How to Leave a Church

Today I received a kind, yet difficult to read, email from a person who is planning on leaving our church. In working through my response, I was helped by re-reading an excellent article from Reed Jolley, my pastor during my college years.

Here’s the article in full:

PUTTING ASUNDER:
SOME THOUGHTS ON HOW TO QUIT YOUR CHURCH

REED JOLLEY
April 2007

After ten great years, it’s time for our family to leave this church.
She said this over a cup of coffee and with a hint of tears in her
eyes.  She wanted me to know that their family’s sojourn with Santa
Barbara Community Church had been a pleasant one, that they had grown
in their faith, and that they would miss the people.  She wanted to
express her gratitude and let me know why they needed to leave….

It’s fairly easy to find a book or an article that tells you how to
choose and join a church.  Eugene Peterson, for example, writes in one
of his books that it’s a good idea to choose the church that is the
smallest and closest to your home.  On the other hand, Ted Haggard says
somewhere that we should ask where God seems to be moving and then get
as near to that place as possible.  Fair enough.  But what about
leaving a church?  American evangelicals shuffle all too often from
church to church, following the movements and fancies of the moment,
but that’s not what I’m addressing here.  I’m talking about when there
are legitimate reasons for leaving a local body of believers.

First, however, let me say that our loyalty to our church should be
stronger than our attraction to the better praise band down the street
or to the in-depth preacher who just took a job at the church on the
corner.  Leaving a church should feel like leaving a marriage.  It
should hurt because we have lived our lives with a group of people, and
now we are leaving.  But, again, there are legitimate reasons to
leave.  Doctrinal considerations or the specific needs of our children
are, for instance, two valid reasons for leaving a church.  When a
church is moving in a direction that an individual or a family feels is
contrary to God’s Word, that is another prudent reason for making a
change.

But how should one leave?  The usual method is to slither out the back
door with the hope that no one notices. Over the years I’ve had
numerous conversations with people who have left Santa Barbara
Community Church, conversations that are sometimes embarrassing and
sometimes hurtful.  Haven’t seen you in a while, I say as we pass on
State Street. Is everything okay?  Then I learn that this person has
moved to another church for whatever reason.  I’m quick to try to
relieve the embarrassment.  Assuming this person has moved to a good
church, I say something like Well, may God bless you and keep you. . . That’s a great church, and I’m sure it will be better
with you in it.  We’re all on the same team in the Body of Christ.
We’ll miss you.

But these conversations—while cordial and sincere—are hurtful because
they happen accidentally.  A serendipitous encounter at the grocery
store should not be the moment to announce that three months ago you
left your church.  When I have these encounters, I find myself thinking
as a pastor, I’ve prayed for this person and invested my life in this
family. I performed his wedding and dedicated his baby.  Besides,
aren’t we members of the same church universal?  How could he and his
family leave without so much as a good-bye?

So how do we leave a church?  I offer the following suggestions:

First, leave deliberately.  Don’t slither or slide.  Don’t wander
hither and yonder.  When it’s time to go, go—and then go become an
integral part of another good, Bible-believing, Christ-saturated
church.  The New Testament knows nothing of individual believers taking
a little from here and sampling a little from over there.  The biblical
doctrine of the church describes a body of believers deeply committed
to Christ and to one another.

Second, go graciously.  Has your theology changed to the extent that
you need to join a different church?  Have the needs of your family or
your work schedule compelled you to make a move?  Fine.  Move, but move
graciously.  Resist the temptation to concentrate on the warts and
blemishes of the church you are leaving.  (You’ll find, soon enough,
that your new church has a few of these too!)  It is important that you
leave your church graciously and join your new church graciously.
Eugene Peterson writes:

Every time I move to a new community, I find a church close by and join
it—committing myself to worship and work with that company of God’s
people.  I’ve never been anything other than disappointed. Everyone
turns out to be biblical, through and through: murmurers, complainers,
the faithless, the inconstant, those plagued with doubt and riddled
with sin, boring moralizers, glamorous secularizers.  Every once in a
while a shaft of blazing beauty seems to break out of nowhere and
illuminate these companies, and then I see what my sin-dulled eyes had
missed: Word of God-shaped, Holy Spirit-created lives of sacrificial
humility, incredible courage, heroic virtue, holy praise, joyful
suffering, constant prayer, persevering obedience.

Third, go thankfully. I write as a man who has been a pastor of the
same church for almost three decades.  During these years many people
have left our church (some of them because of me).  To be honest, some
of the people who have left I don’t miss much.  And others I miss
sorely.  But I always appreciate the one who takes the trouble to say
good-bye.

Embarrassing or awkward as it may be, have an exit interview with one
of the leaders, elders, or pastors of the church you are leaving.
Explain the reasons for your departure, express your gratitude for
their hard work, and commit yourself to praying for the church with
which you will no longer be associated. These exit interviews are rare,
but they are sweet.  Pastors care about people.  So when someone comes
to me, shares where God seems to be leading her, and gives thanks for
her season of involvement at SBCC, I beam with joy.  Pastors are not
running a business and trying to get more customers.  Pastors are
shepherds of a flock.  On our good days we are not jealous of our
sheep; we have their best interests at heart.  Still, it is rarely easy
to hear someone say, I gotta go. . .  In fact, it always hurts.  But
the pain is softened when we learn that he or she is going to settle in
a godly congregation of Christ-exalting believers.  After all, we’re on
the same team working for the same purposes.

Church membership and church involvement are serious undertakings.
When we meet Christ, we are saved into the church.  The Bible speaks of
our being members of one another (Romans 12:4-5).  We are joined
together in Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16).  We eat from one loaf and drink
from one cup (Ephesians 4:4-5).  We are to carry one another’s burdens
(Galatians 6:2).  We might even find ourselves selling our property in
order to meet another’s needs (Acts 4:32ff.).  We are to be a forgiving
community (Colossians 3:13) that is deeply in love with one another
(John 13:34).  The church is a precious gift to God’s people. Christ
died to bring the church into being  (Ephesians 5:25)!  The church is
the mantelpiece of God, the display of God’s splendor before the angels
(Ephesians 3:10)! So let us take care that we cherish the organism that
Christ suffered to create—and may God bless his church!

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