Ex Pastors: Why Do They Drop Out

Ex Pastors: Why do they drop out?

by Thomas Scarborough


Leadership is Influence is Dropout (Part 1)

Dropout among ministers in the USA, by various estimates, lies between 80% and 95%. The second figure is widely accepted, and implies that the number of ministers who remain in ministry halves every ten years. The purpose of this article, and of that which is to follow (Part 2), is to explore the reasons for this, and to sketch some possible solutions.

During the course of Church leadership studies in the USA (I am in Africa), there seemed to me to be some obvious facts that presented themselves: There is a dominant leadership paradigm in the USA, and this paradigm operates within the context of massive dropout. The paradigm, therefore, has to be implicated in the dropout. This paradigm is Christian Transformational (or Transforming) Leadership – a group of theories, in fact, which all share the same core characteristics, though not always the same name. For the purposes of this article, a much simplified definition by John Maxwell will suffice: “Leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less.”

On the prompting of an academic director in the USA, I set out to investigate a possible correlation between Christian Transformational Leadership and ministry dropout. However, what seemed at the start to be simple research did not turn out to be as easy as anticipated. Among other things, there were no useful statistics to be found, support for the theory was largely anecdotal, and the field was littered with fallacies (for instance, if one drops out, one was not a Christian Transformational Leader). How therefore was I to approach the research?

I settled on a semantic critique – specifically a deconstructionist critique – of Christian Transformational Leadership texts. Very simply, this looks for evidence that a text “works against itself”. For example, if a good leader is defined as someone who is influential, then one looks for evidence in the texts that influence might not be working. This, in fact, proved to be a very revealing exercise. Did the texts “work against themselves”? An examination of nearly fifty Christian Transformational Leadership authors revealed that those leaders who were striving to be influential were running into serious problems of influence. There were three areas of difficulty in particular:

It was clear, firstly, that the desire to influence others was frequently coming up against unmovable situations. Influence was not always an option. The texts often reflect this. H.B. London Jr. notes that “congregations are determined to resist change… with almost supernatural power”. Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk observe that “many who tried valiantly to create something new” had their efforts “resisted and cut down”. Jerry Wofford puts it simply: “Choice to change… is not always an option.” It is a problem that Norma Everist and Craig Nessan refer to as “the power of homeostasis”.

It was clear, secondly, that influence was very hard to achieve. The texts revealed that this frequently called for a greater effort than seemed doable for the Christian leader. Henry and Richard Blackaby note that “a herculean effort” is required – and Hercules was, of course, a demigod. Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk consider that it requires “a great deal of courage”. Louis Fry and Lee Whittington consider that it involves “daunting challenges”– while James Halcomb, David Hamilton and Howard Malmstadt speak of the need for “tenacious power”. A lot is at stake. Where there is no change, there is of course no influence – and in terms of Maxwell’s definition, leadership fails. Andy Stanley refers to this as “a death sentence”.

This raises the all-important question as to the emotional toll on Christian leaders – and it is high. Jerry Wofford considers that the challenge to influence others “is the greatest trial for the transforming Christian leader”. Doug Murren sees it as “a draining process, even under the best of circumstances”. George Barna considers it “punishing”. Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk note that, through the failure of influence, many Church leaders “function out of low expectation and hope”. In this context, Bill Hybels considers: “The single most pressing issue [is] enduring.” In fact, so pressing is it that Ted Engtsrom pleads: “It’s too soon to quit!”

These are not isolated quotes. The considerable problems of influence, and the heavy emotional toll on Christian Transformational Leaders, is virtually ubiquitous in the texts. Not only this, but seldom do Christian Transformational Leaders express any satisfaction or joy over their influence – which is, after all, the sine qua non (without which not) of the leadership paradigm. Rather, the impression is one of “white-knuckle” leadership, merely trying to hang on, or to get through. Given such circumstances, there would seem to be little doubt that there is a link between Christian Transformational Leadership and dropout.

The purpose of this first article has merely been to suggest that there may be a correlation between the USA’s dominant Christian leadership paradigm and very high dropout from ministry. Yet is it possible to think in terms other than “Leadership is influence”? Yes it is – and it may be common in other parts of the world. Might other leadership paradigms hold any promise for the Church in the USA? To this I turn my pen in Part 2 of this article.

(Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article, I noted that dropout among ministers in the USA, by various estimates, lies between 80% and 95% – the second figure being widely accepted. I suggested that this is linked with the dominant leadership paradigm in the USA – a group of theories called Christian Transformational Leadership. A link is suggested, firstly, because the paradigm operates within the context of massive dropout – and secondly, because a deconstructionist analysis reveals that Christian Transformational Leadership takes a heavy emotional toll on the Christian leader. In the words of Doug Murren, it is “a draining process, even under the best of circumstances”.

Yet are there alternatives? Is there any form of leadership that does not require of leaders that they should influence others? Gareth Morgan lists six different ways in which one may view an organisation. One may think of it as a machine, or as an organism, as a culture, or as a political system – and so on. These metaphors provide significant alternatives to the “Leadership is influence” model. In fact, only two of Morgan’s alternatives imply “leader-follower dualisms” as are typical of Christian Transformational Leadership.

The core trouble with Christian Transformational Leadership is that it places an enormous emphasis on the competence of the leader. This will be seen through an expanded definition of the theory – extracted from nearly fifty Christian Transformational Leadership texts: “A Christian leader’s character, vision, strategy, and persuasiveness ensure that he or she will be influential (transformational), to achieve shared goals.”

In this expanded definition, influence is still central. However, four support factors are now revealed: character, vision, persuasiveness, and strategy – with the desired outcome of leadership being the attainment of shared goals. Notice, however, how it comes down to responsibility on the leader to drive influence with character, vision, persuasiveness, and strategy. Each of these four factors points back to the competence of the leader – and in reality, this becomes an enormous strain – as is broadly outlined in Part 1 of these two articles.

Let us seek for a moment to think differently with regard to each of these four support factors – namely, as to how the pressure may be lifted from the Christian leader:

1. Character. Christian Transformational Leadership places a great emphasis on character. In reality, however, every Christian leader is deeply flawed. Leighton Ford suggests that the high demands for character may become “a model of despair”. Not only this, but the texts reveal that oppositional behaviour may target the character of a Christian leader, regardless of whether this is justified or not. This presents a big problem where reliance on character is central. It may be more helpful to think of the Christian leader as an empty vessel through whom God does wonders of grace. Thus Christian leaders may own their inadequacy and emptiness, yet point to the gracious power of God. Of course, the pursuit of a holy character is indispensable for every Christian.

2. Vision. Christian Transformational Leadership greatly emphasises the importance of vision. In reality, however, in the words of Bill Hybels, vision-casting may be a ”daunting challenge”. Not only is the development of the vision a challenge in itself, but vision-casting may be greeted with distressing lethargy, and resisted with far more power than that with which it is put forward. With this in mind, it may be more helpful to consider that vision may emerge not only from the leader, but from the Body, by the Spirit of God – and not only from the Body, but, in the words of Ray Bakke, through “God’s surprising interventions” in the Church. Thus one may cast aside the need for vision-casting, and trust God to supply the vision.

3. Strategy. Strategy is central to Christian Transformational Leadership. However, this is essentially a task of control – and the quest for control, where people are involved, is daunting. Henry and Richard Blackaby note that it is an “onerous task”, and the texts reveal much fear of failure. It may be more helpful to think of strategy as something that develops a momentum of its own as the vision emerges from the Body. Thus the need for strategy becomes a side-issue.

4. Persuasiveness. This final, classic mark of Christian Transformational Leadership is referred to by many as “charisma”. However, “persuasiveness” would seem to describe it more exactly, as persuasive leaders may not possess obvious charisma. Again, however, the perceived need to persuade others places a great burden on the Christian leader. It is filled with both unexpected and disappointing responses – and it is all too often defeated, not least by the exhaustion of the persuader. Henry and Richard Blackaby note that the persuaders themselves will frequently have a “sense of desperation”.

Historically, theology suggests a different kind of persuasion. This is the “means of grace” – which, according to Louis Berkhof, is “the means by which [Christ] ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of His grace”. Interestingly, two-hundred years ago, the means of grace frequently included functions which are typical of ministry: preaching, public prayer, religious conversation, and religious education. The bottom line is that, in terms of the means of grace broadly understood, God Himself will influence others simply through one’s dedication to the task.

The need to influence others, apart from being, so often, a hugely draining exercise for the Christian leader, commonly leads to conflict. J. Robert Clinton states simply: “When people influence other people, conflict inevitably arises.” Yet remove the need to influence others, and both internal and external pressures may be lifted, and an enormous amount of time freed up for better things. It might seem hard to believe – if one has been schooled in the “Leadership is influence” tradition – that one may take one’s hands off the tiller. However, it can be done, and I am one of those who does it.

Thomas Scarborough is the minister of an urban Congregational Church in Cape Town, where he has ministered for 18 years. He holds Master’s degrees in Church Leadership from Fuller Theological Seminary and the South African Theological Seminary. Citations for this article may be found in his original MTh research at  www.sats.edu.za/content/research-systematic-theology

More on ex-pastors –  http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/21074.htm  and

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