Why Half of All Pastors Want to Quit Their Jobs

The pastoral vocation is in decline. If it’s going to recover, churches need to rethink how they measure success.

“What lies are you tempted to believe in ministry?”

Over the past several months, I’ve asked this question to dozens of pastors and Christian leaders. It’s a question that often goes unasked in religious leadership circles, but the resulting conversations have been honest, vulnerable, and revealing. Here are some of the common answers:

I have a small church, which makes me a bad and ineffective pastor.

My addiction has no effect on my congregation.

More speaking opportunities at ministry conferences means I’m a legitimate pastor.

The size of our buildings, budget, and attendance are the only viable way ministry success can be measured.

If I pastor better, God will love me more.

I can please everyone and be faithful to my calling.

If I preach better, my church will grow.

My physical health and wellbeing are not spiritual matters.

I don’t need help.

I don’t have time to rest.

God’s grace is big, but it’s not big enough to cover what I’ve done.

My personal identity is directly related to my ministry performance.

These answers reveal the dark crawlspaces of the psyche of a pastor. They’re not surprising to me, though — in almost a dozen years of vocational ministry, I’ve been tempted to believe these things, too.

Why do we believe them? Because in our time, the definition of ministry “success” has been professionalized to the point that it mirrors mainstream American culture’s definition of success. We celebrate and perpetuate metrics of success borrowed from the pages of business management textbooks. And these metrics of success are chewing up and spitting out pastors at an alarming rate.

The pastoral vocation today is a sea of dead bodies. Consider these stats, which I’ve pulled from various surveys:

1,500 pastors leave the ministry for good each month, citing burnout or contention in their churches.

80 percent of pastors (and 84 percent of pastors’ spouses) are discouraged in their roles.

Almost half of all pastors have seriously considered leaving ministry for good in the past three months.

For every 20 pastors who go into ministry, only one retires from the ministry.

50 percent of pastors say they are unable to meet the demands of their job and are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.

When I share these statistics with pastors, they slowly, knowingly nod their heads.

Yet when I share these statistics with non-clergy, they are shocked: “How can this be? I had no idea!” A widespread Super Pastor mentality has led us to believe that pastors never struggle, never doubt, never get discouraged, and never wrestle with feelings of failure — just because they’re pastors.

Read more in Briggs' recent book Fail.
Read more in J.R. Briggs’ latest book.

But pastors are people, too. Ministry is a significant calling and it is involves broken, sinful, and scandalously ordinary people God calls and uses to shepherd souls. These broken ordinaries are called pastors.

Thirty years ago, pastor and author Eugene Peterson wrote with prophetic clarity that pastors are expected to “run churches rather than care for souls.” Peterson was already concerned that pastors had become obsessed with keeping the customers happy and luring other customers away from the other religious shops down the street.

The irony is that the Gospels show that Jesus’ leadership approach couldn’t have assumed a more different posture. The contrast between Jesus and pastors who preach Jesus is jolting. He had every reason to embrace the reputation of the sought-after religious celebrity. But he purposefully avoided the spotlight, often telling people to refrain from speaking to others about the miracles he had just performed. Pastors today reach for the spotlight, seek the attention of any who will give it, and eagerly share with others (in person or on social media) our great accomplishments.

The entrance exam to the Christian life is the admission of failure. We call this “confession of sin” or “repentance.” And yet many pastors believe they can’t admit when they have failed and sinned. Dozens have told me they are petrified to open up and share how they are really doing. They feel unsafe to share their doubts, struggles, sins, and discouragement with the people they’ve been called to shepherd and serve. Instead, pastors wear masks and go into hiding, desperately hoping they won’t be exposed.

It’s a vicious cycle, one entirely absent of the very element that makes the Christian story so beautiful: grace. We pastors hide our failures, fears, doubts, and weaknesses, and grace only becomes a theological and theoretical religious term for the pulpit on Sunday mornings.

No pastor is a Super Pastor. Pastors are broken failures in need of grace. Just like you.


Image via Shutterstock.


J.R. Briggs
Written by

  • Tom Briggs

    Well said J.R. As Brenee Brown says, “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection
    damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these
    injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” If the Trinity is perfect love, then shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection have no role in any authentically seeking Judeo-Christian church.

  • Tom Briggs

    Well said J.R. As Brenee Brown says, “Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection
    damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these
    injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” If the Trinity is perfect love, then shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection have no role in any authentically seeking Judeo-Christian church.

    • Marc Malone

      Nonsense. Emotions cannot be denied. If one cannot experience these things oneself, then how can you understand them in others and help them overcome such things?
      All these negative feelings stem from the rear-brain. They are instinctive; a matter of survival; an awareness of danger. Such feelings can be overridden by the fore brain. Christianity is all about rising above our base natures. It is said that Christianity is the hardest faith, because it requires us to be hard, when we would be soft; and it requires us to be soft, when we would be hard. That we must be divine, when we would be human. However, we mustn’t deny our humanity and start thinking we must be perfect. We cannot be. We must simply strive towards perfection, while never reaching it.
      When I read the thoughts listed, I read pride in every one of them. That’s what the metrics are: pride. Pastors are not supposed to run their churches and guide their flocks. They are supposed to serve… serve God and His people. To try to measure such service is pride. Just serve as Jesus did. Leave the rest to God. Those two things require faith. Trying to measure it is not faith. Those pastors are having a crisis of faith, because they lack a proper servant’s heart. They are trying to run affairs, rather than serving man and God. They need to stop thinking they can do it, and start thinking only God can do it. “The humble shall inherit the Earth.”

      • Judy Gehlert Reath

        They…they…they…if you haven’t walked their shoes, you have no idea of the pressures on them. What do you think the denominational leaders want them to report? ‘I showed up faithfully every Sunday, preached my heart out, loved the people the best I knew how, but the church still shrank.’?? Hardly. They want the cold, hard facts: attendance, number of conversions, baptisms, etc. it’s all numbers. And what about Joe Churchgoer who shows up every Sunday morning…unless there’s a big game on, or he decides to take the family for a picnic (I can worship God anywhere. I don’t have to be in church.), or it’s summertime, or he just decides to sleep in. He still expects the pastor to be there, giving it his all every single Sunday. The only title I can think of that carries more discouragement than ‘pastor’ is ‘missionary.’

  • Karl Browne

    I’ve been involved in lay leadership of various congregations in my denomination for over 30 years, as was my father before me. In all that time, I really only knew one pastor who was both truly successful as well as genuinely happy. How did he do it? 1. He was an authentically kind and caring person. and 2. He focused almost exclusively on his primary responsibilities (preaching, teaching, evangelism, etc.) and improved in all those areas on a regular basis. The ones who were less successful almost uniformly became too embroiled in non-pastoral duties and controversies (firing janitors, really?), had unpleasant authoritarian tendencies, or just weren’t good preachers and wouldn’t accept offered professional assistance. What I’ve found amazing is how completely disinterested my denomination’s leadership is with the obvious issues around congregations and pastors. They make nearly no effort at ensuring there is a good initial match, and only become involved in any controversies if there is a sexual or financial impropriety issue. My college Fraternity at least has a 23yo guy that goes to every chapter once a year and does a three day assessment and helps the leaders with ongoing issues. Imagine if denominations did that…. sheesh.

  • johnmonno

    I anxiously clicked on this article hoping I would read that pastors were quitting their myth based world to join the reality based world. Of course I was again disappointed by these religious folks. Any of you ever wonder why god doesn’t inspire these quitters to keep preaching ? I challenge you to put on your thinking cap and answer my question.

    • Will

      Thank you for your thoughts Holy One. You are a great judge of people. Keep up the good work.

      • johnmonno

        Thanks for the compliment, but I don’t consider myself to be holy, just human. By the way, you didn’t attempt to answer the question I posed above. Should I assume I stumped you ?

        • jim

          I think johnmonno has a valid question, albeit with a high degree of sarcasm. I think we take men and women who show extraordinary skill in caring for others, or speaking of faith, or engaging in societal issues, pack them up and send them to seminary where they become mediocre pastors. We should’t be surprised when they wash out after 2 years (the average for first calls n my tribe). When I get the chance, I tell seminarians that, if there’s anything else they believe they can do, that’s what they need to do. Ministry is a calling, not a choice. And it’s this calling of God, johnmonno, even in the darkness of the soul’s night, that keeps me inspired to do what I do.

    • wyclif

      “Atheism is indeed the most daring of all dogmas . . . for it is the assertion of a universal negative.” ~ G. K. Chesterton

    • rcncld1

      You have but one question. The answer to that question is, “No..”. You, and to some extent this article, have created a sacred/secular dichotomy. You assume they have quit preaching because they are not in vocational ministry. Perhaps God has allowed these pastors to leave vocational ministry so that they might rub elbows with you in the market place allowing you a glimpse of grace.

      • johnmonno

        Maybe the devil stole them away. Or perhaps, the easter bunny has something to do with this. I know, it must be the feminists that are behind this. No wait, how did I not think of this earlier, its gotta be the gays.
        As religion continues to die out at a accelerating pace, I suggest you consider an obvious explanation. That is, the world is awash in information and people just don’t believe you anymore. Rational thought is replacing 2000 year old dogma.

  • Jeremy

    Thanks for the honest article. I work closely with my pastor and I can see a lot of what you are saying. It is a shame that we Christians cannot “confess our sins one to another” in the church. I have felt that way for along time. I think this is a factor in why many people are turning away from the church. We want people to admit they are sinners and once they repent and put their faith in the Lord Jesus, we don’t want to hear a peep about new sin or struggles. Conversion does not make absolute perfection. I am a teacher in the church and I struggle with doubt, guilt, and all the “fiery darts” the devil throws.

  • http://thechurchofpasadena.wordpress.com/ ChaplainDanGonzalez

    I have found this true: “His favor alone is sufficient”

  • steve

    I posted yesterday, somehow my post vanished. First: The issues confronting pastors today are very complex. Second: The statistics used by Briggs and his advancement of theory/story was lifted directly from the documentary Betrayed: The Clergy Killer’s DNA. I have been a pastor for 27 years. Faced many the same problems detailed herein, yet survived! Real problems exists (both religious and secular) within the church. New ordained ministers, priests and rabbis are ill equipped to handle what a pastor is confronted with in today’s church. Loss of our spiritual leaders has become an epidemic.

  • MoxyFruvous

    A Christian brother who does a lot of missions work in the 3rd world, commenting on the pastoral situation in Eastern Canada (where I live) said that in the past churches wanted a pastor to shepherd God’s people but now they want a CEO. Truer words could not be spoken in my experience. Whether this is reflected by wanting status credentials, doctoral degrees from the ‘right’ seminary or and MBA in business, it is always at the expense of a true heart and calling for God’s people as primary. And this does not apply simply to the mega-church. Even small assemblies are more and more caught up in it, ending up with no pastor or one that is primarily a corporate model manager for growth. Xenophobic denominational associations only exacerbate the situation. More the pity.

  • X-Christian

    Religion is nonsense.
    Does anyone else agree that this might be a factor in the decline of pastors?

  • X-Christian

    “Execute them in front of me” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)
    Does anyone else agree that the Bible is the worst enemy religion ever had?

  • X-Christian

    “God loves the aroma of burning Goat flesh” (Exodus 29:18)
    Isn’t the Bible too dumb for modern people?

  • X-Christian

    “I tortured and killed my son for you. If that doesn’t impress you I’ll do worse things to you in Hell.” – Yahweh

    Who agrees that this is nonsense?

  • X-Christian

    “Love and fear the Lord”

    We all agree that this is Stockholm Syndrome, right? Sadomasochistic nonsense.