why it is so difficult for pastors to leave the ministry

why it is so difficult for pastors to leave the ministry June 2, 2012

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.

I make time available at a reasonable rate if you need to talk: email me

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  • Thanks for all your courage and your new ministry here. You left the institution called church, and gave up the money and the status and the institutional way of doing things, but you are still dedicating yourself to the service of truth and love. Big respect!

  • Barb

    Appreciation. If you have had a good experience chances are that people constantly thanked you for what you did for them, what you preached, what you modeled and who you were. Gifts were common. In a regular job your boss, co-workers or clients rarely say thank you or make you feel appreciated.

    Also attached to the money issue is the fact that once out of ministry – people stop giving you things. In the ministry – mention your laptop just quit – and it is not unlikely that someone will foot the bill for a new one. Out of ministry – you might get a “Well, that sucks.”

  • Everything you say I am experiencing. The most painful is as you have named – “nailed it” dare I say:
    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.
    Thanks so much David.

  • Great post. I really hit home with me. I decided to pursue another passion of mine after 12 years of ministry. Thanks again.

  • you’re welcome mary. thanks for your comment.

  • that’s so so true barb.

  • you are a kind soul katharine.

  • Johnfom

    An all-too-common retroactive dismissal of the leaving pastor’s ‘calling'(i.e. that s/he never really had a calling because one can’t/shouldn’t be able to leave a ‘true’ calling) is salt in the wounds and complicates emotional struggle of the existential angst of the present in reason 8 with an additional task of trying to defend one’s historical existence, even if the defense is confined to an internal self re-assurance.

  • that’s one hell of a long and complex sentence but totally accurate. thanks johnfom.

  • Jim

    The hardest thing for me is to wonder what I will do. I’ve got a pile of degrees and years of experience doing really one very specific thing, and a resume that shows it. What else am I trained to do? What else am I qualified to do? What else do I want to do if I don’t want to/can’t/shouldn’t do parish ministry anymore? Teaching isn’t really an option, I got the D.Min, not the Th.D or Ph.D. They eliminated the greeter positions at Wal*Mart. *sigh*

  • CHROBO42

    It is especially difficult when leaving the ministry wasn’t the pastor’s idea. I thought it was the end of “me”, who I was. It took me a very long time to see ministry in the strangest places and to realize that ministry doesn’t just mean preaching. Ministry can be as simple as helping turn a customer’s day around with a positive checkout experience in a store.

  • Jim: very real. I hear you! I had no idea what I was going to do. But a friend who teaches English as a second language got me in the door for an interview at the local university and I landed a job I don’t deserve. It’s not my passion, but at least I’m making money. I still want to do what I’ve been trained and educated and experienced to do. I’m trying to figure that out.

  • exactly chrobo42. don’t you miss the preaching though? i do.

  • Scott

    I’m at an odd place myself. I’ve felt called to ministry since I was young and I’ve gone through seminary and received my M.Div. I’ve worked a few part time youth ministry jobs, even though youth ministry isn’t my calling. I feel like church ministry might be my place, but I have seen way too many ministers burn out, be voted out, and recently get laid off out of the blue. I’m not tempted to leave ministry, I’m tempted to not begin at all. It’s like I’m standing in a doorway and am too scared to walk through.

  • Good post, David. After 15 years of receiving a paycheck from a church, I left the ministry 9 years ago (my choice) and found myself in a deep struggle for about three years. Number 2 and 3 above were especially difficult. Felt like a failure in some ways and left my parents and in-laws and others scratching their heads (“Why did he spend all that time in seminary, anyway?”)

    I’m happy to say that I now have a position in higher ed at a public university (my alma mater) that I absolutely love and experiencing many opportunities for ministry in a new way. People open up to you in a whole different way as a “normal person,” as opposed to they way they respond to you when they find out you are one of those pastor types. And my family is delighted with where I am as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • very interesting scott. i was in that exact same place just before i got ordained.

  • My ministry has changed dramatically. I’ve served as solo pastor, associate pastor, and denominational staff for a total of 25 years. Now I’m serving a tiny church very part time and concentrating on building a coaching and leadership development practice. I see it as a ministry in and of itself, nontraditional and non-institutional, to be sure, but still getting to the heart of people. That’s what you’ve done in this post. You’re still in ministry; you just may not be in church.

  • I guess I’m a ministry dropout. It was easy to stop when I had some health issues, but I haven’t’ really wanted to go back. All the politics, all the time…. It does make one question whether or not the call was true. But I’ve always told parishioners that their ministry is wherever they serve, in whatever way. So, I guess that’s where I am now. And, I’m freer to say what I really believe – except that my husband is still a pastor, so….

  • interesting story natalie. you sound gracious about it all.

  • i’m glad jeanny that you’ve found your niche.

  • hey dave… sounds like you’ve found a way to be you doing what you’re passionate about.

  • R A

    I’ve been at this “ministry stuff” for 20+ years now. Haven’t set the world on fire, but have attempted to be faithful. But lately, with various difficulties becoming apparent, I’ve been wondering if I should go this way.

    Very comprehensive list. I most resonate with 1 (money – not much, but we can eat), 5 (vocation – What the hell else is there for me to do?), and 7 (enemies – very loud ones, unfortunately). Am also concerned about 10 (friends – most of these are clergy types).

    Any suggestions to help with discernment?

  • If there is anyone you trust, a mentor of any kind, especially a pastor of many years, or ex-pastor… find someone you can talk to. Thanks R A

  • Great topic.

    This is too good not to share:


    It is by my beer drinking, cigar smoking, blues guitar playin’ pastor.

  • Karen

    Several years ago a Catholic priest shared with me his understanding of ordination, that is “once ordained, always ordained”. Although that was not the sentiment in the denomination in which I was ordained, that phrase resonates within me still. It’s been 27 years since I left the ordained ministry and at times that decision continues to be a struggle. Thank you for putting into words what those who have walked this path understand deeply.

  • you’re welcome karen. i think the same way. thanks for sharing.

  • Ruthie

    When I handed in my resignation I was told I couldn’t resign as it wasn’t a job it was a calling and was told to rethink my decision. I rethought and no my decision hadn’t change it was now cemented in the fact that I had to go. Still don’t know what I am going to end up doing as unfortunately I waited till I was so burnt out that I am currently not much good for anything as I’m suffering severe adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue, auto immune disease etc. I did try getting jobs but once they saw my resume I never made it to another interview :P. Right now I’m just trying to get my health back on track so that I can leave the house more than twice a week.

  • yes ruthie, many of us waited until it was too late. us pastors are so responsible.

  • Jacquie

    It’s complicated and it is helpful to read your ‘take’ as well as the other comments made here. It seems the pain, confusion and uncertainty at both ends of the spectrum (approaching and/or leaving ministry) is not uncommon.

    Thank you David for your ability to minister still. You continue to bless.

  • thanks jacquie

  • Prayers for all who have had the courage to listen to the inner voice of Love and boldly surrendered. For me, it wasn’t traditional ministry, it was leaving nursing to be a spiritual director. Most of your reflection mirrors my experience as well. Just one reminder: Mark 4: 26-29. You all have planted seeds. God will bring forth the harvest. Well done!

  • Truman A. Moore

    Thank you for your article, but respectfully object to your title, “Why it is so difficult for pastors to leave the ministry.” It suggests that “the ministry” is being pastor of a local church.
    I left the pastorate some 45 years ago, because I “felt called” to some other way of doing ministry. I never felt like I left the ministry. I simply went back to school (Social Work) and have since retired from a career in SW.
    I agree with your article whole-heatedly, but the title is off-putting for anyone who believes that they have found their ministry doing something else entirely.

  • Cynthia McClaskey

    All of your points apply to lay people that leave the church and ministry as well…the only point that doesn’t apply in some cases is the money part unless they were full time working for the church. Not only do people that leave the church/ministry experience these, but they also may experience the following:

    1. Gossip and slander for leaving the church/ministry. (This is rampant in all sects)

    2. Retaliation from church people for leaving/and or voicing opposition to dogma, rules leadership or abuse.

    3. Loss of family that decides to remain in the church/ministry and now deems you as a bad influence because you are not.

    4. Destruction of the marriage for those who want to leave and one spouse has been co-erced by church leadership that you are now a bad influence. Many have even lost their relationships with their children as a result.

    5. The feeling of utter despair, failure and loss of everything you’ve ever known, leads to depression and/or suicide for those that try to extract themselves from an abusive church system.

    David, leaving the ministry is a sign of courage! It is a message to others that FREEDOM from bondage to a religious system is possible. We do not have to remain chained and bound to dogmas and creeds of a religious sect. We can be free in Christ and be “free indeed!” You give those that are hurting and struggling under the load of precepts and rules, hope. Your FAITH is shown in the actions you set forth to extricate all that hinders your relationship with Christ– works! I have always told my children that it takes more courage and character to walk with God alone without all the trappings of:

    1) Ministry
    2) Church attendance – where peer pressure keeps you in line.
    3)Church Family – whom you’ve built all your relationships around.

    Freedom compells us to expand our relationships in the world. It forces us to show compassion and love to those the church tells us to stay away from. It also forces us to overcome our fears of the church, clergy, government and others. If bitterness does not take over, one can truly grow and exhibit the “unconditional” love of Christ without the judgmentalism and conditional love that religion puts upon us.

  • Thanks for your comment Truman. I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve found the same thing. In this case, “ministry” is meant to mean “professional paid clergy of an institutional church”. I think most people understand that’s what I meant, especially if they read the article. Shorter for practicality’s sake.

  • thanks cynthia!!

  • Great and very accurate points David.

    Strangely they can all be summed up in the fear of ‘displeasing God’.

    The God most pastors in paid ministry serve is a difficult boss to handle. He expects the religious show to stay on the road and for His employees to follow the stoical example of St. Paul, who may have been fairly far along the fanatical spectrum.

    Coming off ‘full-time’ ministry is like coming off drugs – necessary but painful.

    Yet, there is a big wide world filled with Spirit outside the religious box and a new kind of Boss!

  • I was manipulated out of my vocation by a bishop who didn’t believe that somebody who had been very ill with depression, even though fully recovered, should be employed as a priest. For two years I applied for jobs (exactly 70) and tried other ways to get back into ministry, all to no avail as bishops stick by each other. Then, a month or so ago, it just struck me that if God wanted me to be a priest God wouldn’t allow all these people to confound my attempts to become one again (even Jesus only spent forty days in the wilderness, not two years). So, to answer you question, another difficulty is coming to terms with the fact that God doesn’t want you. That God has changed God’s mind about you having a vocation to the ministry. To be honest, that hurts. But, at least it allows you to stop trying and just give up.

  • Ouch MadPriest. That’s a painful conclusion to come to.

  • Please kindly consider contributing your valuable expereience to the Clergy Project clergyproject.org

  • Hi Alex. How would you like me to be involved. If you would like to use my cartoons or whatever, let me know.

  • Elsa

    I want to express my admiration for all of you who have left the pastorate, for your courage and integrity. It must have been an incredibly difficult decision, and the time of transition to whatever will come next in life, is always frightening. Or it can be.
    My own decision to leave the church was hard enough, just being part of the congregation. And my own transition right now, having to find work to support myself and my daughters. I’d love it to be meaningful work, but try to infuse any work with meaning, as some of you were saying.

    I hope you take heart from Dave’s comments, that there is hope for all of you, that you will find another calling. Another way to minister, and to serve. We are all called to serve, not just pastors.

    And especially to MadPriest: your conclusion is heartbreaking. What if God doesn’t want you to be a priest? That is not the same as God not wanting YOU. What if there is something way better and more important that He has in mind for you? I don’t mean that priesthood is not good or important. But that there may be something, that only someone who has gone through what you’ve been through, is qualified for. Our life experiences lead us to the most unexpected places and people.

    What I tell myself is that this is only one moment in my life. I can’t see what lies ahead, so it looks dark. But I believe that God can see where I’m going, and He is guiding me to good places. I try not to struggle or to worry. But I do. And then I decide to trust again.

  • Actually, I found it more painful before I came to that conclusion. When people have decided you’re not meant to be something if you then become that something they are going to be looking for every chance to say “I told you so!” So, a minister in that position can never make even one mistake whilst others who are “in” will have their mistakes brushed aside as being just normal in ministry. Disgruntled laity will know this and use it to their advantage with the full backing of the bosses who didn’t want you in the first place. To put it simply, an ex-minister is always going to fall should they get back into ministry because the odds are stacked against them, as are the people who pushed them out in the first place. I was always scared of this happening. Now I am not.

  • The problem for me is that I feel like I can’t give up before I start. I’ve been waiting for 5 years for a first call in the ELCA, beyond finishing seminary, internship, CPE, and being approved for ordination 3 times now. The church’s very slowly growing openness to my sexual orientation has been the key issue in not getting a call. I feel I’ve done all I can in talking to bishops and bishops’ staff, keeping in touch with my own synod, networking with colleagues, etc. But I know God is calling me to minister, I just don’t know how, and I don’t know if the brick wall thus far in the ELCA is their problem, my problem, a combination, or a true message from God. So I’ll add to your list “Uncertainty” of leaving this vocation (specifically, ordained Word and sacrament ministry in a specific context) behind. I could still get a call, but I feel like I’m in uncharted territory and have for a while.

  • I’ve had a lifelong struggle (I’m almost 60 now) with ministry and “my calling”. I’ve been in full time ministry, got fired, struggled for decades with my self-identity as a construction worker to raise a family, and ended up joining a Church where I had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting ordained but still held out hope, but it has never happened after 14 years now. At age 58 I finally came to some peace about who I am, what I’m “called to” and what the Christian life is about. Forgive the shameless self promotion, but quite a few people have found this helpful.

  • Lester

    Back in the 1980’s I went to a bible college and as far as figured would always be a minister. Then I got was appointed to a couple churches and it was terrible, so after much consideration, I left pastoral ministry. Simply put, I was just too introverted to do something like that. I thought I was letting god down. Or maybe he had the wrong number and i thought the message was really for me. After all these years outside the pastoral ministry, and various encounters I’ve had, I figure I’ll always be in ministry, I just don’t need a congregation to do it.

  • Ami

    Came here via Bruce Gerencser’s website. Thank you for sharing this. I can’t imagine how wrenching such a decision would be for a person and for their family.

    My dad left the ministry (his ‘retirement’ career) some time ago. And my mom was so disappointed (to her it was like being married to one of the disciples if not the son himself) and they’re now home-churching because of that. My dad felt like that way he wasn’t letting her down.

    Religion is an amazing entity.

  • lester: sounds like a healthy perspective to me. thanks for your comment.

  • hi ami. thanks for your comment. yes, religion is very amazing in many ways, both positive and negative… and just amazing.

  • If God has something different in store for me, he better hurry up and start paying me for it before my marriage goes right down the pan.

  • I believe it’s important to distinguish between “the ministry” and “expressions of ministry.” Being a congregational pastor is the most frequent expression of ministry, but it’s not the only one. Every person needs some degree of change in their lives, some more than others. The need to stop being a congregational pastor may reflect that you made a bad decision in the first place — or it may simply mean that your decision was right for that time, and now a new decision is needed for this time. I “left the ministry” in 1971 and worked in health care for 30 years, keeping my credential intact. I re-joined my United Methodist Conference in 2001 and have been pastor of three congregations since then, two since “retirement”. I’m having a ball. Each decision was right — and I believe God’s will — for the time it was made.

  • MadPriest: it is very very difficult where you are. I’ve been there so many times, and I’m in kind of one right now. It feels like a convergence of several potential tragedies.

  • RevJB

    Another reason I believe pastors fear to leave the ministry is the fear of the success of your successor and that niggling doubt that your congregation would value you less and wonder why they didn’t have the new guy a long time back.

  • Guest

    I’m trying to figure out if now is a good time to quit. The past six months have been a spiral of depression and fatigue and I’m just about done with it all, yet because of all the reasons you have laid out here I feel stuck.

    Especially sticky is the fact that over the last six months I’ve been working to reform the way that our church interacts with folks in the neighbourhood (or at least the intentionality and sharing of that interaction) to focus more on love rather than proselytizing, so I feel like to abandon now would leave even more than the usual mess behind…

    Add to all that: a pastoral acquaintance who was close to some of my friends just committed suicide after a long battle with depression. That has really scared me.

    Thanks for writing this piece.

  • Thanks for your honesty “guest”. Here’s the thing: you have to take care of yourself first. It’s a MUST.