The Real Reason Young Ministers Leave the Pastorate

burn-out-pastor-e1341338095674Ministry is tough.  Being a professional pastor is even harder.  Face it, you lose all your weekends and miss many a Sunday football game.  You live in a glass house with everyone tossing stones.  Despite what some people think, most preachers are paupers surviving offering plate to mouth, feeding off the generosity of another’s wealth.  Consequently there’s intense pressure to perform.  If your flock isn’t being fed, they find food in and from a different pastor.  Most churches today sheep-steal.

Consequently, there’s a growing problem:  young ministers are leaving the pastorate faster than a televangelist can shake his King James Bible before a congregation of  sinners.  The number one reason, according to one source?  The discontinuity between what they imagined ministry to be and what it actually is is too great.

That’s right.  What they dreamed the pastorate would be is a just a mirage and smoking mirrors.  If that’s true, and I believe it is, I don’t think the problem is salary.  Most ministers know the calling requires frugality.  I don’t think its the loss of weekends either.  Sunday is a work day for a preacher.  Sunday morning hours are required.

As a ministry professor I feel the key to success and staying power is through mentoring and networking.  Today’s clergy have to continually seek coaching and be lifelong students, plus work their networks and learn their congregations, communities and cultures.

The real reason is too many ministry schools graduate students as lone rangers.  These hopeful newbies land their diploma and ride into ministry without a clue.  They don’t know how to cooperate with others, creatively find solutions, resolve conflicts or cast communal vision.  In reality, ministry looks nothing like the ministry classroom.  After all, if you want to graduate with a high GPA and be decorated at commencement with awards and adulation, its not about creativity, cooperation or even community.  More often than not, it’s about insulation and isolation.

EXAMPLE #1:  Tests.

Most ministry courses and schools use exams to evaluate what students have retained, but in truth all they do is engineer a learner who views tests as cognitive games.  And so they play the exam cram.  Or they concoct clever mnemonics to temporarily please the professor.  Or, worst of all, they cheat.  Ultimately, students take their tests in isolation.  All by themselves and separated to prevent cheating.  

Of course, if you  act this way in ministry you’re in trouble.  The tests that try a pastor’s soul are enhanced when answered in insulation or isolation.  The reason most young preachers fail in conflict resolution is their schools tested the head but not the heart.  Just because you can memorize a list, regurgitate a theory or outline the biblical rationale doesn’t mean you can DO it.  Knowledge puffs up, says Paul.  And isn’t it odd that what we call “cheating” (looking at another’s test for the answer) is essentially what we’ll value as creative networking in real life? When a school graduates a test-taker they set that individual up for failure in a world and within a Church that operates on relationships (cooperation, community, creativity).

You need to know how to find the right answers from others.  You need to learn critical thinking skills to discern whether solutions are correct (I mean your buddy’s brilliant idea might be a pending disaster).  You need to cooperate and let others enjoy your answers too.  Mr. Smarty Pants (and later Pastor) may have the right answer but if he selfishly keeps it to himself what good does it do?

EXAMPLE #2:  Internships

Most internships completed by ministry students are SAFE ones, completed to satisfy graduation requirements.  Far too many internships are performed in churches the student already knows or, worse, done in their home congregations.  The first rule a ministry school should post regarding internships is you can’t do it in your home church.  I don’t care if your home church is Saddleback or Southeast, get outside your ministry paradigm.

For too many ministry students internships are poorly planned and executed, so little experience is gained.  Plus they’re too brief.  Three months does not make a quality experience in ministry.  I used to tell my students if they wanted to learn ministry go away for a year (unfortunately, to do so puts them at-risk to graduate “on time” and if they don’t have minimal credit hours means student loans come due six months into the internship).  In my opinion, the best internship requires students to apply and interview for a place unknown and different.  In fact, it’s the first sign they can actually get a job (in any field) post-graduation.  If a student can’t secure an internship (which are dime a dozen), how well do you think they’ll do landing their first pastorate?  And let’s be honest, excellent interns not only earn fine job references but many don’t have to worry about a job post-graduation because the church wants (and hires) them.

EXAMPLE #3:  Christian Service

Many schools require a “Christian service” component and some even grade it.  It’s a nice idea–required by accreditation–but in my experience only creates poor attitudes and bad taste (especially if students have to PAY the school for the service credit). I’ve also witnessed students “cram” Christian service requirements in their senior year in order to graduate.  In other words, they’re doing Christian service for a grade alone.  It’s an assignment not a lifestyle.  If you have to “cram” to complete Christian service it’s a sure sign you don’t understand “Christian service.”

The best Christian service happens naturally.  Someone sees a need and fills it.  Someone hears a cry and helps out.  Someone finds a failing and leads a change.  The dirty little secret about “academic” Christian service is rarely produces servants like Jesus.  Rather it creates a flurry of spiritual activity often mistaken for genuine Godly service.  It creates performers not pastors.  You look for stuff to do not out of love but rather the list.

So I’m not surprised so many young ministers are leaving the pastorate.  It’s a tragedy.  But if this was any other profession the blame would lie in the preparation.   I believe schools of ministry must reinvent how we train and equip the clergy.  Today’s church needs experienced leaders not smart test-takers.  Today’s congregations hunger for biblical communicators (preachers/teachers) not Bible quiz show contestants.  Today’s church needs equipped servant-leaders who love people not just another notch in their Christian service belt or ministry log.

Preparation is why young pastors aren’t sticking.  And I’ll even point a finger at myself.

It’s time for a change.


About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on May 2, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Very true. Many of things you talked about I faced in my ministry life. I believe that training for spouses should be required to properly prepare for real ministry living.

  2. we are trained to be professors. what if ministers were trained in churches with godly leadership?? what a novel idea!

  3. dead on, Rick and well said.

  4. Jeff Hammond

    I think it’s more than the mere academics verses “life skills” kind of thing. I think it also has to do with culture at large. The average college graduate at 22-23 years of age is less mature today on average than the same 22-23 year old was 100 years ago because he/she doesn’t have to grow up as fast. Also, society is generally more complicated today than it has ever been such that succeeding in life requires more skills especially as society has become more multicultural, more technology advanced, more nuanced with legal realities, and more sophisticated with marketing. There have always been cultural conflicts but they are more and greater. Most people in general are not people of great vision…that is, they are not entrepreneurial, business minded managers. Most people who enter ministry do so because they are excited about God and believe they can make a positive difference in the lives of others. I did all the theology classes and all the hours of ministry service, but the reality is that we as human beings learn by imitating good examples. The biggest problem for new ministers is often the lack of a mentor who has himself been successfully navigating the minefield which is “church ministry”.

  5. Thanks Rick, I’m thankful for my Bible College years and learned much. However, I do believe I could have been prepared a bit more for “real life” in the trenches. Much more practicality and experience would have been helpful. I wish I had taken an internship during Bible College for the experience under a seasoned minister. One problem though with internships is that from what I’ve seen is that they don’t pay much. You have to pay for school somehow and getting a job during the summer is one way to make that happen. I had a student ministry in college which probably paid better than an internship (not much) but that also provided no opportunity for mentorship from a veteran guy in ministry teaching me the ropes.

    I’ve thought for a long time that we ought to structure our Bible Colleges more like West Point or the Naval Academy. In those environments, the entirety of the cadet’s life revolves around becoming an officer. From the moment they get up until the moment they go to bed, their focused on military prep.

    Another idea would be one of networking colleges and ministers for first year graduates. Possibly a format where a long term vet takes on a new fresh graduate for a year.

  6. I served in one church for 2 years counting summers during college, we went through good times and rough times, I learned more from the pastor just serving there, than I did on my internship or any of my college classes.

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