Updated: The Do’s and Don’ts of Leaving a Church

I first posted this blog in 2014. I found myself thinking of this blog and the Relevant Magazine article after hearing a story from a colleague about someone not leaving well. I’ve added some updates (in italics) to the original post.

Recently, Relevant Magazine published an article on their website about bad reasons to leave your church. After the article hit their website, response blogs popped up giving good reasons to leave your church.

Reading these various articles caused me to start thinking about some of the do’s and don’ts of leaving a church. I’d love for some of my friends in ministry to share some of their do’s and don’t of leaving a church as well. We can learn from these experiences together.

There are times in which it becomes necessary to leave a church. Some do it with grace. Some, well, they don’t…

First and foremost, let me be upfront and say that often times the church gives people plenty of reason to leave. And, we don’t always do the best of following up with people before or after they leave. So, we definitely need to own up to our role. However, this blog is simply trying to provide some suggestions on things to do and to avoid when leaving a church.

Trust me, I get it! There have been times when people have made comments before, after, even during services that have made me want to walk out the door. And, I get paid to be there! There have been times when people have treated my family poorly and I’ve been ready to resign on the spot. There are days when leaving the church behind sounds like a great idea.

So, if you are going to church and you’re miserable, it’s probably time to move on. If you are going to church and you’re not making connections, it may be time to look around. If you are going to church and have been the victim of any type of abuse, run like hell.

However, we all know that there are good, bad, and ugly reasons to leave a church. And, there are good, bad, and ugly ways to leave a church.

If you are leaving your church, do:

  1. Prayerfully consider your decision. Often times, we make decisions in a rash manner. Therefore, I suggest praying about the decision. This helps you avoid rushing into a decision and gives time to consider if you are jumping the gun, being petty or if it is the right decision.
  2. Talk to a pastor or ministry leader about your decision to leave, especially if you have not fully made up your mind. Honestly discuss your concerns/reasons for leaving. At some point, you really enjoyed this church. So, it is appropriate to share why you are leaving. It may be that your sharing could help the church improve in the areas of your concern. Also, in discussing your reasons for leaving, you might find the response of the pastor or ministry leader will confirm your reasons for leaving. Then, you won’t have to later ask, “should I have left?” I’ve always appreciated folks calling, sending an email, or talking face-to-face to say, “Hey, we’re checking out some other churches and here are the reasons why.” I generally respond with, “Well, that stinks for us because you are awesome. But, I understand and I hope you find a place where you can connect and feel good about.” This is one that is really hard for clergy and staff. When people leave, but don’t let you know and don’t respond when you attempt to reach out, you are left wondering…you can’t learn/grow from the experience…and, to be honest, animosity increases. Yes, it’s hard, but write a letter, email, leave a voicemail when you know the staff will be out of the office. What’s even more unsettling is when people talk…to everyone but the pastor…and share different reasons with each person they talk to (see point 6 under “don’ts” on being petty).
  3. Maintain healthy relationships with friends you made at the church. Just because you’ve left and are now attending a different church does not mean you need to get a new group of friends.
  4. Keep a positive attitude. You never know when you might want to return. After checking out other churches, you may find that your old church wasn’t so bad. If you haven’t burned any bridges, it might make it easier to return. This is an important one for clergy to remember too. Would we be embarrassed to return to a previous congregation?
  5. Get connected to a new church and do your best to get plugged in. I know several folks who have left churches…sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for petty reasons. Either way, they never took the step to get plugged into a new church. Therefore, avoiding church became easier than finding a new community to engage with.
  6. Understand that the church is made up of humans. Pastors are human. Church folks are human. We make mistakes. We drop the ball. We fail to get it right more than we actually get it right. Realize that we really are trying our best.

If you are leaving your church, don’t:

  1. Trash the church publicly. Outside of cases of abuse, it’s best to take the high road. However, if abuse has happened, get on your soapbox until someone pays attention. While you may be upset with the church, there are many people who continue to love and be committed to the church. When you slander the church, no one wins. Making personal attacks about a pastor or ministry leader is tempting, but not helpful. Tossing the entire church and its ministries under the bus because of a theological difference or preference of worship style or missional focus is not helpful.
  2. Actively recruit friends from your old church to attend your new church. It’s awesome that your new church is perfect. However, it’s unethical to try to lure folks away from one church to another. Stealing sheep isn’t a way to expand the Kingdom. Focus on reaching the unreached.
  3. Blame everyone else. Outside of cases of abuse, sometimes it’s just not a good fit. It’s not necessarily the fault of the pastor, the youth guy or the people. It’s okay to say, “well, it just isn’t for me.”
  4. Mask the real reason for leaving a church behind something else. Be open and honest. If there is a theological difference, don’t tell people you left because you prefer contemporary worship. If there is an issue of abuse, don’t tell people it just wasn’t a good fit. I think you get the idea. Again, this will help the church address any issues, if necessary. Remember, sometimes it’s just not a good fit.
  5. Focus so much on the negatives that you forget all of the positive things that you experienced at the church. At some point, you loved this church or you wouldn’t have decided to come. Hold onto the positive experiences and don’t let the negatives control you.
  6. Leave over a petty issue. In some ways, this ties into number four (masking the real reason). If you are leaving your church because the pastor doesn’t wear a robe/suit/tie/skinny jeans/cool shoes, you might be leaving for a petty reason. If you are leaving because the pastor didn’t attend Duke/Asbury/Harvard or took an alternative route into ministry, you might be leaving for a petty reason. If you are leaving because the choir sat on the other side of the sanctuary, you might be leaving for a petty reason. If you are leaving because some of the students wear ripped jeans, you might be leaving for a petty reason. If you are going to leave a church, make sure the reason isn’t petty. I’ve had some experiences when people offer up all kinds of reasons to why they are leaving…only to find out that the real reason is they didn’t like to color of the new carpet.

I’m sure I’ve missed some do’s and don’ts. Seriously, share some of your do’s and don’ts for leaving the church.

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5 thoughts on “Updated: The Do’s and Don’ts of Leaving a Church

  1. I hope you’re not implying I’m a redneck!
    And yes – I left, and really like the new “style” of ministry I’m part of, and the missional efforts of this family.

  2. Very thoughtful article. I appreciate your comments and agree with the points of what not to do. I once left a church and now realize I could have done it much better. The awkwardness in the departure conversation is a level of honesty that is delicate but now I see, it is necessary.

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