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Why Do So Many Ministers Drop out of Ministry: 6 Reasons

Photo of Bob RussellBob Russell | Bio

Bob Russell

During his senior year of high school Bob realized a desire in his heart to enter the ministry. Soon thereafter, he enrolled in Cincinnati Bible Seminary where he graduated in 1965. At just twenty-two years of age, Bob became the pastor of Southeast Christian Church. That small congregation of 120 members became one of the largest churches in America, with 18,000 people attending the three worship services every weekend in 2006 when Bob retired. Now through Bob Russell Ministries, Bob continues to preach at churches and conferences throughout the United States, provide guidance for church leadership, mentor other ministers and author Bible study videos for use in small groups. An accomplished author, Bob has written over one-dozen books. Bob and his wife Judy of 52 have two married sons and seven grandchildren with whom they enjoy spending their time. Bob also enjoys playing golf and is an avid University of Louisville football and basketball fan. 

I am on the advisory board of The Center for Church Leadership, which is a branch of Cincinnati Christian University. Two years ago CCL received a million-dollar grant from the Lilly Foundation to conduct a study to determine the causes of increased attrition in ministry. They surveyed Restoration Movement churches primarily and received 500 responses. Their research revealed:

Seventy percent of preachers in the Christian Church / Churches of Christ drop out of the ministry during the first ten years. Forty-three percent of pastors who responded stated they were seriously considering leaving the ministry. Something is seriously wrong!

While it is likely that some drop out because they were not fully committed to begin with, I’m convinced that’s not the case with most. After analyzing that recent survey and after interacting with hundreds of ministers over the last decade, I’ve condensed the primary reasons for the high attrition rate as follows: (In no particular order)

1. Financial stress. 

Ministers in larger churches are paid much better than the average preacher a few decades ago. But many in smaller and medium-sized congregations are still barely able to get by. Finances are tight. The church ought to be a model employer, but the CCL study revealed that 54% of the ministers surveyed have no health care or retirement benefits. Although ministers know money is not the most important factor, they live daily with financial stress, and that gets old.

2. Time-pressures. 

It takes between 15 and 20 hours to prepare a meaningful sermon. That’s just the beginning. There are committee meetings to attend, Bible lessons to teach, sick people to visit, staff members to oversee, future programs to plan, community events to attend, marriage problems to counsel, articles to be written, worship services to plan, emails to answer, funerals, weddings and baptisms to perform.

When we go home at the end of the day, there’s always a sense of, “I’m way behind.” As a result, our most important ministry – leading our own families to know Christ, often gets shortchanged. Our mates and children deserve more personal, focused time. Ministers often feel guilty that we’re not at home as much as we should be. The question preachers ask me most frequently is, “How did you manage to balance ministry and family?”

3. A gnawing sense of failure. 

We begin ministry with high expectations of leading a healthy, growing church. But it’s not long before most are disappointed. Very few respond to the invitation to accept Christ as Savior. Attendance hits a plateau; offerings aren’t meeting budget; only a handful volunteer to serve; the congregation seems lethargic during the sermon; church members are bickering with one another.

The resulting feelings of inadequacy may be intensified if a nearby church is growing rapidly and their preacher is lauded as a marvelous success. Seasoned church members wonder aloud why that kind of thing doesn’t happen at “our” church, and the preacher feels like a total failure by comparison.

4. Leadership dysfunction.

One of the vexing problems of ministry is the failure of the church’s lay leaders to step up to the plate and become effective shepherds. To be fair, they accepted the role of elder, deacon, committee chair with no training and little understanding of what is expected.

Church board meetings consist of negative criticism, overanalyzing small expenditures and meaningless speculation. There’s very little legitimate vision-casting or problem-solving. The shepherds aren’t focused on feeding, nurturing, and protecting the flock.

Instead of lay leaders imitating Aaron and Hur, who held up Moses’ arms in battle, most preachers feel like their lay leaders are dragging them down rather than lifting them up. Church board members envision themselves not as encouragers but evaluators.

One frustrated minister complained, “I feel like in my church, it’s the minister’s job to cast the vision, and the elder’s job to stop him.”

5. Inexplicable Loneliness.

Although a minister is surrounded by people every day, there are very few who really understand the constant pressure of having to develop and research a sermon (which is like having a term paper every week), while at the same time striving to be a personal chaplain to scores of people. The ministry is an emotional roller coaster as the pastor officiates at a wedding one day and conducts a funeral the next.

No one but a preacher can really relate to that experience. The problem is compounded by the fact there’s very little interaction with other preachers. Many ministers feel disconnected from any type of genuine collaboration, and they hunger for a mentor or coach. They’ll say, “l am doing ministry alone.”

6. Constant criticism. 

Every leader receives criticism. But the modern preacher experiences more criticism than previous generations. Social media facilitates hurtful comments. Email makes the preacher more vulnerable. The internet provides comparisons that are impossible to measure up to. The intensely emotional issues that divide our culture spill over into the church and offended Christians mimic the lack of civility in the world.

Many who enter ministry are by nature people-pleasers. They are eager to serve others. When they learn they can’t please everyone, they are hurt and can become depressed. Criticism is like a battering ram. Each negative comment weakens the inner structure until it eventually collapses.

We know Jesus warned, “Beware when all men speak well of you.” We know we’re supposed to stand firm on God’s truth, but that’s easier said than done.

When deeply wounded by criticism, the job at the pickle factory or the opportunity to sell life insurance looks pretty appealing.

(For more teaching from Bob Russell, visit Used with permission.)