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Why So Many Pastors Are Leaving the Church

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Burnout, lack of support and church conflict are why hundreds of former pastors say they quit church.

According to a new study by Lifeway Research, 63 percent say they have spent more than 10 years in ministry before these crucial elements drove them to leave the church.

"Almost half of those who left the pastorate said their church wasn't doing any of the kinds of things that would help," said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Nashville-based research organization.

"Having clear documents, offering a sabbatical rest, and having people help with weighty counseling cases are key things experts tell us ought to be in place," he said.

Lifeway Research surveyed 734 former senior pastors from four Protestant denominations who left well before retirement age.

Forty percent say they left the pastorate because of a change in calling in ministry. Tweny-five percent left because of church conflict and 19 percent experienced burnout.

"These things are interrelated," Stetzer said. "If you're burning out, chances are when conflict arises you're not going to respond well, and that will make the conflict worse."

But the study indicates that troubles began even before pastors arrived at their congregations. Forty-eight percent of the former pastors say the search team did not accurately describe the church before their arrival.

Their churches were also unlikely to have a list of counselors for referrals (27 percent), clear documentation of the church's expectations of its pastor (22 percent), a sabbatical plan for the pastor (12 percent), a lay counseling ministry (9 percent), or a support group for the pastor's family (8 percent). Forty-eight percent say their church had none of these.

Pastors also experienced conflict. Fifty-six percent clashed over changes they proposed and 54 percent say they experienced a significant personal attack. Nearly half ( 48 percent) say their training program did not prepare them to handle the people side of ministry.

"Many seminary programs don't even require courses on the people side—they're focused on theology, biblical languages, and preaching, which are important, but almost half of the pastors felt unprepared for dealing with the people they were preparing in seminary to lead and serve," Stetzer said.

Stetzer says the key to seeing change is prevention.

"It's going to take a combination of the seminaries, academia, denominational folks, and even outside ministries putting their heads together and seeking God on how best to support pastors," he said.

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