"Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." (I Corinthians 10:31)
One of the two hundred or so members of a private Facebook page for Ministers shared an interesting article a few days ago. The article is, "7 Ways to Not Respond When People Leave Your Church" by Barnabas Piper, an assistant pastor at Immanuel Church in Nashville. I read the article with interest. Ouch! I was guilty of five of the seven bad responses, and I'd say I was "on thin ice" regarding the other two! I gave that article a lot of thought over the next day or so. It brought back a lot of mostly bad and painful memories. During my twenty-three year pastorate in Framingham, MA I did often handle the matter of people leaving the church quite badly. I went back to the Facebook page post and was surprised there were no comments and only a handful of "Likes". (That's not typical for the pastors involved with this private Facebook page.) I posted a comment which said I was surprised the article generated so little response. I was frank about my own failures, writing that I wish I'd have read an article such as this, or even attended a workshop on the topic of people leaving churches during my pastoring years. As of this writing, my comment there is still the only one.
Yesterday a gentleman asked me if I miss pastoring. I told him I mostly do, although there are some things I don't miss. He snickered, although I was quite serious. I will say that were I currently pastoring a church I would not write this piece. I think not currently pastoring, and yet having a lot of pastoral experience gives me an important platform to express what I'm stating here. The title asks "Is there EVER a CORRECT way to leave a church?" I think the obvious answer is yes. And in the words of my opening Scripture, it can be done to the glory of God!
There will always be reasons to leave churches. Moving out of the area is certainly one reason. Another is discomfort with the doctrines and practices of the church you're attending. And, sometimes a person, however nice or well meaning, is just not a good fit in a certain church. I know of a situation where there were two middle-aged women in the church who were both outstanding cooks. Each wanted to be the preeminent and supreme cook in the congregation. There just could not be two. One left. And, I suppose if I continue to list all of the reasons people could and do leave churches, I could go on for many, many paragraphs! But there is a good and reasonable way to leave, and there are certainly bad ways to leave.
My worst memories of people leaving the church I pastored are these three:
1. The thirty-something single mom of three boys telephoned me on a Saturday evening around eight to inform me they were definitely, immediately, and permanently leaving the church. This was a total shock. I told her the method and timing she used to communicate this to me was "tacky". Several days later, I received an angry call from her. She'd had to look up the word "tacky" in the dictionary. One definition was "low class". She berated me, saying, "I may be low income, but I am not low class." Was my use of the word "tacky" wise? Probably not. But let's face it, it was "tacky"!
2. A Deacon who had one more year of a three year term to serve at our church turned in a letter for me to read at the church's Annual Business Meeting (which was held the next day) saying he and his family were immediately leaving the church. I did read the letter at the Annual Business Meeting. I also stated some negative personal opinions about it. His wife immediately walked out. Honestly, it was not my finest hour. Several months later when they were established in a good church, I did humbly apologize to them, and have ended up having a pretty good relationship with them. No, what I did was not right, but I will say that during the nine months prior to that Annual Business Meeting I had buried each of my elderly parents, and a prominent member of the church had been arrested and convicted of a very serious crime. That was a difficult period for the entire church to walk through. As wrong as it was, this family was sort of our church's "poster family". I felt we couldn't afford to lose them, and that after all I'd been through during the previous nine months, I just couldn't deal with it.
3. One Saturday morning I walked into my office and there was a letter laying on my desk from a woman saying she and her husband were leaving the church immediately. She held an office in the church. As I recall, she left her key to the church on my desk, too. That was what I call a "hit and run". It hurt a lot!
Now, with all that out of the way, I want to recommend several things to seriously contemplate when you're considering leaving a church:
The First is TIMING. There's that famous passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes about a time for this and a time for that. Radio talk show host Jesse Kelly often says, "Timing is everything!" He is so right! A phone call to the pastor on a Saturday night telling him you're immediately leaving the church is terrible timing. Departing a church abruptly when you and your wife are respected lay leaders, at the Annual Business Meeting and following the pastor's recent loss of his parents and even more recent navigation of a devastating crisis in the church is also terrible timing. You may ask, "When is a good time to leave a church?" And my answer may sound like a typical evangelical cop-out, but pray about it!
The Second is TECHNIQUE. A man and his wife were key lay leaders at our church. They'd been active in the church for about ten years. She began visiting a close friend's church; first once a month, then every other week, and finally every week. She told her husband she really wanted them to switch over to that church. He decided to do so. But then he asked for a meeting with me. This guy could not have been more gracious. He was a very vital part of our church, and he knew so. That's why he gave me many weeks notice. I hated to have he and his wife leave, but that notice of many weeks helped with the transition a lot! Their departure was much more pleasant and much less stressful than it otherwise might have been! Another key family who'd been at our church "forever" decided they really wanted to look at other church options. They told me they were taking the entire summer off and would let me know after Labor Day whether or not they'd be back. At first it was painful not having them around. But by Labor Day, I was used to it! I called the wife and asked if they'd come back just for one final service. They did. I prayed over them, and we gave them a loving and emotional send off. Technique is very important.
The Third is TERRITORY. Sometimes a meeting in the pastor's office or in a disgruntled family's home is greatly uncomfortable. Meeting at a restaurant and breaking bread together can be a great way to increase healthy communication and reduce tension. One couple dropped hints they wanted to leave the church. They invited me and two deacons out to lunch with them on a Saturday at a family restaurant. (I forget who paid!) They did inform us they were leaving the church, but said they did not want it to be a nasty thing, and they really wanted us to pray over them and give their decision our blessing. We did! That was and still is one of my most positive memories of my pastoring days.
The Fourth is TRUTH. Even though we all read that verse in Ephesians about speaking the truth in love, we (sadly) often dismiss it. One woman wrote me a letter saying that after many years at our church she and her school-aged girls wanted to leave. Her husband had dropped out of the church several years earlier. She'd found a church which had excellent programs for her kids and where she thought her husband just might want to attend. A deaconess at our church commented, "She has a very good point." She did. That was the truth. It was hard to say good-bye, but we did. Another memory of Truth is a phone call I received from a very elderly minister who was still pastoring full-time. His church was about twenty miles from mine. A couple who'd left our church (under not the best terms) was attending his church and had applied for membership there. I kind of stammered, not knowing what to say to him. I did not think he should take them into membership, but I did not want to give them a nasty reference, either. "Look Bob," he said, "I don't want you to be uncomfortable. I have already decided I'm not going to take them into membership. It's obvious there's something wrong with them. I just wanted to see if you had any helpful information to confirm my decision." We then had a nice and truthful conversation!
The Fifth is THOUGHT. In some situations, not enough thought has gone into the decision of whether to remain at a church or move to another one. An older couple bought a nice new home and was moving over forty miles away. The wife assured me they would continue to come to our church. I told her I'd love to have them stay at our church but that I thought it was unwise. It seemed to me that attending a church which was much closer to their new residence would make more sense. They did find a church in the community they'd moved to. It was a rather middle-of-the-road Methodist church where they made friends and felt right at home. That was the right thing for them. Sometimes, God just wants us to think!
I really hope this article was helpful. I would love to hear any feedback you have about it. When it comes to the issue of leaving or not leaving a church: "Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." (I Corinthians 10:31)