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A Pastor’s Reflections: Casualties of War

December 3, 2013


There are certainly many stressful vocations in the world. I remember hearing about a show that featured the most dangerous jobs in the world, which included Naval aviators, because of night carrier landings, and Alaskan fishermen, because of the harsh and deadly conditions where they work on the open sea, as two of the deadliest professions. I don’t think, however, that many people realize how stressful the pastorate can be. True, perhaps the pastorate isn’t dangerous, but I think it ranks up there for the level of stress that pastors suffer.
A recent journal article showcased a number of different reputable studies that researched the attrition rates among pastors, that is, how long a pastor survives in the ministry. The article reveals the following:

• 85% of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years and 90% of pastors do not remain in ministry until retirement.
• In one southern state pastor attrition was as high as 90% among those who have served 20 years or more.
• In another study, evidence showed that 50% of ministers leave the pastorate within the first five years and never return to church, ever.

Other studies cited in this essay revealed other challenges for pastors:

• One study revealed that within the first 10 years, about half of the churches surveyed fired their ministers, while another 15% fired them during the last decade of their pastorates.
• Among surveyed Southern Baptist pastors, 23% of them were fired or forced to resign by small factions within the church. And 62% of surveyed churches fired their previous minister.

I doubt that few vocations have such high attrition rates, and the reality behind these statistics and studies shows that the pastorate is stressful. But as I read this article and reflected upon my own personal experience, I have personally seen these statistics in real life.
I pulled out a notecard and began tallying the different ministers that I personally knew who had left the pastorate for various reasons since I was ordained some 15 years ago, which include:

• 2 divorced their wives and resigned
• 1 resigned because of marital problems
• 1 left because of medical challenges with his family
• 3 were defrocked because of moral failings, one because of sexual misconduct and the other two because of problems with deception
• 1 was defrocked because of heterodoxy
• 1 quit because of the absence of a sense of a call to the pastorate
• 1 demitted the office because his church imploded beneath him.

So, all told, I have personally seen 10 pastors leave ordained ministry. Keep in mind how many years it takes to get into the pastorate: 4 years of undergraduate and 3-4 years of seminary education, which is then often followed by a yearlong internship. A person can spend nearly a decade preparing for the ministry only later to be disqualified or forced to resign for one reason or another. But this isn’t everything. In addition to those who resigned, I also know of others who were fired or forced to resign:

• 2 had their churches implode beneath them and had to seek other churches.
• 1 had a moral failing among his children which forced him to resign
• 1 had a falling-out with his church and had to seek another call

Again, in my relatively short ministry, I have personally known of four of my colleagues who have had significant challenges in their pastorates. The challenges were so severe, it either destroyed their churches, or they were forced to resign.

So, why on earth would anyone want to pursue the pastorate given these casualties of war? Simply stated, there’s a fire in your belly and a sense that you just have to pursue the call. A wise colleague of mine once said to a prospective seminary student who was thinking about pursuing ordained ministry, “If you can imagine yourself doing anything else as a vocation, then don’t go into the ministry. If you believe, however, that being a pastor is the only thing you can see yourself doing, then pursue it.” His point was, and is, the pastorate is too challenging and will very quickly wash out anyone who is not genuinely called.

Pray, therefore, for your pastor. Recognize that his job is very challenging and that there are pitfalls all around. There are literally dozens of angles at which he might fall and only one by which he will stand in his ministry. If you’re an accountant, for example, no one cares what you think about theological doctrines or whether your children behave properly, but such things can spell the end of a pastor’s ministry. Pray for your pastor’s health, well-being, theological soundness, fidelity to his wife, his love for his children, but most of all, for his fidelity to Christ. Pray that Christ would sustain your pastor through thick-and-thin. And if you ever meet a pastor who has faithfully served for thirty, forty, or fifty years, go up, shake his hand, give him a hug, look him in the eye, and tell him, “Thank you for your faithful service!”