What Is The Protocol For Leaving A Church?

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

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?

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Rob Shepherd

I am the full-time husband of a wonderful woman! I love being married! We are proud parents to twins, Hayden and Reese. In my spare time I am the pastor of Next Level Church. I have a relationship with God and it is an adventure. Oh and I wrote a book. It's called Even If You Were Perfect Someone Would Crucify You.

19 Comments

  1. September 7, 2016

    Bro, timely! I needed this in my season. Thank you for loving the Church enough to address this.

    Reply
    • September 7, 2016

      Victor, my pleasure. This might be a better question to discuss on FB Messenger, but are you transitioning out of your current church? They have a great name for a church.

      Reply
      • Victor
        September 8, 2016

        Having some hard discussions today. Thanks to your advice, I feel 100% better and prepared, rather than allowing my assumptions to dictate my feelings which can navigate my actions. The only decision I’ve made is to communicate. The rest I’ve learned to take one step at a time.

        Don’t know if I’ve ever said this before, but thank you for inspiring me from the WEC days to be yourself, transparent, and a risk taker – quirks and all. Love you bro!

        Reply
  2. Lauren Cory
    September 7, 2016

    Great post Rob. I just shared it with three of my friends who are going through this process. Thanks.

    Reply
  3. Karen
    September 7, 2016

    Tough subject to tackle . While this doesn’t really apply to me right now I’m glad when we did change churches we did what you’ve suggested. I think it was only through the help of the Holy Spirit. It’s so important to be happy with Him now. No matter the circumstance. Love as He loves. Help as He helps. Give as He gives. Serve as He serves. 1 COR. 13. Whether you are going or staying. Whether you’re at home or in His church. With believers or unbelievers. With family or with strangers. 24/7.

    Reply
  4. Bobbie
    September 7, 2016

    It is difficult for people to attend or return to church when their experiences have been “muddied” by the church. That includes church attenders and church staff. I spent 27 years in church ministry with my spouse. Of those years, there were divisions, jealousy, resistance, and dysfunctions that Jesus is very unhappy about. Of the ten churches served, most were fairly dysfunctional, and I have only experienced two strong Biblical churches in that stream of years. It isn’t always a pretty picture on the inside from an ungodly church/ministerial leadership & personnel, comittees, characteristics of jealousy , insecurity among ministerial leadership, anger management issues, infidelity, etc. Because of matters, I watched staff leave or be forced to leave. Most church members really never know the “real” reason we have left. Church ministry is not a piece of cake. It takes desire, a calling, humility, and training to effectively manage the good and bad that comes with this sizeable commitment. I did say good because in that time, there were also wonderful memories, church members, staff, mentors, camps, God moments, etc that stand out and overshadowed some of the craziness in church.

    Reply
    • September 7, 2016

      Bobbie, thank you for sharing your perspective. I think you are awesome for pulling from some of the good memories. A pastor friend of mine recently said to me, “The most ungodly acting people I’ve ever met were within the church.” That’s a sad statement that shows there is a spiritual enemy that wants to devour God’s people.

      Reply
  5. Michele
    September 7, 2016

    Rob, great post. I particularly liked #6. I can’t really think of too much to add. I can’t remember, did you talk about not badmouthing the church you left? If so, good. If not, I would add that. Because whatever issue I might have had with a given church might not be an issue for the next person. But he will never find out, because he will avoid the church I bad mouthed.

    By the way, Jeff and I MISS MISS MISS MISS MISS MISS MISS Next Level Church!!!

    Reply
    • September 7, 2016

      Michele, we miss you and Jeff so much. I greatly appreciated your well thought out and sincere encouragement after my sermons. You are missed.

      Reply
  6. scott
    September 7, 2016

    I grew up in church. Went to various ones my whole life until about 2 years ago. At which point I stopped attending church all together after years of deconstruction. I reached a point where I finally had to admit that I just didn’t believe a lot of what was being taught at most evangelical churches any longer. So when I saw this post in my feed I clicked out of interest thinking it would be more about leave THE church instead of A church. But as someone who has left a few churches to move elsewhere I think this is good advice. Don’t be too quick to split if it’s just little things. Try to be honest, but don’t let them talk you out of leaving or guilt you into staying (I’ve been to churches where you will be told stuff like “you are in sin” or “this isn’t God’s will”). Know that that is all BS and no one can tell you what’s right for you. Try not to leave others hanging if you’ve committed to something.

    Reply
    • September 8, 2016

      Scott, I’m glad you stumbled upon this post and that you took time to comment. I appreciate you.

      Reply
  7. September 7, 2016

    Rip it off like a bandaid. When it’s time to go, go. Don’t hang around too long.

    Reply
  8. September 15, 2016

    I just came across this. I have totally dropped out of “church” because I feel like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. I’ve seen too much where the members walk in lock-step, never stopping to think for themselves. I came to the conclusion that in order to hang on to what little faith I have left, I needed to leave the institutional “church”.

    Reply
    • September 15, 2016

      Caroline, I’m sorry. I pray God holds you, restores your faith, and redeems the broken junk you’ve had to experience.

      Reply
      • September 15, 2016

        I discovered that in the church, thinking bad, following good. I’m familiar with you from WEC where some of our family and many of our friends go.

        I think the issue is the whole “church model”. For those in the pews, it’s too easy to be a Christian and keep the negative attitudes to the “other” going. For the “other” who tries to find community, they find out real quick to put the same plastic smile on their faces. Come to think about it, you’ve given me an idea for a blog post…THANKS!

        Reply

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