There may be times where it is most appropriate for an individual or a family to leave their church. For example, if the teaching is unbiblical, the leadership is engaged in illegal conduct or unaccountable, or the leadership fails to address clear issues of sin occurring within the body. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but may help determine a few appropriate grounds to leave your church.
To be honest, in most cases choosing to leave is usually a bit premature, and you might miss out on what the Lord is trying to teach you. As a pastor who has experienced a lot of people leaving the church, and having left a few churches myself, I would like to encourage you to consider a few things before you leave your church.
#1 – Have you extended grace and the benefit of the doubt to the leadership?
I don’t know about you, but I can make up some huge stories and assumptions about issues I experience and observe. Sometimes those stories are accurate, but most of the time the stories I make up are deeply exaggerated, or at worst, totally unfair and inaccurate. Let’s be honest. We all do this. We see or experience something and we automatically apply intention and our own version of the story. I’m certainly guilty of this.
Not only does this cause us unnecessary frustration, anger, and pain, but it is also ungracious and downright unfair to the other party or parties. Instead, let us lead with the same grace that we have received from our Savior (who knows our true intentions) and extend the benefit of the doubt. Let’s honor our leaders and approach them in humility to seek to understand the “why” of the situation.
#2 – Have you shared your concerns with your leadership and allowed them to shepherd you through your decision?
The majority of the time, if I actually have the opportunity to sit down with a member who is leaving the church, I am usually receiving the final decision. When someone has made up their mind to leave, especially doing so in isolation, away from any feedback from leadership, they aren’t likely to be willing to consider at least slowing down their decision.
This is typically dangerous, harmful, and hurtful for a few reasons. First, your elders have been charged with caring for you and your soul. I’m sure they have dropped the ball along the way, after all, they are human, too. To approach your leadership with a final decision that none of your leaders have helped you to make is not respectful, but quite the opposite.
In the past 6 years of planting the church I pastor, I can honestly recall two conversations with people who were struggling with issues in the church who told me that they were considering leaving. While it was a difficult conversation to have, I believe it was encouraging and mutually beneficial. One of the families graciously stayed for another year, and then decided that they believed they could best serve the Kingdom in a different environment. I blessed them as they went and I still consider them friends. The other family is now one of our most faithful disciple makers and missionaries in the church.
Most of the time, if I am given any notice, it is in the form of an email. Often times there is a refusal to even meet to part ways in a biblical and gracious way. While this is disappointing, by God’s grace, I’m not carrying bitterness about this. It’s just the unfortunate reality.
In fact, one of the ways that you can determine if you should leave or not could be in how your leaders handle your concerns and offer explanation and vision on where they are hoping to go. This is especially important in a church plant since the first 10 years typically have a lot of movement and growing pains.
#3 – Is it worth hindering your spiritual maturity?
This is typically not something people consider, but let me put it out there anyway. In my observation, there are a lot of spiritually immature believers who have been in the faith for decades. Rather than go into all of the reasons for this (this is a topic for a different article), I will say, if you leave your church when things get rough, you are hindering an opportunity the Lord is giving you for your faith to grow and mature (see James 1:2-4).
Over the years, I have been guilty of having the ‘grass is greener’ mentality, even to the extreme of romanticizing previous experiences and using that as a comparison of my current situations. The reality is, there is no such thing as a perfect church. I know that many people who read this will give a hearty, “I know that…”, but when we are considering breaking fellowship with people, it is difficult to put these things into perspective.
The Lord uses our frustration to help us evaluate what expectations we had that are not being met. I would also like to propose that I believe the Lord might allow some frustration with your local church to prevent us from making our gathering an idol. Remember, a church is a gathering of imperfect people in order to bring our best offering to worship a perfect Jesus.
If you want to mature in life and faith, then position yourself to endure conflict or frustration, trusting in Jesus, so that your faith and character might mature. Otherwise, we will continue to see people who have been in the church for decades, but are only 3-5 years mature in the faith because they jump churches every 3-5 years.
#4 – Are you unable to communicate and handle conflict in a God-honoring way?
This is addressing the whole, “Fight or Flight” thing. Usually when we face hurts, disappointments, or frustrations we either grow silent or grow violent. The reality is, we often would rather part fellowship and go somewhere else than do the hard work of honoring the commands of Jesus to deal with sin and hurt directly.
I have often believed that conflict, when handled well, produces intimacy. The harder thing to do is to have faith that Jesus really does care about unity in His church and to do the hard work of having difficult conversations. It isn’t very fun, especially if this is new to you, but it is honoring to the Lord. After all, the outside world will know that we are His disciples by the way we love each other (See John 13:35).
As a church planter, I have met many people who come to visit our church after they had a conflict or have taken issue with their previous church. In most situations, I have encouraged them to go back and mend those relationships and to talk with the leadership about why they want to leave the church. When folks join our church’s after leaving a church due to unresolved conflict, they will likely part ways with us as well if they don’t learn how to biblically handle conflict.
#5 – Are You Burned Out?
If you have never experienced burnout before, then this may not even be on your radar. There are times when people are actually experiencing depression, which is a bit different, but I will allow the experts to handle that portion.
For the purpose of this article, I want to address burnout. Perhaps you are wanting to move on because you have been giving a lot of your time and resources to the church, or elsewhere in life, and you are finding no joy or satisfaction any longer. Perhaps your love and joy of doing what you do for your church family has turned into an obligated duty rather than joyful sacrifice.
I would strongly encourage you to share this with your leadership and ask for them to care for you during this time. It may be that it is time for you to leave the church, but I highly recommend not leaving a church while you are burned out unless the leadership does not have any sympathy for this.
If you tell your leadership that you are feeling burned out, (which is typically manifests as the, “I’m not being fed,” or other overly critical statements), and they love you and commit to walking with you, then I would first take some time for rest and reflection.
If the leadership is spiritually abusive and tells you to, “Man or Woman up!” and doesn’t try to shepherd your soul, then perhaps there are bigger issues at play here.
In general, I advise folks not to make any long-term decisions when they are experiencing burnout. I let them know that they are loved, appreciated, and will be cared for during this time. If they say they are not being fed, I will talk with them about how they can feed themselves, and how to prepare to hear from the Lord, understanding that there are likely several things out of whack in his or her life.
You may not be burned out from doing church work, but life is hard, and you may be experiencing burnout or depression. The best thing to do in those situations is to seek help before moving to another congregation. After all, you will still feel burned out there, and not have much to offer.
There are several other considerations that can be made as you prayerfully determine whether or not you should leave a church, but I believe these 5 questions will help serve you as you take an honest assessment of yourselves. After all, we are called to take the plank out of our own eye first…