There is a widely cited statistic circulating that asserts that 1,700 pastors leave the ministry every month. That is a staggering number. If true, that translates to roughly 20,400 men and women walking away from what they had claimed was a God mandated call on their life. The problem is, it simply isn’t true. It’s an urban legend of sorts, not unlike Elvis being in Witness Protection Program or Princess Diana being assassinated by MI-5.
The number is most often attributed to a misinterpreted statement from James Dobson in which he said, “We estimate that approximately 1,500 pastors leave their assignments each month, due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention within their local congregations.”
First of all, “leave their assignment” is a far cry from leaving the ministry. It is safe to assume that these individuals have found another job, presumably in a related field as so many others do when looking for a change. Millions of Americans leave their job each month, and the era of “lifetime employment” at single job has ended. Secondly, an estimate isn’t a fact. Third, Dobson’s statement is based on a compilation of informal surveys completed by attendees of Focus on the Family pastor’s gatherings. Finally, the statement was made in 1998.
In reality, the actual source of the data is Jerry Frear, the man behind Pastor Appreciation Day. Frear’s results were based on a survey he and a group of volunteers conducted by cold-calling 200 pastors in metropolitan areas. According to the pastors Frear and his team cited, many worked six or seven days in an 80-hour week and many had not taken a vacation despite being in their roles for several years. However, in an interview with Ed Stetzer, Frear said he has seen significant changes in the way congregations treat their pastors in the years since his findings.
The truth of the matter is that a 2015 study by Lifeway Research shows that only 250 pastors leave the ministry each month and a further 2016 study by CHURCHLEADERSHIP.org found that nearly 88% of the pastors surveyed say they are well cared for by the church. Their results also found that though just over 41% have considered leaving the ministry at one point, only 18% of them will actually leave for what they consider to be a better or less stressful job.
There is no question that ministry can be stressful, just like any other profession. In an interview just last month, David R. Stokes, Senior Pastor at Expectation Church in Fairfax, Virginia, said the issue for pastors is “that when things are good, you get an inordinate amount of the credit but, when things go wrong, you’re the target of an inordinate amount of the blame.” This imbalance can lead to frustration and disillusionment as pastors often see people at their worst – think funerals, marriage or family crisis – that’s the nature of a relationship driven profession. However, they also have the opportunity to see people at their best – think weddings, baptisms, and graduations.
For the most part, individuals sharing those inaccurate statistics appear to be doing so in an effort to garner support and awareness for ministry leaders. Those are good intentions. Ministry leaders should be cared for and supported. However, disseminating inaccurate information is never okay, and ultimately ends up hurting the reputation of the very people one is attempting to help.