When (and How) to Leave a Church: a Pastor’s POV.

Recently there have been some families that have left our congregation. Which has me reflecting on the question: when should a person leave a church, and how should it be done? Here are a few tips:

  • don’t break up with your church over secondary or tertiary theological reasons.
  • don’t break up with your church by way of text message or email.
  • don’t just stop participating in your church without meeting in person with the “powers that be.” And you should seek them out rather than stewing and waiting for them to notice that you’ve been gone.
  • when you meet with them, encourage them; their work is hard. If they have sinned against you, confront them humbly and lovingly, but also with a heart of forgiveness. If you are both sincere Christians you will be spending eternity together in heaven; and it is very likely the issues that divide you now will dissolve in a few years.
  • don’t gossip (“share”) with others in your church about the reasons why you’re considering leaving the church; it isn’t healthy for them nor does it provide you sufficient motivation to go directly to the people, or address directly, the situations, which are giving rise to your questions and doubts.
  • If possible, work to stay in your congregation for seven years, so you’re not part of the trend of wandering (Protestant) church consumers. It takes seven years to make a season of time, and in a season you will have had an opportunity to make an impact on that congregation.

It is probably axiomatic for the average American to hold the view that he can choose his own religion (or choose to lose it, in the case of Michael Stipe), and having chosen a religion, choose which expression or group of people or church within that religion he will join. But our choices are often where the problems start.

Among the many reasons I’ve heard for people leaving churches I’ve been a pastor of, here are a few of the ones that make the bottom of the list: I’m not being fed; I don’t like the music; my kids don’t like church; I’m angry; I’m angry (and I’m not admitting it, or telling you that I’m angry even though we both know I’m angry); I’m hurt; I’m confused; I’m sinning (and I’d never admit that’s the reason why I’m leaving this church but if I did it might be the best thing I ever did).

Very rarely, but it will happen, I hear people say this when leaving the church: God is calling me away from this congregation for reason x; and I believe instead of being called to this church, I’m being called to another congregation, and it is congregation y. Rarely, I say; but I wish I heard it more often.

And I don’t think I’ve ever had the privilege of being asked this question: “What do you think about my decision to leave, Pastor Phil?”

I recently met someone who has left churches because he was upset with, and suspicious about the way the money was being handled; and then the way the congregation, and the leadership, talked about the way the money was being handled. He even suggested that the leadership was being dishonest.

Sadly, I wasn’t surprised.

Leaving a church to attend another church that’s closer to where you live is usually a good move. Again, sadly, most Americans will drive by dozens of churches on the way to the church they attend. That’s backwards.

A word of advice: when you move to an area, if possible, choose a home or apartment within five minutes of where your church building is. This will encourage participation, and commitment on your part, as well as commitment on the church’s part.

So there are good reasons for leaving; there are also bad ones. Then there are situations that seem to happen without any apparent explanation. If you’re a church leader, or a pastor, you must recognize that as long as we live in this fallen world, we will have to deal with the frustrations of relationships that don’t get to find their fulfillment in this life. In this life, our experience goes something like this:

  • relationships that get broken, or strained; and then
  • they get neglected beyond repair; and then
  • friends find themselves needing to separate from each other for some reason.

For this reason, a wise board of elders will not hold the “membership vows” of the people who are members of the congregation they shepherd with a too-tight fist. They will trust God to be at work even when it hurts them to do so.

“We love you. We want you to stay. We need your help. We will pray for you and bless you as best we can as you leave.”

I’ve had to say these words far too many times over the years. But I don’t regret saying them; I consider the time a person leaves a church of which I’m pastor a final opportunity to “pastor” them and take this responsibility seriously.

Remember, fathers save up for, and serve, their children; not the other way around. And elders are spiritual dads.

But far too often elders find themselves hitting their head against the walls of unbelief and ignorance, sin and selfishness, in the lives of the flocks, the persons, under their care. Phone calls don’t get returned. Emails don’t get answered. Text messages get ignored.

I know, I know; we all live in a busy world. But that’s what the church is for: it is a city of heaven displaying a different set of values, a different vision for humanity than we get in the city of man. As a representative of this city, the elder is trying to fulfill his calling to give an answer to God for the persons that have been entrusted to his spiritual watch care; in fact, the Bible tells us he must answer for his “blood.”

Too often, the person, the sheep, seems to “care less.”

There are times, it must be admitted, when elders and pastors fall down on the job and simply fail to reach out to one who has stopped participating in the community, either what’s happening on a Sunday morning, or the other ministries throughout the week. This has certainly happened to me, and it is humbling to realize when I’m confronted with the reality that someone I was called to pray for and pastor has been neglected, and I alone am at fault.

Letting sheep drop off the radar, so to speak, without a note or a call or a visit is irresponsible to say the least. As under shepherds of the Apostle, Pastor, Bishop, and Shepherd of the Church, Jesus Christ, we must do better.

But it is a two-way street: a good congregation makes for good elders; and vice versa. People who claim to be Christians need to recover a biblical view of the eldership–so they can both hold their elders accountable to the work they have been called to do, and so they can hold themselves accountable to the promises they make as members of a local church.

So how do you leave a church? With prayer, and a sense of calling to serve somewhere else, and humility. When possible, you should do so with the blessing of the elders or church leaders who are caring for you.