A survey reveals the reasons, rewards, and regrets of leaving the pastoral ministry.

You are 45 years old. You have pastored three churches since leaving seminary 18 years ago. You are about to assume a new position. But for the first time in your career, people will no longer call you pastor.

You agonized about this decision when you were first offered a nonparish ministry. You wondered about Sundays when you wouldn’t be preaching, a thought that prompted both fear and relief. You speculated about what people would say, what they would call you. Drop-out? Ex-pastor?

You are not alone. Many pastors are leaving the church for nonpastoral work as denominational leaders, seminary or college teachers, or directors of Christian organizations.

Why are they leaving? What effect does this career change have on their lives? How does it feel to be out of the ministry? Are they happy with their decision or do they miss the pastorate? Would they, if asked, return to pastor a church?

Recently I surveyed 26 ex-pastors in an attempt to find some answers to these questions. Most offered clear insight into why pastors leave the pastorate and how they feel about that decision later.

I made the following observations:

1. Most pastors left the parish not out of dissatisfaction with congregational work as much as uneasiness about how little time it gave them for personal and family life. Though ex-pastors loved pastoral work, too often their family life suffered as a result. Spouses have made their statement with a dramatic rise in the divorce rate among pastors. Children also rebelled. As a way out of this dilemma, nonparish work seemed to offer more personal time and freedom in the ex-pastor’s schedule for himself and his family.

2. Most pastors enjoyed preaching but would rather have gone anywhere except a committee meeting. Pastors jealously guarded their right to preach, but uttered quiet amens when board meetings were cancelled. Some went AWOL from churches permanently when offered positions in a seminary where they could “preach” five days a week without ever having to face another trustee meeting.

3. Pastors struggled constantly with unrealistic standards of perfectionism. They were simply not given the freedom or grace to fail. Many felt that while they were certainly less than divine, they were nonetheless supposed to be a little more than human. While churches seemed to demand so much, nonpastoral work seemed to have far more realistic standards of behavior.

4. Pastors who made the career change to nonparish work were pulled by the opportunity but pushed by less noble reasons. The most compelling pull was opportunity for more responsible, attractive, and specialized ministry. But the most obvious push for change was a pastor’s need simply to get away from the pastorate—a moratorium on life compounded by too much stress. Burnout also takes its toll in the church today.

5. Pastors who left their churches struggled with feelings of isolation and loneliness. Many felt alienated from church members as well as other pastors. Most learned to live with these feelings, but had not expected them prior to the change.

6. Not all who left pastoral ministry regreted the move. Most ex-pastors, given the same conditions of their original decision, would have made the same choice again.

7. Getting out of the pastorate also brought some rewards. Removing the pulpit from the pastor’s eye often permitted him to evaluate things more clearly. Some ex-pastors learned what their own personal motives, needs, and problems were; what the value of the laity was; and they gained a more realistic understanding of how the rest of the world thought. Said one ex-pastor: “I am where I am for awhile. When I return to a church it will be with a deeper appreciation for the pastorate.”

8. Many ex-pastors, however, were not content out of parish ministry. Almost half were ready to return after being out only a few years. Having experienced stress in the outside world, they seemed more tolerant of the tension they found in the church.

A survey offers a composite picture, not an individualized portrait, of every person who leaves the ministry. But a composite does suggest some questions that might be asked.

Pastors considering nonparish work might ask themselves what they are looking for: more family time, more tolerance to fail, a long rest? Can they cope with feelings of loneliness? Are they ready to learn new things about themselves, the church, and the world? Will they be content outside the pastorate?

The church, too, might ask what it is doing that might be driving pastors away. Is it expecting too much of them, both in terms of time away from home and family, as well as unrealistic standards of perfection? Does the preacher need a sabbatical from the 24-hour demands of the pastorate?

Incidently, anyone know of a good church that needs a pastor? I know a few ex-pastors who would just love to come back.

CHARLES A. WICKMANMr. Wickman is vice-president for public affairs at Trinity College, Deerfield, Illinois—and a former pastor.

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