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5 Ways For a Church Member to Leave a Church Well

Sometimes people remember how you arrived. They almost always remember how you left.

Especially if you leave poorly.

This is true when people come to your church and when they leave, as some inevitably do.

I was out driving through our neighbourhood recently and I passed the house of someone 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?

exit a church wellIt 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?

Ideally, I think you’d stay with one church your whole life.

But because we live in an imperfect world, I’ll just assume everyone has one (or maybe at the most two) lifetime church changes in them while they are living in the same community. I understand that churches change, leaders 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.

Why one or two churches over your life? Because that way you can have the greatest impact and make the greatest contribution.

And, obviously if you move, that’s a different story.

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.

5 Ways to Exit Well

As a church leader, you can’t guarantee people will follow these steps (or steps like them), but you can guide them along in the journey, helping them to exit well.

Most people want to do the right thing. They’re just not sure how. As a leader, you can help them.

1. Own your piece of the pie

When you’re ready to leave, it’s so easy to blame everyone else and never look inside.

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.

As a tip to church leaders, if you meet with someone who’s leaving, own your part of the pie too. Admit that your church isn’t perfect, empathize with their dissatisfaction and try to learn from it. Often there are things you could do much better.

Great things come from honest conversations in which people take responsibility.

2. Talk to someone

Too many people leave without a conversation.

Don’t leave without a conversation—a healthy, respectful conversation.

In a small church, that might be with the pastor directly.

In a larger church, that might be your group leader, someone you serve with or campus pastor.

Either way, don’t just slip away.

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.

In fact, the person might not even end up leaving or the church might end up changing.

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. The high road isn’t the easy road but it’s always the best road.

And besides, the church is the bride of Christ. When you insult the church, you insult Christ (I don’t say this lightly).

If you really want to know what the standard is for exiting with grace, ask yourself: Five years from now, what will I wish I had done? That question clarifies so much.

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. I offer them because it can help you if it’s time to go AND because it might help you (as a church leader) to help people exit well.

Leaving a church staff position is another matter entirely. I wrote this post on some of the unique challenges church leaders face when they exit church leadership (and why so many end up attending nowhere).

What are your thoughts when it comes to church members leaving?

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

Scroll down and leave a comment!

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  • Dmjkne

    We’re a year and a half out from a messy split. The founding senior pastor claimed to be passing the leadership on to the assistant pastor (who had been there 30 years, 25 in ministry). The deacons were in support of the newly appointed senior pastor. But the founder’s wife was convinced he was being pushed out, and convinced him and others of the same. And it became a power struggle. Two assistant pastors and four deacons ultimately left. We didn’t invite others, but about 100 people followed. (My husband was one of the deacons.) With that many people, we had to quickly launch a new church.
    We’ve talked it out (among leadership), know the deacons and pastors tried hard for two years to make it work. We willingly own the parts we could have done better. But I still struggle with the “leaving well” part – because I really feel we were pushed out. We’re working on forgiveness. We know we have to. We don’t want to carry any of it forward into our new church. I feel like any sort of conversation with the people left there would be forced and fake. And I can’t really have an honest discussion because A) the rest of the congregants don’t need to know all the background drama that occurred and B) the founder and his wife have a very skewed view of what really happened.
    Sadly, there are a few people left there whom we love, and they think some of us were to blame for it all. We can’t really reconcile without sounding like we’re dishonoring the pastor and his wife. It’s such a tough spot to be in – wanting to have left well, yet not really having the opportunity to do so because of the dynamics of the situation. I keep praying, asking God to lead me/us in any of this. I still don’t feel free to address any of it, so I just wait.
    Any wisdom from you or your readers is welcome!

  • Anon

    Thanks so much for this article. It is coming at a most crucial point in my life and my family. We have been attending the same local church since 2009. We joined ministry teams and within a couple of years, my husband and I were both leaders.

    About a year and a half ago, I felt led to step down from leadership because I couldn’t keep up with the level of demand. We had 3 services every week and I spent half of my Saturdays at rehearsals. We had so many conferences every year which placed a huge demand on the choir that I led. As a result, I wasn’t there for my family and my children were getting to an age where they really needed me to be present in their lives. After an agonizing period of prayer I had to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to step down. I believe I did it the right way because I spoke directly to the pastor who was very aware of the challenges I had been facing in my marriage. I told him God was leading me to dedicate more time to serve my family.
    To cut the long story short, the pastor was offended. Since then, we have been feeling ostracized by the whole leadership team. When people have asked why I stepped down, I have always said it had to do with family commitments and refused to give further details.

    I am convinced I made the right decision because my marriage and my children are thriving in accordance to God’s will and we are at peace.

    The pastor and his wife have been very cold towards us and without going into too much details, suffice to say they have treated us in such a way that we have lost trust in them as leaders.

    We have tried to discuss with them but they are not willing to hear or acknowledge their part in the conflict that has ensued. Instead of validating the content of the issues we have brought to them, they would take offence that we are daring to ask them questions. Their opinion is that we should be loyal to them as our spiritual father and mother (a concept, I have always struggled with, especially since I didn’t get saved under their ministry. My salvation and Christian foundation years was in a different church when I lived in another country).

    After leaving leadership, God began to open my eyes to the level of control and abuse of spiritual power that we had been under. I started having panic attacks and migraines at the thought of approaching the pastor’s wife to discuss the issues I had with her. She would never apologise for anything nor acknowledge any wrong doing. Instead, she would remind me of everything they had done for me and my family and how we were being disloyal and unsubmissive to spiritual authority.

    Besides all these, we have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the leadership model of the church which is very ‘pastor focused’. People are not being encouraged to develop their own hearing directly from God but are directed to always and constantly seek the pastor’s approval before taking any important steps and if you don’t things will not go well for you. (I am almost quoting a message from the pulpit on a Sunday morning).

    Pls note that we have not discussed our thoughts with any church members. We have not caused division or gossip about these things.

    We are at a point now where we sense it may be time to move on. I would appreciate your thoughts. (Apologies for the length of the question).

    • Oh man…that sounds like a really unhealthy environment. One of the characteristics of health is freedom, and if you don’t have the freedom to step back a bit that’s not a good sign. Two things I would suggest. #1…what, if anything, do you think is your responsibility? (It’s important to see what slice of the pie we own). #2. Is there a healthy person who knows and loves you and the church with whom you can process this so you can get plugged into a healthier church? I’m glad your family life is thriving again. That’s wonderful. My prayer is you find a church that thrives as well! Thanks for sharing your story.

      • Anon

        Thanks for your prompt response Carey. I have to admit that after the feeling of rejection from the leadership, I did completely withdraw. I guess my protective instincts kind of kicked in. I have reduced church attendance to only Sundays. This is mainly because I felt most of the messages were about me and this is not me being paranoid at all. But, I don’t t want to be defensive and justify my actions. Also, in addressing issues with the pastor, I may have been brutally honest in some instances which, is really unacceptable in our church environment. I don’t believe I was rude or disrespectful but I spoke the truth about my hurt and pain and the fact that I disagreed with some of the content of his messages from a scriptural point of view. Instead of clarifying those issues, my husband and I were accused of being arrogant and disrespectful to our ‘shepherd’.

        Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut cos I knew they’re weren’t ready to listen?

        • Appreciate the honestly. Well, I think we do need to speak the truth but we need to speak in love. I’ve had occasions where i’ve been too much on the truth side and not shown enough love, and other times I’ve thought I was being loving when love when have told the truth. I think the key is to grow our self awareness to help us navigate what we’re doing well or poorly.

  • Catherine

    We have prayerfully asked the Lord to raise up a church in our hometown. Back in 2008, my husband became a certified life coach and what we found is that people who thrived under that instruction really wanted to explore some of the spiritual aspects behind the ‘wisdom’ they were receiving. Of course, he pointed them toward God’s word and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Those who then wanted more, naturally wanted to join the assembly we attended. We were attending a church, however, that was an hour away. That was an immediate closed door. So, we decided it would be best to attend one in our local area. This local church was one we had attended before, but it was very small and did not have a proper Sunday School in place for our small children. Upon returning, their mission over the more recent years has truly focused on a woman’s voice and needs. The result of this very narrow focus (which, IMHO is more the scope of an outreach group than a church) has turned away everyone who we’ve sent.

    At about the time of my prayerful request back in 2008, however, someone in our town felt the call to go into the ministry. Then, about three weeks ago, he and a co-pastor began this new work. We spent the time in between our request to this fulfillment, however, actively engaged in a local assembly. We waited upon the Lord before moving, knowing our request and knowing he could absolutely raise up and plant such a church in our community. One whose mission is to prioritize and teach the Word of God and whose structure and organization reflected the qualifications of pastors and leaders in the church – for the sake of representing the community, vs. one segment of a community.

    We are so grateful for this new opportunity that is so close to us – whose mission and structure are nicely aligned with who we are as a family – and in keeping with the doctrinal foundations of our faith – that now we must say goodbye to our current church assembly. I intend to use some form of the dialogue on the misalignment issue to announce, gracefully, our move. Thanks for writing this article~!

  • Anon Y. Mous

    Pastors need to handle this one well.

    I needed to leave a church because it was too liberal. Also, the pastor was speaking too well of a group he is a member of that I knew to be questionable and of a public figure that I knew to be Christian In Name Only. I realized this and I wanted to leave quietly. I really didn’t want to talk to the pastor.

    I had hoped that I could pull the disappearing act, but I realized that people were concerned, that there were people in the congregation who were trying to find me. They had my cell phone, but not my home phone. I turn my cell phone on when I’m going to use it; otherwise, it’s turned off. I realized that I needed to say Goodbye and tell them that I am more conservative than the congregation is and I would be doing the congregation a disservice if I stayed. Fortunately, I did not join the church. I was pushed to join after a few months. I told the pastor that I didn’t feel comfortable formally joining the church so soon, because I’ve had some very traumatic church experiences. (One was a church split, another had to do with failure to discipline the choir leader which ended in a choir walkout, another was catching the pastor using church funds to set-up his own private foundation without permission and a fourth was when the pastor put his daughter, his wife’s best friend who hardly attended church, and his daughters best friends–who were sisters, on the church board and I was the only member to vote NAY.)

    I didn’t want to tell the pastor, because he was way too pushy, given that I had just had just come from a very bad church experience–that is the stacked board incident. I wanted to tell two deacons and the pastor’s wife, for they were the most level-headed and easy to approach people in the church. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The pastor didn’t buy my simple reason–theological differences: I’m more conservative than the church and denomination is and kept pressing me. Then things ended in a scene. I did get to say goodbye to two of the three people, but that was outside the church before service. I now know that the people in the basement heard what had just happened–and that was because of e-mails I got last night. I am in no mood to trash the pastor or the church, so I’m going to ignore the e-mails. I left over theological differences and that’s that.

    I REALLY think pastors NEED to be taught how to handle situations like this. What I needed the pastor to say is, “I’m sorry to hear that you are leaving. Go in peace.” and that would have been that.

  • Eliza

    What’s the best response to not cause damage when someone asks why did you leave? I’m a former staff member at my church and have stayed an additional year, I know because of this many people will ask why did you leave. I want to be authentic and not have it seem I’m not being honest but not cause damage.

    • Why not just give the most charitable, truthful explanation you can, like “I had some great years at X. I felt, for a variety of reasons, my season had come to a close…so I moved on.” That will satisfy anyone who doesn’t know you well, and your 3-5 best friends…well, they know the story anyway.

      • Eliza

        Thank you. I like the concise answer.

  • Jen

    The best way to leave a church is if God calls you out. For 5 years we dug in our heels until finally we admitted it was time to leave. There were problems with doctrinal issues and dissatisfaction but ultimately we were led by the Holy Spirit to join up with a different body of believers.

    My husband wrote a letter to the pastor, thanking him for his leadership over the years but that we felt the call of God to go elsewhere. He came to our home and we did talk about some of the issues. That pastor told us that if we left, within a year we wouldn’t even be attending church. In fact, the opposite happened. We thrived and grew so much in our faith and in service to the Lord.

    I appreciate that you acknowledged it is important to let people go with grace.

    • lsmith2013

      I’m dealing with this right now. We didn’t wait 5 years, but about 4 months. God told me it was time to move, and I’ve been fighting Him. So He started showing us things, “opening our eyes” if you will to some of the behind the scenes nonsense. And more importantly, He stopped answering me except to say “You need to get uncomfortable and find a new home.” So last weekend we tried a new church, and it was AMAZING. God didn’t just show up, He showed off. Sure enough, someone tipped off the leaders’ wife and she sent me one of her usual “We miss you” messages, even though she rarely says more than 2 words to us. We know if we have this final conversation, it’s going to lead to them begging and manipulating, and honestly we just want to avoid all of that. It’s almost at the level that people encounter when trying to leave a cult. We already know that most of our “friends” will no longer be our friends now that we are leaving, and we’ve realized we are ok with that. But this leaving thing is definitely not going to be as simple as sneaking away.

  • Heidi Wikström

    If it is possible to leave a church as gracefully as you described, maybe there is no need to leave at all, after discussing and solving the problems? Me and my family left the church, in which we still officially belong to, 3 years ago with such scars that it’s impossible to yet think about joining an other. Maybe, gradually, God will show us a new congregation, it’s up to Him. We must also accept our life without an official congregation, now we luckily have our believing friends and relatives, maybe that is a kind of church also? Of course, I’m from Finland and in my country attending steadily one congregation is not so typical even among believers as in yours, many only participate in small prayer-groups. Probably this is unhealthy situation, many people are lonely here.

    • Heidi…it’s so good to hear from you. I am so sorry you were hurt in the church. You show some great wisdom in your comment. I think you’re right, overcoming the hurt, finding a healthy community and being the church together should bring joy and togetherness into your life, not to mention bringing the mission God has given Christians to life. I am praying for you this morning.

      • Heidi Wikström

        Thank you for your kindness!

  • Matter Unorganized

    Leaving some churches is much, much more complex. I chose to leave mormonism when I realized it was built upon a foundation of lies. Some of my mormon friends and even family want nothing do do with me anymore. I have been and forevermore will be branded an apostate. For churches like mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and other soft cults, THERE IS NO WAY TO LEAVE GRACEFULLY. Even though I have not actively sought to destroy mormonism, even though my personal journey out has been graceful (on my part), I still get grief from members and I am still branded negatively. Sometimes you just have to rip off the band-aid.

    Note: I cannot use my real name for fear of reprisals against me and my family. Not physical reprisal, but socially speaking. Other families no longer let their kids play with my kids, because I have “tainted” my entire family and they don’t want the disease of apostasy to affect their own children. I have no desire to add fuel to the fire.

  • Noel David

    Can you please clarify this one line for me please. “When you insult the church, you insult Christ. (I don’t say this lightly).” For instance, I (my whole family) have been exploited and abused by the Church authorities (many others also suffer various kinds of injustices at their hands – and some of them leave the church- many suffer in silence) for 30 years and more in spite of being regular church-goers and having served the Church for three decades much more graciously than any believer from the four dioceses we have. I have had to stand up against many an injustice perpetrated upon me and my family (and also upon others) and have dared to accuse them of wrongdoing and being unjust – with NO ONE from among them (Bishop, Priest or devout and prominent members of the church) ever caring to hear our plea or right the many wrongs we faced. We haven’t left the Church but the Church has left us. I would want to know, whether I insulted Christ for the many injustices we faced for so many years at the hands of His “unfaithful” servants/ministers? Should I have kept quiet and suffered in silence and let the “powerful” hired-hands go on with their relentless oppression of the weak and poor?

    • Noel..thank you for leaving this comment and let me say how terribly sorry I am to hear of your situation and story. To answer your question, NO…I do not believe you insulted Christ. Some people dismiss the church casually or cynically. That’s what I meant. And I was talking about the the capital C church…the Church that Christ sees. His true church. As a human leader of the church, I need to own my mistakes, as do the people who harmed you. Noel, thanks for not giving up on Jesus or his Church. he loves you. I pray you receive deep healing and that the people who wronged you forgive you. If not here, then all will be righted in eternity.

      • Noel David

        Thank you Carey for your prompt and encouraging reply. Was there an error in the last line of your post or did I not get it right? The people who wronged us forgive me or we forgive those who wronged us? I do forgive them even without their admitting their crimes or asking for forgiveness and I do pray for them. But I do continue to ask them to stop the oppression on my people. And because of this they (priests and believers) hate me like anything. I’d rather say they need to make reparation like Zacchaeus did (if they are for the Lord) for the enormous amount of pain and hardship they caused me and my family due to their heartlessness than expect me to make amends (though I am willing to do that for whatever sins I may have committed against them).

        • Noel David

          And Dear Carey, I believe that many leave the church(es) mainly because of the heartlessness and bias practiced by the “shepherds” and fellow members. People are hauled up for the smallest of fault. And the church takes ages to forgive them when they make some mistakes (commit sins). The Lord did not punish a SINGLE SINNER and He is quick to forgive. Why our Bishops/Pastors and spouses etc. make so much of fuss at our failures and take ages to forgive – is beyond me…. EVERY CHURCH needs to be a community of people who keep loving constantly, forgiving ceaselessly and caring for the welfare of others in and outside the church without any discrimination. I am sure very few would ever think of leaving the church if they were loved, forgiven and helped without ceasing…. And even if they leave or go astray it should be the avowed mission of every Pastor/Believer worth his/her salt – to go in search of them and bring him/her back… There is nothing to rejoice when people die or leave us – but we have every reason to rejoice when the lost are found and the dead come back to LIFE.

          • Sorry, you’re right. I meant ask for forgiveness from you. That’s what I meant. It sounds like you are in a particular denomination where being ‘called’ up happens regularly and only happens in one direction. The church is much more diverse than that. I hope you find a great church community to be part of Noel.

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  • Bill

    Great thoughts – I’m struggling with this situation based on your 5th point. People have left our church – kind of. They still bring their kids to youth activities and outings, and some remain in their small group. Our people know they left – get over it and move on – then see them again at an activity or small group, and the conversations among the congregation start all over – “why did they leave?” “what’s wrong with our church?” or “what wrong with our pastor?” How do you encourage people who have decided to leave – to really leave?” And how do I, (as the pastor) deal with those families who I see on our campus picking up their kids, or who are still in our small groups telling everybody how great their new church is?

    • Bill…thanks for this. Interesting challenge. I don’t know whether you can encourage them to fully leave unless they’re toxic, which it doesn’t sound like they are. But as a leader, I’d try to meet with some of them and figure out the answer to the three questions you asked. It might not resolve their situation but it might give you and the team some clarity and areas to grow in moving forward. Feedback is the breakfast of champions. Hard to hear but great to hear if you want to grow.

      • Bill

        Thanks Carey – I’ll give that a try. Really appreciat your blogs and often share parts of them to my leadership team (encouraging them to subscribe as well) Topics are always relevant and thought provoking! And your new book “Conversations” is super. I’ll be ordering more for my leaders! Thanks for your ministry to the Body of Christ! Blessings!

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  • Candace

    My family is going thru this right now and it has been very hard! The short version of the story is that we lost respect for some of the leadership, mainly because of the poor job they were doing and the lack of accountability to anyone showed us that things were never going to change. By the way, we were there every time the doors opened, volunteering, teaching and serving. We did the right thing – spoke with the leadership before leaving, but they basically didn’t want to hear what we had to say. Now, we have been labeled the “troublemakers” because we walked out on our church family. My heart is still broken months later, but we can’t go back. My question is should we have stayed under poor leadership just to keep our committments and unity in the body, or were we right in leaving a church going nowhere because of subpar leadership?

    • Candace, thanks for sharing this and I’m so sorry it was a bad experience. I’ve seen this happen and it’s so sad. I hope you can stay engaged in the local church. Thank you for trying to make it happen. It’s super hard for me to say whether you should have stayed. The only question I have is ‘what slice of the pie do you own’? Was there even 5% where you think ‘We could have done this better?” I’m sure there were are serious issues, but things are rarely 100% the other person. Maybe it’s as simple as saying ‘we could have talked to them earlier’….I don’t know. I just try to always own whatever I can. That’s all.

      • Candace

        Yes, I feel that there are things I could have done differently in hindsight. There was really no opportunity to own or discuss much because it was not a conversation that the leadership was willing to have. To make my question clearer, from a biblical standpoint is it “wrong” to leave my church because I feel that the leadership is failing (and are unwilling to change)? Some say that church membership should be treated as a covenant and we should not leave. You are very knowledgeable in this area and I was just wondering your opinion. Thanks for your response!

        • Candace, thanks. Just great to see some ownership. That’s a great signs of healthy. And naturally, the church leaders would have reciprocated as well in a perfect world. I believe you can leave. A pattern shows it’s probably more you than them, but a change once every decade or two isn’t unrealistic or automatically unhealthy. Just seek a church where you can play a great, healthy role!

  • Joe Robideaux

    Great stuff. As leaders, it’s very easy to become offended by the conversations you have with someone who is leaving but it’s great to remember they could have just left without saying a word. It’s always more spiritually mature to sit down and have the tough conversation