Conflict and burnout among top reasons pastors quit

LifeWay Research surveyed 734 former senior pastors who left the pastorate before retirement age in four Protestant denominations. Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research
LifeWay Research surveyed 734 former senior pastors who left the pastorate before retirement age in four Protestant denominations. Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

LifeWay Research surveyed 734 former senior pastors who left the pastorate before retirement age in four Protestant denominations. Graphic courtesy of LifeWay Research

(RNS) Sometimes a call from God is not enough to keep a pastor in his post.

Many evangelical pastors who quit before retirement age found “another calling” either off the pulpit or out of ministry altogether. But many also say they were driven away by conflict and burnout. So says a new survey of former pastors from four denominations.

The single biggest reason (40 percent) for leaving was “a change in calling.” Conflict in the church drove out 25 percent. And 19 percent succumbed to burnout. Those were the top three reasons in the survey by LifeWay Research, released Tuesday (Jan. 12).

LifeWay surveyed 734 former pastors drawn from lists provided by the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Several said they came into their pastor posts unprepared for intense demands for counseling and untrained in dealing with church boards and were soon overwhelmed by the lack of support.

RELATED STORY: What to make of Southern Baptists’ declining numbers (COMMENTARY)

“Almost half of those who left the pastorate (48 percent) said their church wasn’t doing any of the kinds of things that would help,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Nashville-based research organization. Specifically:

  • 48 percent of the former pastors said the search team didn’t accurately describe the church before their arrival.
  • 27 percent said their churches had no list of counselors for referrals.
  • 22 percent never spelled out exactly what they expected of their pastor.
  • 12 percent had no sabbatical plan for the pastor.

And very soon there was trouble:

  • 56 percent said there were clashes over changes they proposed.
  • 54 percent said they experienced a significant personal attack.
  • 48 percent said their training didn’t prepare them to handle the people side of ministry.

“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,” Stetzer said in a press release.

“These things are interrelated,” Stetzer said. “If you’re burning out, chances are when conflict arises you’re not going to respond well, and that will make the conflict worse.”

RELATED STORY: Tiny churches, big hopes: Why some thrive despite the odds

Conflict is a killer for churches, too, according to the latest edition of the American Congregations studies by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

The 2015 report, issued last week, is based on reporting by clergy or senior staff at more than 4,000 congregations.

“Serious conflict crushes growth,” said the report’s author, David Roozen. He found that congregations that had only little or no conflict were more than 50 percent likely to have shown growth in worship attendance in the last five years.

But among congregations that reported serious conflict, only 29 percent showed growth.

(Cathy Lynn Grossman is a senior national correspondent for RNS)

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues


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  • I worked for a few years as a psychiatrist in the Bible Belt and had quite a few outpatients with anxiety, dysthymia and other depression disorders who were members of the clergy in Christian fundamentalist denominations.Their main complaint was the tension of living between their religious convictions and the teachings of their belief system, and the reality of life in the 20th and 21st century. They lived with a lot of stress caused in the workplace by toxic interaction among members of the congregation or with coworkers. Some lived in the closet, some lived in dysfunctional marriages and wanted to divorce but would not take a first step due to the social implications. One of them was a widower with no children who was being pressured to marry again even though he was gay. Some had secret addictions to pornography, food, painkillers, anything that would help them evade from their situation. Some of them complained about not receiving any support from their parishioners.

  • “Many seminary programs don’t even require courses on the people side”

    I’ve met priests who say they have barely spoken to an Atheist beyond a few words. They wrongly think Atheism is like a disease they might catch.

    Seminaries clearly need to confront the claims made by these ancient texts more directly. That is where the population is. Two words are destroying religion very quickly – “GOOGLE IT!”

    Religion simply cannot survive this kind of international scrutiny. It is best for Seminarians to know that before they embark on this incredibly unrewarding occupation.

    There is compelling evidence which suggest Jesus never existed
    but was invented from ancient Jewish texts:

    “you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Leviticus 19:17–18)
    “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

    And, of course, Psalm 23.

  • Personally I’d think that conflict and burnout can lead some to believe that there has been a “change in calling.” The second two stats are likely higher, but many outgoing pastors might refuse to admit it. Admitting to both conflict with one’s employers and “burnout,” indicating that you can’t take high pressure work environments, can affect your future job prospects.

    Pastoring is like marriage: You have to think in the very long term if you are going to endure church conflicts. Just like in a marriage, some conflicts persist for years. They precede the current pastor. Seminaries really need to offer courses in organizational communication, conflict resolution and basic financial management.

    The church will tell you want they want to hear from the pulpit in short order. Faithfully leading people is the real heart of church ministry.

  • Thanks Cathy. Most of this tracks with my personal and professional experience with non-evangelical clergy as well.

  • What you’re implying is the “one true Scotsman” fallacy. A Scotsman walks into a bar and orders a wine. The bartender says “no true Scotsman drinks wine”. So by these words this Scotsman isn’t a real Scotsman. Your observance is similar. Putting your list under an article about burn out, etc. makes it sound like these people more often as not are “not true Christians”. If someone claims to be a christian you have to include them on the Christian side no matter how bad it makes that side look. Mean Christians, drunk Christians, murderous Christians, gay Christians, adulterous christians….they are all still Christians.

  • And I’ve met atheists who act like theism is a disease they might catch.
    I am grateful we live on a planet with a vast diversity of understandings about life and love and God and no-God.

  • The last full time pastorate I had was many, many years ago. My trouble started when new members returned from a terrible split, then the churches first black member in the 1970’s. Another problem, I, as a boy from Atlanta had no clue how to work with people in a very small town in a rural environment.

    Gods blessing abounded when i resigned and returned to Atlanta and begin my journey in Clinical Pastoral Education, and became a Chaplain and a Licensed Prof. Counselor. Frankly I found that I could work with convicts and later the mentally ill better than I could deacons.

    For a long time seminaries just seemed to want students, and it was easy to use the magic words of call to cover areas in inner working of a “called” student. I remember psych. test were given but not used in the seminary I attended.

    I am thankful for the work being done by the Cooperative Baptist Church to hell prepare men and women who are leaving seminary for a pastorate.

  • The Catholic church is Mystery Babylon, the mother of prostitutes (churches that follow her man-made teachings) according to the book of Revelation. Babylon is the home for demons, and is the spiritual kingdom of Satan. Atheist Max was wise to come out of her. However, the true church of God has been reestablished, where God’s commands of the new covenant are taught and followed. It was restored by Second-Coming Christ, beginning in 1948. Rather than denounce Christianity, you should look for the true church and follow God’s teachings and commands.

  • @Virginia,

    “The Catholic church is…the mother of prostitutes”
    See? Religion is why we can’t have nice things.

    “Babylon is the home for demons, and is the spiritual kingdom of Satan.”
    But the Big Bad Wolf died in a chimney fire. So we are all safe now.
    Checkmate, Christian.

    “Atheist Max was wise to come out of her.”
    What does sex have to do with this?

    “you should look for the true church”
    No. That is your job.
    Once all you Christians can agree on which church has the true Christianity and settle the question for yourselves, I’ll be glad to consider it.

    Get back to me when that happens. Okay?

  • @Brother Chaplain Martin,

    “Frankly I found that I could work with convicts and later the mentally ill better than I could deacons.”

    Well said. You describe altruistic Humanism without strings attached.
    My own theory is this:

    Humanism = “Do for others what you would want done for you and your loved ones”
    Religion = “or else”

    Acting morally and decently is not improved by adding a threat.
    Adding “or else” is what ruins religion and makes it fearful, ignorant, inhumane and destructive.

    “Believe in me or go the eternal fire” – JESUS (Mark 16:16)
    I wish it would be abandoned.

  • Mark 16:16 says the one who does not believe would be damned (not tortured with fire and torment forever), or lose his life. He would end up the common grave, where the dead are not aware of anything (Eccl. 9:5,6, 10).

    But don’t worry; false religion will be destroyed by God (Rev. 17 and 18) and become non-existent, just as death will be (Rev. 21:3,4).

  • Forgive me, I’m just a silly old atheist.

    How does one lose one’s calling, when one is being called by the God one claims to believe in?

    Losing one’s calling is a very nice way of saying losing one’s faith. It doesn’t sound anywhere near as bad.

    Silly stuff.

  • Perhaps the problem is a church having “pastors” itself. New Testament church eldership wasn’t one guy as “the star” but a plurality of leaders, except for bad examples like Diotrephes in 3 John. Commonly, protestant leadership in American churches more resembles Roman Catholic monarchical bishops than any biblical model for church leadership.

    I’ve seen a congregation that went to 3 phases: (1) The founder, who kept under wraps alot of internal problems basically by his own charisma and energy, who then retired; (2) the succeeding pastor, who triggered a congregational split once he changed things and wouldn’t tolerate certain beliefs and practices among the congregation, who went off to a teaching position; and (3) the congregation being essentially pastor-less while being run byelders, who take turns doing sermons and have itinerant preachers speak. By far, the healthiest I’ve seen the congregation was under the third phase.