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Pastors tell why they walk away

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

It's not only the holy steamrollers in the pews who are driving Protestant clergy out of the pulpit.

The people in the home office also are a major part of the problem, according to a study of why clergy give up local church ministry.

In one of the first comprehensive studies of the reasons pastors leave local churches, researchers at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., found that tensions with church staff and laity and opportunities for better jobs were major factors.

But more than one in four departing clergy cited conflict with denominational officials or the belief that church headquarters was not supportive as a motive. In a separate question, more than four in 10 of the nearly 1,000 respondents said lack of support from denominational officials was an important reason they left local church ministry.

"Conflict is the big problem," sociologist Dean Hoge said in a telephone interview. "Sometimes, it drives the ministers out. Sometimes, they burn out because they're frustrated."

The Rev. James Skinner, chairman of the Pastoral Advisory Committee of the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, said he is not surprised by the study results.

Skinner said clergy, denominational officials and congregations all are experiencing greater stress as many mainline churches deal with both declining memberships and increasing demands for services. Each group looks to the others for solutions.

"All of them are experiencing stress because of the other two," he said. "It depends on what position you're standing in, and how you're looking at the situation."

A total of 963 clergy who had left local church ministry in the past eight years from five Protestant denominations responded to the survey. Officials from the United Methodist Church, Assemblies of God, Presbyterian Church (USA), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America mailed the questionnaires to random samples of their clergy who had left local churches for either other ministries such as chaplaincies or teaching positions, or left ministry altogether. Those who left parish work to take denominational staff jobs were excluded. Some pastors were forced out involuntarily.

Respondents returned the surveys directly to researchers at Catholic University of America. The response rates ranged from 54 percent for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to 19 percent for the Assemblies of God. The margin of error in results for each church was about plus or minus 6 percent, Hoge said.

The study results are scheduled to be published in a book next year. The research is part of a larger Pulpit & Pew research project being conducted out of the Duke Divinity School.

Catholic University researchers said the main reason people left local church ministry was conflict with staff and laity in the congregation, followed by conflict with denominational officials or disillusionment with the larger body.

Those who left parish ministry also reported feeling stress and burnout and concern about having enough time to meet the needs of their families.

In a question asking respondents to evaluate different reasons for leaving, about half said they felt drained by the demands of the job or they were lonely and isolated. A perceived lack of support from denominational officials ranked third, with 37 percent of Missouri Synod Lutheran clergy to 54 percent of United Methodist clergy saying it was an important reason in their decisions.

In follow-up interviews, pastors said they found it difficult to discuss problems with denominational leaders for fear it would jeopardize future calls and promotions. And the competition among clergy made it difficult for some to confide in their colleagues, Hoge and fellow sociologist Jacqueline Wenger reported.

Hoge said if churches want to keep experienced ministers, "There's a need for a little more support to help these people out." And that support system needs to be independent of the lines of authority in denominations, he said.

Milton Matz, a retired psychologist and former co-director of the Pastoral Psychology Institute at Case Western Reserve University, said the study results "make a lot of sense."

He said the institute at Case was most effective in working with clergy when spiritual leaders were mixed in with others of different traditions. Separating clergy by denomination raised concerns about possible competitive disadvantages in being open about what bothered them.

The institute helped clergy find ways to effectively work with others, Matz said. But their own health came first.

Matz said clergy were told once they protect their own welfare, "then you can start helping other people."