Top 5 Reasons Why 700 Pastors Quit Before Retirement

LifeWay Research presented recent study findings highlighting a few deficiencies in churches today, which are unintentionally pushing pastors out. In a survey of “734 former senior pastors who left the pastorate before retirement age in four Protestant denominations,” we see five main reasons why pastors step away from the pulpit.

Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research Executive Director said, “Almost half of those who left the pastorate said their church wasn’t doing any of the kinds of things that would help. Having clear documents, offering a sabbatical rest, and having people help with weighty counseling cases are key things experts tell us ought to be in place.”

Almost half of the former pastors said the search team “didn’t accurately describe the church before their arrival.” This discrepancy causes a downward spiral when pastors and staff members disagree with proposed changes.

Here is what the study found:

“Their churches were unlikely to have a list of counselors for referrals (27 percent), clear documentation of the church’s expectations of its pastor (22 percent), a sabbatical plan for the pastor (12 percent), a lay counseling ministry (9 percent), or a support group for the pastor’s family (8 percent). Forty-eight percent say their church had none of these.”

“Most expected conflict to arise, and it did—56 percent clashed over changes they proposed, and 54 percent say they experienced a significant personal attack. Yet nearly half (48 percent) say their training didn’t prepare them to handle the people side of ministry.”

Most seminary programs don’t equip pastors for the “people side” of ministry. Graduating pastors are more prepared to preach than they are to lead and serve people.

Burnout and conflict understandably discourage pastors from continuing in church ministry. “Though almost two-thirds (63 percent) spent more than a decade as a senior pastor, they eventually moved on—most to another ministry role other than senior pastor (52 percent) but 29 percent to non-ministry work.”

There are a few main reasons pastors give for leaving a pastoral role. It’s true that the “job is demanding: 84 percent of current pastors and 83 percent of former pastors say they feel on call 24 hours a day, while 48 percent of each group say the demands of ministry often feel like more than they can handle.”

Overall, the sad reality is most pastors feel their church has unrealistic expectations, but don’t feel they can say “no” to these expectations. They also don’t get much uninterrupted family time and often feel isolated. The study revealed:

  • 21 percent of current pastors vs. 49 percent of former pastors believe their church has unrealistic expectations.
  • 35 percent of current pastors vs. 62 percent of former pastors report feeling isolated.
  • 89 percent of current pastors vs. 68 percent of former pastors feel free to say no to unrealistic expectations.
  • 92 percent of current pastors vs. 61 percent of former pastors believe their congregation provides genuine encouragement to their family.
  • 94 percent of current pastors vs. 74 percent of former pastors say they consistently protect family time.

Unhealthy components can add up and weigh a pastor down. Stetzer said, “But many of the gaps are preventable. It’s going to take a combination of the seminaries, academia, denominational folks, and even outside ministries putting their heads together and seeking God on how best to support pastors.”

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Esther Laurie
Esther Laurie is a staff writer at ChurchLeaders.com. Her background is in communication and church ministry. She believes in the power of the written word and the beauty of transformation and empowering others. When she’s not working, she loves running, exploring new places and time with friends and family. It’s her goal to work the word ‘whimsy’ into most conversations.