“2021 is going to be the year of turnover,” according to William Vanderbloemen, founder and CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group, a firm that assists churches and other faith-based organizations in their search for new pastors and other staff members. He is so convinced of this statement that he predicts a “storm surge” of transitions in the coming year.
And he’s not the only one making such predictions.
Thom Rainer, former President & CEO of Lifeway and founder of Church Answers, an online community of thousands of pastors recently said, “The vast majority of pastors with whom our team communicates are saying they are considering quitting their churches. It’s a trend I have not seen in my lifetime.”
Carey Nieuwhof, a popular author, blogger, and church leadership consultant also predicts that churches will experience “super-high turnover” in 2021, noting that “this is a short term trend, but a real one. Some of the turnover will be natural and healthy. Some of it won’t be.”
While only time will tell if these predictions turn out to be true, I believe these men may be on to something. Just this past Sunday afternoon, I saw no less than five different pastors announce a ministry transition on social media. In my own association, two long-tenured pastors have announced their resignations in the past six weeks, and we have seen the number of churches without pastors rise to an alarming record high rate of 36%.
After making these personal observations early in 2021, I’m starting to think the predictions might be right. If indeed a surge of transitions among pastors and other church leaders occurs in 2021, here are nine potential causes.
#1: Ministry Burnout
The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, and pastors are certainly not exempt from its physical, emotional, and mental effects. In fact, Baptist Press posted an article earlier this week highlighting the pandemic’s negative effects on pastors. I’ve also written about these effects in previous posts here and here.
The reality is that some pastors have stretched themselves so thin for so long, many are about to break. Decision fatigue is a real issue. When they continue to hear criticism from some church members because of their handling of the pandemic’s effects on their church, it’s too much for some pastors to take. Many pastors may resign in 2021 because they are simply exhausted.
#2: Rebuilding Challenges
On a similar note, while a significant amount of energy was required to quickly pivot to online services during the initial weeks of the pandemic, and a significant amount of energy has been required to navigate the unpredictable challenges since that time, pastors will need a significant amount of physical, emotional, and mental energy to lead in the days ahead.
It has become quite clear over the past few months that every church will need to rebuild the majority of their ministries from the ground up. In fact, Ronnie Floyd, President and CEO of the SBC’s Executive Committee, stated earlier today that he believes the keyword for churches in 2021 is “rebuild.” He explained, “Pastors, church leaders, and leaders of our Baptist bodies around the world will have to start rebuilding, day by day and inch by inch.”
Just as Nehemiah led the effort to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem, pastors will have to lead the efforts to rebuild the ministries in their churches. Unfortunately, some volunteers may not have survived the pandemic. Some rooms may no longer be adequate for social distancing. Some volunteers may have changed churches due to the church’s handling of the pandemic. Some ministries may not be able to continue due to a lack of funds. In order to rebuild these ministries with new volunteers and possibly new spaces, it’s going to require a great deal of effort on pastors and church leaders.
Again, Dr. Floyd says, “Rebuilding requires us to begin where we are and start again…It was not easy for Nehemiah and the people in Jerusalem, and it will not be easy for us.”
The unfortunate reality is that some pastors may not have the energy to rebuild, or they may not feel equipped to do so. Therefore, many may choose to step aside so that someone else can lead those efforts.
#3: Delayed Transitions in 2020
Some pastors sensed the Lord was preparing them for a ministry transition a year ago, but then COVID hit. Because of their shepherd’s heart, many of these pastors were unwilling to abandon their current flock in the midst of one of the greatest challenges their church had ever faced.
However, as the calendar changed to a new year, many of these men sense God’s leading in a new direction yet again. While their current congregation certainly has not yet returned to normal, most churches have weathered the initial challenges of the pandemic. Recognizing that every church will need to rebuild the majority of their ministries, these pastors may actively seek to make the transition now. Doing so clears the way for the church to search for a new pastor who can lead the rebuilding efforts after the pandemic is in the rearview mirror.
#4: Accelerated Retirements
According to a study by the Barna Group in 2017, pastors are getting older, with the median age increasing from 44 in 1992 to 54 in 2017. Many of these pastors were considering retirement prior to COVID, and the challenges presented by the pandemic have likely accelerated those intentions for some of these men of God.
Again, there will be a significant rebuilding effort for nearly every church. For those pastors who had planned to retire within the next few years, they may choose to retire early so that a new pastor with a fresh vision can lead the rebuilding efforts.
#5: Health Reasons
As the pandemic continues, I continue to hear about more pastors who have contracted the virus. All of the current pastors in my association who have contracted the virus have thankfully recovered. However, at least one pastor is dealing with some difficult long-term challenges due to COVID.
Sadly, some pastors across the country haven’t survived. I pray this will be the least frequent reason for a pastoral transition this year, but we cannot deny it will be a reality for some churches.
In addition, pastors will resign for other health reasons. While this is true during any year, when combined with the other reasons on this list, it can be a contributing factor to a significant increase in 2021.
#6: Financial Necessity
It’s no secret that the finances in many churches were negatively affected by the pandemic. As churches transitioned to virtual services, many also had to scramble to implement online giving and other creative ways to receive offerings. Many churches also received the PPP loan to help offset budget deficits.
Sadly, as the pandemic lingers, many churches have continued to face financial struggles, particularly in small congregations. As pastors and churches look forward, some pastors may be forced to seek a new ministry setting due to financial necessity. According to a report on ChurchSalary.com, 48% of churches anticipate decreased giving in 2021. Additionally, 19% (nearly 1 in 5) anticipate layoffs, furloughs, or staff reductions, and 7% anticipate becoming a satellite campus or merging with a larger church. Similarly, some full-time pastors may be forced to transition to a bivocational status or seek another full-time ministry position elsewhere.
While finances are usually not the primary motivating factor for a transition, sometimes it may be necessary. 2021 may be one of those years when it becomes a larger factor than normal.
#7: Forced Resignations
As I have mentioned already, some pastors have faced intense criticism for their church’s handling of the pandemic. Sadly, I have heard of some churches asking their pastor to resign his position as a result.
While this has not happened in my association, I am aware of a few instances when this has been the case. In the Baptist Press article mentioned earlier, Joe Wright, Executive Director of the Bivocational and Small Church Leadership Network said, “There is no doubt that many churches, because of the stress of the situation, are finding themselves in positions where they’re terminating pastors, oftentimes unexpectedly.”
While I pray this is not the primary cause of a surge in pastoral transitions in 2021, it is undoubtedly a contributing factor as well.
#8: Personal Reasons
Some pastor transitions this year may have very little to do with the pastor’s current church situation. Instead, some pastors may need to make a move for other personal reasons. Perhaps an aging parent or other family situation caused by COVID has necessitated a move. For bivocational pastors, COVID may have caused a relocation with their other job.
For many pastors who have hesitated to seek a new ministry assignment because they did not want to uproot their family (especially children) from their school and their friends, those pastors may be open to a transition right now. Most public schools have utilized a virtual or hybrid format for nearly a full year. Therefore, many children have not been physically around their classmates during that time. In addition, they haven’t been around many of their friends at church either. This unique circumstance would undoubtedly soften the blow when a pastor breaks the news to his children that God is moving them to a new church in a new town.
#9: The Calling of God
This is obviously the most important reason a pastor will make a transition to a new ministry assignment in 2021 – or any year for that matter. Just as God clearly called Paul to a ministry in Macedonia (a specific place during a specific time) in Acts 16, He also calls pastors to different ministry assignments at different times some 2,000 years later.
The Lord will certainly use some of the other reasons in this list during this unique season, but the primary reason that any pastor will make a move is the clear, unequivocal, and irrevocable call of God.
Will the predictions of a spike in pastor transitions come true? Only time will tell. Given the reasons listed above, it’s certainly possible.
If you’re a pastor sensing that God may be leading you to a new ministry assignment, please know that I’m praying for you. I’ve been there, and I know it’s never an easy decision, no matter how clear God has made it to you and your family.
If you’re a member of a church that is entering a season without a pastor, please know that I’m praying for you as well. I have recently published a book to assist churches in transition. You can find out more about it here. I hope it will be a help to your church during the search!