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December 9, 2015Research

Need More Evidence Pastoring is Not a Doomsday Profession? Look at the Wesleyan Church

A lot of rumors fly about the poor state of pastors' emotional and mental health.
Need More Evidence Pastoring is Not a Doomsday Profession? Look at the Wesleyan Church

In case you have missed it, over the course of the last couple of months, I've been reiterating something I've been saying for a long time.

On October 14th, I wrote:

People are legitimately concerned about how many pastors are leaving the ministry. You can hear some disconcerting numbers.

The most common stat batted around is 1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month. Recently, I think someone must have decided that number needed updating, so they added an extra 200 and now you hear 1,700 pastors. If you Google it, the claim is everywhere.

The problem is that we cannot find any research that validates those numbers, and the research we do have doesn’t come close to that. The Wesleyan church has done an internal study and LifeWay Research has done some research as well. When extrapolated to the whole of the pastor population, neither approaches 1,500 pastors leaving each month.

After that, I posted a Q&A I did with one of the people who was the original source of those stats. He contacted me on Twitter following the first post, we had a great conversation, and he was gracious enough to let me publish most of our discussion. Here's a bit of it:

ES: Do you share my concern about the use of those statistics?

JF: The biggest thing is that the ones that are quoted most often are incredibly old. People need to be careful about quoting old numbers.

Over the course of the last two decades, things have changed. The ministry has become a better place to be and people are much more aware of what’s going on with their pastoral leadership and their needs.

Two decades ago, I talked to guys who had never had a vacation. They had had been in their churches five, six, seven years and had never seen a vacation day. I used to talk to guys who worked six and seven days a week with 80-hour weeks. Now the leadership I’m around has a much more balanced life and are encouraged to be a good parent and spouse along with being good pastoral leaders.

I don’t believe the survey numbers are close to being accurate any more because they are so old. You should look at the individual situation you know and the situation in your local body, then compare that to what you’re hearing with what these numbers that are being quoted and thrown around.

Then, on Friday, November 6th, I wrote a lengthy post about how statistics continue to show that pastors are not miserable, but that they feel privileged to be in their roles. Here's a bit from that:

Pastoring is difficult, and family life is a fishbowl, but overstating the challenge and dangers of pastoring can discourage pastors and create an expectation of family disruption—leading to that very problem.

We reported in 2011:

Positively, nearly eight in 10 pastors (79 percent) disagree with the statement, "Being in ministry has had a negative effect on my family." A majority (58 percent) strongly disagree. Twenty percent somewhat disagree, 15 percent somewhat agree and 4 percent strongly agree.

Pastoring can be stressful on a family, but contrary to some hyped statistics, most do not believe that being a pastor has hurt their family.

Just about a month ago, Warren Bird and I talked about this issue via video. Here's our conversation:

Well, recently, the Wesleyan Church did a study to see what their clergy retention was like from 2005-2008. Here's a graph:

Between 2005 and 2008 483 ministers were ordained in the Wesleyan Church, and 415 stayed that way. Only 14 percent of ordained clergy left, and six percent of those left in good standing, four percent left for unknown reasons, and only four percent (18 clergy) had to be removed.

Yet somehow, the myths that thousands of pastors bail every year persists. Lawrence Wilson wrote on his blog in 2014:

An urban legend circulating around the church holds that pastoral ministry is the most highly stressed, undervalued profession on earth, and all pastors are miserable. In support, this factoid is nearly always given: “1,700 pastors leave the ministry each month.”

You’ll see that number touted on blog after blog—always without a citation. This unverified datum flits around the Net like a vampire bat, sucking passion from ministers and their churches.

And it simply isn’t true.

The myth seems to have originated with a statement by James Dobson in Family News by Dr. James Dobson, August 1998. Dobson wrote, “We estimate that approximately 1,500 pastors leave their assignments each month, due to moral failure, spiritual burnout or contention within their local congregations.”

Note these facts:

The number stated was 1,500, not 1,700. The number was given an approximate estimate, not a fact. The source was a compilation of informal surveys completed by attendees at Focus on the Family pastor’s gatherings, not a statistically valid study of clergy in North America. Dobson never claimed these pastors left the ministry, only their current assignment. (Presumably, many or most changed jobs within their field, as many other people do every day.) The information is more than a decade out of date.

Yet the legend persists that 20,000 pastors run from their vocation every year screaming, “I just can’t take it anymore!”

Amen to that.

Also in 2014, I wrote a blog post to alert my readers as to how they can be on guard for bad stats. The three ways you can recognize bad stats are: 1) be wary of stats in promotions, 2) be wary of stats that cannot be verified, and 3) be wary of stats that do not line up with reality.

Facts are our friends. Don't believe everything you read, especially when it comes to the state of the church.

Many people are passing around bad stats because they care and want to make changes for the better. But, others just want to sell their book or their conference. In other words, too many people serve to make too much money on perpetuating stats that make the church look bad.

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