Understanding Pastor Burnout: Why Pastors Leave Ministry - For Those Seeking Pastor Jobs and Employment

Those words -- pastor burnout, pastors leaving ministry, even pastor jobs and employment -- are emotionally charged words for me.

After having pastored for 30 years, I realized I had experienced ministry career burnout.

I wish now I had a better concept about seeing the positives of some negative events that took place in my pastoral career. See Church Pastors Article. Understanding pastor burnout and why pastors are leaving ministry may lead to a whole new approach to pastor jobs and employment,by the pastor seeking church ministry positions.

As I gather information for a book I hope to write about the "Positives of Pastoral Burnout" or "Expanding the Ministry, Not Leaving the Ministry", I have discovered a great "How to" book on self publishing that I heartily recommend -- Instant eBook Writing Kit. I am intrigued by pastoral burnout study from Australia I recently discovered entitled "Why Pastors Leave Parishes", an article by Rowland Croucher in an attempt to understand why pastors leave ministry.

Pastors Leaving Ministry
"Is it still fun?"* For the majority of those who are no longer in parish ministry, whether by choice, or because their ministry was prematurely terminated, the answer to this question was "no".

Tired Joyless Ministry
One ex-pastor who had served in his denomination for nine years said, "I was sick and tired of having a joyless ministry".

Pastoral ministry, commenced with high ideals and expectations, had become a source of stress, had caused a lowering of self-confidence, and a sense of powerlessness for over half of the 243 ex-parish pastors who have responded to our questionnaire.

And yet many would identify with the person who said, "but my 'sense of call' remained; [I] felt guilty that I could not fulfil my calling."

Career Change for Pastors
About 20% of ex-pastors in parish settlements left to move into another career, (either within their denomination, a para-church organisation or a secular position).

One-quarter of these have done so without hurt, conflict, loss of health, or plain boredom, being their underlying motivation. The few can say, "I had enjoyed a total of 15 years of parish ministry and I felt ready for a new challenge in ministry", or saw the move into another area of ministry as the natural next step because of the gifts and the expertise that they possessed.

Spiritual Consequences to Pastor Burnout
Many more would say something like, "I was "burnt-out". God gave me a way out - I was tired of fighting unproductive battles with the few."

Only one-third of those who have responded with questionnaires are presently engaged in Christian "full-time" work. Indeed, 7% of ex-pastors are no longer worshiping on Sundays, and a further 33% are not using their ministry gifts in any way in the local congregation. This is not always the fault of the ex-pastor.

One ex-pastor who left for health reasons in mid-life said, "to move from "core involvement" to the perimeter is a big enough transtion. Finding oneself unable to make it into even the outer fellowship circle can be a painful experience."

Causes OF Pastors Leaving Ministry
So what causes a pastor to leave the vocation which was entered a few years earlier with enthusiasm, and in response to the call of God?

Pastors And Church Conflict
The most significant reason (for approximately half of the sample) is conflict. This conflict may be with

  • local lay leaders,
  • colleagues in the parish,
  • members of the congregation,
  • or denominational leaders.

Conflict with local church leaders (lay and other pastors) is mentioned as one of the most significant factors in the actual decision to leave by one quarter of all respondents, and difficult relationships with denominational leaders by approx. 20%.

One ex-pastor feeling a lack of support from all areas said that the key reason for his leaving was "local church politics... [I was] not permitted to pursue decisions approved by the congregaton."

Another who had experienced conflict with colleagues said, "[I had] a growing awareness of the need for a change to enable a return of energy, enthusiasm and vision."

Lack Of Support/Encouragement For Pastors
When this is combined with the fact that half of the ex- pastors surveyed have felt a lack of support/encouragement in the pastorate, this raises serious questions about the quality of fellowship in many of our churches.

The ex-pastor is often left with intense feelings of failure, anger, a sense of betrayal (not only by others, but also by God), resentment and guilt. These can take many years for the pastor, the pastor's spouse and teenage or adult children to work through to a point of healing.

Pastor's Spouse/Family Issues
Spouse/family issues are often significant in the decision to leave the pastorate.

  • Problems in the marriage relationship is mentioned specifically by 13.5% of respondents,
  • 10% of spouses have had problems accepting the lifestyle,
  • and 16% mention family problems.

Factor analysis of the various factors operating when pastors leave parish ministry has shown a definite clustering around the questions relating to spouse, family, housing, finance and mobility.

When these factors are considered together, the significance of the pastor"s personal relationships would appear to be important for about a third of those who decide to leave the pastorate.

A regular response in the questionnaires is the felt need "to spend more time with my wife and family".Adultery on the part of the pastor is THE reason for leaving for some of our respondents. Sadly, this often occurs when the pastoral ministry has been progressing effectively.

One perceptive ex-pastor for whom adultery and the subsequent break-down of his marriage had been the key issue said: "The inability of the church to deal with my situation, the closing off from expression or acknowledgment of issues relating to sexuality and lack of opportunity for support/examination or reflection to help me was significant."

The church may need to develop better ways of responding with care in these situations.

The significance of spouse/family/sexuality issues appear to differ across the denominations, and may well be accentuated by conflict in the parish. More work needs to be done in these areas to gain a clearer understanding of the interrelationships between these issues.

The Pastor Coming to Grips With "Self" And Health
These two issues re-cur as very significant reasons in the decision to leave the parish. "Self", including a loss of self-confidence, inability to continue to cope, and awareness of weaknesses, is the most often given reason for leaving.

Health factors (often associated with stress/burnout) is the third reason given (after self and conflict with local church leaders).

It would be very wrong to assume that the third of pastors who acknowledge self as a factor in their decision were unsuited to the pastoral ministry. (There are a few for whom this is so.)

Many ex-pastors (about 40%) have good self-knowledge, and have learned through their experience. One ex-pastor said: "Some of my inter-personal skills needed attention", and many have sought counseling help to look at themselves.

Often it is the conflict and the lack of encouragement experienced in the pastorate, which compounds self, health and marriage/family issues. The experience of many is that as the conflict continues unabated, there is a loss of confidence in oneself.

The stress begins to affect the health and relationships of the pastor, and this combination results in the decision that the pastoral ministry is no longer tenable. For some, this decision leads them to take "time out" for either a sabbatical and/or further study. But only 4% of the respondents have returned to the pastorate.

Where To After Pastor Burnout?
The analysis of returned questionnaires continues. But there is a need for a much larger sample. While there are hints of different factors operating across the denominations, the sample size in most denominations (except Baptists and perhaps Anglicans) is too small at this stage.

(Since this article has no date, I am uncertain as to whether this request is still timely. PLS) Rev. Croucher does make this request: If you are an ex-pastor of a parish (whether in some other ministry or secular employment) your help in completing a questionnaire would be very much appreciated.

If there is still time to be included, you may have to explore his website entitled John Mark Ministries.

For those who have experienced pastor burnout, see my article on pastors leaving ministry,

Until you are ready for ministry employment, let me suggest you get support by visiting a website dedicated to helping Wounded Shepherds.

Site Resources For Pastors Experiencing Pastor Burnout

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I even see building a website as a way for those who have experienced pastor burnout to be therapeutic.