A statistic I find very troubling is one I first heard several years ago and continue to see it repeated. Approximately 50 percent of pastors will leave the ministry within five years of graduating from seminary. That is very troubling. I assume that most of these people, at some point in their lives, felt called to the ministry. They invested a great deal of time and money into earning their college and seminary degrees. No doubt they felt excited about being involved in ministry, and yet within a few short years they turn their back on that calling. Why?
For some it is as simple as burnout. Ministry is challenging work. Pastors often find themselves at odds with controllers in the church who insist everything must be done to suit them regardless of the impact on others or the overall ministry of the church, and they often find the congregation will support the controllers. A pastor may feel called to the ministry but is also a human being who will quickly grow tired of being beaten up every week by unhealthy church systems. Selling insurance can start to look pretty good to a pastor whose work is consistently criticized by persons who do not understand the nature of ministry.
Some leave for financial reasons. I recently had a conversation with a church leader who was upset that they have not been able to find a pastor despite searching for one for a year. They've interviewed several candidates but nothing has worked out. I reminded him again of an earlier conversation I had with the church regarding their salary and benefit package. At the time I encouraged them to seek a bivocational person to serve as their pastor, but they insist that their pastor must be fully-funded. He said that none of the candidates who decided to not go there made their decision because of the salary package the church was offering. I have to wonder how many of them may have given other reasons so as not to appear greedy but that the minimal salary the church is offering was simply not enough to support their families. Churches need to understand that few people ever reach a spiritual maturity level where they no longer need to eat.
A number of ministers leave because of moral failure in their lives. They make choices that disqualify them for ministry, and they have no choice but to leave the ministry. I have sometimes wondered how many of them may have wanted out of ministry, but saw no way out unless they were forced out. So, they participated in behavior that would cause them to be removed from ministry. This would mean that such a person would prefer to be known as a person who had moral failure in his or her life than to be known as someone who walked away from God's calling. I don't know if this theory could be right, but I would love to see someone do a study on this. Such a study could be invaluable to denominational leaders and pastoral leaders, especially if my theory is right.
However, at the core of all the surface reasons people leave the ministry after only a few short years is their inability to create healthy boundaries in their lives. Too many neglect their families for the sake of ministry. They allow others to regulate their calendars and their lives. They build up debt which cannot be covered by the salaries many churches can afford to pay. They do not practice good self-care leading to physical and emotional problems. They isolate themselves from others and soon feel they are all alone in ministry. They put themselves in situations where poor moral choices are more easily made. Ministry is tough, and pastors need to be very intentional about finding ways to ease the pressures of their ministries.
After being in ministry for over three decades and working with hundreds of pastors I understand some of those pressures. That led me to write a book called The Healthy Pastor: Easing the Pressures of Ministry. It addresses each of the issues listed above and several others and provides recommendations for how to avoid them and how to create healthier boundaries for your life and ministry. I believe the call to ministry is a life-long calling. While ministry will always be challenging, there are many things a minister can do to ease many of the pressures he or she will face. It is my prayer that this book will help the reader take intentional steps to enjoy a healthy and effective ministry and a more enjoyable life.