Leave a Church?
-By Dr. Don Owsley (relavate.org)
How do you leave a church, gracefully?
At some point in time, you will leave the church you are in. Every church has a revolving door where people enter and others exit. Maybe you are thinking about leaving the one you are currently at? Maybe you just left a church and are “shopping” for just the right church? Eric Nevins, one of South Fellowship’s elders wrote a solid article that may just help you if you are searching for a healthy church.
The Main Question
The question here is not, how do I leave a church? Obviously, there are many ways: quietly and without much notice; angrily, by causing as much disruption as possible; peacefully with resolution and a good conscience; peacefully, but without resolution; by yourself or with a group. There are also many reasons to leave a church. Some are good and legitimate. Others, not so much. The question is, how do I leave a church gracefully?
Why is that the question? Because, if you and I are serious about following Jesus well, then we should be concerned to practice ways that are good. I submit that it is of no value to practice spiritual disciplines (whatever you wish to call them) if we don’t apply them in ways that demonstrate authentic love for God and love for others. Entering into, engaging with, and departing from Christ’s local body is a significant part of following Jesus.
If you are a believer in Jesus Christ who desires to follow the Lord in a way that glorifies God then there are appropriate reasons and ways to do exit the church you are in. So a good question to ask yourself is, How do I or we leave this church gracefully? Perhaps the advice offered below will help you sort through your decision to stay or depart, and help to honor God while blessing the church you leave?
Here are some things to consider:
Being a member means you have made a commitment to the church.
Many churches do not practice formal membership. They often take the position that a believer in Jesus Christ is already in God’s Church and that is all that matters. Others would say that believing in Jesus and becoming baptized is all that is necessary. However, most churches have formal membership. In a previous article I submit that formal membership is biblical. In fact, in certain churches that have formal membership people make public vows to uphold the church-member covenant. These commitments are promises made to the Lord and his local Body. However, there may come a time when, because of circumstances, you need to leave the church and release yourself from the covenant.
What are some good reasons for leaving your local congregation?
1. When you need to relocate to another geographical area that would make it a burden to travel and participate in the life of the church.
2. When you have come to a different and informed conviction about certain teachings where, in good conscience, you cannot support the teachings of the local church you are currently in.
3. When it is apparent the Lord is directing you to actively serve in another congregation. Leaving under this circumstance should be done in consultation with the pastor, elders, or other godly individuals, through wisdom, and by prayer.
4. Another good reason is when the philosophy of ministry or the direction of the church violates your biblically-informed conscience. I say biblically-informed as opposed to having personal preferences. To leave the church because the leadership of the church has decided to focus only upon “reaching” the wealthy to the neglect of others in the community is a good reason to exit. It is certainly the leaders’ prerogative to have that as their mission. Still, having a right to do so is not the same as being biblical. Such a mission clearly violates many biblical passages, and knowing this and acting upon it is what it means to be biblically informed. However, leaving the church because you prefer the fellowship hall to remain decorated in light pink and pastel blue instead of redecorating with warm colors like brown, tan, and light orange is not a biblical reason. It’s an obvious personal preference, but not a violation of God’s Word.
Of course, there are other legitimate reasons. Ideally, transferring to another church should not be so much a matter of running away from a problem or conflict as it is being led to another congregation.
What are some wrong reasons for leaving the local congregation?
At the outset, allow me to confess to you that in a few of the churches my family and I have left it was because of wrong reasons. It felt like I was making the right choice with my family, but looking back I was wrong. So, this is not pious advice from a sinless church guy. These reasons come as a result of taking many, many years to learn the hard way and compare the blunders with the normative standard of God’s Word. And these are not the only reasons.
1. It would be wrong to withdraw from fellowship when your personal preferences have been offended. Remember, there is a major difference between feeling offended and having someone sinfully offend you. We live in a culture where we have so many options available to us, and where every little thing we personally don’t like can feel like a serious offense. Like the woman who threatened to take her business to that other grocery store because the store did not have Heinz Catsup. They only had Hunts or generic! We see the same kind of petty childishness in our churches.
2. A second wrong reason to leave a church is when you have a conflict with someone in the church and you have not taken the steps to resolve the conflict and reconcile. A sinful offense is clearly spelled out in the Bible. Having your named slandered is sin. Having the Sunday school teacher forget to call you is not. Whatever the situation may have been that developed into conflict Jesus tells us to work at resolving the problems. The Lord does not give us easy paths in this life when it comes to relationships. When it comes to relationships things might become easier but not all things are easy. The easy thing to do is to continue in the conflict and refuse to take the hard effort of reconciliation.
God tells us how to make things right when sinned against. The options he gives are (1) out of love we can overlook the offense (1 Peter 4:8), or (2) we can seek to reconcile with the one we’ve sinfully offended (Matthew 5:23-26), or (3) we lovingly confront the one who sinned (Matthew 18) in order to restore the relationship. In other words, there are God-given ways to try and set things right before making a permanent exit. Having said that, there is no guarantee that attempting to make things well will indeed make things well. Sadly, at times, things can get worse even after the attempt. Certainly, you are free to leave a church any time, but the honorable and loving thing is to leave after you have made the attempt or taken the correct steps to set things straight.
3. Another wrong reason to leave the church would be to avoid coming under church discipline or refusing to follow through with the discipline process. Once the discipline process has begun and is a matter of record, the pastor and elders are duty bound by Scripture (and sometimes by their ordination vows) to complete it.
4. One more poor reason is when you don’t feel like being a part of the church, but do not have any good biblical or moral grounds for leaving.
Granted, many wrong reasons have been given for leaving a church. Only a few have been listed above. The point is, in the nature of our Christian walk God desires that we follow Jesus in ways the please him, restore relationships with others, and for our own personal spiritual growth. To do otherwise would be a mistake.
What is a gracious way to leave the church?
1. Actively seek to resolve the challenges before you.
Don’t let problems or convictions linger or fester indefinitely. Instead, speak to the pastor and/or elder(s) to resolve the issues as soon as possible. It would be sinful (though not unforgivable) to exit the church without trying to reconcile. In an ideal world, it would be easy to try and we would always be successful at reconciling. It is not realistic to think we will always be successful at making things right and having broken relationships restored or getting the church to see or do things our way. If at all possible, be at peace with all.
In the meantime, just be aware that if the problems you are having with the church are primarily relational it could be that you are are as much at fault as anyone. This might not be true at all, but it is something to humbly consider. If there is something about you that cause or contributed to relational conflict and you leave, you will most likely bring the problems to the next church.
2. No matter what the circumstances, be courageous and do the Christ-pleasing thing by talking in person with the pastor or elder(s) about the issues.
* It can be intimidating to sit face-to-face with the leadership, especially if you are convinced it will accomplish nothing or fear what they might do. Still, making an effort is the right thing (do you see a theme going on here?) It may even be the very thing the Lord uses to make a positive difference in the life of the church! There are healthy ways to approach the leadership even if the outcome does not turn out well, such as bringing someone along with you or finding a skilled person to mediate.
* Do not take the matter to other people through gossip or slander. Do not take it to people who have no ability or authority to make a change. This is the easy way, but is often the cowardly way, and almost always causes conflict and division or makes things much worse.
* If possible, avoid sending a letter or email. This is so easy to do, but generally does not resolve anything. The reason this is rarely a wise thing to do is because it is our nature as people to read emails or letters in a negative light. In other words, even if you craft the note as best as possible and with all good intentions, the likelihood that the person receiving it reads it in a negative light is very high. Letters or emails have this strange tendency to escalate the conflict or exacerbate the problem. If need be, write a letter and have it before you when you dialog in person.
* Let the leader(s) know what you are thinking and where your heart is. If there is a problem or sin issue then identify it clearly and suggest ways to make things right.
* Be humble, listen well, but be willing to receive what may come. The person(s) may offer sound, biblical advice. Wouldn’t that be awesome? But also be prepared to receive a hostile response. Just don’t respond in kind.
3. If you have been able to find a resolution to the main reason for you wanting to leave the church, then praise God! Follow through in a couple of weeks to keep the pastor and/or elders up to speed on how things are going. Continue to work for what is best for all. Be a peacemaker for the cause of Christ.
4. If you are convinced you need to leave the church because the problem was not resolved, or for any number of other reasons, then make arrangements with the elders to exit and do so graciously. Hopefully, it will be a peaceful departure.
* Wise and godly elders should be able to give advice on how to transfer to another church with a letter of commendation or membership transfer.
* A good departure means receiving the blessing from the leadership and often from fellow members. The ideal is to receive God’s blessings instead of a good riddance.
* There are problems with leaving sinfully or with unresolved conflict. Not all conflict will be resolved this side of heaven. Nevertheless, the Christ-like and mature thing is to do all you can to set things right. If not, as already stated the problems might follow you to the next church. Also, the elders may not be able to give you a letter of transfer or a good letter of standing to take to the next assembly.
Leaving this subject
As I said above, “if you and I are serious about following Jesus well, then we should be concerned to practice ways that are good. I submit that it is of no value to practice spiritual disciplines (whatever you wish to call them) if we don’t apply them in ways that demonstrate authentic love for God and love for others. Entering into, engaging with, and departing from Christ’s local body is a significant part of following Jesus.”
There are wrong (sinful or unwise) ways to leave a local church and there are right (God-pleasing) ways. Kindly consider what you have just read. For the sake of peace in Christ’s Church and for the honor of Christ’s name be wise in making your decision to stay or leave; and if you are convinced you must leave then please, for the love of God and your neighbor, do so graciously.
This was taken from Appendix Q of my first book, The Perfect Pastor? Xulon Press; 2007. My second book, ThanksLiving: How to Gain a Perspective to Enrich Your Life was recently released and is available on Amazon.com or at Relavate.org. The new eBook, ThanksLiving: How to Appreciate Others in 12 Meaningful Ways is available for sale on Amazon.com or as a free download at Relavate.org.