If you've been around the church scene for a little bit, you've seen how this plays out:
A new pastor arrives. There's a curiosity and an excitement in the air. You hear his first sermon and you think, "Yes, we're gonna go somewhere!"
And at first, you do. The pastor brings in passion, direction, and a new energy.
But eventually, the honeymoon phase (or "momentum phase") wears off. The people begin to see his flaws and weaknesses and vice versa.
But this also means stability is in. Sundays keep going. It's business as usual. Time passes. Even a few years.
Until that one Sunday morning when he begins his sermon a little differently with the announcement of his departure. The room falls dead silent. You see some people exchanging glances.
He doesn't spend too much time on the announcement but uses the actual sermon to preach on God's faithfulness toward his people during transitions. But no one is really paying attention to the sermon.
If you've ever experienced a pastoral transition, you know how awkward it can be.
If you've ever sat in on a "farewell celebration" for a departing pastor, it's just feels a little odd, even under the best set of circumstances, doesn't it?
Why does this happen? Why do pastors leave their churches?
Thom Rainer (LifeWay) once said that the average length of a pastorate in one location is 3.6 years. That's not very long.
The irony is that every pastor who ever left his church, preached about the importance of committment to the church community. He even advised others against leaving his church. Surely, he doesn't mean to be a hypocrite.
What's also not helpful is how cryptic the pastor's reasons for leaving can be sometimes. The answers can be a weird hodgepodge of "God's leading," something about "direction" and "time for a fresh start." None of which truly satisifies our confusion.
So, why do pastors leave?
The answers are very complex and nuanced. Every situation is likely filled with many reasons.
Here are 9 contributing reasons why pastors leave their churches:
1. Because of Money
An odd tension many pastors experience is that while the very Bible they preach out of tells them they're entitled for compensation (1 Timothy 5:17-18), commanding them to not deny their own faith by failing to provide for their families (1 Timothy 5:8), they strangely find this very committment to be less enthusiastically shared by their very churches as outlined by online publications.
Pastors can easily find themselves in a place where they must either a) Look for a secondary job b) Look for another church position c) Leave church ministry for any full time job or d) Disobey God.
Pastors do trust God, but they're sometimes compelled to leave when they find themselves unable to take care of their families in their ministry contexts.
2. Fear of the "Fishbowl Effect"
This myth has been de-bunked, but the myth said if you put a fish in a small bowl, it will grow into small-ness of the bowl whereas a larger tank will facilitate greater growth.
This may be a myth for fish, but not necessarily for pastors.
Have you ever seen a younger pastor and thought, "Wow, he's not even 30 yet but he's such a great preacher and leader" while seeing an older pastor and you thought, "Man, this pastor has no conviction"?
We often think it just boils down to gifting, but I would argue it's also about growth through a timeline of environment, roles, and opportunities. Pastors with some raw gifting, enough role repetition, can eventually become what they're told they are, and this can be frightening for pastors.
This is why one of the biggest questions pastors ask themselves is, "How much longer should I stay in my role?" They're not necessarily trying to be self-centered, they just wonder if they can do more.
3. Conflict in the Church
Yes, pastors experience conflict in the church too.
Sometimes, a pastor will have issues with a member of the church who has a personal gripe or vendatta against him. Other times, the pastor will have dysfunctions with his own staff members. Yes, it's a two-way street, but it's a real street, and streetfights (proverbially speaking) can happen.
So why don't pastors resolve conflict? Forgive? You know, all the stuff they tell the rest of us to do? They try. But sometimes, the other party is unwilling. Other times, it's the pastor that can be immature, stay passive aggressive and prideful.
You want to know if a pastor has ever experienced church conflict before? Ask him how things were at his previous church. He'll either speak glowingly or you'll see a tinge of bitterness in his tone and demeanor. Overcoming bitterness is a process, but it's really sad to see a pastor who's still bitter many years after the fact.
4. The "It's Not You, It's Me."
Sometimes, a pastor can leave because of a change in personal conviction (belief).
For example, an associate pastor who was part of a heavily "inward focused" church may develop deep convictions to be part of a more evangelistic or "outward focused" church. This would not be the church's fault. The associate pastor does not blame the church. He just had a change in conviction and desires to be a part of something that is more in line with his convictions.
Other times, a pastor can leave because of a personal realization (self-awareness).
For example, a pastor may realize that his skills and capabities are not what the church needs for its future. He may feel that though he had been the right leader for the church up to a certain point, he no longer feels he's the right person for the job.
Sometimes, it's a bright lightbulb that goes off inside a pastor's head.
5. The "It's Actually You, Not Me."
Other times, it's not about a change in conviction (belief), but a loss of confidence (trust) in the church, or its leaders, or its systems.
For example, a pastor may have tried his absolute best to lead the church in a particular direction. He was faithful. He was patient. He was kind. But in the end, he concludes that he must move on because of the church's resistance to follow him into a new phase of the church.
Another example would be that of an associate pastor who looks at his lead pastor one day and realizes that he no longer desires to follow his leadership. He loves his lead pastor. He respects him. But he's lost confidence in him as a leader and mentor. He decides it's time to follow a different leader.
Though these examples may seem harsh and even arrogant, I think these are thoughts every employer and employee has flirted with at one point or another.
6. He feels Underappreciated
I remember attending a "farewell party" for a pastor who was transitioning out of his church. He had been a good pastor to the church and the church, appropriately, showered him with gifts and kinds words.
When I had a few moments alone with him, he surprised me by saying, "Whew. If I knew these people felt this way about me, I would've never left."
He said it half kiddingly, but I knew there was some truth to what he was saying.
It may be true that many pastors today crave people's approval too much. After all, Jesus says that servants should simply carry out the duties of their master since that's a privilege in it of itself (Luke 17:7-10). But God also did say that the church should make their pastor's work a joy and not a burden (Hebrews 13:17).
I have heard pastors say many things. I have never heard any pastor say their church people encourage them too much.
7. His Family Doesn't Like His Church
The pastor may love his church, but that doesn't necessarily mean his wife and/or his children feel the same way. It's entirely posssible for the wife to feel lonely or even crushed by unspoken expectations. It's possible for pastor's kids to hate their youth group experience.
This may come off as a surprise, but is it really that surprising? Think about it. Isn't this pretty common amongst families? Isn't this the reason why while it may take a single person 6 months to find a church, it'll take a family 6 years? There are just more variables (more people). Why would we expect a pastor's family to bypass that dynamic?
The church may hire the pastor, but the pastor is not a hired hand to his family. He functions as husband and father. If the family has a hard time with his church, he will do everything he can to help, but in the end, if he has to, he will choose the well-being of his family over his church, and rightfully so.
8. He's Exhausted and Burnt Out
There are a lot of views on burn out.
You have people who say pastors should never burn out and you have the people who fear pastors burn out everyday. The right view is probably somewhere in the middle.
Burn-out is real. I would argue that the pastorate today is more complicated and complex than decades previous. Yes, there may be less "home visitations" today, but with the dawn of the digital age, other expectations such as quality of preaching, providing an "experience" (just to name a few) are at an all time high.
If you combine that with the number 1 sin of most pastors, no, not adultery, but sabbath breaking, it's not difficult to see a pastor coming undone and when he does, he'll have to leave for his own sake.
9. God Called Him Elsewhere
I once heard someone say that God's will is a "cop-out answer" pastors give when they leave churches. Though I think pastors can do that, I also think this is a legitimate reason.
Paul the apostle described his personal ministry as being "to the Gentiles" (Rom 15:16). He was forbidden by God to minister in Bithynia because he was called to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). Paul wanted to minister to particular churches but couldn't at certain times for unexplainable circumstances.
There are times when a pastor leaves a church, not because he feels a push to leave, but a pull to go. Surely if we can ask our pastor regarding how God leads us, we can expect that God is leading our pastor too.
Most pastors who leave their churches, leave after a long season of prayer and contemplation, and when they finally do, they leave with a broken heart.
When I left my previous position, I thought I was "ready to leave." I was eager to start a new chapter. But for years afterwards, I found myself grappling with unforeseen guilt whenever I ran into people from my previous church. "I wish I did more for them when I was there." "I wish I had been more like Jesus for them." "I was such a poor leader."
If you're a part of a church and you've experienced pastoral transition, it's okay to be hurt, disappointed, and even angered. It's okay to grieve. You should grieve. Pastoral transitions can be a really difficult time. We have tons of unanswered questions. We may even feel a little betrayed.
However, please know that there's always more to the story than simply, "He left us." Give your former pastor the benefit of the doubt. Pray for him. And if you have questions, reach out to him, but bless him, support him. He needs it.
If you're a pastor or a church leader considering a transition, please know that though you may have processed things in your own heart and mind, your announcement may drop like a bomb for some of your people.
See, for someone in your church, you were more than a preacher. You were the one who was there during their darkest and loneliest season. For someone else, you gave that trajectory altering advice when they were confused. For another, you were the sole constant leader figure when his or her mom and dad were in and out.
You can leave your church after a deep season of prayer and counsel, but please know it's more than you making an individual choice. There's a real ripple effect for people who love you, trust you, and look to you for guidance.
In the end, let's be thankful Jesus builds his church.
Even if the church deck gets shuffled a little sometimes.