How Not to Lose A Pastor

Disclaimer: most of what is posted here at Doubting Believer is designed to lift up and encourage. This is not that kind of post.

As a free-range pastor, I spend a lot of time talking with caged…um, I mean, traditionally placed pastors and educators. They’re tired. They’re discouraged. They’re exploring other options. And, if you’re part of a church community, chances are it’s at least partly your fault.

I have heard (though I haven’t see the official stats) that not one student from a recent graduating class of a certain seminary has chosen to enter congregational ministry. That’s right. They are doing anything BUT taking on a church to pastor. Chaplaincy, outdoor ministry, non-profit work, moving on to Ph.D work in order to teach–all great ministries, but not the traditional trajectory of seminary to pulpit.

Congregational pastors are an endangered species. If you’d like to keep yours, may I suggest a few things:

Holy Ground not Hallowed Halls

I recently led a worship service where we gave everyone bubbles (little tiny bubble bottles like you get at weddings), and we celebrated the assurance of forgiveness by singing about how Jesus love is bubbling over and filling the space with literal bubbles. It was SO COOL. Afterward, I was told by more than one person how they could never “get away with that” in their church’s worship space. “Too messy.” “Too disruptive.” Really, y’all? It’s bubbles. They don’t make any noise. Those little bottles don’t even spill. But no. Not appropriate.

Your church professionals have so many great ideas about how to engage all kinds of different people–people who have different learning styles, different ways of connecting with God and one another. But so often that creativity is stifled by congregations who believe space is sacred because of the stained glass and not because of spirit that dwells there.

Don’t let your legacy be that there were no stains on the carpet or marks on the wall.

Don't let your legacy be that there were no stains on the carpet or marks on the wall. How Not to Lose A Pastor Click To Tweet

Let go of dress codes

I am stunned at the number of my colleagues who still sit through discussions about how some of the teens/young adults in the congregation are dressing on Sunday morning. Are you kidding me? You have TEENS and 20-SOMETHINGS in church? Bust out the balloons and the streamers. Celebrate! No, you wanna talk about that one that came in with holes in her jeans. Yeah, you are wearing your pastor (and your Christian educator and youth director) OUT with that stuff.

Live what you claim to value

You claim to want to the church to grow, to have young people in church, to reach out to new people and serve the community, but when your pastor tries to shepherd you in that direction, it turns out what you really value are your traditions, your pristine church building and being surrounded by people who look and think like you. Yeah, that’s pretty harsh, but too many clergy and educators are living with that reality, and it’s killing them. I’m not being overly dramatic. Just take a look at the rates of depression, heart disease and stress-related disorders among church professionals. Killing them.

Be honest with yourselves and with your church staff about what it is you truly value about your church. It will save everyone a lot of heartache and grief.

Let go of the idea of seniority

Far too many churches operate on the premise that those who have been there the longest have a greater say in what does and doesn’t happen–even if what those people want is detrimental to the health of the church and its people. Worshipping communities must hold one another accountable for toxic behavior–even if the person is a founding member of the congregation. The idea that someone can get away with being harmful or hurtful simply because they’ve been sitting in a pew for the most years has to go.

Treat your church staff like members of your faith community…not the help.

While it is important that pastors maintain proper boundaries, the people who make worship, pastoral care, Christian education, youth group, and choir happen are a part of your community. Do you treat them and their families as such? Do you check on them when they are ill? When you know they’ve worked 10 days straight without a break because the church has had two funerals, one new baby, five meetings and a burst pipe, do you make sure they take some time to rest and recover? Do you know when THEIR children are playing football, having a dance recital or graduating? A pastor who doesn’t feel cared for will eventually burn out in their caring for others.

Say Thank You

I can’t begin to tell you how far acknowledgement and appreciation goes in keeping a clergy person going. A simple “I really appreciate all that you do” or “Thank you for worship this morning” or “your visit really made my mom’s day” can make all the difference in how your pastor’s whole week goes.

The culture of church is changing in ways not seen in my lifetime. If churches want to keep good pastors and a strong church staff as a whole, they are going to have to do some work.


Rev. Anne Russ is an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), currently based in New York City. Doubting Believer provides tools and encouragement for the rollercoaster ride of your faith journey. Follow me on Facebook , Instagram and YouTube. You can also follow on TikTok. Get emails to keep up with all that is happening.

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4 thoughts on “How Not to Lose A Pastor”

  1. well, in one of those flash moments of utter clarity and hope, when I read the phrase “I’m a free-range pastor”, I was immediately filled with a sense of rightness and the excitement of “yes! this thing that I’ve had percolating in my mind as something I’d like to figure out how to do is actually a thing!” As a caged pastor, I long to be connected but not beholden. I love where I am, but I desire to break out of the siloed model, and I fear burning out while figuring it out, when I want to lean into the joy and delight and utter absurdity of the world. Anyway, that opening sentence has given me more hope and excitement than I’ve felt in a while. Thank you.

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