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When to Leave a Church

A friend who attends another church in our area emailed me the other day with the question, “How do you know when its time to leave a church?” As a pastor, I truly appreciated his question because most people are simply not that thoughtful about leaving a church. Most people leave when they don’t like something and almost disappear, or worse; make a scene on their way out.

I think this is a great question and one that needs much wisdom. This is what I shared with my friend.

When it comes to the way we view church life, I like to use the family analogy. Churches are not that different from the average family out there. You have some that are healthy and productive and others that…aren’t. 

So, when is it right to move on? Just like a biological family, sometimes leaving is the right thing to do.  Please don’t take the analogy too far; I am not relating this to marriage as much as I am to children leaving home. For instance, there are positive reasons to leave a family. Some of these are going off to college, getting marriage, or serving in the military. In fact, when we hear of such departures, we often celebrate with this natural and expected moment of change. There is always sadness too; just ask a mother watching the taillights of her daughter headed back to school after Christmas break. Just as there are positive reasons to leave a family, there are also negative reasons for leaving. Some of these reasons are abuse, neglect, or ongoing dysfunction. In my role as a pastor, I have seen far too many families facing such crises. It is heart wrenching watching a family, perhaps once healthy and thriving, facing necessary departures because of the problems that persist.

There can be positive reasons for leaving a church. As we take this analogy into the church we attend we can easily see many similarities. There are often positive departures. If a church is healthy and thriving, there should be a time when people move on as the natural result of spiritual maturity and calling. This obviously happens when a family is relocated for job reasons to another city. Their lives have taken a course that requires a church departure. We see this happen when a member is called to the ministry and takes a ministry position at another church or goes to serve on the mission field somewhere. There could be a unique vision that can only be fulfilled elsewhere. I have seen a person move from one healthy church to another to participate in a specific ministry not available at the first church. All of these are healthy departures. Often, churches serve to mature us in specific seasons of life and rarely for all of life (though it can and does happen).

Sometimes there are negative reasons people might leave a church. Like families, a church congregation can sometimes get terribly dysfunctional. The dysfunction can be found in the pastor, staff leadership, or simply among the people. If the dysfunction is prolonged to the point where the church is rendered ineffective in a Biblical mission, it’s time to leave.  Often there can be abuses or neglect and this can be seen in a lack of Biblical vision/leadership, a lack of good biblical teaching, or in poor use of resources. Many of these cases become fairly obvious over time. 

Weathering the storm. As they would in a family, there is a place for people at times to “weather the storm” of problems and dysfunction in a church. There is much to say about patience and endurance and suffering for Christ’s sake in scripture.  I think people are far too quick to jump ship. We must understand every church and every pastor has weaknesses and problems and needs patient support. Choosing to stay (which I tend to recommend) you must contribute to the health of the church. If you sit back and gossip, complain and undermine leadership, you are causing problems and you need to leave (and probably get counseling). If you see there an ongoing unwillingness to deal with dysfunction then it may be best to leave. It is possible that God is bringing the church to an end.

How to leave a church. One of the greatest problems in leaving any church is honestly not the leaving, but how you do it. If you decide to leave make sure you can leave in a redemptive, God-honoring way. If you have attended a church for a while and served in some volunteer ministry capacity, you owe the leadership above you a face-to-face meeting to share your reasons. This is no guarantee that he or she will agree or enjoy the meeting but it does provide an opportunity to say, “thank you” (yes, you MUST say, “thank you”) for the positives you have gained and share the reason, positive or negative, as to why you are leaving.  This conversation could stimulate needed changes. I have found that pastors receive very little redemptive feedback. You may lovingly point out a blind spot that if corrected, could change the future of the church. This conversation must be seasoned with humility, gratitude, respect for the leader, his or her office, and care for God’s church.

If there have been hurt feelings along the way, this is an opportunity to mend the relationship as much as possible so that you honor Romans 12:18 which states, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Finding your new church home. Taking the redemptive path will help you transition into the next church effectively. I have seen countless people “church-hopping” out of frustration and only bring their frustration with them. Those who have taken the redemptive path tend to be ready for the change and give the new church and pastor confidence that they are not bringing unnecessary dysfunction with them. You should be able to honestly say, “Our departure honored the Lord, as far as it depended on us.”

Beware of the guilt trip. Lastly, church, like families, can be masters of guilt and manipulation. We (pastors/staff) are emotionally attached to our ministries, often to an unhealthy degree. So, a departure can stir up defensiveness and insecurities, which can lead to an effort to talk you out of a decision or heap guilt on you.  This is not healthy. Everyone needs to keep in mind that this is God’s church. When its time to move on, it would be unhealthy to stay (need I point to the scores of young adults in their 20s still living at home?). Pray for wisdom. Speak the truth in love. Make sure you and your family is contributing to the health of a church either coming or going.

I hope this will serve as needed wisdom for some facing this situation and help us all honor God’s church a little more.
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Posted by Andy Savage at 9:17 PM
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