70’s when their was more of an emphasis on shared ministry. The shift has gone form committee and shared responsibility to one of pastoral power. Somehow, I don’t think this is how Jesus wanted His church to operate.  Maybe this is why churches are rebelling against pastors and only one out of 20 pastors make it to retirement. Treat the church like a business and the congregation will respond in like fashion.
    David Kinderdine (A forced retired 38 year veteran of vocational ministry)

  • Posted by James Hays

    I have to agree with David Kinderdine.  I have been in associate pastoral positions for 28 years, half of that time in my present position.  I would love to see a study of associate pastoral stress and burnout.  Scant attention is given in research literature or in the local church to the needs of associates and their families, which are very similar on some levels to those of senior pastoral families, but on other levels are quite distinct.

  • Posted by

    One I don’t see listed there is disappointment with the church. I have been in the ministry for 25 years. Having turned 60, I found that there were really no places for an older minister. Most churches in looking for a pastor are looking for younger people with lots of energy. I found the tone of interviewers changing as soon as they found out how old I was. I am not the only one who has experienced this. So I opted for early retirement and am now engaged in another career. I still believe that the church is vitally important for this world. We are salt and light. The church still is the one entity in the world that can keep it from falling apart. But I am disappointed in the attitude that I have experienced.

  • Posted by

    I was in the ministry for about 20 years and left the ministry and was out about 15 years. I came back to full time ministry about three years ago and again I am experiencing discouragment and fatigue. I am now 60 years also and find that many of the churches are not wanting an older pastor or else they want someone to just come in and hold their hands and not rock the boat with change and trying to reach the lost in their community. I wish their was some kind of instrument that could be used for evaluating a churches true feelings about church growth.

  • Posted by

    I have always wonder what a pastor can do after he/she turns 60. In this current culture where much attention is given to church growth and running the church as a large corporation, I can’t help but wonder what I can do in the future. Should I quit now and find another job? Or should I start a bi-vocational mode of living?

    Perpahs I should not complain about this type of job security (or the lack of security). I have always imagined that a pastor will take care of a church for his/her whole life and the church will provide the pastor with reasonable retirement. It seems to me now that pastor are no more than an employee contracted to provide spiritual leadership to those who pay them (quite ironic, isn’t it). As such, once the contract is done, it is done.

    May I ask the veteran pastors to share how you tackle this issue?

  • Posted by

    The biggest stressor for me during the nearly 25 years I have served as a full-time pastor in the United Methodist Church has been the highly dysfunctional hierarchy in which I have to work. Any family therapist/psychiatrist/social worker or licensed counselor worth a cup of spit when it comes to competency can take a good hard look at the UMC and see it’s a system (family) based upon pathological narcissism. I have to operate within a “family"/system in which narcissism is thoroughly blessed. The United Methodist system and pathological narcissism go together like a hand in a glove. Surely John Wesley, our founder, did not have this in mind; even Francis Asbury, as well as he thought of himself, couldn’t have imagined how out of hand all the narcissism has gotten.

    This is a system that is bound to fail in the long run. Quick: name a thoroughly narcissistic business or organization which has not died or is not dying. You’re right. There are none.

    I have a therapist friend who once commented to me that when he begins meeting with a family which he suspects may be narcissistic he usually finds that the child who feels “left out” is usually the healthiest person in the family. He/she is also the one who is more in touch with reality and not living in narcissism fantasy land.  The UMC is in fantasy land: they still think they can turn it around. The still think they will be able to make it to January 1, 2100.

    I doubt it.

    As one of the “red headed step-children” in my denomination (you know, the ones who are more sane) I have to take crap all the time. You see, in a narcissistic family at least one person has to play the role (most often involuntarily) of the scapegoat. In fact, a narcissistic family finds it difficult to operate without that particular role.

    I’m tired of being the scapegoat whose talents and abilities are way under-appreciated. Yesterday I had to hear my district superintendent remind us clergy that we “get the appointments we deserve.”

    What a crock of , er...junk.

    God is calling me out of the UM ministry. I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t feel his call. Where he wants me to go, I don’t know.

    I know that he is tired of this vessel he has called having to suffer abuse.

  • Posted by

    Without Theological correctness or attempts at spiritual altitude, I realize that I must now be honest with myself. There is nothing left for me to do, other than examine everything in retrospect.

    I read today that every month, 1500 pastors quit the ministry . I hope not to be one of them. I was called to ministry and I know that I was, but I still do not know why.

    I have been through a lot. I do not wish to go through a lot more.

    I realize that I am not without fault. I guess I thought being called was a mandate of God and that being “called” would protect me from whatever the world or church would throw at me. I was wrong.

    There can be no substitue for spiritual well-being. I now believe that a pastors own relationship with Christ to be his utmost responsibility. As spiritual as it sounds to constantly “put others first”, how can one lead unless he first learns to follow. How can he learn to follow without Christ steadfastly in view ahead.

    In attempting to be a good follower, though, there have been many things that have clouded my view of Christ pushing ever on ahead.

    While I hope not to become a statistic, I now realize, for the first time in my ministry, that It could happen to me.

    I always thought that it happened to “other People” and I was immune because I was “called”. The scary thing for me now is I see why others quit. I even sympathize with them.I know now that it could happen to me.

    I receive a lot of well meaning advice. But the pain is real. More real than anything I have experienced. I always tought of the pain of the cross. The pain associated with beatings, scourgings, and mockings, but never had I thought of the pain associated with Judas’s betrayal, or even Peter’s denial. The sense of perfect and absolute aloneness that comes from being “thrown under the bus” by a friend.

    I am amazed at the cruelity that “church people” are capable of. I have heard that Christians are the only army that fires on it’s own soldiers. I believe that now. I have experienced first hand the wrath of jealousy.

    People who pass themselves off as well meaning backbones of the church who are “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. Well spake Jesus of such. I am confused as to what they have to gain. Is hurting others both directly and indirectly of such great importance that they risk the wrath of God? Is there any agenda that can possibly take presidence over our commission?

    For the first time in my life I have lost hope for a group of people. I never thought that I could. That, in itself, carries a weight that is more than I can bear. No matter how dark things were, there was a glimmer of hope to fuel a spark of belief that things would be OK. No matter how dead, a shallow breath of life to give at least, the appearence that a better day was coming. Jesus is the Ressurection, and He proved Himself as such. But, when He call Lazurus forth, it was up to him whether he came from the grave.

    I now believe that there are people who are happy in the graveyard. As hard for me as it is to accept, I think that they like it there because everyone else there is dead too.
    Expectations are low and lying down is a comfortable position. So comfortable in fact that it is tempting to join them. It is easier, safer, and much less stressful.

    My ministry was my life. I can remember nothing else. It is gone.

    My congregation of youth, my only earthly friends, many will fade away.

    I have no pastor, no trusted advisor, no mentor.

    Christ is my Savior, my rock, my hope . I know well the sufficency of that, I have rested there many times. I think that I will get past this, but will I put myself in the line of fire again. Will I ever have the ability to minister again? Will I be able to bear the frustration, back-stabbing, criticism, constant complaining, dissappointment, discouragement, uncertainty, jealousy, covetness, envying,… that seem to have become characteristic of “Christians”? Let alone the ability, will I ever have the desire?


  • Posted by

    DL, I don’t know who you are or where you’ve walked, but I’ve been in your shoes and still am.  Your high concept of your calling served you well for a long time, it seems; yet it did reach its natural limit and you feel you are left with little to fall back on.  Or are you?

    You are wise to consider your walk with God as your most precious resource, for so it is.  I can offer you little in the way of counsel or advice, but allow me to re-affirm at least one thing you said.  Resurrection is real; God specializes in it; you and I both know of too many cases (both from reading and the flesh-and-blood kinds too) to completely lose our faith.  I’ll be praying for you.

  • Posted by

    I haven’t stepped foot in a church building in 8 months… God was on my mind this morning, I got online and just googled a few things and came to this page. I understand the words spoken here and the heart that is crushed. I thought I was the only one. It has happened to me too. I was thinking, I have been saved since 1991, in the ministry since 1995 and can’t hardly stand most “Christians” here in 2007. Is this what Jesus wanted? Is this how it’s supposed to be...I did not think so. But now I feel like the outcast. I just want to fade from the “christian” life as if it was all some big ugly mistake. I ask myself what is God trying to show me? I’m done with it!!

  • Posted by

    My frustration can be found in the shere isolation of ministry.  Ministers from the same town tend to avoid one another.  Relationships are hard to build outside of ministry too.  Only my seminary buddies remain as strong friends. This isolation has brought me low.  Functioning in the church is a matter of necessity rather than a joy to be embraced.  Sermon after sermon, visit after visit, counseling after counseling.  Still, only subtle changes occur.  One man told me that he decided 5 years ago that I wasn’t worth much.  Wow!  I begin to wonder what I was thinking when I entered seminary.  My call seems real and was affirmed by many things.  Yet, here I am.  Sitting in a ministry with an empy well.  Perhaps leaving ministry is best.  That, however, is not who I am.  I don’t know.

  • Posted by

    “I always thought that it happened to “other People” and I was immune because I was “called”. The scary thing for me now is I see why others quit. I even sympathize with them.I know now that it could happen to me. “

    “I now believe that there are people who are happy in the graveyard. As hard for me as it is to accept, I think that they like it there because everyone else there is dead too.
    Expectations are low and lying down is a comfortable position. So comfortable in fact that it is tempting to join them.” - DL

    Well said, DL.
    I’m ready to get out! I’ve been in for over 12 years and I’m done.  I’ve finally got the peace that I’m not abandoning my calling, but there is still a “false” sense of guilt.

    I’d love to hear from guys who transitioned out of the pastorate well.  Who made the career move, still love God and yet love their new job!  Guilt free and burnout free. 

    There is this stupid nagging sense in the back of my mind that somehow this is raising the white flag, yet my wife and I are totally

  • Posted by

    Hello CRB
    I am celebrating my third anniversary out of professional Church Ministry. I’m entering my 4th year post termination. I was a 35 year vetern of mnistry. I still love God, have forgiven the pastor who wrongfully fired me, have worked through the anger , fustration and resentment, and now attend a church other than the denomination in which I served. All is well in my life. I now feel impowered to serve Christ freely without having to answer to a pastor who had no vision or administrative ability or a congregation exerting unrealistic demands. I’ve began my own business using many of the skills I learned in ministry.  I decided I did not want to be dependent on others for my future or livelyhood. I never ever wanted to be fired again or treated in the manner in which the church and former pastor treated me. I love being my own boss and setting my own goals. My business has more than met and exceeded my expectations, it has doubled in size each year for the last 3 years. I am now making a good living (more than any church paid me) and am free of the headaches and stress of church politics. I now have control of my own life and futue. As Josh Turners song ststes, “Just me and God” !! I am a living testimony there is life after professional church ministry. I realized my calling was not to the instititutional church but rather to GOD. I am now free to fufill my call.
    David Kinderdine

  • Posted by

    I appreciate your timely response!  It’s good to know it’s possible..
    Funny, it’s not that we couldn’t “suck it up and drive on.”

    It’s just that we’ve given ourselves permission to choose not too.
    I too, totally feel called to God, but spent my entire life preparing for church ministry (pastorate).

    It’s tough being mid-thirties thinking about the “freedom” to choose something different.  4 churches, 2 wrongful terminations (grew the ministry too fast and was “too talented in comparison with the rest of the staff’ were the excuses...in that order (???) whatever that means)

    Now a couple of years into a church plant, as the lead planter/pastor we’ve seen God do a lot, and it would be a loss to pack it in, but just simply don’t want it anymore.  (for all the reasons you listed above.)

    The other day I told my wife that it’s time for us to start shepherding and caring for our own family instead of everyone elses. To go to the church of our choice, etc. etc., and it wasn’t out of burnout or animosity, just plain th"that’s what needs to happen.”

    Would appreciate your prayers as we begin the step of faith into a whole new world.

  • Posted by

    Thank you all for your candid comments.  Does anyone have suggestions where I met find help in transitioning out of ministry.  At 57 years of age I’m not even sure what I can do or how to support my family.


  • Posted by

    Here are a couple of thoughts
    1. Every gate is the beginning of a new life adventure we are never fully prepared to take.
    2. Shifting gears from one chapter to another in your life is a critical skill
    3. Our past is a launching pad for our future
    4 Put energy into anticipating life rather than fixing problems of the past
    5. Remain proactive
    Know how to recycle yourself Think of life as circular not linear.
    6. Let go of what no longer you taking new strength and shaping new chapters of your life guided by God and your own energy and vision
    7. Destiny is by choice not chance.
    I’m living proof that these principles work. I’ve created a $400,000 business from scratch
    in just 3 years. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The principles work. I’m loving life and enjoying my new adventure at age 56. I was in full time ministry for 35 years.
    You control your destiny now make something of it.
    David Kinderdine

  • Posted by

    David, what is your busines and how did you go about getting it started?


  • Posted by

    It’s design, installation and service of rose gardens.  Contact me at and we can talk off line. I would like to respect this blog for it’s initial purpose. I’d be delighted to talk with you further. David PS I’d also like to tell you about and organization that helps terminated ministers.

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  • Posted by Bob

    David, you sound like an Amway commercial.  You talk of the freedom you have through money.  It’s good that you’ve done well financially.  However, you sound like someone trying to get others to join your up-line in sales.

    I, too, have pastored for 38 years.  I’m 60 and am wondering about the next chapter of my life.  However, as I’ve talked with other boomer pastors, I find that we share a common frustration with ministry as we hear about it today.  But, those in my support group believe that we are being called to a different, more alive form of ministry than anything we’ve seen before.  We are the “Caleb” generation.  We’ve stuck it out.  We did our best, but have found that maintaining the status quo, or buying into the idea that only younger ministers can build growing churches, is bogus.  We don’t buy it.

    We’ve come far, and will go further.  Why? There are more boomers than any other age group.  it’s our time.  The young ministers are not that interested in boomers other than their wallets. 

    So, weary pastor, or associate, take heart.  These are the days of new beginnings.  Be open, get ready.

  • Posted by

    I speak as one who has recently experienced a series of closed doors in professional ministry. God knows where I live and has my phone number. It’s not as if I wanted or asked for these doors to be closed. It is a fact that there is a definite age discrimination in ministry. The old guys are out. (Not very biblical considering Moses was 80 when God called him.)The church should read that story and learn from it.. Money was not my motivating force but rather the need to survive and provide for my family. As an extra bonus it is nice to finally make a liveable wage after so many years of putting up with the huge pay differential between Sr pastors and their staff. I hope that was not the case with you and your staff. I am happy for you that you feel compelled to minister to baby boomers. I would hope you would be happy for me that I did hibernate to the cave and cry wow is me. I chose to do something with my life and God has blessed my efforts. I do believe in the principles I listed earlier. Good luck in your old age as you seek to continue in full time ministry,
    David Kinderdine

  • Posted by Bob

    David:  I do wish you success.  My comments had to do with what seems to be your glow over being OUT of the ministry.  If it is good for you, so be it.  I do not condemn you at all. However, your words seem to imply that because the “established church” doesn’t come courting those of us who’ve hit 60, that our ministry must be over.  At least that was how it appeared to me.  In fact, I believe we have a great responsibility to encourage those younger to serve the Lord and to follow the example we set for them.  It’s a huge task to set an example at 60, but one which I fully believe God has called us to do.  It may not be in the established church, nor with a full time salary from ministry.  We are still called.  I am one who believes that our calling doesn’t suddenly stop, but rather adapts to our settings.  I am convinced God wants us to be creative and full of faith in doing ministry.  All God’s best to you.

  • Great article. Well written, this will certainly help.

  • Posted by Abdul

    I love church ministers!

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