Why Pastors and Priests are Leaving the Church (Part 2): What to Do About It

(See Part 1 here.)

As I see it, there are four options for clergy who are being worn down by an unsustainable status quo.

  1. Start new faith communities.
  2. Precipitate a crisis/intervention.
  3. Launch a transformation.
  4. Retire early or get into another line of work.

Many are choosing Option 4, as I mentioned earlier. But if too many more generations of our most creative and visionary leaders throw in the towel (or are driven away), the Christian church (in America, at least) creates a downward death spiral of boredom, narrowness, shrinkage, and stagnation … or (as I’m actually more worried about) it renders itself easily manipulable by demagogues and extremists who deal in nostalgia, lies, flattery, and violence. As I wrote in The Great Spiritual Migration, there’s something worse than Christianity dying: namely, Christianity killing. It has done so in the past, and it can do so again in the future, only now, with more horrific weapons at its disposal.

So let me say a brief word about Options 1 – 3.

  1. Starting new faith communities is not easy; just ask anyone (including yours truly) who has done it. But it is vital to create living models of innovation at this moment – not simply incremental improvements of the existing model, but creative new models that start from scratch, so to speak, returning to sources (Jesus and the Gospels, for starters), and facing current and emerging realities.

New communities who seize this moment will model a kind of engaged spiritual (or contemplative) activism, and they will be aligned from the start to embody the gospel as it pertains to contemporary crisis, beginning with these four (that I wrote about back in 2007 in Everything Must Change):

1. the planet, unsustainable economies, and climate change;

2. poverty and obscenely expanding economic inequality;

3. making peace between individuals, races, religions, classes, cultures, nations, and civilizations;  and

4. the dignity of all people, no exceptions.

2. Precipitating a Crisis/Intervention often simply means telling the truth and doing something about  it. The truth is that most of our denominations and congregations are shrinking and wrinkling. Evangelicals used to take pride in the certainty that their conservative theology would inoculate them from “liberal” decline, but that myth has been largely exploded. (Just ask any knowledgeable Southern Baptist.) If individual congregations (and, please God, denominations) face these realities, they will discover that a non-denial of reality is a wonderful liberator of creativity, which will allow them to think more like their colleagues in #1 above. In fact, the models created by #1 provide examples for imitation and adaptation for #2 and #3.

3. Launching Transformation makes sense in congregations where there is a good measure of health and strength. Transformative leaders can pilot their congregations through a period of reimagining and reinvention. In other words, they can upgrade the airport or intersection while it continues to function.

Leaders who are engaged in these three options need some distinct skills, but they are working toward the same goal. It’s important for them not to see one another as competitors, but as allies. We’re in this together.

A quick anecdote to close: some years ago, I spoke at a large denominational assembly. At the end of my talk in a Q & R time, a clergywoman went to the mic and said, “I’m going to retire later this year, and if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t.”

I cringed, thinking that I had unwittingly unleashed this kind of negativity. She continued, “All I can tell you is that everything I’ve tried has failed. I’ve spent my entire career trying to help churches that are worse off than when I started.”

I was thinking at that moment that the bishop must have been mortified that I had influenced one of his clergy to demoralize her colleagues in this way.

In the middle of my cringe, though, she got a sparkle in her eyes, and continued, “But if there are any younger clergy here who want to try to put into practice what this man [referring to me] has been talking about today, then as soon as I retire, I’m available as a full-time volunteer. Because I’m not giving up. I’m more motivated than ever. I have a whole career behind me of small measures that I know won’t work. I’m ready to get more radical in the years I have left.”

The room broke into applause.

That’s the spirit we need.


I’ve been involved with these three options for decades, now, and if you’d like to join a cohort of leaders who want to learn, grow, and lead together, I hope you’ll check out the Convergence Leadership Project. Registration is open now for an August 1 launch.