In my denomination, Unitarian Universalism, it’s the time of year when many ministers are preparing to transition. Some are preparing to leave congregations, while others are looking forward to new callings ahead. Not all will be doing both, and not just because of retirement.

See, there’s a crisis in ministry that crosses denominational and even faith lines. According to one poll from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research revealed that, as of the Fall of 2023, 53% of clergy have considered leaving the ministry. There’s a myriad of reasons: post-COVID burnout, raid shifts in the religious landscape in the United States, increased political polarization, conflict in the congregation, and unexpected administrative duties among them. But what’s clear is fewer clergy are finding joy and fulfillment in their vocations in these times.

Even among new seminary graduates in my faith tradition, there’s a pattern of more and more going into community ministry positions such as chaplaincy. This wouldn’t be a problem except that it means there aren’t enough parish ministers to go around these days, or enough to replace the number who are retiring early.

I’d be willing to bet there are some of you among that 53% reading this article. What do you do when you’re wondering whether to stay in the ministry?

  • Take time to take care of yourself. Family and friend connections and hobbies and activities outside the church are essential to prevent burnout. After all, as Michael Hyatt once said, “You can’t take care of anyone else unless you first take care of yourself.” Too many clergy give so much of themselves they have no time for themselves. Setting boundaries around your time ensures you will have time to take care of yourself. Insist on time to yourself and make sure it’s in your contract or letter of agreement because self-care is an essential function of ministry. And I shouldn’t have to say it: use your vacation and study leave! It’s there for a reason: to give you time to rest and renew!
  • Know that sometimes it’s okay to walk away. Imposter syndrome and fear of failure and the future means too many clergy stay in parishes long after they should have left. Here’s the reality: if you can’t love your people even for their faults, if your ministry has become more about putting out fires than growing spiritually mature people, if you dread going to work everyday, it may be time to think about how to exit your ministry. While money is a necessity in a capitalist system, no amount of money is worth sacrificing yourself indefinitely. Even if you 100% believe the situation is your congregation’s fault, it’s best to open the position for someone else who might be able to work with your people than to force yourself into a position that isn’t feeding you or them.
  • Focus on professional development. You mean giving yourself more work may be a way to discern your future in ministry? Think of it this way: if what you’re doing just isn’t working anymore, learning new skills and taking time for retreats and workshops can give you a new perspective on your vocation. Whatever it is, from a large endeavor such as a spiritual direction class to a retreat that encourages you to reconnect with the Sacred, professional development can help you find your bearings when your future in ministry is uncertain, and maybe even help find a new passion in ministry. And if your position doesn’t offer professional expenses to help with such development (or they try to control what your development looks like), it may be time to consider whether you’re getting what you need for your own growth.
  • Get an outside perspective, and not necessarily from someone enmeshed in the situation themselves such as a spouse or partner. This is the reality: it’s hardest to take an impartial view of a situation when stress and burnout are high and it seems like nothing is going right. Maybe it’s time to ask for a denominational staff member or a congregational consultant to come in and tell you what they think. Find someone you trust who can be a partner in offering another picture of what’s going on, and call them sooner than later.
  • Have a support team in place to help in your discernment. None of us exists on an isolated desert island. Though it’s been said ministry is the loneliest profession, that’s all the more reason to know that we need other people, especially when we’re struggling to figure out our place in the world. Have you considered who may be on your support team? Therapists, spiritual directors and companions, clergy coaches, dreamworkers, colleagues, mentors, and spiritual teachers are all among the people who can help us find our bearings when it seems we’re lost in a sea of uncertainty.

If you are among the 53% of clergy thinking about leaving the ministry, there are things you can do to figure out what your next steps are. Don’t be ashamed to admit that you’re struggling; the sooner you can take steps towards discernment, the quicker you’ll be on a path to fulfillment in your vocation.

If you’re trying to figure out what’s next for you in ministry, I’d be honored to be on your support team! Reach out to me today for a FREE consultation today to find out how I can help on your journey!

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