Maybe you feel God leading you away from a church you once loved. You’re not moving away from the area but somehow you feel this church is no longer right for you. You’ve been faithful to this church for years and now you feel you need to leave. You’re grieving this loss as you would grieve for a dying family member. Every time you attend church, you go with a knot in your stomach, but you know the Lord is leading you to find another church.
How you leave is as important as your decision to leave. I’ve been on both sides of this situation and given years of thought to the process of leaving. Here are four tips for leaving a church well.
1. Seek to resolve the problem.
The fact that you are now considering leaving a church you’ve been faithful to for years probably means you have a problem. Have you tried to resolve the problem?
It’s natural to want to compare notes with friends to determine if they see the same problems you do. Most people talk about a problem to everyone except the person they have the problem with. One person voices his dissatisfaction, and the next says, “You know you’re right. I can see what you’re saying and this is what I have seen.” Adding all the little flaws or perceived faults up doesn’t solve the problem. It makes the problem bigger and harder to solve.
Plus it’s unscriptural. Read Matthew 18:15-17 over again. Sharing something negative about someone who isn’t part of the problem or part of the solution is—gossip.
Attack the problem, not the person. “The pastor’s a control freak. His wife manipulates people to get her way. The youth pastor is spiritually immature. The deacons have no integrity. The teachers don’t care about the students. The music minister just wants to show off.” These are personal accusations that cause deep personal pain and are practically impossible to fix.
Most of the time, if you have a problem with something in a church that is serious enough to make you want to leave, you need to go to the person responsible and try to resolve the problem. It’s not fair to blame a church or someone in a church for a problem you have never even tried to fix. Don’t wait too long. If you wait until you have accumulated too much against the church in your mind, it will be almost impossible to fix. Not only will the problem be big, your mind will be less willing to see things from a different point of view.
2. Do no harm.
If you have a serious problem with a church that you feel will not be fixed, leave quietly doing as little damage as possible. Perhaps the church has definitely moved in a direction that you don’t feel is right and the leaders want to continue to move that way. If the path is clearly set, you won’t be able to turn it around, but you can destroy the church trying to. It’s best to slip away quietly without taking others with you. If they choose to leave the church, they need to leave for their own reasons, not yours.
People will want to know why you’re leaving. What are you going to tell them?
When people leave a church they often give a reason for leaving, but the reason they give may not be the main reason they are leaving.
The number one reason given is probably, “I just don’t feel like I’m being fed.” In other words, the pastor isn’t a very good preacher or teacher. Is he giving out the Word of God? If so, we can learn from it. A pastor in full-time ministry may not preach as well as the one you hear on radio, but God can use His Word, even if the preacher’s presentation isn’t what you’d like it to be. Perhaps you aren’t being fed because your heart is not prepared to receive the message God has for you. If you are harboring resentment in your heart, you probably won’t get much out of your pastor’s sermons. Don’t blame the pastor for what could be your own heart’s problem.
If you are leaving because you feel the church position on something is wrong, you could say you disagree with the church’s position and feel like it’s best that you leave.
Whatever you do, don’t add up all your petty dissatisfactions with the church and dump them everywhere you go. Keep your reasons for leaving as simple and non-personal as possible.
After you go, in which of these ways would you like to be remembered by those who are left behind?
- “I remember them. We understand they felt they needed to leave, but at least they left in a way that didn’t hurt our church. They helped our church in many ways while they were here, and though they’ve moved on, we wish them well.”
- “The personal accusations they made when they left will hurt our church for years to come. They helped our church while they were here, but they did more damage than good by the time they were gone. I wish they had never been a part of our church.”
The way you leave will determine which of these ways you are remembered.
3. Leave with a positive attitude.
Leaving a church you have loved can be a traumatic experience, for you as well as the church you leave. The problems and pain may loom so large that you can’t see anything else. But surely you have benefited by being in the church as well. Think of the leaders, teachers, and church people who have helped you or built into your family. Have you grown as a result of the church’s teaching? Can you express appreciation for the blessing your church has been over the years? Maybe you don’t like or agree with what’s happening right now, but that doesn’t negate the blessings you’ve received over the years.
Maybe you’re hurting and you just want to get out of there as fast as you can, but take the time and energy to express appreciation and love if you can.
4. Make a clean break.
If you continue to live in the same location, you may come into contact with people from the church you are leaving. This can be really awkward. Take the initiative to set the tone for these contacts.
Don’t just look the other way and pretend you don’t see people from your former church. If the wounds are fresh and you don’t feel ready for conversation, just wave at them and smile.
Don’t dredge up old history or try to influence people against their church. Normally it’s best to keep conversation on neutral topics. Ask about their family or health or dog.
If a member of your former church asks you why you left, keep to a one-liner that explains the issue and ends the topic. If the person is considering leaving the church himself, make sure he is leaving for his own reasons. Avoid disparaging the church. At times it may be necessary to say, “We felt the Lord leading us away from the church, but I don’t want to talk against the church. It was a good church for us for many years and we wish them well.”
As traumatic as it may be to leave a church you love, you can do so in a way that honors God. When you have left, may even your enemies say, “I may have disagreed with that person, but I’m glad I knew him. I know he loved the Lord and was just trying to do what he felt was right.”
(In case you wonder, I am not intending to point at any person or situation with this blog. I have intentionally written this blog at a time when it would not be considered an attack against anyone. I merely recognize that leaving a church can be traumatic for those who leave and those who stay behind. I have received good advice on the subject and I want to pass that on. When a church move is necessary, I believe these principles can make the move less painful and more God-honoring.)