In their own words: Understanding why DCEs have left the profession, and how we can stem the leak of future loss.

Mar 2nd, 2020 | Category: Columns, DCE Ministry
By Sarah Elliott

(Author’s note: Data and demographics were accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge as of the 2016 original publication of this research. Where more recent data were available, it was included.)


Since the 1847 inception of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), as it has been called since 1947, the Synod has been ministering to people in America through its churches and schools (Concordia Historical Institute, 2010). Through its university system, it has been issuing certification for Lutheran schoolteachers to those candidates who have completed an appropriate course of study in a teacher preparation program, who qualify for their respective states’ teaching credential, and who have also satisfied the requirements to become commissioned in the LCMS as a Minister of Religion. Although the typical role of one of these Lutheran teacher graduates was teaching in a traditional parish-based PreK-12 classroom, many found themselves engaged in various other ministries of their local Lutheran congregations, to include teaching Sunday School, leading music ministries, facilitating Bible studies, or coordinating youth ministries, to name a few (Keyne, 1995). 

By 1959, as congregations were recognizing the importance of this simultaneously educational and ministerial role in the parish, the LCMS in convention resolved “that congregations be encouraged to analyze their parish education program, and, where needed, to establish the office of ‘Director of Christian Education’ in order to provide additional leadership for the educational program of the congregation” (Proceedings, 1959, p. 224). Subsequently, the role of Director of Christian Education (DCE) was born within the LCMS. Similar roles have existed in Protestant churches since the early 20th century, and the role is also known in other church bodies as the Director of Religious Education (DRE). 

At the 50th anniversary celebration of DCE ministry in 2009, it was reported that 1,753 individuals had been certified as DCEs in the LCMS (Karpenko, 2009). Six years later, according to the 2015 DCE Directory, that number had risen to 2,118 total DCE graduates, an increase of 21%. However, according to the 2015 DCE Directory, only 551 (approximately 26%) of all DCE graduates were actually serving in an LCMS congregation These data do not account for DCEs who have moved on to other roles within Synod (like teacher, pastor, university professor, and the like), but it does indicate a significant opportunity for understanding why so many DCEs are not serving in congregational settings, and why so many have left professional ministry altogether. 

In 2015, as I began narrowing the focus for my doctoral research, I took particular interest in the topic of DCE attrition rates after hearing and reading the stories of my DCE colleagues and classmates about their personal challenges in ministry and intended or recent departures from the profession. In some ways, what I was hearing and reading resonated all too personally. What follows are excerpts from that research, a qualitative inquiry that sought to understand each participant’s unique story as to why they left the profession, shared in their own words, entitled Stemming the Leak: Understanding the Departure of the Director of Christian Education from Professional Ministry in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (Elliott, 2016).

A review of the literature examined several elements that informed this qualitative inquiry. First, a thorough examination of the theoretical framework of the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory identified generational nuances and perceptions toward workplace dynamics. A further review of such topics as job satisfaction, burnout, and vocational calling were discussed as they pertain to the departure from ministerial professions specifically, and from all professions in general. These mirror some of the reasons DCEs gave for choosing a different profession in the Karpenko et al (2009) study. A review of the historical development of the DCE profession provided overall context to the topic. 

The research methodology was a qualitative inquiry with data collected through recorded interviews of a purposeful sample of participants. First, the population of DCE graduates who are not listed as Active, Candidate, Retired, or Deceased were identified based on a comprehensive list of DCE graduates who were certified between the years 1999-2014 as recorded in the 2015 DCE Directory. Then, through online recruitment efforts and the input of the six DCE program directors at the time, a sample of DCEs who left the profession were invited to participate in individual interviews. 

Prior Research Lays the Foundation

In 2004, McConnell, serving as a DCE program director at Concordia Texas at the time, conducted research on job satisfaction among Directors of Christian Education in the LCMS. His findings were substantial in that he overwhelmingly found that although DCEs were largely satisfied in their roles, many still reported that they planned to leave the profession within a three-year time frame. Participants in McConnell’s (2004) study were asked to project why they might leave, to include career change, personal concerns, family issues, salary, and pastor/staff relations. In spite of overall satisfaction, nearly three in ten participants indicated they were somewhat or very likely to leave the profession, which led McConnell to propose that further research be conducted “to determine why they left and what interventions, if any, would have been significant enough to prevent their leaving” (McConnell, 2004, p. 96). 

In 2009, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the formalizing of this ministry role within the LCMS, Karpenko and a team of researchers who were engaged in DCE ministry set out to determine the career paths of DCEs on the roster of Synod through the DCE Career Path Project – Phase I. In this study, [P]articipants were clustered into eight groupings (status categories) that paralleled the 2008 DCE Directory: congregational DCEs, non-congregational DCEs, pastors, teachers/principals, other commissioned ministers, individuals on candidate status, those no longer on the synod’s roster, and retirees (Karpenko et al, 2009, p. 17). At the time of the Career Path study, 432 of the 769 DCEs who responded (56%) were still actively serving in a DCE position. 

Karpenko et al (2009) ultimately determined there were certain “pull” and “push” themes that resulted in a DCE’s change of career. In an attempt to understand the factors and experiences that either pulled these DCEs away from ministry or pushed them toward another profession – the why – gave framework to the focus of this inquiry. It was further framed by the two recommendations McConnell (2004) made at the conclusion of his research. These two recommendations were precisely the focus of this study, which is guided by the following two research questions: 

  1. What circumstances do former DCEs identify as significant to their decision to leave the profession? 
  2. From the perspective of the subject, what interventions, if any, might have been significant enough to prevent the DCE from leaving the profession?


This study was purposely focused on DCEs within the LCMS. However, it may inform other ministry professions within the LCMS, as well as other similar ministries in other Christian church bodies. Additionally, the data published in the 2015 DCE Directory may not have represented the most recent locations or statuses of DCE graduates. In fact, this was proven to be the case when verifying information with several participants. Further, the findings of this qualitative inquiry are only representative of the experiences of the DCE graduates who participated in the interview. They did not take into account the experiences of DCE graduates who did not participate in the interview. Finally, it must be noted that I am a DCE graduate of one of the DCE programs examined and have departed from the profession of DCE to that of Lutheran schoolteacher. It is important to disclose this potential bias toward the research; however, every effort has been made to minimize bias through open review of procedures and through the inclusion of components of my own story, alongside those of the other participants, as part of the overall narrative.

Generational Nuances, Vocational Calling, Job Satisfaction, and Burnout

A review of the literature indicated there were a number of factors that contribute to one leaving his or her profession. The Strauss-Howe Generational Theory suggests that all individuals within American society fall into generational categories based on a cyclical pattern and that their behaviors in relationship to others and their work may be influenced by the dynamics of the generation into which they were born. All the participants in this research left the profession between 2007 and 2012. The eleven participants were born between the years 1976 and 1986, which, according to the Strauss-Howe Generation Cycle, would place these DCEs as part of the Nomad/Generation X (born 1961-1981) and Hero/Millennial (born 1982-2004) generations (Strauss & Howe, 2000). Attributes of these generations, as posited by Strauss and Howe (1991, 2000), include hard workers with a get-it-done mindset who hold a somewhat jaded view of the world as a result of the tumult surrounding their upbringing (Nomads), and those who crave teamwork and work that is meaningful while valuing diversity and appearing somewhat less committed to their profession (Heroes). Among the participants, seven are Nomads (Generation X), and four are Heroes (Millennials). Interestingly, the four participants who fall among the Hero generation expressed that they would still be serving in DCE ministry had the congregational circumstances leading up to their departures been different. These Millennials perceived themselves to have been very committed, not only to the profession of DCE ministry, but also to the people they were serving at the time they changed careers, contrary to the generalities suggested by Strauss and Howe (2000). 

Vocational calling plays a significant role in one’s career path, and, in the case of the DCE, Karpenko et al (2009) suggested a call to another profession was a strong motivator in changing careers. According to Hansen (1994), “The idea of vocation has an ancient lineage. Its Latin root, vocare, means ‘to call.’ It denotes a summons or bidding to a particular form of service” (p. 410). Phillips (2011) suggests, “Exploration of the construct of vocational calling, although certainly applicable to specific employment, transcends the boundaries of jobs to include purposeful and meaningful involvements” (p. 3). Galles (2013) reports, “The construct of calling refers to the extent to which individuals feel summoned or called to enter a particular career or life role” (p. 241). Similarly, according to the Lutheran tradition, “We don’t choose our vocations; God chooses us for them. The Christian can understand the ordinary labors of life to be charged with meaning. Through our labor, no matter how humble, God is at work” (The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, 2014). Buechner (1992) writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (p. 185). 

For the DCE in the LCMS, this career path is considered a vocational calling. Transitioning to a different vocation would also be viewed as a calling, initiated by God as a means to focus the labors of the Christian worker toward a continued, purposeful, and meaningful involvement in a life of faith. Karpenko et al. (2009) suggest the change of career from DCE to a different profession was often the result of a “pull,” the calling to a different position. Of DCEs-turned-teachers in his study, they expressed such sentiments as “I felt called to the mission field” and “God called me to go into full time leadership in a Lutheran school” (Karpenko et al., 2009, pp. 132-133). Vocation refers to more than just one’s job; vocation is the whole life of the Christian. Brandt, Engelbrecht, and Mueller (2014) suggest: 

The monk or the priest did not do anything more holy than the mother who cared for her children or the cobbler laboring over a pair of shoes. God’s hand blessed all of these things. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection gave meaning to each of these ‘vocations.’ The priest served God as a priest, but the cobbler served God as a cobbler. And the same needs to be said of the mother caring for her children, the stable boy cleaning out a stall, and the king exercising justice and making laws. (p. 4) 

The impact of a vocational calling on the Christian is significant, because it truly highlights a two-part relationship, first with God, then with one’s neighbor. “Christians have always lived within a tension between the kingdom and rule of God over heaven and earth and the pull and push of the work-a-day world” (Brandt, Engelbrecht, & Mueller, 2014, p. 4). Lutheran doctrine emphasizes the belief that the Christian is saved by God’s grace, through faith, apart from the work of the Law, but for good work toward others (Eph. 2:8-10, ESV). Because, in this view, the Christian is justified by grace through Christ’s death and resurrection, the Christian is free to love and serve his neighbor. “The relationship with Christ makes the difference. Vocation involves living out one’s relationship with the neighbor based on one’s Gospel calling in Christ” (Carter, 2006, p. 52). 

Job satisfaction largely comes as a result of positive workplace relationships and the perception that one’s work is meaningful. A decrease in job satisfaction increased the likelihood of a career change. The research of Karpenko et al. (2009) indicates among all respondents 23% of those who left DCE ministry for all other careers did so because of conflict within the church. Interestingly, though, McConnell (2004) found that the level of satisfaction was not a predictor of a DCE’s likelihood of leaving DCE ministry, as only 8% were somewhat or very dissatisfied with their roles, but nearly 28% indicated they were somewhat or very likely to depart from the profession of DCE within the coming three years. This seems contrary to much other research about job satisfaction and retention, and so it leads one to question whether the profession itself has contributing factors that seem to deviate from other research. 

Finally, burnout among those in ministry is prevalent, even in the early years of one’s ministry. Miner (2007, 2010) has written extensively on the causes and role of burnout among ministry professionals. Of particular importance to the body of research at hand is the relationship between burnout and reduced job satisfaction, higher turnover intentions, and declining professional commitment. She writes: 

Burnout is typically characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment. Consequences of burnout include impaired physical health, reduced job satisfaction/performance and higher turnover intentions, negative communication with colleagues, declining professional commitment, reduced self-esteem, and poorer overall life satisfaction. Chronic work stress has long been considered a major contributor to burnout. Workplace characteristics contributing to high levels of stress comprise excessive job demands, including role conflict and role ambiguity, and a lack of autonomy. (Miner et al, 2010, p. 167-168) 

A greater degree of professional preparation reduces the likelihood of burnout (Miner et al, 2010). Karpenko et al. (2009) reported that 20% of the participants in their research left DCE ministry because of the demands placed upon them. The ability of the DCE to cope with and effectively balance these demands is an important, if not basic, skill. However, acquisition of such skills by these DCEs may vary, considering that several different institutions are preparing DCEs, each with their own nuances and ministry emphases. “Simple logic leads one to ascertain that if an institution’s DCE program outcomes are not in alignment with the other five institutions, graduates from each respective institution potentially represent a disparity of basic entry level competencies” (Warren, 2008, p. 8). While certain baseline competencies are in place among the six DCE training programs, the degree to which each competency is addressed may vary from program to program. 

Miner (2007) reports that burnout is more likely in the early years of one’s ministry due to several factors. Stressors and distress during the initial years are likely to be high, especially for those who are given responsibility for solo ministry, since they lack the buffering effect of supervision within a team. Particular problems included applying theological knowledge to complex situations in congregational life; negotiating expectations and relational patterns of the congregation; practical issues relating to the move to the new parish; and loss of supportive relationships (Miner, 2007). Just as Christopher (2001) found that DCEs were less satisfied in rural settings, the loss of supportive relationships from the college experience may lead to burnout and decreased satisfaction if other supportive relationships are not developed. Further, success in understanding expectations when one arrives in a congregation is due, in part, to the level of preparation achieved within the DCE’s training program, coupled with the level of support provided to the DCE upon receipt of a Call. 

Personal devotional life is critical toward minimizing burnout. “An internal orientation to the demands of ministry (where ministers depend on internal sources of authority and coping, such as spirituality and competence) is associated with low burnout in cross-sectional studies of ministers” (Miner, 2007, p. 9). Bousquet (2012) suggests several tips for minimizing teacher burnout, which may also apply to DCE burnout. These include praise and encouragement from superiors, maintaining healthy boundaries and a healthy diet, developing positive relationships, and meditation and prayer. Karpenko et al. (2009) reinforced the importance of commitment to a devotional prayer life as a key source of support in the DCE’s professional career. Burnout has the ability to impact a worker both emotionally and physically, and the result of such burnout may lead to a job change or an entire career shift.

While generational traits, vocational calling, job satisfaction, and burnout may be significant factors in DCEs departing from this ministry profession, they do not encompass all factors and experiences that resulted in such a change, and there is a significant lack of literature on other causes. Understanding the factors and experiences that ultimately led DCE graduates to leave the profession provides valuable information to DCE program directors specifically, and the LCMS and its DCEs on a broader scale. 

In Their Own Words

Eleven former DCEs, each of whom graduated from one of the six Concordia DCE programs between 1999 and 2014, participated in recorded interviews, constructed to understand the departure of the DCE from professional ministry in the LCMS. These eleven former DCEs represented all six of the Concordia DCE programs. Six participants were male, and five participants were female. These former DCEs served a total of 53 years in DCE ministry, with the average (mean) years of serving being 4.82 years. Seven standardized interview prompts provided participants the opportunity to share their personal narratives on their transition away from DCE ministry:

  1. As you think about your decision to become a DCE, who or what motivated you to pursue that profession? Were there any other professions you were considering at the time? 
  2. What was your DCE cohort like, and how did you fit into it? Did you see it as a supportive community? Do you still keep in contact with any of your DCE classmates? 
  3. What types of professional development did you receive while serving as a DCE? What brought you joy while serving in that profession? When did you feel most successful as a DCE? When did you feel most unsuccessful? 
  4. How would you describe your level of job satisfaction as a DCE? What stressors did you face that contributed to your decision to leave the profession? 
  5. Describe for me the setting in which you were serving when you made the decision to leave. What was the community, both inside and outside the congregation, like? What did your support system look like? 
  6. Tell me about your transition out of DCE ministry. What were the reasons behind your decision to leave? Can you walk me through the thought process you went through before leaving? Did you speak to or seek advice from anyone before leaving? What feelings do you have now about your decision to leave? 
  7. Can you identify anything that, for you, might have kept you from leaving the profession? Would additional training, resources, or support have been helpful? From whom? 

While in their respective congregations, the roles of the participants varied. Some were tasked exclusively with youth ministry, while others also engaged in children’s and adult ministry. Responsibilities such as outreach, community life, small groups, campus ministry, and confirmation were also noted. Several of the participants indicated their congregation had minimal awareness of what a DCE is or does, and they suggested that that brought with it several unique challenges in terms of understanding expectations. These participants’ narratives not only gave context to the circumstances surrounding the DCE’s entry into the profession, but also some of the many joys and challenges experienced while in the profession. Additionally, an account of the specific circumstances surrounding the DCE’s ultimate departure was included. In the telling of their personal narratives, these participants underscored the significance of a support system (or lack thereof), the tension in finding an adequate work-life balance, and the importance of a quality relationship between the DCE and his or her pastor, congregation, and district. Pseudonyms were assigned to each participant to protect their anonymity.

Through their personal narratives, several themes emerged that specifically focused on mentoring, work-life balance, and relationships with one’s pastor, congregation, and district. Participants expressed the influence of a significant person in their lives, which had led to them becoming DCEs. In most cases, these influences came from people involved in ministry opportunities, such as youth group, camp, or peers and faculty already affiliated with a DCE program. During their training, most of the participants expressed a great sense of support within their DCE programs, some even expressing that their DCE classmates have become life-long friends. Those who did not find the same depth of friendships in the program largely attributed that to their more reserved personalities, though, overall, they felt supported and equipped by their respective programs. While participants identified some areas where they could have been more adequately prepared through the DCE program (i.e. working with a pastor and other staff, handling conflict, understanding one’s role within the broader church community, etc.), they felt equipped, for the most part, for the profession into which they were entering. Several participants also indicated they felt they had a skill set that was minimally marketable in a position outside a ministry setting. 

Congregational dynamics and the relationship with one’s pastor appeared to be the two most significant factors that ultimately contributed to most of the participants leaving DCE ministry. Although each participant expressed great joy in working with the people of all ages within their respective ministries, congregational challenges, particularly in the areas of leadership, vision, and finances, were a major detriment. Several participants expressed burnout, while others expressed that if it were not for finances (either their own low salary or the congregation believing they needed to cut the position due to budget constraints), they believed they would still be in ministry. The two participants who expressed the most burnout were Logan and Henry, who found themselves filling a pastoral role in addition to their DCE role during a pastoral vacancy. Several participants expressed that if the congregational dynamics were different, they may have stayed. However, many of the participants expressed that because the congregational dynamics were as difficult as they were, they were unwilling, even fearful, to “risk” being in a situation like that again, and so they chose not to return to ministry. “I’m not doing it again…I can’t go back…It’s a risk…It’s so hard emotionally.”

Interestingly, participants expressed a high level of job satisfaction while they were serving in DCE ministry. Coupled with this, though, was a high level of imbalance between work life and home life. Several of the participants shared that they had a strong level of support in the home or from other family members, and although they felt like their congregations were supportive of them overall, they did not feel like they could approach their congregations or their pastors directly when they were struggling. Many attributed this to the fact that their place of worship was also their place of work, and their pastor was also their boss. They were lacking spiritual care outside their workplace. However, for the two participants who had a very strong spiritual care and support system outside their churches (for Henry, a retired pastor in the area; for Zoe, a young women’s group that she established), their reflections on and support of, the ongoing success of DCE ministry are very high. Contrasted with the other participants, these two did not express any sense of hurt, fear, or resentment about or toward DCE ministry. Henry’s comment was “If I didn’t have my mentor, I don’t think I’d be a pastor, and I don’t think I would be in DCE ministry.” 

When considering whether anything could have made a difference in their decision to leave DCE ministry, several of the participants spoke to the level of district support. In some cases, it might have been a lack of awareness of the role the district plays in congregational matters or in supporting the church worker, but several participants wanted, even needed, to hear from their respective districts and never did. Rita’s comment was “I never, ever received a phone call… nothing. And I don’t know if that’s intentional or not…I just felt very unsupported.” Logan’s comment was “We were all talking to people at the district saying, ‘Hey! We need help!’ and we didn’t get it.” Along the same lines, participants needed outside spiritual support, whether that was from other DCEs, a pastor who wasn’t their boss, or even a counselor. Illuminating this concept, Elsa said, “I felt like my pastor did not provide me with much, if at all, any real spiritual context of how to handle that situation.” From Richard we hear “I was in over my head.”

Congregational readiness for a DCE was another significant factor that might have made a difference in the DCE’s decision to leave. Congregational dynamics varied greatly from one setting to another, although several participants felt their congregations called them without really knowing what to expect or without having any expectations of moving a vision forward. This lack of awareness and readiness was sometimes attributed to the congregation at large, but it was also attributed to the pastor and the degree to which he prepared the congregation for what to expect as a DCE was added to the staff. 

 Some of the participants expressed that they didn’t fully understand just how difficult it would be to navigate challenging situations with sinful people, being sinful themselves, when one’s place of worship was also paying one’s salary. While they thought it would be helpful to have had this made more clear during their training in a DCE program, they also acknowledged whether they would have taken it seriously in their training, or have potentially been scared away from the profession. Several of the participants expressed that, upon their departure, they were careful with their words to the point they do not believe the members of the congregation truly knew why they were leaving, or that they had any idea the difficulties that were occurring behind the scenes. Those who expressed that opinion shared that although they wanted to protect the congregation, they were also contributing to, or perpetuating, a problem. Nonetheless, most of the participants expressed that they knew their departure was the right decision and they had peace about it. From Marcus we get “I was not pushed out or it wasn’t something I was fed up with or left because I was ticked off. I felt God called me someplace, and I think it is just important.” From Alex we hear “I had no more mentally, physically to give.” In addition, Felix remarked “I really kind of felt like God was saying, ‘You’ve got to let something go.”

When comparing the projected reasons for departure DCEs gave in the McConnell (2004) study and the reasons former DCEs who participated in the Karpenko et al. (2009) study gave, to the reasons given by the participants in this 2016 research (n=11), the overarching themes were quite similar, even though the percentage of DCEs whose decisions were influenced by these themes varied greatly. Most of the participants in this study chose to depart the profession following congregational dysfunction or budget/financial reasons. Table 1 provides a comparison between the projected reasons a DCE was considering leaving in the McConnell (2004) with the actual factors that contributed to the DCE leaving among participants in my research.

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Further, Table 2 provides a comparison between the reasons former DCEs left in the Karpenko et al. (2009) study with the actual factors that contributed to the DCE leaving among participants in my research.

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Clearly, congregational dynamics and relationships with the participants’ pastors and congregations were significant factors contributing to their decisions to leave, more so than the projected reasons in the McConnell (2004) study and the actual reasons from the earlier Karpenko, et al. (2009), though it is important to note the different sample sizes and research approach between these three studies. Interestingly, though, as a result of congregational dysfunction or budgetary constraints, as the DCE was exiting the profession, the participants in this study chose to become stay-at-home parents, to pursue graduate school or vocational exploration, or they experienced significant burnout and a need for healing, which were some of the projected and actual reasons DCEs left in the two previous studies (McConnell, 2004; Karpenko, et al., 2009). While these were not the reasons the DCEs left in this current study, they were certainly by-product decisions that resulted from the challenging congregational dynamics the participants experienced. 

Another significant factor that led to the departure of several of these DCEs from the profession was the work-life imbalance they experienced. The impact of work hours and workplace conditions, including staff relationships, coupled with reality that the participant was struggling to make a livable wage in his or her locale, was a contributing factor to the DCE’s departure as well. Transitioning from intern to called worker, some participants reported no significant pay raise when they remained at the same location as their internship. For others, the position’s salary was not adequate to compensate for the high cost of living in the area. None of the participants reported being compensated at the district pay scale, though several offered they believed their pastor was being compensated according to district pay scale. When considering the financial challenges alongside the challenging congregational dynamics, at least three of the participants indicated departing the profession and pursuing an alternate profession with a livable wage was a welcome change. 

All of the participants reported a high level of job satisfaction, in spite of those congregational challenges. Just as McConnell (2004) reported that satisfied DCEs were planning to depart the profession within three years, these DCEs are evidence that even satisfied DCEs leave the profession. To this point, it is important to discuss, then, how a DCE can seemingly separate his or her level of satisfaction with the position itself and the components of the position that bring them joy, from the feelings of frustration, hurt, and anger over congregational dynamics. The majority of DCEs in this study demonstrated that even a high level of job satisfaction could be and, in fact, was trumped by some of the more challenging relational pieces of ministry. 

Similarly, the relationship with one’s pastor proved to be critical toward one’s decision to depart the profession in several cases. Christopher (2001) indicated that DCEs reported a higher level of job satisfaction based on their pastor’s leadership style. Although the participants in this research reported high job satisfaction overall, they experienced and shared very dissatisfying circumstances because of the pastor’s leadership style, or lack of leadership in general. 

The literature suggests job satisfaction can directly impact employee turnover (Chen et al., 2011). Whereas both McConnell’s (2004) and this research found a high level of job satisfaction, the projected and actual turnover presented a different story. For the Millennial in particular, job satisfaction, retention, and commitment to one’s employer was directly connected with the relationship with the immediate manager (Thompson & Gregory, 2012). In this case, that relationship would most likely be between the DCE and his or her pastor. Hultell and Gustavsson (2013) found that burnout is minimized when quality relationships exist within the first year. Bousquet (2012) similarly suggests burnout can be minimized when the supervisor gives praise and encouragement and develops a positive relationship. Both of these are significant in that they speak to the influence of mentors and a quality relationship with one’s pastor. 

While all participants expressed they were prompted to pursue DCE ministry at the encouragement of a significant person in their lives, they also attributed their pursuit of the profession as something they felt called to do. Similarly, though, many of the participants expressed they felt called away from the profession at the time they departed, as well. While Karpenko et al (2009) spoke of this as a “pull” away from DCE ministry rather than being “pushed” away from the profession, most of the participants made it clear that circumstances from within the profession were a decisive factor in their departure. 

Whether that is considered a push or pull is less significant than the fact that there were specific circumstances and reasons from within the profession that made it almost easier to leave. Many of those same participants expressed that those challenges they experienced while in the profession are significant to their decision to not return to the profession as well. Several of the participants expressed great fear and unwillingness to risk being in a congregational setting again, as they were afraid any new congregational setting might mirror the dysfunctional dynamics they were experiencing when they chose to leave the profession. For these participants, it was very clear that their fear of being hurt in a ministry setting a second, or third time was significant to their decision to both leave and stay away from the profession. This fear, this hurt, was echoed repeatedly by many of the participants. 

Meanwhile, for Zoe and Henry, who departed the profession to purposefully stay at home and to pursue seminary respectively, fear and hurt were never a part of their narrative. Although the demands of the role were tiring at the time, and finding balance was essential, they transitioned for a specifically different pursuit, as opposed to finding an alternate pursuit out of necessity. In both of these cases, these participants had incredible mentors who affirmed them in their respective ministries. The mentors were certainly difference makers, as those participants have very favorable thoughts about DCE ministry, as opposed to feelings of hurt and fear resulting from their time in the profession as expressed by several other participants. 

Emergent Themes and Shifting the Narrative

As the participants in this research shared the people and circumstances that were meaningful to them in their time of DCE ministry, as well as the people and circumstances which were factors in their subsequent departure, several implications for the future of DCE ministry became evident. Five primary recommendations come from the findings of this research. They center around three major themes: mentors, work-life balance in relation to having children, and, perhaps most importantly, relationships with one’s pastor, congregation, and district. Specific discussion and recommendations for each of these areas follows. 

Mentors. Several of the participants shared the significant struggle they had in asking for and receiving pastoral or other Godly counsel during difficult circumstances because their pastor was their boss, and their place of worship was also their place of employment. For the two DCEs who departed the ministry with generally positive feelings as compared to the other participants, having a Godly mentor was absolutely essential. In both of these instances, the mentor was someone from outside the congregation or home, with whom the participant had a very open, honest relationship during one’s ministry. They perceived this person as one to whom they could go for advice, wisdom, celebration, prayer, and accountability. Each of the remaining participants lacked a specific mentor for these purposes. While having a mentor did not preclude these DCEs from leaving the profession, it certainly provided these two participants with incredible support during their time in the profession, as well as much more favorable feelings toward the profession following their departures. 

While a DCE graduate is on his or her internship, the student is assigned a supervising DCE, who serves as a mentor, providing specific feedback and a required number of contacts over the course of the internship year. However, without that requirement once the DCE takes his or her first call, the newly commissioned DCE will not have a mentor unless he or she takes the initiative to seek one out, or the congregation is intentional in providing one. In 2015, 38 DCEs completed internship and received certification to serve as a Director of Christian Education within the Synod (DCE Directory, 2015). Considering the number of DCEs who remain active in DCE ministry with at least ten years of experience or who have retired from the profession, there are several hundred potential mentors (DCE Directory, 2015) available throughout the Synod who could be recruited to serve as mentors for beginning DCEs. This pairing could, and ultimately should, become an expectation for every DCE graduate.

Work-life balance when having children. While it is certainly acceptable to depart DCE ministry, or any profession, to focus on raising a family, several of the DCEs reported a desire to both raise a family and remain in ministry, though the dynamics of their respective settings appeared too challenging to make such a combination work. Balancing the demands of work and home are challenging in any profession, and balancing those demands are essential to safeguarding satisfaction in both pursuits. Working individuals of any generation must find a balance between the personal and professional demands of life. Boles, et al. (2003) write, “for both men and women, the two primary roles as an adult are work and family. Frequently, expectations from these two major life roles can be incompatible, resulting in a form of inter-domain conflict called work-family conflict (WFC)” (p. 100). For several of the participants, navigating this WFC was challenging. Participants were uncertain how to effectively have a family and raise young children with the demands of the DCE role, coupled with the low salary. While only one of the participants specifically left the profession because of the desire to be a stay-at-home parent, several of the participants expressed the desire to be as involved in their children’s lives as possible and questioned how their profession would support and not hinder that desire. 

While this dilemma touched both male and female participants in this study, the female participants expressed a greater burden in being able to spend significant time with their young children and wondered how their role as a DCE could fit alongside their role as wife and mother. It is, therefore, proposed that research be conducted with those female DCEs who are still in the profession and have raised children in order to better understand what practices were implemented both in their congregations and in their homes to make this work-life balance successful. Understanding what their congregations did, and even what they asked of their congregations, to make such a set up work will be important in encouraging future female DCEs with strategies they could employ to navigate WFC. Obviously, there will be circumstances where female DCEs desire to be full-time stay-at-home mothers, and that’s okay! The proposed research would simply provide strategies and questions to ask their congregations for the women who desire to manage both. This resource might also prove useful to male DCEs considering a similar dual role. 

Relationships with the pastor, congregation, and district. The most significant reason many of the participants in this research left DCE ministry centered on troubled relationships with one’s pastor and congregation. Several participants indicated their congregations had either minimal or unrealistic expectations of how a DCE’s ministry could support their congregational mission. A strained relationship with one’s pastor made the times of conflict that much more difficult. Further, in those difficult times, the participant had a limited understanding of the role of his or her district and the resources that district provides in walking beside him or her through those challenging times. 

Much of the conflict reported by participants in relation to their pastor was the result of a lack of understanding of the significant roles each played in the overall ministry of his or her congregation. A few of the participants even expressed that whereas DCEs are specifically trained to work in team ministry, knowing they will always be working with at least a pastor, they did not believe their pastors had the same level of training in how to manage employees in such a setting. Even for the participant who subsequently went to seminary, he indicated his seminary training was exceptional in many ways yet lacked this team ministry, manager, leader understanding. Glass’ (1976) study suggested a greater emphasis was needed in seminary training programs to equip pastors with the skills needed to develop and foster trust relationships within their ministries. According to the DCE-turned-pastor in this research, that additional training didn’t seem to be present; he said that it is because of his training as a DCE that his present pastoral ministry looks different than it would had he not first served as a DCE. 

The individuals perhaps most equipped to lead the conversation about the DCE-Pastor relationship and the training Pastors need to be effective in working with, managing, and spiritually caring for their DCEs and other staff, are the DCEs-turned pastors in our Synod. Like the DCE-turned-pastor who participated in this research, there are 158 men (DCE Directory, 2015) who could lead change in this area. (Note: This number is potentially higher as of the 2019 DCE Directory with the alternate routes to ordination now available to men within our Synod.) These men are both trained as DCEs and trained as LCMS pastors, so they can speak fully to the training undergone for both roles. They know, very personally, the needs of a DCE in a congregational setting, and they also know the needs of a Pastor in a congregational setting. They can speak to the understandings and sensitivities people in each role must have for people God has called to serve in the other role. To both the DCE and to the Pastor, these DCEs-turned-pastors are colleagues. They have a voice, experience, and wisdom in both roles. Initiating a task force to include several of these DCEs-turned-pastors, seminary and DCE program leaders, and Synodical leaders to engage in the critical dialogue of how DCEs and Pastors can better support one another and work together in ministry is essential. 

Another area of relational challenge for most of the participants was the congregational relationship, where several participants expressed their congregations didn’t know what to expect from having a DCE and didn’t necessarily know how to support, financially and otherwise, their DCE for the long term. Additionally, participants expressed such great hurt in ministry and fear of returning to ministry because of the experiences they had in their respective congregations. In a collaborative effort between DCEs, DCE Program Directors, and District Education Executives, an online training module can be created, which would include an explanation of the history of DCE ministry, the various roles a DCE can fill in a congregation, the baseline competencies obtained and training received by the DCE, and various ways a congregation can support his or her DCE, both financially and emotionally. As a congregation pursues a DCE, the district leadership (or the DCE program director, if a first Call), would share a link to this training module. 

Follow-up would be important to ensure the congregational leaders reviewed the training module, and there might, perhaps, be some required documentation involved. This could include some congregational planning as to how they might utilize, fund, and support their DCE to fulfill their congregational mission, as well as provide an opportunity for the congregation to ask the district (or program director) any questions they may have. Discussions of financial compensation in relation to district salary guidelines would be important here. Greater congregational awareness prior to extending a Call could dramatically increase the level of support a DCE feels from his or her congregation while dramatically minimizing potential conflict while walking together in ministry. 

A final relational challenge discussed by many of the participants was a perceived lack of support from their respective district offices, acknowledging they often lacked awareness of the resources the district could provide when they were struggling in ministry. In some cases, the participant as a called worker faulted their respective DCE program for not reaching out to them during times of conflict, not knowing that there is a hand-off from Concordia to the district once the graduate receives his or her first Call; the responsibility then would lie with the district, not the CUS institution. Toward that end, there needs to be a more intentional hand-off, where the DCE program makes the graduate fully aware that they are being released to the care of the district and where the district immediately reaches out to the DCE upon receipt of his or her first Call. This is not to say the DCE program leaders can’t serve as a sounding board or additional resource, but that the DCE must understand who is within his or her “chain of command” when challenges arise so that the DCE can seek the needed support from the correct people. 


With the 60th anniversary of the inception of DCE ministry upon us, understanding why more than half the DCEs certified in this profession have departed is crucial. Coupled with declining numbers of students enrolled in DCE training programs (Ross, 2015) and the impending retirement of a significant percentage of these workers (What a Way, 2010), making every effort to retain more DCEs, and then subsequently recruiting prospective new ones, is a matter needing immediate attention for the sake and strength of this ministry. 

Through this research, I have identified a significant attrition rate, compared to attrition rates for similar roles like those of teacher or pastor. Through interviews with former DCEs, their narratives have informed this research by sharing their personal stories about their departure from DCE ministry. Several of the participants expressed similar circumstances that contributed to their departure, resulting in themes being identified to help the CUS leadership of the DCE training programs across the country address the issues and provide solutions. Five recommendations for future research or for immediate action steps center on three major themes: mentoring, work-life balance, and relationships with one’s pastor, congregation, and district. 

While it is unknown whether any specific interventions would have absolutely made a difference in these 11 participants’ decisions to depart the profession, the common themes suggest that interventions, if effectively put in place as soon as possible, might impact change and prevent additional DCEs from departing the profession in the future. Although job satisfaction was high, congregational dynamics, family circumstances, and the lack of a supportive mentor negated the positive influence job satisfaction had toward their feelings about the profession. Ultimately, these challenges proved to be so significant that the participants perceived that departing the profession was their best alternative. Further, the deep hurts some of these DCEs experienced while in the profession have solidified for them the decision to never return for fear of experiencing that same hurt. 

DCEs have played – and will continue to play – a significant role in the ministries of various entities within the LCMS. Ensuring vitality in this ministry by combating a dwindling workforce through the necessary interventions will be essential toward the future success of this ministry. Active and former DCEs, DCE program directors, congregational leaders and pastors, as well as district and synodical leaders, must intentionally work together now to stem the leak of DCEs departing this profession, so that there might be a better future for the Director of Christian Education in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in the years to come. For 60 years, DCEs have shared the love and light of Christ with the people He has placed in their care. And, God willing, DCEs will continue to do so for the next 60 years and more. The future is bright; the time is now. LEJ


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Dr. Sarah Elliott is a DCE-turned-Lutheran Teacher with a doctorate in Teacher Leadership and a passion for serving God’s people. She currently serves as the Middle School Math and Science Teacher at Faith Lutheran School in Lacey, WA. Additionally, she is an adjunct instructor and course writer in Concordia University Portland’s M.Ed. STEAM program.