You finally drafted the email, polite and to the point. You scan the first line once more: We have decided to leave the church. It has been a long time coming. You’re confident it’s the right move. Time to pull the trigger.
But is it? Are you leaving for the right reasons? And are you leaving well?
Chances are, you will leave a church at some point in your life. You’ll relocate, have issues with the leadership or struggle to connect with other members. In church communities filled with fallible Christians, parting ways may be the most prudent option. But quitting a church is not the same as quitting the gym. How do you say farewell without burning bridges or doing harm in the process?
We need to leave for the right reasons, and we need to leave rightly.
Clearly Good Reasons for Leaving
There are several unambiguously good grounds for leaving a church.
Relocation. Life sometimes moves you. We live in a mobile society. Jobs change, parents age, we retire, and so on. If the Lord calls you to a different city or state, you’ll have to say farewell to your church family.
False/Errant Teaching. At our church, we don’t take sound teaching for granted. False teaching is a serious problem to be guarded against strenuously. The apostle Paul makes the stakes clear: “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8) If your church fails to teach the gospel and careens into heresy, it is not just a good reason to leave — you’d better get out!
Abuse. There are far too many stories of pastors and leaders who abuse their authority. Those who control others to line their wallets, prop up their egos or prey on others sexually are false shepherds (cf. Ezek. 34). If you belong to a church where leadership abuses rather than cares for the flock, it’s time to get out.
Clearly Bad Reasons for Leaving
At the same time, there are several unambiguously bad reasons for leaving.
Unresolved Conflict. To belong to a local church is to belong to a fallible community. Interpersonal conflict is a fact of life in a fallen world — and though God’s people are called to a life of peace, we still need conflict resolution skills. The plain fact is that you will hurt others, and others will hurt you. When this happens, it’s tempting to avoid the hard work of reconciliation and flee the scene. But running from conflict is cowardly and antithetical to the heart of Christ. We have a high calling to move toward one another, forgiving each other and seeking to maintain the unity of the church. To leave in the face of interpersonal conflict is to abdicate our God-given responsibility.
Unmet Preferences. We are opinionated creatures. You likely joined your present church because it not only preached the gospel, but aligned with your preferences: the music, preaching style, programs offered. We are people who gravitate toward others with like interests.
But as Christians, that is not all we are. The church is designed to be something richer. A healthy church should be a graveyard for our preferences. We are called to consider the interests of others over our own, dying to ourselves. That burial ground becomes a fertile garden, producing love and unity.
For some, personal preferences are too precious to bury. And so they part ways with their preferences in hand. But this take-my-ball-and-go-home approach denies the opportunity for growth.
Boredom. Grass-is-greenerism is a real affliction. There’s always a new phone coming out; always a better, shinier car; always a new fashion. We are a culture in flux, haunted by the FOMO. It makes sense that we itch for change. But just as wedding vows serve as a protective bond against boredom in a marriage, so the commitment of membership reminds us that we are family. We belong to a particular local church not because it’s got the latest and greatest, but because it’s a bastion of that ancient faith that persists through the ages. We belong to a local church because the Lord is there, and we gather with His people.
The Path of Discernment
More than likely, our reasons for wanting to leave our church will fall between these two poles. So how do we discern the path forward in a way that glorifies God and seeks the good of His people?
First, bring the concern to God, clothed in humility. God cares deeply for His people. Beginning the process of discernment in humble submission keeps us from assuming God’s favor. If we start here, the Spirit may convict us of ways we’ve contributed to the problem. He may give us perspective and call us to have greater patience. Or He may confirm what we see. Don’t skip this step.
Second, as we commit our concern to God in humility, we may find our concern confirmed. Now we need to do something about it. You have been placed in your local church with divine intention. The Spirit of God gifted each one of us to serve and build up this body (1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 4:7–16). This, combined with the trust we develop in our relationships, leaves us with resources for change.
I once heard Gregg Allison describe the process of leaving a church like playing out a poker game. We each have so many “chips” — relational resources we are able to spend to effect healthy change. Generally speaking, we shouldn’t make plans to leave until we can honestly say we’ve spent all our chips trying to fix the issues troubling us. Maybe we are frustrated with the lack of too many godly peers; perhaps we want more programs to meet the needs of our family; maybe the music is lousy. Whatever the issue, you’ve got resources. How can you use your gifts to help bring about the change you want to see?
Third, talk to the leadership. If you don’t know how to be part of the redemptive solution, talk to one of the pastors to see how you might be able to strategically invest in the local church. Articulate the difficulty that you’re having . They may be unaware and eager to help you bring about the very change you long for!
If, after working through steps 1–3, the problem remains and you’re not able to bring about needed change, then perhaps it’s time to consider moving on.
If you discern that it’s time to go, work to leave well.
Communicate Clearly. It’s important to communicate clearly both to your pastors and your fellow members — at least those you have a relationship with. Too often members fade out and ghost their church family. They slowly stop attending, becoming less and less involved until they just disappear. But to do this is to leave those who love you in the lurch and undermine the commitment of love you are called to.
When asked about why you are leaving, you should be able to answer clearly, graciously and with Christian unity in view. If you cannot provide a clear reason, you may need to revisit your discernment process.
To be clear, this is not the same as broadcasting grievances. Social media and email are great tools, but to use them as a parting shot is to defy the New Testament teaching on conflict and unity. (In the case of gross abuse of power or reportable criminal offenses, this does not apply; such things are necessarily public)
Say Farewell. If possible — and this is not always the case — say goodbye to those you know. While a healthy departure will be mixed with grief, there should be peace in it. You are not just leaving an organization; you are leaving a fellowship. A clean break allows for everyone to grieve and adjust to your departure.
Don’t Lead an Exodus. Leaving a church and finding a new one can be exciting, particularly after a long struggle. It may be tempting to bring your friends with you. Unless the church you are leaving is apostate or abusive, leading a crowd out of your former church can do great harm to the unity of the body of Christ.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to be secretive. People are going to ask where you’re attending. But serve your inquiring brothers and sisters by encouraging them to walk through this same process before leaving.
Discuss Your Transition with the New Pastor(s). When you plug into a new church, meet with the new pastor and explain your situation. Knowing why you left — and that you left well — will help the new leadership care for you more effectively. As a pastor, I can’t tell you how encouraged I am when I discover new attendees at Village have labored to transition well.
Membership in a local church is a precious gift, and leaving is always significant. But it doesn’t have to be ugly or divisive. If we make sure we’re leaving for the right reasons and we labor to leave well, our churches will be stronger, healthier places. And God will be glorified.