Reason for clergy shortage? Just ask why pastors leave churches

A growing challenge in many denominations is finding enough pastors to serve the churches that are vacant. More people are leaving the ministry ranks (through resignation or retirement) than are joining them. In my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, plans to start new churches are repeatedly scaled back because we can’t find enough qualified pastors to start these new churches. Our denomination is having a hard enough time finding enough pastors to fill vacant churches, let alone finding pastors to start new ones. Why the shortage of ministers?

Several years ago, consultants Alan and Cheryl Klaas were hired by the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) to investigate this issue. They were tasked to find the root causes of the clergy shortage that many denominations are facing. The problem they uncovered was unexpected (to them) and troubling. The reason for the drop-off of new ministry recruits matched the reason for an increase in people leaving ministry: the conflict, criticism, and ill-treatment that has become an all-too-common aspect of ministry life. What follows is an excerpt of an article in the Baptist standard:

“[This research study] was intended to be a traditional recruitment and retention study,” Klaas said. For example, he thought he’d be recommending changes on issues like seminary communication with potential students.

“We wondered if students got good services, if seminaries were recruiting the right people,” he explained. But in the end, the Klaases concluded the problems are 20 percent institutional and 80 percent behavioral.

“The fundamental finding is that people beating on each other is the main issue,” Klaas said.

One telling statistic from the Klaas study is the decrease in the numbers of pastors’ kids who become pastors themselves. Klaas estimates that pastors’ children made up about 40 percent of seminarians in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s a much different picture now at the two seminaries in the denomination Klaas was working with. Last year, pastors’ children made up only 5 percent of seminarians at one and 17 percent at the other.

The bottom line is that churches need to do a better job at caring for and supporting their pastors. Another way of looking at it — from the vantage point of the pastors themselves — is to say that pastors need to do a better job of caring for and supporting themselves (through training, taking time off, participating in support groups, etc.). Instead of sitting back and hoping that the church will do it for you, create a plan and insist on the church’s support for you to take the steps you need to care for your physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened in my case, had I done this. I tried to do it, but was not clear enough about what I needed, or insistent about getting the funding to get help. To be honest, I don’t think I really understood what I needed or how badly I needed it until it was too late. Don’t make that mistake.

11 thoughts on “Reason for clergy shortage? Just ask why pastors leave churches”

  1. For years, I was the type to accommodate the pastors and think of their needs and pressures. All the while, my needs for fellowship and encouragement were never met. I was divorced and a single mother.
    The church wanted my child alright, but not me. One christian woman even wanted to have my daughter move into her home. My repenting and getting right with God had nothing to do, apparently, towards a new life in Christ. When I told one pastor that I was getting counseling
    (I had included a pastor’s wife at a visit so as to help her learn), the next thing I hear from the pulpit was “you don’t need counseling, all you need is God.” A manipulative statement. Do what he says, or you won’t fit in the system. Being a new Christian and afraid that I was disappointing God, I quit my counseling; I didn’t know any better. Of course, I didn’t get any fellowship from the church, so there I was alone. I left the world to be alone? Hmmm, wide open for the wolves in sheeps clothing.
    Proverbs 11:14 Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.
    Proverbs 15:22 Without counsel purposes are disappointed: but in the multitude of counsellors they are established.

    You pastors want the least people like me to understand your delimmas and haven’t given a flip about my lack of support. You talk a lot of talk from the pulpit, but when it has been in the power of your hands to at least guide the “elder” women to befriend someone in need, you looked the other way. After all, you have your homes, families, and friends. Why bother with women who are trying to make it in this world without getting married one more time? It stands to reason that if these so called leaders looked out for ALL the people, that those underneath them would be built up and gain enough strength to naturally be your support system. See, if you care about me by really showing me love and concern, I’ll do almost anything for you. Then, your support system would be in place. And if you have a large church and cannot do everything yourself, You can at least delegate for the least. Maybe, after awhile, that real genuine concern would actually appear as proclaimed one of the Christian attributes.
    Oh yes, I did show myself friendly. Years of disrespect and disregard took my desire from my heart. I imagine that’s why some of the people are leaving the church. The perfect married ones/never been divorced ones stay separate from the singles. It’s really too bad because those singles are at least trying to keep or get their kids on the right path. We are not out to steal your man. But they sure do check out women from the pulpit. I was in the car one day with both my son-in-law and his pastor. The pastor started telling him about another pastor checking out cute women sitting on the pews, how he’d stack up books to get a good look at them. Both the pastor and my son-in-law thought that was real funny. Gee, what is that “mentor” teaching about fidelity? Plus, no respect towards this woman sitting in the back seat. If you love God’s people so much, why do you hinder them so much? These are churches that bear God’s spirit. What a shame to 9 out of 10 churches.


    1. Kimberly,
      I am so sorry for how you were treated by a pastor and church. There is no excuse for such actions. The church should be a place of love and support for all people. Too often people at church want to put up a good front and pretend they have it altogether – while condemning others. That is so ungodly and not like Christ – AT ALL. I hope you can realize that not all pastors and churches are like the one you experienced. AND please realize that our God is a God of grace. God loves you and meets you where you are. Again – so sorry for your experiences – may God Bless you and work in your life – (and by the way I am a pastor – but that really doesn’t matter in regards to my post)

  2. Quite honestly, I find the biggest stressor in the ministry is simply the lack of trust that congregation members afford their pastors. Yes, the hours are long, the money is tight, there are a lot of problems to deal with (both the peoples’ problems and the pastor’s own personal problems with family life, etc.). However, what is really taking its toll on me is the constant lack of respect for pastoral authority, the lack of support for the work I am doing, the fighting against any change I am initiating, and the passive-aggressiveness of some congregation members who act to sabbotage my ministy and the ministry of the congregation. That is what is causing the burnout. I know many priests/pastors in many different denominations who love the work of ministry but are greatly distressed and depressed because they deal with difficult and disrepectful congregation members day in and day out. The other problem is the struggle within denominations today. Liberals are pitted against conservatives, progressives against traditionalists, and that causes enormous stress. As a pastor in a so called ‘main-line’ denomination who is more traditional in worship, Biblical interpretation, and ethics, I know first hand what it is like not to have the support of the wider church body and the denominational headquarters. Everything you do seems futile, when you know that they’re just going to be replaced someday by someome who will undo everything you worked hard for. The combination of clergy killers in congregations and an unsupportive ‘hierarchy’ is very detrimental to the well-being of clergy.

  3. I totally agree with Pastor Jack. I too in ministry for many years and have dealt with hardship from congregation and people a like who are non-supportive in fact out right haters. My joy is slipping away. I would highly recommend anyone interested in pastoral work to do your home work, because out here you need more then your full Armor.

  4. Have you considered Spiritual Direction for these pastors? I’m a Spiritual Director. We meet with people once a month to discuss the directee’s spiritual journey. Mostly I listen. I may offer a suggestion for where the person is stuck and I encourage them in their process. Spiritual Directors were created originally for Catholic Priests to have someone to talk to, but anyone on a spiritual path can get into spiritual direction. Just a suggestion.

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