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Discouragement & Dropout: Why Ministers Leave the Ministry

Photo of David UpchurchDavid Upchurch | Bio

David Upchurch

David Upchurch has served as Director of Church Ministries at Lincoln Christian University since January 1, 2012. He is an alumnus of Lincoln Christian University (BA 1980, MA 2017). David served for 32 years in four churches in Illinois and Kentucky before joining LCU. He served on the board of a mission organization called ACM International for 25 years and has traveled to several countries in Africa 13 times, as well as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Thailand, Haiti, and Mexico. David has been married to his wife Cindy for 39 years. They have three adult children and five grandchildren.

*Editor’s Note: As Director of Church Ministries at Lincoln Christian University, David Upchurch has seen firsthand how discouragement can derail a person’s ministry. I got to talk with David about some of the causes of ministry discouragement and how to respond in healthy ways. Here’s a part of our conversation. 

Q: What have you seen as a major cause of ministry dropout?

One of the main causes people drop out of ministry is discouragement. There is often an unrealistic ideal of what ministry is going to be like. And most are not prepared when the ideal and the real collide.

I don’t know if we’ve always done a good enough job in our colleges to prepare people for what it can be like. There are going to be people who don’t like your ideas. There are going to be people who complain, who criticize. We need to be able to say, “Here are some healthy ways to deal with that.”

Q: How do you make it realistic for people entering ministry?

There’s a fine line because you don’t want to discourage someone from going into ministry by painting a negative picture. But if all they get is the positive, then it’s easy for them to think they’ve done something wrong or that they’re not cut out for it.

I’ve had guys ask me to mentor them. And we’ll plan to go through a book together. Nine times out of ten, we never get to the book. Because they’ll come to my office and say, “Have you ever had to deal with this?” We end up going through the “crisis of the week.”

One day it just dawned on me, and I just said, “Yeah, I have.” They responded, “Well, what did you do?” And I said, “Well, first let me tell you about a time I blew it.” And then I’d tell them about a time I got it wrong. I didn’t want them to think they were the only ones that were having the problem. And after saying, “Here’s what I did wrong,” I would follow it up with, “And here’s what I would do today” as a way of letting them know they can get through this.

There are some things I couldn’t say and do at 30, but I could at 50 or 60. In some ways, ministry does get easier as you go along. Wisdom doesn’t always come with age, but the way people look at you changes with age.

Q: How does unhealthy leadership play a role in ministry dropout?

I think that unhealthy leadership is a reason that ministers decide to leave. Sometimes the leadership of a church doesn’t operate with a servant-leadership mentality; sometimes it’s all about power. And a lot of ministers get under-appreciated or even abused by their elders. That gets discouraging.

Some churches are always looking for a new preacher every 9-12 months. In churches like this, a common denominator is unhealthy leadership culture. Too many young men are getting chewed up and spit out.

I’m teaching a class here at Lincoln; it’s a senior-level practical ministry class. I get to interview pastors who have recently hired young people, and I get to ask what these young ministers needed to be better prepared for? I also interview former Lincoln students who have been out in ministry for five years or less, and I’ll ask, “What did we miss?” Or maybe, “What did you miss?” (which was perhaps studied for the test but not applied to real life).

And one of the things that comes up is a work ethic. You have multiple generations in churches. And if you have leaders who are more the Boomer generation, and you have Millennials and Gen Z’s coming up. The work ethic is not the same. I’m not saying the younger ones are lazy; that’s not it at all. But the Boomers tend to think you need to work harder and more. And the Millennials and Gen Zs are thinking, “No, we’re just working smarter.” They’re getting it done, but not the way it used to be done.

It’s not always major reasons why people get discouraged and want to leave. Often, it’s just little things. And, for example, when it comes to different work styles, if they could just find common ground instead of pointing fingers and making it a big issue, they could come up with a solution.

Q: So let’s say you’re talking with a minister who is discouraged. He may even be months from resignation. What do you say?

Ministry is tough. But ministry without joy is impossible. And no matter what you’re going through, that’s not what steals your joy. Not that what you’re going through isn’t tough. But the joy is between you and God. No matter what you do, you’ve got to rediscover that joy.

All the problems get amplified if you don’t have joy. There are “10” crises that happen. But if it’s a 2 or a 3 and it feels like a 10, you’ve got to look inside you. You’ve got to make sure that your relationship with God is healthy. Rediscover your joy, or it’s not going to be fair to the church. Without joy, you’re just going to be seeing what’s wrong, not what’s right.

Ministry is tough. But ministry without joy is impossible.