Pastors are on the move.
In its most recent study, Barna discovered 38% of pastors have seriously considered quitting full-time ministry this year. This percentage is up 9 full points (from 29%) since Barna asked church leaders this same question at the beginning of 2021.
One of the more alarming findings is 46% of pastors under the age of 45 say they are considering quitting full-time ministry, compared to 34% of pastors 45 and older.
“We started seeing early warning signs of burnout among pastors before COVID,” says David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group. Now, after 18 months of the pandemic, along with intense congregational divisions and financial strain, an alarming percentage of pastors are experiencing significant burnout, driving them to seriously consider leaving ministry.”
I’ve had several conversations with District Superintendents from three different denominations over the past few weeks, and they seem to mirror what Barna is reporting. I had one Superintendent tell me that more and more pastors are reporting they don’t like the people they lead anymore. Yikes.
Let’s think about why this is happening:
1. Pastoral ministry for some has become toxic
Prior to the pandemic, no matter how healthy the church you led was, 3-5% of the people in that church were difficult. They didn’t see you as their pastor, they were openly critical of you, they had a different vision for the church than you did. During the pandemic and even today, that number has grown to about 30%. And that 30% has grown even louder in their criticism. And so, some pastors feel trapped in a toxic situation.
2. Some pastors are weary with the starts and stops related to the pandemic
Our teammate Jaime Hlavin posted a powerful blog last week about giving thanks, and she penned these words: “This pandemic life (Post-pandemic life? Endemic life? I’m not even sure what to call it!) we are living right now is comparable to an old, unreliable car: We crank the engine for a few seconds. It finally turns over and fires to life, drives a few hundred feet only to stall out again. In Spring of 2021, we got some momentum as cases dropped, therapeutics and preventatives became more available and then BOOM—new variant. Cases spiked. Then they receded and school returned in person. But quarantines and surges yet again cause the forward motion to stall the car again.
We’re observing a sense a general weariness among leaders as it relates to this starting and stopping dynamic. And the result has been an increased number of pastors looking for greener grass.
Obviously, the above is not an exhaustive list of contributors, but I believe they are two of the top contributors.
What can a pastor do about all of this?
1. Acknowledge that sometimes you do need a fresh start
Sometimes a fresh start is what the doctor ordered. But to the best of your ability make sure it’s God who’s sending you, not you who’s sending you. Unfortunately, some churches have become so toxic that leaving is required for a pastor to maintain health. But be advised . . . if you think a fresh start won’t come with some problems, you’re not thinking it through all the way.
2. If you decide to stay, jump in with both feet (And invite your team to jump in with you)
- Start casting vision again – Vision tends to be unifying. Vision creates energy, momentum, and . . . hope. “Where there is no vision, the people run wild” ~ Jeff Harlow. I don’t think God has called pastors to be problem-solvers primarily. He’s called them to lead. So cast vision. Spend time dreaming and talking about the future.
- Chart a strategic course for the church you serve – Spend a bit more time thinking/planning strategically, and a bit less time in the trenches.
- Make disciples of Jesus – the problem with the vocal 30% is largely a discipleship issue. Rethink your approach to helping people go deeper with Jesus. The most impactful discipleship approaches are relational at their core. We’d love to help you think through your discipleship strategy.
I think there is a direct correlation between visioning, strategizing, discipling . . . and the level of energy and enthusiasm a leader experiences.
So if you find yourself today in the 38% group of pastors who are seriously considering quitting, take some time to pause and consider what I’ve laid out for you today. Yes, pastoring has become a tougher gig than ever. Yes, everything inside of you might be screaming “It’s time to jet!” And yes, God might just lead you to a new assignment.
But before you make such a huge decision, take time to slow down and listen for God’s leading. Invite trusted people into your decision-making process. I’m confident if you do these two things, you’ll make a quality decision.
Rooting and praying for you,