Stop Saying 1,700 Pastors Leave the Ministry Every Month

May 7, 2014 — 21 Comments

An urban legend circulating around the church holds that pastoral ministry is the most highly stressed, undervalued profession on earth, and all pastors are miserable. In support, this factoid is nearly always given: “1,700 pastors leave the ministry each month.”

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You’ll see that number touted on blog after blog—always without a citation. This unverified datum flits around the Net like a vampire bat, sucking passion from ministers and their churches.

And it simply isn’t true.

The myth seems to have originated with a statement by James Dobson in Family News by Dr. James Dobson, August 1998. Dobson wrote, “We estimate that approximately 1,500 pastors leave their assignments each month, due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention within their local congregations.”

Note these facts:

  • The number stated was 1,500, not 1,700.
  • The number was given an approximate estimate, not a fact.
  • The source was a compilation of informal surveys completed by attendees at Focus on the Family pastor’s gatherings, not a statistically valid study of clergy in North America.
  • Dobson never claimed these pastors left the ministry, only their current assignment. (Presumably, many or most changed jobs within their field, as many other people do every day.)
  • The information is more than a decade out of date.

Yet the legend persists that 20,000 pastors run from their vocation every year screaming, “I just can’t take it anymore!”

Why are so eager to believe that? Perhaps that’s a subject for another post.

For now, let’s dispel the idea that all pastors in North America hate their jobs and want to quit. They don’t.

No one denies that the pastorate, like any vocation, can be stressful and challenging. I’ve written about those pressures elsewhere, particularly unrealistic expectations and overwork. (For a list of free getaways for pastors, check here.)

Contrary to popular belief, most pastors love their work. When they get together, they don’t sit around bemoaning their circumstances and complaining about parishioners.

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Pastors talk about theology, leadership, preaching, and how to reach their communities, current events. When they do talk about problems, I’ve noticed that it’s with an eye to solving them and not as a desperate cry for help.

If my colleagues and I are any indication, most pastors like what they do.

So rather than perpetuate the myth that pastoral life is unendurable agony, let’s celebrate what’s good about the greatest calling in the world.

Here’s what I love about being a pastor.

1. Pastors spend every day on what matters most.

That’s why I didn’t become an English teacher or a lawyer, other careers I’d considered. Nothing against either, but I had a sense that heaven and hell matter more than commas and contracts. This is the most meaningful thing I could think of doing. I’m convinced most pastors feel the same.

2. Pastors get to do just about everything.

Some pastors do specialize in one area such as leadership, counseling, church operations, or evangelism. Most do not. We are generalists. Like your family doctor or congressman, your pastor must know something about everything. Theology, counseling, preaching, leadership, recruiting, financing—we do it all. Being a pastor challenging and fun.

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3. We see people at their best.

I heard of a bar owner who sold his business because he hated seeing people at their worst every day. I feel just the opposite. As a pastor, I’m with people on their best days: weddings, baptisms, graduations, and their (original) birthdays. It’s a joy to celebrate life’s transitions with people who love and trust you.

4. Pastors get paid to think, write, and speak.

Well, not just that. But yes, part of the job is to study the Bible and help others apply truth to life. And they pay us for this!

5. We help people.

Sounds trite, doesn’t it? But I know that my preaching and counsel help people live better. I see my leadership making a difference in my congregation and community. I know that my witness to the gospel is leading people to eternal salvation. It’s no exaggeration to say that pastors help people every day.

6. Pastors have freedom.

One of the problems with pastoral life is that pastors work an odd schedule, including every Sunday and plenty of evenings. The hidden blessing is the opportunity to set your own agenda. If you are a disciplined person who enjoys setting your own priorities, you’ll thrive in this life.

7. We answer to a higher authority.

I have a great church board, but I’ve never considered them my bosses. My district superintendent has some authority over me, but no DS has ever tried to manage my work. Every pastor I know believes he or she is called by and answerable to the Lord himself. We are guided by conscience and Scripture, not an employee handbook. There is great freedom in that.

It is true that some pastors burn out. Too many, in fact. Some doctors do too, and some lawyers, and politicians, and insurance salesmen. The pastorate is a unique role and not everyone will thrive in it.

Yet I consider it a great privilege and the most exciting thing I could do with my life. If you are a young person (or not so young) who is considering a call to pastoral ministry, come on in, the water’s fine.

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Lawrence W. Wilson

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I'm lead pastor at Fall Creek Wesleyan Church and the author of a few books including A Different Kind of Crazy and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering. When I have ideas that might help you transform your life and community, I post them here.
  • Denn Guptill

    Thank you Larry for writing this. I love what I do, can’t believe I get paid to do it. And for those always moaning about how tough it is, and how nobody appreciates them I usually suggest they do something else where they will be happier.

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      It’s a privilege, isn’t it Denn?

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    If you like this post, would you consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter? That really helps keep the blog visible and lets others see this content. Thanks!

  • Pingback: 7 Skills Every Pastor Has That Can Land a Job Elsewhere | Lawrence W. Wilson()

  • http://www.daviddrury.com/ David Drury

    This was a very important post, Larry. Very insightful and helpful.
    I do think the “pendulum” has swung way to far in this topic and you’re correcting it with a balanced take.

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Thanks, David.

  • Ray Pile

    Some pastors seem to have a martyr complex. They want people to feel sorry for them because they are pastors. Others talk about what they could have been if only God had not called them into the ministry. We have the greatest job! When my kids had track meets, I was able to go to them. When we had missionaries, my kids got to have lunch with them and hear their stories. We don’t like to admit it but there are a lot of perks to being a pastor.

  • Marshall Shelley

    Hmm. I wonder about the math behind that 1700 figure. If there are 300,000 pastors in the USA, and let’s say that they each serve for 40 years (age 25 to age 65). That means, on average, that if 1/40th of them step down each year for retirement, death, or health issues That’s 7500, minimum, that are stepping down each year for those reasons. Makes 1,700 look like a relatively small number. No?

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Marshall, good point. A large number of pastors certainly must exit ministry annually for benign reasons. However, I have never seen the unfounded 1,700/mo. number used to describe normal transition. Popularly, it is generally bandied about to suggest an epidemic level of pastoral burnout. That’s what I’m questioning.

      • Marshall Shelley

        And I agree with you on that. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who identified the three kinds of lies: “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

  • Michael Raburn

    If anyone is interested, actual studies have been done about this. There are some concerning trends. Go to http://www.pulpitandpew.org/ and see for yourself.

  • David Porter

    Love it! Sure it’s hard. So is being a top-notch football player, a musician and anything worth doing. If we fall into that “feeling sorry for ourselves” slot we undermine our effectiveness and that of our church as well as people around us. When we celebrate the truth more than we bemoan our sort, we strengthen ourselves and others. Faith attitudes communicate.
    David Porter
    http://www.davidscoffeestains.com

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      I so agree, David. An attitude of faith is vital for ministry.

  • Triston Dyer

    Good article. Thank you. The pastorate is a great calling but, in my opinion, the missionary calling is higher. I’ve been both. Being a pastor is great. Being a missionary is greater.

  • Jeremy H. McGarity

    Good word, I wish this were the case all over America. What you are experiencing with your colleagues does not seem to be the norm… although I hope to discover it is or at least can be the norm all over America. You indicated only your colleagues as the example of thriving, etc… No real data to back up the claim. I am doing my doctoral dissertation on pastoral burnout and the 1,700 statistic comes from the Schaffer Institute of Leadership and Richard Krejcir’s Statistics on Pastors from churchleadership.org (he quotes a 1,500 number). I would love to hear more of your thoughts and research to help me balance the negative outlook I am seeing everywhere. Thank you.

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Jeremy, you’re right in pointing out that my observations are anecdotal. I hope they are more typical of what’s happening than the negative stats we keep hearing. Most of those are either unverified or not statistically valid studies. the Church Leadership link that you mention points back to the FOTF survey, which was really an informal poll of attendees at Focus events. The other study appears to be something similar. Maybe your work will be able to shed more authoritative light on the subject. I’ll be interested to see your results.

  • Jeremy H. McGarity

    here is the link that states some of the burnout claims and sources. http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/?articleid=36562

  • Jeremy H. McGarity
  • Jeremy H. McGarity

    Lawrence, It does not appear we are talking about the same study. The data is backed up, not informal, unless you consider an interview with a pastor informal, of which 1,050 of those were conducted. And they retested their data (see below). The FOF study is mentioned at the bottom of the study (as a side-note) I am mentioning, which is a study in addition to the Fuller study which had even greater length and depth and found the same or similar results as the more recent study I am mentioning. The FOF study is mentioned as “In addition” to but not derived from. Here is a quote (sorry for the length of it) from the study from the link I provided: “After over 18 years of researching pastoral trends and many of us being a pastor, we have found (this data is backed up by other studies) that pastors are in a dangerous occupation! We are perhaps the single most stressful and frustrating working profession, more than medical doctors, lawyers, politicians or cat groomers (hey they have claws). We found that over 70% of pastors are so stressed out and burned out that they regularly consider leaving the ministry (I only feel that way on Mondays). Thirty-five to forty percent of pastors actually do leave the ministry, most after only five years. On a personal note, out of the 12 senior pastors that I have served under directly, two have passed away, and four have left the ministry totally-that is, not only are they no longer in the pulpit, but they no longer even attend a church. And, I run into ex-pastors on a regular basis at conferences and speaking engagements; makes me wonder “what’s up with that,” as my kids would say.

    From our recent research we did to retest our data, 1050 pastors were surveyed from two pastor’s conferences held in Orange County and Pasadena, Ca-416 in 2005, and 634 in 2006 (I conducted a similar study for the Fuller Institute in the late 80s with a much greater sampling).”

    I believe we are after the same thing, it takes healthy pastors to lead healthy churches and the statistics are showing massive decline in the nations churches and massive decline in the nations pastors… The trend needs to stop. Which is the goal of my studies. I could use your input into some of the habits you and your colleagues practice to continue to enjoy and thrive in ministry. I’m surveying both thriving and barely surviving/burned out and burning out pastors and trying to find some common denominators. Thank you and I apologize for the long winded reply. :)

    • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

      Jeremy, thanks for the clarification on those studies. I do agree that the ministry is a stressful occupation and that “it takes healthy pastors to lead healthy churches.” I applaud the work you (and others) are doing to shed light on this and to help. Two guys you might want to speak with on this subject at Dave Higle and Joel Liechty in the clergy development office at my own denomination’s headquarters (The Wesleyan Church). They also are working on the subject of clergy health and have more data you might use, at least from one denomination. E-mail me (larry at lawrencewilson dot com) and I can provide contact information.

      • Jeremy H. McGarity

        great, thank you, I will email you… I really appreciate it.