Last Saturday I was talking to a good friend of mine and we were talking about church. I’m a pastor. This happens a lot. This friend does not go to Next Level. The question she asked is one I’ve been thinking about for a while.
She asked me, “What is the protocol for leaving a church?”
This is not an easy question to answer.
***Disclaimer: This post is not directed at anyone. My friend asked and even then this is not directed at her. I feel this is a question lots of people ask at some point, and I thought I’d take a moment to share some ideas.***
I’ll start by saying when it comes to church, decisions tend to feel incredibly personal. When things don’t work out in the business world it’s said, “It’s just business.” I’m an outsider, but it seems the business world has worked hard to take the sting out of business decisions.
The Church is relational and therefore the decisions sting more than in the corporate world. Sometimes the best “business” move leads to all sorts of hurt feelings in the church.
And this goes both ways. Sometimes the best move is for a staff or pastor to move on. Sometimes the best move is for a church member to move on. Either way feelings will be emotional because it’s personal.
According to some recent research the average pastor only stays at a church 3.6 years. Other research shows it may be closer to 7 years. No matter, pastors and staff change. Often that change comes every few years. As a teenager I had three different youth pastors between 8th and 12th grade. That’s a lot of change. And it felt personal. Teenagers ask, “Why aren’t we good enough?”
According to some recent research 29% of church goers change churches because they disagreed with clergy (11%), had trouble with their old church (7%), changed beliefs (5%), or had social or practical reasons for leaving (6%).
Whenever the 29% leave it always feels personal. Often times when a person wants to change churches the fear of confrontation leads to avoiding talking to leadership and way too much talking to other church members. Or in some cases a fear of confrontation leads to years of collecting frustrations, and when they finally have a conversation the person tends to OVER COMMUNICATE their feelings!!!!
This is also not an easy question to answer because each church is different and the leadership of each church can be very different.
Because of that the following is not an exhaustive list. Some of these ideas may not work for your situation. Feel free to adapt them. Better yet talk about them with friends to find even better ideas.
Protocol For Leaving A Church
- It all starts with you. Before you leave spend time examining your heart. Why do you want to leave? Are you being called to something or are you running away from something? Seasons change. I don’t think we have to be stuck anyplace. My preferences today will not be my preferences five years from now. With that being said every church has issues. Before you leave do some soul searching. Are you being led to leave or are you running away from something?
- Talk to people who can help do something about your situation. One of the mistakes many church people make is talking to other church members about their frustrations instead of talking to someone who can actually do something about it. The main issue with this is negativity breads negativity. Taking your issues to someone else may make you feel better, but it does not solve the problem. It makes the problems worse. Now, others are holding onto your issues. If you do decide to leave and they stay you have impacted their church experience in a negative way. Now, if there is something immoral or illegal that’s a whole different story. If you don’t like something or have a complaint talk to someone who can do something about it. They may not listen, and that may be the sign you need to leave. Avoiding talking to leadership about issues doesn’t help them or you.
- Have a difficult conversation. When it is time to leave make sure you set up a meeting with someone in leadership. In larger churches this may not be the pastor. It may be another staff member who is over the area where you volunteered. This should be an in person conversation. I know that’s difficult, but it’s important. You cannot tell tone over email. Sending a text or email telling someone you are leaving is bad protocol. Think about it this way, if this was a break-up how would you feel if someone told you over text or email? No matter the reason, if you leave a church it is a break-up. Cowboy up and have a personal conversation with someone in leadership. If you are not plugged into a church and decide to leave then a conversation may not be needed. This is geared towards those who are in a group, volunteering, or in a leadership position.
- Leave on good terms. When you have the face to face meeting start with what was good about the church. You don’t have to lie. There may be some specific issues that are leading you to leave, but start by focussing on the good you have gained from the church. Break-ups are difficult, but don’t throw away all the good because you are currently frustrated. Emotions are difficult to control, but there had to be some good times in your time at a church or you would not have stayed more than a month. What is the good? Celebrate it.
- Do not compare to the church you are going to go to. During this face to face meeting the temptation will be to compare what you are going to with the church you are leaving. Avoid this. In relationship terms think about how you would receive this? “It’s not you, it’s me. I just found someone else that meets my needs more than you.” Saying, “I am no longer being fed” may be the truth, but does not help anyone.
- If there is a specific issue address it. It may be difficult to talk about, but if you truly care help the church you are leaving by respectfully addressing some areas of growth. Specific issues could be, “I didn’t feel my voice mattered in decision making,” or “My volunteer team is too unorganized,” or “There is not enough training for us to know what to do.” This shouldn’t be delivered out of anger, but love to make the church you are leaving better. You cannot change another person. Statements that do not help are based off preferences. If a person cannot change who they are there is no need to address it.
- You may need to heal, but don’t let that lead to dropping out of church. Because the church world is personal often times people have wounds when they leave. Some of the wounds come from voicing concerns and having those concerns ignored. Some of the wounds come from not getting your way. Some of the wounds come from poor leadership. Some of the wounds come because people are imperfect and will let you down. Some of the wounds come because leaders can be insecure and see your help as an attack. Some of the wounds come from holding onto frustrations and never letting them out. You cannot heal if you have never talked about what caused the issues. Holding onto bitterness while you go into your next church can do a lot of harm. Heal. If that means going to see a counselor go for it. If that means having a face to face conversation once the strong emotions have died down then go for it. It if it means forgiving someone then it’s on you to forgive. Even if they never ask for it. Unforgiveness only leads to more issues. At the end of the day you go to church for Jesus. Don’t let what was wrong with your last church stop you from experiencing what is right with Jesus. Going to church is a part of the Christian life. I know it’s difficult to jump back in after you have been hurt, but it’s important.
I stopped at 7 because…that’s God’s number.
Remember this isn’t directed at anyone. If you are reading this and feel it’s directed at you it’s because “Church is personal.” I didn’t write this to one specific person, but wrote it as a general help to hopefully help lots of people.
I’m sure there are lots of other protocols that could be added. I would love to hear your thoughts.
What would you add to the list?