By Lisa Cannon Green
Though pastors are stressed about money and overwhelming ministry demands, only one percent abandon the pulpit each year, LifeWay Research finds.
In a first-of-its-kind study, LifeWay Research surveyed 1,500 pastors of evangelical and historically black churches and found an estimated 13 percent of senior pastors in 2005 had left the pastorate ten years later for reasons other than death or retirement.
“Pastors are not leaving the ministry in droves,” said Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research vice president.
Still, pastors say the role can be tough:
- 84 percent say they’re on call 24 hours a day.
- 80 percent expect conflict in their church.
- 54 percent find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming.
- 53 percent are often concerned about their family’s financial security.
- 48 percent often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle.
- 21 percent say their church has unrealistic expectations of them.
“This is a brutal job,” McConnell said. “The problem isn’t that pastors are quitting—the problem is that pastors have a challenging work environment.
“Churches ought to be concerned, and they ought to be doing what they can.”
Leaving the ministry
The survey, commissioned by the North American Mission Board and Richard Dockins, an occupational medicine physician in Houston concerned about pastoral attrition, also examined why pastors leave the ministry and what can be done to support pastors.
Looking back at the leadership of their church 10 years earlier, today’s pastors report relative stability. Forty-four percent say they were pastor of their current church 10 years ago, and 12 percent say the pastor from 2005 now leads another church. Ten percent of pastors from 2005 have retired, and 3 percent have died.
Small segments have left the pastorate, current pastors say. Two percent shifted to non-ministry jobs, and 5 percent stayed in ministry but switched to non-pastoral roles. Combined, those two groups account for known losses of less than 1 percent a year.
In some cases, current pastors didn’t know who led the church 10 years earlier (16 percent) or weren’t sure of the previous pastor’s whereabouts (3 percent). Assuming those cases follow the same pattern as the known instances, McConnell estimates a total of 29,000 evangelical pastors have left the pastorate over the past decade, an average of fewer than 250 a month.
Current pastors say a change in calling is the top reason their predecessors left the pastorate, accounting for 37 percent of departures. Conflict in the church—something 64 percent of pastors experienced in their last church—is the second most common reason at 26 percent.
Other reasons pastors have left the pastorate include family issues (17 percent), moral or ethical issues (13 percent), poor fit (13 percent), burnout (10 percent), personal finances (8 percent), and illness (5 percent). Lack of preparation for the job was cited in 3 percent of cases.
Many senior pastors are relatively new to their current churches—35 percent have been there five years or less—but most are not new to the pastorate. Fifty-seven percent of current senior pastors previously held that role elsewhere.
Most said they moved on because they had taken the previous church as far as they could (54 percent). However, 23 percent of pastors who changed churches say they left because of conflict in the church.
Church conflict often took multiple forms in pastors’ last churches, including significant personal attacks against 34 percent of the pastors. Pastors also reported conflict over changes they proposed (38 percent), their leadership style (27 percent), expectations about the pastor’s role (25 percent), and doctrinal differences (13 percent). Thirty-eight percent faced conflict with lay leaders, and 31 percent found themselves in conflict with a church matriarch or patriarch.
More than a third of pastors (34 percent) say they left a previous church because their family needed a change. One in five found the church did not embrace their approach to pastoral ministry (19 percent). Pastors also cited poor fit and unrealistic expectations (18 percent each) as reasons for leaving. Some were reassigned (18 percent) or asked to leave (8 percent).
On the surface, pastors’ responses about their families are quite positive, yet many indicate things could be better by agreeing only “somewhat.” More than 9 in 10 married pastors say their spouses are enthusiastic about life in ministry together (63 percent agree strongly; 31 percent somewhat), have found a fulfilling ministry in the church (65 percent agree strongly; 26 percent somewhat), and are very satisfied with their marriage (82 percent agree strongly; 16 percent somewhat).
In addition, 20 percent of pastors say their family resents the demands of pastoral ministry, and more than a third (35 percent) say the demands of ministry prevent them from spending time with their family.
“Each pastor I talk to agrees that there are increasing demands placed on his life and family today,” said Michael Lewis, executive director for pastor care at the North American Mission Board. “Healthy pastors with growing family relationships are empowered to lead healthy congregations that reach their communities.”
The demands of ministry require pastors to protect themselves, they say. Ninety-four percent consistently protect time with their family. Nine in 10 regularly listen for signs of conflict in the church, and 92 percent make deliberate efforts to prevent conflict.
Although they typically work on others’ traditional day of rest, 85 percent of pastors say they unplug from ministerial duties to rest at least one day a week. The majority (59 percent) find seven or more occasions a week for private Bible study and prayer, unrelated to preparing sermons or lessons.
Caution is warranted when counseling, says Adam Mason, minister of counseling services for Houston’s First Baptist Church. “It’s almost always the minister beginning the process of counseling a person of the opposite sex and the emotional support that they give each other through the counseling process that leads to an inappropriate physical relationship.”
More than three-quarters of pastors say they have another staff member present when counseling those of the opposite gender (78 percent) and refer people to a professional counselor if the situation requires more than two sessions (76 percent). Most say they have received training in counseling, including graduate school courses (52 percent), conferences (64 percent), and books or articles (90 percent).
For their own emotional well-being, pastors say they openly share their struggles at least once a month with a source of support such as their spouse (90 percent), a close friend (74 percent), another pastor (71 percent), or a mentor (42 percent).
Help is available in a variety of forms. Care4Pastors.com has numerous resources for pastors and churches who desire to support their pastor. Focus on the Family’s pastoral care team is available to provide supportive direction at 1-844-4PASTOR.
Support from their church
Most pastors acknowledge they knew what they were getting into, although 1 in 5 think the search team didn’t accurately describe the church during their candidacy. Still, they pinpoint shortcomings in their churches that make a pastor’s role more challenging:
- 71 percent of churches have no plan for a pastor to receive a periodic sabbatical.
- 66 percent lack a support group for the pastor’s family.
- 66 percent have no lay counseling ministry.
- 33 percent don’t have a list of counselors for referrals.
- 30 percent have no document clearly stating what the church expects of its pastor.
- 16 percent lack a process for church discipline.
“If you’re at all in a position of influence in a church, there are practical things you can be doing to help,” said McConnell.
“Is there a document that clearly defines what the pastor’s job is? That’s a basic need a church could meet in the next two weeks. Does the church have a sabbatical policy? That’s something you can put in place in a matter of a month.”
Despite the stresses, 92 percent of pastors say their congregations regularly give genuine encouragement to the pastor’s family.
H.B. London, pastor to pastors emeritus at Focus on the Family, summarized: “For a pastor and his family to know that 1) the leadership is praying for them, 2) they affirm them, 3) they encourage them, and 4) they recognize the work that is being done—those are things that give a pastor hope or give a pastor a sense of being wanted.”
Lisa Cannon Green is senior writer for Facts & Trends magazine.
The phone survey of pastors of evangelical and black Protestant denominations was conducted March 5-18, 2015. The calling list was a random sample, stratified by church membership and denominational groups, drawn from a list of all evangelical and black Protestant churches. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister, or priest of the church called. The completed sample is 1,500 pastors. Responses were weighted by region and denominational group to more accurately reflect the population. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 2.7 percent. This margin of error accounts for the effect of weighting. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. The study was sponsored by the North American Mission Board and Richard Dockins, M.D.