So, you’ve decided to leave your church: you’re moving, or you’ve come to a doctrinal impasse, or there has been conflict that you’ve tried to navigate, but the church has been unwilling to biblically walk through a peacemaking process to bring about reconciliation.
As a pastor, every person who leaves the church hurts. As a pastor of ten years, there have been hundreds that have left the churches I’ve served at and I can only think of a very small handful that I was glad to see go. Every goodbye is painful.
But, as we discussed last week, there are times to say goodbye (although a lot fewer than we are encultured to believe). When you say goodbye, say goodbye well. Sadly, in today’s culture, most of us say goodbye very poorly (usually by not saying goodbye at all, just slipping away). We’re called to say goodbye in a harder, but better, way. Here are six things to do before you leave your church:
1) Speak to your pastor
A pastor is called to “shepherd the flock of God.”[i] It’s hard to shepherd when the sheep wander off without any communication. You are helping your pastor love you well and you are loving him well when you communicate to him that you are leaving, whether that is for easy (moving) or hard (conflict, doctrinal) reasons.
2) Speak humbly
Every pastor is a sinner. Every church contains in it brokenness, injustice, and sin that grieve God. But of course we also are sinners. And we all have a finite understanding of God, the church, and the world. Scripture again and again exhorts us to speak to one another (and especially our leaders[ii]) with humility.[iii] We often wait too long to have these conversations with our pastors and, by the time we have them, we are revved up and fully armored coming in. We’ve played the objections over in our mind, we’ve honed our arguments, and we’re ready to shoot to kill. Don’t come as an adversary. Come as one seeking to not just to teach, but also to learn, not just as one demanding repentance, but one willing to repent.[iv]
3) Allow space and time for your concerns to be addressed
Change takes time. If you believe your church is seriously deficient in its teaching or has not appropriately dealt with conflict, don’t come with an ultimatum. Give the leadership time to remedy the situation. At any church at any given time there are a number of emergencies and crises already going on that you probably are unaware of. Grant grace and be patient with your leaders.[v]
4) Speak the truth in love
For the conflict-avoiders among us, your temptation might be to minimize the issues or to put forward surface reasons that are not actually the most significant issues. Perhaps an elder has demonstrated a violent temper or you have seen behaviors that indicate infidelity – papering over these issues is not loving to that brother or to the church. You are not loving the church to tell the pastor that you’re leaving because you want to go to church with your extended family. It is loving to step into that difficult conversation and speak the truth in love.[vi] That is loving Christ’s bride well.
5) Do not gossip
Scripture minces no words when speaking about gossip. In Romans 1:29, Paul lists gossip right alongside envy, murder, slander, and hatred of God as exhibiting unrighteousness and evil. We must speak in a manner that builds up in truth and love. This isn’t to suggest that we cannot speak the truth in the face of deception or warn of false teaching,[vii] but that we must be careful to “let no corrupting talk come out of [our] mouths, but only such as is good for building up… that it may give grace to those who hear.”[viii]
6) Speak blessing
As you leave, be sure that you speak encouragement to your pastors and leaders. They surely did some things well or else you never would have called that church home. Speak your affirmation to them and thank them. It’s no accident that Paul almost always begins his letters offering up thanks to God for his readers and closes with words of exhortation and encouragement. May this be a pattern for us as well.
Leaving a church isn’t easy. Frankly, it shouldn’t be easy. But the right way and the easy way are rarely the same. If you are called to leave your church, leaving well will be an opportunity for growth both for you and your church and will bless you both eternally.
Say goodbye well, friends.
Photo credit: Remi Walle/Unsplash
[i] 1 Peter 5:1-2
[ii] Philippians 2:28-29; 1 Timothy 5:17
[iii] See Proverbs 18:12, Zephaniah 2:3, Ephesians 4:1-2, and Philippians 2:3
[iv] Matthew 7:3-5
[v] Romans 12:12, 2 Timothy 2:24
[vi] Ephesians 4:15
[vii] 1 Timothy 1:3, 2 Peter 2:1
[viii] Ephesians 4:29