Why Most Pastors Leave the Pastorate Today

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The number of pastors who have become ex-clergy is astounding. It’s between 1,500 and 2,000 a month in the USA!

In my talks with hundred of pastors who have left the clergy system . . . or who wish to leave . . .here is the main reason? A crisis of conscience.

Countless pastors have concluded that the present form of the pastoral role is not biblical, and God never intended anyone to fill it . . . especially them.

Now if you’re reading that sentence and want to grab your heart-medicine, then skip over this article because it’s not written for you.

This article is for the thousands of ex-pastors who knew something wasn’t right with the office they were filling. But they weren’t sure what was wrong or why it was wrong.

I’m here to encourage you by announcing (1) you are not crazy (2) there are hundreds of thousands of servants of God who once served as local pastors who felt exactly the same way you did.

So fear not.

Richard Hanson once said,

“It is a universal tendency in the Christian religion, as in many other religions, to give a theological interpretation to institutions which have developed gradually through a period of time for the sake of practical usefulness, and then read that interpretation back into the earliest periods and infancy of these institutions, attaching them to an age when in fact nobody imagined that they had such a meaning.”

Hansen’s big idea was echoed by a contemporary pastor who wittingly wrote,

“I majored in Bible in college. I went to the seminary and I majored in the only thing they teach there: the professional ministry. When I graduated, I realized that I could speak Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and the only thing on earth I was qualified for was to be pope. But someone else had the job.”

Now how could the office of “pastor” not be biblical?

Pastors did exist in the first-century. They were called shepherds, elders, and overseers. All interchangeable terms for the same function.

But the modern role and contemporary form of the pastoral function has few points of contact with anything we find in the New Testament.

To be sure, most who serve (or who have served) in the office of pastor are wonderful people. They are honorable, decent, and very often gifted Christians who love God and have a zeal to serve the Lord’s children. But the office has not served many of them . . . and those to whom they wish to help. . . well.

The word pastors does appear in the New Testament . . . once.

Ephesians 4:11 says, And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers. (A derivative form of the word poimen is used in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2-3.)

But the question before the house is, are the “pastors” mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 the same as what we understand today by the word “pastor” or are they drastically different?

(Keep in mind that the word “priest” is used in the New Testament also, but evangelical Christians would be quick to point out at the New Testament “priests” were quite different from Roman Catholic priests today.)

At the time of this writing, there are reportedly more than 500,000 paid pastors serving churches in the United States. Among this massive number of religious professionals, consider the following statistics that raise questions about the modern pastoral office:

94 percent feel pressured to have an ideal family.

90 percent work more than forty-six hours a week.

81 percent say they have insufficient time with their spouses.

80 percent believe that pastoral ministry affects their family negatively.

70 percent do not have someone they consider a close friend.

70 percent have lower self-esteem than when they entered the ministry.

50 percent feel unable to meet the demands of the job.

80 percent are discouraged or deal with depression.

More than 40 percent report that they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and unrealistic expectations.

33 percent consider pastoral ministry an outright hazard to the family.

33 percent have seriously considered leaving their position in the past year.

40 percent of pastoral resignations are due to burnout.

Most pastors are expected to juggle sixteen major tasks at once. And many crumble under the pressure.

Over the past twenty years, the average length of a pastorate has declined from seven years to just over four years.

Unfortunately, few pastors have connected the dots to discover that it is their office that causes this underlying turbulence.

For this reason, many people have concluded that Jesus Christ never intended any person to sport all the hats a present-day pastor is expected to wear. He never intended any one person to bear such a load.

If you’re skeptical about that, let me put forth this sober challenge:

Show me a man in the New Testament who is called the “head” of a church, who preaches to it every week like clock-work, who represents the local assembly in their community, who counsels the weak and the hurting, who visits the sick, who uses the word “pastor” or “reverend” as an honorific title before their name, who marries the young and buries the dead? 

Show me that man (or woman) in the New Testament and George Barna will give you $100,000! 🙂

Pick your Bible up, search for this person from Genesis to the genuine leather, turn it upside down and shake it real good, and I can assure you, he will not fall out of there.

No more than a Catholic priest will fall out of its pages . . . even though the word “priest” is used in the New Testament to describe Christians.

We cannot escape the fact that the demands of the pastorate are crushing; so much so that they can drain any mortal dry.

Imagine for a moment that you were working for a company that paid you on the basis of how good you made your people feel, how entertaining you were, how friendly you were, how popular your wife and children were, how well-dressed you were, and how perfect your behavior was?

Can you imagine the unmitigated stress that this would cause you?

Can you see how such pressure would force you into playing a pretentious role—all to keep your authority, your prestige, and your job security?

The pastoral profession dictates standards of conduct like any other profession, whether it be teacher, doctor, or lawyer. The profession dictates how pastors are to dress, speak, and act. This is one of the major reasons why many pastors live artificial lives.

According to many ex-pastors, the pastoral role (for them anyway) fostered dishonesty and false pretense.

Based on the scores of personal testimonies I and my friends have heard from erstwhile pastors, many—if not most—pastors cannot stay in their office without being corrupted on some level. The power-politics endemic to the office is a huge problem that isolates many of them and poisons their relationship with others.

In an insightful article to pastors entitled “Preventing Clergy Burnout,” the author suggests something startling. His advice to pastors gives us a clear peek into the power-politics that goes with the pastorate. He implores pastors to “fellowship with clergy of other denominations. These persons cannot harm you ecclesiastically, because they are not of your official circle. There is no political string they can pull to undo you.”

Think about that. Does this sound spiritual to you? The modern pastoral office provokes such a situation.

Professional loneliness is another virus that runs high among pastors. The lone-ranger plague drives some ministers into other careers. It drives others into crueler fates.

All of these pathologies find their root in the history of the pastorate. It’s “lonely at the top” because God never intended for anyone to be at the top—except His Son. In effect, the present-day pastor tries to shoulder the fifty-eight New Testament “one another” exhortations all by himself.

It is no wonder that many of them get crushed under the weight. The contemporary pastor is the most unquestioned fixture in twentyfirst-century Christianity. Yet not a strand of Scripture supports the existence of this office.

Rather, the present-day pastor was born out of the single-bishop rule first spawned by Ignatius and Cyprian. The bishop evolved into the local presbyter. In the Middle Ages, the presbyter grew into the Catholic priest.

During the Reformation, he was transformed into “the preacher,” “the minister,” and finally “the pastor”—the person upon whom all of Protestantism hangs. To boil it down to one sentence: Historically speaking, the Protestant pastoral office is nothing more than a reformed Catholic priest.

Catholic priests had seven duties at the time of the Reformation: preaching; the sacraments; prayers for the flock; a disciplined, godly life; church rites; supporting the poor; and visiting the sick. The Protestant pastor takes upon himself all of these responsibilities—plus he sometimes blesses civic events.

The famed poet John Milton put it best when he said, “New presbyter is but old priest writ large!”

In other words, the contemporary pastor is but an old priest written in larger letters.

All told, a crisis of conscience is one of the main reasons why thousands of pastors leave the clergy system each month in the USA.

Consequently, you are not alone. You have both history and Scripture to stand with your decision . . . not to mention hundreds of thousands of women and men who have come to the same difficult conclusion.

So be encouraged.

(For sources for the quotes and stats, see Pagan Christianity by George Barna and Frank Viola, chapter 5.)

FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. He has written many books on these themes, including God’s Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. He blogs regularly at frankviola.org.

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