Is It Time to Quit Ministry? How to Tell If Your Time As a Pastor is Over.

If you’re a pastor or on church staff, have you thought about leaving ministry lately? I don’t mean just going to another church, but leaving entirely. As in embracing a new vocation….

If so, you’re not alone.

All leaders have been in a pressure cooker unlike any in our lifetime. In my view, church leaders have had it somewhat harder than many other leaders.

While many sectors have bounced back since COVID disrupted everything, churches have not seen the return leaders were hoping for.

In addition to people leaving, many churches haven’t been immune from the division, political schisms, and constant complaining that has become part of the last few years.

No wonder leaders are discouraged.

A Barna poll from late 2020 revealed that 29% of pastors were seriously thinking of quitting ministry (you can find the survey and some thoughts on it here).

While it’s hard to get accurate statistics about how many pastors and church leaders are quitting in 2021, conversations I’ve had with leaders give me the sense that many are exiting, and others are still thinking about it. (Here’ s a thoughtful article on some of the reasons pastors are leaving.)

So how do you know if it’s time for you to quit?

Well, let’s state the obvious. Clearly, no one can answer that question for you in a blog post. Whether you exit should be a matter of careful prayer, discernment and (I hope) influenced by the counsel of wise people who know you well and love you enough to tell you the truth.

But that doesn’t mean all outside guidance is unhelpful.

While every decision is personal and needs to be made carefully and prayerfully, there are factors that can help you make a wise decision no one will regret.

Here are five factors worth considering.

1. Don’t Quit On a Bad Day

One mantra I’ve followed for years in leaders is to never quit on a bad day.

2020 and 2021 have had a lot of bad days.

Consider this. A few years ago in their State of Pastors Report, the Barna Group noted pastors who led a declining congregation were at four times greater risk of burnout than pastors who led growing churches.

If you read through the risk of burnout in the chart below, it almost perfectly describes what most pastors have been leading through for almost two years now.

What you’ve been through takes a toll on the mind and the heart.

Never quit on a bad day. The decisions you make when you’re down rarely help you, or anyone, get back up again.

2. Determine Whether the Things You’re Feeling are Temporary or Permanent

In normal times, there are signs it’s time to leave.

Here are seven factors to consider when you’re wondering whether your time is up.

  1. You’ve lost your passion.
  2. There’s no other role on the team you can get excited about.
  3. You’ve ushered in all the change you can.
  4. Your vision no longer lines up with the organization’s vision.
  5. You feel like a fish out of water. (I explain what that means here.)
  6. Your passion for what’s happening elsewhere is greater than your passion for what’s happening here.
  7. Your inner circle agrees.

I explain all seven factors more in this post, but as a rule, if you’re 7 for 7, it’s probably time to move on.

The challenge is that depending on the day, many leaders would say they identify with three to five of the considerations which would move them toward an exit. In the last few years, almost every leader has lost some passion, felt disoriented, and might be excited about other opportunities (because right now anything looks better than what you’re doing).

There are two really important questions worth considering when you feel a malaise surrounding your current work:

  1. Are these feelings temporary?
  2. Will an exit from pastoring truly change things?

If you haven’t noticed, the world’s kind of on fire right now, and it would be far too easy to trade one set of problems for another.

Further, to make a permanent decision based on temporary emotions is almost always a mistake.

The key factors in determining whether it’s time to leave would be whether your inner circles agrees (more on that shortly), whether you’ve ushered in all the change you can, whether your vision and the organization’s vision are out of line, and if there’s no other role in the church that you can get excited about.

If those factors don’t point toward an exit, you’re probably not called to leave.

3. Don’t Decide Alone

When you’re struggling, the first thing to go is your judgment.

I know when I’m in a not-very-good-place emotionally, I’m far more likely to make poor decisions.  Abandoning a calling has the potential to be a long-term poor decision.

The best way to determine whether you should stay or go is to get a circle of people around you who love you enough to tell you the truth.

I offered my resignation as a lead pastor during a discouraging season in 2009 because I had lost confidence in my day-to-day decision making. The board and the people around me immediately corrected me and told me I absolutely needed to stay. They were right.

In 2015 under a very different set of circumstances—I was in a great place and so was the church—I exited the Lead Pastor seat of our church (moving into a Founding Pastor role).

I had been sensing for a while that it was time to transition our church to the next generation of leadership. That prompting was followed by months of prayer, discernment, discussion with our board, and wisdom from mentors, who, after months of dialogue, shaped my final decision to exit at that time.

The point? I actually trusted their judgment more than mine.

In both cases, even though I prayed deeply and read a lot of scripture, it was the discernment and judgment of the people around me that helped me make the final decision to stay (back in 2009) and to step back in 2015.

Needless to say, if you’re married, the full agreement of your spouse is also both essential and wise (from about a thousand perspectives).

Wisdom has many counselors. Lean into their judgment, not just yours.

4. Consider the Brain Drain 

Another factor to consider is that this is the season where the church needs its best thinkers, most faithful people, and best leaders.

I realize I have to be careful talking about this because I stepped out of day-to-day ministry myself (not that I am those things I list in the paragraph above), but I get concerned when I see some of the best leaders I know decide to do something else with their lives. Some days it feels like a brain drain going on in the church—the kind of pastors we need the most are the ones who are exiting.

The next season of ministry is going to require the best and the brightest leaders the church has to lead into the future.

We’re fortunate to have some very thoughtful, faithful, intellectually robust leaders in the church. But we could use ten times the number we currently have.

Before you leave for personal reasons, consider the state of THE church, not just your church or your ministry.

Sure, I get to help now in a different role (one that I see every bit as much a calling as my two decades as Lead Pastor in a local church), but if the church ever needed a group of top-notch leaders, it’s now.

Hearts, minds, and souls fully engaged will make for a better future.

5. Escapism Provides No Escape

If you do end up exiting (notice my bias against it in this season), just remember you’re not off the hook.

It can be easy to assume that leaving will magically erase all your challenges.

Ha…nice thought. 🙂

Or that running away means you finally don’t have to answer for anything anymore.

Jonah tried running away. So did Elijah. Not a great idea.

Your escapism provides no escape.

You know that green grass you see when you think about what you’ll do next? It’s spray painted.

The moment you get into that perfect job/career you’ll discover that it’s got a whole host of problems you didn’t anticipate.

And you’ll soon realize you brought another problem with you—you brought yourself into the new situation.

The good news and the bad news is that God doesn’t run away from runaways. Just ask Jonah. Just ask Elijah.

That’s mostly good news, but if you’re tired and burned out, it feels like bad news.

Again, some prayer and discernment, making the decision on a good day, and finally, really wise counsel will help you make a decision everyone will be grateful for.

Just remember, the calling is on your life. And it follows you everywhere.

If you’re trying to escape, it won’t work.

What Are You Feeling?

I hope these factors might be helpful as you weigh the future.

What other factors are helping you hang in there, or tipping you into a new future?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

Is It Time to Quit Ministry? How to Tell If Your Time As a Pastor is Over.

15 Comments

  1. Sandra D Banks on November 3, 2021 at 5:48 am

    Thought provocative Information very significant and timely! Contemplative Yearnings for assessment evolved.

    • dandan on November 3, 2021 at 5:52 am

      yes I got sick and tired of this blog so I unsubscribe I guess we’re not allowed to unsubscribe anymore

  2. Chad on October 6, 2021 at 3:26 pm

    This one hits home hard for me. Like Charles, We don’t want to leave. It isn’t for health reasons. It’s because we have been there for almost 17 years. At 40, I was the youngest leader. We have a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in the local church. It also doesn’t make it easy that my father is the Senior Minister. Unfortunately, the way we are set up, most of the decisions are made by the Elder Board (youngest is 65). For many years, I have been leading from behind, encouraging and guiding the local congregation in becoming more outward focused and helping them understand ministering to the next generation. Unfortunately, there was a recent power struggle in the Eldership. I won’t go into the details, but I had to step down because I felt I couldn’t serve under that type of leadership. We have stayed at the church, and have been respectful, and still serve where we can. However, there is resentment from the leadership, and anything I taught and/or led is being undone. I know this is written more for Pastors, and even though I didn’t have the official title. I taught, preached, led, and served for many, many years. We have stayed because our departure would split the church. That is the last thing we want to do not only for the church’s sake but also for my dad’s. We thought things would get better over time, but COVID has seemed to make things worse. Any advice on knowing your departure will split a church even though you don’t want it to?

  3. R. J. Savely Jr on October 4, 2021 at 11:17 pm

    How do I know when it is time to retire and how do I help the transition the church to begin looking for a new pastor. I will be 70 this month.

  4. Andrew Hill on October 4, 2021 at 5:20 pm

    Carey, this is such a great and thoughtful and utterly on point article! Having lead and left a large church a few years ago these are exactly the principles I put in place in processing my leaving. Having left it doesn’t resolve or stop you looking back and longing to lead again – so you are so right when you say escapism presents no escape but this is something people don’t really talk about! I wonder if sometimes it is better to stay than leave and live with regret. Thanks again for your thoughtful insights and leadership!

  5. Rod Peake on October 4, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    I think to lead you must have 2 factors… 1. followers and 2. Fruit… If you are unsuccessful in getting people to follow and are producing little fruit then it is a good time to leave for your own good. Negative systemic factors (like passive aggressive people) beyond your control in a church / organization are very difficult to move forward

  6. Charles Areson on October 4, 2021 at 11:31 am

    Whoever is cleaning up these comments from vindictive and bitter people (trolls). Thank you.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 4, 2021 at 1:58 pm

      Hey Charles…thanks. We try to keep this space for reasonable people who care about other people and the issue. We don’t all have to agree, but I do insist on some modicum of civility and open-mindedness. We try to get the trolls but I’m sure we miss a few.

      Thanks for being one of the helpful voices. – Carey

  7. John on October 4, 2021 at 10:22 am

    Regarding my ministry, I am struggling (and praying) on three fronts.
    1. I am a month shy of 68 years old. My friends/colleagues are retiring. I am tired. I would like to retire, but do something else. But with two middle school boys, I don’t know that I can afford to.
    2. My church ministry is primarily seen “up front” on Sunday mornings. COVID has had a huge impact on the numbers of volunteers who participate in the music ministry as well as in general church attendance. We are down about 30% in both areas. I would think that would ‘fire me up’ to rebuild, but I am finding myself unmotivated.
    3. You made this comment in your post. “I had been sensing for a while that it was time to transition our church to the next generation of leadership.” 3 years ago we called a young (35) pastor. He is a fine preacher/pastor and a good man. I sense, after reading your comment, that it might be good for him and our church to have the ‘next generation of leadership’ in my area of ministry. (Again, I’m not sure I can afford to leave.)
    (By the way, I just bought your book. I am looking forward to reading it and gaining more insight into my future.)

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 4, 2021 at 2:01 pm

      John…that’s a hard situation. The financial piece makes it harder.

      While that’s a complicated subject, when I’ve discussed it with leaders in the past, they’ve talked about it as a financial issue. The idea? If money is a factor, talk to your board about the financial implications. Sometimes they might look at helping our financially or providing a lump sum or stipend for years of service, or find you a new role that allows the younger leader to take over.

      If we can be creative in times like that then everyone wins.

  8. Charles Areson on October 4, 2021 at 10:09 am

    Personally, I don’t want to leave the ministry. However, my family has health concerns that may require relocating to a different environment. With these health concerns comes the cost of health care and the looming concern of retirement in 15-20 years without the money to do so. Churches aren’t paying a lot so going bi-vocational and trying to juggle taking care of my family’s health, a job, and church would be a recipe for a breakdown. I’m probably not the only one. Where does God want us? This is the question.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 4, 2021 at 2:03 pm

      That’s a really tough issue Charles. While the stereotype is that churches overpay their staff, my experience is that most underpay their staff. Like I suggested with John, an open and transparent conversation with the board could be a gateway into new kinds of arrangements moving forward. Best wishes!

  9. Terry on October 4, 2021 at 8:18 am

    One year ago I hit 7 for 7 on the should I move on list. My subsequent move to a different ministry was for sure the right thing.
    A key to this whole question for me was, “is this me wanting to escape or truly seeing the writing on the wall. I’m very thankful for the wise counsel that helped me patiently make my decisions.
    Don’t go it alone!

    • Charles Areson on October 4, 2021 at 10:11 am

      Terry, This is where I am. asking others for advice and though it is helpful there are still answers that only we can give.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 4, 2021 at 2:03 pm

      Absolutely Terry. Glad it turned out to be a good move in the end.

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