After five years of being a senior pastor, Brian Croft was a mess.
“There had been three different movements to get me fired,” he said. “There were threats of violence against me. The pastoral search team that led the committee to hire me was slandering my name all around the community. The church ran out of money. At the age of 34, I started having issues with my heart that doctors diagnosed as coming from accumulated stress.”
What did he do?
“I stayed,” he said. “And in year six, God turned the church around. It flourished for the next 10 years.”
And then, with a church that was financially and relationally stable, training interns, and running ministries, Croft felt it was time to leave.
In March 2022, 42 percent of surveyed pastors told Barna they’d considered quitting full-time ministry within the last year. “I’ve talked to pastors who have been serving more than 50 years, who said the combination of COVID, race relations, volatile elections, and fights over shutting down and masks created an unprecedented situation,” said Croft, who now counsels pastors. “They’d never experienced something this radically hard, this expansive. Every pastor dealt with it.”
In hard seasons—or even in healthy seasons—how does a pastor know if he’s supposed to persevere or if it’s time to be done?
The Gospel Coalition asked three former pastors—all of whom now teach or counsel pastors—for their best advice.
Don’t Quit on a Monday
“Pastors, it’s Monday,” Croft tweeted a few weeks ago. “Don’t resign. No major decisions. No hard meetings.”
Every few weeks, he posts the same encouragement. “I call it the preaching hangover on Monday mornings,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do. It’s just going to come, so you have to know how to plan your day and evaluate what is going on.”
His advice: “Hit the gym. Drink some good coffee. Prayer. Silence. Mindless administration tasks. Hang with a safe friend. Save the rest for tomorrow.”
Don’t Quit Too Soon
“If a pastor called me and said they were considering leaving the ministry, the first thing I’d want to know is how long they’d been feeling this way,” said Jared Wilson, who left local church ministry after about 25 years to take a job at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Like any work, pastoring has lean seasons,” he said. “We go through low periods. We experience anxiety, depression, discouragement, and fatigue. That is not a call away from the vocation but a call for more intense care and help from others.”
Croft, who also spent 25 years in local church ministry, advises staying at least five years—that’s how long it took him to see changes in his church. “Stay long enough to become the pastor, to earn the trust, and to see the fruit,” he said.
Care Checklist: Soul, Family, Ministry
If you’re in a rough season, check that your choices aren’t the problem.
Stay long enough to become the pastor, to earn the trust, and to see the fruit.
“Weekly, I have guys coming to me and saying, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m burned out. I quit,’” Croft said. The first questions he asks: Are you getting enough sleep at night? (Enough sleep is more than seven uninterrupted hours a night.) Do you exercise? Do you take a day off? Do you use all your vacation time?
“The number one reason pastors have to bail is that they don’t take care of themselves,” he said. “They’re pouring out while they’re on empty.”
If a pastor is taking care of himself, Croft moves on to his second set of questions: How is your marriage? How is parenting? What’s going on in your home? How does your wife feel about your ministry?
“First Timothy 3 demands that a pastor care for his family to even qualify as a minister,” Croft said. “I remind guys that there’s always another ministry opportunity, but you only get one wife.”
If a pastor is taking care of his family, Croft has a third set of questions: How many hours a week do you work? (That number should not be higher than 50 or 55, he said.) Do you have church elders to help you?
Those sets of questions can help pinpoint the problem. Maybe what’s needed is more sleep, better boundaries, or an assistant pastor. Or maybe the problem has grown so serious—such as a crumbling marriage or thoughts of suicide—that a bigger solution is necessary.
“If any one of these three areas is in shambles, a pastor can’t stay in the ministry,” Croft said. That doesn’t automatically mean he needs to leave forever—sometimes a long sabbatical can help with physical rest, marriage repair, or fresh inspiration for ministry.
And sometimes it might be time to think about a different path.
Retest Your Calling
When Wilson was a pastor, he worked through his own seasons of suffering, exhaustion, and burnout. His elders gave him time to rest and better guardrails, but that didn’t fix his low capacity for administration or his knowledge that someone with a different set of skills was needed for the church’s next season.
The number one reason pastors have to bail is because they don’t take care of themselves.
“I found myself really underwater,” he said.
When a nonteaching job opened at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, he told himself it would be for a season. Then he began taking graduate classes. Eight years later, he’s moved from taking classes to teaching them.
“I would never have thought of or aspired to teaching,” he said. “But I feel like I have been running in lanes the Lord has wired me for. He’s been very kind to confirm this was the right move, and he’s opened new doors to me.”
Jonathan Dodson also detected a shift in his calling. Even though he came back from his sabbatical in December 2021 spiritually energized and renewed, he said, “I realized that although I had come back, the vision for the church had not returned with me.”
Despite planting City Life Church in downtown Austin, Texas, 15 years earlier, “[he] didn’t know where the church needed to go.” He said, “We’d been kicked out of our rental facility. We’d always been a city-center church, and I didn’t have any direction for what to do next. I didn’t even have the desire to return downtown, which before would have been unthinkable.”
Dodson didn’t know what to do, so he asked his elders.
Ask Your Elders
One of Dodson’s best tips for pastors is to facilitate healthy, honest elder teams.
“There are impressions that come from the Holy Spirit, but they need to be tested against Scripture and community,” Dodson said. Ask yourself—and your elder board—good questions: What will the ministry be like if I leave? Will the people be well-prepared and cared for? Is there godly, healthy leadership in place? Are there sufficient finances? Am I running from something, or am I being called to something else?
There are impressions that come from the Holy Spirit, but they need to be tested against Scripture and community.
Dodson’s elder board was facing two hard decisions—how to advise Dodson on his future, and if he left, what to do with the couple hundred people who would no longer have a meeting location or a pastor.
“They were in different places about what to do,” Dodson said. Eventually, at a meeting, the Spirit moved so clearly it was obvious to everyone—they should release Dodson and close the church. The unity alone felt like an affirmation.
Croft also received affirmation from a trusted elder team. When he told them he thought God was telling him it was time to transition to full-time work at his ministry, Practical Shepherding, they told him they thought so too.
That plurality of elders is God’s design, Croft said. If you cultivate relationships with wise, faithful men, they’ll be able to see your gifts and your limitations, to long for the Lord’s will to be done in your life and in the life of the church, and to trust God in a future that includes (or doesn’t include) you as their pastor.
“God works through his elders to achieve his will,” Croft said. “Having the blessing of your elders is a great sign that you’re moving in the right direction.”
“There’s a difference between finishing and quitting,” Dodson said. “Quitting is throwing in towel because you’re emotionally overwhelmed. We typically make poor decisions then. So we need to wait for emotions to quiet so we can hear the voice of the Spirit.”
There’s a difference between finishing and quitting.
The key thing to ask yourself, according to Croft, is “Have I completed what God sent me here to do?” He continues, “I find a lot of guys leave for a new, exciting opportunity without considering that God called them to their current job. Before you leave, your conscience needs to be clear that you completed what you were supposed to do.”
That’s different for every person, he said. For Croft, it felt like the end of an era when an elderly woman in the church passed away—one who had opposed him in the beginning but, over time, softened toward him. By the end, she was one of his staunchest allies.
“This lady was really special to me, and she symbolized my ministry there in a lot of ways,” he said. Through steady consistency, he’d built a relationship with multiple people who’d wanted to oust him. Most changed their minds about him, their trust growing as he stabilized their attendance and finances and as he started initiatives like an internship program. Their church of fewer than 100 people had sent more than 30 families to pastoral work or the mission field.
When she died—one of the last of the old guard—Croft felt he’d finished his task there and could move on to another.
For others, finishing the task might mean regaining financial footing, restabilizing church attendance, launching a major ministry—or even closing the church well.
In some ways, it’s easier for a congregation to lose a pastor to the marketplace than to another congregation.
“No matter how hard a pastor works to leave well, when he leaves to go to another church, the original church usually feels like the older wife he’s leaving for a younger, prettier wife,” Croft said. “There’s no way around that.”
Leaving the ministry altogether communicates, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Still, any loss of a pastor is more unsettling than when someone like a neighbor or colleague moves on.
As with other seasons of grief, it helps to take things slowly. Giving a short two-week notice “can ruin the church for the next guy,” Croft said. After he announced his decision to leave, he gave his congregation another six months.
“I stayed until the end of the year to help them find a new pastor, and they did,” Croft said. “I also stayed because I knew my last effort to care for the people was to let them grieve me leaving.”
He did that by visiting the home of every member. “I sat with them and said, ‘Hey, tell me what you think about this,’” he said. “I asked how they felt and if they wanted to say anything to me. I needed that as much as they did.”
Dodson stayed two months after his announcement.
“That was about right,” he said. “I couldn’t have done more.”
Since the entire church was shutting down, he wondered if people would begin to drift away. “My wife got up and said to the congregation, ‘You know how everyone plows through their Halloween candy until they get to the end, and then they slow down and savor them? Let’s slow down and savor what we have.’”
They did. Nearly everyone stayed until the end, marking their last communion, their last meeting, their last service.
“We had a huge party, and people got up and shared stories of how their lives had been changed,” Dodson said. “We celebrated the 15 years of God’s faithfulness.”
If you want a long ministry, pace yourself, Croft advises.
“Based on 2 Corinthians 4, I see a ministry paradigm that says a pastor is called to die a little every day for the sake of his flock,” he said. Each pastor has a different capacity for that—some guys might have 15 years in them, while others might have 50.
If you want a long ministry, pace yourself.
If you don’t want to burn out, get enough sleep. Don’t work too many hours. Take vacations. Pray often, giving your burdens to God. And take breaks. Pastors are on the front lines of a spiritual battle, and “it’s OK to come off and take a break once in a while,” Dodson said. “People do it in war all the time. Come back, take a break, go to a hospital or to another city, take three months off. You won’t make it if you don’t.”
Then invest in your elders. Take a long view of your congregants. (“Judge them from glory backward, not sin forward,” Dodson said.) Remember that wounded sheep can act a lot like wolves and that only time and patience can sort that out, Croft said.
None of this has to happen tomorrow, Wilson said. “Slow and steady wins the race.”
Whether you stay in ministry or not, there are always ways to contribute to a local church. Dodson was reminded of that when he walked into a new church as a visitor a few weeks ago.
“I was greeted by someone I’d never met,” he said. “They were gracious and warm. Someone prayed for me—a complete stranger. Then a pastor got up and delivered a sermon that was sensitive, pastoral, rooted in Scripture, gospel-centered. I was like, You did all that for me? A hug? A prayer? A well-prepared sermon that spoke to my heart? Where do you get that apart from the church? What a tremendous gift!”