Many of us will have the experience of leaving a church fellowship behind us. Daniel Holland suggests good ways to deal with something that can often be a painful experience.
LET ALL THAT YOU DO BE DONE IN LOVE (1 Corinthians 16 v 4)
In this article I am not addressing the kind of scenario when a family are sent out from a church to the mission field or to some church in another part of the country. This would be ‘witnessed’ to by the pastor and their church who will continue to pray for, and even financially support, the leaving family. Any tears shed are connected to the sadness of parting.
I refer to the all too common build-up of church miscommunications and resentments that eventually rupture relationships. The proverbial ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ occurs and the aggrieved couple storm out never to be seen again. The church is left stunned and hurt at what has happened. Maybe the pastor doesn’t understand the ‘blow-up’ or if he does, he is not at liberty to share. He just gets the nasty emails. Everybody loses.
If you’ve been around church for any period of time you will recognise this kind of scenario; if not I’d like to come to your church! I am an ex pastor (now an evangelist) and it often occurred to me that I’d love to do some practical teaching on how to leave a church well. At the time it would have sounded self-serving; actually, I grieve over seeing so many wounded Christians stuck in a rut for years. Often they’ve ‘burnt their bridges’ with their church.
It is very important to our spiritual health how we process a life change like moving church. I have seen it done badly, leaving a flesh wound in a church, and a cycle of destruction in the lives of those who left. I have observed it done graciously (much more rarely!) where both parties can move on and be a mutual blessing.
THINGS I AM NOT ENCOURAGING
People have a wry smile when I say that I’d like to teach on leaving church; but I am deadly serious. This is NOT because I want to encourage rebellion and frivolous migration from one church to another. I do not condone ‘church hopping’ and ‘consumerist Christianity’. We must inevitably question people’s maturity when they leave churches because tiny things don’t suit them.
I believe absolutely in the local church and have paid a price for it. I was in my last church for 16 years before arriving at my current spiritual home. I do believe in putting down deep roots where God has planted us and staying there until God clearly moves us on (Isaiah 61v 1). One wise Christian said if we do move, the acid test is can we ‘go out in joy and be led forth in peace’(Is 55v 12)? There are way too many ugly and acrimonious departures and church splits. Bitterness, jealously, gossip and fits of pique do not denote the leading of the Spirit.
HOW YOU LEAVE DETERMINES YOUR SPIRITUAL DESTINY
You may think this is all a bit melodramatic. Am I making a big deal about something fairly routine and ‘every-day’? No, I am not! Church is a family, if we believe the bible and what we say and sing together. We cannot just ditch our family and expect it not to have implications for us further down the line (Galatians 6v 7).
However, a move to another church can be done in such a way such that ‘family’ relationships remain intact (maybe even improving) and our old church becomes like an extended family that we may visit at Christmas.
NO NEED TO SLAY THE PASTOR ON THE WAY OUT
In our need to justify the ‘rightness’ of what we feel called to, and haste to avoid personal discomfort, an easy ‘blame’ target is the pastor or leaders of the church we are leaving. They are too often sacrificed to our need to justify our actions. We will tell anyone who’ll listen, ensuring they don’t look too closely at our behaviour.
THE PASTOR’S QUESTION I’D ALWAYS ASK!
I cottoned on fairly quickly to aquestion, perhaps slightly awkward to ask, but which would prove to save me a huge amount of long-term pain….
‘You’ve been along a few Sundays, it’s been great to have you with us. Are you joining us?’ Yes. ‘Have you been attending church?’ Yes. ‘Can I phone your previous pastor and get a reference? This is something we do for everyone? We also want to honour your previous church as you move’.
Some people’s faces have been a picture as I asked this question. Firstly they were blindsided by any requirement of accountability (sadly some of the church operates without clear accountability or recognition of other ministries). Secondly, if they had left a trail of destruction behind them horror would creep over their face. They knew they would be found out; there was no-where left to hide. How unfair to be cornered! They would not be able to peddle the ‘sorry tale’ of how they’d been mistreated. My phone call would uncover a ‘can of worms’.
On one occasion I called the pastor of a large church for a reference. He warned me about the person in question and praised my wisdom for taking the time to inquire. This man still caused mayhem in our church but it was significantly reduced because we were forewarned about patterns in his life.
Conversely, if people smiled at my question and produced the number of their previous pastor, I already knew that it was going to be fine. I’d still phone him and have a chat, but their face told me what I needed to know.
WHEN YOU LEAVE YOU TAKE YOURSELF WITH YOU
It would be foolish to think that we can leave one church, find another, and shed all our problems! Mostly they’re inside us! However, when we do join a new church there can be a honeymoon period which gives us a chance to ‘buck’ the negative trends of our past. If we left our previous church in good standing this is much more likely. What we sow we will reap (Proverbs 11v 18)!
AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
We can leave a church purposing to remember and articulate the good things we’ve experienced. Let’s hold on to the good (1 Thess 5v 21). If we are ‘prayed out’ at the front we may be given an opportunity to speak. We can thank people, not fire one final broadside!
It’s always better to say too little than too much when it comes to where we feel we’ve been let down (in some cases there are very real failings, criminal activity must be appropriately reported). If we have discreet leaders they will not tell us everything and explain every decision. There comes a point that we must decide based on their character and ‘track record’ whether we will trust them or not. Godly leadership, and any leadership for that matter, functions through healthy trust and honour. If we can no longer trust it might be that we need to move. We don’t want to become a stumbling block in our own church.
STAY FRIENDS BUT KEEP YOUR OAR OUT OF THE WATER
Its testimony to God’s grace if we can remain friends with our old church and harbour no hard feelings. We may keep in occasional contact but remember if we have left a church, we must actually leave. DON’T continue with your agenda or axe to grind on the phone or Facebook. Lay them down and actively avoid gossipy conversations. If we say anything it should be positive (without lying!)
Some people are happy to expose the weaknesses and failings of their leaders, but we shouldn’t engage with this; especially if we’ve left the church concerned. It’s simply not our business anymore! There’s nothing more dispiriting for a pastor to discover than people who have left their church (often in an ungodly way) are now exerting negative influence around the edges. Some people are addicted to power and if they can’t manipulate the pastor directly, they’ll work through other people.
Is it any wonder that sometimes people look at church and scoff when we talk of love and holiness? Let’s behave as if the church was our much beloved mother. Aware as we are of her faults, she’s deserving of dignity and respect. Remember, anyone who will gossip with you about ‘Fred’ will do exactly the same thing with ‘Fred’ about you.
LEAVE WITH BLESSING, LEAVING A BLESSING BEHIND!
If we leave right and with a right heart our leaders may well bless us as we leave. There is substance to this blessing; they have a God given role and anointing despite their failings. We could ask our pastor to write a reference (completely Biblical) we can take to our new church.
We can bless as we go. Why not buy a thoughtful gift for the pastor and our friends. We could make a love offering to one of the churches ministries. Wouldn’t it be great if people forgot the difficult times and remembered us in the light of that final act of grace? It’s no longer about being ‘right’or ‘wrong’ but leaving with a good spirit and being released lovingly to another part of God’s family! Hurt people hurt people; healed people heal people!
Daniel Holland is a UK missionary with Through Faith Missions. This is a short extract from his forthcoming book “Prophetic Evangelism”, due to be published in the Fall, 2020. He also authored “Through The Tunnel – Free at Last” published by PUSH Publishing. Link here: https://christian-publications-int.com/Through_The_Tunnel.html