How to Leave a Church Well

In the years I worked in pastoral ministry, I was very familiar in processing the departure of people from the church from various roles, as a staff pastor and also as a lead pastor. I found that most of the time this played out in a rather unpleasant way. Rarely was it ever a good experience for both sides. This is sad, because it shouldn’t be that way.

The facts is, relationship seasons shift and change. If we keep the bigger picture of what God is doing in mind, someone leaving a church can and should be a great experience of them moving on to new things, not bitter departures or dysfunctional cut offs.

If the church learns how to do healthy relationship, then someone moving on and leaving shouldn’t be a purely negative experience. Christians ought to be experts on how to process through these kind of transitions, rather than producing the devastation we often witness.

I have never understood pastors trying to convince someone to stay in a church. In my pastoral work, I never wanted to pressure anyone to be in the church and stay if they did not want to or did not enjoy it. It goes against basic relationship principles. It’s like having a meeting to convince someone as to why they should be your friend. It’s absurd.

But of course, too many times the motives of keeping the business machine running drives everything. There can be a pull to keep people because of what they can do for the church or the finances they contribute. This often takes us off the big picture of what God is doing in the Kingdom, versus our own kingdoms that we like to build.

If a church is really a healthy, biblical and apostolic-minded place, then people should be leaving all the time. The goal should be sending not keeping and hoarding. We often claim we want to get back to a biblical church reference. If this is true, we need to learn how to equip people, with the understanding they may and should go to another location or emphasis in their journey. Apostle means “one who is sent” which means churches should be sending centers, not sitting centers.

[bctt tweet=”The goal of a biblical church should be sending, not hoarding.”]

This is a prime reason I believe people leaving a church hurts. They have extended their stay and have been mentored in their full calling, which may involve moving on from that particular church fellowship. Churches can’t think about this, because they are too busy building giant organizations that cannot handle these kind of changes. Therefore, people often plateau and relational issues stir up.

Which is the second reason why church transitions are so challenging–people have not dealt with their spiritual junk. Satan loves getting into the mix and causing rifts in leadership and the people who are a part of the fellowship. Too many relational problems go on and on with not even a thought that the accuser is in the midst.

Walking through someone leaving the church takes a healthy church leadership and a culture that understands how to process through these transitions in a healthy manner. I have been on both sides of the equation, experiencing both good and horrible experiences with leaving a church. In over 20 years of working in ministry and helping people, here are some things I have found helpful when walking through departing a church.

1. Work Out Your Relationship Filter

Satan gets into the minds of people way to easily today. It is so important that we check our own motives and perceived hurts before making decisions. Beware of creating perceptions about other people and judging the hearts and motives of others. Too often, we come out of a place of hurt more than anything else.

You can’t go wrong when you ask God to check your heart more than trying to judge what everyone else is thinking. When we fall into a “us against them” mentality in relationships, I find that people can posture themselves as martyrs, where everyone is against them. I have found that adjusting our personal filter is so critical to maneuver through relational health.

2. Work Out Relationship Issues as Best You Can

Many often leave a church or organization because dealing with people gets hard. The truth is, relationships are hard work and sometimes we bail out just when in reality, the relationship could go to a new level.

Satan is a divider. He loves to create arguments and battles that get us lost in arguments rather than the big picture. People become focused on winning an argument more than growing in loving relationship. We get off track and lose focus of what God is seeking to do, while becoming immersed in periphery issues.

If you are deciding to leave, make sure it’s based on a good decision and not on something that can be worked out relationally. You rarely hear a church departure story where the person says, “Yeah I had some issues I didn’t deal with that were a part of the problem.” It is usually the other people that are 100% accused of blame. We’re all prone to being deceived, so being self-discerning of where we might be contributing to the problem may be helpful.

3. Stop Trying to Change Your Pastor

If I had a nickel….for every time I witness someone trying to change their pastor.

More often than not, I will have conversations with people who talk about what their pastor needs and how they are hoping he will “get it.” They send him links to videos, slip books on his desk and push to have certain speakers come in.

This is often driven by good intentions, but its filled with manipulation and control. It’s unhealthy and out of order to try and change anyone, let alone our pastors and leaders. The best thing to do is to be a supportive presence and to pray for for them. If you get to the boiling point in the vision and direction of the church, have a healthy sit down conversation.

4. Have Honest But Loving Conversations

An honest conversation can be had without being accusing and condemning. Most of the time people enter into these meetings throwing spears, without having a listening ear. I advise people that they need to walk into these meetings with 100% listening ears, with a motive to understand, not just get your point across.

I am amazed at how people can leave churches without having some good conversations. One of the reasons people leaving a church is so hard on leadership is that it often comes out of the blue. Things seems to be going fine until suddenly someone leaves without much communication. Suddenly, it dawns on the pastor that there wasn’t an honest relationship all this time.

If someone meets out of the blue with a pastor, announcing they are leaving, with no history of honest conversation, they often hide the real reason they are leaving. When I was a lead pastor, at first I would confront this, often to find myself thrusted in exhausting arguments. I learned quickly to not waste energy trying to heal with someone who had no intention of working through issues.

Usually a relationship needs to go to the next level by becoming more honest. When making an invitation for honest communication, you wil find few that take the invite. Often the hard and honest conversations give the relationships the opportunity to go to the next level, even if it means the relationship has to move on from its current form.

5. Have Communication in Person

This would seem obvious, but it has to be mentioned, because it is not followed. Too often, the departure is announced quickly and suddenly, so as to avoid any awkward conversations. Your departure doesn’t mean you have to burn bridges emotionally, but we do that when we leave without healthy interaction.

I know some churches can act like the mafia; once you leave or consider leaving, you are treated as an immediate outsider or even a traitor from then on. That just shows they are not Kingdom minded. But it is still worth it on your end to have an honest face to face conversation. Do your best to communicate, so that even if you leave, you can go with a clean heart.

I’ve watched people leave churches without having healthy conversations and talking through any issues. It damaged the leadership team who had invested years into their family and life. In my pastoring, some would leave with an email….no meeting in person and no helpful conversation. I have watched many leave without saying anything, with little regard for how their actions effect others.

6. Work on yourself because you will carry personal problems into the next church.

To this day, people think there is a perfect church out there somewhere. News flash: everybody’s broken to some degree, no matter how shiny the exterior is. In addition, every church has its strengths and weaknesses.

People have their growth to do, including those in leadership. If we’d stop putting people into such pressure cookers of judgment and evaluation, the church could grow in a lot more health and power. Too many church cultures put more pressure on their pastors and church leaders to be something for them personally.

So the first solution is to always work on yourself. Let people experience a growing and maturing “you.” Every organization will be blessed by a person who grows to handle relationships in a more mature manner.

But understand, leaving a church doesn’t solve your own toxic issues. Whatever toxicity you have will follow you into the next church. So catch the pattern, if you continually see problems in everyone around you, then recognize the things in you that may be the common thread.

7. Don’t stay somewhere you are disgruntled in.

Either work it out or leave with peace. There is nothing worse than having a member of the body who does not want to be there. I have heard countless stories of people moaning and complaining about their church. Yet they do nothing to help.

Then there are those who are in dead or toxic environments that stay because that is all they know. They feel guilty for leaving, meanwhile their spiritual growth is stagnant. I have witnessed more situations like this than I could ever keep track of, where people plateau spiritually, but refuse to consider they may need to change their environment.

It saddens me to watch families stay in a spiritually dead environment, solely for the sake of their kids attending Sunday school or because they like the friendships. I encourage families to make their decision on a church based on the leading of God but also through the vision of their home. Once the vision of your home is settled, then where and how you plant yourself will come out of that.

8. Go blessed.

If you have done everything you can to have proper communication and realize its time to go, then leave blessed. Ask for the pastor’s blessing. If he doesn’t give it, shake the dust off your feet.

Don’t take people with you. There is no need to create a rift. I left a church I was on staff years ago to pursue an entirely different calling. I know for a fact that I did not take one single person with me.

Respect the church’s position as you move on. Don’t get entangled in their drama or listen to gossip about what is still going on at the old place. If they welcome communication, give it. If it’s not, then move on with a good heart.

Focus more on where you are going, rather than what you are leaving, even if the future is unclear. People like to make it more about why you are leaving, but let God make it about the great future ahead.

You may need time to heal in the transition. Don’t feel you need to make a drastic decision about the next step, but engage blessing on your way. Do relationships right and let God lead you into the next chapter with peace.

Let God be your guide as you move on… “you shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace.” (Isaiah 55:12)