7 Steps for Leaving a Church Wisely

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7 Steps for Leaving a Church Wisely

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I’ve talked with many people who left their churches. Some did it for valid reasons and made the transition wisely and graciously. Others were driven by pride, bitterness or resentment, however, and their departures often caused considerable confusion and pain to others.

If you or someone you know is ever considering such a move, here are seven steps that can help you make this transition in a way that honors God and demonstrates love for others.

1. Make Sure You Have Valid Reasons

Since the Bible often describes the church as being a “family,” the ideal would be to remain in one church all of your life, just as you would be a part of your birth or adopted family all of your life. Since we live in a fallen world, however, life in even the best of churches will have its disappointments and inevitably require resolving conflicts, bearing with others’ weaknesses, accepting differences and forgiving others … sometimes repeatedly.

There are situations, however, where it is appropriate to consider changing churches. Potential reasons include, but are not limited to:

  • Relocation or traffic changes make it difficult to be involved in your church on Sundays and throughout the week.
  • You will have significantly better opportunities to use your gifts and abilities in another church (e.g., in a cross-cultural, international or refugee ministry).
  • Significant changes or differences in foundational theological doctrines, such as the authority or inerrancy of the Bible, the divinity of Christ or the centrality and nature of the gospel.
  • A divergence with the mission, vision, ministry priorities or social positions of the church that is so significant that you can no longer support the church whole-heartedly.
  • In spite of your best efforts, you are seeing minimal evangelism, few people being saved, and little if any spiritual transformation in yourself, your family or others in the church.
  • You can no longer confidently and comfortably invite others to visit your church.
  • You have seen such significant lapses in the character, judgment or biblical integrity of your church leaders that you can no longer sincerely submit to their spiritual authority in your life.

2. Be Honest About Your Own Motives and Failings

Whenever you feel inclined to end a relationship, with either a church or another individual, the natural human tendency is to magnify others’ deficiencies and wrongs while minimizing your own. Therefore, it is wise in such situations to take a hard look at how you may have contributed to the breakdown in your church relationships (see Matt. 7:1-5).

You can begin this process by asking God to search your heart and reveal any sinful attitudes toward your church leaders or other members, such as pride, envy, jealousy, a critical spirit, bitterness or unforgiveness (Ps. 139:3).

Another helpful step is to ask those who are closest to you to candidly point out any attitudes or actions they see in you regarding your church that are not honoring to God, loving toward others or reflecting the patience, kindness and mercy of Jesus (Prov. 12:15; Ps. 141:5; Eph. 5:1).

The more honestly you face your own sinful attitudes and actions, the more graciously and wisely you’ll be able to engage the people around you (Matt. 7:5). This may lead to such improvement in your relationships that you’ll be able to stay in your church. If not, you’ll at least be better prepared to communicate in a humble and constructive way as you make your transition.

3. Affirm the Good in Your Church

When people have been disappointed in their church, they often develop a critical attitude that causes them to compile a growing mental list of every flaw in the church while ignoring or minimizing its virtues (see Prov. 11:27; Are You Velcro or Teflon?). One of the best ways to counter this tendency is to practice the peacemaking advice Paul offered to two conflicted women in the church at Philippi:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9).

In some cases, this attitude adjustment will enable you to see the value of staying in your church and continuing to work on your differences. Even if that is not the case, this exercise will enable you to sincerely affirm to others the ways that God has worked in and through the church.

4. Resolve Outstanding Conflicts

One of the most frequent reasons people leave a church or ministry team is because of unresolved conflict with the leaders or other members (Acts 15:36-41). This is especially common with people who are inclined to escape from conflict rather than face it honestly and openly.

Therefore, it is essential that you do everything in your power to address any unresolved conflicts with other members or leaders in your church (Matt. 5:9; 23-24; see Relational Peacemaking). Others may not respond as you would hope, but if you’ve done all you can to live at peace, you can at least depart with a clear conscience (Rom. 12:18).

5. Talk with Your Leaders

As soon as you start thinking about the possibility of leaving your church, go to one or more of your elders and share your concerns with them humbly and graciously (1 Pet. 5:5; Rom. 13:7). In many cases, this will allow you to clear up misunderstandings, resolve offenses, or suggest changes that they may see as being beneficial for the entire church.

If you don’t see sufficient changes to allow you to stay in the church, circle back to the elders to let them know when you’ve decided to leave. Be as gracious and respectful as possible, making every effort not to damage relationships or burn bridges.

6. Say Goodbye to Friends

If you’ve been in a church for any length of time, you’ve probably formed some special friendships. These friends would be confused and hurt if you suddenly disappeared without saying goodbye. You wouldn’t want them to do that to you, so don’t do it to them (Matt. 7:12). Instead, take the time to let them know that you’re leaving, preferably through a personal conversation.

If you are leaving because of serious concerns about the doctrinal direction of the church, it may be appropriate to share those concerns so that others can continue to pray and discuss them. If you find it necessary to mention such things, avoid judging the hearts or motives of others (James 4:11).

If you are leaving for non-doctrinal reasons (see above), however, avoid itemizing those matters and instead be as positive as possible so you do not diminish others’ commitment to the church. Affirm the good things in the church and simply indicate that for personal reasons you will be looking for another church where you can use your gifts and energy more effectively to serve the Lord and his people.

7. Commit to a New Church

However disappointing or hurtful your last church was, don’t let that experience keep you from finding a new church home as soon as possible (Heb. 10:25). God designed us to thrive in the midst of a close spiritual community (Acts 2:432-47), so it is vitally important that you diligently explore other churches in your community until you find one that aligns with your theology and personal convictions and gives you ample opportunities for spiritual growth and service to others.

Summary

If you carefully work through each of these seven steps, you may discover ways to resolve the disappointments you have with your church and continue to enjoy fellowship there. If not, you’ll at least have the peace of mind that comes from avoiding impulsive actions and treating others in a way that honors God and demonstrates genuine love and respect.

~ Ken Sande

To see this issue from the perspective of church leaders, see Five Ways to Amaze People Who Leave Your Church.

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you ever thought of leaving a church? Why? If you actually left, do you have any regrets?
  2. Think of people you know who have left a church wisely and graciously. What did they do that made their departure as positive as possible?
  3. Think of people who did a poor job of leaving a church. What did they do that made their departure disturbing or hurtful to others?
  4. If you find that you have been developing a negative attitude toward your church, take a few minutes to read Are You Velcro or Teflon and to answer the reflection questions at the end of the post.

Permission to distribute: Please feel free to download, print, or electronically share this message in its entirety for non-commercial purposes, whether with a few friends or as a staff, ministry or church devotional.

© 2017 Ken Sande

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By | 2017-10-16T14:22:47-06:00 October 15th, 2017|Categories: Home Page, RW Blog|Tags: |

About the Author:

Ken Sande is the founder of Peacemaker Ministries and Relational Wisdom 360. Trained as an engineer, lawyer and mediator, Ken has conciliated hundreds of family, business, church and legal conflicts. As president of RW360, he now focuses on teaching people how to “get upstream of conflict” by building strong relationships in the family, church and workplace. Ken teaches internationally and is the author of numerous books, articles, and training resources, including The Peacemaker, which has been translated into seventeen languages. He is a Certified Relational Instructor and Conciliator, Emotional Intelligence Certified Instructor, and has served as an Editorial Adviser for Christianity Today.

6 Comments

  1. Bob Tobey October 16, 2017 at 7:05 am - Reply

    A very helpful article! Something our church has adopted is an exit interview. Though the only ones I have heard of resulted in the person or family leaving (then again, if they didn’t leave it would have been counseling maybe), they were all positive. Often the person leaving was even helped in finding a good church that would fit better.
    One of the reasons could also be an opportunity to use your gifts or a specific ministry God seems to be leading you into. An example might be cross-cultural or international student or refugee ministry that may be better facilitated in a different church.

    • Ken Sande October 16, 2017 at 8:29 am - Reply

      Excellent insights, Bob. I’ve added your additional reason to the post.

  2. Erin October 16, 2017 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    I do not believe that “fit” is an appropriate reason to leave a church. Many people church shop because they like the newest trend in church and they deem the trendier church a better fit than a church that has solid doctrine and Biblical preaching. I LOVE your posts and read them regularly. This is the first time I have disagreed with a part of your recommendations. Leaving due to preferences is like leaving a marriage because you don’t fit with your spouse any longer or you’ve grown apart. Being a member of a church family requires commitment; and barring some heinous and unrepented sin on the part of the leadership or the teaching of false doctrine, people need to honor a commitment that they make to be part of God’s family.

    • Ken Sande October 16, 2017 at 2:37 pm - Reply

      Thank you for your candid feedback, Erin. It is good to discuss the nuances of these principles thoroughly! I agree that Christians should not change churches for casual reasons, especially because of mere preferences or because another church is more “trendy.” That’s why I tried to limit the “valid reasons” list in section 1 as tightly as I did. As important as membership vows are, however, would not raise them to the same level as marriage vows. I’m not aware of any church that includes “until death do us part” in their membership vows, nor do I see the Bible giving that level of permanence to membership vows. Having said that, I certainly agree, and have told many people, that membership vows are significant and should not be lightly set aside. As for valid reasons, I do not think that a leader’s sin needs to be “heinous and unrepentant” to justify leaving. An ongoing pattern of non-heinous sin (e.g., gossip, sharing confidential information, insensitive remarks in sermons, sarcasm, etc.) can erode a leader’s credibility so much that people could no longer give full weight to his messages or respect his counsel and correction, especially if it concerned the misbehavior he himself is guilty of. In any case, thanks to your feedback, I did tighten up the language in the last paragraph of section 6 to remove the world “fit” so that people would not think that one word diluted the import of the rest the post. Thank you for helping me to see the need for that clarification.

  3. Martha Brady October 17, 2017 at 10:39 am - Reply

    speaking as the wife of a pastor (now retired and in poor health), i concur with your comments. I can’t overemphasize the importance of speaking with those in church leadership. often the pastor is the last one spoken to instead of one of the first, when a person is unhappy. if they came to the pastor or some of the elders first instead of speaking to all their friends first, so many issues would be clarified…as you teach so well in other places!

    most of the churches where we have served have suffered splits a few years before our coming. the damage to relationships is so deep, it takes quite awhile to minister and relate in healthy biblical ways before people learn and change…and even then, the work can be undone in a minute it seems.

    it is good to know this is GOD’s church. He is building it. but satan loves sowing discord and we seem to follow him so easily. it is sad.

    • Ken Sande October 17, 2017 at 10:47 am - Reply

      Amen! The same is true in so many relationships. If we let things fester instead of going and talking about our concerns when they are still manageable, things will almost inevitably deteriorate. That must be why Jesus places such a high priority on going and talking to others as soon as we sense there may be a problem!

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