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Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry

Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry

by Dean R. Hoge, Jacqueline E. Wenger

Whether they leave out of preference for another ministry or due to serious conflict, pastors who relinquish parish ministry face misunderstanding and even hostility. Pastors in Transition brings clarity to this little-examined aspect of the pastorate by examining the main reasons why pastors in five Protestant denominations have left parish ministry.

The fruit


Whether they leave out of preference for another ministry or due to serious conflict, pastors who relinquish parish ministry face misunderstanding and even hostility. Pastors in Transition brings clarity to this little-examined aspect of the pastorate by examining the main reasons why pastors in five Protestant denominations have left parish ministry.

The fruit of careful sociological research, Pastors in Transition presents the findings of the largest-ever study of recently ended ministries. More than 900 ex-ministers, representing the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church, were surveyed or interviewed. Besides gathering facts and figures, the book contains personal stories, forthright opinions, and concrete recommendations from former pastors for strengthening parish ministry in the future.

Product Details

Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date:
Pulpit and Pew Ser.
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Pastors in Transition

Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry
By Dean R. Hoge Jacqueline E. Wenger

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2908-2

Chapter One

The Setting

Ministers who leave local church ministry do so for very diverse reasons - so diverse that we need to separate them into categories at the outset. For example, some leave voluntarily while others do so involuntarily. Consider the cases of Pastor Rowan and Pastor John.

Rowan left local church ministry voluntarily. He entered the ELCA ministry with a strong interest in ministry in higher education, and he understood the denominational rule that pastors are required to spend at least three years in a parish before going into a specialized ministry, and so he accepted a call to a church. His anticipated three years were happy and stretched into eighteen, during the last years of which he taught courses as an adjunct at a nearby Lutheran college. This reawakened his desire to devote himself to higher education, so when an opening occurred at another Lutheran college, he applied. He is now the college chaplain there.

For Rowan there were "push" factors as well as "pull" factors. He felt during his last years of parish ministry that he had hit a plateau and needed a new challenge. He considered taking another parish call and negotiated with two other churches, but for various reasons decided not to pursue those calls. At the same time some tensions had built up among staff members of his church, making him unexcited about the prospect of continuing in ministry there. So when the opportunity came to be a college chaplain, he took it. He was 44 at the time.

Pastor John, on the other hand, exemplifies a minister who left involuntarily. He was the senior pastor of a thousand-member United Methodist church in the American West when it became known that he was having an affair with a woman in another church. When their relationship was uncovered, the woman's family filed charges and contacted the bishop, who in turn called John in. The bishop gave John a choice between surrendering his orders and undergoing a church trial. Since John knew he was guilty, he surrendered his orders there on the spot.

John reflected with us that his marriage had been unhappy for many years before this event, but for various reasons he hadn't wanted a divorce. He and his wife had been in marital counseling for a long time, and the affair happened at a time when they were thinking about separating. He was then 51. Now he works for an environmental organization and wishes he could re-enter ministry.

Some pastors no longer in local church ministry left for organizational reasons; others did so for personal reasons. Take the cases of Pastor Barbara and Pastor Allen. Barbara got caught up in organizational problems - specifically, conflicts in her congregation. She accepted a call as associate in a Presbyterian church when she finished seminary in her early forties. The senior pastor at that church had been there for 25 years and was eager to have an associate to do youth work, expand mission work, and reach out to young adults. But before long Barbara was frustrated by the indifference of many members to the church's program. She found that people voiced interest in new ideas but seemed unwilling to expend any time or effort helping her implement those ideas. For example, she became involved at the local homeless shelter, but nobody else in the church joined her. The senior pastor was too tired to take any initiative at all, and the lay leaders seemed to be continually protecting him. Barbara felt betrayed, and soon she began to feel blamed for the tensions. It was so dispiriting that she took a job working full-time in the health field. She left at 46.

Allen is an example of a pastor who left for a very personal reason: his marriage fell apart. He was the solo pastor in a new Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation, and both he and his wife found their situation stressful. He felt entrapped in his role as pastor, and his wife did not feel comfortable playing the role of pastor's wife. They had very few close friends from whom to derive support, and eventually their marriage ended in separation and divorce. In the LCMS, if a pastor divorces it is up to the district president to decide whether he (the LCMS does not ordain women) can continue in ministry. But in most cases the individual is forced at least to move to a different congregation some distance away. Allen did not want to move because of the burden doing so would put on his children, so he resigned. He was 35.

Allen still lives in the metropolitan area where he was a pastor, and he is now remarried to a woman from the Brethren denomination. He talked with us at length, pondering what had happened. He guessed that parishioners' expectations of him and his wife, expectations not openly expressed, contributed to their marital problems, but that, more importantly, he and his wife were slowly growing farther and farther apart. Now he works for a non-profit substance abuse organization.

These cases demonstrate how diverse the ex-pastors in our target group are. The first task in our research was therefore to distinguish the main types, to "map the territory," since pastors leave for many reasons. A second task was to try to assess motivations, since it is atypical for any pastor to leave for a single clear-cut reason. Fathoming the conditions and motivations for leaving was our main challenge in the study. In Chapter 2 we describe our methods of analysis.

To understand the situation today, one needs to understand the setting in which these pastors worked. The remainder of this chapter will describe trends in pastoral ministry in recent decades and give specific information about the five denominations.

Changes in the Protestant Ministry since the Sixties

One of the basic assumptions motivating the Duke Divinity School to undertake our project is that social change in the last four decades has put new pressures on the ministry, requiring an evaluation of today's structures to see if they are still serving well. This is a hypothesis on the minds of many church officials today, but to be truly useful it needs to be stated in more specific terms. That is, exactly what has changed? What are the pressures on today's structures? How do we know the structures are not performing well? To introduce the topic, we recall recent changes in the Protestant ministry.

Research on changes in the ministry typically uses the 1950s or 1960s as a starting point. There is no compelling reason for doing this except that most social science research on ministry dates back only to the 1950s, making that decade a convenient benchmark for measuring change. But there is a risk in doing this, since the fifties decade was atypical relative to the decades before it. In the 1950s all indicators of church involvement rose above levels prior to World War II and remained high until the middle or late 1960s. During those years, more people were coming to church, shopping for churches, and committing themselves to church life than had been the case for a long time, and it pleasantly surprised Protestant leaders. It was a story of growth, growth, growth, especially in the new suburbs. When the surge subsided, Protestants felt that something had been lost and wondered what they were doing wrong. It is entirely possible that they were doing nothing at all wrong, but rather that the ground was shifting beneath them.

The research on Protestant ministry in the 1960s was dominated by the secularization theory, which asserted that long-term secularization trends in the United States were pushing steadily onward and in the process changing the role and identity of the Protestant minister. A second assumption was that the ideal of professionalism was growing among Protestant clergy, moving ministry from an earlier self-understanding as a religious vocation based on lifelong calling, self-sacrifice, and personal holiness to a new professional ideal stressing learning, certification, and identity.

From the vantage point of the year 2005 these earlier assumptions cannot be accepted. America did not become secularized as some predicted it would in the last decades of the twentieth century, and the putative advance in professionalism has not been apparent. American society is as religious and nonsecular today as it was in the 1960s, and talk of the growing professionalism of the Protestant ministry has subsided. Our approach in this study is less defined by such overarching theories, and more inductive and concrete. So we will compare specifics between today and the 1960s while remembering the uniqueness of that earlier period. We can speak confidently of four trends in the Protestant ministry.

More Educated Laity

First, without doubt, Protestant ministers serve a more educated laity than they did a half-century ago. In the entire adult American population in 1970, 10.7 percent had attended four or more years of college; in 2000 it was 24.2 percent. Cultural diversity has also increased in the United States since the sixties. International travel skyrocketed after the 1960s; in 1960 about 2 million Americans went abroad (not counting trips to Canada or Mexico); in 1997 it was 22 million. A more educated, more cosmopolitan laity will have higher expectations of the performance of clergy; thus, what would have been an acceptable quality of preaching, teaching, and leadership in 1960 is less so today.

Less Trust in Centralized Authority

Second, since the 1960s numerous studies in the United States have demonstrated a decrease of trust in centralized institutions. This is true of the federal government as well as mass media, large corporations, national labor leaders, and national professional associations. The change is seen vividly in opinion polls. A question in numerous American surveys asked, "How much of the time do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing?" The percentage saying "Just about always" or "Most of the time" dropped from 76 in 1964 to 25 in 1995. Another often-used question asked the respondent to choose between two options: "Most people can be trusted," and "You can't be too careful in dealing with people." In 1964, 54 percent said that most people can be trusted, and in 1995, 35 percent did. Americans today reserve their trust for local institutions that they know more personally. For example, national philanthropic organizations have been forced to decentralize their actions to more local levels, and Protestant mission programs have had to build networks of local relationships rather than depend on national appeals from national offices. The downturn in trust is most dramatic among the young.

Decreased Denominational Commitment

Third, identification with specific Protestant denominations is lower in 2003 than it was several decades earlier. When, for example, a Presbyterian family moves to a different town, they will start their church-shopping by visiting the Presbyterian churches nearby; then they will branch out to other denominations, ultimately making their choice based on what the church offers in programs, inspiration, like-minded people, and convenience. Typically they will say, "Denominational differences don't matter, and we felt more at home in the other church." A partial exception may be found in denominations with a strong ethnic identity. For example, Lutherans whose Scandinavian or German heritage is important to them would not think of joining a church without such a heritage.

Robert Wuthnow argues that mainline denominationalism went into decline after the 1960s because of several factors: the ecumenical movement; attitudes of greater tolerance, fostered by a growing number of Americans with higher education; the displacement of denominational seminaries by university-based religious studies departments as the arena for teaching theology; and increasing intermarriage between adherents of different faiths. Central denominational structures have been gradually losing their authority as church members pay more attention to their local churches and less to the denomination to which they belong. Local churches, in turn, are less willing to go along with denominational directives or to buy into denominational programs in youth ministry, Sunday school curricula, missions, and the like. It is telling that the fastest growth in Protestant churches in the last two decades has been in nondenominational churches and in those that de-emphasize their denominational ties.

Lower Clerical Authority

Fourth, the authority and esteem accorded to clergy by Protestants in America has changed. Two explanations are commonly asserted to explain a perceived decline in the esteem of ministers in recent decades: the loss of social functions that the clergy once held (when social work, counseling, and welfare were church functions) and the ambiguities of theological authority in a pluralistic and relativistic culture. Regardless of the power of these proposed explanations, the amount of public confidence placed in religious leaders is a measurable entity, and it is monitored by public opinion polls. Figure 1.1 on page 8 shows trends of confidence in American institutions since 1973. Confidence in most institutions, with the exception of the military, has declined. Organized religion has enjoyed a high level of public confidence the whole time, but its rating did drop modestly after the early 1980s. Though these polls do not show confidence specifically in clergy - as opposed to the institutional church - the trends would probably be similar. Regardless, the basic point is this: the esteem of most leaders of institutions has declined since the 1970s. Relative to the average decline, the decline for religious leaders has been smaller. That is, everybody went down, but the clergy went down less than others. Thus, theories about how the ministry has changed due to alleged loss of esteem of clergy in America have little explanatory power.

Have there been changes in the acceptance of styles of clerical leadership? We believe that authoritarian leadership by church leaders is less acceptable in 2005 than it was in 1960. The leveling between clergy and laity in education and training results in church members today demanding a more collaborative and less arbitrary leadership style. The level of respect accorded a clergyperson solely due to his or her status as clergy is lower today. Clergy who are new to a given community need to prove their wisdom and leadership through their actions; they cannot expect to be accepted as community leaders a priori.

Can we conclude that the Protestant ministry is more difficult than it was four decades ago? We put this question to a panel of veteran ministers and concluded, from what they said, that no such conclusion is warranted. Past research also contains no evidence. The job is different today, to be sure, but whether it is more difficult is not easy to know. Anyone trying to understand the ministry today should not assume that it has become more difficult in the last three or four decades - but they should assume that it is different. Today's pastors are shepherds to a more educated and cosmopolitan flock whose denominational loyalty has diminished along with its overall trust in institutions.


Excerpted from Pastors in Transition by Dean R. Hoge Jacqueline E. Wenger Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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