Jason Isaacs has written a very interesting post on “How to tell your pastor you’re leaving the church.” Wow, some very transparent and honest thoughts. He has four words of advice:
- Don’t say, “It’s not personal.” Instead say, “I know this is going to hurt, but…”
- Don’t say, “I feel like God is leading me.” Instead say, “I feel like I want to leave…”
- Don’t say, “I’m not getting fed.” Instead say… actually, don’t even go there.
- Say you’re sorry
Jason gets to the heart of the matter when he acknowledges how deeply personal this can be and writes,
“Your pastor loves you. That’s why it hurts so much. He prays for you, and even though there are times he doesn’t like you, or you frustrate him, God has given him a burden for your soul, and when you leave you are ripping out a part of it. They understand that people are going to leave, their leadership and the church aren’t perfect, and you aren’t trying to be hurtful. Regardless, go about it like you’ve got the tweezers and you’re playing Operation — very carefully.”
I appreciate his words of advice. With over seven years of lead pastor experience, I can relate to much of what he says here. In fact, I can only think of about four people/families who have come to me and informed me that they were leaving the church I serve. Of those, only one stands out as having been helpful to me.
I previously discussed Jason’s point about not being fed and I agree with his statement regarding not using God as a scapegoat for someone’s leaving. That’s like when I ask people if they can help me stack some chairs and they tell me they need to pray about it. Really? God is going to tell you right now that you shouldn’t help me stack five chairs? I’d much rather you just tell me you can’t. Don’t blame if on God!
And that brings me to an observation: most people are cowardly when it comes to leaving a church. Uh oh, I used the word “cowardly.” Maybe I should have written that most people are either “afraid” or “confused” about how to do this. Well, I believe that to be true too. Being a coward isn’t necessarily the most politically correct way of stating it, but it describes well what I think generally is happening. A coward is a person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things. That’s basically what we’re talking about here, right?
Here are three things we can do to help the people we serve develop an attitude that leans more towards bravery than cowardness:
(1) Create an “open door” environment. I’ve found that many people in many churches feel as if their pastor is unapproachable. This isn’t always due to the way that pastors carry themselves, obviously, but it is something we can try to help provide. This can be done by asking people to regularly give you feedback and to work hard at listening to them and making changes where appropriate. If people feel like they can approach you about difficult issues, it may help when they are starting to feel on the edge of leaving. This is where I’d push back a bit on Jason’s second point. Not everyone ends up leaving when they start praying about it or when they discuss it with a pastor. While I haven’t had a lot of people come and tell me they were leaving, I have had conversations with people who I found out where entering into the “point of no return” and was able to help them work some things out.
(2) Maintain an “open door” environment. Many pastors are great at creating culture and starting things but really struggle to maintain what they are doing. I’ve struggled with this many times. We go out the gate strong but half way around the track, we fall to the wayside. This is especially crucial if we want to do more than give people the impression that we used to have an open door policy. Therefore, I encourage you to keep the communication lines open and regularly have you and your church leadership check to see how things are doing as well as to reiterate that this is an important value for you.
(3) Point them to Jesus as the source of peace, strength, and boldness. This is honestly the most important of the three. People tend to be cowardly and fearful and full of anxiety because they are holding onto some things that they need to turn over to God. When we constantly remind people of how Jesus helps us through these issues, we can short circuit some cowardly ways of interacting, not interacting, etc.
To be clear, I do not believe that everyone who leaves churches is cowardly and there are certainly some situations that I would totally agree do not require that you need to schedule a meeting with a pastor. But there are a lot of great pastors out there who are either misunderstood or misrepresented that should have a chance to interact a bit on why people are leaving. Like Jason so wisely writes, pastors who serve Jesus well will love you and care deeply about you.
- What do you think is the biggest fear as to why people don’t inform their pastors they are leaving?
- Why do you think this is harmful to the church (or do you disagree)?
- Why is this harmful for the people leaving?
- Is cowardly to strong of a word?
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.
Hi Luke. Thanks for sharing. This was an interesting thought process and certainly one that needs to be addressed often in my opinion. I have served as a music ministry leader for a number of years in the same church. I am sure you can appreciate the idea that a worship ministry can be a microcosm of the church so I can understand the sadness that comes when someone you feel responsible for on some level and have poured yourself into leaves your care. Understanding of course that the dynamics are different in some ways between pastor and flock. I also grew up a PK so I understand the dynamics of church social politics and the hurt that accompanies it.
All that to provide the context for my perspective on this subject. I agree that God can be used as a scapegoat in many instances however, if you truly believe that God is leading you, via certain circumstances, to leave, I don’t think that you should not be truthful about that. It may not be constructive to give all the reasons. I agree with everything about the “open door” concept as a pastor. Being accessible and making people believe that you will actually respect and consider their thoughts on a matter is crucial to people being willing to come to you and talk about the issues, whether they are considering leaving or not. I have noticed in my church, however, that sometimes pastors have an unhealthy perspective regarding “ownership” of their flock verses being stewards over God’s people and that this causes an improper level of hurt and sometimes an inappropriate response on the part of the pastor.
I am in a position of leaving my church very soon because of theological discrepancies that I have encountered that after conversation have been deemed unresolvable in my mind. I have been their 19 yrs so I know the minds of my pastors theologically and otherwise as it relates to church politics. While they are not all easy to talk too, I have seen them hurt by people leaving and taking people with them or just disappearing. I do not like either approach. I believe, if at all possible, that it is a great matter of integrity to sit down with them, look them in the eye, and tell them I am leaving and give them a chance to respond. I would agree that more often than not, it is “cowardly” to just disappear without at least giving the pastors a chance to respond to your reason. I do not want to be cowardly or lack integrity. I personally encourage people not to leave unless it is for very sound reasons relating to issues of doctrine or integrity among the leadership and even then, to have the guts to do it face to face. Thanks for the opportunity to respond. Sincerely, Joshua Newton
Not sure why I missed this response! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your situation!
In fact, you brought a lot of needed balance, so thanks!
There are some super unhealthy churches and I can understand the desire to run for the hills. How do you think situations like that could be best handled? What would you add to my thoughts here?
In other words… what is your plan! Ha ha! (maybe that’s asking too much…). I really would like to learn from you here. Thanks so much for posting!
This provided some interesting food for thought. To be honest, I’ve left churches before and, with some of them, it never even really occurred to me to talk to the pastor before doing so. Whether we talked to the pastor/leadership or not depended rather heavily on how involved we were and how “connected” we felt with the church body. If we had been attending a while and thought everyone was nice and liked the people, but we found (what we considered to be) serious theological error or that it was just not what we were looking for in a church, we would usually just stop attending. If we had developed relationship with the people and considered them our friends, we would usually just move out of the area (hey…don’t knock it…it’s a great excuse for leaving a church that doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, lol).
We’ve also left churches because we “weren’t getting fed” and felt the sermons were too simplistic/kindergarten-ish or because we truly felt God was telling us to leave there and go elsewhere (without always know where “elsewhere” was). Conversely, I’ve also stayed in churches I did not like, where I was not “getting fed”, where I wasn’t always sure the teaching was theologically correct, precisely because I felt God was telling me to stay there! In fact, I’ve begged God to let me leave churches like that, but stayed until he either “released” me to go elsewhere, or he changed it so it became a different kind of church. (I’m using “church” to refer to a congregation of believers, and not the body as a whole.)
In a very few situations, we were thinking about leaving a church because we were hurt/offended or felt they were teaching something inaccurate, but not heinously so. In those cases, we did usually go and talk with the leadership. Sometimes, that helped to resolve the situation and we stayed. A couple of times, however, we were not able to come to a mutually agreeable stance and we were either “encouraged” to leave or we chose to leave, because of the verse (in Joel?) that says, “How can two walk together unless they are agreed.”
This really makes it sound like we’re some sort of terrible church-hopping flakes, lol. Perhaps for a while, we were. 🙂 We also moved a lot (not because we wanted to leave churches, but because we felt that was God’s plan or because we wanted to move anyway, but the timing just made it easier sometimes to leave a church where we were not happy).
I guess, based on my personal experience with visiting and/or attending a lot of different churches in my life, I think people have a LOT of different reasons for changing churches. Whether they talk to the pastor before leaving has a lot more to do with how connected they feel than it does with whether it is “polite” to let someone know they are leaving. I don’t know that our current culture really teaches that we should talk to someone before leaving, so it probably is not something that a pastor should take personally, if someone does leave without talking to them. Sometimes a church meets a need in their lives for a time, but then it stops meeting that need and God moves them on to the next place, to meet the need they have at that time.
I know, for my own sake, I am tremendously glad that we experienced so many different churches. If we had stayed in the very first church we attended after becoming believers, I would have a much more limited understanding of the Bible and of who God is. It would also be much easier for me to pigeonhole others who did not interpret the Bible the same way I did. It was an excellent church in many ways, and we grew a lot while we were there, but I believe God wanted to teach us some things that church just wasn’t capable of teaching, because they didn’t know it themselves. Our second “church home” also provided a great growing experience for us, but it also was not able to teach us all of what God wanted us to learn, because of their own limited understanding of scripture. These various churches taught us to read our Bibles, listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit, engage in relationship with other believers, witness actively to non-believers, participate in the more “controversial” spiritual gifts (i.e., speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc.), pray fervently, give generously, help the poor, etc…but up until recently, we never found any church that taught ALL of those things. Each church would have one or two or three areas where they were strong, and they focused on those areas.
Now that we have found a church that teaches in all of those areas, where we feel connected and loved, the only way I would ever want to leave is if I strongly believed that God was saying it was time to go somewhere else. (I honestly hope he never does say that, but only time will tell.)
If God tells you to leave our church, I’ll tell you that I don’t believe you. 🙂
Full disclosure for everyone reading this: Timbreldancer attends the congregation I serve and is a super active member and I trust her a ton so I’d totally trust her discernment but would likely try to talk her out of it.
Very good points raised by the author. Only one sentence set off alarm bells for me:
“They’ve sacrificed their family, health, marriage, and life to make the church the best it can be.”
Do you think it is necessary to tell a pastor at a church why you’re leaving, if you’ve never developed a relationship with them? I would say everytime I’ve left a church (although most commonly it was because of moving) I only told people I cared about in the church. This may include the pastor, may not.