How to Leave a Church with Grace
There is no perfect church. While we’ve all heard this phrase and know that it’s true, there are good churches and there are bad ones. Sometimes a good church takes a bad turn, and we begin to see consistent problems with doctrine, theology, or leadership. So, how can we know when it’s time to bring our concerns to the leadership? Once we’ve done that, if the differences can’t be resolved, when is it time to leave?
These are all very difficult questions, and much has been written on the subject. It takes much more than a single blog post to address these types of decisions, so I won’t try to do that. Instead, I’d like to offer some encouragement about what to do when all these questions have been asked and answered, and it is time to leave. How do you part with a body of believers with whom you’ve worshiped for many years? How do you tell your friends that you’re going? And how do you leave with grace, resisting anger and bitterness, offering mercy and forgiveness?
What you will read next assumes that you have talked to the leadership about your concerns and they are unrelenting in their determination to stick to their belief about what you disagree on. Also, my counsel assumes that you have done your share of research, study, and prayer, and are certain that you have good biblically-based reasons for significantly differing from the counsel of the elders that God has placed over you. If you are considering leaving your church home without doing these things, stop reading now and do those first. We should never take a decision like this lightly. Anytime someone leaves a church, there is a ripple effect. The loss of this family will be felt deeply, and it will make an impact on the church. On a personal note, we’ve left a couple of churches, and neither was done exactly according to this post. Some of the things I’m sharing with you here are lessons learned from those experiences.
What does leaving with grace look like?
Before you leave a church, you need to let the people closest to you know that you are considering leaving. After the elders or governing board of the church, your closest friends/brothers/sisters in Christ need to be the first to know what’s going on. Without going into a lot of detail, you can tell them what your concerns are, let them know that you’ve gone to the leadership about it, and assure them that every concern has been brought out and addressed. If the differences are irreconcilable, let them know that too. If they want more detail, point them to the elder board to get that information. It is better for the leadership to do the informing than for you to do it. This way, you don’t risk being accused of gossip, or of slandering the leadership. If there are hurt feelings or offenses you haven’t addressed in your heart, you won’t risk an angry tone or tears.
Once you’ve informed your close friends, you need to make sure that any responsibilities you had in the church are passed on to someone else. Never leave a church scrambling to fill your Sunday School teaching commitment, or your month of ushering. No matter how wrong you believe they are about their position, it is never honoring to God to leave anyone in the lurch.
When these things are done, then leave quietly. If church members call you to inquire as to why you’ve left, give them the general reason, then point them to the leadership for the details. Even if you think they’ll be less than honest, or that they will slander you, this is the best course. The Lord knows the truth, and He is able to bring it out into the light regardless of what is said. This is always the best practice, because it affords no risk that you will leave a trail of criticism or evil speaking. This may be very difficult to do, but in the end, I believe you will be glad that you did it. Even if your reason for leaving is significant doctrinal error, this will cause those who ask at least to investigate for themselves and ask some questions, which may end up protecting the church. When one person questions bad doctrine, it may be brushed off. When ten people bring the same concern, if the leadership is attuned to the Holy Spirit at all, there may be some conviction and reconsideration.
God is Sovereign
Even under the best of circumstances, when someone leaves a church, there is a change in the fellowship. Those who remain may feel betrayed, and those who have left may feel frustrated, not understanding why their friends don’t see the problems and leave too. Ultimately, however, God is sovereign over all these things, and each person must be ready to offer a great deal of grace. I think what people forget, when they become embroiled in differences in the church, is that the church is to be a picture of the bride of Christ. The bride has her heart and mind focused on the Groom; on pleasing Him; on being beautiful for Him. When we take our eyes off of Christ and set them on people or ideas, that focus becomes blurred, and what started out as a distraction becomes the main event.
One other important thing to do as you prepare to leave is to make sure you have someplace to go. It is never good to be out of fellowship after leaving a church. Do some research, and figure out where you’re going even before you’ve made your final decision. Once you have decided, contact the pastor of the new church and let him know you’d like to meet to discuss the transition. In confidence, share with him your concerns and ask him to pray for you as you make your way out of one church and into the other. He may have good counsel for the process, and he may offer some wisdom about the issue at hand. You will find him to be an invaluable resource as you work through the move, and an important friend as you get settled in a new congregation.
Leaving a church is never easy, and usually quite painful. When it is necessary, though, be sure to keep God’s glory as your number one priority throughout the process. He is faithful, and will lead you as He sees best.