Pastors in Restoration Movement churches quit at an alarming rate. According to research from the Christian Church Leadership Network, 70 percent of Bible college graduates in the Restoration Movement leave pastoral ministry within the first 10 years.* That means 7 out of 10 current Bible college students called to pastoral ministry in this movement probably will not last a decade.
How might we better develop and grow healthy leaders? In what ways might we support the leaders we already have so they last a lifetime in ministry? The future of our movement and the health of our churches is at stake.
DEFINE THE CAUSE
Every story is unique, so defining the cause of pastor attrition can be complex. Especially now—with COVID-19 and so many tensions in our country. Difficult circumstances reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a person’s leadership. So, even in a COVID-19 world, several key factors of pastoral attrition stand out.
Giftedness and personality do not equal maturity and character. Even when new ministers have a compelling call to vocational ministry, the responsibilities and interpersonal challenges they face can cause them to short out.
“The breadth of tasks performed by local church pastors coupled with the rapid switching between task clusters and roles . . . in this position is unique,” Michigan State University professor Richard P. DeShon wrote. “I have never encountered such a fast-paced job with such varied and impactful responsibilities.”
An added component might include pastors beginning ministry with unrealistic expectations.
“We have young leaders coming out of Bible college and all they want to do is preach,” said Tim Winters, executive pastor at Shepherd Church in Porter Ranch, California. “Sharing the Word is important, but we also need people called to ministry that can lead themselves and others. We lack prepared leaders.”
Financial pressure is another reason pastors in Restoration Movement churches quit at alarming rates. More than half of the ministers who responded to CCLN’s research reported personal and educational debt, lack of sufficient health-care coverage, and/or lack of church-funded retirement as major reasons for financial stress.
“Christian churches and churches of Christ generally compensate their pastoral staff less than the national average,” said Tim Wallingford, executive director of the Christian Church Leadership Network (CCLN). “We need a theology of compensation that is biblical. A worker is worthy of their wages (1 Timothy 5:18). We have a responsibility to care for our leaders. Instead, hiring committees approach salaries as trying to get a ‘good deal’ and save the church money.”
Across the board in Restoration Movement churches and elsewhere, pastors sometimes depend on a second job and/or a spouse’s job to make ends meet. “No national or regional body exists to set minimum salary requirements,” researchers wrote, “and most lay leaders are unaware of compensation patterns among other congregations in their area. As a result, promising pastoral leaders often leave smaller congregations simply to make more money.”
Challenges within the Ministry
A third key reason pastors within Restoration churches quit within the first decade is more nuanced. Factors contributing to pastoral attrition include unhealthy elder boards, mistrustful staffs, congregations unwilling to change to meet the shifting ministry needs of their communities, and pastors not knowing where to turn for help.
Among the pastors who participated in the CCLN study:
- 71 percent did not feel capable of leading culturally relevant programming, either because they lack the skills to do so or because their congregations are unwilling to change, or both.
- 79 percent identified lack of a clear mission as an obstacle to congregational effectiveness.
- 80 percent struggled with change management.
An unexpected finding to the CCLN study included pastors repeatedly saying something to the effect of, “I feel like I am out here doing ministry all alone.” Restoration Movement leaders used to connect more frequently in regional gatherings and annual conventions, but many conferences have weakened or died.
“When it comes right down to it, God has commanded us to be interdependent,” said Richard Creek, retired pastor and founder of The Kingdom Partnership. “We are all part of the body of Christ, not just our local church. We need one another.”
Lack of Self-Management
Ministry leadership can act like a never-ending machine that requires constant fuel. For some pastors, the urgency of others’ needs stays at the forefront of their lives. They never learn how to practice a life rhythm that includes rest, healthy habits, and spiritual formation disciplines. Eventually the pastor wears out because of the constant spiritual warfare taking place in ministry.
Alan Ahlgrim, founder of Covenant Connections for Pastors, also sees a link between pastors quitting and a lack of intentional life rhythm.
“Pastors that quit usually have a combination of inadequate support, inadequate disciplines, inadequate friendships, and/or inadequate commitment to physical health,” he said. “Soul-enriching rhythms involve living well reflectively, relationally, and recreationally. All are vital.”
Fighting the Wrong Battle
Scripture says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
As ministers of the gospel, pastors and ministry leaders advance the kingdom of light into evil strongholds of all kinds. But instead of focusing on the battlefield of spiritual warfare and committing ourselves to God’s Word, prayer, humility, and teamwork—we can easily change our focus to programs, worship style, and building projects.
When we fight on the wrong battlefield, we lose (because we’re fighting the wrong war). If we spend more time on programs and committee meetings than we do on our knees, we likely are leading ourselves and our ministries with chunks of our armor missing. When this happens, our pastors and staff are likely to become casualties (Ephesians 6:10-20).
4 WAYS TO DEVELOP HEALTHY LEADERS
One way to help a new pastor become established is to connect them with a seasoned pastoral mentor to walk alongside them.
“These coaches deal with pastoral and personal issues from the very beginning of their ministry callings, so they hopefully avoid turning [these minor issues] into major problems down the road—the kinds of problems pastors quit over,” Wallingford said.
“Pastors, especially young pastors, need scriptural-based mentors,” said Creek. “They need a place to safely process the challenges of ministry.”
Committed and qualified mentors might help younger ministers deal with one of the top three reasons pastors quit: they simply are immature leaders.
The “follow my example” mentorship is also how Jesus taught leadership. He healed the sick, cast out demons, cared for the least of these—and then sent out his followers to do the same (Luke 10:1-24). He took a towel and a basin of water to scrub layers of road refuse off the disciples’ feet—and then told them to serve one another with the same humility (John 13:1–17).
“The challenge among our movement is we don’t have a model of pastoral leadership development that mentors young pastors in life, ministry, finances . . . everything,” Wallingford said. “The beauty of our movement is the model of independent and local autonomy, but the challenge is how to walk alongside one another as well.”
Does your church have a gifted pastor who lacks biblical and/or leadership training? Consider paying for their education. This helps in four ways: (1) It gives them the tools to study and teach God’s Word so they can teach the message of truth accurately (2 Timothy 2:15) and lead others well. (2) It links them up with peers and mentors. (3) It encourages them and makes them aware they are cared for and valued by their church’s elders. (4) It keeps them out of financial debt, a major cause of pastoral attrition.
Encourage pastors and church leaders to connect in authentic community with others in similar positions. “Growth happens at the speed of trust,” Ahlgrim said. “Transformation happens on purpose, over time, in community.” It’s important for mental and spiritual health to link arms with others on the same journey.
Developing healthy leaders includes developing healthy leadership teams. Is the senior pastor great at evangelism but weak on discipleship? (Can an elder or pastoral leader help him develop a comprehensive discipleship strategy?) Is the senior pastor great at preaching but slow in administration? (Can someone with administration leadership gifts come alongside him?)
“A good leader loves God and loves people, but you need to supplement the areas of leadership you are not good in,” said Caleb Kaltenbach, church consultant and author of Messy Church. “Staff and lay leadership teams need intentional developing, including elder teams. The health of the pastor and the church depends on it.”
5 WAYS TO SUPPORT CURRENT LEADERS
Spiritual Life as Part of Job Description
Many ministry job descriptions focus on the production end of work, but the inner work of church staff is vital. Elder teams should include prayer and spiritual disciplines as part of church staff job descriptions, while also allowing for times for daily/weekly Bible study and prayer as a part of staff’s “on-the-clock” time. Ministry works both on the physical plane and the unseen spiritual reality.
When we value our pastors and staff for their “output” but do not make space (i.e., pay them) to work on their inner life, we set them up for burnout (at worst) or working out of human strength (at best).
According to CCLN’s research, the average congregant in Christian churches contributes only 2 percent of their annual household income but still expects the church to be well-resourced to hire capable staff, lead with creative vision, engage the local community, support missionaries, and provide dynamic programming.
Elders and pastors need to cultivate a congregation of generous givers. One possible way is to tell stories of how ministry funds impact the community. Share the vision constantly with the church. Challenge them to support the ministry they glean from.
Churches need to pay ministers and church leadership well. Period. They should be able to live without wondering if they will be able to save for retirement or worry whether they can afford to take their child to the doctor. Consider their take-home pay after their out-of-pocket expenses. Consider personal debt reduction as part of a benefit package—especially for student loans for leaders with Bible college or seminary degrees. When pastors and church leaders do not need to worry about financial stability and future security, they are able to serve others more freely and with longevity.
The more you invest in your leaders, the better they will lead. Provide staff and pastoral leaders with continuing education toward spiritual development and leadership training. This can include mentorship, conferences, retreats, scholarships for higher education, books, and resources.
Outside Consultation on a Regular Basis
Invite outside ministry leadership consultants to help with staff development, vision, and strategy . . . and to help when the church’s ministry leaders need an outside perspective.
Pastors and church staff receive loads of critique but not much encouragement.
“When people critique you, they attack your character—‘You’re a bad Christian because. . . ’” Winters said. “But when people encourage you, they point out something you did. Encourage your pastors just as deeply as they are critiqued. Encourage them for their character. Be specific with your encouragement.
Did something in this article catch your attention or strike a nerve? Perhaps your church should take steps to develop and support ministry leadership.
• www.e2elders.org — help with training and developing elders/pastoral leaders
• www.covenant-connections.org — information about spiritual formation groups for pastors
• www.churchlawandtax.com — church financial guidance (specifically, download Setting Wages and Benefits for Church Staff)
* To clarify, some of the 70 percent of ministry graduates who we stated were leaving church ministry may never have taken a pastoral role in a church to begin with. Therefore, it does not accurately constitute an “attrition rate,” which implies individuals took ministry positions and then left them. (This information was learned during recent conversations with some of those who conducted the survey.) The survey does provide some insight into how many Bible college graduates with ministry degrees did not enter ministry within 10 years of graduation. In some years, according to the survey, that was as high as 7 of 10. Also, the “70 percent” statistic that we cited was from a study that was limited to ministry graduates of Cincinnati Christian University, not from a larger segment of ministry graduates from the 20-plus Restoration Movement Christian colleges.