"Leaving a church is hard. Don't make it harder by doing it badly."

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Ed Vasicek's picture

I think this is a rather common sense article, but, then again, common sense isn't all that common.

IMO, nothing shows the arrogance or humility of a fellow believer (or church) quite like departures.  Do church people view former members as traitors?  Do former members look down upon their previous church (condescension) and the people there as "not worthy of the higher standards I hold?"

1. I wish he had included a comment about "amassing justifications."

When people don't have a good reason to leave a church, they think quantity will make the point.  If there is a good reason, state it and stop.  There will always be a host of irritations in any church if you are there long enough.

2. I wish he mentioned "don't build a case so that you look good to others and so that your own conscience is relieved."

When people look bad for leaving (e.,g,, after a church has helped them), they will go through great effort to justify their move, which usually means putting down the church and/or its leadership.

3. I wish he added, "leave with humility."

You are not God's determiner of ultimate spirituality.   Your opinion doesn't matter that much!  When people are humble, this is not much of an issue.  But those left behind are not less spiritual than you because the current church no longer meets your high standards.  Try to leave in such a way that others know you still hold your old church in high esteem, unless something so bad has happened that you cannot.

4. I wish he added, "Don't try to take others with you."  Your old church should not become a source of  growth for your new church.  Some people have a "retinue" that follow them from church to church.

5. Accept that some people might be relieved that you are gone, and even that some people in your old church really didn't care for you.  Sometimes, church members set themselves up as consumers, and it is all about how the church serves them or their families.  The idea that people in church are relieved to shed unhappy campers or problematic persons never enters their minds.  They are leaving their old church, but, in a sense, their old church is leaving them, too.  Sometimes, departures are painful for all, and those are the best departures.

I did appreciate his talking about thinking of the old church as bad and the new one as wonderful.  I have found that most people who leave are enthralled by the newness of everything; after 3 years, you get a truer picture of their level of contentment.   If they are church hoppers, however, they may not last the 3 years!

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

I am guessing that there will be something of an upsurge in people leaving and doing so in such a way as to cause others to leave it, and perhaps instead of simply saying "don't demonize your former church", we might do well to challenge people on "how important is this?". There are simply some cases where the church being left deserves to suffer a bit.  Yes, when possible definitely bring issues to leadership first, but we may be missing some things if we simply say "don't demonize" when there are issues that definitely deserve precisely that. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

A man, marooned on a dessert island for many years was finally rescued.  Before leaving the island, the rescuer asked to be shown how he managed to survive.  "What's that hut? he asked."  "That's where I live."  "All right, what's the other hut?"  "I'm a Christian.  That's where I attend church every Sunday."  "Fine, and what's that third hut over there?"  "Oh, that's where I used to attend church."

G. N. Barkman

Jim's picture

I used to be a computer salesman for IBM

Back in the days of IBM and the seven dwarfs

IBM had:

  • The best products (hey ... they ate BUNCH for lunch)
  • Great support
  • Competitive pricing (not generally the lowest)

IBM was under the Justice Department's Consent Decree with its very restrictive regulations

Fighting against BUNCH was like a giant in combat with one hand behind it's back.

Yet we won the business most of the time!

When we lost to someone (I lost to NCR and Burroughs a couple of times) ... when we lost, management would conduct a "loss" review. I'm telling you these were tough!

A couple of years ago my son who's an accountant quit his company for a better position. His company's HR department conducted a thorough exit interview to understand and document why my son left.

Here's where this is going ... most churches don't know and don't care why people leave!

A family member is about ready to leave his church ... why?

  • Because the pastor's wife is the church secretary and sits around reading novels. 
  • The pastor doesn't pick up the phone or return emails

 

 

T Howard's picture

Jim,

In my experience as an elder of our church, some people who leave are not honest about why they left. We try to speak to every regular attender / member who stops attending our church to understand why they stopped attending. Most of them leave because they are relocating. Some leave because of programming (e.g. they want a better youth program for their teens). Some leave because of sin (e.g. we begin the formal church disciple process and they resign their membership). Some leave because they are unhappy with something (e.g. we allowed a woman to attend our church who uses a support dog and a couple left the church over it). Others leave the church and tell us one reason, but then turn around and tell others another reason. This is very frustrating.

 

Jim's picture

T Howard wrote:
some people who leave are not honest about why they left.  ... Others leave the church and tell us one reason, but then turn around and tell others another reason. This is very frustrating.

Agreed!

This past year we lost a solid couple. They went to another very good church. We reached out to them ... they never responded

Ed Vasicek's picture

This June 1, I will have been a pastor for 40 years, 35 in the same church.  Early on, I used to conduct exit interviews.  At this point, I rarely do.

Jim quote T. Howard:

T Howard wrote: 

some people who leave are not honest about why they left

Not only are people dishonest with you about why they leave, they are even more dishonest to their own selves.  They have a reason like better music elsewhere, friends at another church luring them, getting mad at someone at the church over something trite, etc., and then they present some spiritual reason or start attacking your sermons or board (as they grope to look good).

I think you will get more honest answers from someone resigning from a secular corporation than you will from church people leaving.  Church people feel like they must offer a spiritual justification.  They might tell you what they have convinced themselves is true, but the real reason would be embarrassing.  At this point, I will listen if they want me to listen, but I don't seek it out.  If there was something truly to learn, it would be worth listening.

And, when you have been around for decades, you see the long term results of decisions.  It makes you take things with a grain of salt.

A lot of the problem -- and no one seems to address this -- is the human propensity toward dissatisfaction.  The particulars vary, but many people are simply just not happy people.  In their quest for happiness, they want to try something new.   In my experience, that is often what is going on.  Not always, but often.  It's hard to change mates. Tough to get a new job.  You can't trade your children with others. But changing a church -- that's easy.

"The Midrash Detective"

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

...is actually hard.  At least for some of us.

My family left a church about 15 years ago over what my wife and I believe were scriptural reasons.  The church went from a balanced approach to the scriptures to being pretty hard-core KJVO.  It was declared to be actually TR-only, but in practice it meant KJVO -- it was a Brandenburg-type church.  In fact, our pastor was in very close fellowship with Brandenburg.

In our case, we didn't plan to sit down with any of the leadership.  First, we had already had a number of discussions over a several month period with the pastor and some of the deacons.  Second, what we didn't want to hear (and had heard similar from the pulpit) was that we were simply uninterested in biblical Christianity, or having strong standards, or how "those who went out from us were not of us."  We knew any reasons we gave were not going to be accepted as scriptural, especially since the pastor had already mentioned in one of his sermons that those who disagreed with him once he preached something were wrong.

So what we did was write a very long letter (4 pages single-spaced typed) detailing exactly the reasons we were leaving, and why we believed we could no longer follow the pastor's leadership or be a part of that church.  As part of that, we mentioned that if any of the leadership contacted us, we would be willing to speak with them, but that our decision had taken a long time, was reached with a lot of prayer, counseling, discussion, and tears, and that our minds were made up.  The pastor answered my email with our letter included by thanking me for sending it, and we exchanged some further emails over practical matters, but beyond that, we were never contacted by any of the leadership over our reasons for leaving.

Personally, I felt (and still feel) that extended in-person discussions would have resulted in more acrimony and bad-will than simply handling it by email, which helped to keep it impersonal.  We had no personal ill-will to any in the church, and had not left over something as trivial as a service dog being present (?!?!).  It had already been a tough decision for us.  Causing any further strife over it would have been wrong as well as unproductive.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

If someone lies or dissimulates regarding their decision to leave a church, shouldn't a pastor be glad to see them go in some ways?  

Smiled a bit about Ed's comment about exit interviews.  Given that people are counseled "don't burn your bridges", they can be some of the worst places to get honest appraisals of why they left.  :^) 

 Also, I've got to second Dave's note about leaving churches.  I do tend to send a note or explain my position, but I don't like to argue the point, or at least I keep things terse.  Part of that is simply because my reasons for leaving are generally pretty simple, things like wannabe KJVO.  One "pastor" did pursue me, but all he achieved was (a) I don't refer to him as a "pastor" anymore and (b) he demonstrated to me that KJVO really is all about personal attacks.  Don't want any of that!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

G. N. Barkman's picture

There are usually three reasons why people leave a church.  1)  The reason they tell the pastor(s).  2)  The reason they tell their friends.  3)  The real reason.   (I have learned that if a person does not want to talk to the pastor about why they are leaving, it will probably only create ill-will to pursue them until they do.)

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

I am rather cold-blooded about people leaving a church. Some people leave for good reasons; they're retiring and moving away to be near the grandkids (etc.). They might get a better job elsewhere. These are fine and good reasons. But, when people leave for stupid reasons, I usually don't care and am glad they left. 

This past Summer, a key member of our church left. I believe she lied when she claimed it was her husband's choice. They never spoke to us about any dissatisfaction. She refused to meet to discuss, and just said in an email that it was about "personal preferences," and assured us she had no problems. I replied, reminded her that church records showed she'd now joined the church and left three times in 10 years, and questioned whether she understood what church membership meant. She never responded, and I didn't expect her to.

I am glad she is gone, and I don't care that she isn't here any longer. I just don't care. I can't bring myself to care. If you don't understand the concept of a church as a community, and you have no loyalty to the congregation, then I'd rather you leave.  And, to be honest, because I'm bi-vocational your tithe means nothing to me, in practical terms. I don't depend on the congregation for my livelihood. 

This has repeated itself several times for me, over the years. We recently had a couple that had been attending our church leave because I preached a nice, gentle sermon about why church membership matters. Do I care that they left? No. I had visited them at their home shortly after they arrived at our church, and had written them off as people who would run as soon as they found something to be offended by. Guess what? They ran off soon after.

I try not to let my natural cynicism get the better of me. But, I'm usually good at seeing the writing on the wall. There's a distinction between cynicism and being realistic. I like to think I'm realistic!   

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

For me, departures from our church are always painful.  When there was a problem, I am saddened that the problem was not properly resolved.  That's painful to me.  Where there is no known and apparent reason, I am left with perplexing questions.  That, too, is painful.   When the situation lacks clarity, I can usually get some closure when I see what church they attend.  When it is a solid church, I am sad to lose them, but thankful for the evidence of soundness.  When they go to a weak and worldly church, I am more greatly saddened, but can at least be comforted that they left for reasons within themselves, not because of weaknesses in our church.  We know that for some, the time will come when they will no longer endure sound doctrine.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

Your response is the one I've been implicitly taught I "should" feel. But, I don't. If (1) I did my best to try and address the problem, and (2) they leave anyway, and (3) I can honestly say I couldn't have done anything else, then (4) I just don't care at that point. Is that bad? I'm not sure. Maybe it's a personality thing. Here's an example:

  • Couple attend church sporadically, both members. 
  • Begin to live in Arizona during the winter months. Attendance during times while in the area remains sporadic.
  • They return from Arizona after this past Winter, show up once, then vanish into thin air. They tell the Associate Pastor they are attending a Nazarene Church in the area.
  • I send them a letter, telling them there are profound and serious doctrinal issues with Nazarene theology, and asking them if there is something we can address about their issues without church, can we meet (etc., etc., etc.).
  • Radio silence from them.
  • I shrug my shoulders, couldn't care less, and haven't thought about them since. We're removing them from membership at our annual business meeting next week. I could tell they didn't care, haven't cared for a while, and their absence is meaningless - they were non-entities when they were here. 

This is another one of those areas where I am uncomfortable because I don't fit well into the traditional pastoral "mold" that folks often expect. I'm not sure if something is wrong with me, or if I'm just a jerk. Perhaps both ... But, I've basically reconciled myself to the fact that I'm a bit different. If people are members, and they clearly don't care, or want to leave cavalierly and thus show they don't care, then I'm not anxious to retain them. I'll try (of course), but in these circumstances I'm quite happy to see them leave. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

There is so much to talk about on this subject, so many different scenarios.

G. N. Barkman said:

There are usually three reasons why people leave a church.  1)  The reason they tell the pastor(s).  2)  The reason they tell their friends.  3)  The real reason. 

The third should read, "what they believe the real reason is."  The fourth one should be, "the real reason."  That reason could be many things -- the fact that they are, by nature, fickle.  Or perhaps they read a new book and want to go in that direction. Or a host of other things. But they don't want to admit that, even to themselves.

When people change their minds about things, their minds typically rewrite the past so that they were always as they now are.  For example, people that once opposed gay marriage and now support it will soon forget they were ever against it.  The Jeremiah 17:9 deceitful heart syndrome is insidious.

 

When a church changes its position, for example (as the KJV only change mentioned above), that can be a legitimate reason to leave, IMO.  But when you join a church because you like what it stands for -- and then YOU change -- don't blame the church!

"The Midrash Detective"

G. N. Barkman's picture

Tyler,  I'm not prepared to say how you, or any other pastor "should feel."  I can only describe how I feel.  I recognize that I don't often feel as deeply as some other pastors.  I think it is a personality issue to some extent.  I also know that I don't feel as deeply as I did in the early years.  After forty-five years and having seen umpteen people leave, I know I have become a bit callous.  It doesn't (usually) bother me as much as it used to.  Is that bad?  I'm not sure.  It may simply be a more mature response borne out of experience.  If you think you should be able to keep everyone, you will go into serious depression when the inevitable occurs.  For whatever reason, some people are going to leave.  That's reality, but it still bothers me. I really don't want to get to the place where I no longer feel pain.  It's always painful to see people you loved, taught, prayed for, cried and laughed with, turn their backs on you and your church.  Ouch.  It always hurts me to some extent, and some more than others.  (As some pastors around here say, "Some folks look better going than coming.")

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

On Thursday evening, my wife and I spent about three hours with a solid couple in their mid thirties who have left our church.  My wife and I have both shed a few tears, and she is still pretty depressed.  I understand why they left, and I can't say it shouldn't happen, but it still hurts.  They both grew up in our church, where they met and eventually married. They drove thirty minutes to church for eight or nine years, and were actively involved, and a real asset.  I grieve, but I must shoulder on.  That's part of the life of a pastor.  There are great joys, and also deep disappointments.  But, "It will be worth it all when we see Jesus."

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

I suppose I can sum up my attitude by saying this:

  • I really do care about people in my congregation
  • But, I can't bring myself to care if they're determined to show they don't care about the congregation

I can't begin to express how deeply my experience at my last church has impacted me on this. I want people to think of the local church as a family, with all the corresponding commitments this mindset entails, united around the two core missions of (1) discipleship and (2) corporate and individual evangelism. I hate the idea of church as a social club, and I despise "traditions."

Why are you here? Why do you attend? Why do you want to join? 

I want people to love their local congregation, and that's why I can't bring myself to care about people who show they don't care - especially if they're current members. To me, if you're a member and you leave for a bad reason and won't listen to appeals from the pastors, then you're being cheap and you're a traitor to the congregation. You're abandoning your family. 

This goes back to:

  1. Do you make membership meaningful in your congregation?
  2. Do you have a church covenant, or an equivalent?
  3. Do you hold people to a standard of commitment and behavior as a condition of membership? That is, if they disappear for weeks and months on end, do you take steps to find out any and (if necessary) remove them from the roll?
  4. Do you take steps to make the ordinances meaningful in your congregation? 

Or, is church membership in your congregation like a gym membership; cheap, anonymous, irrelevant and an appendage scotch-taped to your otherwise busy life? 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Tyler, I understand what you are saying, and I have many of the same sentiments.  But somehow, I still can't help feeling pained when people turn their backs and leave.  I agree, it's easier to accept when they have a bad attitude.  Unless that attitude changes, they would probably infect others if they stayed.  But I still feel pain that they developed a bad attitude.  We love you, so why don't you love us?  It hurts.

And what about those who are themselves deeply grieved, even to tears, and yet feel, after months of prayer and consideration, that it's time for them to leave?  How should I feel about those?  I feel deeply pained.  Feeling as they do, I really think they should stay, but can I be sure?  It's complicated at times, and no two situations are exactly alike.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

Editor

Bro. Barkham wrote:

And what about those who are themselves deeply grieved, even to tears, and yet feel, after months of prayer and consideration, that it's time for them to leave?  How should I feel about those?  I feel deeply pained.  Feeling as they do, I really think they should stay, but can I be sure?  It's complicated at times, and no two situations are exactly alike.

I haven't had that. I've only had people disappear without a word, or people who tell me they're leaving but allow no opportunity to discuss. You've been at this a bit longer than me! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

G. N. Barkman's picture

Tyler,  I've had plenty of those who just disappear, as well as those who leave without willingness to discuss.  When that happens, you know that there's a problem with which they are not willing to deal. In the past I have at times, twisted arms pretty hard to require a meeting, but I've found that seldom turns out well.  Yes, I can usually force the issue, but at what cost?  That will usually make a disappointing situation even worse.  In such cases, it's probably best to just let them go.

But from time to time, I insert instructions into a sermon concerning the right way to leave a church.  Also, when people leave in the right way, I hold their example before the congregation and say, in essence, "See this is how it ought to be done."  Although these measures do not prevent every improper departure, over time, they reduce the numbers.  Of course, I must continually examine my own heart, to see if my attitudes are wrong. 

G. N. Barkman

G. N. Barkman's picture

I often wrestle with what I know about honorable ways to leave a church, and the practical demands of accepting people according to their various stages of immaturity.  I try to teach the ideal, but often accept the practical.  Church membership is not well understood in our day, and is usually badly practiced by most Christians and, sad to say, most churches.  To do it well is like swimming up stream.  I keep swimming, and am determined never to stop, but I'm also more inclined to accept less than ideal situations than I used to be.  Wisdom teaches you to choose your battles carefully.  Some things are worthy dying for.  Others are not.  Proper Biblical church membership is important, but not worth dying for.  However, I'm convinced that if and when we experience genuine revival in America, healthy church membership will result.  And I can't help believing that teaching churches to practice it now may help pave the way for revival. 

G. N. Barkman

JohnBrian's picture

In the past 4 years I have left 2 churches for very different reasons. At the 1st I had been a teaching elder along with 2 others. I had stepped away from that shortly before the senior elder retired and moved away. The 2nd elder was a little too weak on some theological issues for my liking. That coupled with some changes in my personal situation caused me to be leaning towards leaving, but was hesitating because of the feeling of a sense of responsibility to the congregation. The final push for me was the decision by the 2nd elder (now the 1st) to ordain a seminary grad who had been an intern. His degree was not specifically pastoral, and he didn't intend to seek a pastorate. He failed his 1st council, but when he was offered a teaching position out of state, he was granted ordination as a "going away present." I wrote a letter to the elder expressing my opposition to the ordination, stating that I would absent myself from church on the Sunday of the ordination, The response from the elder gave me the "out" to leave.

The 2nd church was meeting in the same building as my work office, and I was there for 3 years. I had some concerns about their membership process, but was otherwise mostly satisfied with the church. Earlier this year they decided to move services to an elementary school to save on rent. It was a little further for me to drive, so decided not to move with the church.

I am in the membership process at a church now and hope to be received into membership before the end of the year.

CanJAmerican - my blog
CanJAmerican - my twitter
whitejumaycan - my youtube

Larry Nelson's picture

I'm 55, and I've been at my current church since I was 37 (so 18 years).  I was at a previous church from ages 17 to 37 (so 20 years).  So I've left one church to go to another once in the last 38 years.

When I left, there was no "reason I told my pastor" vs. "the real reason;" there was simply "the real reason(s)," which I, my pastor, and anyone else interested knew. 

Unlike what some of the responses in this thread seem to portray, there never was any sharp break in fellowship between me and my former pastor.  Why should there be?  We're still friends.  I've had dinner with him occasionally throughout the years.  He invites me to different things, and vice versa.  When my dad died in September, I called my former pastor to let him know.  He came to the funeral.

What I guess I'm saying is that I don't understand some of the behaviors that some here describe in the event that someone leaves one church for another.