How to Leave a Church Well (Thoughts on Exiting with Grace)

how to leave a church well

I was out on a bike ride the other day, and I passed someone’s house who goes to our church.

I had that thought that I think every ministry leader has had at some point.

Hey…I don’t think I’ve seen them for a while. Has it been 3 or 4 months? (Pause).

I wonder if they left?

I even tried to help one of their family members through a crisis recently. Then I thought I wonder if I made it worse…not better.

I then found myself in that awkward space. We are a larger church (about 1500 people call us home) with two locations.

How do you drill down on that?

I realized we have people who are within this family’s natural sphere of care and so of course we’re going to check in on them and make sure they’re okay.

It also made me think about how people tend to leave churches these days.

Some leave angry and cause a fight. 

Most just disappear, often without a word.

We don’t have a lot of the first kind at our church these days, but I’m sure we have some of the second.

It got me thinking…

Is there a good way to leave a church?

If I wasn’t in full time ministry, how would I leave  a church?

For the record, I actually think everyone has one (or maybe at the most two) lifetime church changes in them while they are living in the same community. Obviously if you move, that’s a different story. Ideally you’d stay with one your whole life. You can have the greatest impact that way, I think. But we live on this side of heaven. So, I think, if you live in the same place for three or four decades, to change churches once is not unreasonable. Churches change, leadership changes, you change, and so a readjustment in your church home is not out of the question.

I’m not talking about drifting from church to church, consuming church like it was some product you use and dispose of, church surfing or church shopping.

I’m talking about a “we went to this church for two decades but now this is our home” kind of change.

So I’ve penciled in some thoughts. If people were to leave a church well, I think these steps could be helpful and result in the church being stronger, not weaker:

1. Take it seriously. Pray about it. Reflect on it. Ask God to show you what part of your dissatisfaction is you and what might be related to others. Even get input from others to see if you are seeing things correctly, not in a gossipy way, but in a “What part of this problem is me” kind of way.

2. Talk to someone. In a small church, that might be the pastor directly. In a larger church, that might be your group leader, the person you serve with or campus pastor. Don’t leave without talking to someone.

3.  Clarify the problem. I find most people leave over one of two issues: Misunderstanding or misalignment.  A misunderstanding can be clarified. More information, an apology, or a new perspective can often move a person from being upset to being at peace quickly. They might not leave.

Misalignment is another issue. If you are fundamentally at odds with the approach of the church, it’s an alignment issue. And because no local church is the entire body of Christ, healthy leadership should be excited for you to find a church that better aligns with your understanding of church or your personality. I’m not talking about preferences here (we like the music better), but I am talking about finding your fit in a way that is going to help you become a thriving part of a local church. Misaligned people never thrive.

I have often encouraged people to find a church that better fits their approach to ministry and am honestly thrilled when they find a good fit.

4. Leave with grace. Say goodbye well. Don’t burn relational bridges. Affirm the good in what you see in the church you’re leaving (remember at one point you thought it was awesome). Take the high road. You won’t regret it. And besides, the church is the bride of Christ. When you insult the church, you insult Christ (I don’t say this lightly).

5. Find and commit to another local church. Your goal is not to consume church, but to be the church. Find a church where you can serve, love, give, invite and share the life-changing transformation that Christ is bringing about in you.

Those are my thoughts on leaving well.

And you know what the end result would be, right? If we really took all five steps, fewer people would leave, more disagreements would be resolved, and the church would be healthier in all scenarios.

What are yours thoughts?

What are the best practices you’ve seen? What are the worst?

  • http://twitter.com/JLLouthan Joseph Louthan

    Thank you for this very timely post.

    I fear that my church, in attempts to break past the 20,000 attendee mark has become overtly and near completely pragmatic. Obviously, this thought would and should be completely at odds with the Christian.

    We are beginning the thought process on how to leave. But as for now, God has not told us to move so we sit still.

    Again, thank you.

  • cnieuwhof

    You’re welcome Joseph. Glad it was helpful. An impact of 20,000 people is rare, and I’m sure in many respects has changed so many lives.

  • Amber

    Thank you so much for this post. My husband and I are dealing with this right now. My church recently laid off 5 long-time employees. 3 of them have worked at the church for 20+ years. One of them has been there for 38 years!! This was done with no warning, no explanation, and no mention of since. My husband and I both volunteer and even we have not received any direction about who we now report to. My husband and I have both spoken to one of the pastors and actually feel worse about the situation since speaking to him. The explanation he gave was baffling “These people no longer fit into the vision of the church.” Unfortunately, we are now “church-shopping” I hate it. It’s awful. Our hearts are heavy and broken for our friends and our church. What do you suggest for people who feel like they are being shoved out of their church to avoid falling in the rut of “church shopping”?

  • Chris Shumate

    Amber – Here is my opinion, as I have seen before, a church’s vision changes from time to time. It is still honoring Christ, but its way of doing it changes. The pastor stops wearing robes, the hymnals are replaced with sheet music, people that can actually sing are in the only ones allowed in the choir, and drums are now part of the service.
    Let us think of Church as a business, it is a business to serve Christ. When an employee of a business is not on board with the direction and vision of the company, it is time to re-evaluate their employment. After all, Jesus only employed 12, and ended with 11, He didn’t take just anyone.
    It is unfortunate for anyone to be out of a job regardless of the industry. But if a person is no longer part of the vision, isn’t it best they leave to become part of a vision they can believe in?
    I have seen a few people, known them personally, that left the church I still attend because the church wasn’t supporting a ministry they were passionate about.
    For me, I didn’t drink the church’s kool-aid. I drank the kool-aid of Jesus, and the church I attend is the flavor I drank.
    Unless the church’s vision is heresy, is there a reason for your family to leave (rhetorical only for thought)? Staff members come and go, just like volunteers.

  • Amber

    I fully believe my church’s future vision is to grow the kingdom of God and bring new people to Christ. We have seen a pretty large growth of new, unchurched people at my church in the last few years. It is a wonderful thing. The problem is that the people who have been at my church for a number of years and already have that relationship with Christ are leaving. My church has all but done away with life groups (small groups/community groups), we only have 1 worship team (choir was also eliminated), there are no longer connection events for people to get to know each other, etc. Our church has eliminated many volunteer positions, and many talented, dedicated people no longer have a place to serve. Our church is not utilizing the talent in the pews.

    Change is not a bad thing. If someone does not fit into the vision in one role, help them find a new area where they can serve and help fulfill the vision. When you have hard-working, talented, dedicated people (employees or volunteers) it seems quite foolish to not utilize them. The people who lost their job were dedicated to our church, the church decided these people no longer fit their vision.

    People are leaving because they feel ignored. They feel unappreciated. They feel left out. They feel shut out. Our church is so focused on reaching unchurched that they are no longer helping “veterans” grow and go deeper in their walk. That is where my husband and I are. We feel like there is no longer a need for us to use our talents. We are not people who just go to church every Sunday and sit in the pew. We are involved. We like being a part of different ministries.

    Thanks for the input.

  • http://leadright.wordpress.com/ Brent Dumler

    Amber, I feel for you and your husband. I was in your position 3 years ago…but I was on staff. In just 9 months we went from 5 FT pastors to zero. The Lead Pastor resigned with no confidence from the Board, 3 of us eventually resigned and took other positions out of state, and one (a good friend of mine) was let go with only 24 hours warning to clear out his office. No reason was ever offered to anyone, including staff. I agree with Chris about needing the right people for the church’s vision…to a point. The church is not a business or a corporation. It’s an ordained family of believers. Therefore, all business-type matters should be dealt with openly and ‘in the light.’ No closed-door meetings with confidential minutes. And when church employees are ‘let go’ for ANY reason, it needs to be done in love and with enormous integrity. I’ll pray for you today…that God leads your family to the church He has in mind for you.

  • Chris Shumate

    Yeah, doing away with community groups is a very poor idea. People have to connect and be connected, if not there isn’t any discipleship happening. You mentioned a lot unchurch coming to Christ. Without community groups these folks won’t grow in their relationship with Christ. What good are baby Christians if they never mature. What good is a church without Sunday School, Small Group, and other connection events.

    I understand your plight better now. I love my small group and I would not have met up with them had it not been for our church hosting connection events.

  • David

    Thanks for the this post. Have felt similar and expressed similar ideas to people in those situations. Glad you articulated it so well.

  • cnieuwhof

    Amber. Appreciate you sharing the situation. I also appreciate the dialogue. If i were you I would ask myself: why am I so upset? (You may have done this many times.) Don’t get me wrong, I can sense many are upset and you are too. But why? Was the change handled poorly? Was it the wrong change? Was it done disrespectfully? Thinking through these things and praying through them can help you process your emotions. And then as you work through that, either the problem will go away (you won’t feel the way you feel any,ore) or it may emerge as an alignment issue. In which case a new church better aligned to your vision.

  • susan

    This is wonderful advice! We are in the process of this right now…after much prayer about our decision, we will definitely be talking with our Pastor before we leave. We want nothing more than to see the church we are leaving thrive and grow God’s Kingdom.

  • Jay

    This is great, do you have any other advice on how to deal with those that are misaligned and leave by causing a fight? Sometimes those people that have been around for decades feel a sense of entitlement and have a handful of supporters that attempt to destroy the church and or a pastor as they “leave or try to protect the church body”. What do you do as a pastor when your leaders support those kinds people b/c they have been faithful for years but are now creating division?

  • cnieuwhof

    Hey Jay, great question. I actually wrote my last book on that subject (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00AAGM1KG). But real quick…I would cast more vision to them. People will often agree with why we’re doing something more than they’ll agree with what we’re doing (for example…an older adult might not like the music but would respond to the desire to create the kind of church their kids and grandkids would attend.) Secondly, the opponents are often a much small group than people think (I call this “Doing the Math” in the book). When leaders realize how small the group is, they are often ready to move on in spite of voices that are opposed. And naturally, treat your opponents with love and humility. Hope this helps.

  • David

    Carey,
    Once again…another great post! Thanks for exploring this topic that is highly sensitive. Church surfing seems to be a big deal in my region. The other things that I have noticed is how unresolved anger leads to slander regarding the church and/or church leadership. My limited experience has been observing people not doing the “right thing” regarding the way they treat the body of Christ but they work hard to do the wrong things right. Thanks for the challenge and your leadership!
    D

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    Great point on alignment, Carey. In my experience, that’s the primary reason people leave a church–though they may not be aware that’s what’s happening. So much easier to say “You’re wrong” than “I just don’t get it.” Good list.

  • cnieuwhof

    I agree. Misalignment has caused so much confusion. Thanks for the point Lawrence.

  • robduncan9

    We left a church (after spending some twenty years there) a couple of years back before coming to Connexus. I didn’t want to leave until God made it clear to me that I should. The way I chose to play it out was to accept the nomination to be an Elder that was offered (a three year term), and if I was voted in I would try to convince the Council that our vision of Church needs to change to better accomodate and attract new believers: to offer change from within, as it were. If I didn’t get in, It would be time to move on to a Church that better suited what I think God desires. As it turns out, God had me spend three more years there as an Elder (I got in), but nothing tangible ever came of it in terms of the “new vision” from Council, but at least I got to express some ideas and concerns to the other Church leaders. I felt that now it was in their hands, and when the three years were up, I could leave with a clear conscience. I continue to pray for them even though I now call Connexus my undisputed Church home.

  • cnieuwhof

    Rob…we’re thankful for your support of the mission at Connexus. I can relate to your story. Sometimes you give it your best shot, and like I indicated, I think you can have one lifetime church change in you.

  • DwannHolmesRollinson

    ABSOLUTELY LOVE THIS POST; Even though written earlier, I believe it’s globally timely all year around and truly is in alignment with what God had me release earlier this year regarding the need for Kingdom Pastors to be willing to truly RELEASE those “members” who may come saying they believe God is calling them to another ministry where they will FLOURISH.