Leaving a Church Well
Today's article is going to be difficult and could be painful for some. It may be controversial. How does one leave their local congregation? How does a Christian leave a congregation of people they love?
There are a myriad of reasons for a person to leave a congregation. Sometimes these reasons are good and sometimes these reasons are poor. The reality of the American church is that religion has been democratized. Members of a congregation may vote with their feet. Members may walk out and go to another church down the road or on the other side of town. Elders may attempt to shepherd well and encourage members to stay. However, there seems to be times in which the Lord's people will do as they please.
What this article will not do is evaluate the plethora of reasons why one would leave their home church. This article is not about leaving a church in which there are moral failings or doctrinal errors. There are times in which, for the glory of God and care for one's family, immediate departure should occur. That is not who this article is written for. Rather, this article is written for those who are considering a transfer to another congregation for non moral reasons.
The reader will find six principles to implement if you feel you must leave your present congregation.
There are ways in which one can leave the congregation well. It is possible, in certain circumstances, to depart from a congregation in a loving way. Then there are ways one can depart from a congregation which leaves a wake of pain and suffering behind. One way honors the Lord and the other harms His people.
Principle No. 1 - Be clear why you are considering to leave.
For many who leave their home congregations the process starts as a subjective feeling that something is not right or is not working. It is important not to trust one's feelings. The heart is deceitfully wicked and should not be trusted. Christians ought to question our feelings. We ought to stop and ask ourselves, "Why am I feeling this way."
Too frequently Christians have vague ideas about why they feel as if they no longer belong in a congregation. Has there been a shift in the philosophy of ministry within the congregation? Have circumstances in your life changed in such a way that make travel an undue burden? Has there been a demographic change in the congregation that has left your family isolated? Have there been doctrinal shifts either in yourself or in the congregation? Has there been a lack of discipleship or a stagnation of spiritual growth?
Far too often many members have vague notions of why they feel they ought to leave. In the Reformed Presbyterian Church membership is formal and covenantal. Members make promises to God, the elders, and the congregation. The affirmations and promises which a member answers forms a binding relationship that ought to be taken with solemnity and sobriety. To break this relationship on opaque feelings is disingenuous and unloving.
You feeling that something is off may not be entirely incorrect. There may be things that need to change. There may be improvements that could occur in the local congregation. There may be ministries that need to be created to shepherd and disciple. There may be a reality to time, finances, family growth, job changes, and etc. that have caused a shift in one's ability to continue to be a growing and active participant in their local congregation. Again, there are a myriad of practical and even biblical reasons why one may need to transfer their membership. Knowing exactly why you are considering a change is of the upmost importance. Have a concrete why.
Once you have your concrete why go and search the scriptures. Search out the Lord's Word to see if there is Biblical warrant for your reasons. There may not be one proof text for your concern. However, you may search the Scriptures and find passages or themes that speak toward your concern. Maybe your why is that there has not been enough emphasis on evangelism. Maybe your why is that the congregation is growing but certain groups of people are being overlooked in discipleship and fellowship. Your why may be that there is plenty of doctrinal fidelity but there is a real lack of opportunity to fellowship and be in communion with other members. It could be that you have noticed the Scriptures time and again speaking of a care for the poor and orphans but you have not noticed that same emphasis in your present congregation.
Being crystal clear about why you are considering a change will help you in principle number two.
Principle No. 2 - Foster open communication with the elders
The second step after solidifying why you feel you are considering leaving your home church is to foster open communication with the leadership. Hebrews 13:17 says,
"Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you."
One of the ways you can allow your leaders to lead you with joy is by being honest and open with them. Many leaders are blindsided by members when they decide to leave. Sure, the elders may have sensed the family becoming more emotionally detached. The leadership might have noticed the lack of former zeal. They may have even noticed that you have stopped attending activities and even worship.
Here's the thing; many elders do not want to be overly aggressive or intrusive. So, to their detriment at times, they may allow a member too much freedom to work things out. In giving your family space the leadership may think they are being loving. However, without open communication the leadership may not know your concerns nor have opportunity to address them.
This is going to be awkward. Telling the leadership of the church that you are considering a move will take courage. Sitting in the room with the pastor and other elders may not be comfortable. However, communicating your concrete why, with Biblical support, will most likely pay dividends in the elders leading you with joy. Clarity in this meeting is essential. You may even want to write down your concrete reasoning with examples of what you have experienced. Let's face it, without talking about problems, solutions can not be created. It is hard to shepherd silent sheep.
Principle No. 3 - Give the Leaders an opportunity to respond
After determining your clear why and talking things over with your leaders give them time to respond.
The leaders whom God has appointed to watch over your soul must give account for how they shepherd. Allow them to lead. After you have solidified your why and have met with the elders; give them an opportunity to respond to your concerns. Especially if you are a member of a reformed church, keep in mind that the church often moves slowly. It may take time for the elders to brainstorm answers to your concerns. It may take time to research answers to your questions. It may take time to develop plans and secure resources to address the problems you have brought before them. Continue to communicate with the leaders and be patient as you look for reforms or changes which they could implement. You may also offer to help the leaders brainstorm ways to address your concerns.
This is not guaranteeing the leadership will change. This is not guaranteeing the congregation can adapt to the ministry model you may desires. It may be that the concerns you have and programs which you desire to implement are outside the financial or logistical possibility of the congregation.
Remember, it is the local leadership who is tasked with shepherding the flock and implementing the ministry. An elder worth their salt does not brush off the input of members. A wise elder also does not hand over all decisions or leadership to those to whom they are shepherding.
Having expressed your concrete reasoning and fostering open and humble communication will allow the elders to evaluate if there can or should be changes made. Give your elders the opportunity to pray, deliberate, plan, and execute on any of the items you have brought to them.
Principle No. 4 - Be patient
A fruit of the Spirit is patience. I have no doubt if you have read to this point that you are serious about this subject. You have most likely been thinking about this for weeks, months, if not years. Be patient with the elders. Change is hard. Processing takes time. Implementing plans can be difficult. Getting outside wisdom and even obtaining resources is not done over night. One way families depart that leaves a bad taste in the congregations' mouth is to air grievances and then depart quickly. To many, a quick departure can feel like a hit and run. Giving the elders and some members in the congregation whip lash as they struggle to understand what just happened.
Principle No. 5 - Bathe it in prayer
Pray always and without ceasing. This is the command of God for all of God's people. But, especially at this important and life changing time in your life, be on your knees in prayer. Pray for the elders who are leading you. Pray that somehow reforms, changes, or compromises can be accomplished that would keep your family at the church. Go through the church directory and pray for each family. Ask God to bless each of those families. Ask the Lord to care for each of those families. Pray that their spiritual walk might not be hindered by your departure. Pray for wisdom. Go to your heavenly Father and plead with Him that changing congregations would be a principled decision and not one done light heartedly. Pray that you are being motivated by love and the glory of God. Pray that God might shepherd the church and allow you to leave in such a way that other members would still love and pray for you.
Principle No. 6 - Avoid being divisive
If all of these principles have lead your family to the conclusion that you must leave, keep Psalm 133:1 in mind:
"Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!"
An elder once told me about a Christian community that handled relationships between young people well. The goal was that a young courting couple who broke up could 10 years later sit together at a fellowship meal without any hostility. Try to uphold the honor and good name of those whom you might disagree with (keeping the ninth commandment). Avoid talking poorly about the elders, members, or ministry of the congregation you have left. Remember them in love. Have concrete reasons why you changed congregations without involving personalities. Continue to pray for the members of your former church. Continue to pray for the leadership of the congregation. Continue to encourage them in their faith.
These six principles are not comprehensive but I pray they will be helpful to some. May God's people bear with one another, endure with one another, love one another. May we seek to bring God glory even when one might have to move to a new congregation.