In 2007, my fiancée and I almost left the church I had been a part of for two years. I was happy there, but we had just gotten engaged, and we figured we might be better off if we just started over at a new church.
In retrospect, we weren’t very thoughtful about the whole thing at all — actually, we were pretty much just feeling our way through the decision, which is what I think a lot of people do when they leave churches, and naturally so. Emotions are oftentimes the clearest things in our minds when we’re making these decisions.
If I could go back to 2007, I would have advised us to explore our motives, our desires, and the impact our decision was going to have on other people, and I would have suggested starting with the inquiry below. Who knows? We might have figured out sooner that it was a dumb idea to consider leaving. But anyway, just because I didn’t think through it doesn’t mean you can’t, so if you’re contemplating leaving your church, here are some questions to consider:
1. Are there a significant number of people at your church who actively love and care about you?
If the answer to that is yes, please understand how rare that is. Millions of Christians sign up for memberships at churches and feel utterly disconnected from the other members — for years. If there’s an atmosphere of warmth and hospitality at your church, don’t assume you’re easily going to find that somewhere else.
2. Are you staying in an otherwise unhealthy situation because you feel guilty about leaving your pastor in a lurch?
Although there’s nothing wrong with thinking about how your decision will impact your pastor, you don’t want to be primarily motivated by the fact that you’ve taken personal responsibility for his feelings.
3. Do you have a pattern of leaving churches to find something better?
If you’re a church-hopper, just own it, and then deal with this hard reality: There’s a good chance that you’re not going to be any more successful at finding a better church this time than you were the last.
4. When you think about the reason why things aren’t working out with this church, are all the reasons related to other people, or do you see how you may be contributing to the problem?
If you think the situation has nothing to do with you, there’s a good chance you’re walking in pride and don’t recognize what’s really going on. Dysfunctional relationships are never a one-way street, so before you leave, you might want to figure out some of the ways you’ve contributed to the problem. You never know — you might be able to do some work on yourself that will go a long way toward turning the situation around.
5. Have you brought your frustrations to the attention of leadership, or are you just gossiping about them?
Whenever you’re considering leaving a church, it’s so much easier to talk about members of leadership than it is to confront them in love. One of the reasons it’s so important to talk with leaders is (1) hearing their side may give you some perspective, (2) you’ll give them a chance to bring any needed correction, and (3) if your concerns are legitimate and they are disregarded, it may be a sign that you need to be somewhere else.
6. Are your frustrations rooted in a selfish desire to have things just the way you want them?
Write down your top five frustrations with your church and consider whether they’re little more than personal preferences that you’ve turned into idols. But also be open to the fact that smaller concerns don’t always exist in a vacuum; it may be that your concerns, considered together, demonstrate a pattern of serious dysfunction.
7. If nothing changes about your church in the next five years, would you still be willing to stick around?
There’s going to come a point when you’re going to have to decide whether you can accept your church community as it currently is, because there’s a good chance that it will still be that way in five years. If you absolutely can’t bear that thought, perhaps it’s time to prayerfully consider being at a church where you contribute something more than a simmering sense of despair.
Sometimes there are very good reasons to say goodbye to a church family. The world is full of dysfunctional, poorly run religious nonprofits that expect total loyalty simply because they have the word “church” on their sign. But there are other times when, like in any good family, we need to stick around, forgive, reconcile, and let our season of frustration pass.
There’s no magic formula for knowing when it’s time to go. But if we’ll at least pray and think about it half as much as we’re tempted to gossip about it and feel our way through it, my guess is that everyone involved will be a lot better off, regardless of what decision we make.