Leaving a Church

If you’ve been in any church for a great length of time and have felt the need to leave, it is never an easy decision. If you have deeply invested your heart in the lives of the people and they have done the same with you, it makes it all the more difficult. I watched a documentary of how the Amish operate their Ordnungs  and the reasons why they excommunicate and shun those they feel are in ‘rebellion’ to their bishops. This is not an isolated practice. Many different churches function in similar ways and in varying degrees. 

A person may feel they have come to a place in their studies where they feel that they are in such deep disagreement that they can no longer attend that church. Other people leave because of abuse of authority and others may leave because there were deeper issues such as a pastor having an affair or is being dishonest with the government and the people about their finances. People leave churches for various reasons.

Of all the people I have spoken to about why they left church and how they did so, I have yet to find anyone who was able to respectfully part ways in love. Most times they left, because there was wounded hearts that couldn’t mend easily.

I have seen people slip out quietly by missing churches services every now and then and gradually missing more often until they just aren’t there anymore. If the church is a very busy church they may not even notice these families missing for quite a while. Then, when they do finally notice and they decide to go by or call them, the ones who left are hurt that it took so long for them to notice. Then there are those who notice right away and keep calling them, when the ones who left don’t want the contact anymore and feel at odds with how to say how they feel without hurting the church members.
We have also spoken to those who felt that the right decision in leaving was to attempt the Matthew 18 approach by going to the leadership directly with their concerns. 

In this attempt they felt the leadership was refusing to assist or perhaps it’s the leadership in the wrong and they refuse to repent. This poses a tremendous problem, because their next option is to find more people to confront this leadership with them. Most church members don’t want to do that and if they do humbly agree to help, if the leadership still refuses then these members are obligated to go before the whole church about the matter. Many times this brings about a church split. This can be a terribly painful experience for the whole church and a split among friendships that took many years to forge. This kind of scenario is like a divorce and it hurts everyone in the process.

Since every church handles departures differently it is difficult to figure out just how to handle situations like these. Every church, its leadership, and how it functions vary so greatly. Many have asked, “How do you leave a church?” To which I ask, “How do you leave a marriage?” It’s difficult and painful no matter how it’s done.

Some feel it’s best to slip away quietly and others feel a firm approach is best for them, but always keep in mind that the whole church will feel the loss. The members who leave aren’t the only ones in pain.

Looking back on our departure from a place we invested our hearts in for over a decade, I have pondered what I wish could have happened. 

I wish they could have let us go with a blessing and no hard feelings for our disagreement. I wish they had not tried so hard to limit our contact with those we were closest to. I wish the people would not have condemned us and cursed us for leaving. I wish just one of our closest friends would have listened when we said who hurt us and how they hurt us. We didn’t want people to choose sides. We needed love and support. We wanted help with the situations we were in. We weren’t listened to, we were rebuked for speaking the truth no matter how loving we were. It became a big mess, and we never meant for it to be so. We all got broken hearts over it from the leaders, our friends, ourselves, but mostly…the children. Isn’t that how it always is? The children are always hurt the most.
We deeply love the people and we are reminded of how Paul and Barnabas parted ways.

Acts 15 36And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” 37Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. 38But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. 39And there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, 40but Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord. 41And he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

Sometimes the contention just happens and there isn’t anything we can do to make it different. So here is what I’d like to share that I wish I had known when we left our former church.

It’s ok to disagree with the leadership about doctrine. Paul disagreed with Peter about doctrine and Paul spoke about it openly in front of Peter. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest anyone do this, but there is a time and place for it and it should be bathed in prayer beforehand. Seek the wisdom of others before doing so.

False teachers have been around for ages. You aren’t going to take down an entire denomination by just rebuking the pastor openly. The disciples told Jesus that they saw men casting out demons, but they sent them away since they didn’t know them.  Jesus told them not to do so. Sometimes it’s best to just walk away and say nothing. He also said that if a work is of God it will stand and if it is not of God it will fall. We can’t ‘right’ all that we think is ‘wrong’ with churches.

Attempting to be abrupt in disagreeing openly with a pastor will not only hurt the church members, but it will hurt your family as well. Some pastors will beckon for you to come before their elders before you ever get a chance to say something openly. In which case, you’ll probably be rebuked for disagreeing and you could possibly be disfellowshipped, excommunicated, shunned, or asked to leave quietly. It’s going to hurt, but graciously walk away in peace.

Maybe you feel the vision of the leadership is not the vision God has given you. Perhaps your pastor won’t listen to the vision God has given you. Maybe finding out where God would use your vision would be better than staying where His voice through you is not welcome. We’re all human and sometimes we don’t all always understand how God speaks to others. 

Maybe the problem is you and you may need to humble yourself and ask for forgiveness.
Sometimes you simply don’t know why you need to leave; you just feel a tug from the Lord to do so. 

No matter the reason, it’s not easy to leave a church.

It’s going to be painful.

This too shall pass.

I don’t know if telling people why you leave is important. Sometimes it’s just easier to say it is a preference and leave it at that. Sometimes it’s best to be open about why you’re leaving. Only you know the answer to that dilemma. God will guide you and any step you later feel was the wrong step, God’s grace has it covered. You’re not alone and you’re not the only one who has gone through this.
Just know this, God loves you deeply and you have the freedom to go where you feel God is leading you.

This was shared from not only my personal experience, but from testimonies of others who have left churches. It is not meant to be a cookie cutter approach on how to leave a church, but rather a simple testimonial from the experience of others who have been through this. I pray that even one small portion of this will help you in whatever decision your family needs to make.

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Rhonda Sayers at: December 9, 2010 at 10:54 PM said...

Reminds me of the song by Paul Simon "50 Ways to leave your lover".
I think that I have done all the ways you described over my 35 years of doing churchanity. You are so right, no matter how it was done it was hard and it hurt.
I can sum it up in this way:IC~It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

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