Why some priests leave

A few years ago, there was a rumor that young priests in the United States were leaving the priesthood in large numbers. Sociologist Dean Hoge was tasked to study this situation, and his findings were published in “The First Five Years of Priesthood” (Liturgical Press, $24.95) in 2002. One of the first findings was that young priests actually were not leaving in large numbers. In fact, I recall Hoge telling me only between 10 and 12 percent had left. Compared to the almost 50 percent of marriages that were failing at the time, this actually was an encouraging finding.

It should also be noted that young priests, as well as priests in general in the United States, generally are happy with their lives and ministries. In my own 2009 survey of 2,482 American priests published in “Why Priests are Happy” (Ave Maria Press, $18.95), I posed the survey item, “Overall, I am happy as a priest,” with 92 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing (see also sidebar below). Hoge and I both found that priestly happiness actually has been increasing in the last few decades.

These American results were confirmed in a United Kingdom government-sponsored study published by its Office for National Statistics in 2014. They surveyed people in 274 occupations, and the group that was the happiest with their lives and work were clergy. These and other studies suggest that priesthood is, for the most part, a happy and rewarding life.

A Few Priests are Leaving

But, some priests do leave ministry, and it is important to know why. In his study, Hoge went on to compare those priests who left priesthood in the first 10 years of ministry with those who did not. Hoge concluded that “an important lesson” is that priests who resigned often felt “lonely or unappreciated.” Contrary to some popular notions, he said it was not celibacy per se that led to their departure. Rather, it was the individual’s personal difficulties in adapting and connecting. Rather than building a network of friends and adjusting to priestly life, the priests who left felt lonely, isolated and disconnected. On the other hand, the majority that stayed made friends and built a satisfying personal life.

In my own 2009 study of priests, the survey included the item: “I am thinking of leaving the priesthood.” Interestingly, 3.1 percent said they were thinking of leaving. I had asked the same question previously in my 2004 study, and a higher percent (5.9) said “yes.” This indicates that the percentage of priests thinking of leaving is low, and getting lower.

Factors Relating to Leaving

In Hoge’s study, both resigned priests and active priests found great satisfaction in the ministerial life of a priest. About 90 percent of both found it personally enriching to do the things that priests typically do: administering the sacraments, presiding over the liturgy and preaching the word.

Rather, Hoge found it was the personal life of resigned priests that had suffered. Resigned priests struggled more with loneliness, they were less able to establish a satisfying private living space, and they struggled with celibacy. On the other hand, Hoge found, “Happy and fulfilled priests rarely resign, even if they find themselves in love.” Indeed, Hoge concluded, rather than pointing simply to celibacy, “more than one motivation is present in almost all cases of priestly resignation.”

In my own study, I looked at factors that correlated highly with priests who were thinking of leaving. Some of the highest correlations were a negative view of celibacy, depression, feeling lonely and unappreciated, and having a dysfunctional childhood. This supported Hoge’s findings that lonely, isolated priests are more likely to resign. In addition, those who come from dysfunctional backgrounds are at higher risk as well.

In my 2009 study, I gave the priests the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which posits three factors in burnout: a low sense of personal accomplishment (PA), a high rate of emotional exhaustion (EE) and a high rate of depersonalization (DP). My study found that the burnout rate among priests in general is surprisingly much lower than the general population. To be sure, some priests, approximately 2 percent, did score poorly on all three scales, indicating a high level of burnout. But on the aggregate, their scores were much better than their lay counterparts.

My study found that there were significant correlations between the three factors of the MBI and thoughts of resignation, especially two of the factors: emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. Thus those priests who are burned out are at elevated risk for leaving the priesthood.

Importance of Screening and Human Formation

The new Ratio Fundamentalis, published by the Congregation for the Clergy in December 2016, acknowledged human formation as the “foundation of all priestly formation” (No. 94). Indeed, when human formation is seriously lacking, the priest’s personal life — or “house” — is built on sand and surely will collapse (see Mt 7:26-27).

A few young priests find that their psychological makeup simply is not suited to the personal demands of ministry. A priest’s days are filled with hospital visits, marriages, funerals, baptisms, and with the lives of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of people. Those priests who come from severely traumatic childhoods may find such a life to be excessively difficult, if not impossible.

In my study, the negative correlation between dysfunctional childhood and happiness was strong. For some candidates for the priesthood, a course of psychotherapy will be essential in their future ability to live the life of a priest. This was recognized in the Congregation for Catholic Education’s 2008 document Guidelines for the Use of Psychology in the Admission and Formation of Candidates for the Priesthood (see No. 5). For other candidates, the depth of their trauma makes them unsuited to the priestly life. These hopefully are identified in the initial candidate screening, or at least during the early years of formation.

The critical nature of human formation was highlighted in the 2011 study “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors” by John Jay University for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Priests who had human formation programs as seminarians were less likely to be subsequently accused of abuse as priests.

The importance of human formation in priesthood tragically has been made clear in the wake of the child sexual abuse scandals sweeping across the globe. Cases are surfacing in France, Austria, Italy, Argentina, Colombia, Guam, China, the Philippines, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Poland and more. Human formation is effective in reducing priestly problems, and it is urgently needed.

Implications for Formation

If priests typically leave because they are lonely, isolated and disconnected, then it is clear that building relationships is fundamental to their formation. Many young men come into the seminary already possessing relationship skills, but some do not. There are signs that our young people in general are becoming less adept at building real human relationships. When they are buried in their computer screens and smartphones and absorbed in social media, the task of directly connecting to human beings increasingly may be neglected. And they increasingly come from broken families and/or families with few children, which can make their early years more isolated.

Happy Priests: By the Numbers
A study conducted by Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti includes among its findings the following statistics on the happiness of priests:

The seminary can be a good place to learn relationship skills and to build healthy relationships with one’s peers. Conversely, the seminarian who finishes a multiyear formation program without having made any good friends is likely headed for problems in priesthood.

In addition to building relationships, I believe the events of our era highlight the need for a stronger direct screening and training in human sexuality and celibacy. The new Ratio Fundamentalis recognized the importance of a “well integrated sexuality” (No. 94).

Standard psychological tests typically used to screen potential seminarians are inadequate in this area. I recommend a psychosexual clinical interview accomplished by a trained mental health professional. In this confidential interview, conducted with the client’s consent, the clinician goes through his psychosexual history with the candidate. The experienced clinician looks for markers of healthy development as well as potential signs of dysfunction. This can be invaluable in screening out potential future disasters in some men and pointing out areas for needed growth for others. Such interviews need to be culturally sensitive and access to the results restricted.

Seminary formation ought to include workshops and pastoral supervision focused directly on seminarians’ understanding and integration of their sexuality as a celibate.

The message needs to be clear and unequivocal: Priests are expected to live their lives with full integrity. Increasingly, Church leaders are recognizing that those who do not will likely lose the privilege of ministry.

The formation process also can take advantage of two additional periods of formation mentioned in the Ratio Fundamentalis: the propaedeutic stage and the pastoral stage (vocational synthesis).

The propaedeutic stage, normally 1-2 years, precedes major seminary formation. The Congregation for Catholic Education believes this time is especially important for spiritual and human formation. It should “nurture a greater self-awareness for personal growth,” and it should foster a “solid human” formation in addition to spiritual development (Nos. 59-60).

The pastoral stage is meant to be the time between finishing one’s seminary studies and subsequent ordination to priesthood. Here the seminarian, in a pastoral setting, is accompanied as he prepares for priestly ordination and ministry. The one who accompanies him, perhaps a pastor, should strive to help him integrate all of his previous formation, including his humanity and sexuality, into his ministerial life (Nos. 74-76).


In many parts of the world, satisfaction among priests is very high. Priests like being priests, and they like doing what priests do. The large majority is able to adjust to the demanding life of a priest and to thrive. But a few do not.

We are saddened when even one person leaves the priesthood, and we often engage in a time of critical examination of what went wrong. Such self-examination of priesthood, priestly formation and the decisions made concerning this priest’s life are not without its benefits. However, because the majority of priests thrive in priestly life and ministry, we must conclude that the current system is essentially sound. Yet, it can always be improved. The new Ratio Fundamentalis, for example, sets a high standard for priestly formation, and one that we continually strive to reach.

What is unseen and of greatest importance is the mysterious movement of God’s grace. Ultimately, it is he who makes us whole, and it is God’s grace that makes our ministries life-giving for others and for ourselves.

MSGR. STEPHEN J. ROSSETTI, Ph.D, D.Min., is president emeritus of the Saint Luke Institute. He teaches at The Catholic University of America and at the Gregorian University in Rome where he is a visiting professor.