How To Leave A Church Well
Over the course of this strange Covid season, one of the things I have observed in our church, as well as other congregations, is seeing committed church members and attenders either drift away from their home church, choose to go to another church, or flat out quit church altogether. It's been hard on pastors. And it's been hard on congregations.
Of course, at the same time, like other pastors I know, I couldn't be more thankful and excited about the work the Lord is doing in and through the lives of so many of our committed members and attenders during this very same season. Our church has also seen many new singles, families, and college students join our congregation since Covid began, and they have brought a strong sense of excitement, joy, and encouragement to our church, our leaders, and to me personally. I'm so grateful!
But this doesn't change the fact that it still hurts to see church members and attenders you deeply love and have journeyed with for years, leave. It always hurts.
Now of course there are all kinds of reasons for leaving a church. There are definitely some good ones, such as moving to a new town or getting married. However, there are also plenty of bad reasons to leave as well. Either way, what's on my mind as I write this is, "how do we leave a church well?"
"I think it is time to leave and find another church."
Perhaps you are at a point where you are feeling this. For the sake of this post, I am not thinking so much about someone who is leaving their church because of a move, or a new marriage, or another family related reason. I am thinking of someone who has come to a point of convictional disagreement or dissatisfaction with their current church and feel like it is time to move on.
Let me assume you have really tried, but you struggle to remain “on board” with your current church at this point. It is difficult for you to joyfully and eagerly remain part of this church body for whatever reason. What do you do? If you find yourself struggling to fellowship with, minister alongside, and commit yourself to the vision and mission of your congregation without becoming agitated or frustrated, what now?
I think you have three main options at this point.
#1. Check your heart and see if there is pride that you need to confess, asking the Lord, and perhaps others, to forgive you. Can I be honest with you? Your problem may not really be your church. The problem may be your own heart and an unwillingness to pursue love and unity in the way God calls us to in His Church. For all of us, it is easy to point fingers at everyone else. It is easy to blame our church, or our pastors, but perhaps the main issue is not with "them" but with "me." This takes humility, honest prayer, and self-awareness and reflection. Before you do anything else, check your heart before the Lord, His Word, and others.
#2. Talk with your pastor (and/or pastors) about your thoughts and concerns, with the hope and desire to stay at your church. If you have some legitimate concerns, or are perhaps confused by something that has happened or is happening in your church and would like more information, I'm quite sure your pastor would love to talk with you about it. A simple meeting for the purpose of gaining insight and clarity can often help diminish any fears or worries you might have.
#3. If you are simply unable to peacefully and joyfully live with differences you have with your church, it may be time to find a church that is a better fit for you and your family. This means you want to be sure you leave your current church well. Sadly, many people do not leave their congregation well and it causes much pain to others. As a pastor, I have been blessed by those individuals and families that have left churches I was serving well, while also experiencing the pain of those who took off without much thought to doing it the right way.
Let me offer five keys to leaving your church well:
1. Make sure you are leaving for the right reasons. Search your heart and talk with your family and close friends. Are your motives and reasons for leaving solid? Is it a doctrinal concern? Read over the doctrinal statement of your church. Where do you feel there has been a break from the beliefs your church espouses? If you have a doctrinal concern, it is a big deal, so make sure you are specific and can give biblical support for your concern. Maybe your concern isn't doctrinal, but philosophical. In other words, your church has dramatically changed its vision and approach to ministry from the time you first began attending. As a result, you feel you can no longer get on board with the new direction of the church. Again, be sure to think through specific concerns you have. A "hunch" or "feeling" that your church is changing is not a good reason to leave. Make sure your reasons are legitimate and factual. The point is this: make sure you are leaving for the right reasons.
2. Set up a time to talk directly to one of the pastors of your church about your leaving. This is a key step in leaving a church well. You don’t need to share all of your reasons or rationale, but as a matter of love and courtesy, let your pastor know you and your family have chosen to go to another church. Let your pastor know the main reasons you are leaving, but do so with humility, love and grace. Be wise and thoughtful about this. Be sure to let your pastor know some of the things you are thankful for regarding your time at your church. I'm sure there are plenty of things you are thankful for. Share some of those. You want to leave your church in a peaceful manner. This begins by being clear with your pastors about your leaving. They will deeply appreciate this. More than that, this is honoring to the Lord.
3. Communicate clearly and lovingly with others you are close with in the church about your leaving. The church is a family. And just like any family, it is a joy to receive new members and it is sad to say goodbye to those who leave. This is why clear communication with those you are close to in the church is so important. Don't make people wonder for months and months where you have been when you have already left. This isn't loving or fair to your brothers and sisters at the church. Communicate clearly and graciously. I recommend doing this in person, on the phone, or through a thoughtful, personal email. Don't go the route of communicating your leaving through a mass email that could cause confusion and potential division. I've seen this happen several times and it is never a good thing. Satan loves to divide and he works powerfully when there is confusion and lack of clarity. Communicate clearly and personally with folks. This is the right thing, the loving thing to do.
4. Once you find a new church, meet with your new pastor and let them know why you left your last church. Again, be thoughtful about this. Don’t throw your last church under the bus. Trust me, your new pastor doesn't want to hear that. Share honestly but graciously why your family chose to leave and why you are excited about becoming part of this new church family. In doing this, you display Christ-like maturity that honors both your new church and your former church.
5. Keep your former church in your prayers and speak well of it. Thank God for your time at your last church and the good things He did in your life there. Continue to pray for your brothers and sisters in that congregation. Talk well of them, especially in front of your children, if you have them. How you leave a church and how you talk about those in that church will make a stronger impression on your kids than you realize. It's just true. Praying for your former church and speaking well of those in the congregation will help to fight off any bitterness that could creep into your heart, your spouse's heart, or your children's heart toward them.