DAVID YOUNT Why Protestant clergy leave the church
It's probably safe to say that no one enters the Christian ministry for the money. Clergy in mainstream Protestant denominations typically earn less than $50,000 a year. Lawyers, who spend the same number of years obtaining their professional education, earn on average close to twice as much.
But why does anyone abandon the ministry as a profession? That is what sociologists Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger of the Catholic University of America attempt to answer in their new study, "Pastors in Transition" (Eerdmans).
In an earlier book, they responded to the same question concerning Catholic clergy, reporting that 10 percent to 12 percent of priests leave the ministry altogether within five years of ordination, half of them citing loneliness and insufficient appreciation on the part of peers and parishioners; the remainder blamed disenchantment with the celibate life or with church politics.
Reasons for leaving
In a study of five major denominations, the researchers discovered that Protestant ministers leave for quite different reasons. Depending on the denomination, between 11 percent and 15 percent resign or are removed as pastors, but the majority continue to operate in some form of Christian ministry. An earlier (1998) study of 15 denominations revealed that by age 45 or 50, 59 percent of women clergy and 75 percent of men remained in local church ministry.
One in four leaves the local congregation to become a chaplain on campus or in the military. Of the remainder, "conflict was the main reason ministers left," according to Hoge and Wenger. "Conflict with parishioners, with other staff members or with denominational officials. Many ministers felt blocked or frustrated in their efforts to bring new life to their congregations, and this led to disillusionment with their members and their denominations."
Women ministers leave proportionately more often than men, often for the same reasons, but 15 percent of them depart to care for their young children. Overall, research indicates that "more clergy left due to institutional or interpersonal problems than due to loss of faith or financial need. The greatest interpersonal problems were feelings of loneliness, isolation and inadequate boundaries between ministry and family life."
Some 39 percent of all ex-pastors report major church conflict, having felt high stress and pressure in their profession. Some 6 percent of ex-pastors openly acknowledge that they were forced from parish ministry for sexual misconduct, but the researchers consider this a low estimate of the actual problem. Another 5 percent left because of divorce or a marriage going sour. Financial misconduct only rarely registers as a reason for leaving.
My own experience as a seminary chairman inclines me to believe that many ministers are ill-prepared for the reality of day-to-day lives of service. Congregations often entertain unrealistically high expectations of their pastors, and denominations offer inadequate personal support to them. To be fair, ministers occasionally need their own shepherds.
XDavid Yount is an author and religion columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, Va. 22195, or email@example.com.