How to Leave a Church Well

Occasionally, the seasons change, things change, you change, your church changes, and you recognize it's time to move on to another church.  A lot of time and effort is spent by local churches in getting people there, but little time is spent in helping people think about how to best exit a church.  

Below are 9 guidelines that I hope will give anyone thinking about leaving a church some insights about gracefully and biblically vacating a congregation.  

To be clear, this article is not directed to anyone in particular.  I'm not experiencing a severe slide in attendance at the church I lead, but like any pastor, I have wished I knew how to help people leave better when they think its time.  In 22 years of ministry in four countries, I've seen a lot of people leave churches.  People weren't always leaving my church.  Sometimes they've left my colleagues' churches and then came to my church!  If you ever left a church I was leading, don't look for your story here.  You won't find it.  It's just a fact that people leave churches, but it's one that is not addressed often enough.  Most leave poorly or incompletely.  That never helps anyone or any congregation.  So, here are my thoughts on the matter.  

  1. Pray about it a lot.  Before you decide you're never going back there again, make sure you spend time praying and seeking the direction of the Holy Spirit.  God led you to that congregation.  When you became a member, you made a kind of covenant with that church.  Don't take leaving lightly.  You're not just deciding to shop at a different grocery store.  Leaving a church is a big deal.  
  2. Speak to the leader personally about it before speaking to anyone else.  Maybe your pastor, minister, priest, elder--whatever you call them in your congregation--is somehow scary to you.  You still need to talk to them.  Often, the pastor is the last person to hear that someone is leaving the church, and they grieve the loss and feel deep concern over those who are gone.  The leader will deeply appreciate hearing directly from you why you're leaving, even if the reasons are directly related to her or him.   Maybe that leader will just try to talk you into staying--talk to them anyway.  That's part of being a good person--openness and honesty.  It's also part of following Jesus--when we have a problem with someone, we talk to them immediately, personally, and directly (Matthew 18:15-20).
  3. Don't divide your church in your leaving.  Maybe you're leaving because you're mad or you're sick and tired of someone who is running the show or you dislike the fact that your ex-spouse is on the Sunday school committee.  Whatever the reason is for your leaving, don't make that a crusade you use on your way out or after you've left to try and divide God's people.  Some of the harshest words in the Bible are reserved for those who try to divide churches.  Just one of those verses I personally find reason enough never to be the divider of God's people is 1 Corinthians 3:17, "If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple."  Here, the Apostle Paul is directly addressing divisions in the church at Corinth.
  4. Avoid gossip.  Gossip is telling or repeating bad news about someone or something with harmful effects.  Do your very best not to slam people at the old church on your way to the new one.  Don't repeat awful stories to people on the way out of the old church or to the new crowd at the new church.  God doesn't bless gossip, and gossip is listed along with the worst sexual vices in the lists of sin we're told to avoid throughout the New Testament.  Gossip is wickedness; be good! 
  5. Don't try to convince people in your old church that the new church is better.  Maybe this is somewhat like the last point, but it's actually different.  It's one thing to leave and try to hurt the people you're mad at on your way out the door.  It's another to leave and try to get others to go to your new church with you.  Look out if that's what you're doing.  Behavior like that is often a passive aggressive way of trying to stick it to the people at the old church.
  6. Don't keep savoring the garbage.  If there were really legitimate reasons why you left, avoid the temptation to repeat awful stories over and over.  It won't help you bond with the new crowd and will make a root of bitterness in your heart grow deeper.  Truly forgiving involves letting go of anger.  Anger will die if you don't feed it through repeating what ticked you off or hurt you deeply in the first place.  Relinquish the desire to relive the drama.  
  7. Write a letter of resignation.  If you're leaving, be sure to write a letter saying that you are leaving.  Be sure to thank the old church for what you're thankful for, but don't use the letter as a platform for blasting people or things you are angry or disappointed over.  This is an important step if you are a member.  It is also an important way to bring closure to you and the church.  
  8. Don't leave for greener pastures at another church.  If you are leaving Church A for Church B for any reason other than the clear leading of the Holy Spirit, it is a sad indictment of your reasons.  A more engaging preacher or a style of music you prefer at the other church are not good reasons for leaving the church that has nurtured you and where you have been part of significant spiritual experiences.  If you're switching to Church B because of their great [whatever], you will undoubtedly soon discover deficits at the new place too.  Realize that no church will ever be perfect.  It might actually be a better thing to decide to leave the first church, talk to leadership, write your letter, etc. before settling on where to go next.
  9. Keep your friendships with people at the former congregation.  One of the worst things you can do is cut yourself off from people who love you.  This is what makes divorce, irreconcilable friendships, and unforgiveness so awful.  Don't defriend your old pastor.  Don't refuse to pick up the phone when your old small group leader rings.  Don't avoid people from the old congregation when you see them in public.  Don't purge your Facebook list because you can't be reminded of the people at the old church.  Be warm and loving.  Don't let leaving the old church somehow give you cause to be a jerk to the people there.  If you can't handle interactions with the old crowd, it may indicate there is something more wrong with you than there ever was with them.  Leaving a church should not mean social divorce.  This is one of the most common ways that people leave a church poorly.  
I really think the list here could go on!  I am now thinking about writing another post titled, "When to Know the Time has Come to Leave Your Church".  :-)

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