Ten Reasons to Leave and One to Stay

This essay was adapted from a banquet speech delivered at the Doxology Reunion dinner, August 3, 2013 in Kansas City, MO. It is presented here in the spirit of fraternal camaraderie, good humor, and respect for the work of Rev. Harold Senkbeil in supporting the work and life of the pastor as Seelsorger. It offered in love and intended to bring a smile to the pastoral face, encouragement to the weary heart and thanksgiving to God for His manifold grace in Jesus Christ, whose office we have the privilege of holding. – WMC


As a rule, I try not to do banquet speeches. Like a Benedictine monk after sunset, I prefer my food and drink in silence. I don’t tell jokes. I can’t play the banjo, though I can play a four or five chords on the guitar. I can’t speak like angels nor can I preach like Paul. I can tell the love of Jesus and say He died for all, but you paid me for a speech not a sermon. That’s the problem when you invite a preacher; you always get a sermon.

It’s a bit intimidating to be asked to speak by two people whom I greatly love, admire, and have heard speak on many occasions, namely Hal Senkbeil and Bev Yahnke.

Bev Yahnke is Doxology’s in-house version of Dr. Phil. Tall, stylish, insightful, eloquent, with a silken voice as soothing as a single malt Scotch in front of a warm fireplace on a cold Wisconsin night. Bev has the unique ability to be comforting and disturbing at the same time, a bit like Diane Sawyer reading news of global disaster as though it were a bedtime story read to a little child. Come to think of it, Bev sounds a lot like Diane Sawyer.

Hal is the epitome of the Lutheran Seelsorger, the physician of the soul – strong, loving, wise, pious, faithful, thrifty, generous, patient, kind, apt to teach, and not given to much strong drink, at least as far as any of us is aware. Whenever I read Bo Giertz’ masterful The Hammer of God, all the hero pastors in the book look like Hal Senkbeil in my mind’s eye.

Last year’s Doxology gathering was at Our Lady of the Snows in Illinois, a location that did little to dispel the rumors that Doxology is a clandestine gathering of crypto-sacerdotalists. The banquet speaker that evening spoke on various “coping strategies” which we pastors mistakenly employ when things are going off the ecclesiastical rails. He had four or five strategies, but I only recall the second: Taking refuge in food and drink. I recall glancing across the room at some new friends from the Pacific Northwest who shared my great fondness for fine food and drink. We exchanged a look of great puzzlement and dismay. This was bad? Strategy Two had been working quite nicely for us, thank hen, “Strategy Two” has become our own in-house code language. “That voters’ meeting really needs some Strategy Two.” Or “Man, what a day! I think I’m going Strategy Two early tonight” or “Let’s Strategy Two this banquet speech.”

A few months ago, I ran across an internet article entitled “Ten Real Reasons Pastors Quit Too Soon” by Tim Peters. The article sparked my warped imagination. Is there really a “too soon” when it comes to quitting? What about not soon enough? How does one know when it’s too soon or too late? And can you actually quit the ministry or even entertain the notion of quitting much less taking a day to go fishing?

I recall a lovely morning walk in the estuary of Morro Bay with my wife and musing out loud, “You know, the only vow I’ve ever made that had the words ‘Until death us do part’ was to you.” This moment was an epiphany in the ministry. For the first time since I was ordained, I realized I was free to quit. I was not abandoning my “second spouse” (a creepy analogy at several levels), my post, the troops in battle, or whatever other guilt-infused metaphor the church has laid on us. I was, and I am, as free to leave this vocation as I was to leave my former vocation as a chemist. That freedom has kept me going ever since.

Seventeen hundred pastors leave the ministry every month, Peters tells us, with all the appropriate notes of alarm and urgency. Let’s not quibble about what is and what isn’t a “minister” here and just sort of run with the numbers. There are a number of us pastor types in the room, and someone here is surely eyeing the door, and I don’t mean of this banquet hall. Peters cites ten reasons why those pastors are hanging up the stole, assuming they wore one in the first place.

Reason #1: DISCOURAGEMENT. “Complaints speak louder than compliments. You can receive fiftenn compliments and one complaint, and the complaint will stick” – like a well-placed stiletto between the shoulder blades.

My pastor from the Berkeley days (that was when I was in graduate school studying chemistry, in case your mind is wandering), tried unsuccessfully for two years to discourage me from going to the seminary. He warned me in no uncertain terms, “You will have your heart broken in ways you cannot imagine.” He was right. You preach, and they don’t listen. You catechize, and they become agnostics. You admonish, and they still do whatever they want. You stay up all night with them in the emergency room, and they complain that you missed their kid’s first birthday party at Chucky Cheese. Add to this all the judgments and measurements laid on you by your synod, district, circuit, and congregation reminding you that the congregation isn’t growing fast enough, you’re letting in too many “outsiders,” you’re not confessional enough, liturgical enough, missional enough, you don’t spend enough time with your family, your sermons are boring, and you have bad breath and a bad haircut. Discouraging? You bet it is!

Reason #2: FAILURE. “Many pastors have difficulty recognizing success,” Peters reports. Fair enough. But how do you measure success when the finish line is resurrection from the dead?

Here’s the problem: Our culture admires winners. The gold medal. The championship ring. “We are the champions,” you know the tune. Unfortunately, when it comes to the holy ministry, we are losers among the losers – the least, the lost, the lowly, the dead to this world. We preach Jesus Christ crucified. We boast about unanswered prayer and thorns in the flesh and grace being sufficient for us and God’s power perfected in weakness. Who wants to listen to that sort of stuff?

We parade behind a crucifix. Winners don’t hang on crosses. Let’s face it – failure is built into the system. The church isn’t a Tony Robbins seminar where winners teach others how to win. Church isn’t a gymnasium where the spiritually fit coach others into spiritual fitness, as spiritually catchy as “Cross-Fit” might sound. It isn’t even a hospital where the sick go to get better, and you stand a reasonable chance of getting out alive if the super bacteria or insurance company don’t kill you first. The church is more like a hospice, a place where the dying care for the dying in the death of Jesus and don’t try to cure the disease of Sin but instead provide the palliative care of forgiveness, love, and mercy in the Name of Jesus. How do you even begin to speak of success when the active Agent in our ministry works “when and where it pleases Him?” A “theology of the cross” is not exactly a theology of winning.

Reason #3: LONELINESS. “With so many people looking to pastors for guidance, it can be difficult for pastors to let their guards down.”

I could not have imagined that a public office could be so devastatingly lonely. We’re a bit like short order cooks in the diner kitchen. We don’t experience the foretaste of the Feast in quite the same way as the diners in the front. For this reason, cooks tend to hang out at bars and eateries that understand the idiosyncrasies of their work. It’s the same with us. We hang out with our own kind for a very good reason: We’re the only ones who aren’t potential “clients and customers.”. We can actually be ourselves around each other without worrying that someone will cease to worship Jesus Christ as Lord because they heard Pastor Bill drop a juicy expletive while engaging in a little Strategy Two on a Friday evening. This, by the way, explains a lot of the behavior that goes on at pastors’ conferences.

The problem is that we pastor are a notoriously insecure lot. Most of us are first-born sons trying to please their impossible to please mothers, which means we’re always comparing, evaluating, judging, and ultimately justifying ourselves at the expense of our peers. My vicarage supervisor, who had been a district president, once remarked that the reason all pastors’ conference are three days long is because pastors are like a bunch of bulldogs let loose in a yard who have to mark every tree. “It takes three days for them to empty their bladders,” he noted. It takes us about three days to start to be honest with each other instead of pissing on each other’s shoes.

Reason #4: MORAL FAILURE. “The moral failures of pastors are magnified more than the average person.” No kidding. Nothing messes up a ministry faster than a moral misstep.

Where there is despair, failure, and loneliness there will be moral missteps if not faceplants. We want to feel better, so we push on the whoopee center of our brains. Gambling, porn, sex, drunkenness, gluttony, beer, Monday Night Football. It’s all the same thing. As Christians we are all Christ wearing an Adam suit. Simul justus et peccator. We have the mind of Christ in the flesh of Adam. Being simul isn’t easy or terribly pretty to look at. And being a paid, professional Christian is even worse.

The church isn’t much help these days. Our society’s preoccupation with sex seems to have driven the church into the opposite puritanical ditch where the only possible moral failing there is on the books is sex. We are constantly inundated with pastor’s conferences and pastoral letters oozing deep concern over our sex lives and the contents of our hard drives, leading me to want a medical emergency bracelet that reads, “In case of medical emergency, please erase my hard drive.” When Luther wrote the small catechism on the sixth commandment, he intentionally did not write any “thou shalt nots” because he didn’t need to give old Adam a checklist of whoopee. He already knows more than enough ways to break this commandment.

Reason #5 FINANCIAL PRESSURE. “Most ministries are non-profits, so pastors are not compensated well.”

Wow! Now there’s a revelation! What’s next? The Pope is Catholic? We didn’t go into the ministry for cash and prizes. At least I didn’t. I was doing quite well as a chemist. I will admit to being among the thirty percent surveyed that do not feel underpaid. I have a generous congregation, a decent salary, a working wife, a comfortable home, a couple of cars that run, and a well-stocked wine cellar. I consider myself fortunate.

A well-intentioned member came up to me after church one Sunday after having read an article on clergy burnout. He said, “Pastor, I don’t understand how you guys can be burned out. You have the best job in the world because you work for the best boss in the world.” I said to him, “I receive a paycheck every two weeks. In the past twenty years, I have never once seen the name “Lord Jesus Christ” on the signature line.”
Until we collectively come to grips with the paradox of that simple but obvious observation, we will never understand the financial pressures of the pastor. In our polity, the shepherd is paid by the flock he shepherds. He is obligated to irritate them, and they are obligated to pay him. Conflicted? You bet it is!

The laborer is worthy of his hire; the ox treading out the Gospel grain is allowed to munch unmuzzled. Yes, the church is to be busy feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless, but the naked, hungry and homeless shouldn’t be the pastor and his family. It wouldn’t be bad to recover the notion that it took ten men to have a synagogue, because ten households giving ten percent could support a rabbi at the median income of the community. I have heard of at least one congregation who offered to retire not only the educational debt of their new pastor but also the debt of his wife. May their tribe multiply exponentially!

Reason #6 ANGER. “When things aren’t going well, pastors become angry – with others, themselves, or God.”

I spent the first ten years of my ministry more or less angry. I was angry at the state of the synod, the state of the world, and the state of our congregations. I was angry at being sent to southern California, a place I vowed I’d never live. We’re Missouri Synod Lutherans, after all. We thrive on anger. It’s in our DNA. Many of us are German, which means we sound angry even when we’re making love. When people left the congregation, I got angry. When people misbehaved, I got angry. In fact, I was angry most of the time, which doesn’t exactly make for Gospel-centered preaching and compassionate pastoral care.

Sometimes anger is justifiable, though it never works the righteousness of God. Still, turning over a few bake sale tables and swinging a whip of cords can be cathartic if not oodles of fun. I began to realize that I was angry because nearly every hope, dream, and aspiration that I’d ever had about being a pastor had died and gone to dust.

A few years ago, I resolved never to let anyone or anything get in the way of the joy of salvation in Christ or of preaching the outrageous good news of sins forgiven for Jesus’ sake. If Paul could pen a joyful epistle from prison to the Philippians, I too could endure all things through him who gives me strength. I ceased to take things personally. If people wanted to leave our congregation for the big box mega-church with the wide-screen hymns and earwax clearing praise band, I let them depart in peace. If they found the worship unfulfilling, the preaching uninspiring, the fellowship less than utopian, I knew it was more a reflection on their own spiritual malady than my pastoral means. To be blunt, I ceased to care. Eugene Peterson once wrote this little pastoral prayer: “Lord, teach us to care and not to care.” Doctors know this all too well. A little distance and objectivity are not necessarily bad, in fact, they are downright essential. I learned to care without caring – about me.

I think one of the greatest sources of pastoral anger is the death of expectations. We lay expectations on each other and then get angry when others don’t live up to our expectations. People expect pastors to be always on their A-game – pious, friendly, serious, content, imminent, transcendent, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. Pastors expect their people to be in church every Sunday, sing fifteen stanza Reformation rousers with great gusto, give at least ten percent, bring friends and neighbors to church, eagerly volunteer for VBS and other stuff, and generally not be a pain in the neck at boards and voters’ meetings.

The solution, I believe, is not to alter or diminish expectations, but not to have any in the first place. Drop dead to those expectations and deal with the person as the simul believer he or she is. I think we’d all be a lot happier if we stopped trying to fix people and instead be pastor them.

Reason #7 BURNOUT. “Pastors are put on a treadmill….They just keep running until there’s no passion or energy left.”

Burnout is caused by mind-numbing sameness, the kind that makes your life resemble the movie Ground Hog Day where every day is a treadmillish repetition of the day before. Or was it last year? Sunday to Sunday. Advent to Pentecost. Not even the three-year lectionary can break the treadmill cycle. Boredom is the underlying cause of burnout, along with compassion fatigue, that business of internalizing of all the emotional ooze that goes on around you.

I don’t have much of a prescription, except to say what has worked for me. Create adventures. They say adventures are good for mind and memory too. Dare to dabble. Write a book, a paper, give a talk, a banquet speech. Travel, teach, cook. I’ve been to Siberia, been president of Higher Things, given talks, made new friends, learned to scuba dive, work with wood, bake bread, garden, cook. Handle material. We who deal in words, feelings, and abstractions need to get a few splinters in our fingers and dirt under our fingernails to remind us that we are flesh and bone of the earth. Paul made tents. Handling material is a good thing, a first article gift. Besides wood and dirt don’t talk back. But do be careful as you book passage on a ship bound for Tarshish when the Lord is pointing you to the nasty Ninevites. And watch out for big fish.

Reason #8 PHYSICAL HEALTH – “Many pastors overwork themselves and simply do not care for their bodies.”

There’s one that’s hard to argue with, especially standing naked in front of a full-length mirror. Ours is a sedentary vocation. We sit a lot. We sit at desks, in chairs, in traffic, living rooms, waiting rooms, in front of the TV, in front of the computer. The best piece of furniture I ever bought was a really good chair. We sit in this adrenylated puddle of pastoral anxiety. If it isn’t already, being a pastor should be classified by insurance companies as a “pre-existing medical condition.”

About the most exercise we get is standing for the liturgy while the rest of the congregation gets to sit for part of the time. Don’t you long for the old days when the rabbi sat down to teach? Some have added some liturgical aerobics to our practice with genuflecting and kneeling in an apparent effort to get at least a modicum of exercise and feel the burn.

There’s no other way to say this. We need to reduce the collective clergy BMI. Skip the second trip through the potluck line (no matter who is watching which dish you are eating), eat moderately, get that core in shape, walk, swim, run, bicycle, whatever. You’ll feel better, think better, look better, sleep better. Your doctor will stop hounding you, you’ll fit into that stylish cassock, and you can go back to wearing cinctures around your waist again. Just don’t pose shirtless on Facebook. Please, I’m begging you, keep your shirt on.

Reason #9 MARRIAGE AND FAMILY ISSUES. “Too often, a pastor’s spouse and children end up taking a backseat to the ministry.”

As they used to say, “The shoemaker’s kids are always barefoot.” Think about it. If a man in your congregation spent the vast majority of nights and weekends at work away from his wife and kids, you’d be all over his case preaching about his vocational duties as husband and father. Well, physicians of the soul, it’s time to take your own prescription.

Pastors’ wives. God bless you. You probably didn’t know what you were getting into when you married that seminarian or vicar. Well, now you do. You have come to know what “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer,” actually means. While there are a lot of books on pastoring, there are very few books on pastor-wifeing. In case there are any aspiring authors among you, I’d like to offer a few provocative titles as grist for the mill.

Raising Arizona – Picture Perfect Parenting for the Piously Perfect Parsonage

Cultivating Crazy – Making Those Borderline Personality Issues Work for You

Dodging Dorcas – Avoiding Church Ladies Without Leaving the Country

Bless My Lips – Facial Exercises for that Picture Perfect Sunday Smile

Fifty Shades of Rose – Homemade Vestments for Your Pastor-Husband

Bless Your Heart – How to Piously Decline Used Furniture, Worn-out Clothing, and Out-of-Date Canned Goods

If your husband asks you to critique that sermon or Bible class of his, simply smile and decline. You should treat all such requests for feedback precisely the same way as when you ask him, “Does this dress make me look fat?” You and I both know that the correct answer is, “You aren’t fat.” If you have to ask, you already know the answer anyway. When he asks you, “Honey, how was my sermon this morning,” you should answer, “I always love listening to your sermons,” even if you didn’t hear a word of it because you were refereeing sibling violence in the pew. There are plenty, of other people around who will remind your husband of how bad he is at what he does. Don’t be one of them.

Having said that, guys, listen to your wife. In all likelihood, her emotional quotient (EQ) far eclipses your pastoral obliviousness. She likely knows before you do who is hurting, who is happy, and who wants to ring your collared neck. People often use the pastor’s wife as a conduit of communication. It’s a lot easier, and safer, than making an appointment. They talk her so they don’t have to talk to you. Good idea? No. Something to be encouraged? Of course not! Useful? Always!

When your wife tells you that the tantrum you threw over the Ladies Guild decorating the Christmas tree on the first Sunday of Advent may not have been one of your most shining pastoral moments, listen to her. When she tells you that the snarky remark you made about kids shacking up in last Sunday’s sermon may have hit a raw nerve with the congregation chairman whose daughter just moved in with her boyfriend, you may want to make a phone call or two. Remember, your wife has a vested interest in happy pastor/congregation relations since she knows better than most who signs the paycheck. Your interests are not exactly the same as hers. You are concerned for doctrinal purity, liturgical integrity, and the salvation of souls. She is concerned clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home.

As long as we’re talking about pastors and their wives, I don’t understand this Schwaermerei we Lutheran pastors go through whenever another congregation is attempting to entice us away from doing our duty. We mysteriously receive this divine call, which we have been aware of all along and may have actually interviewed for, then announce it to the congregation as though it had been revealed to us by a man from Macedonia in a vision. Then we piously say, “Pray for me and my family as we decide where God wants us to serve.” If God had a plan, He’d tell you in no uncertain terms. He’s giving you options and isn’t giving you any dew on the fleece signs. Just decide and don’t look back.

Should you stay or should you go? All other things being more or less equal, here’s an easy way to decide a call. Ask your wife where she wants to live. She tells you. You go or stay. How much more divinely simple can this be? You know that sooner or later, this is where you are going to end up anyway.

Reason #10 BUSYNESS. Ninety percent of pastors report working 55 to 75 hours per week. I think I’m a ten percenter. I’ve never been given to working long hours at anything. I actually don’t know how many hours a week I work. I cringe when people begin a conversation with “Pastor, I know you’re busy…,” I’m not busy, I’m lazy. We’re busy because we’re trying to justify ourselves with our works, the very thing we preach and teach against. Our people are justified by faith apart from works, but we have gotten it into our clerical heads and pastoral hearts that we are not like other people and are justified by our works and not by faith alone. And we have church leadership and boards all too eager to confirm us in that notion.

We need to cultivate a sense of our own “non-necessity,” like John the Baptist who pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and then got out of the way. We must decrease, Christ must increase. We’re the waiters and line cooks at the Feast, not the Chef and certainly not the Food.

Until they issue a set of really cool Mars lamps I can stick on the roof of my car and run through red lights, I will not subscribe to the notion of a “pastoral emergency.” Besides, there is no such thing as an emergency in light of Jesus’ “It is finished.” If it’s finished for Jesus, then why are we in such a big hurry?

Being a pastor in collar won’t even get you out of speeding tickets where I live. I once get stopped by an officer with hand-held radar on a side street. He was pulling over one car after another for speeding around a blind corner. I was the fourth in a line of offenders. He looked at my collar, smiled, and said, “Reverend, I assume you’re in a hurry to get somewhere.” I said, “As a matter of fact, I am.” (I was late for a dental appointment.) He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll write you up first.” I thanked him.

I do make one exception to what I just said about “pastoral emergencies.” They come in handy when you need a quick exit from a tedious meeting or an endless conversation. Just whip out your cell phone, act as though you are listening to voice mail, assume that constipated look that we pastors have when we’re being “pastoral,” and then just say, “I’m sorry. I need to go.” No explanations necessary. You’re important. It’s an emergency. Instant Strategy 2.

Seriously, there are true pastoral emergencies, as many as there are tragedies, infidelities, suicides, homicides, fires, floods, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, crazy people with guns, distraught parents, troubled spouses. We need to be there, always ready to speak the good news of God’s reconciling this world to Himself in the death of Jesus, even when everything appears to the contrary. There are plenty of genuine emergencies and eschatological urgencies. But none of them hinge on our absolute necessity.

OK. There you have it. I’ve given you ten reasons to quit. And I’ve given you the freedom to do it. But before you pack up the U-Haul, the kids, and the family dog, consider St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians:

“For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:14-21, ESV)

We are ambassadors for the King of kings. We work in an embassy of the kingdom of God, a little breaking-in point of God’s eternal reign. Embassies and ambassadors are easy targets for terrorists. The devil, the world, and our adamic flesh hate this reign of God, His embassy, and His ambassadors. The world doesn’t give out Nobel Prizes for preaching the Gospel; it nails you to a cross. It has a track record for doing that.

God was in Christ reconciling the world – all things, every sin and every sinner – to Himself in the death of Jesus. He works all things together for good. All things – the good, the bad, the ugly – He weaves into a beautiful tapestry of good. It’s not that we’re playing with loaded dice in a rigged casino, but God declares every roll a winner in the death of Jesus. Boxcars, snakeeyes, winners all. God made His Son to be Sin for us. He did not simply bear our sins but became our Sin, the corrupting disease itself, so that in Him, baptized and believing in Him, we might become the righteousness of God. We are ambassadors and heralds of the sweetest swap there ever was – Sin for Righteousness. Such a deal!

We are peace-speakers, proclaiming the peace that surpasses understanding into the worst of this world disorder, where children are gunned down in classrooms, where old men and women lie in nursing homes and hospices waiting to die, where unwanted babies are torn from their mother’s wombs, and where a dying infant is baptized in her grieving mother’s arms. And we are given something to say to all that: God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our sins against us. There is peace.

No one else in the religious world has or gets the outrageous punch line that sinners stand before God justified by grace through faith without so much as a twitch of a good work, all for Jesus’ sake. No one else in this world can look at Death and the Grave as a vanquished enemy and say, “O Death, where is sting? O Grave, where is your victory? Is that the best you’ve got?” No one else in this world can stare into the accusing mirror of the Law and say with all confidence “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

In 1986 when I packed up my life and moved to the seminary in St. Louis, had I known then what I know now, I would not have left my career in science. At least, I seriously doubt it. Yet knowing what I now know today after these many years, I would not want things any other way. Our Lord is gracious, and He is good.

My dear brothers and sisters, don’t let anyone or anything rob you of the joy and freedom you have in Christ. Not the devil, the world, your sinful flesh. Not church bodies or bureaucrats or boards. Not cranky congregations or pesky parishioners. Not the Law or that accusing and excusing conscience of yours. Fix your eyes on Jesus who turns our sorrows to joy, our weeping to laughter, our mourning to dancing, our water into wine. He multiplies our meager loaves and fishes to feed the multitudes, and He makes good out of everything in His dying and rising.

When we take our eyes off of Jesus and His cross, we will always find reasons to quit the ministry. But with the eyes of faith fixed on Jesus, we will see the one reason to stay.