38% of U.S. Pastors Have Thought About Quitting Full-Time Ministry in the Past Year

Articlesin Leaders & Pastors•November 16, 2021

Recent data collected from Barna’s pastor poll indicate that U.S. pastors are currently in crisis and at risk of burnout. Notably, in 2021 alone, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of pastors who are thinking about quitting ministry entirely.

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Nearly Two in Five Pastors Have Considered Quitting Full-Time Ministry
With pastors’ well-being on the line, and many on the brink of burnout, 38 percent indicate they have considered quitting full-time ministry within the past year. This percentage is up 9 full points (from 29%) since Barna asked church leaders this same question at the beginning of 2021.

A deeper analysis of these data show that some groups are faring worse than others. One of the more alarming findings is that 46 percent of pastors under the age of 45 say they are considering quitting full-time ministry, compared to 34 percent of pastors 45 and older. Keeping the right younger leaders encouraged and in their ministry roles will be crucial to the next decade of congregational vitality in the U.S.

Another notable gap emerges based on denomination, with pastors from mainline denominations far more likely to consider quitting than those from non-mainline denominations (51% vs. 34%). Other significant differences arise among gender, with female pastors being far more likely than male pastors to have considered giving up full-time ministry, and ministry tenure. Specifically, roughly one-third of pastors who are considering resignation have been in ministry for about 20 years but have been at their current church for seven years.

Only One in Three Pastors Is Considered “Healthy” in Terms of Well-Being
Barna has long been checking in on pastor’s well-being, even assessing their burnout risk in 2017’s The State of Pastors. More recently, October 2021 data show that many pastors are not faring well in multiple categories of well-being, including spiritual, physical, emotional, vocational and financial.

Barna defined “healthy” pastors as those who score themselves either “excellent” or “good” on all six of these six well-being categories. Currently, only 35 percent of America’s pastors fall into the healthy category.

Overall, pastors who are contemplating quitting are less healthy in all the well-being categories compared to pastors who are not considering giving up full-time ministry.

“We started seeing early warning signs of burnout among pastors before COVID,” says David Kinnaman, President of Barna Group. “with initial warning bells sounding in Barna’s The State of Pastors study in 2017. Now, after 18 months of the pandemic, along with intense congregational divisions and financial strain, an alarming percentage of pastors is experiencing significant burnout, driving them to seriously consider leaving ministry.

“This is a growing crisis for church leaders in America. Now is the time for the Christian community to come alongside their pastors to pray and support them so they can continue to lead in healthy ways. Pastors, too, need to proactively guard their health and well-being, taking a holistic assessment of how they are doing.

"Navigating these existential questions of calling and ministry-career fit are significant and will shape the future of congregational leadership for the future," Kinnaman continues. "More than ever, the Church needs resilient leaders who are humble, agile, rooted in prayer and who are committed to being healthy as an essential aspect of effective leadership.”

Additional reading and resources:

  • Watch a special ChurchPulse Weekly episode featuring cohosts David Kinnaman and Carey Nieuwhof discussing the implications of this new data.
  • Kinnaman suggests that a new book from Barna Fellow Glenn Packiam, The Resilient Pastor, offers timely insights for pastors who are struggling under the weight of leadership in the present moment.

Comment on this article and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @barnagroup
Instagram: @barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group 

About the Research
The State of Pastors data: Research for this study was conducted on behalf of Pepperdine University. A total of 900 Protestant senior pastors were interviewed by telephone and online from April through December 2015. Pastors were recruited from publicly available church listings covering 90 percent of U.S. churches that have a physical address and a listed phone number or email address. Churches selected for inclusion were called up to five times at different times of the day to increase the probability of successful contact. The sample error for this study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

January 2021 Pastor Survey data: Barna Group conducted this online survey among 413 Protestant Senior Pastors from January 22-27, 2021. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size. 

October 2021, Pastor Survey data: Barna Group conducted this online survey among 507 Protestant Senior Pastors from October 12-28, 2021. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size. 

Pastoral health rubric:

  • Healthy is defined as scoring "excellent" or "good" on all six of the well-being categories
  • Average is defined as scoring "excellent" or "good" on at least half of the well-being categories
  • Unhealthy is defined as scoring "excellent" or "good" on less than half of the well-being categories

Photo by Mitchell Leach from Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2021

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