June 7, 2013

How to Leave a Church Gracefully


I was out on a bike ride the other day, and I passed someone’s house who goes to our church.

I had that thought that I think every ministry leader has had at some point.

Hey ... I don’t think I’ve seen them for a while. Has it been three or four months? (Pause).

I wonder if they left?

I even tried to help one of their family members through a crisis recently. Then I thought I wonder if I made it worse ... not better.

I then found myself in that awkward space. We are a larger church (about 1500 people call us home) with two locations.

How do you drill down on that?

I realized we have people who are within this family’s natural sphere of care, and so of course we’re going to check in on them and make sure they’re okay.

It also made me think about how people tend to leave churches these days.

Some leave angry and cause a fight.

Most just disappear, often without a word.

We don’t have a lot of the first kind at our church these days, but I’m sure we have some of the second.

It got me thinking ...

Is there a good way to leave a church?

If I wasn’t in full time ministry, how would I leave  a church?

For the record, I actually think everyone has one (or maybe at the most two) lifetime church changes in them while they are living in the same community. Obviously if you move, that’s a different story. Ideally you’d stay with one your whole life. You can have the greatest impact that way, I think. But we live on this side of heaven. So, I think, if you live in the same place for three or four decades, to change churches once is not unreasonable. Churches change, leadership changes, you change, and so a readjustment in your church home is not out of the question.

I’m not talking about drifting from church to church, consuming church like it was some product you use and dispose of, i.e. church surfing or church shopping.

I’m talking about a “We went to this church for two decades, but now this is our home” kind of change.

So I’ve penciled in some thoughts. If people were to leave a church well, I think these steps could be helpful and result in the church being stronger, not weaker:

1. Take it seriously.

Pray about it. Reflect on it. Ask God to show you what part of your dissatisfaction is you and what might be related to others. Even get input from others to see if you are seeing things correctly, not in a gossipy way, but in a “What part of this problem is me?” kind of way.

2. Talk to someone.

In a small church, that might be the pastor directly. In a larger church, that might be your group leader, the person you serve with or campus pastor. Don’t leave without talking to someone.

3.  Clarify the problem.

I find most people leave over one of two issues: Misunderstanding or misalignment. A misunderstanding can be clarified. More information, an apology, or a new perspective can often move a person from being upset to being at peace quickly. They might not leave.

Misalignment is another issue. If you are fundamentally at odds with the approach of the church, it’s an alignment issue. And because no local church is the entire body of Christ, healthy leadership should be excited for you to find a church that better aligns with your understanding of church or your personality. I’m not talking about preferences here (we like the music better), but I am talking about finding your fit in a way that is going to help you become a thriving part of a local church. Misaligned people never thrive.

I have often encouraged people to find a church that better fits their approach to ministry and am honestly thrilled when they find a good fit.

4. Leave with grace.

Say goodbye well. Don’t burn relational bridges. Affirm the good in what you see in the church you’re leaving (remember at one point you thought it was awesome). Take the high road. You won’t regret it. And besides, the church is the bride of Christ. When you insult the church, you insult Christ (I don’t say this lightly).

5. Find and commit to another local church.

Your goal is not to consume church, but to be the church. Find a church where you can serve, love, give, invite and share the life-changing transformation that Christ is bringing about in you.

Those are my thoughts on leaving well.

And you know what the end result would be, right? If we really took all five steps, fewer people would leave, more disagreements would be resolved and the church would be healthier in all scenarios.

What are yours thoughts? What are the best practices you’ve seen? What are the worst?

CC Image (Adapted) • thomascrenshaw on Flickr
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