How Many Quit? Estimating the Clergy Attrition Rate

In the larger conversation about clergy formation, a key question that always arises is what percentage of new clergy quit after only a few years of ministry in a church.

Across Christian denominations, it’s been observed that the first five years of a ministerial career are a critical time. The newly ordained need to establish new identities as pastors or priests, and to develop leadership styles and practices that can sustain them through the challenges of leading a church. Those who don’t succeed at these tasks often become isolated, frustrated, or disillusioned, and many consider leaving the ministry.

Determining how many actually quit is tricky, however.

Some ministers have long periods of unemployment between leadership roles, especially if they relocate to a new area without a job for family reasons. How much time needs to pass before someone should be counted as having left ordained ministry, instead of just being between calls?

When tabulating the number of pastors or priests who have left congregational ministry voluntarily, church bodies also need to avoid counting clergy who have retired or died or are working in a different denomination.

Some very high estimates of the clergy attrition rate are in circulation. One figure that’s widely quoted is that 30% to 40% of religious leaders eventually drop out of the ministry; many articles claim that most of those leaders quit after just five years.

Yet the publications reporting this 30% to 40% attrition rate rarely identify where that figure comes from. One possible source may be a Los Angeles Times article published in 1999, in which a psychologist and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary credits a colleague with providing the information. 1


What Our Research Revealed

We contacted the research departments of the governing bodies of numerous protestant denominations, asking for the most solid information they had on the attrition rate for new clergy. Here’s what we found.

United Methodist Church

  • Statistics collected from 10 of the 63 annual conferences of the United Methodist Church in the United States in 2013 indicated that approximately 1% of those who become ordained leave ordained ministry in the first five years.2
  • In 1998 United Methodist pastor and researcher Rolf Memming published the results of his study of 7,147 United Methodist Church elders who were ordained between 1974 and 1983. Among those who responded to questions about the status of their ministry, 7.2% reported that they had left the ministry altogether within ten years of their ordination.3

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

  • Analysis conducted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) office of Research and Evaluation in 2013 looked at the records of 2,455 pastors ordained between January 1, 2001 and July 1, 2008. The research found that, five years after their ordination, 4.8% were no longer on the ELCA clergy roster. 4

Episcopal Church

  • Analysis conducted by the Office of Research of the Church Pension Group in 2013 concluded that 9% of the employable clergy who had been ordained in the Episcopal Church USA since 2001 had left the ministry.5

Church of the Nazarene

  • A research paper presented by Dr. Greg Crow at the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers Annual Meeting in 2010 reported that the average annual attrition rate for new ministers in the Church of the Nazarene was “slightly below 3%, so that at five years the total attrition is 16%.”6

Presbyterian Church USA

  • In 2013 the Research Services office of the Presbyterian Mission Agency identified people ordained to a pastoral call in the Presbyterian Church USA in 2000, 2001, and 2002, then looked at their call status five years after their ordination. Approximately 22.5% fell into the categories of “had no valid call” or “were no longer ordained ministers in the PC (USA).”  These categories include ministers who had retired, who had been defrocked, who had switched denominations, who were unemployed and awaiting a new call, and who were taking a break for family or personal reasons, as well as those who had chosen to permanently leave congregational ministry.7
  • Research published by the Presbyterian Church USA in July 1999 estimated that, of the approximately 3,000 people ordained in that denomination between 1990 and 1997, around 8% were not serving in an officially recognized Presbyterian ministry. Approximately 175 of those 250 people (5% of the original 3,000) were not seeking another call. Further, when 125 of those ordained in 1990–97 who were not in active ministry were surveyed, around 25% indicated that they were in that situation because of negative experiences.8

Why the Wide Range?

So how do we account for the wide variation in these estimated attrition rates—from 1% on the low end all the way up to 16% in the first five years?

For one thing, it may make a difference what kinds of Christian ministers are being studied. The source we found for the 30% to 40% attrition rate was associated with Fuller Theological Seminary, a nondenominational, evangelical school. In our research, we collected data mainly from the church governing bodies of mainline protestant denominations; their centralized structure enables them to collect solid data on a national scale.

One of the denominational research analysts that we contacted theorized that the attrition rate among evangelical and nondenominational pastors may be higher than the rate among those in mainline denominations. He observed that clergy in large, national denominations may benefit from structures such as salary guidelines, pastor conferences, and support systems to help them work through challenging situations.

Another factor may be the different procedures that people must follow to become ordained. In some denominations, seminary graduates must spend a certain amount of time working in a church before they qualify for ordination. Those who are not placed with a congregation or can’t find a job with one cannot become ordained; instead, they may pursue other ministry roles, such as chaplain or pastoral counselor.

Our analysis did not count individuals in this situation among those who had left congregational ministry, however—we only examined data on people who were ordained. Omitting the unordained may have artificially lowered some of the attrition rates calculated.

Is Attrition the Real Problem?

In general, it appears that the attrition rate for new protestant clergy is not as high as commonly thought, at least not in the mainline denominations.

The range of attrition rates we found compares favorably with those of other demanding professions that require higher education:

  • In 2007 the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported on a study of 8,100 undergraduate students who had completed bachelor’s degrees in the 1992–93 academic year. Approximately 57% of the education majors were not teaching ten years later, when follow-up interviews were conducted—29% who had never taught, plus 29% who were former teachers.9
  • A national survey was conducted in 2006 of 2,058 physicians who had been certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in either general internal medicine or an internal medicine subspecialty between 1990 and 1995. Researchers found that 17% of those certified in general internal medicine were no longer practicing it a decade later.10
  • AMN Healthcare’s annual survey received responses from 2,931 registered nurses nationwide in 2012. Four percent of respondents indicated that their career plans were to leave nursing and seek work in another field. Also, 16% of younger nurses (age 19–39) reported that if they were starting out today, they would not choose nursing as their career.11 A 2010 analysis of data from the 2004 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses (NSSRN) found that 4% of individuals with nurse training were working in non-nursing occupations, though this was attributed at least in part to higher pay.12

It may be that the most important question to ask, when considering the future of clergy formation, is not “How can we prepare seminarians so they don’t quit in their first five years of congregational ministry?” but rather  “How can we help seminarians be better prepared to meet the needs and challenges of a changing church in a changing world?”



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1 Tina Dirmann, “Pastoral Pressures Test Faith,” Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1999,

2 Trip Lowery, PowerPoint presentation delivered at the Association of United Methodist Conference Pension and Benefits Officers (AUMCPBO) Annual Meeting, New Orleans, LA, October 2013, In a personal email exchange that occurred on November 6, 2013, the Rev. Lowery pointed out that only 86% of those who begin the ordination process in the United Methodist Church (as a “certified candidate”) finish the ordination process, becoming ordained clergy. “Once a candidate begins the process, they typically complete it and once they complete it, they typically remain for at least five years,” he commented. “The larger problem doesn’t seem to be retention. It seems to be entrance.”

3 Rolf Memming, “United Methodist Ordained Ministry in Transition (Trends in Ordination and Careers),” in The People(s) Called Methodist: Forms and Reforms of Their Life, William B. Lawrence, Dennis M. Campbell, and Russell E. Richey, eds. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 129-150. Those counted as having left the ministry within ten years of ordination included clergy who chose to withdraw from United Methodist ministry to unite with another denomination, clergy who surrendered their credentials voluntarily, and clergy who were terminated under complaints and charges, for the most part relating to allegations of sexual misconduct.

4 Marty Smith, email message to Research Associate Christine Ummel Hosler, October 28, 2013. The 4.8% figure includes both pastors who left alone and those who took their congregations with them in leaving the denomination. During the time period analyzed, the ELCA experienced a higher than normal number of pastors leaving the roster because of the August 2009 vote by the Churchwide Assembly allowing congregations to call and ordain gays and lesbians in committed monogamous relationships to serve as clergy. The complete analysis breakdown was as follows: 84.4% (2,072) were continuing in congregational ministry; 5.4% (132) had moved into non-congregational ministry; 4.8% (118) had left the clergy roster; 2.8% (69) were “on leave from call,” a transitional status from which some clergy receive a call to ordained ministry; 1.2% (29) were retired; 0.7% (18) were deceased; and 0.7% (17) were on continuing disability.

5 Anne Hurst, email message to Research Associate Christine Ummel Hosler, October 8, 2013. To obtain this figure, the Office of Research identified the number of clergy who had been ordained since 2001 and isolated the ones who were not currently employed. From that amount the analysts removed clergy who had died, retired, or officially left the Episcopal Church, before calculating the remainder as a percentage of the total number of employable priests who had been ordained since 2001.

6 Greg Crow, “Region, Role and Size as Risk Factors in Clergy Attrition” (paper presented at the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers Annual Meeting, Lenexa, KS, March 2010), This analysis was based on data from a study conducted in the spring of 2007 of 2,143 ministers in the Church of the Nazarene who took their first professional assignment between January 1, 1980 and December 31, 1985. In personal email correspondence that occurred later, Dr. Greg Crow was kind enough to point out that the ordination process in the Church of the Nazarene differs from the process in many other denominations in that the course of study does not require seminary training.

7 Jack Marcum, email message to Research Associate Christine Ummel Hosler, November 15, 2013.

8 Presbyterian Church USA Research Services, “Ministers Ordained in the 1990s: A Look at Clergy Who Have Left the Ministry” (Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Church USA, 1999). Jack Marcum of the Research Services office of the Presbyterian Mission Agency clarified for us that the terms “validated ministry” and “presbytery-validated ministry,” used in the report, refer to both people who serve in a congregation as a pastor and to people in other positions (e.g., seminary professor, pastoral counselor, judicatory official, chaplain, etc.) that the Presbyterian Church also recognizes as ministry roles. For “validated ministry” I have substituted “officially recognized Presbyterian ministry” above.

9 U.S. Department of Education, To Teach or Not to Teach? Teaching Experience and Preparation Among 1992–93 Bachelor’s Degree Recipients 10 Years After College, NCES 2007-163 (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 2007), 3, 11-12. Accessed January 6, 2014, Footnote: “Although the two estimates each round to 29 and thus their sum would appear to be 58, summing the unrounded estimates produces 57.4.”

10 Wayne H. Bylsma, Gerald K. Arnold, Gregory S. Fortna, and Rebecca S. Lipner “Where Have All the General Internists Gone?” abstract, Journal of General Internal Medicine Vol. 25, Number 10 (October 2010), doi: 10.1007/s11606-010-1349-2. Accessed January 7, 2014, The “Conclusions” section of the abstract reads “About one in six general internists leave IM [internal medicine] by mid-career compared to one in 25 IM subspecialists. Although research finds that doctors leave medicine because of dissatisfaction, this study was inconclusive about whether general internists left IM in greater proportion than IM subspecialists for this reason. A more likely explanation is that GIM [general internal medicine] serves as a stepping stone to careers outside of IM.” See also Christine S. Moyer, “Internist attrition a factor in primary care physician shortage,” American Medical News, May 26, 2010,

11 2012 Survey of Registered Nurses: Job Satisfaction, Career Patterns and Trajectories (San Diego, CA: AMN Healthcare, Inc., November 20, 2012),

12 Stephen Rubb, “Earnings of Nurses in Non-Nursing Occupations: Evidence of Significant Nursing Dissatisfaction?” International Journal of Arts and Sciences 3:13 (2010): 508-518,