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Add Pastors to the Great Resignation

Dr. James Emery White
Dr. James Emery White
2022 17 Jan

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, more Americans left their job in April 2021 than in any other month on record. That record was then broken in July 2021, which was then broken in August. And then it was broken again in September. This is what is being called the “Great Resignation.”

Derek Thompson, writing for The Atlantic, notes that most of those who are quitting are low-wage workers getting better jobs in industries that are raising wages to get desperately needed new employees. So that part, as Thompson writes, is more accurately a “Big Switch” than a “Big Quit.”

But for many, it’s also about burnout. People in jobs that were particularly affected by all things COVID – think educators, healthcare workers and

… pastors.

As the Washington Post reported last month,

“an exodus of clergy… have left ministry in the past couple years because of a powerful combination of pandemic demands and political stress. Amid fights about masks and vaccine mandates, to how far religious leaders can go in expressing political views that might alienate some of their followers, to whether Zoom creates or stifles spiritual community, pastoral burnout has been high.”

It's true. A survey conducted by Barna Research conducted in November of last year found that 38% of all Protestant pastors said that they had consider quitting full-time vocational ministry in the past year. That was up 9 full points from when Barna asked the same question at the beginning of 2021. When you bracket out age groups, an alarming 46% of pastors under the age of 45 are thinking of quitting ministry altogether. When surveying pastoral health, only 36% fall into the healthy category in relation to such categories as spiritual, emotional, vocational, physical and financial.

As quoted in an article written by Bob Smietana of the Religion News Service,

“Chuck DeGroat, professor of counseling and Christian spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, said pastors have long had to mediate disputes over theology or church practice, like the role of women in the church or the so-called ‘worship wars’ of recent decades. They now face added stresses from the pandemic and polarization, with people willing to leave their churches over mask policies or discussions of race.”

What has stressed pastors the most has been the deep polarizations that have made their role as spiritual leaders agonizing. No matter what the issue, no matter what the decision, you were going to alienate and anger one group or another. And these were unavoidable issues and decisions:

  • conspiracy theory(ies) sweeping the congregation
  • getting vaccinated
  • open or closed
  • masked or unmasked
  • the 2020 election
  • the response to the death of George Floyd

Added to that was the shift toward all things digital, which was not a skillset taught in seminary, and the social isolation that many pastors felt in relation to the practice of ministry.

I write all of this with deep empathy as a pastor myself. It’s been a challenging two years. I’ve had to face similar decisions and similar issues as every other pastor. And the same fallout.

But if you attend Meck, don’t worry. I’m not part of the 38% (and if I was younger, I wouldn’t be part of the 46%). It’s not that I’m better than those men and women (I most certainly am not), it’s just that the stress of the last two years has been muted for me. The vast, vast majority of the members and attenders of Meck have supported and even celebrated our response to issues and decisions made. For that I am both grateful and humbled. 

But we still had families who left, people angered, disagreement voiced and conflict raged. 

So to all of you pastors who are teetering on the edge, please, for the sake of Jesus and your church, try to hang in there. The fact that the last two years has left you so drained shows that your heart is in the right place and in the right game. We need you. Your church needs you. The world needs you. Don’t make a decision in light of a season of life that you might regret for the rest of your life.

And to all of you in relation to a local church, could you say a prayer for your pastor? Could you grant them sympathetic grace on whatever response to an issue or decision they had to make that you might have disagreed with? You know it couldn’t have been easy, and that they went with conscience. And ask yourself – is masking, an election, a vaccine, on the level of doctrine, mission or Christian community? Leadership is a tough role. Can’t we agree to disagree… agreeably?

The Great Resignation shows no signs of slowing. Sadly, even when it comes to pastors. But they aren’t leaving for better pay. They are leaving,

… because people aren’t making it easy for them to stay.

James Emery White


Derek Thompson, “Three Myths of the Great Resignation,” The Atlantic, December 8, 2021, read online.

Michelle Boorstein, “The First Christmas as a Layperson: Burned Out by the Pandemic, Many Clergy Quit in the Past Year,” The Washington Post, December 24, 2021, read online.

“38% of U.S. Pastors Have Thought About Quitting Full-Time Ministry in the Past Year,” Barna, November 16, 2021, read online.

Bob Smietana, “For Some Pastors, the Past Year Was a Sign from God It Was Time to Quit,” Religion News Service, May 7, 2021, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.