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.
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?
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
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.
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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