There’s Another Reason Why Many Pastors Leave the Ministry

In a previous article, Bo Lane, founder of, wrote eloquently on why so many pastors leave the clergy today. Between 1,500 and 2,000 pastors become ex-clergy every month in the United States alone.

This number is astounding!

Bo underscored some of the reasons why pastors leave the pastorate. But there’s another reason that accounts for why countless men and women leave the clergy system.

The reason? A crisis of conscience.

Countless pastors have concluded that the present form of the pastoral role is not biblical, and God never intended anyone to fill it … especially them.

Now if you’re reading that sentence and want to grab your heart-medicine, then skip over this article because it’s not written for you. (However, this is an ExPastors site, so I’m not sure why you would be reading this article if that sentence doesn’t compute.)

This article is for the thousands of expastors who knew something wasn’t right with the office they were filling. But they weren’t sure what was wrong or why it was wrong.

I’m here to encourage you by announcing (1) you are not crazy (2) there are hundreds of thousands of servants of God who once served as local pastors and felt exactly the same way you did. So fear not.

Richard Hanson once said, “It is a universal tendency in the Christian religion, as in many other religions, to give a theological interpretation to institutions which have developed gradually through a period of time for the sake of practical usefulness, and then read that interpretation back into the earliest periods and infancy of these institutions, attaching them to an age when in fact nobody imagined that they had such a meaning.”

Hansen’s big idea was echoed by a contemporary pastor who wittingly wrote, “I majored in Bible in college. I went to the seminary and I majored in the only thing they teach there: the professional ministry. When I graduated, I realized that I could speak Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and the only thing on earth I was qualified for was to be pope. But someone else had the job.”

Now how could the office of “pastor” not be biblical?

Pastors did exist in the first-century. They were called shepherds, elders, and overseers. All interchangeable terms for the same function.

But the modern role and contemporary form of the pastoral function has few points of contact with anything we find in the New Testament.

POSTED ON February 13, 2014
  • Great post and challenge. When you said find someone in the bible who did all this, it made me think of Moses trying to be all things to all people and even then he got the wisdom to assign people to the tens and others to the hundreds.

    Knowing that this is mainly for the encouragement of those who have become expastors and truthfully they are not broken, it is the modern model. Let me ask. Do you see a place for people to serve the church in the model we have (if of course that church doesn’t expect them to be superman and be the church themselves)?

    I hope that question makes sense. Just looking to engage conversation is all. Bang on on the article thought. 😉

    • Drake: There are all sorts of “spots” where people can serve in the institutional church. However, so many people I talk to who did so either 1) burned out because of the constant busy-ness and greater demands put on them (those willing to serve often don’t say “no”) and 2) many of them got caught up in the Byzantine politics that is attached to the system regardless of the good intentions of the people who populate it – it’s a faceless system) – this is true for many Sunday school teachers, people on the worship team, associate pastors, etc.). What typically happens is that the common thinking on this is that these problems were because of “certain people” at a “certain church,” but because the problems are so consistent everywhere, I believe it’s just the natural fruit of a particular system. You can read more about that in what Barna and I presented in – the rabbit hole goes very deep. At the same time, there are many pastors, associate pastors, Sunday school teachers, etc. who love what they are doing and have a good experience by their own testimony. So just like anything, this isn’t an exact science and people’s mileage may vary. My only intent in writing this piece is just to encourage my sisters and brothers who left the pastorate (or who are thinking about leaving) due to a crisis of conscience, to tell them they aren’t alone and Scripture & church history stands with them. That’s all.

      • Absolutely. I def caught all that and found the article to be very well worded and a timely word. I know so many who need to hear this and will be passing it on. 😉

        My intent in my comment was never as a push back, but simply to engage conversation. I guess that didn’t come through. I appologize for that.

  • I’m a big fan of Frank Viola and always like to get his perspective on the church, ministry and our faith. I agree with the reasons you advocated here Frank! Once again–Bravo!

    The statistics of pastors leaving the ministry are somewhat dated and likely could be higher than indicated. However, if you look at the data in light of overall employment in the US and Canada, ministry turnover rates are actually a bit lower than the 2013 average of 3.4% (Labor Dept) When I first saw the numbers I was astounded.

    But as a career coach, looking at it from other perspectives, I’d say it is in line with what we might expect. I wrote about that factor in a post entitled “Pastor Job Change in a Plummeting Market” on my blog.

    I don’t like to see anyone leave the ministry, but agree with Frank and many others that our dichotomous view of clergy/laity is out of line with Bible truth. It has to be considered as a major factor in pastoral turnover. Given the secularization and business worldview we wrestle with in the church, it is not surprising that our turnover rate is “conformed to this world.”

    The real challenge is once one leaves the “vocational ministry” how do they realign their thinking and rediscover their identity in Christ? We need to help one another find the direction the Holy Spirit is leading and follow Him. It gets real confusing trying to walk next steps out in a noisy world.

    • Bingo. Here are two posts I’ve written to help ground God’s people in their identity. Indeed, many of my pastor friends who left the system have struggled with their identity since it was tied up into their office, role, and title for so long. That’s what they said anyway: &

      • Hee Hee! I have those in my Evernote! Good preachin’ Frank!

        Our culture has taught us that our identity is our job title and position. Makes it really hard for believers to live a Kingdom lifestyle when that lie is so strong an influence.

      • Thanks for sharing this. These are great! 🙂

  • Jeremy Scott

    Perhaps I missed it in the article, but are you arguing for the abolishment of the office of pastor or just the single pastor model too prevalent in churches?

  • Rebecca Osaigbovo

    I have been convinced for years of the fact that what we called church today is not found in the Bible. I’ve always wondered why very few ever spoke out on it. So I’m happy to join in this discussion. I personally believe the enemy instituted the institutional church to stop the spread of vibrant Christianity and to save his skin.

  • Nancy

    Thank you for your honest interpretation of what the bible states about “pastorhood.” I also sort of believe along the lines of your article and it is good to know that this truth/concept is catching fire. However, I think it is okay for a local assembly to have a pastor, as long as that pastor has a sober view of his role. Then, he won’t require so much of himself. Also, it is important for those he teaches to understand also, that they are just as important and accountable to God with how they treat one aother. I believe the first order of importance is to preach the good news of Christ’s salvation to mankind (evangelism). Next, the teaching of God’s word in order that the body of christ may be encouraged and strengthen spiritually to continue their journey. The fruits of the spirit should be a big deal in a christian’s life, with the focus of Christ being the vine. God bless you and thank you for your article. Hope it helps pastors and ex pastors to realize that they have not failed; what failed was the image to live up to something God was never requiring anyways. God bless you!

  • Doug

    As a pastor, I cannot relate to what Frank writes here. People can “burn out” of any type of “service” if they put the “service/ministry” ahead of their intimacy with God. Frank you say “find a person in the Bible who does all this” why do you assume a “pastor” has to do all this? What if I like to preach? What if I like to get other men and women to step out and do a sermon? What if I like to surround myself with people who are better than me? What if I like to see others disciple and work to bring others to maturity? What if I like to see a body of believers love each other and enjoy each other? How is this supposed to burn me out? How come I can’t be an elder who leads people the way the New Testament gives us example, just because I happen to worship someplace with rows of chairs instead some other venue? Does the Holy Spirit fail to work inside of building on a Sunday morning? I enjoy doing all the above things. You won’t ever find me being an “ex pastor” because I AM NOT A PASTOR, I am a child of God who is functioning as a disciple whose main interest is seeing others discipled and the world touched by God’s love, life and power. If a man is being burnt out by that, then the “pastorate” has become his god and his profession. My profession is being a child of God and living that out in relationship to Him and those around me.

    • Doug

      Frank, even though I may disagree with you in my post above, I am enjoying reading “Reimagining Church” I appreciate your heart for God and his Bride.

  • MikeJD87

    I think Presbyterianism is the only biblical form of church government. both in the old and new testament, that allows the pastor to bear such a burden, such as Moses and the elders of Israel and how the apostles and elders came together to deal with the Judaism heresy of keeping the mosaic law to be saved (Acts 15). They all function as a plurality of elders. The pastor is no different that using the word trinity to make biblical distinctions. The pastor is simply the elder that labors in “the word and doctrine” and is to be counted worthy of double honor (I Timothy 5:17). The elder or bishop is a good work (I Timothy 3:1) and all of I Timothy 3 gives the qualification for an elder. Not to bash any left the ministry but I wonder how many read it and met the qualification. My pastor takes a beating from ungrateful sinners and people and yet he is well supported by our other two elders, which is the purpose of Presbyterianism.

  • Paul Raybould

    I discovered this website while searching for stats on pastor burnout for a study I am in the process of posting on apostles. I contend that the structure of church government matters, and the biblical structure clearly indicates apostles have an important place. ‘Apostle’ is used 72 times in the bible, and even the Twelve wrote instructions for apostles and prophets in one of the oldest documents involving church government.
    Paul struggled with false apostles and Jesus commended the Ephesians (in Revelations) for discerning apostles. Guess what’s? False still is a problem in the church.

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  • FrZeile

    I agree that the pastor is the same as the priest, but this is the Biblical model. Just as Israel was a nation of priests with a hierarchy of priests under the Old Covenant, so Paul applies the model of the support of the priest to the minister of the gospel (“Do not those who offer sacrifice partake of the sacrifice?”(I Cor.9:13-140). I am Lutheran (LCMS) and Lutherans tend to have a more realistic understanding of human nature (original sin), even under grace, and recognize that the struggles Moses had with the the people of God are likely to be our struggles. Church history teaches that martyrdom is as likely to come at the hands of those who think they are doing God a favor as from the pagans. At the same time, our congregations are a lot like business start-ups, 80% of which fail in the first 5 years, and it is to be expected that the more entrepreneurial ministries would fail (financially, if not spiritually) at similar rates. The point is faithfulness to God, not “success”, whether measured in terms of finances, relationships, or other this-worldly pay-offs. And if this means a decade of service and while something else pays the bills the other 40 years of employment, we ought not to regard this as “failure,” moral or otherwise. Envy of others’ success is always with us, whether in our secular or our spiritual calling, and it is a deadly sin in either case.

FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. He has written many books on these themes, including God’s Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. He blogs regularly at