Clergy Departures and The Fishhook Effect

This week, please welcome the Rev. Elena Larssen!

Elena Larssen is a candidate for the Doctor of Ministry at Pacific School of Religion and serves as Minister of Volunteer Engagement on the National Staff of the United Church of Christ. A noted preacher and executive leader, she is the current Chair of the United Church Board for Ministerial Assistance and co-chaired the establishment of the 2030 Clergy Network in 2006.

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By now, we’ve all heard of the Great Resignation.

The winter of 2021-22 was full of reportage as nearly four million people resigned from their jobs in each month of that season.[1] Public facing work like food/beverage, hospitality, and retail comprised the leading ‘high quit rate’ job areas, while government jobs had the lowest quit rate. The Barna Research Group rather famously announced that approximately 40% of clergy were contemplating leaving their jobs[2]; that rate has only climbed.[3] While CAARD found that UCC clergy are resigning less than the national average, the insights of those clergy who do resign contain significant wisdom for the future wellness of the church.

The Climate Crisis…in Ministry
In the Spring of 2022, I interviewed a dozen pastors who had voluntarily resigned from their employment as parish ministers in UCC congregations. I was curious to know how the stress of “pandemic pastoring” may or may not have contributed to resignations, and what may have prevented those resignations. This study focused on pastors; to read about the experiences of congregations, The Hartford Institute for Religion Research’s ongoing work is highly recommended[4].

The pastors left their churches for more than one reason: the insufficient fit between pastor and congregation, a better offer elsewhere, a need for time for relationships and family, desire for a career change. But all said that pandemic stressors played a factor in their motivation or manner of resignation.

Truth be told, the pandemic arrived when the pastor was already fighting to thrive in the face of a systemic decline in mainline churches.  

Source: [3] Pastors Share Top Reasons They’ve Considered Quitting Ministry in the Past Year – Barna Group

Defying Demographics
These ministers did not ‘up and quit.’

These clergy knew that leading a healthy congregation meant defying the demographics of church decline, polarized politics, and even natural disasters. The context for quitting was the layering of adverse circumstances. It appears that the depth of vocational commitment that called one into ministry was mirrored in the depth of contemplation that occurred in the discernment process toward resignation.

Then the pandemic arrived.

The Fishhook Effect
The Fishhook Effect is my term for a minor organizational choice that hooks itself in the heart of the pastor and nags at the pastor’s sense of confidence and work satisfaction. Cast by lay leaders doing the business of the church, the fishhook plants itself in the field of discernment for clergy.

Sometimes the fishhook was an onerous new policy. Often the fishhook was an adverse decision about compensation and benefits. Sometimes it was an inconsistent application of policies. Occasionally, the welfare of the pastor’s family was perceived to be in jeopardy. In all cases, it was a relatively small administrative action that landed badly. In the contentious early phases of the pandemic, the fishhook festered without a lot of bandwidth for further frustration.

The nagging fishhook made pastors feel that their jobs were just jobs and that their unprecedented, pandemic efforts were unvalued. An awkward ‘fishhook’ decision lodged in the pastor’s discernment, causing a nagging feeling that their call to ministry wasn’t a call in the eyes of the congregation – and if pastoring was just a job to the church, the pastor could get another one that was better. So, they did.

In Summary
‘Pastors who quit’ are swimming in the tides of history.

It was not one thing or a last straw that caused these pastors to leave. Rather, it is a climate, an environment of ever-escalating improbability of ministry success.

That said, fishhooks hurt. In the mix of insurmountable, ‘unprecedented’ challenges, when the pastor was already fighting to thrive in the face of a systemic decline in mainline churches, the fishhook had an outsized effect. Their faith lives were not damaged, and they were not in crisis with God. But these clergy could certainly quit a job if it was just a job, and not a sacred and sacrificial call to ministry.

A pastor may cast their own line in more peaceful waters when the chances of doing fulfilling work in their congregation are overwhelmed by the tides and the times.

[1] 18 Great Resignation Statistics [2022]: Why Are Americans Leaving Their Jobs? – Zippia

[2] New Barna Survey Finds That 38% of US Pastors Have Considered Leaving Ministry | CBN News

[3] Pastors Share Top Reasons They’ve Considered Quitting Ministry in the Past Year – Barna Group

[4]Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations (

3 thoughts on “Clergy Departures and The Fishhook Effect

  1. Pingback: The Less It Feels Like Lent, the More It Feels Like Lent – Jeffrey A. Nelson

  2. Pingback: Throwback 2022: Clergy Departures and The Fishhook Effect | Vital Signs and Statistics

  3. Pingback: What Old Christmas Movies Can Teach Us about the Challenges of Modern Pastoral Ministry | Vital Signs and Statistics

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