Clergy who leave congregational ministry: a review of the literature


Since its inception in the 1960s, research on premature (i.e., pre-retirement) clergy attrition from congregational ministry has focused on identifying the factors that precipitate and mitigate ministry exits, while the rates at which clergy leave the ministry have been inconsistently tracked. The literature on clergy attrition is peppered with claims of alarmingly high rates of departure; however, these studies lack strong empirical support. The evidence, while fragmentary, consistently shows that pastors do not leave congregational ministry in large numbers. Incidence of attrition of about 1%–2% per year is typical across Protestant denominations and among Roman Catholic priests. In addition, contrary to popular conceptions, there is little evidence attrition is particularly high in the first 5 years of congregational ministry. In terms of the reasons for leaving, among Protestants, the most common factor named is conflict with the congregation or denominational system; a smaller number leave to pursue personal goals or to care for family. Among Catholics, loneliness and isolation, tied in major part to the celibacy requirement, are the most significant reasons cited for leaving. Finances or a loss of faith are rarely cited as reasons for leaving among either Catholics or Protestants.

Journal of Psychology and Theology