I recently wrote a five-part series on how to break up with your church. This, of course, presumes that the question of whether it’s time to break up with your church has already been resolved. However, for many people, deciding whether or not this is what needs to be done is the most difficult part. In this post I will provide some thoughts on when it might be time to break up with your church. I will do this by laying out some general principles it is good to follow and explaining the implications of those principles to the question at hand.
1. The most important thing to keep in mind when you are at a church is that you are there to grow
Your most important growth will not come from things you learn in sermons, but in the way you learn to handle challenges and disagreements in the church. Value your relationships with your fellow parishioners above all else, including the pastor and leaders.
2. The pastor of your church is not directly accountable to you either for the way he lives his life, or the way he leads the church
He is accountable to his board, or leadership team, for both of those things. You, as a parishioner, however, are accountable to him as your pastor, and he is responsible for your care and guidance in a general way. People in churches often do not understand this and can easily feel as if their pastor is accountable directly to them. There is a sense in which every leader is accountable to their people, and every pastor needs to take this seriously. Yet that accountability is not to you personally but to the congregation. If the congregation and leadership team at your church are okay with your pastor, he has no direct responsibility to change something drastically on your account. If you cannot be okay with this, and invest fully in the lives of your brothers and sisters in the church, it may be time for you to leave.
3. No church, and no pastor, is perfect
People often hold pastors to standards that no human being could possibly meet. Examine your expectations carefully. If all you are looking for is what seems to you like common courtesy, and have done your best to be gracious and cut your pastor some slack like any other person, and you still feel disregarded, it may be time to break up. Although not, of course, without those open and honest conversations I have written about elsewhere.
4. Every pastor has seen the following cycle a hundred times
A person comes to a church for the first time. They get excited about the church and cannot seem to get involved enough. They quickly go through membership class and move into membership. They begin serving and even giving financially. If they stick around long enough, they may even end up on the church’s leadership team.
But eventually something changes. They start dropping out of things. They seem discouraged or frustrated. They tell the pastor, “Things here just aren’t the same anymore. When I first started coming [X and such] was so amazing (the worship, the people, this or that program, the sermons, etc.). Things have changed. It’s lacking the [insert adjective here] it had before (fire, conviction, passion, spirit, humor, boldness, sweetness, love, relevance, etc.).” I can assure you, this is almost never about the church, but about the person himself. All that has usually happened is that the honeymoon phase at the church is over. The parishioner has settled into some routines, and the shine has begun to wear off some of the people who at first appeared so perfect and beautiful. Perhaps they have heard a bit of gossip, or seen behaviors in others that bothered them. Maybe something happened that reminded them of the last church they left and they are disillusioned. Maybe they’re not “feeling” anymore what they felt at first, and they mistook that initial feeling for God, and so it seems like God has exited the building.
If you are in a situation similar to this one, I urge you to stick it out. This is almost certainly not the time to break up. Just like any other relationship, the romance wears off with a church, and you are left with the difficult challenge of loving and accepting people and places for who and what they really are, not what you thought they were during the honeymoon. Give it a year or two. Invest fully in those people and that place. Adjust your expectations. If after a while you still cannot settle in, you may need to go somewhere else for a while. Perhaps that will be a better place, but it’s just as possible that you will learn, once you leave, that you left the church that is best for you. If you leave with love and grace, you will nearly always be missed and welcomed back with open arms.
Part 2 coming soon!
Question: Have you learned any lessons from leaving a church, or thinking about it, that you would be willing to share with my readers and me in the comments section?