Pastors in Restoration Movement churches quit at an alarming rate. According to research from the Christian Church Leadership Network, 70 percent of Bible college graduates in the Restoration Movement leave pastoral ministry within the first 10 years. That means 7 out of 10 current Bible college students called to pastoral ministry in this movement probably will not last a decade.
How might we better develop and grow healthy leaders? In what ways might we support the leaders we already have so they last a lifetime in ministry? The future of our movement and the health of our churches is at stake.
DEFINE THE CAUSE
Every story is unique, so defining the cause of pastor attrition can be complex. Especially now—with COVID-19 and so many tensions in our country. Difficult circumstances reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a person’s leadership. So, even in a COVID-19 world, several key factors of pastoral attrition stand out.
Giftedness and personality do not equal maturity and character. Even when new ministers have a compelling call to vocational ministry, the responsibilities and interpersonal challenges they face can cause them to short out.
“The breadth of tasks performed by local church pastors coupled with the rapid switching between task clusters and roles . . . in this position is unique,” Michigan State University professor Richard P. DeShon wrote. “I have never encountered such a fast-paced job with such varied and impactful responsibilities.”
An added component might include pastors beginning ministry with unrealistic expectations.
“We have young leaders coming out of Bible college and all they want to do is preach,” said Tim Winters, executive pastor at Shepherd Church in Porter Ranch, California. “Sharing the Word is important, but we also need people called to ministry that can lead themselves and others. We lack prepared leaders.”
Financial pressure is another reason pastors in Restoration Movement churches quit at alarming rates. More than half of the ministers who responded to CCLN’s research reported personal and educational debt, lack of sufficient health-care coverage, and/or lack of church-funded retirement as major reasons for financial stress.
“Christian churches and churches of Christ generally compensate their pastoral staff less than the national average,” said Tim Wallingford, executive director of the Christian Church Leadership Network (CCLN). “We need a theology of compensation that is biblical. A worker is worthy of their wages (1 Timothy 5:18). We have a responsibility to care for our leaders. Instead, hiring committees approach salaries as trying to get a ‘good deal’ and save the church money.”
Across the board in Restoration Movement churches and elsewhere, pastors sometimes depend on a second job and/or a spouse’s job to make ends meet. “No national or regional body exists to set minimum salary requirements,” researchers wrote, “and most lay leaders are unaware of compensation patterns among other congregations in their area. As a result, promising pastoral leaders often leave smaller congregations simply to make more money.”
Challenges within the Ministry
A third key reason pastors within Restoration churches quit within the first decade is more nuanced. Factors contributing to pastoral attrition include unhealthy elder boards, mistrustful staffs, congregations unwilling to change to meet the shifting ministry needs of their communities, and pastors not knowing where to turn for help.
Among the pastors who participated in the CCLN study:
- 71 percent did not feel capable of leading culturally relevant programming, either because they lack the skills to do so or because their congregations are unwilling to change, or both.
- 79 percent identified lack of a clear mission as an obstacle to congregational effectiveness.
- 80 percent struggled with change management.
An unexpected finding to the CCLN study included pastors repeatedly saying something to the effect of, “I feel like I am out here doing ministry all alone.” Restoration Movement leaders used to connect more frequently in regional gatherings and annual conventions, but many conferences have weakened or died.
“When it comes right down to it, God has commanded us to be interdependent,” said Richard Creek, retired pastor and founder of The Kingdom Partnership. “We are all part of the body of Christ, not just our local church. We need one another.”
Lack of Self-Management
Ministry leadership can act like a never-ending machine that requires constant fuel. For some pastors, the urgency of others’ needs stays at the forefront of their lives. They never learn how to practice a life rhythm that includes rest, healthy habits, and spiritual formation disciplines. Eventually the pastor wears out because of the constant spiritual warfare taking place in ministry.
Alan Ahlgrim, founder of Covenant Connections for Pastors, also sees a link between pastors quitting and a lack of intentional life rhythm.
“Pastors that quit usually have a combination of inadequate support, inadequate disciplines, inadequate friendships, and/or inadequate commitment to physical health,” he said. “Soul-enriching rhythms involve living well reflectively, relationally, and recreationally. All are vital.”
Fighting the Wrong Battle
Scripture says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
As ministers of the gospel, pastors and ministry leaders advance the kingdom of light into evil strongholds of all kinds. But instead of focusing on the battlefield of spiritual warfare and committing ourselves to God’s Word, prayer, humility, and teamwork—we can easily change our focus to programs, worship style, and building projects.
When we fight on the wrong battlefield, we lose (because we’re fighting the wrong war). If we spend more time on programs and committee meetings than we do on our knees, we likely are leading ourselves and our ministries with chunks of our armor missing. When this happens, our pastors and staff are likely to become casualties (Ephesians 6:10-20).