10 Reasons Why Leaving the Ministry is Difficult for Pastors

pastor afraid to preach cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward

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I wrote the original post of this shortly after I left the ministry in 2010. It still applies. I frequently talk with pastors, and the struggle they endure is unbelievable. It’s believable to me though because I experienced it and experience it still. I want to post this every once in a while as an encouragement and support for pastors struggling to stay in or get out of the ministry.

I am a pastor who left the ministry. It was one of the most difficult decisions and transitions I ever made. It’s not just a matter of changing one’s career. It is much more complex than that.

Here’s why:

  1. money: Like any other career change, it is very frightening to let your salary go. Even if it might be an insufficient one, it is still difficult to let go of your guaranteed income. Most pastors have no idea how they will provide support for themselves and their families if they leave.
  2. family: Especially if your family is Christian, they had so much pride in the fact that you were “serving the Lord“. Pastors will anticipate a great deal of disappointment from their families when they walk away from this very special calling that so many people took such delight in.
  3. self: When pastors get ordained, they, like me, vow that they will never, ever give up. They swear that they will serve the Lord and the church until death. To even think about surrendering this induces an incredible amount of personal shame.
  4. theology: I always took great comfort from scriptures such as, “Run the race. Fight the good fight.” These passages helped me in the worst of times to persevere. To quit the ministry evokes enormous feelings of spiritual failure.
  5. vocation: Almost all the pastors I have known are very specially trained. They have focused their whole lives and educations on theology and ministry to others. It is feared that to walk away from the only job that employs these skills is to expose oneself to a completely unmarketable and unemployable position. Usually it requires retraining, which in itself is too daunting to face.
  6. congregation: To leave the ministry is to walk away from the congregation that the pastor has served. It can feel like abandoning your family. In fact, some might accuse the pastor of being a false shepherd who abandons the sheep. To anticipate this painful separation is excruciating.
  7. enemies: Those who have questioned, ridiculed or even opposed the pastor’s ministry will suddenly have all the ammunition they need to say, “I told you so!” I’ve heard many times that leaving the ministry was proof that I shouldn’t have been a pastor to begin with. It feels like throwing in the towel, and there are people who love to cheer that demonstration of surrender.
  8. meaning: To leave most jobs doesn’t bear the weightiness that leaving the ministry does. Leaving the ministry carries an existential significance that shoots a resigning pastor into the darkest of nights because, as most pastors sense, their job wasn’t just a job, but an extension of their spiritual selves. Ministry is the expression of their convictions, and to leave the job appears to be the desertion of these core convictions.
  9. waste: All pastors are taught and believe that they are planting seeds. They toil year after year with faith that one day their labor will bear fruit. To consider leaving the ministry is to consider relinquishing the garden and to leave it untended or under the care of another who doesn’t share the same commitments. All that work is gone to waste without any chance of sharing in the harvest, if it ever comes.
  10. friends: When pastors leave the ministry, they leave friends. For one, they are walking away from their peers in ministry. They are quitting that team. But they are also walking away from people they’ve served through their births, baptisms, marriages, divorces, deaths, tragedies and spiritual pilgrimages. They are saying farewell to people they have loved in very significant ways, intuitively knowing that walking away from the community network will also endanger their chances of that ever happening again.

If you are a pastor, perhaps you can think of another reason why quitting the ministry is very difficult. I would appreciate your comments… anonymously if necessary.

The Lasting Supper has several members who used to be in the ministry and church leadership. Come join us.

About David Hayward

David Hayward runs the blog nakedpastor as a graffiti artist on the walls of religion where he critiques religion… specifically Christianity and the church. He also runs the online community The Lasting Supper where people can help themselves discover, explore and live in spiritual freedom.

  • gnturibi

    I may not have been a professional minister but I was a lay preacher and felt some of that as I one day just gave up on church, haven’t told many about it even.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    I’ve never been a pastor but I can understand how each of these would provide obstacles to leaving the profession. I have, though, gone through a vocation change so can relate a bit to some of them. I would say that there is a positive way to look at each of them.

    1. money: This is always hard but as in any career change, people can find a way.

    2. family: You can’t really control what other people think. Hopefully at the end of the day Your own family will understand that this change was important to you and will be with you.

    3. self: Perhaps view that vow as something the seminary put in there for its own interest and purpose. Your own purpose is yours to own.

    4. theology: Perseverance is probably the single most important human trait. It may be necessary to expand the notion of perseverance (and even serving the lord) to include a life outside the ministry.

    5. vocation: Pastors are excellent orators, public speakers, speech-writers, organizers, and salesmen, among other things.

    6. congregation: Some churches rotate pastors every set number of years. One could view leaving a congregation like a pastoral rotation.

    7. enemies: enemies will be enemies. Sometimes you can’t control that.

    8. meaning: One will have done some heavy lifting on this for sure but once you come up out of the darkness you will by then be a much stronger person.

    9. waste: There are other ways to “plant seeds” and be a positive role model than being a traditional pastor.

    10. friends: If you made friends before you can make friends again. You just may not be embedded in the intimate details of their lives by virtue of your profession.

  • Erin Bennett

    Thanks for reposting. I’m leaving a ministry position at the end of this month that will end my work in ministry for good. This gives voice to the reasons that I haven’t been able to express to friends and family for my fears and multitude of tears. They understand my fear of not having an income, but they don’t seen to be able to grasp the deep feelings of loss that accompany this decision. I’m just going to pint them here from now on.

  • ThomasAllynWilson

    I really can’t add anything the above. To some degree I to still deal some of these issues as I genuinely felt and to some degree still do feel “called.” I’m my last ministry post I was serving the marginalized, disenfranchised, and stigmatized of society and I absolutely loved my service and those I served. It was certainly not the typical Pastoral ministry though and I was not being paid. Thankfully, I’ve always considered Pastoring a spiritual gift and not a job title or position. As such someone who genuinely has that gift never stops pastoring as it is part of who they are in Yeshua. The difficulty for me comes in the fact that my employment for the past 20 has felt like a complete mismatch. Truthfully, it had not become necessary to leave that work behind do to issues caused by it being connected to a church that became an abusive cult I’d likely being doing this work still and perhaps as fulltime employment. However, as stated above this was very different than typical “Pastoral Ministry.”

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ David

    How coincidental, I just posted on “My Pathetic Deconversion” as a tribute to people like yourself who studied so much deeper, were committed for so much longer and had so much more to lose by leaving their Christianity. Though you still call yourself a “Christian”, you certainly deconverted from your Christianity and left behind many other flavors of Christianity into your Z-theory. And your choice caused you much more suffering than mine did. I took the slow, cowardly way out.

    Your exit has been indeed graceful and you continue to serve other doubters superbly so they perhaps don’t have to suffer as much as yourself. Well done !

  • Al Cruise

    Number 5 is the real problem,[ Education and Theology] those things should be secondary. Love , compassion and justice for all is what Jesus is about. After many years of street ministry working in a Church and finally leaving the traditional Church, I have found these things never change and neither does the effect of them. Now the outside community is our Church, We have a group of like minded people who meet together once a month to fellowship and to care about our community, we don’t care about your doctrine or if you have one, other than “love, compassion and justice for all” . The effect has been amazing,from helping others who are normally ignored by the Church because of their social status, to building bridges between cultures,and other faiths. The outside community now comes to us for help, encouragement, healing etc. The arena of theology and doctrine is nothing more than a playground for fools, if you put that as your number one purpose. The effect of love, compassion, and justice will never change and it is the only force that will move us forward.

  • jamesmbmclaren

    Barring the money, it’s no different if you’ve walked away from church after spending 40 of your 48 years as a regular attender and member…

    My tenth would be around realising that nothing I do could make a difference.

  • Shawn Spjut

    David: Thank you for that. Even those in ministry that have not gone through seminary, but have dedicated years to serving pastors, churches etc. goes through the same issues. It’s as though by leaving the ministry, you’ve been stripped of all identity and significance. It take incredible courage to do it.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    People have probably had to give up other professions and deal with their self image. But this one is unique in that you have to admit you’ve been spinning a web of lies or at best deceptive myths.

    I know several acupuncturists and homeopaths who after years of selling their goods, saw through their own self-deception and stopped. It was hard for them/us. But we weren’t sitting around with eyes squinted in prayer circles and forming echo-chambers of friendships, so it was not nearly as bad.

    But it is better to get out earlier than later.

    I knew some American Missionaries India who retired back in the USA in their late 70′s, sadly left the Christian village they had started 40 years earlier with a school and hospital, and watched it fall apart from a distance as money stopped pouring in and apparently sincere believers of decades grab the next benefactor.

  • Belinda Scott

    As an encouragement to those facing this difficult decision…Many of the things you leave behind were never intended for you to carry- reliance on income value of the position, the ecclesiastic idea of ministry, that things never change, that being needed by others is paramount to value, and that you will somehow throw something away by moving on. Sometimes it’s just sign that you are growing, losing reliance on external things such as the acceptance of others and pride of position. I have stood by while my husband went through this process and I can say he is a far more balanced because of that brave step to move on. He was also incredibly employable- people skills are most transferable and sought after. So- for those facing this- step out, hold your head high, you are not failing at anything. Leaving formal ministry may be the most obedient action you have taken for some time. God’s love was never dependent on what you have done, but always dependent on what He has done. He finished it all at the cross through our beautiful Saviur Christ Jesus. Live out of this freedom and allow the next season to blossom from a place of Abba’s total acceptance of you. There truly is sunshine ahead.

  • Raymond Watchman

    Having just read this blog, I can appreciate the anguish involved in processing a decision to quit a pastorate or other church ministry. For those facing such a decision, I would like to recommend a truly wonderful book: “Let Your Life Speak” (subtitled “Listening for the Voice of Vocation”) by respected educationalist and author Parker J Palmer.
    I quote from the flyleaf: “‘Is the life I am living the same as the life that wants to live in me?’ With this searching question, Parker Palmer begins an insightful and moving meditation on finding one’s true calling. ‘Let Your Life Speak’ is an openhearted gift to anyone who seeks to live authentically.”
    I rarely, if ever, recommend books on sites such as this. But in this particular case I am making an exception. Those who know Parker J Palmer’s work will appreciate why. Try Amazon or The Book Depository.

  • http://nakedpastor.com/ nakedpastor

    Thanks everyone! Great comments. Love Parker Palmer.

  • Raymond Watchman

    Wonderful and grace-filled comments Belinda – they mesh in beautifully with my reasons for recommending Parker J Palmer’s book.

  • Bill_Britton

    Wow. This was painful to read (as a former pastor), but full of insight. It’s a tough job, and of course it’s more than a job. And we’re so hard on ourselves. And (not sure if you mentioned this one) we probably project our own feelings of disappointment with ourselves unto God, thinking that he is also VERY disappointed with us. I remember telling one friend that I didn’t necessarily think that, when I stood before him, I would hear that “Well done good and faithful servant.” Is there another job you quit that leaves you with that feeling?! (On a more positive note to end, I just heard Peter Scazzero say today that Moses was “an eighty year old man with a stick”- and a dismal failure in his life, when God met him and called him into service – a ministry that would change everything. He also quoted Charles Colson saying that God used his most shameful failure to be the focus on his most productive ministry – his prison sentence.) And this came today in my in box “God
    is the perfect Recycler, and in the economy of grace, nothing is wasted,
    not even our worst sins nor our most stupid mistakes. God does not
    punish our sins, but uses them to soften our hearts toward everything.”
    Richard Rohr / “If we have God, we will want for nothing. God alone suffices.” (rough quote from Teresa of Avila

  • Bill_Britton

    The age of the pastor when he leaves the ministry, will be a very big factor on how seamlessly he can find something else to do. “Men of a certain age” are not valued in our society or in the church – even though they have been tried and tested, broken and (hopefully) healed, and have more to contribute, and again hopefully, from a healthier place, than they did before. And yes, speaking and communication skills etc. that many pastors have, are valuable, but realistically they need to be accompanied by other skill sets, like marketing, sales, administration, etc. The way down is really the way up – always, and in this case as well. The crash of one’s life can be the beginning of life which is life indeed – and I don’t mean getting saved – but it can be that radical – a “second conversion.” Not to overdo it with Richard Rohr quotes, but he says it well, “The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines.” I thank God for taking me out of the pastoral ministry – the most painful thing that ever happened to me – and also the best thing for me, my family and for the church people that I thought needed me so much. They needed not me, but a better me, as did my family and my world. God wouldn’t let me stay the way I was, and himself insisted on my embarking on that (also) painful journey. He love endures forever.

  • Rebecca

    After being a children’s pastor for many years I finally resigned because my theology no longer lined up with the fundamental church I was serving. I also loved them deeply and experienced all of the things you listed, including profound grief and loss. Five years later I am still struggling with all of these feelings.

  • BrotherRog

    11. and because many of them feel truly called to do what they do and feel great satisfaction in their labors.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    “Though you still call yourself a “Christian”, you certainly deconverted from your Christianity and left behind many other flavors of Christianity into your Z-theory. And your choice caused you much more suffering than mine did. I took the slow, cowardly way out.”

    And how many atheist (or naturalist) Z-theories are there?

    Naturalists don’t agree with each other about the ultimate nature of reality (though all of them would call their pet theory “natural”), they don’t agree about the foundation and content of morality (provided they don’t deny its existence altogether) and I could go on and on to list the countless varieties of naturalism out there.

    As for being a Christian, I provided a historical definition here:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/the-definition-of-christianity-die-definition-des-christentums-unten/

    Cheers from Europe.

  • Thin-ice

    Your situation is so much more difficult than mine was. Although I was theology grad and a missionary in Europe, I took the time to learn another skill (graphic design) during my ministry, so I kind of had a parachute. I would suggest that you get in touch with the Clergy Project, which is an online support community for those in ministry like yourself, who no longer believe. Many are still in active ministry, and some have left, but are eager to help each other. From their home page: “The Clergy Project is a confidential online community for active and former professional clergy/religious leaders who do not hold supernatural beliefs.”

    Good luck and all the best to you . . .

  • Y. A. Warren

    I am not, and have never been, a pastor of a church congregation; but I have been primary parent in a family. When we feel that we are no longer the right fit for what out “sheep” need now, the most positive and honorable thing we can do is , as they say in horse husbandry, “give them their head.”

    This is not quitting; it is a sure sign of faith in those we brought to this point to go on without our physical guidance. Jesus did the same thing at Pentecost.

    Blessings to you in your humility.


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