Leaving Churches: How Do I Leave?

I’m not sure who signed me up for a subscription to GQ, but I receive a copy every month. I never asked for it and I never wanted it. Still, as sure as the sun rises and sets, GQ shows up in my mailbox. I’ve also unsubscribed to numerous email lists only to never seem to actually be able to leave them. I just stay stuck—you have a better chance of winning the lottery than you do getting out of these subscriptions.

I hope church membership doesn’t feel that way for you, but it might. You can’t escape no matter how hard you try.

We’ve talked about why people leave churches; we’ve talked about why you shouldn’t leave; we’ve even talked about potential reasons to leave. However, I haven’t addressed the inevitable issue: regardless of reasoning, how do you actually leave a church? Is there some type of protocol? That’s what I hope to address here.

Two confessions as we enter into this topic. First, churches don’t do a good job of helping people understand leaving. They just assume people leaving is a casualty of growth, so people come in and out whenever—just part of doing business. Worse, still, is that they never let you leave—you just get excommunicated for unfaithfulness. Second, I have seen far more “Hey, where is so and so? Do they still go here?” type of situations than I have seen people go through a reasonable process of leaving a church. So, even though I’m writing this, I have a healthy level of skepticism as to what it might accomplish. We can do better here for ourselves and our church.

Leave Only After Talking With Leadership

I’m going to leave this one a little broad. There are instances when a conversation with leadership might be incredibly difficult (especially in a situation regarding abuse). However, most instances of leaving a church provide ample opportunities to talk with leaders (pastors, elders, etc.) about what you are seeing, where you are concerned, and/or what you might be thinking about. Here are some potential ways to approach that idea:

  • “I’ve had some confusion about the direction of our church and am wondering if I am missing something. Here’s what I’m seeing. Can you help me understand?”
  • “I have found myself frustrated for some time as I have come to worship. I know that some of that is my own personal feeling, but some of it might be because of what I’ve been seeing. Please give me an opportunity to explain, ask forgiveness, and hear from you.”
  • “My spouse and I have started to get very connected to a new work in town. We are committed here, but I want to talk with you about how to engage in this work as a church member here. What do you think?”
  • “Honestly, I just want to change churches. I think it might be good for me.”

Something like that goes a long way. Here’s something to consider: there is a decent chance that you know your pastor better than he knows you. That isn’t to say we don’t want to know you or don’t pray for you, rather, pastors (especially those who preach) are providing information about their lives all the time. Their congregation connects with them in ways that the pastor doesn’t even know. Thus, it really does help to start a conversation and not assume your pastor knows what’s going on. We don’t try to be clueless, but we might be.

If you’re going to leave, talk with leaders first. And talk for a while. If you really are seeking understanding, you’ll bless your leadership—especially if you engage them graciously and provide them opportunities to respond.

Leave Only After Significant Prayer

Someone you need to talk to a lot about what’s going on? The Lord. And I’m not talking about in a, “God, bless my decision to leave” sort of way. I mean bringing God your heart, asking him to search it, and asking him to show you ways that you might even be wrong.

Church membership should bring with it a commitment to pray for yourself, your leadership, and your fellow members. Thus, praying for decisions shouldn’t be a new concept. It should be like breathing. (Also, as a favor to me, don’t just show up and have a conversation with your leaders after praying for a long time and then making your decision. Make the conversation with your leadership and those prayers happen concurrently.)

Prayer has a way of reminding us that we aren’t in control. It reminds us that God is sovereign. It reminds us of our own flesh patterns. When we make leaving a church a matter of prayer and not a matter of offense, we’ll be surprised at what God actually reveals.

Leave With Integrity

Saying “we feel led” is the pastoral kiss of death. We can no longer do anything but say, “Okay.” The phrase comes off as smokescreen. What if your leaders feel led that you are wrong? Will you listen to that? Probably not. Why? Because you feel led. At that point in time, no one else’s opinion matters. So when I say, “Leave with integrity,” I mean this: leave honestly, and with no confusion about what actually happened and how you are actually feeling.

  • Make your reason(s) real: No more giving the third thing you didn’t like about the church and making it the first thing. Don’t say you are leaving over kids ministry when really you just simply don’t like the church and haven’t for a while. Don’t say you don’t like the preaching when you really don’t like the preacher. Be honest and helpful. Most reasons given aren’t the full story. If you are able to share the true reason (and you usually should be), share it. You help your (former) pastor(s) out when you do this. (Also, when you’re honest with your reasons, you might actually realize some of what is going on in your own heart and see you’re out of line—just maybe.)
  • Have the right conversations: See point one above, but integrity means you’ll go through the process your church asks you to go through. You’ll talk, you’ll pray, and you won’t just disappear.
  • Be upright before God: I believe that most Christians will have a bad church leaving or two in their suitcases before they die. I know I have. Just something they didn’t handle well or energy they didn’t put in because they were tired. Do all you can to handle the situation with purity.

Every church has a different approach to how to leave. If you aren’t sure, ask! Someone will let you know. If they don’t know, good! You are helping your church better care for you and other members by getting them to think about it. If they say, “Leave when you want,” ask why they are so flippant.

You can actually be a blessing even when you leave, if you do it in an honest and gracious way.

We’ll finish up later this week with a note to pastors: helping people know how to leave, why to leave, and when to leave.

I'd love to hear your thoughts