Where to Go from Here? When Pastors Leave the Parish



JHMLeaving parish ministry is not a new phenomenon.  Clergy have been leaving the parish ministry for centuries for reasons good, bad, and indifferent.   What makes the present day situation somewhat disturbing is the frequency and early age of departure.  National studies in the U.S. and Canada have both spotted this trend: early and frequent departure from parish ministry by the mainline denominational clergy.   In Canada within the United Church, the average number of years actually served in parish ministry after being ordained is reported to be at five years whereas in the U.S. the number is reported at about ten years.   Either way, clergy who have spent four years in college and at least three years in seminary getting themselves qualified for ordination are leaving that profession by their mid- to late thirties!  By any standard of measurement, this must surely qualify as a disturbing phenomenon.

The U.S. Department of Labor has announced that the average clergy person in the U.S. earns $41,140.00 in annual salary.   Furthermore, we know that the average cost of a seminary education is $53,000.00 for the Master of Divinity, the degree required for ordination, and that reports show that the average seminarian leaves seminary owing a total of over $70,000.00 in student loans, accrued not just from seminary tuition but cost of living, and often raising a family, during those three years of training.  Couple that financial information with the statistics on early departure from this costly training for a low-paying profession, we end up with a disturbing situation.

However, and for whatever reason clergy are leaving the profession of ministry, these same individuals are faced with “where to go from here?”   No one starts out planning to leave!  It happens even to those who are most committed to ministry, to serving the Church, to giving their lives in nurturing the faithful.  After five or ten years of dealing with the reality of parish life, more and more well-trained and well-meaning individuals are leaving.  But leaving is not just the first hard step; the next step is often even harder, namely, what to do next with one’s life?  The hauntingly common questions include  How am I going to make a living?   How can I provide for my family?  Do I have a future?  If so, what is it?  I spent all of those years studying how to exegete scripture, how to develop a homily, understand church history, liturgy, and theology, to say nothing of dealing with literature on pastoral nurture and being trained in pastoral care and counseling.   Outside the parish, is there any value whatever for all of this knowledge?

I have spent over 30 years in theological education for the ordained clergy and have seen over 2,000 clergy go through a degree program leading them into other fields of service besides parish ministry.  Many have come to my institution with the specific goal of re-tooling to make the transition from the parish to the world of work outside the comforting arms of the Church.  Others took advanced degrees to become better at their parish ministries only later to find that they had lost the call to parish service but were hearing another call to public service outside the Church.  To accept that reality is itself a great challenge, but when finally accepted, it can be a freeing and liberating breakthrough to a whole other world of public service without the feeling of guilt in having abandoned one’s call.   A call to public service outside the parish is no less a call than a call to serve in parish ministry.  To recognize and accept that reality is the beginning of a new world of adventure in self-fulfillment.

As Viktor Frankl once said in recollecting a phrase from Nietzsche, “If one can find a ‘why,’ one can always find a ‘how’.”  Identifying the real, solid, responsible reasons why one feels called to leave the parish ministry is the beginning of an adventure in self-discovery.  If those reasons are good, if they answer well to self-reflection and self-analysis, then one must turn toward the “how to make it happen.”  It is not so much “leaving a thing” as it is “discovering a new thing.”  If one wishes to leave parish ministry and the reasons are sound, one must then turn toward the how, to finding a direction, a method, and a will to realize the new call to a different kind of service.  Often it is institutional chaplaincy – college, hospital, prison, industry.   Or, it might be private practice based on a real desire to help individuals and families without the trappings of parish obligations.  Clergy are often well connected with the broader community and find that they can with reasonable ease establish themselves as counselors or psychotherapists in their own communities.  It might be the business world where ethical standards and social justice can be a driving factor to success and fulfillment while meeting the demands of a consumer-driven economy.  Education often is the new call, whether in public schools or at the university level.  Many clergy make this transition while still in parish ministry teaching as an adjunct at a local college and eventually find that moving into a full-time appointment is the result.  Court-sponsored mediation is becoming increasingly an attractive and financially grounded profession, and clergy often find they settle easily into this role with the proper training.

A closing word of caution to the pastor who is pondering the transition.  Don’t burn the bridge that brought you to where you are presently.   Ordination is not to be dismissed out of hand.  The time, expense and energy taken to reach that often highly sought after designation should not be forgotten or dismissed.   The Church will always value you, whether in or out of parish ministry.   However, we are seeing more and more individuals in their mid-50s seeking ordination as a most desirable “second career,” a “late vocation” when the stresses of the earlier years of professional life are less:  children educated and gone, retirement concerns less troubling, health good, but there is a nagging desire to serve again in a nurturing and pastoral capacity.  These all conspire to possibly make ministry again the heart’s desire.

The Graduate Theological Foundation deals with these issues and these individuals every day, with success.   We might be able to be of some assistance to you as well.

Visit the faculty profile for Dr. John H. Morgan, Karl Mannheim Professor of the History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences at the Graduate Theological Foundation.

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