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When to Leave a Church

How to Leave a Church: A Discussion from a Pastor’s Heart   by Rev. Jack Lash

One of the topics that often comes up in conversations among pastors is how so many people leave churches in an irresponsible manner. And yet it is very hard for a pastor to confront people with this irresponsibility because it looks like he is promoting his own interests in doing so. So it seemed wise to share some ideas in this neutral context so that this matter can be considered apart from the strain and emotion of a given situation.

There certainly is a time to leave a church. At least all Protestants must agree with this. There is a time when a church becomes so corrupt that it is not only allowable to leave but sinful to remain. But in my opinion there is a time to leave a church for even much less substantial reasons than severe doctrinal or practical corruption. I think that location, deadness, doctrinal disagreement, wrong emphasis and many other factors can lead a church member to righteously switch from one church to another.

However, it seems blatantly evident to me (and to all my pastor friends) that many people who switch churches are either doing so for the wrong reasons or in the wrong way. I am writing this to explain some of my ideas about what is the proper way to leave a church. I will not at this time attempt to answer what the proper reasons are for leaving a church since this is a very difficult and complex issue, and one about which I have a lot of questions myself.

It seems to me that three steps are essential in leaving a church:

1- The first step is to analyze the problem. There are many times when something is bothering us but we don’t really know what it is. It certainly not yet time to leave a church at this stage. We must prayerfully ponder and consider (perhaps in dialogue with a spouse) why it is that we are feeling troubled about the church. Until we isolate the problem we can’t tell how significant it is and how much our own problems contribute to our feelings of dissatisfaction. Part of this process is to evaluate the issues to discover ways we might have contributed to the problem or responded to it wrongly. When we believe the problem has been defined, it would be wise to write it down in a form that faithfully and fairly expresses it.

2- The second step is try to change the problem. If we really believe that there is something wrong with our church, and if we really care about God’s precious bride, then we will be constantly working to lovingly move the church in the direction we think is most godly. When a church problem gets so serious in our minds that we are beginning to think about leaving the church, then we should have been already long working to help, fix, steer or move the church in the right direction. This will always involve going to the church leaders and humbly and gratefully expressing our convictions. It means telling them that this has made you wonder if you ought to leave the church. (If an employee ought to be given several warnings before being laid off, should we give less to our church leaders?) It means listening to their perspective on it; it means asking what we can do to help; it means being patient for them and/or the rest of the church to change. It also means to pray, pray, pray. As one Puritan said, "Cold preaching is God’s judgment upon a prayerless congregation."

3- The third step is to make a cautious judgment about leaving the church. If, after patiently going through the previous process, the situation is unchanged or worse, THEN AND ONLY THEN is it time to begin the careful consideration of whether it is appropriate to start looking for a new church. It is important to be in a church where our souls are being nurtured in Christ Jesus. But leaving a church must not be taken lightly. Just because there is something we don’t like about a church doesn’t mean we have to leave it. It should not be done for trivial reasons. It should not be done merely for things that make us feel uncomfortable. It should not be done over matters of preference or style. Leaving a church should be done only with a proper sense of sadness and grief. It should not be done with a sinful or bitter attitude, no matter what our experience has been. It should not be done in an unloving manner. It should not be done without a lot of effort to right the things that are wrong. It should not be done without regard to other people’s feelings. It should not be done without consideration of what leaving will do to the welfare of the congregation. Like all other things, it should be done only in love and only in a way that tries to help all others involved. And most importantly of all, it should not be done without consideration of what leaving will do to the name of Christ.

And now let me share my heart for a moment, not for my sake but for the sake of other pastors and other churches and for the sake of the name of Christ. I am a sinner. All church leaders are sinners like the rest of mankind. It is easy to expect too much from us. It is easy to expect us to be the answers to all your problems and be upset when we are not. It is easy to expect us to make you grow and blame us when you do not. Like other pastors, I have plenty of my own sins to deal with; I don’t need to be blamed for everyone else’s sins as well. I do fail and make mistakes and react in the flesh at times. I do emphasize some things too much and other things not enough. But doesn’t everyone? I want to change; I can see that God is changing me. I want to serve God faithfully. I want to pour out my life for others. I want to deny myself. I want to love even when I’m not loved in return. I want to bless those who curse me and think the best of others even when they don’t do so to me. But often I fail. I often find that I do not do the things I want to do, and the very things I don’t want to do, I find myself doing. Just as each one of Christ’s sheep needs to be treated with patience and forgiveness, so do I. Please don’t harden your heart towards me. Please don’t give up on me. Please don’t be reluctant to come to me in order to talk about your concerns. Please don’t think that our church is just the way I want it, and that therefore every weakness of our church is something I am proud of. Please don’t decide to leave without first being willing to meet with me and talk about your concerns. Please don’t think that I hate you unless you have evidence you could prove in court. I would like to know what I have done that has hurt you so that I can apologize. If there is something monstrous about me I want to find out about it quick before anyone else is devoured.

Some of the most valuable lessons I have learned in my ministry were learned from talking to people who were leaving the church. Why? Because for the first time they were really honest with me. How I wish that this kind of honesty would have prevailed, along with a loving spirit, long before the people announced they were leaving. Maybe both of us would be more godly now.