Seven Ways to Leave a Church Well

"Churchgoers are not members of a country club, but rather members of the body of Christ. We should therefore stamp this image upon our hearts. If you feel called to leave a local church, here are seven things to do to ensure you leave it in the right way." - Facts & Trends

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Jay's picture

Jay, are you referring to Ira Chaleff's book?  Your link didn't work for me.  

Yup, that's it.  There was a string of stuff after the link that I thought was for tracking purposes but removing that must have broken the link.  Thanks for the fix.

PVawter, it depends on the situation.  There is a Biblical warning about not casting valuable things (like information) to swine if they're just going to turn around and "rend you".  Without more details I can't / won't say.

I think it's fairly easy to tell who (from SI) has been through these kinds of situations and those who haven't.  Or tell them from who just will not accept "No" as an answer.

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Michael_C's picture

I'll put in a plug for sharing in a gracious, honest way why you are leaving a church. I was a part of a church with very high turnover. People said they were leaving because they wanted a church closer to home, more opportunities for their kids, etc. A few months later I would find out that they had joined a church that was farther away from their house than ours or didn't have a developed kids program.

Long story short, over time many of those people opened up that there were deeper leadership problems they were trying to get away from so they came up with another reason to exit. They didn't want to hurt feelings or have an uncomfortable conversation. The net effect was that some of the weaknesses of the church were not identified by the top leaders and addressed, and they ultimately proved to be fatal. Most of the people who left were not hostile, which was a good thing. But I would argue they could have loved the church better by having a hard conversation.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Michael_C wrote:

I'll put in a plug for sharing in a gracious, honest way why you are leaving a church.

[...]

I would argue they could have loved the church better by having a hard conversation.

I agree with being honest about why one is leaving a church.  It can be difficult when the pastor[s] don't believe there's an issue or refuse to see or consider the problems you are seeing.  (I rather doubt there many, if any, pastors who believe they or their church is in violation of the statement of faith and/or church covenant.  From what I have seen and heard, it's always the member who is wrong.)  I'm not saying don't be honest, but for someone who does NOT want to cause any strife or division in the church, it can be much easier to just quietly leave rather than cause what is likely to be something that blows up, when the leadership will never agree that there is a good reason to leave.

But, I don't believe that letting the leadership know why one is leaving requires a conversation.  I personally left a church (after being there 11 years) that had changed to strong KJVO and LCO positions, as well as being more authoritarian.  When my family and I left, I wrote a 4-page letter, single-spaced typed, detailing all the reasons I had for leaving, and also making clear what the reasons were not (like personal offense, etc.).  At the end, I stated that I would be willing to have a conversation with the pastor and leadership if he desired, but that our minds were made up.  He never requested a meeting.  We ended up having a brief further email discussion that was very cordial, and it went about as well as I would have any right to expect.  I'm fairly certain that trying to start that conversation in person would have caused much more strife.  In short, in-person is NOT always the better or wiser option, even though I did feel I owed the pastor at least an explanation, even if not in a setting that would have given him more advantage or leverage.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

One thought I've got about having the conversation is that if one sees the direction the church is taking as sin--which I did in the three cases I mentioned earlier--then wouldn't Matthew 18 suggest a confrontation (oops) conversation is in order?  

On the flip side, if you've got good evidence that the conversation would go south in a hurry, I'm not going to question your decision to just send a letter, especially since I've personally seen exactly that.  I would be quite the hypocrite as I think about how I respond when, say, crime victims decide to keep their heads down.  (smile)

(also on the smile part; my mistake in writing "confrontation" instead of "conversation" when I originally wrote this might speak to some reasonable assumptions/fears on the part of people leaving churches)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Michael_C's picture

dcbii wrote:

 

But, I don't believe that letting the leadership know why one is leaving requires a conversation.  I personally left a church (after being there 11 years) that had changed to strong KJVO and LCO positions, as well as being more authoritarian.  When my family and I left, I wrote a 4-page letter, single-spaced typed, detailing all the reasons I had for leaving, and also making clear what the reasons were not (like personal offense, etc.). 

I don't disagree, dcbii. I remember my dad doing something similar when we left a church when I was a kid. The pastor had become domineering, even speaking ill of people who had left from the pulpit. My dad wrote a letter resigning our membership and stating our reasons. No need to get drawn further into the drama.

I will also say that it is much easier to directly share your reasons for leaving if the church has a plurality of elders. Hopefully, you can talk to a pastor who will thoughtfully hear your thoughts without it turning adversarial.

My larger point is that many people leave churches because of flaws that may or may not be sinful. If your elders keep hearing the same themes in "exit interviews" that could help your church shore up a weakness. Maybe the preaching is weak, but only people who are leaving will say it? Or maybe singles feel marginalized and unwelcomed? These are data points that could help a church grow and minister more effectively moving forward. In a situation I was a part of, I discovered after the fact that many members were concerned about the same issues I was, but since we didn't gossip we each thought we were the only ones who felt that way!

Or course many people will leave for trivial reasons or because they have a different theology or ministry philosophy. The challenge is to be receptive to feedback without trying to accommodate people who will never be happy.

Dave White's picture

dcbii wrote:
I personally left a church (after being there 11 years) that had changed to strong KJVO and LCO positions ...

What is LCO?

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Dave White wrote:

What is LCO?

Sorry.  It stands for "local church only."  I.e., there is no universal church, only the local church.  Suffice it to say, this position goes much further than simply recognizing that one should belong to a local church, not just consider themselves a member of the universal church, something LCO adherents believe does not exist.  Other positions it takes is that all churches must come from a pure succession of local churches (essentially back to the founding of the church), or they are illegitimate, and that the church did not start at or after Pentecost.  Some also believe that none of the reformers were regenerate.  This position shares many similarities with Landmarkism or Baptist Bride, though in my experience those who hold to LCO may still claim to not actually be Landmark or Baptist Bride.

In any case, I didn't see eye to eye with this position.

Dave Barnhart

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Michael_C wrote:

I discovered after the fact that many members were concerned about the same issues I was, but since we didn't gossip we each thought we were the only ones who felt that way!

And this is part of the issue with confronting the pastor or elders -- since the Bible seems to require 2 or 3 witnesses (not 100% sure that confrontation == rebuke), but most or at least many Christians believe that discussing such problems among the membership would be equivalent to gossip, there is never the group or 2 or 3 to be able to take it to the pastor or elders.  And since no one wants to be guilty of gossip or causing strife they'd rather "put her away privily" instead.

Dave Barnhart

Jay's picture

...this is part of the issue with confronting the pastor or elders -- since the Bible seems to require 2 or 3 witnesses (not 100% sure that confrontation == rebuke), but most or at least many Christians believe that discussing such problems among the membership would be equivalent to gossip.

Add in the fact that some of the board members charged with investigating their pastor are, can, or will be directly related to him, and it can go sideways really fast. 

Objecting to the pastor is good, but there's got to be a willingness to hear the feedback too.  Even if you are willing to say it, do you want a pastor who isn't willing to accept "wounds from a friend" for their own good?

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin is...no longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Larry's picture

Moderator

Larry, are you implying there is no biblical way to leave a church?

No, not at all.

I think there are biblical ways and biblical reasons to leave a church. 

  1. Doctrinal reasons -- Where a church teaches doctrine that you in good conscience cannot believe or listen to or have your family exposed to.
  2. Philosophical reasons - Where a church adopts a philosophy of ministry that you cannot in good conscience abide by and serve in.
  3. Ministry reasons - where you can help another church in a significant way without hurting your present church.
  4. Location reasons - where another church is closer to you and allows you to be more involved in ministry and fellowship (see the Pastor's Talk here: https://www.9marks.org/pastors-talk/episode-77-on-living-close-to-your-c...)

I think as a general rule, a church is a commitment to love and serve people. It is not about us.

The biblical way to leave a church is pretty simple as well: If leaving over differences, leave quietly and communicate to the leadership why you are leaving. If leaving to serve in another church, let the leadership know and let them decide how to handle it publicly. Above all, I would say be careful not to divide the body. It is the temple of God and bad things happen to those who hurt it (1 Cor 3). I do not think it wise or biblical to leave without giving a reason. As I tell people, I can't fix something I don't know about. I may not be able to fix it anyway, but at least give me a chance. 

Why would moving be an automatic pass in this scenario? Are you sure God told you to move? Membership is solid. You made commitments, etc. Why would God tell you to move from where you committed?

Moving is not an automatic pass. I think it is a good idea to make a church a central part of  amoving consideration. Is there a good church where I am moving or do I know someone planting one? If not, should I go? Even buying a house should give consideration to the church you plan to attend. Should you buy a house a long way from where you want to go to church? I would discourage that. I think it is good to live relatively close. It's hard to be involved when it is an hour round trip to church and back. I am a a big fan of living where you go to church. Here's another Pastor's Talk about the topic of living in proximity to church: https://www.9marks.org/pastors-talk/episode-77-on-living-close-to-your-c...

It might be that a move is unwise for any one of a number of reasons related to a church.

 

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that in a case where you've got aberrant theology, you pretty much always have 2-3 witnesses--a single family hearing the sermon qualifies, no?  In the cases I mentioned from my own life, I had a video shown to the whole church, a site linking a lot of financial documents, and a pastor putting out a ton of KJVO/TOB materials in the foyer.  Sometimes I think that we do ourselves a lot of harm by almost instinctively asking "do you have 2-3 witnesses" or "do you have first hand knowledge?", as if the stack of pamphlets isn't (rhetorically speaking) right out there in the foyer.  Are we really seeking truth, or are we grasping at any straw to evade accountability?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Bert, not everyone agrees on what aberrant theology is. If the theology is contrary to the agreed on doctrinal statement, then a case can be made. But if a person is the one in contradiction to the doctrinal statement, it is better for that person to leave quietly. Pamphlets, videos, and other forms of physical evidence are part of the 2-3 witnesses that can be used to establish a case.

But in a church, a person being different doesn't require the whole church to change their conscience. Which is why there is a place to leave, quietly in many cases, rather than disturb the unity of the body.

Bert Perry's picture

Larry, no doubt that not everyone agrees, but that's not the point I was making.  My main point is that a lot of the time, church leaders wrongly use "2-3 witnesses" or "do you have first hand evidence" as a means to avoid discussing the subjects at all.  It's really a control tactic, and all the more as the evidence for what's going on is as obvious as a rack of KJVO materials in the foyer or throwing away perfectly good NIV Bibles that have been there for years.  "Oh, can't listen to you, we need a couple more people to complain, ignore those Chick materials I just put out there."  

It raises a few other questions, starting with whether those evading a discussion have a good argument for their position at all, and whether those evading a discussion understand the principle that when one person brings a matter up, it generally means that the person cares enough about the organization to complain.  (staple of customer service, by the way)

So no, never decided to "disturb the unity" of the flock by having such a conversation.  I have, however, had conversations with a few pastors who had decided to quietly move the flock away from where the church constitution and culture stood.  

And a final note; accusing someone of "disturbing the unity of the body" also tends to be a way of avoiding uncomfortable topics,  a way pastors in effect say "I've got the authority here, you get to submit, don't ask too many questions."  And then those pastors wonder why so many members show up as empty seats every Sunday.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry's picture

Moderator

My main point is that a lot of the time, church leaders wrongly use "2-3 witnesses" or "do you have first hand evidence" as a means to avoid discussing the subjects at all. 

I reject that use of "2-3 witnesses."

accusing someone of "disturbing the unity of the body" also tends to be a way of avoiding uncomfortable topics,  a way pastors in effect say "I've got the authority here, you get to submit, don't ask too many questions."  And then those pastors wonder why so many members show up as empty seats every Sunday.

It can be, but it likely does not tend to be nor does it have to be. Disturbing the unity of the body tends to be a way of insisting on your way over the unity of the body and being willing to divide the body over your personal views. However, there are way too many factors in any given situation to address here in any meaningful way.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Larry wrote:

It can be, but it likely does not tend to be nor does it have to be. Disturbing the unity of the body tends to be a way of insisting on your way over the unity of the body and being willing to divide the body over your personal views. However, there are way too many factors in any given situation to address here in any meaningful way.

Unless you would find it not "meaningful," I'd be interested in knowing how you'd handle a situation where you are in a church, and you hear something preached that doesn't really line up with scripture or it goes against the covenant/statement of faith.  You then go to leadership and it's explained away, ignored, or not taken seriously.  Do you go to someone else in the church to discuss it, or would that be divisive or disturbing the unity of the body?

It's exactly this question that leads many to leave a church quietly, because to bring it up with someone else (especially if they haven't noticed it) seems like it would be fostering divisiveness, or borderline gossip.  It's not being "insist[ent] on [one's own] way," but there is a concern that this is something not just a "personal view," and will need some sort of resolution.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

Larry wrote:

<snip>

accusing someone of "disturbing the unity of the body" also tends to be a way of avoiding uncomfortable topics,  a way pastors in effect say "I've got the authority here, you get to submit, don't ask too many questions."  And then those pastors wonder why so many members show up as empty seats every Sunday.

It can be, but it likely does not tend to be nor does it have to be. Disturbing the unity of the body tends to be a way of insisting on your way over the unity of the body and being willing to divide the body over your personal views. However, there are way too many factors in any given situation to address here in any meaningful way.

I think it's important here to state what's really being done when someone says another is "disturbing the unity of the body."  Specifically, if I make that accusation, I simultaneously am NOT addressing the specific way in which the person is (allegedly) disturbing unity.  Whether it's music, an item of theology, or Bibliology, or whatever, that particular issue is not being addressed.  So I'd argue that the argument "you're disturbing the unity of the body" is almost inherently a dodge of the real issues by its very nature.  If I'm addressing the way in which someone is splitting the church, I have no need to say this at all.

Worth noting as well is that the unity spoken of in Scripture is the unity of the Spirit.  You will only find the phrase "unity of the body" in the translators' notes and headers of chapters, which are of course not part of the text.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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