How to Leave a Church

November 12, 2008

An email came from someone asking for advice on how to leave a church. The details don’t matter except that both the husband and wife have concluded that after years of being in one particular congregation, the time has come for them to find another place of worship. Partly it involves their children and partly it involves a desire to be part of a church with a strong outreach to the community. I don’t know exactly where these folks live or what sort of church they’ve been attending nor could I tell much about the inner life of the congregation, except that it sounded rather stagnant.

In any case, the question was not, “Should we leave?” but rather, “How should we leave?” Here is part of what I wrote in response:

Leaving a church is always difficult and there is no perfect way to do it, but there are some ways that are better and some ways that are worse.

Three words should guide your actions: 

Leave quickly.
Leave quietly.
Leave graciously.

Quickly means when you leave, you leave. Drawing out your exit rarely makes things better. It doesn’t help to “sort of” leave a church. When the time comes to leave, make your exit and go your way.

Quietly means you don’t try to explain yourself to others. In my judgment, you don’t owe a long explanation to every person in the church. If you have certain responsibilities in the church, you should let the leaders know so they can make proper plans. And quietly means you don’t write letters to the congregation or make a big announcement and you don’t try to explain yourself over and over again. That’s usually a big mistake. Sometimes people who leave a church try to control what other people say after they are gone. Forget about it. You can’t control what anyone says. Some people may be deeply hurt by your leaving. It may mean the end of some friendships. Certainly things will change. You can’t say, “I want to leave this church but I want all my relationships to stay the same.” I think you’ll find that some people relate to you primarily as a part of the church, and they won’t be able to have the same relationship with you when you are gone. You have to be willing to let that happen and not try to control things. Leaving means letting go.

Graciously means you refuse to speak evil of those who remain in the church. Look forward, not backward. Focus on your new church, not your old one. Think carefully before you speak about your former congregation. Don’t say anything that could be remotely construed as criticism. Even casual comments could stir up needless controversy. Let the Golden Rule guide all your comments public and private.

In the end, Christ is Lord both of your former church and your new church. He loves both with an everlasting love. Those churches were both there before you came along and both will be there after you are off the scene. The church of Jesus is so much larger than anything we can imagine—and God’s work is far bigger than our limited vision.

When the time comes to leave, leave. Don’t hesitate, dawdle, and don’t be like Lot’s wife who looked back. You may not turn into a pillar of salt but looking back will do no good either. So leave with a good heart, trusting that the same Lord is Lord over both churches. He will care for both congregations. You can be sure of that.

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