How to Leave a Church Well
Being a new church, we’ve had our share of people coming to visit Anthem from other churches and we’ve also had a number of people start as a part of our church who are now involved in other churches. I realize that in this culture, there will always be some element of “church-hopping” as people have called it. The question I want to wrestle with today is, if you’ve made the decision to leave your church and become a part of another one, what is the appropriate or best way to do that?
There are a number of components that go into a person changing churches, and I understand that. I’m not writing to argue for or against your reasons for leaving.
We could spend time in another post about illegitimate reasons for pursuing life in a different local body, that’s not the point of this post.
Lets assume for the sake of argument that this is a person leaving a healthy situation to participate in a different healthy situation. There are definitely issues connected to a) leaving an unhealthy situation to participate in a healthy situation (pastor’s sin or integrity issues, etc.) and b) leaving a healthy situation to participate in an unhealthy situation (namely churches and cults teaching false gospels). Those can be dealt with at another time as well.
This post is not straight out of the Bible because this issue didn’t exist much in Bible times. But this is taking wisdom from Scripture and applying it to our context.
1. Pray and agree
If you’re a part of a church, it means that you have submitted to the leadership as the spiritual authority over your life. They are your shepherd and overseer. You may not have ever thought of it that way, but that is the instruction the Bible gives to elders and deacons of local churches, so that’s the reality. The first step to leaving a church the right way is to pray, seeking God’s wisdom and his kingdom first (even above your own kingdom or comfort or preference). Then ask the leadership of your current church to pray with you about the issue at hand. If these men have served in leadership over you, then it would be appropriate to trust them with something like this. We get nervous about what they will think of us or how they will view us. That’s our flesh being timid. These are grown up people, they can handle it… and if they can’t, well… at least you are fulfilling your responsibility to them and to the body.
I recently received this email, which I thought was a great example of the agree component of this:
Dear (former attender):
Thanks so much for the email. That is very kind of you to communicate in such a way.
(fellow pastor) did share with me the great discussion he had with you.
You and (your wife) have been a blessing to the (old church) family and we will miss seeing you regularly (though I know we will see you often). God has gifted you both incredibly in so many ways. You will be a blessing to The (new) church. I love (new pastor’s) heart, drive, passion, and vision. He is a great guy and the church is making an incredible impact for Christ’s Kingdom. You will be an added blessing to them and they will bless your family.
Again, thanks so much for taking the time to graciously communicate with us. Few do what you have done. That says a lot about what we will miss and what will add to The (new) church.
I love this email because it shows the value of a person communicating with their former church as they move from a healthy situation to a different healthy situation.
2. Reproduce yourself
It can be crippling for a church to have key leaders and contributors bow out and depart without any leadership development or disciples to take their place. If you are involved in a church body and your are considering a departure, after talking to the leadership develop a plan of replacing yourself in whatever capacity you serve. Be diligent not to add more burden and work to the church leadership because you felt it was time to move on. If you are leaving, consider the situation you’re leaving and work hard to leave it in better shape than it was in when you arrived.
3. Eliminate or at least reduce drama
We often times make a bigger deal out of our leaving than we need to (and if we ignore #1 we make a smaller deal out of leaving than we need to). Think about what you are communicating by leaving your church, even unintentionally. Will your departure raise questions about the leadership, direction, effectiveness or momentum of the church? Think about the way you communicate with people, the words you use, the timing of your departure, people will read into things. Be careful not to scorch the place on your way out. Keys here are to communicate well with your small group and the people you serve with. Think about why you are leaving and have some ability to articulate that with gentleness and grace.
4. Support your church financially
If you’ve been generously giving to your church and you leave, it creates a hole that the church wasn’t expecting. Granted, churches can deal with this, but it does create some unexpected challenges. Consider giving to the church you departed for some set number of months after your departure and then transition your giving to your new church. Nope, this isn’t a biblical mandate, it’s just being cool. We budget for ministry and mission based on anticipated giving. I’m not sure what other churches are like, but we don’t really have much in the bank. Losing out on a family’s giving can set a church back on what they anticipated. Be cool, communicate with the leadership that you’re going to continue your tithe for 2, 4 or 6 months (for example). That gives them time to plan accordingly. Your new church will understand, they might even be excited about seeing your faithfulness to Jesus and desire to not be a burden to his Church.
5. A Clean Break
Maybe because we feel guilty, maybe because we want the best of both worlds, maybe we’re just not thinking things through… but sometimes people choose to split time between two churches as a transition out. “I’ll serve here but worship there.” “I’ll go to the 9 am service here and the 11 am service there.” I’m not sure who you’re trying to please here, but it isn’t Jesus. You are reducing your effectiveness as a member of the body of Christ. Take your time to finish your work at your old church and cleanly transition to your new church. That includes small groups, bible studies, kids programs, etc. Work hard not to “receive” from one church while “attending and giving” at another. This divides your time and attention and doesn’t benefit the mission of either church.
All things considered, these are just tips from a pastor. If I could encourage you with anything it would be to consider heavily the mission you are on and the reason you are a part of a church. It is ultimately so that you can contribute to the Church’s mission of helping this world know Jesus better. You should seriously factor that into your decision as you ponder departing a church. Are you helping the mission of Jesus by moving on?
Lastly, if you’re going to move on… consider moving on as a missionary. This is probably our most biblical example of people leaving a church… so they can start another one. If you’re going to leave, consider joining a launch team of a new church or serving in some missional capacity rather than migrating from one church to another. There will be opportunities to serve, there will be serious spiritual warfare, there will be exciting fruit and frustrating obstacles, but ultimately, you will be a key component to fulfilling Jesus’ mission to this world!