When Clergy Leave a Denomination

When Clergy Leave a Denomination

It seems like a lot of pastors are leaving one denomination for another these days. The exodus isn’t limited to any specific denomination but this phenomena is somewhat new to my tribe, the Church of the Nazarene. It is probably magnified by the availability of social media as a tool for “making an exit”. While it may be an over-generalization, the exiting clergy are younger, seminary-educated, and mostly white. Their reasons are more complex than I can address in a single blog. However, I had one of those “ah-ha” moments recently that opened me to think in different ways about this.

I am indebted to Harold Ivan Smith, Shawna Songer Gaines, Michael Christenson, and Tim Green for tipping over the first domino in this meandering trail of thought. In other words, we are headed to the topic mentioned above but will take a few detours to get there. We were hosting a webinar a few weeks ago on “When Prosperity Gospel Complicates Thorough Bereaving”. I highly recommend it. (https://trevecca.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=609bb752-9c8d-4a80-94a2-ad4301476be9)  Harold Ivan presented an excellent paper addressing the death of several leaders in the prosperity gospel movement in America, and how their death unsettled the faith of their followers (who believed in healing formulae, name-it-and-claim-it faith pronouncements, and other practices). When your preacher says that “God is bigger than COVID” and “COVID won’t keep us from worshipping together”, and then dies from COVID, what do you do? The paper was not a critique of prosperity gospel theology but rather an attempt to address the unsettledness of a life-altering, faith-altering loss.

The discussion led to Pastor Shawna and Psychologist Michael talking about the folly of trying to correct someone’s theology in a funeral sermon or in grief counseling. To confront what someone has deeply believed in the context of loss, may do even worse damage. Following the death of their leaders, many prosperity gospel proponents actually doubled down on their faith, taking a defensive posture when challenged by “another theology”. The wiser pastoral move may be to recognize that someone is grieving, and potentially in one of the early Kubler-Ross stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, or depression. A more pastoral approach, rather than correcting their theology or critiquing their assumptions, may be to ask leading questions, offer silent presence, and to listen carefully… at least in the moment.

This got me to thinking about a lot of other grief that we are facing in our congregations: people whose nationalist faith believes that Trump was the God-ordained president, people who detect the collapse of white dominance in the face of racist awareness, people who fear the demise of law and order, people who have no categories for the sexual orientation discussion going on, people who react to the black church revival of woke language, people who champion gay marriage, people who watch too much slanted news, people who have bought into conspiracy theories. And the list goes on, and on, and on.

Over the past two years, there has been sufficient upheaval in our culture to unsettle the faith of people whose world has not turned out as their faith wished it to. In reaction to this “loss”, there is deep grief. People are in denial, thus the openness to conspiracy theories, fake news, alternate expressions of the truth, and huddling with like-minded folk. People are angry, thus the octane of social media posts, shaming, attacking leaders, and demanding consent. People are bargaining with the leaders of churches, denominations, colleges, businesses, etc. to “see it my way or watch the door close behind me on my way out”. People are depressed and it is showing up in lethargy, absence, loss of passion, resignation, and suicide.

Sadly, many leaders have assumed that these divisive issues can be corrected by head-on sermons, blog-critiques, debates, and social media posts. I have certainly taken my sermonic shots at correcting bad theology… and then wondered why people grew even more defensive of their position rather than discovering new truth. I am beginning to realize that they are grieving. The process of having your faith shattered does not immediately open you to a new theological foundation for your life. Maybe we need to intentionally sit with people longer in their grief before we start dismantling their faulty faith propositions.

Which leads me, finally, to pastors leaving denominations. Again, the issues are more complex than this simple blog, but maybe there is a connection to grief. Young theologians/pastors come fresh from an exciting education declaring a gospel that can turn the world upside down. I was that young pastor once. Imagine, along with me, that same young pastor today. For seven educational years, he/she lived in the context of thinking and studying daily the kingdom of God and the person of Christ. The church is created in their mind and heart before the first paycheck is drawn from a local congregation. She/he has powerful tools of ministry – preaching, holy conversation, writing, reading the saints, public prayer. In a world of podcasts, he/she is exposed daily to thinkers and practitioners who are leading the church into newness. As this pastor encounters a world of prosperity gospel, racist systems, sexual confusion, Christian nationalism, religious power addiction, conspiracy theory, and whatever else, the pastor is sure that he/she can preach, talk, and write their way to changing minds. When opposition arises, she/he just gets louder, assured that their rightness will be vindicated by God in the caving of resistance. What the pastor never imagines is that they are giving their people, who are grieving the unsettling of their own faith, ample practice at denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. After a few years of doing this, the pastor begins to experience the loss of theological hopes and dreams. The pastor slowly enters the world of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. The pastor is grieving a loss and does not know what to name it.

I see signs of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression in the attempts of clergy to change their denomination by posting in social media. As this is resisted, the final act of courage seems to be an announced exit from the church they could not change. And, yes, sometimes we need to walk away.

Please hear me, bad theology needs correcting. Social issues need careful Biblical thinking. The church has plenty personal and corporate sin. This is not a defense of “hanging in there”, “mouthing the company mantra”, or “ignoring the elephant in the room”. Change is needed. But what I am suggesting is that we need to recognize the grief existing among us, whether we know it or not. We need pastors who can name the grief and live into it with our people. The loss of a collapsing faith is a necessary part of the journey toward the last phase of grief – acceptance. Only then is there an openness to considering the gospel in new light.

The pastor who walks someone through his or her grief may be the person trusted to help rebuild faith. And, rather than championing a solution to bad church theology via posting, posturing, and preaching, we might start seeing people through eyes that love the grieving, even when they don’t know they’re grieving. I suppose what I am suggesting is that pastors (those who can grasp this), stay and do the hard grief work among their people rather than leaving. There are exits that make sense. But there are also exits that are trying to short-circuit grief.

With no shame toward any, eyes open to grieve my own church, and love for the people of God, I humbly offer these thoughts.


Dan Boone

Footnote: The Lily Foundation has identified a concerning pattern of young pastors leaving the ministry (not just moving to a different denomination) in the first 5 years of congregational service. They established a grant which Trevecca Nazarene University applied for and received. Over the coming 5 years, Trevecca will be engaging with young clergy in three pastoral settings: small congregations under 100, diverse congregations, and church plants. The aim of this program is to serve pastors in ways that enable them to sustain their calling. Dr. Mary Smitt is the leader of Thriving in Ministry. 


  1. One of the hardest lessons to learn is not to prove to others how wrong they are

  2. Philip Craig says

    It’s disheartening to see members of the Body of Christ smearing one another. The term “prosperity gospel” is a pejorative used by a hostile media, much like the term “megachurch,” to malign Christians. One of Satan’s most vicious deceptions is that there is some middle ground where we are free to express contempt for other Bible believers. No middle ground exists. The Bible tells us that the Body of Christ is made up of many parts which have different functions. The term you might want to describe this group is “Word of faith believers.”

    There are many streams in this post and not nearly enough room to discuss them. However, there is something I’d like to mention. There are 14 people who I knew from TNU that have died before their time. And I know several others who are sick. The truth is that their faith faltered and Satan came immediately to steal, kill and destroy. (That is no condemnation, my faith has faltered many times. I have much experience in that area.) The time for Christians to be developing in faith is not when they are sick, in grief or find themselves in dangerous circumstances. Fighting the good fight of faith is a process of strengthening faith muscles over time. The Bible shows us that even Jesus had to grow in faith. In grief, it is the Holy Spirit using the Word of God that brings comfort. If the Word of God is not being used correctly, then we will not get the results that God expects from us.

    Perhaps clergy are leaving their denominations because their denominational doctrine is not working for them. Word of faith people (what you call prosperity gospel) have learned how faith works and how important the Word of God is in the battle, something the Church of the Nazarene needs to develop more.

    • Philip, I hope you’ll listen to the podcast noted. There was respect toward our prosperity gospel brothers and sisters as their experiences were noted. The question was not how to correct their theology but rather how to best serve them if and when their theology failed to support them in the loss of a key leader or friend.

      • Philip Craig says

        President Boone, I have listened to the podcast. There is a certain arrogance in assuming that if I just listen to what is said that I will agree with it.

        You say, “There was respect toward our prosperity gospel brothers and sisters as their experiences were noted.”

        I encourage you to go listen to the podcast starting at 29:13 where Harold Ivan Smith is talking about Kenneth Hagin. Here is what he said:

        “Unfortunately [the scripture quoted] did not work for Kenneth Hagin personally. But we won’t go there because those hospital records are very much sealed throughout his lifetime.”

        That, sir, is the height of disrepect. Questioning someone else’s experience of being healed by Jesus? Did Harold Ivan Smith go snooping through hospital records in order to demonstrate Kenneth Hagin a liar?

  3. Becki Privett says

    Much needed words. Much needed study.

  4. Joel Tooley says

    Once more, I am grateful for the way your words challenge my thinking and push me to deepen the sensitivity through which I listen to the Holy Spirit. You are a gift to the church and I love knowing that you are leading the way.

  5. Emily JoAnn Haynes says

    Dr. Boone,
    I appreciate your thoughts which join a much larger conversation about young clergy and our place within the denomination. I specifically appreciate your honest approach of the topic; it seems many are just writing off anyone who leaves without really considering the reasons or if anything at all should be done in response.

    This trend, a new one for us Nazarene’s, but as you note happening on a larger level should be concerning; and is particularly concerning for me.

    I do have a sense that young clergy are grieving…. but I’m not sure that it’s for the reasons you outline. I don’t think your suggestion that if young clergy would be better pastors (sitting with people in their grief) then we would know the way forward and not get to the place of leaving is fair at all (is that what you are saying?). A colleague of mine, a fellow millennial clergy member said recently, “I expected ministry to be hard, but I never expected my colleagues in ministry to the most difficult part of my ministry.”

    To elaborate on this comment, I do think young clergy are grieving. However it isn’t that we can’t change the denomination into our image; it is rather that we have entered an exciting time to serve, lead, and preach (notwithstanding pastoral care) where longstanding injustice is finally coming to light, but rather than being encouraged, championed, helped, mentored, and supported in creative and new inroads to justice and service; our colleagues (read, older colleagues) seem completely bent on discouraging anything too “social media” or “too left” or “too social justicy”. For us, and I’m not speaking for all of us, of course, we went into the world expecting to be a part of a family: a supportive denomination to do hard, but valuable work in the world. Instead, many of us have found hard and valuable work in the world worth doing while spending too much time and energy trying to bring a 100 year denomination up to speed in the Spirit’s movement and the practical incarnation of the gospel of Jesus Christ in 2021. Rather than a family of encouragement, many of us have become the black sheep of the family we have dedicated our lives to serve. This may very well be the cross we have to bear in our time, the grief of being crucified by our own people can and is very real for me and some other young clergy I know.

    So yes, I agree, there is grief; but it’s not because we don’t know how to sit with others in theirs.

    • Rich Schmidt says

      Thank you for sharing your perspective! I’m 20+ years into this pastoring thing, in my mid-40’s, so I don’t count as a “young pastor” anymore. So it’s good to hear from you!

      Personally, I love young pastors and the energy and passion you bring! I want more of you here on my district (Northwest Indiana)!

    • Emily, thanks for your thoughtful reply. You expanded on what I was trying to say by suggesting that there may be several sources of the grief being experienced. I could add a few more to our growing list. I do not contest the reality of “older clergy” opposition that you write about. As a young pastor, I remember the same. As an older university president, I’ve had my fair share of letters regarding our Center for Social Justice, our DACA students, our efforts at environmental justice via an urban farm, and plenty more. These bring grief to my heart as I consider that these are my Wesleyan brothers and sister doing this. My first reactions are denial, defense, anger, depression, etc. But when I pause to ask where their responses are coming from, it helps me approach them more pastorally than I might otherwise. I am wondering if the grief of our world is embedded deeply in both sides of opposing conversations. I hope to bring healing where possible. My hope in the blog was that young clergy who have not considered their experiences in the light of grief might be opened to do so, in the same way that we consider some of the opposition that we all receive in the light of the grief of those opposing us.

      • Terri Neville says

        I had to write this reply because your blog resonated so profoundly with my faith and ministry journey since coming to TNU to open the Salvation Army Social Justice Center 5 years ago. This season’s seismic plate shifting, however, has been unprecedented in my lifetime. Throughout, as many have done, I have spent inordinately more time listening, learning, and lamenting than landing. It has been life changing and unmistakably preparatory as the Spirit keeps leading me deeper and deeper into the grieving pain of the disappointed, disillusioned, disoriented, dismissed and well, just plain dissed.
        The greatest gift of clarity arising from the rubble has been a clearer glimpse into the grieving heart of God. Of course, we sing, study, and find comfort in reciting scripture about the height, depth, and width of God’s love for us all. But then we tend to practice that suffering and grief are not Godly. We act as if suffering and grief are bad fruits –antithetical, even, to receipt of the GOOD NEWS of the gospel. Our alienation with grief is apparent when we encounter a grieving heart. Sadly the default response is to turn our eyes away, stumble over what to say or do and opt for doing nothing … at best!
        One beautiful thing God is doing so relentlessly during these uncertain times is waking us up to the truth of who God is – not just that God is – but who God is. So many people have brought their grieving hearts to the feet of Jesus and have experienced the truth of who our God of holy love is. God is not telling us to pick ourselves up by our bootstraps or to do something about our lack of faith. God is telling us what he is always telling us – I love you, I hear your heart’s cry, and I am with you in your grief. Yes, I know …. Joy comes in the morning … however … God is orchestrating all creation to play one message on repeat — “Make no mistake, suffering and grief are sacred.” Suffering and Grief are not relegated to the sinful human category. Suffering and grief are in the God category. Suffering is sacred ground. When one enters the pain of another both can be certain of a transformative encounter with Jesus, our suffering Savior who is already there.
        I am still grieving the fact that the fault lines in the practical expressions of our holiness movements have exposed a deeper discipleship and heart crisis. I am still grieving the tragic spiritual toll occasioned by many of our brothers and sisters in Christ. I am thankful that out of communal grief, the Spirit moves us to pray expectantly for an awakening to a fresh, transformational understanding of just how high, wide and deep God’s love is for us. Our God of holy love suffers for and with us and leads us by His Spirit to do the same. May it be so.

        • Thanks Terri. Our work together among the holiness families (Nazarene and Salvation Army) has been a gift to me. I love the SA officers and hope to be helpful to them in their tough assignments.

  6. Ryan Quanstrom says

    For how long have you been the president of TNU now? How many young leaders who leave had been morally shaped by the university you lead? Who led them to be the types of leaders they are? Where was their moral and spiritual formation?
    Confession of complicity would go a long way in making this essay palatable. I’ll confess that I’m sore on this issue in part because most no longer Nazarene clergy I know did not leave. They were pushed out by unchecked DSs. If you’re looking for the disease, it isn’t just the spiritual immaturity of young pastors, it’s also the ordination system, the education system, the DSs. We have systemic problems that are more consequential than the moral failings of “young clergy.”

    • Ryan, thanks for the challenge. Yes, I am complicit in the development of our clergy as the leader of a Nazarene university that prepares some of them. I’ve been here 16 years now. One of the ongoing/never-ending conversations I’m in is how we prepare our leaders to face a changing and challenging culture. I suppose we’ll never get it right. My interest in participating in the Lily grant is that some ministerial preparation cannot occur until one is steeped in the daily work of the congregation. Hopefully, we have built a foundation for ministry that does not have to be rebuilt. My sole purpose in the blog was to suggest that grief may be playing a role in what we are seeing. I don’t recall suggesting that our young clergy have moral failing or are immature, just that they might consider the role that grief plays in congregational or denominational disappointment.

      • jeffrey purganan says

        I think this is the most belittling (though not necessarily intended to be):

        “I see signs of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression in the attempts of clergy to change their denomination by posting in social media. As this is resisted, the final act of courage seems to be an announced exit from the church they could not change. And, yes, sometimes we need to walk away.”

        The framing of clergy who leave as “less than courageous”… is where I can see our colleagues taking the most offense, especially in light of the comments made by Rev. Haynes above.

        From my own reading, denominational losses across the board doesn’t actually seem like a new problem. Dr. Benefiel has outlined, in recent work, the trending declines that have been in motion for decades. Leaving the denomination seems less like a new problem and more like a problem that is just now becoming a strain on the system. The strain that results from our declining membership and working clergy will only increase as we have fewer trained Wesleyan/Nazarene clergy and congregants which, when combined with the practical necessity to elevate new leaders (many who won’t be Wesleyans), will further displace (often through removal) young trained Wesleyans throughout the USA/Canada org. structure.

        In conclusion, I think that for many young colleagues, leaving the denomination is less about the courage it takes to walk through grief as people are reformed by the gospel message and more about the courage it takes to leave an unfaithful organization.

        • Jeffrey, I am not suggesting that this describes every exit, only those rooted in unrecognized grief. It is the same description of the parishioner who makes a damaging exit in a similar fashion. I am saddened that you have received the blog as an attempt to shame clergy making an exit. I wish I had written this better to avoid that interpretation. My intent is to offer the thought that grief may be playing more of a role in some of this than we have imagined. I’m not engaged in the pissing match regarding whether to leave or not. I’m concerned about the health of my clergy peers who are trying to make sense of their experience.

          • jeffrey purganan says

            To clarify, I don’t think you were trying to belittle clergy, I was merely observing where the offense was rooted.

            I would, however, say this: listen to the younger ministers in this thread telling you it isn’t grief. It is the perceived misalignment of our stated values and the actions taken (or supported) by the structural leadership such as: white/urban flight, unequal pairings of white and minority congregations (esp. owner and “renter” structures), prohibitive college tuition, clergy educational debt, the misogyny of the DS/GS appointment system, etc.

            To use this week’s gospel lection (Mark 6)… How long must young clergy wait before rightly dusting off their shoes “as a testimony” to their commission?

            I would just reiterate that I think Rev. Haynes has the more accurate take on what sort of grief our young colleagues bear.

  7. Randy Anderson says

    Can I still be an old friend while becoming such a fan of your work?

  8. Chuck Parish says

    Dr. Boone, Thank you for your insights into this phenomenon. I read, and then re-read your words. I believe you have helped some of us better understand a piece of our ever changing culture. I know you are not propagating tolerance but compassionate patience. Thanks for addressing this issue with wisdom and grace!

  9. Richard Stout says

    I think you may have struck gold here, my friend. Yes, there are SOOOOO many reasons that factor into these “transitions” that are very much evident, but to consider grief in the midst of it? And our response to it? What a beautiful landscape for us to extend grace and peace into people’s lives. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I’ll be listening to the recording soon.

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