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.

Confessions of a Bad Pastor: No, I Don’t Read the Bulletin.

I’m going to be honest and admit that I’m a bad pastor. Now, there are many things that make me a bad pastor. This morning, I’m thinking about two main areas of focus (which are quite similar) that make me a bad pastor.

I don’t read the Sunday bulletin or the monthly newsletter. Let me be clear, I have never read the Sunday bulletin or the monthly newsletter in 23+ years of ministry. So, this isn’t a new practice – it’s a long-held pattern of behavior. It’s not some kind of rebellion. I have just never felt a desire or need to read the bulletin or newsletter.

As a result, there are some things that I miss. And, I’m okay with that. Even though I’m the pastor, I don’t feel like I need to know everything going on.

I fully recognize that this drives some people crazy…especially those who feel like they want/need to know everything that is happening at the church (regardless of whether or not they will participate).

However, I’ve never felt that the pastor needs to be the hub of all information. If people ask me about a children’s ministry event, I’m going to send them to the children’s ministry team. If they ask me about the women’s ministry, I’m going to send them to the women’s ministry leader. If they have a question about a specific project or ministry, I’m going to send them to that project or ministry leader. Not to sound pompously arrogant, but I have more important things to focus on than the details of the church calendar.

By not reading the bulletin or newsletter, there are some things that I miss and it’s honestly never bothered me.

We live in a day and age where a lot of print information is transitioning towards digital platforms. Whether it’s a website or social media platform, businesses, schools, newspapers, restaurants, schools and churches are moving more and more of their communication materials online.

Early adopters to the digital platform are now racing ahead. Rather than trying to figure out how to livestream to Facebook or YouTube, some churches are figuring out how to improve their Virtual Reality services on the MetaVerse.

Some churches have stopped using print pieces and moved to digital bulletins and electronic newsletters. While this transition has been met with resistance in many congregations, people tend to be adaptable and eventually make peace with the change.

In making this shift, churches save time and money. There is less time involved in sending out a digital newsletter as you don’t have to print, fold, address and add postage. Digital bulletins reduce paper and copier expenses – and reduce the amount of waste produced by a local congregation (seriously, the percentage of bulletins that are left behind, thrown away or placed in recycling bins following a service make one wonder why we spend the time and money printing these things).

Rather than sending out postcards, churches can send e-vites and create sharable social media posts.

Now, the argument is always made that “not everyone has email or social media.”

When a previous congregation I served made the shift to a digital newsletter (sharing it via email, Facebook and the church website), they discovered that less than 20 individuals/families did not have an email address on file. To be clear, this was a larger congregation. This represented less than 3% of the congregation). So, the church mailed a print out of the newsletter to those families and individuals. They also printed a few copies to make available at the welcome center for guests. I would guess that more than 3% of the congregation threw away/recycled their bulletins or never read their newsletter.

There are times when churches post information on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter because it is the quickest way to get information out to the largest audience. Of course, some will say that “not everyone is on Facebook”. That may be true, but Facebook pages are accessible to non-Facebook users. When churches started moving online, many utilized Facebook Live to share services. People without Facebook accounts were able to access those streams. It’s just like visiting any other website.

Many businesses and organizations only use social media to share information and important updates. How did I find out my favorite restaurant would be closed today? They posted on Instagram and Facebook…and nowhere else.

Could it be that we are catering to a vocal minority when we continue practices that are no longer efficient (or effective for that matter)? This is not limited to print or digital media, but applies to all ministries and projects. Are we doing things just because that’s what we’ve always done…or are we doing things because that will be the most effective in helping us make disciples?

“When Pew Research Center began tracking social media adoption in 2005, just 5% of American adults used at least one of these platforms. By 2011 that share had risen to half of all Americans, and today 72% (2020) of the public uses some type of social media.” (https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/fact-sheet/social-media/)

The UnStuck Church podcast shared that today 79% of Americans use some type of social media.

“Social media usage is one of the most popular online activities and in 2021, 82 percent of the population in the United States had a social networking profile, representing a two percent increase from the 80 percent usage reach in the previous year.” (https://www.statista.com/statistics/273476/percentage-of-us-population-with-a-social-network-profile/)

Many churches continue to utilize outdated tactics for communications. Is this an attempt to quiet the protests of the 18% who are not using (or cannot use) social media? I’m not suggesting we forget the 18%. I am suggesting that we don’t use outdated practices for the whole. Still use the preferred platform for the 18%, but utilize the available technologies for the 82%.

Churches on the leading edge do a good job of communicating how information is received. They say “visit our website or Facebook page for the most up-to-date information” or “be sure to sign up for our email list” or “give us your address so we can make sure the pigeon-carrier stops by.”

The reality is, this has less to do with our ability to access information in our preferred format and more to do with our inherent resistance to change. We don’t like change. Even those of us who claim to thrive on change, we don’t like change that we aren’t comfortable with. So, rather than making changes that will help us become more effective and efficient, we keep doing the same old, same old. At best, we add new things on, but don’t stop old things.

When I was doing some consulting and coaching work, our team could usually gauge the willingness of a congregation to make necessary changes by suggesting a change to the way information is shared. If the leadership of the church shows resistance to an online newsletter, they probably were not going to be open to a change of administrative structure or worship style, time or location. Most congregations simply want consultants and coaches to tell them that “if you just keep doing what you’ve always done, but maybe paint the nursery, you’ll turn this ship around.”

I don’t have the answers. I’m sure there are pros and cons to all forms of communication.

Maybe the best way is to determine who are we trying to reach. Is this piece of communication intended for those we are already reaching? Well, use the kind of communication mode they are most likely to read. Is the pieced intended for those we are not currently reaching? Well, use the kind of communication vehicle that will most effectively reach your target audience.

Well, that’s enough about bulletins and newsletters. But, listen, if Thrasher Magazine ever moves fully digital, I will be the loudest protester! Don’t mess with my magazine!

Maybe the Message Needs to Change?

I haven’t written for a long time. To be honest, the uncertain and unstable nature of, not only a global pandemic, but political, racial, economic and denominational divisions have often stopped me from using the venue of this blog to share my thoughts and feelings. This is the first time in ministry where I’ve felt insecure and less-than-confident in my leadership and ability to simply be myself. Every single thing one says, does, posts, likes or doesn’t say, do, post or like seems to be held closely under the microscope of scrutiny. But, I’ve had an extra cup of coffee this afternoon and discovered just the right amount of caffeine-infused liquid courage to post the following.

I’ve been serving in fulltime ministry since 1999. It’s an incredible honor and privilege to serve within the Church, attempting to offer Christ’s love and hope to those around me. I am continually in awe that God allows and invites us to play a role in helping reveal the “Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.”

Of course, reality and experience would say that Kingdom work is easier said than done. Throughout the history of the Church, we have had our fair share of triumphs and trials, victories and defeats, successes and scandals.

There have been moments where it appears the Church has lost its way. In those times, faithful reformers have led us back to our foundational core – Jesus and love.

In recent years, the rise of Christian Nationalism and the politicization of American Christianity has distorted the basic teachings of Jesus.

Rather than focusing on the teachings of Jesus that call us to love God, love neighbor and even love our enemies, many vocal Christian leaders who garner the attention of the spotlight have focused on electing the right leader, defending the sanctity of both marriage and life, and most recently – demonstrating that pro-life really only means pro-birth (as many churches have chosen “faith over fear” in their coronavirus response – which really means we don’t care about the “least of these”). Honestly, many faithful people are championing the anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements under the umbrella of “true, strong faith.” I’m all for freedom, but to use our faith to justify these types of actions is harmful. In doing so, I believe a dark stain is being left on the Church.

Unfortunately, we Christians have been doing a much better job of letting people know what we are against, rather than what we are for.

The current collective witness of the Church, more distracted by political agendas than the imperative to “go and make disciples”, is actively turning more and more people away from the faith. To be honest, I have grown tired of having to explain that “I’m not THAT kind of Christian” to friends, family and strangers.

What is becoming all-too-obvious, even for the casual observer, is that change is desperately needed. The Church (across the globe, but especially in the States) is in need of a new generation of reformers.

In roughly 23 years of ministry, when change is needed within the Church, there is an all-too-familiar refrain that may be causing more harm than good.

“The methods may change, but the message remains the same.”

If by the “message”, one means the “Good News of great joy for ALL people,” then “yes”, that should remain.

If by the “message,” one means all the anti, extra junk that distracts from the light and love of Jesus, then that is a firm “no” from me.

In allowing the political agenda to distract us, we’ve lost the true message of love that Jesus embodied. Jesus challenged the kind of religious and political structures that many Christians are trying to create today. The fact that many faithful Christians can support political candidates and agendas who show no moral compass, who fail to demonstrate love for all, whose policies and agendas threaten to reverse to work Jesus was called to do shows their are problems with our methods and messages (see Luke 4, Jesus came to “proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and set the oppressed free). It’s hard to see the heart of Jesus in political platforms that call for the reduction of affordable housing, healthcare, education and food assistance, that call for bigger, privatized prisons, and that further oppress the already marginalized among us.

If we truly want to vote our Christian values, we would be wise to read the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7) before we enter our polling place. It’s hard to take the teachings of Jesus seriously while voting for almost any candidate (regardless of party).

The rise in our evangelical (and mainline too) brothers and sisters who are deconstructing their faith should be a huge warning sign to the Church. Unfortunately, it may be too late for some to consider reconstructing their faith.

You see, in the overly politicized Church, many are hearing messages that are nothing but political campaign rallies for candidates who do not reflect the heart of Jesus or the Gospel of love. We hear sermons that say one thing, then we read those “red letters” of Jesus and conflicts abound.

Maybe the methods weren’t the problem?

I remember being told, “Just start a contemporary service. Just be a little more edgy and relevant (come on, can you get more edgy and relevant than this guy…who makes references to Guns n’ Roses on a regular basis?). Just be a little more casual. That’s the answer.”

But, if the statistics reveal anything, it’s that none of this actually worked. Sure, there are booming megachurches around the nation. But, the rise of the mega church came with the decline of those who identify as Christian. The worship wars created unnecessary tension and division in the Church. Rather than growth, we’ve created generations of Church Hoppers who simply follow the dangling carrot of the cool church. Rather than church growth, we’ve witnessed sheep stealing and the rise of the trendy pastor (folks, after the Mike Todd fiasco, really think through your cool illustrations) and the best band in town. And, let’s be honest, the best worship band rarely holds a candle to the best dive bar band!

Maybe the methods were the problem, but that wasn’t enough?

I wonder if the move towards modern expressions of worship is a necessary part of the equation, but that a shift in style simply isn’t enough. If the church that proclaims, “We aren’t your grandma’s church” just because they have cool lights, a fog machine, a wall of LED lights, a worship leader with a stupid hat (seriously, what’s the deal with worship leaders and wide-brim hats?), pastors in skinny jeans and glasses that weren’t even cool in the 80’s, continues to preach messages that are tweetable but void of the heart of Jesus, maybe we need to spend more time focusing on the message?

Listen, I’ve spent 23 years being caught up in this same trap. There are many times when I’ve tried to be “cool’. There are many times when my messages have been nothing but veiled political propaganda. There are many times when I’ve been tempted to believe that a shift in methodology would be enough.

I believe that what we need is a both/and approach. We need to be paying just as close attention to the message as we do the methods. By spending so much time focused on the methods, we often fail to see the message straying from the Way of Jesus.

At the end of the day, we really need to ask ourselves if we are being our true, authentic selves in both the methods and the message. Are we preaching to promote Jesus or something else? Are we “all in” to a particular method to honor Jesus or to be hip?

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have the answers. I have failed more often than I have succeeded. I strive to honor God in the method and the message, but I easily fall into the trap of “this will be cool…this will be funny…this will attract people away from that church down the street.”

I guess what I’m really saying is that maybe it’s time for the Church itself to do some deconstructing and reconstructing – to eliminate the baggage that is interfering with the message of Jesus – and rediscover the way of love that shares a message of “Good News of great joy for all people.”

The Sin of Busyness

This morning, I head Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Fives “The Message”. The hip hop classic contains the well known lyric, “Don’t push me, ‘cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head.”

Hearing that line made me think of the number of people I know who are continually pushing themselves to the edge of burnout. And, regardless of their field of employment, the folks around them seem to celebrate their dedication to their work.

In our American culture, we have too often celebrated workaholism. The American Church has also embraced (and often celebrated) the “sin” of busyness. We almost idolize clergy and ministry leaders who push themselves to the edge of burnout (and then ridicule them if they indeed hit the point of burnout).

Remember, busyness does not always equal effectiveness.

Some of the most effective clergy I know model a life of vocation that practices appropriate boundaries and limitations. Some of the least effective clergy I know embrace a pace of work that violates God’s boundaries and limitations. Too often, those who embody an appropriate pace of life and work are referred to as “lazy” or “not dedicated”, while those embodying a life of busyness are celebrated…even if their church is dying, their family is falling apart and their physical health is terrible.

Yes, we have too often equated busyness with effective, dedicated service. Being busy does not mean one is fulfilling “the call”. It could just mean that they are busy…and inefficient.

In the 10 Commandments, God designed patterns of rest and renewal into our way of life. Yet, when was the last time we held another accountable for violating the sabbath? When was the last time we encouraged another to utilize their allotted time off?

What if the Church began to model and encourage healthy patterns of work, play and rest? What if the Church began to treat workaholism as we do other vices?

Let’s be honest, most workaholics utilize this vice as a way to avoid working through other issues. If we stay busy, we won’t have time to deal with pain, anger, relationships, and reality.

So, what if the Church modeled a pattern of work and rest that encourages boundaries and limitations? Would we find our ministry to be more effective and efficient? What if the Church became a place of rest and renewal, rather than a place that adds to the busyness and chaos?

What if we reduced the number of activities we offer and encouraged self-care? I mean, how many times have our churches made people feel stressed, guilty or overextended because they feel it’s necessary to participate in every activity we offer?

The Church is called to be counter-cultural. One of the most counter-cultural things we could do in the US is to reject the sin of busyness.

How can we slow down and honor God’s boundaries and limitations?

Speaking Truth to Power: Did Jesus Die So I Could Own a Gun?

This morning, I woke up to news of a mass shooting in Indianapolis. Reports have said that the shooting lasted no more than 2 minutes and left 8 people dead.

This Sunday, there will be clergy who speak about America’s obsession with guns.

  • Some will speak in favor of stricter gun control.
  • Some will say “They are coming for our guns. Next, they’ll come for our churches. You better go buy some guns this week.”
  • Some will remain silent.

I’m not preaching this week, so I’m typing a blog post! Honestly, it takes a great deal of courage for pastors to speak in favor of stricter gun control from the pulpit. Pastors who speak to this issue (or post blogs or social media posts) will be told they need to “stick to the Bible and stay out of politics.” So, many weigh the risks and ask, “is it worth the amount of pushback to speak truth to power?”

I’ve already started seeing posts on social media saying, “guns aren’t the problem, people are the problem.” However, the gun was the weapon of mass destruction in this and so many other gun-related deaths. So, what do we do with that? Maybe if people are the problem, stricter gun control would make it more difficult for the wrong people to own guns.

Do we have a people problem? Of course, ever sense the creation of human beings there has been a people problem.

Do we have a gun problem? Absolutely.

A CBS new report shared that “Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries, a new study finds. Compared to 22 other high-income nations, the United States’ gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher.”

Again, we have a gun problem.

Now, let me be clear, I don’t want to take your guns away. I know plenty of responsible gun owners.

However, I do believe it should be more difficult to purchase a weapon than it is for me to make a withdrawal from my savings account.

It would be easier for me to legally purchase a gun today than it is to renew my drivers license, get health or life insurance, get a library card or purchase my allergy medicine. I’m sorry, but something is wrong with that scenario.

Common sense gun control continues to be opposed by many avid 2nd Amendment supporters. For me, there is a red flag that is immediately raised when people don’t think it should be increasingly difficult to purchase firearms.

If one is a responsible citizen, stricter gun control shouldn’t present a problem.

It’s interesting to me that gun control is a divisive issue in the Church. Jesus didn’t live, die and live again in order to protect our 2nd Amendment rights. Jesus didn’t die in order to provide us with the right to gun ownership. And, yet, the way some people of faith talk about guns and the 2nd Amendment reveal that we have a new idol…guns!

In my denominatioin (the United Methodist Church), congregations are urged to “advocate for laws that prevent or reduce gun violence, such as: universal background checks on all gun purchases; ensuring all guns are sold through licensed gun retailers; prohibiting gun purchases for those under restraining order due to threat of violence and those with serious mental illness who pose a danger to themselves and their communities; ensuring greater access to services for those with mental illness; establishing a minimum age of 21 years for a gun purchase or possession; banning large capacity ammunition magazines and weapons; promoting new technologies to aid law-enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety.”

Again, I’m not advocating for the removal of guns. However, I do believe in stricter gun control.