Yesterday we looked at how to begin at your new church. But sometimes the harder move is leaving your old church. I don’t want to give advice on when to leave a church. Let’s assume the reasons make sense and now the question is how to leave. What should you do?
- Try to leave graciously. When someone voluntarily leaves a church (not because of a move or a graduation or a deployment) it is usually a painful experience. You’ve probably been hurt or disappointed. Maybe you dislike the new pastor or the new direction of the church. The temptation in these situations will be toward bitterness. You may want to leave with all your guns ablazin’ but the approach that feels good isn’t always the one that is good. Better to err on the side of gentleness and let the Lord repay your enemies. This also makes it easier for you to admit wrong if you should find some down the road.
- Tell the pastor you are leaving. This may be the most important point. Please let someone know you are going. You may want people to notice you are gone, and a good elder board will notice, but if you’ve already decided to leave now is not the time for sour grapes. If you tell the leaders you are leaving, they can pray for you. Maybe they can clear up a misunderstanding. Or maybe they need to learn from your experience. Just don’t go silently into that good night.
- Leave off a ledge. I got this imagery from a dear member who recently left our church and did so with great grace and magnanimity. He told me that as he thought about leaving he decided he didn’t want to drift away, slowly pulling away and dropping his commitments. He said he’d rather take a leap off the ledge and be fully engaged until the moment when he decided it was time to go. Be in while you are in, and then when you are out, jump right out.
- Learn how to kindly and honestly answer the question “Why did you leave?” People will ask you, so figure out your answer. Don’t kill someone’s character or disembowel the whole church with your reply. Don’t lie either. A simple, straightforward answer will suffice. We didn’t agree with the direction of the church. We disagreed with some of the doctrines being taught. We didn’t feel like we could submit ourselves to the authority of the church any longer. Tell the truth, but speak it in the manner you would want the church to speak about you.
- Develop a plan right away for how you will look for a new church. It may take you some time to settle in a new place, but start working on your plan right away. Will you visit these ten churches? Or two churches? Will you visit them once or three times? What is important to you (and your family, and God!) in finding a church? Don’t allow yourself to float aimlessly for months and years. Too many church floaters just float away.
- Don’t burn bridges. If you were a faithful member of your previous church, you will keep running into those who are still there. You’ll see them at weddings, funerals, open houses, and school functions. Maybe even family reunions! It’s bound to be a little awkward but do what you can to keep the relationships intact. Many of them are worth saving. And you may need them later.
- Keep praying and ask others to pray for you. The ties that bind are not broken easily. In some ways they don’t have to. Obviously, the relationship changes when you leave a church, but you should still want what is best for all those you left behind. And hopefully they still care for you. It never hurts to have more prayer.