A new book by Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline E. Wenger probes a painful topic that touches many American congregations. Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry (Eerdmans, 2005) seeks to shed some light on a situation that has concerned congregational leaders and members, as well as denominational officers and seminary faculties, for quite some time.
The book does not give us definitive “macro” findings. There still are no solid numbers on just how many clergy exit ministry prematurely, but Hoge and Wenger cite a few earlier surveys to give us glimpses of the size of the problem. For example, Barbara Brown Zikmund’s 1998 study of clergy women found that only 67 percent of 5,000 clergy (male and female) from 15 Protestant denominations remained in local congregational ministry by the time they reached the 45 to 50 age bracket. An Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) study found that 15 percent of its 1988 ordinands resigned or were removed from ministry within 13 years. Clearly there are reasons for concern.
To unearth the factors that pull or push ministers out of congregational ministry, Hoge and Wenger surveyed and interviewed a random sample of what they term “parish leavers” from five very different Protestant denominations: the United Methodist Church (UMC); the Presbyterian Church, USA; the ELCA; the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; and the Assemblies of God. A primary finding is that there are two main reasons why clergy become “parish leavers”: preference for a specialized ministry and conflict. Another is that there are four main intervention points where a real impact can be made on the situation: the recruitment, seminary training, and evaluation processes that certify candidates as qualified for congregational ministry; the placement process that matches graduates and congregations; the ongoing support system for clergy (or lack thereof); and the provision of targeted help when clergy find themselves in trouble.
These findings point to the areas where real change must occur if the situation is to improve. These matters require serious conversation and new plans of action by local congregations, denominations, and seminaries. However, instead of rushing immediately to proposing solutions to this large leadership problem, I want to lift up what may be the most important information in Pastors in Transition. Behind the trend lines, the statistics, and the conclusions of the authors’ research are the lives of real people. We dare not forget that this is about individuals who felt a call, prepared for ministry, and then took a spot on the front lines of congregational ministry. Hoge and Wenger will not let us do that, since their book is loaded with stories told by these “parish leavers.”
For example, a UMC pastor identified as “Phil” told a story of 17 years of congregational ministry in tiny churches and his difficulties working with his district superintendent and bishop. Still at minimum salary, he learned that because he was part of a clergy couple he was hard to place. Assigned to “a strange little church” that he discovered to be ingrown and bigoted, he put in two years and actually helped the congregation grow a bit. Then one member started spreading rumors accusing the minister of sleeping around and invading church funds. The district superintendent tried to move Phil again, but the bishop vetoed several promising possibilities and appointed him to a congregation that would require a two-hour commute and a 20 percent pay cut. Phil resigned and began a new life as a computer technician. But not without giving voice to his pain and sense of betrayal:
And just before we left, the district superintendent told me, “I was sorry you got this church. I know how mean they are. I wish I could have done better for you.” They had crucified my predecessor. You know, some animals, once they get the taste for human blood, that’s all they need.
As I read the individual stories of these clergy, I felt that these stories of leaving must be reckoned with. They need to be heard, and deep questions need to be asked about what led to these narratives. I also kept reminding myself that there are other stories that pastors are telling, stories full of the grace notes and surprise of pastoral ministry—and we need more of them. Sadly, neither kind of story is being told often enough. Our clergy are not given the opportunities to tell their real pastoral stories—both the epiphanies and the tragedies. Many congregations do not know their pastors’ stories. In fact, congregations frequently are not safe places where the real drama of pastoral ministry can be encountered. The result, all too often, is silence. Stories go untold. Opportunities to become a community of faith are missed. The real power of the ministry remains invisible, inarticulate, and unperceived by clergy, the congregation, and denominational officials alike. The consequences of both kinds of untold stories are loneliness and breakdown. We must break the silence.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is the president of the Alban Institute.