Life in the Fishbowl and Why Your Pastor Left

When I started ministry as an interim pastor, the church’s associate pastor for youth was already planning to leave for medical school. He had served the church well for three years, the youth group was strong with excellent youth and adult leaders, and the church gave him a wonderful and tearful farewell. Today he is a practicing psychiatrist in another province, an active church member, and loves to work as a volunteer with youth.

Why he left and how he left was an open and positive experience.

Yet such is not the case for many in church employment. I know that from the pastor who served my congregation before me, from my husband’s painful job termination through no fault of his own, and from this letter to the editor in the most recent issue of the Canadian Mennonite:

Enclosed with this letter is a $2,000 cheque that I cannot send to my previous Mennonite charities until they apologize for their treatment of staff in an un-Christian manner and put policies in place for staff terminations that are in keeping with Christian values, not legal or corporate values.

There was a slogan years ago that asked, “What would Jesus do?” This is actually a good measure of how we should act in our treatment of others in any context. Likewise, the Golden Rule: “Do unto others . . . .

While this letter mentions “Mennonite charities,” difficult terminations take place across denominations and in different types of ministry. One survey reports that nine out of ten pastors know three or more others who have been forced out of church employment.

That’s why I wanted to read Why Your Pastor Left by Christopher D. Schmitz (2016) which combines the author’s personal story, the stories of other pastors, statistics, and Scriptural and theological reflection. It’s a book written for both church members and pastors:

to highlight the challenges and “ministry killers” that pastors face and to advocate for change on the part of all concerned.

The author’s vision for ministry is more top down and less congregational than I’m used to. He writes:

…it is the Pastor who is accountable to God for achieving His will. The pastor is divinely called. Everything flows downhill; there is a chain of command to the Kingdom of God. If a pastor genuinely seeks after God’s heart, God will communicate His direction and desires to the Pastor. (page 58)

And since much of the book comes out of the author’s own experience, I found myself mentally applying what he says at the start of chapter 6 to the rest of the book:

Firstly, I apologize if I come off as a bit jaded in this chapter as I have been on the short end of this prickly stick. I might be a little too close to this issue, having been burned in the past, so I hope you can read it for what it is, passion, truth, wounds and all. (page 95)

Yes, I read it that way, and it was the “passion, truth, wounds and all” that kept me engaged.

So why might your pastor or other church employee leave under less than happy circumstances? Here is the list I gleaned as I read.

1. The Walt Disney Generation

The author defines the “Walt Disney Generation” (WDG) as those who have grown up believing they can do anything as long as they think positive. That includes the author and me and many church members who tend to have high expectations of their pastors while simultaneously believing that they themselves could do a better job.

2. Burnout

Over 40% of ministry leaders and 47% of spouses report feelings of burnout, including unrealistic expectations and never-ending demands on time, energy, and family life.

3. The Values, Vision, and Structure of the Congregation or Other Organization

A misalignment of values and vision among staff or between employees and board/members may hasten departure, and organizational structures often impact the employee’s exit and whether it is done in a healthy way. I would also add here theological difference as described in an earlier article: On Not Agreeing to Disagree: Supporting Gay Marriage and Losing Your Job.

4. Disillusionment

Often related to lack of preparation for ministry and/or poor communication as issues arise.

5. Conflict

The author includes power struggles with boards or other leaders, and in some cases abuse of power. Even when there is no open conflict, I know that church politics can cause considerable stress and burnout.

6. Lack of Respect

From his own experience, the author highlights ageism which resists giving responsibility to new or younger employees, and devalues their contributions. Similarly I would add, where older employees are not respected for their experience, and where there is a lack of respect for members/constituents. As the author points out “disrespect has become a cultural norm” (page 169); in contrast, the church and other Christian organizations need a culture of respect all around.

7. Financial Issues

Especially in times of declining church membership and budgets, pastors and other church employees may face pay reductions, be underpaid, or terminated. In one church, a pastor took a pay cut of $1000/month to help the church meet its budget, and after eight months another pay reduction was in the works which made it impossible for him to continue.

8. Ministerial pride and jealousy

Jealousy is a monster that every pastor must deal with on his or her own terms. Of course, recognizing that we are susceptible to it is the first step to that end….For those of us Walt Disney Generation pastors out there, we find it especially easy to succumb to the green-eyed monster. WDG pastors typically want their success now. We’ve been told that we are going to do great things, prayed over, prophesied over, trained, and equipped by human standards, but we do not like our fort years in the desert. Moses did his time in the desert before the big showdown in Egypt. Joseph waited in the prison. That seeming obscurity drives us nuts. (155 -7)

9. Lack of personal boundaries including time with family and for vacation

Knowing and respecting both physical and mental boundaries are very important in the ministry. I’ve known many pastors who never take a day off, they drop everything to address an “emergency” that turns out to be nothing more than Anxious Annie needing her pastor to hold her hand….a pastor who constantly assumes that role can actually stymie Annie’s faith and reliance on the Lord. It also crosses boundaries for the pastor’s family. (page 167)

10. A person who should not be in ministry

The author specifically mentions “pastor-dictators,” and there may be others unsuited to ministry due to other forms of immaturity, lack of character or calling.

11. Unrealistic expectations placed on spouse and family

Including the pressure that some churches put on the pastor’s spouse to serve as an unpaid staff member by teaching Sunday school, playing the piano, or taking on other responsibilities without compensation.

12. Life in the fishbowl.

Forced transparency and gossip, making unfair comparisons and criticisms of the pastor’s family.

Have I missed anything? Are there other reasons that lead to the painful and premature departure of pastors and other church employees? Your comments are most welcome.

Thank you to Christopher D. Schmitz for sending me a complimentary copy of his book in exchange for my honest opinion and engagement. The author notes that since much of the available data on this topic is out of date, he has set up his own survey to gather current information. The survey takes just 5-10 minutes and consists of mainly yes/no questions like:

  • Do you always feel capable of handling the demands of ministry?
  • Have you had a serious conflict with a parishioner over the last month?
  • Do you have adequate opportunities for continuing education and/or family/personal vacation?
  • Do you ever feel forced to supplement your church income?

Besides contributing to the data base, I found the questions helpful in reflecting on my experience of ministry at this point. Click here if you’d like to participate in the survey.


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Author: April Yamasaki

I currently serve as resident author with a liturgical worship community, write online and in print publications, and often speak in churches and other settings. Publications include On the Way with Jesus, Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Websites: and

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