Here’s Why More Than 700 Pastors Left Ministry – And What We Can Do to Help

Posted on January 27, 2016 in Uncategorized by

LifeWay ResearchI spend a lot of time during my job talking about “market volatility.” It’s something people know exists, don’t quite understand, and have a lot of questions about. So I spend time explaining it, calming fears, and answering questions. As I thought about “market volatility” I was struck by a couple of articles that made me realize the pastorate is one of the most volatile markets in existence.

When we think of volatile markets we think of ups and downs, gains and losses. If you’re an investor you think of your account value and what the market does to your investment. When the market goes down you incur a loss that can take some time to recuperate. When the market goes up you see a gain that you want to protect. It’s easy to see how the pastorate is very much like the market in its volatility; ups and downs, gains and losses.

But while historically the market has always had periods of volatility – and that doesn’t look to end anytime soon – the pastorate doesn’t have to continue as a place of volatility.

A recent article at The Blaze shared the results of a study conducted by LifeWay Research. The study centered on the main reasons pastors quit the pastorate before retirement age. The study boiled the answers of 734 former senior pastors down to five main reasons:

Change in calling – 40%
Conflict in a church – 25%
Burnout – 19%
Personal Finances – 12%
Family Issues – 12%

Looking at the above stated reasons for leaving the pastorate, one can’t help but wonder if the top reason – change in calling – is somehow a result of the other four combined. Out of the five reasons only one can be considered a positive in any way. The other four however are inherently negative and contribute to the volatile nature of the position of pastor.

I’ve often wondered why seminaries don’t do a better job of preparing men for the pastorate. By that I mean, why don’t seminaries offer and require practical courses designed to prepare men for the real-life situations they will face? I can’t remember an instance when after preaching a sermon someone came charging to the front of the auditorium to ask if I knew the Hebrew or Greek root of a particular word in a Bible verse. But more times than I care to remember I’ve faced interpersonal arguments and personality differences with church members and church staff.

I’m not suggesting Hebrew and Greek classes are a waste of time; I actually find them valuable and wish more pastors would explore the original language of Scripture. However, the realities of pastoring a church require skills in leadership, conflict resolution, finance, administration, development, psychology/counseling, and many other skills not emphasized nearly enough in seminaries.

Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research wonders if seminaries should not require more courses preparing pastors for the “people side of ministry.” He said:

“Interestingly, though, there might also be some other tidbits of advice for seminaries and other preparatory institutions, as 48 percent of ex-senior pastors said that they were not prepared to handle the ‘people side of ministry,’ with more than half reporting that they experienced conflict and felt personally attacked in their senior pastor roles. Many seminary programs don’t even require courses on the people side. They’re focused on theology, biblical languages, and preaching, which are important, but almost half of the pastors felt unprepared for dealing with the people they were preparing in seminary to lead and serve.”

Clearly there is a gap in what is being taught in seminaries and what is taking place in churches. That gap is contributing to the number of pastors that are leaving the pastorate. How will seminaries respond?

Another reason given for the high volatility in the pastorate is that “the search committee did not accurately represent the church.” (This answer was given in an article by Thom Rainer.) The response was given by nearly half of responders. And it’s a reason I think we can all understand. When a church is seeking to hire a pastor they rarely air their dirty laundry or tell candidates that the last guy left in the middle of the night because the nursery director chased him across the sanctuary with a broom.

And yet, such information might actually be helpful. Some pastors are called to lead churches that need revitalized. Some are called to lead young, immature churches. Still others are meant to lead established churches that need experience. The information being left out by the church is causing a mismatch between church and pastor. This inevitably leads to high volatility. If churches were more honest with candidates they would have a better chance at hiring the most suitable and equipped pastor for their particular church. That would certainly help reduce volatility.

I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that part of the attractiveness of church planting is job security. A pastor has two choices: go into an existing church where his position is tenuous at best, or plant a church according to his preferences from the ground up – while securing his position. It’s not hard to see why so many are opting for church planting. The inherent struggles pastor’s face inside the church are easier to deal with when there is little fear of losing your job.

There will never be an absence of “market volatility” for the investor. But a decrease in volatility is sorely needed for those that invest their lives in the local church. It will start with better preparation at our seminaries. Practical courses designed to prepare pastors for the daily duties associated with leading a church are needed. From there church seeking to hire pastors must be honest with the candidates. Share the struggles, the dirty laundry, and give an accurate picture of the kind of church that the new pastor is walking into.

These changes will go a long way in reducing the volatility pastors and churches face. And will do a better job of matching the right kind of pastor with the right kind of church.

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