Debunking a Myth About Pastor Retention Statistics

Frustrated pastor
Thankfully, some of the statistics you see about pastors leaving the ministry are inflated. (iStock photo )

Each time a pastor prematurely exists the ministry race, I grieve. I also grieve each time I hear the awful pastor retention stats which are unsubstantiated and sometimes exaggerated.

Here are a couple of examples of recent headlines and bylines from usually reliable sources:

Epidemic: Another Pastor Burned Out and Quit Last SundayUnfortunately, that pastor wasn't the only one to have such a story last Sunday. Hundreds did. This year, thousands will leave the ministry, burned out and hurting.

Too Many Pastors Are Burning Out: More than 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month. This staggering number includes some of the brightest, most inspiring pastors in the country.

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We have all heard, and perhaps shared, these "staggering" scary stats about pastors who leave the ministry every month. The truth is sometimes worse than myth, but fortunately not in this case.

The prevailing myth = 1,500/1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month  

The promising truth = 250 pastors leave the ministry every month

Last September, the results of a groundbreaking LifeWay Research survey of 1,500 pastors of evangelical and historically black churches found only one percent abandon the pulpit each year. I can think of at least three implications from this groundbreaking research.

Pastors Are Not Quitters

I was 16 years old when I surrendered to the ministry. Soon after I shared that call with my church, my pastor told me that only about 1:10 who start in the ministry will finish in the ministry. I have heard that several times since then. If that is true, how does it sync with this new study?

First of all, many who say "yes" to the ministry never actually started in the first place. As I look back to those I've known who publicly shared their call to the ministry, many of them changed their mind along the way in high school, college, or seminary. Career confusion is normal for students, as well as adults.

Current pastors say a change in calling is the top reason their predecessors left the pastorate. We all know pastors who aren't a good fit for that role. For those who do eventually step onto the front lines of ministry, apparently most don't quit ... which is awesome.

"Now therefore complete the task, so that, as there was a willingness to do so, there may be a performance of it according to your means" (2 Cor. 8:11, MEV).

Ministry Is Tough, But So Are Ministers

I talk to pastors every day and can attest to the fact that they have one of the hardest jobs on the planet. What this survey says to me is that pastors are not quitters or wimps.

  • 84 percent say they're on call 24 hours a day
  • 80 percent expect conflict in their church
  • 54 percent find the role of pastor frequently overwhelming

Dr. Rainer loves pastors, and it is a great privilege for me to serve this tough tribe on behalf of him and LifeWay. Our desire is to encourage and equip these brave servants of the church.  

"But you, brothers, do not be weary in doing good" (2 Thess. 3:13).

Ministers Need Encouragement

The results of this survey remind us that those who are still serving on the front lines of ministry need encouragers to root them on. Their race is not over yet.

  • 53 percent are often concerned about their family's financial security
  • 48 percent often feel the demands of ministry are more than they can handle
  • 21 percent say their church has unrealistic expectations of them

If you are a pastor, encourage your comrades "in season and out of season." Every pastor needs a pastor in his life and ministry. Who can you be a Barnabas to?

If you are a lay leader in your church, treat your pastor(s) like a friend or family member, because he is both. Provide a listening ear and safe place for your pastor to share his dreams, as well as his nightmares.

October is Pastor/Clergy Appreciation Month, which is a good opportunity for churches to say "thank you." Honestly, most churches won't participate because either they don't know about it or know how to implement it. Since it is awkward for pastors to initiate honor, repost this on social media or email it to a trusted lay-leader: 27 Ways to Bless Your Pastor

"And let us consider how to spur one another to love and to good works" (Heb. 10:24).

At the end of the day, most ministers consider it a great privilege to serve the Lord and His beautiful Bride. We understand the price of pastoring and are more than willing to pay it.

"I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful and appointed me to the ministry" (1 Timothy 1:12).

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