The Top 10 Reasons Why Staff Leave Their Ministry Positions

Exit Signs - Leaving Ministry Positions

When a church staff member leaves, leaders always have questions. Could we have kept them? What would have made the difference? If it was a beloved Pastor or Worship Leader, the departure might cause a loss of some congregants following their lead.

According to Barna Research, the average tenure of Pastors in America right now is less than 5 years and for non-Senior Pastors, the tenure is nearly half that. These statistics alone are astounding.

There are many reasons why Pastors leave their ministry positions, but here are the top 10 most common that I've seen.

1. There is an unclear or changing mission.

We regularly hear the story of an Associate Pastor who joins a staff team to learn from a great leader. A short time later, that leader leaves, and what follows is this: first, a void of leadership during the interim period, and second, a shift in the mission or vision due to a new leader in charge. It won't take long for other church staff members to leave the team if the church doesn't find their next leader soon.

2. They no longer feel challenged.

Effective Pastors need a challenge.Tweet: Effective pastors need a challenge. via @VanderbloemenSG

Whenever I hear this concern from a Pastor, it generally means they have reached their full potential for growth on that particular team, they are lacking the freedom or creativity to reinvent their position, or, lastly, due to limitations placed on them, they cannot grow the ministry effectively through the existing church structure.

3. They lose a salaried position.

This can happen for a variety of reasons, including: 

  • A contract ends and the executive team takes too long to renew it or give expectations on what is to come.
  • The budget for the position is eliminated.
  • A department is downsized.
  • The pastor is terminated.

4. A better opportunity presents itself.

Yes, the grass is always greener, but… oh wait, that isn’t grass! That’s green spray paint! In reality, some opportunities are going to be better than others. Another role might more closely match a person’s skill-set or be a chance to learn from a great mentor. Ministry staff members want to know they are able to add value in their current context and have opportunities to be developed professionally. To continue the analogy, make sure that you are tending your own lawn (making your staff culture as great as possible), so that the grass stays green as long as possible to your church staff.

5. Their family needs change.

While each staff member’s family will have its own specific circumstances or concerns, these are some of the most common changes in family needs:

  • Relocating to care for an ill family member
  • A change in a spouse’s job status
  • Re-focusing on a marriage
  • Tending to needs of children (moving to be near better schools, family, etc.)
  • Moving closer to parents / in-laws

6. They are doing a different job than they were hired to do.

Often, job duties shift because of a significant change in the needs of the church (or new awareness of the need). On occasion, sadly, we do hear of Pastors being hired for an expressed position only to be given responsibilities completely different from what they were originally hired for. "The ol’ bait and switch" is a sure way to lose a quality staff member prematurely.

7. They uncover theological disagreements.

These conflicts can arise shortly after a person arrives or long into their tenure. Disagreements we hear about are most commonly about theological position on "non-essentials" or things unrelated to salvation issues. Usually the big check-boxes get checked during the pre-employment period, but best practices are to ask more thorough questions about mission, vision, and theological nuance before agreeing to offer a candidate the position.

8. They reach an educational milestone.

Whether it is the completion of a BA, MDiv, DMin, or anything between, these milestones are typically a time of reflection and self-assessment for Pastors. They must make a choice of whether their current position is going to allow them to use their valuable (read: expensive) education to its fullest.

9. They experience interpersonal conflict.

Pastors are certainly not immune to conflict; in fact, they are sometimes asked to step into the middle of it! There are a few key relationships within the church body that have the most potential to cause Pastors to either love where they are or feel as though they must leave. Some examples of such relationships are:

  • With other staff members
  • With the elders
  • With key families in the congregation
  • With the Senior Pastor or another senior leader

10. They hear the Lord's calling. 

When we ask people why they are considering leaving their position, or why they left, this is the #1 reason. This can either be an easy “God card” or a genuine reflection of a person’s inner connection with the God of the Universe. This response encompasses a LOT of other thoughts and sentiments and should always be a catalyst for more questions.

A person plans his course, but the LORD directs his steps. (Prov. 16:9)

Knowing why Ministers leave their positions after a short tenure is only half the struggle. As an elder board, search committee, and staff, you must evaluate how you are recruiting, hiring, developing, and supporting staff. Your efforts go a long way in shaping the congregation, the staff culture, and leadership satisfaction. Your staff members will change, they will grow, they will shift their opinions, methods, hairstyles, and anything else you can think of. If they’re not changing, they’re not growing.

Will you be open and willing to adapt so that you can adequately care for and support your ministers as the Lord calls you to?

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