Why Pastors Leave

Pastoral turnover is nothing new. In fact, some experts estimate the average length of a pastor’s tenure in America is 2.5 years. The reasons are many, but it’s not surprising that as many as 20 percent of the pastors who lead their churches through building programs will leave within two years after their completion.

Why, you might ask, would a pastor resign after such a major event? After all, it would seem the successful completion of a new building would mean the pastor is staying for a while – but that’s not always the case. Here are some reasons:


Cost overruns and construction problems

These are the most common reasons pastors leave, either during or shortly after a building program. For example, a church in the northeast started construction on a new worship center three years ago. The pastor pushed for a certain design and a specific contractor, and the church had gone along with it, confidently following the pastor’s leadership. Plans were assembled, the financing was obtained, and the project progresses at a normal pace.Imagine everyone’s surprise and ultimate chagrin when, shortly after the steel superstructure was erected and the materials for the next phase were delivered, all activity on the construction site came to a halt – a long halt.

What happened? The contractor declared bankruptcy. Unfortunately for the church, no new contractor could be found to complete the work within the required budget.

The church still meets every Sunday, but attendance is less than half of what it was a few years ago. The offering plate is still passed, but finances are down, and the church is having a difficult time simply paying its bills. Rather than see the situation through, the pastor decided he could no longer cope with the stress of the situation and left to lead another church.

Although this is an extreme example, it’s not as unusual as you might think. The contractor had submitted an extremely low bid, and without any further exploration of the contract by the church, work began. The pastor and the church simply failed to get all the facts. If someone had asked the right questions and looked at the situation closely enough, it would have been apparent that the new worship center couldn’t be built for the contact price. The contractor had never built a project so big and was terribly ill-equipped to do the work. A construction consultant could have saved the church a lot of grief and heartache.

Meanwhile, another pastor left after his church’s new worship center was completed and dedicated. Too many cost overruns sent the total building cost far beyond the contract price. To finish the project, the church had to sell some property. The pastor – who had ordered all the changes – simply lost all ability to influence the membership and was no longer respected as an effective leader.


At the other end of the spectrum, a southern church recently lost its pastor after a successful building program.

Just a few years ago, this church was meeting in a school and eagerly anticipating buying land and building a new church. The land was purchased, funds were raised, plans were put into place, and construction began. For 18 months, members met together, prayed together, sacrificed finances and time together, and watched with eager anticipation as their new church home was erected. There was a great celebration when they met for the first time in their new building.

A few months later, however, the pastor resigned and accepted a position in sales. He explained that he was suffering from burnout and needed a break.

What happened this time? Sometimes church members don’t understand the physical and emotional toll a building project can take on their leader. This pastor has continued to perform all his duties, but also took on additional responsibilities surrounding the building project. In the end, it was just too much; he was personally exhausted and lost all desire to go forward to lead the church and meet new challenges.

Most pastors already have enough work to do. The weekly regimen of preaching, preparation, counseling, visitation and administration take up the bulk of their time. It has been estimated that the pastor of the average church works 48-55 hours per week. Add to this the responsibility to get a building built, and you’ve got a recipe for burnout.

It’s not surprising that far too many churches find themselves looking to replace a burnt-out pastor. In the Midwest, one church body found themselves in a similar situation: They’d recently completed a building program, the church continued to grow, and things seemed to be going well – until, that is, their popular pastor resigned. A much larger church in another city had offered the pastor a position, and he accepted.

A pastor who experiences success can become highly sought-after. It’s estimated that more than half of America’s churches are in a no growth or slow-growth situation, and another 20 percent are in decline. So, when a larger, prestigious church finds itself looking for a pastor, it’s only natural that they begin their search among those who’ve proven successful in their present positions.


Another reason resignation happens after building programs are completed is what I call the “Moses/Joshua syndrome.”

God called Moses and equipped him to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt and position them to take the Promised Land. But Moses was not God’s man to lead His people to possess the land – Joshua was.

It took one skill set to lead the people out of bondage, but a wholly different one to lead the new generation to possess the land.

The same thing is happening today. Sometimes it takes a Moses – someone equipped with the determination and personality to lead a church out of its present situation and get ready to grow. Other times, it takes a different kind of leader to reach the new generation. Churches, like people, are ever-changing.


For pastors who are getting ready to lead their churches through building programs, some principles are important to remember. If followed, they’ll make the process a little easier:


  • Settle your financing issues first.

Find out how much you can borrow, how much you’ll need to borrow, and how much cash you’ll have to raise on your own before construction begins,

  • If a capital fund-raising campaign is needed, get started.

A well-timed campaign can be instrumental in getting the church united for the project. Build consensus among your leaders, and let them be a part of the overall planning process. I once heard a person say that if you’re a leader, but no one is following, you’re just taking a walk. Pastors who lead by consensus survive much longer as leaders than those who dictate.

  • Check out the contractor before you commit to him.

Just because a company can build a good house doesn’t mean they can successfully complete a new church. Remember, cost overruns are the number-one reason for failure to complete building projects.


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