There’s no ‘correct’ way to leave a church. No perfect time to move on. Countless young people I have met describe to me a span of time they have spent ‘church-hopping’, and when I ask why this has been the case, they explain to me the ways they’ve been hurt by a certain church they used to be committed to – one that they poured their hearts into and felt they had been burned by in the end.
These thoughts were in my mind when I realised it was time for me to undertake my own exodus, realising slowly but surely I wanted to finally move on from my church of ten years to something else.
I won’t lie to you and say that every reason I decided to leave was good. However, I want to take some time and talk a little about how to leave a church honourably, gracefully, and with all bridges still intact. And I will also place a disclaimer that if you are attending or have attended a church with serious abuse of any kind, these musings may not be for you.
Many of the people I interact with who have left their churches tell me stories of emotional abuse. Of social neglect. Of hurtful relationships and dirty secrets. I have heard horror stories of churches losing half their congregations due to people sharing opinions in unhealthy ways.
When people feel slighted, they want to be validated. They want to have someone else understand the situation and agree that they should be hurt in it. It tells us that the suffering we are enduring has purpose and that we are right to be hurt. So, it should be no surprise when people gossip about church leadership behind the leaderships’ backs, however, it is totally possible to solve these problems with the leadership too.
15 “If another member of the church[a] sins against you,[b] go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.[c] 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew chapter 18 verses 15-17, NRSV)
Christ touched on this very idea of solving problems with other church members with great wisdom. In my own experience, I had issues; I felt I had experienced some hurt from the leaders in my church and was feeling quite resentful.
However, I also had the understanding of just how many people I knew who had ditched their church after silently suffering and decided to subvert that. My heart beat hard as my pastor and I sat down and I explained to him exactly what it was I was feeling and how those feelings had come to be. To my surprise he listened and, by our next meeting, even validated some of my feelings.
I am proud of the fact that I did not go telling all my friends and fellow church members about my problems. Oh, I told a trusted friend or two how I was feeling, but never from a place of destruction, only as a way to understand myself more and lead to greater communication.
Through this intentional attitude to not burn bridges but rather leave with my community intact, my pastors and I have reached understanding and growth that weren’t attained before and there is no longer animosity or resentment which definitely would have been gaping wounds had I just left without saying anything.
When things are uncommunicated, people are left confused. Suddenly the only way to get close to understanding is by deducing and assuming which regularly leads to hurts and resentments existing only in people’s heads. A healthy relationship, however, is built on open, honest and respectful communication.
This was an essential step in my own process. The things I was feeling and the things my pastors were thinking turned out to be quite easy to solve, and through a few simple ‘coffee dates’ both parties have nothing but respect for the other.
The wrong way is in anger, and the right way is with God. So, when you find yourself toying with the idea of leaving your church, ask yourself why it is you want to leave? If it’s due to some slight a leader or fellow church-member made towards you, I guarantee you this will happen in any gathering. However, if you feel it is a fundamental difference in belief and change in character, I encourage you to act with maturity and reflect God’s own will to a church unified by not tearing down that which He loves.
Josiah Gray lives in Logan City, Australia. He is currently studying teaching at Christian Heritage College and is committed to telling the story of Jesus to the next generation. Josiah’s previous articles may be viewed at: https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/josiah-gray.html