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Ministry Fallout: Can We Afford It. Can We Prevent It.

By Nigel Coles.

Those of us in full-time Christian ministry are well aware that people leave ministry in circumstances they would neither have wanted, nor expected. However, the evidence has largely been anecdotal and there does not appear to have been much desire to explore any deeper for fear of what we might find. One denominational leader, during a conversation about people leaving for reasons ‘unbecoming of ministry’, insisted that his denomination “doesn’t have a problem in this area.” The evidence suggests otherwise.

I don’t blame him for not wanting to look closer. Such things pose us with a few dilemmas and potentially raise more questions than they answer. After all, isn’t this business of ‘being called’ for life? How does Paul’s call to ‘set an example’ sit with so many ministry marriages failing? Also, shouldn’t this work be fulfilling? Then why is our experience in ministry sometimes so depressing (stress/health issues are a significant factor in people leaving).

In 1994, in ‘Ministry Today’, Paul Beasley-Murray, in an article responding to some research by Rowland Croucher from Australia, asked: “Is massive ministerial fall-out a specifically Australian phenomenon, or is it also to be found here in the UK?” He suggested the answer was that “nobody knows”. When I set out to attempt to uncover whether we did have such a problem as large as feared, I was soon tempted to add to Paul’s assertion above “and nobody cares” - facts in this area were somewhat difficult to come by. As a Baptist, I focused there - not least because they were willing to help me uncover the reality. I was able to analyze their figures as a whole and find a sufficient sample to make the results statistically credible. This was supplemented with others from across the Free Church spectrum of denominations as well as the new churches. I must stress, however, that there has been nothing to suggest that this is not an issue at least as serious for everyone else - what I’ve found from the Baptists seems to be at least equally true for the rest.

I am immensely grateful to the 100 plus people who were willing to complete extensive questionnaires having left ministry for a variety of reasons. They, in many cases, are the casualties of the ministry. Often discarded as an embarrassment, quickly forgotten by those in the denominational structures, they carry their wounds for many years. One wrote to me:

You are the first person who has really wanted to know - at least that’s how it feels.

Readers should bear in mind that this was someone who left the ministry over ten years before that comment. However, there is no evidence to suggest that those who have left are the least gifted. On the contrary, there are many fine preachers, pastors and evangelists no longer serving our churches.

Not wanting to re-invent the wheel, I contacted Rowland Croucher and was privileged to gain the benefit of his advice and previous work. I based my questionnaire on the 42 variables he had previously uncovered which were factors when leaving ministry. It seemed sensible to build a body of material which would be comparable between the two countries.

How many, why, when?

Over a fifty year period (1946-1995), 50% of the number enrolled onto the list of Accredited Baptist Ministers did not retire on it. The figure breaks down as per the following table.

Admittedly that number includes some who have obviously moved into other areas of full-time Christian ministry, but the number who remain on the list, but no longer in paid full-time ministry, just about cancels that figure out. While I cannot prove it from figures made available, it appears that the other Free Church denominations are little different.

‘Transfers out’ is a term which has been used to cover those switching in their denominational allegiance, but remaining in ministry. However, there is evidence to suggest this term has been employed when that has not necessarily been the outcome. For example, I became aware of situations where the formal recorded reason stated something like ‘will be seeking to become a minister with the URC’ whereas the real presenting reason was related to the breakdown of the marriage and they never did reach the URC ministry. How many this applies to is impossible to say. My sample revealed that over 50% of leavers stated that the presenting reason for departure at the time was different to the real reason. This may have been the benefit of hindsight, or the benefit of time enabling someone to face the reality.

The average number of years in ministry until leaving was 11.7. However, it remains true that the early years are the most vulnerable - 28% of leavers have left within five years of commencement, and in fact more leave after three years than after any other length of service. It is not until after fifteen years of ministry that the numbers of leavers really begin to reduce, but even then we cannot think we are immune from the problem since there are more than a few who leave after many years of ministry.

A complexity of issues

There is no simple answer. There are evidently a whole host of factors with some relevance to the question and the interactive complexity of all these factors cannot be overlooked. The fact that 24% at their departure stated it was ‘a change of call’ whereas nearly half of that number later cited different reasons should also alert us to the danger of coming to premature conclusions. The fact that we are dealing with individual people and congregations means this is no surprise, but it highlights the need for far more work to be done in this area of concern.

It’s more often the straw that breaks the camel’s back

It appears that one issue in isolation is rarely sufficient reason for leaving. My respondents presented an average of 5.39 different issues as being ‘very significant’ on leaving. Extra-marital sexual issues inevitably featured and would be regarded as some as single issue reasons for leaving. Not so - as is often cited, affairs seldom ‘just happen’. Time management issues relate to this - how many times have you heard pastors talking about ‘quality time’ with the family? I am of the opinion that we don’t get to quality time without sufficient quantity, but ministry makes greedy demands on our time. Maybe ministry should carry a health warning: ‘ministry can seriously damage your marriage.’

Prevention is better than cure

The heartache and devastation to Christian leaders, their families and whole fellowships of Christian people alone means we must surely be more concerned to avoid the fall-out from many such situations. Also, according to the Baptists’ records I collated, as few as 1% return! It seems we are much better at highlighting sin than dealing with it. I suspect that, if someone were to study how long it took a fellowship to recover after the key leader had left in unfavourable circumstances, we would take this more seriously. Sadly, while it is the ministers themselves who are in the best position to prevent their ministry coming to a premature end, there is still a mindset which thrives on ‘it can’t/won’t happen to me’. Is this a denial not merely of the reality others face, but also what is going on inside us?

Isolation leaves us vulnerable

Lions are not quite as brave as we might sometimes presume - they tend to watch and wait and then pick on those animals which are isolated from the rest of the herd. We know from 1 Peter 5.8 that the enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. This is not just truth for our congregations, but for us also. It was fascinating to find that this sense of isolation, resulting in lack of encouragement, featured as the most common factor cited among those leaving pastoral ministry. 60% of ex-pastors subsequently recognised this as an issue. I was speaking to a restored Pastor recently who, this time, has intentionally built a support structure ‘in case of need’ and aims to keep this as a priority. Wise man.

Beware of the key issues

Certain key issues surfaced as more frequent factors. None of these three main areas will surprise those in pastoral ministry.

1. Marriage difficulties. With one third of ex-pastors citing this as very significant, we must take it more seriously. There is a mentality among those in Christian leadership which seems to welcome strain on the marriage relationship of those in certain positions almost as a badge of office. I remember hearing an interview with a Cabinet Minister who had resigned to ‘spend more time with the family’. The interviewer probed further and received the answer which suggested that being a member of the Cabinet and a member of a family were incompatible. Someone then raised the question: “if we want quality family people to serve us, why not change how they do the job?” Well, what about the church? It seems that ministry will find the cracks in a relationship if they are there to be found, but we must take care we do not spiritualise this into ‘the cost of ministry’ (is the break-up of our leaders’ marriages the kind of cost Jesus looks for?), or blame the devil entirely. Who wouldn’t feel strain in their relationship if they don’t spend enough time together? Christian leaders often speak about ‘quality time’ - with their spouse or with their children. Perhaps we need to be asking how much quantity is necessary to enable such quality time to take place.

2. Stress/burnout issues. Over 25% stated this area of concern as being ‘very significant’ when they left the ministry. Obviously a big enough area in its own right, but while different, neither the kind of stress, nor burnout, which cripples a ministry/minister just happens. Invariably it creeps, it accumulates and then something has to give. More attention needs to be given to how we deal with the inevitable stress and the issues which lead to burnout. Time off, inadequate boundaries, too many hours ... there are many reasons. The Walk on Water Syndrome by Edward Bratcher is an excellent book dealing with some of the hazards of ministry. Maybe you should buy it - just so you can place it in a prominent place in your study and let the title frequently challenge you: ‘is that what I’m trying to do?

3. Conflict in relationships. As with the above, we can’t avoid conflict. Over 20% cited conflict with other leaders within the same fellowship as a very significant issue. Another 20%+ cited relationships with others in the church similarly. The existence of conflict is not the issue - how we deal with it is. It seems that conflict with other key players in the life of the church feature more significantly here than conflict with any other group. I guess we’re not surprised, but this is cause for deep sadness among us. If the leadership team (whatever it’s called) of the church can’t get on, how can we expect the rest of the church to function? And what is the impact this has upon those outside the Church who observe more than we often imagine, or dare to think about?

Having identified that the issues raised are complex (mainly due to the range and quantity of them), I have found it helpful to think of the concerns raised in three overlapping groups of concern. These need to be viewed within the larger context of our relationship with God. If you’re anything like me it’s helpful to present this visually.

It hardly needs to be said that none of the issues raised can be considered outside the context of their relationship with God. This whole area of concern is one where the ungodliness of the church is a critical issue and we need to take heed. It also serves as a reminder of the unique social context of Church Ministry. What other jobs bring the question of an employee’s relationship with God and their family into such sharp focus and have a bearing on their suitability for that job?

Neither can any one group of concerns be adequately considered in isolation from the others, hence the overlapping circles. It seems to be, so often, the interaction between concerns in each group which provides the recipe for a premature end to a ministry. I wish to argue that neglect, or inadequate attention, to any one area leaves any minister vulnerable.

The minister’s relationship with him/herself

Here, such issues as threats to health and self-understanding need to be considered, since both areas featured in various ways in the stories of ex-pastors. In his book, Clergy Self-Care, Roy Oswald writes:

Balance is the key word here. But how does one maintain balance in a job that demands so much of us?...We are engaged with people and causes that are greater than ourselves. Such deep caring costs us something. At times we may willingly sacrifice our personal health for the sake of love or growth.

Unfortunately, it appears that pastors sometimes resist the notion of self-care. This is partly the legacy of previous generations of ministers who have passed on either a sacrificial view of ministry (to the point where they feel unable/unwilling to say ‘no’ to anyone, or a superhuman view of ministry (forgetting that one definition of stress is ‘hurry sickness’). While we always need to remember that Christ-like leadership is servant leadership, we must also remember that Jesus was never in a hurry and took good care of himself in every way. After all, Jesus wasn’t burnt-out, was he? I have come to the conclusion that if we don’t look after ourselves as pastors then no-one else will, but so many colleagues still neglect days off, miss out on sabbaticals, etc. The suggestion is sometimes made that ‘the church needs me’. Who are we fooling here?

Such a question neatly leads to the next point. Self-understanding, or self-awareness featured significantly as an area where many who have left ministry situations felt they were lacking. Fortunately recent developments, such as a mentoring scheme for newly accredited Baptist ministers, are being introduced which will hopefully go some way towards helping with this. However, one of the crucial things many seem to have lacked is the ability to create time and space to reflect on where they are and how they’re doing.

The minister’s relationships with others

Relationships play a very significant part in the reasons why people have left pastoral ministry. Perhaps this is no surprise since the ability to build and foster relationships is such a crucial part of any form of Christian ministry. Relationships with one’s spouse, with Christian leaders of other local congregations, with leaders and others within one’s own church and with denominational figures - all have to be considered and managed carefully. It’s not a question of ‘if’ conflict arises, but ‘when’. Conflicts were and will be aplenty - what is desperately needed in much greater supply is the ability to manage conflict more constructively. A special word needs to be said in terms of the massive overlap between marriage and ministry where relevant. When 22% of those leaving state their marriage as the key factor we must take notice. Seriously, is one evening a week together good enough? The lack of leisure time, financial constraints, tied housing, blurred boundaries between home and work, mismatched expectations - marriages break when the stress they are under becomes too great. Left unchecked, ministry demands will quickly take over - ‘the church is the other woman in his life’ is heard too frequently.

The minister’s relationship with ministry

The all-pervading nature of ministry is an issue the minister needs to keep a check on. Time-management, intentional support systems, on-going development, proper attention given to boundaries all help to safe-guard us from undue vulnerability. Change is here to stay - with the pattern of society. With church and ministry in a state of movement, ministers cannot merely accumulate roles. In one survey separating the roles of ministry into six areas, the least enjoyed, the role they felt least equipped to do and the role on which most time was spent was one and the same - yes, that’s right - administration.

One final question looking at such issues has prompted for me is what do we mean by calling? This seems to be a major question which needs a fresh examination. We seem to be working with an assumption that calling to full-time ministry is for life, but the evidence is suggesting otherwise. One thing which disturbed me was the way in which someone leaving to work in the Christian scene elsewhere was commended, but someone leaving to be a lorry driver was viewed negatively when the reasons in both situations for leaving were the same. I’m not suggesting here any real answers, but I want to merely highlight two things from the New Testament, in relation to this business of calling, which are clear and, I suggest, need a higher priority in our thinking in relation to ministry. It seems to me that all Christians are called:

* Primarily to follow Jesus (Mark 1.17). This remains true whatever the source of our income.

* To exercise a ministry (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12). Ministry is not something which only applies to those paid full-time. Among other things, that means that others can share in the work and leave paid staff to get on with their ministries fruitfully and faithfully.

Many of those who responded to my questionnaire felt they still had a ministry. There were not a few who reacted strongly against any suggestion that their ministry was somehow no longer valid just because they no longer earned their living as a result of it. On the other hand, some are clearly continuing to struggle with a sense of guilt that they are not fulfilling the calling they believe God gave some time ago. With so few who leave full-time ministry returning to provide meaningful service we are giving the message that failure at one stage of our discipleship consigns people to the scrap-heap. I know Peter felt that’s where he deserved to be, but I seem to remember Jesus thinking otherwise.

The bad news is: we have a problem. The good news is there is plenty we can do about it.

The Revd Nigel Coles is Western Area Superintendent for the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

Ministry Today

You are reading Ministry Fallout: Can We Afford It. Can We Prevent It. by Nigel Coles, part of Issue 24 of Ministry Today, published in February 2002.

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