Do Seminary Grads Burn Out Quickly?

You often hear people lament the high dropout rate of those entering vocational ministry, particularly in their first few years. For example, in a Leadership Journal article, John Ortberg repeated the statistic that ”90 percent of people who enter vocational ministry will end up in another field.” I’ve heard similar comments to the effect that 50% of more of seminary grads will drop out of ministry within the first five years.

Those are pretty startling claims. If people are burning out of ministry that quickly, then we are doing something desperately wrong.

The problem is that it’s not true.

Actually, I can’t say for sure whether Ortberg’s statistic is true, since his comment refers to anyone who enters vocational ministry, not just seminary graduates. But seminary graduates as a whole have a good track record for staying in ministry over the long haul. As Daniel Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools, says:

Persons educated for ministry tend to end up in ministry, stay in ministry, and believe that their education provided good preparation for what they are doing. (Earthen Vessels: Hopeful Reflections on the Work and Future of Theological Schools (Eerdmans, 2008), p. 131.)

Indeed, according to an Auburn Center study conducted in 2008, “nearly 90% of M.Div. graduates go immediately into some form of professional religious service” And only 5% of those will leave vocational ministry within the first 5 years, only 10% within 10 years. So the actual rate at which M.Div. graduates leave vocational ministry is only 1% per year on average.

The rates for women in ministry are somewhat different with fewer entering vocational ministry upon graduation and more dropping out in the first five years (the study suggested a number of possible reasons for this, but did not resolve the question). But even here the vast majority stay in vocational ministry for the long haul.

So, according to the numbers at least, seminary grads fare very well in both the short term (5 years) and medium term (10 years). I haven’t seen any studies yet that go beyond 10 years. But I also haven’t seen anything to suggest a change in this pattern. So it seems reasonable to conclude that seminary graduates as a whole tend to enter vocational ministry and remain in vocational ministry at very high rates.

Do people burn out in ministry? Absolutely. I’ve seen it happen. And I came close to experiencing it myself. But the statistics suggest that those who make it through their seminary training actually experience fairly long-term involvement in vocational ministry. And that should be a source of encouragement to us all.

[You may also be interested in Stop Blaming the Seminaries, another post that looks at the importance of theological education.]

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

10 thoughts on “Do Seminary Grads Burn Out Quickly?

  1. Where do the other numbers come from? I have heard them used for some time and wonder where they came from and why. I have actually heard the other numbers used at seminaries. I think another issue may be the completion rate of those who enter seminary.

  2. Honestly, I have no idea where those numbers come from. I’ve yet to see any valid source for these numbers, and the only studies I have seen all suggest that seminary grads tend to stay in ministry much longer than people think. Ministry burnout is a very real problem, but it may not be as widespread as we fear.

    And completion rate is definitely an issue that we need to pay attention to. We’re trying to do a better job of tracking those rates ourselves. But that gets complicated when you have a lot of part time students like we do.

    1. Hi,

      and burn out is only one issue for leaving ministry. Another one is getting kicked out. I think the SBC may be the best source since they have such a large sample.

      There is a lot of misinformation out there, with stats all over the place. But HB London and the SBC tend to be quoted a lot. These stats show a different story than the Auburn study.

      Only 1 of every 20 ordained to the gospel ministry actively serve until retirement.
      – From H.B. London, Jr. Focus on the Family “Pastor’s Weekly Briefing”

      “The 1999 total of pastors fired, which also reported on full-time pastors, bivocational pastors and full-time staff, was 1,077 in 26 SBC state conventions.

      The most shocking statistic from this study is that only 55 percent of pastors who experienced forced termination returned to church-related vocations while 45 percent did not.”

      In 1998, Dr. Fred Gage (Wounded Heroes) stated that 6,000 SBC pastors leave the ministry each year.

      And from Leadership magazine’s website: “No one knows how many of the 19,200 pastors required to leave ministry each year do so because of a moral lapse.”

      Thoughts?

      1. My first question would be to determine the source of these stats as well. As you’ve rightly pointed out, stats are a tricky business. At least with the Auburn study, we know exactly where the stats came from and the methodology they used to get them. That gives us a basis for assessing the validity of the stats. Since I don’t know how these other stats were generated, it’s hard to know exactly what to do with them.

        It’s also important to make sure that we’re comparing apples to apples. London’s stat probably covers a broader group than I have in mind. Lots of people are ordained to ministry without going to seminary. So if he has in mind the total pool of pastors in America, that’s a much broader group, which may well result in very different statistics. (I don’t know that’s the case. But it’s possible.) The same would be true for the Gage stat since the SBC does not require a seminary degree for ordination.

        And I think forced terminations would have come up in the Auburn study, since that would have been among the reasons a person leaves ministry.

        None of this means that the stats you report are incorrect. Just that all stats need to be looked at very carefully. I like the Auburn study because it is broader than a single denomination (which is what most earlier studies focused on) and it lets us see how it gathered its data.

        1. If you know of any other reliable studies related to this issue please do post them.

          I feel a 3rd party is the only reliable approach. There is a conflict of interest when a seminary does survey research on its own (or its industry’s) effectiveness.

          Apples to apples is very hard to find, for sure.

          Again, it is not that I think the information may be inaccurate, but the motivation to reply to a survey on ministry endurance is just not there for those who actually opted out.

          So, we may never know.

          Well, I certainly hope it is 90%, but I seriously doubt it.

          I am seeking as realistic of an assessment as possible.

  3. Fair enough. I always keep my eye out for this kind of thing. So if I run across any other studies on this, I’ll definitely post them here. Thanks.

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