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Opinion: Is a Great Resignation Brewing for Pastors?

By Scott Thumma
pastors resignation
A recent study from The Barna Group found that 2 in 5 Christian pastors had considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year — but it's not the full picture of the impact of COVID on clergy. (Photo by Ben White/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

Are nearly 40% of clergy really about to leave the ministry?

It’s a question that has come up regularly in conversations among sociologists of religion since The Barna Group, a research firm that focuses on religion, found last year that 2 in 5 Christian pastors had considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year.

As director of Hartford Institute for Religion Research, I am leading a massive, multi-year study of how churches have fared during the pandemic. Nearly every conversation I have gets around to just how exhausted clergy are and how many of their colleagues are thinking about quitting the ministry.

The theme of clergy burnout and the “Great Resignation” — the failure of thousands to return to work after the worst of the pandemic was over — are likewise echoed in innumerable newspaper and blog articles across the web.

But is it true?

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The past two years have certainly been beyond trying. Religious leaders have not only had to learn new ways of doing their jobs — delivering their sermons virtually, conducting online committee meetings, and substituting texting, Facebook and Zoom for what used to be in-person, face-to-face encounters — they also had to decide, repeatedly, whether to encourage vaccinations, to close or reopen the church building, to enforce mask mandates and navigate issues of race and politics. It is exhausting just thinking about the trials most clergy have had to face since COVID-19 hit.

In the summer of 2021, we asked nearly 2,000 clergy if they considered the previous year the hardest year in their ministry experience. Two-thirds (67%) claimed to have thought this at least once or twice, and nearly a third (29%) had this thought fairly or very often.

A third of them actually had a year harder than 2020.

This same survey further documented that roughly 40% of congregations saw a rise in requests for food and monetary assistance, increased demands for psychological and spiritual counseling and a steep decline in volunteering by members. Plus 15% of them had to reduce staff hours or lay off personnel.

To top it all off, 75% reported some level of conflict arising from how they handled COVID-19 (though only a quarter called the conflict moderate or severe).

As a result, many of us who look at religious life in America wholeheartedly accept the “mass clergy exodus” storyline. But what does survey data actually show?

pastors ministry resignation
“The Hardest Ministry Year Ever” (Graphic courtesy of HIRR)

In our most recent survey, we asked clergy: “In the past year how often had you seriously considered leaving pastoral ministry?” A majority — 63% — responded “never,” which meant, however, that 37% of pastors had this thought cross their minds. This result parallels Barna’s finding.

But thinking something in the middle of a trying year of ministry does not automatically equate to actually leaving the profession. When you look more deeply at our data on how often pastors had this thought, only 5% did so fairly often and just 3% said very often.

Interestingly, 3% of clergy just as often pondered leaving their current congregation or had doubts about their call to ministry. There is also a strong correlation between those who often considered leaving their churches and the ministry and those who doubted their call.

Overall, our data just doesn’t provide much evidence of a pending mass exodus of clergy. It does show that a small percentage of religious leaders are rethinking their choice of vocation.

Scott McConnell of Lifeway Research, the survey arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, has suggested that in their pre-pandemic data, slightly more than 1% of clergy annually leave the ministry. If we assume that the 3% of clergy who thought very often about leaving all might actually leave, that would show a slightly increased rate of exodus, but certainly not the predicted mass exodus.

The real question may be, who are these 3% of clergy who often ponder resignation, and, more importantly, why are they considering leaving?

Barna’s data suggests they are more likely to be mainline, female, younger and in poorer physical and mental health, which our data affirms.

But further analysis suggests other dynamics at work. Those pastors who thought most about leaving the ministry led declining churches of 100-250 Sunday attendees even before the pandemic. They tend to have little staff support while facing significant conflict over the pandemic. They were struggling financially and, by several of our measures, were less vital.

It’s interesting that, according to Pew Research, most secular job resignations in COVID-19’s aftermath stemmed from a poor working environment. Likewise, disaffected clergy were likely contemplating an exodus from the ministry because they faced difficult congregational situations before the pandemic.  

rural church
A rural church in Kansas. (Photo by John Vachon/LOC/Creative Commons)

It is impossible to tell if lack of education, experience or skill created poor working conditions these pastors were enduring. But it is certain that a strong desire to leave the ministry was in part shaped by a challenging contextual situation, not any deficiency in any individual pastor’s theology, gender, age, or physical and mental situation, as is often assumed. (We should note, too, that women, younger pastors, and those in the mainline are more likely to be assigned to struggling churches and therefore suffer mental or physical disease.)

The good news is that certain aspects of our survey showed that clergy are in fact highly resilient. We used several of the questions from the Harvard Flourishing Measure, an indicator of life satisfaction, to ask clergy about their well-being. In every case, the clergy in our research scored significantly higher than national averages of random respondents in pre-pandemic (January 2020) and mid-pandemic (June 2020) flourishing surveys.

Likewise, 52% of pastors agreed that their congregation’s ministries continued through the heart of the pandemic without significant disruption. More than half added new social outreach efforts or augmented what they were already doing, and more than two-thirds (69%) embraced new opportunities for ministry as a result of the pandemic. Through the significant challenges the pandemic wrought, a majority never thought once about leaving their church or doubted their calling.

Clergy continue to express to us their exhaustion and uncertainty about the directions forward as the pandemic wanes. Time will tell the full implications of these pastoral struggles. But it’s a good bet that the hardest ministry year ever won’t turn into the greatest resignation.

The views expressed in this commentary, originally published by Religion News Service, do not necessarily reflect those of The Roys Report.

Scott Thumma is professor of sociology of religion and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University. He is the principal investigator for a five-year Lilly Endowment grant to study the impact of the pandemic on churches.



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23 Responses

  1. Every hired Pastor should get a job and take up ministry “free of charge” like the apostle Paul. There are 10 passages that state the damage done by combining money and ministry. They speak about burdening, numbing, taking advantage, pretext for greed, seeking what is yours rather than you, coveting and many more. These have all been in EVERYONE’S Bible for 2000 years but the clergy reject the 10 because there are 4 passages that are twisted to justify the paycheck, title, ruling status, dominating truth expression and more corruption. God is not pleased with disobedience. Sin ALWAYS spreads. Saints become more gullible and dumbed down as a result.

    Example: “Let the elders who rule well….” 1 Tim. 5:17 The Greek word for rule is not here, but they put the English word there anyway because clergy want some ruling power. Jesus used the Greek word for ruling and rejected it along with lording and exercising authority in Matthew 20: 25-28. “Double honor” is twisted into a pay check 3 different ways and ALL of them are phony. “Laboring in the word and teaching” does not constitute a 30-45 minute Bible lecture, nor does “preach the word” but clergyism says so. “Meeting together”, the kind we are “not to neglect” is 100% “one another” communication in Heb. 10:24,25 and 50+ other texts. Clergyism is as corrupt as the papacy and was not fixed at the Reformation. We must fix it now with the scripture and obedience to it. I realize this is SHOCKING, but there is SOOO much more evidence to expose the clery vs laity DIVISION of God’s people. I’ve written a FREE pdf book on all this scripture and more.

    1. You make excellent points, Tim! This aging, but still very accurate article from Forbes should be food for thought for all conservative Christians!

      “….Most charities are subject to some level of transparency, but not churches. That leaves it up to the members to demand transparency. If you meet resistance from the leadership, maybe you might consider that rather than a sheep who is being fed, you are one that is being shorn” —Peter J. Reilly

      Some pastors have some very wrong reasons to be or stay in the ministry.

      Peddling the Word is wrong even when it is done accurately.

      1. “not peddling” is another one of Paul’s declarations that mixing money with spiritual leadership is corrupt. Good one. Every reason to demand money in exchange for perpetual dependency Bible lecturing is corrupt. “Teaching” or preaching, by Jesus’ definition graduates EVERYONE. Luke 6:40. No term in the Bible – “preach, teach, equip, feed”, proclaim” can be exposited to mean lecture for 30-45 minutes. This parameter is ASSUMED into these words by the power of 500 years of clergyism.

    2. I too and completely on-board with Tim. Nail well hit on head! Daryl Erkel wrote much about these themes about 30 years ago.

      On another note “A rural church in Kansas”? I only saw a building, not the body of Christ! Another symptom that we’ve lost the significance of the ecclesia, the assembly of believers.

    3. 1 Tim. 5:17 – the word translated “Rule” is the Greek verb “proistemi” = perfect active participle means “to so influence others as to cause them to follow a recommended course of action — ‘to guide, to direct, to lead” (Louw-Nida Lexicon). Leading or directing the affairs of the church is a good translation. The perfect tense indicates action that has started and is on going. These individuals began leading and directing in the church and they continue to do so. The voice is active which means that they are the ones doing the leading and directing.

      “Honor” = English word “honorarium” from this word. The Greek word has the idea of “compensation for special service, — ‘compensation, pay, honorarium'” (Louw-Nida). Remuneration is involved. The “double honor” refers to what these individuals are doing is honorable and to be recognized as an honorable undertaking – as opposed to those who dishonor and disrespect their work. It does not mean that these individuals “seek honor.” So these individuals are to be respected as they serve the Lord working hard at teaching and preaching and receive remuneration for their work.

      The very next verse gives us an explanation (1 Tim 5:18). You feed the ox that does the work – and the “laborer is worthy of his hire.” The word translated “wages” is the Greek word “misthos” which refers to payment received by a laborer in return for work. “The amount offered for services or paid for work done — ‘pay, wages'” (Louw-Nida).

      Jesus says that the “laborer is worthy of his hire” (Luke 10:7 and Matthew 10:10). In 1 Cor 9:14 states that “the Lord said that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the Gospel.” So preaching and teaching and being paid to do that is a Biblical concept that comes for the Lord himself.

      1. Thank you for acknowledging that “rule” is corrupt translation. Elders is not RESERVED for a few. The requirements are not very high. “Anyone who aspires to the work of oversight…” 1 Tim. 3:1. The word “office” is not in the text but translators put it there. There is a Greek word for woman overseer but translators hide that.

        The Greek word for honor has ZERO honorarium in it. Honorarium is ONLY an english idiom. Using it is BOGUS TRANSLATION. But clergy will do that for their paycheck, title, and dominating office.

        Verse 18 are two PARALLEL metaphors that show literal “double honor” is essential. The metaphors do not CONVERT honor into grain or a paycheck. That is GROSS twisting of the Bible but every clergy will do it. Spiritual leadership is NOT a business or commercial work with profit – only giving that should go BEYOND the givers, not CONSUMED by them to get a sermon + accessories.

        Luke 10 and Matthew 10 Jesus SPECIFIES “food”, not money. Look again. There was ZERO money involved.

        1 Cor. 9:14 is a HORRIBLE translation that adds “get your” which are not in the text. It should be “in the same way the Lord commanded that those who preach the gospel should live by the gospel.” The gospel is not words only, and it’s not a lecture, and it’s not RESERVED for men with Bible degrees, nor in a pulpit building as the corrupt translation is practiced. Jesus came to earth to INCARNATE the gospel – life by the gospel, and so should EVERYONE.

        1. @Tim – Actually the requirements are very high. Read 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Those passage primarily focus on character and that is part of our current problem in my judgment. Anyone can claim to be an elder and then set up a church and is accountable to no one. No, it doesn’t demand people have a Bible degree, but the pastoral epistle do demand a solid theological understanding of Biblical truth which can be achieved through being mentored as Paul did with Timothy and others in the early church.

          So what is the “double honor” from your perspective?

          So, on a side note, what Lexicon are you using? I haven’t found one that supports your assertions.

        2. @Tim,

          Understanding “honorarium” to refer to financial support is not a BOGUS TRANSLATION in this context. Again, TDNT and other lexicons point it out. But the very next verse gives a commentary on what is meant (v 18). The “for” (conjunction – adverbial causal) links this verse to the previous and clarifies what is meant. The “laborer” (elder in this context) who works is worthy of his “wages” (payment received for work done). That clarifies what is meant in 5:17. Elders may receive wages for their work. Paul received financial gifts from churches. Certainly Jesus was supported by financial gifts.

          Both your exegesis and hermeneutics are defective. I don’t have any more time to waste on this discussion. I have a flock of sheep that I have been called by the Chief Shepherd to shepherd (1 Peter 5). [We do have other elders]. A wife just lost her husband, discipleship responsibilities, and yes a 35-40 minute message to feed God’s flock. I want to make sure they receive meat and not milk.

          Have a good day.

    4. Preparing a message and then delivering it with God’s empowerment is hard work. It takes 15+ hours to research and prepare a 35-40 minute message that is true to the text and also is personally applicable to the local body of believers. But pastoring a church is much more than Sunday morning – it is sitting with families with a loved one preparing to step into eternity. It is counseling a couple seeking to get married. It is getting in a car at 2 am in the morning with because a guy just discovered what he understood to be evidence his wife is cheating on him – and after getting in the car, finding out the guy is driving drunk. It is being on call 24/7 365 days a week for those who have been alloted into your care (1 Pet 5:1-4) and feeling the burden of one day having to give an account for ones oversight of the flock that belongs to the Chief Shepherd. And there is a lot more.

      1. Thanks Don. I think Paul, the one who “robbed” other churches like the Philippians, so he could minister full time to the Corinthians free of charge because of all their money issues, would agree with you!

        1. @Joel – you are correct – Paul did receive financial support from other churches to do ministry.

      2. There is nothing in the Bible that says “preach, teach, equip, feed, proclaim” are a 30-45 minute lecture. It does say these are works for EVERY believer to do. INo ministry is RESERVED for one hired person any more than there is scripture for the Papacy. “Meeting together” is dominated by the OPPOSITE of a sermon – each believer “stirring up one another to love and good works and encouraging one another”. Heb. 10:24-25. I realize you have ONLY seen pulpit and pew rituals, but that does not make it true. God has used it to a marginalized extent because God ALWAYS uses obedience far more than rituals of men.

        1. @Tim – nothing suggests a time frame. In fact, Paul preached so long that Eutychus fell asleep and fell out the window. So could be 35-40 minutes, could be hours.

          1. If nothing suggests a time frame, why is 30-45 minutes the ABSOLUTE ritual? Why is 3-5 minutes EXCLUDED? Why is RESERVED for ONE MAN the ritual AND shared preaching, teaching shared by several believers EXCLUDED? Why are other spiritual gifts EXCLUDED? Phony traditions of men that enhance the flesh so everyone likes it. Revelation specifies a dynamic of ALL GOD’S PEOPLE. COL. 3:16, Rom. 15:14, and others. The time is limited to one person so EVERY gifting can manifest, including children – “for of such is the kingdom of God.”

            In Acts 20 the Greek word is dialegomai which lexicons point to dialogue, discussion, and is translated “reasoning” in other places, which is two way communication. Translators HIDE the truth again. You could see it but you don’t. This passage is merely DESCRIPTIVE, not INSTRUCTIVE. Paul taught 50+ “one another” instructions and taught ZERO lecture instructions. Paul was an EXAMPLE who PRACTICED what he taught. EVERYTHING Paul taught was reproducible to EVERY marketplace working believer.

        2. @Tim – I don’t know why you limit pastoral work to merely preaching and teaching “for 35-40 minutes.” Ephesians 4:11 refers to equipping of the saints for ministry which is multifaceted (yes, training others to be use their spiritual gifts). Other passages in the NT, especially pastoral epistles refer to a whole host of responsibilities to shepherd the flock which belongs to Jesus. I take the instructions from the pastoral epistles to be prescriptive. I take you have never been a pastor – by that I mean “called to pastoral ministry.” It is a calling from God and not a job.

          1. I did not limit it, but the weekly sermon is the DOMINANT part of their work. They claim it’s the most important work in the universe. It is 100% contrived with no “prescription” for weekly lectures by hired men in perpetual dependency.

            Eph. 4:11 is one of 4 passages that speak about the ESSENTIAL nature of EVERY gifting. Clergyism falsely restrict the “5 fold gifts” to “equipping. 3 of the 5 are found in Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12; 1 Peter 4 which shows ALL the gifts “equip” everyone else to do the work for which they have no gift. Example: You want EVERYONE giving, but not everyone has that gift. So those with the gifting “equip” the rest to be joyful and generous givers. The shepherd gift is lousy at giving so believers give 2.9% and then CONSUME 84% of that to buy services and facilities for mostly themselves. That is BAD giving.

            NOTHING in 1 & 2 Timothy or Titus is limited to shepherds, but you just did calling them “pastoral epistles”. That is only clerygisms false claim. They are for EVERY servant leader who is setting the “example” for ALL the saints to “imitate”. Hebrews 13:7, 1 Peter 5:3

            I shepherd “free of charge” just like the apostle Paul, Timothy, Titus, Silvanus, and Barnabas. You have no names of ANYONE who got a paycheck for shepherding. I “fully train everyone” to “be like me” just as Jesus did in 3 years with the 11. Luke 6:40.

    5. Hi Tim

      I want to give a counter-argument from my experience. I was an elder for two and a half years, the last 6 months of which was as assistant pastor in all but name. I was working full-time simultaneously. Sermon week was always crazy for me, I never had one free evening, a 30-40 minute sermon, even when going through a book in the Bible, takes at least 8 hours of preparation and prayer, not to mention crazy spiritual attacks (someone else here mentioned 15 hours, good on you, brother!). Add in 4 hours of travel each way to church, plus Bible studies, maintaining A/V (we’re a tiny church, so pastors/elders wear many hats), and you can see how it became a 40 hour week affair. Completely voluntary. On top of my 40-hour week main job. My wife was not with me during this time, hence family was not an issue. If I had a family, I would never consider it.

      With all due respect, full-time pastors are a blessing to the church that most people don’t appreciate. They get paid not very much for something that would break most people (including myself). My pastor certainly is a blessing. Your argument is a very one-sided view, a pastor’s job is one of the most difficult and most soul-draining jobs there is. I know, I had to leave it because I knew that I needed a break. I would encourage you to please show some grace to your pastor(s), full-time or not, they’re not sponging off of you, merely doing one of the hardest jobs and exercising one of the most impossible callings out there.

      1. 1. I gave scripture and you ignored it. There is NO BASIS that “preach, teach, equip, feed, or proclaim” equal a 30-45 minute lecture by one man. This is PURE traditions of men.
        2. There is NO scripture that funnels God’s word through one gifting and one man. There is scripture that says God dispenses it to EVERY BELIEVER. 1 Cor. 12 & 14. There are no silent spiritual gifts.
        3. Sermons are a HORRIBLE substitute for God’s design for “meeting together”, which is 100% “one another” communication by ALL believers. Heb. 10:24,25, Col. 3:16 Please read these.
        4. Full time leaders ALWAYS result in most believers doing NOTHING, or LITTLE TO NOTHING. This is everywhere in every church. That is NOT a blessing. It is corruption.
        5. Obeying the word is ALWAYS grace, not convoluted traditions of men. There is much more scripture for this. Please obey the word, not traditions of men.

    6. I agree with this. Another problem is that one of the callings, and only, has been elevated as king above the rest. That is “Pastor” which is a calling, not a title. We all have systems where if you are pastor/priest/rev. you are somebody. If you are helps, prophet or evangelist, then you are not qualified for any kind of leadership. Pastor and pastor alone. This does not come from God’s word but from Tradition passed down from the R.C. It is bunk and a lot of “pastors” need to give away their power and come down and just think like sheep for the rest of their lives. We expect too much of them and they end up most of the time replacing Jesus Christ in real ways in the lives of the sheep. No pastor is called to do that.

  2. I have observed that one of the biggest reasons for pastors getting frustrated, or even discouraged in ministry is simply a good person in the wrong kind of position. Example, a youth pastor running a large youth group, lacks good large group dynamics, but is excellent 1 to 1 or in small groups. That youth pastor would be much happier and more effective in a campus discipleship ministry. When discussing this with several pastors, they confirmed that they fit much better in some positions they had than other positions.
    I would hope there is a way for our seminaries to help prospective pastors find the right type of ministry, or even if ministry is a good fit for them. That surely would reduce ministry attrition.

    – Greg

  3. When I was in the ministry, i knew a lot of pastors who wrote their resignation letters each week. They would quote statistics of pastoral depression, etc. It would be interesting to see #’s from other years.

  4. This doesn’t surprise me because most pastors / preachers need an audience. I read a study years ago (I wish I could site it but I can’t remember) that found many pastors are / were frustrated actors looking for an audience. Basically, they are men (and women to a certain extent) who were in theatre in high school and maybe college. They failed to progress as actors so they decided to go into ministry, where they could find their attentive audience once again. But performing is in their blood, not necessarily ministry.
    The pandemic took that from them. Maybe they should find something to do that doesn’t require adulation and applause from a crowd.

  5. Hi Mellisa: I appreciate where you’re coming from, a lot of pastors do it for the adulation. But you need to understand, when the going gets tough, these pastors fall away. Most pastors aren’t that way. Pastors need to lead their congregation through all times, good and bad. They minister to individuals. Good pastors aren’t shocked or even surprised by most aspects of sin, one hears everything in this calling. The challenge is to not become cynical and begin to despise people, to see the Holy Spirit working to bring people to God and conform them to Christ’s image. I know, because I was an elder for 2+ years at a tiny church, the last 6 months of which as assistant pastor. While working full-time as an engineer (not an actor, never been to theater school haha). My fellow pastor, (who was full-time) and me wore many hats besides preaching and spiritual leadership: I handled sound and technical stuff, I worked many hours figuring out livestreaming (and you’d know how hard it is to do it on a budget of <200 bucks). Leading Bible studies, discipleship groups, counselling (my pastor did that way more than I did). Is the applause of an audience worth the suicidal thoughts and depression from ministering and not being ministered to, the crazy pressure from balancing 2 full-time jobs while my wife is out of the country because her visa is delayed by the pandemic, spending 8 hours on preparing and praying for a sermon, navigating lockdown rules, being personally liable as an elder for our church defying government demands to impose ungodly vaccine mandates in the church, while driving 4 hours every time I need to go to church? Oh, and did I mention, I was an unpaid volunteer? You decide.

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