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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.
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…continued from How to break up with your church, prt. 4
5. When you break up with your church, be aware that pastors can bumble these moments as easily as anyone else. Some will bumble it badly.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news but as a group, pastors are no more mature than anyone else. We should be, but most of us are not (look for a church with a mature pastor). When you are speaking to your pastor about leaving the church, they may be strongly defensive, perhaps even intimidating. They may forcefully try to convince you to stay. They may say things that make you feel guilty, or they may break down in self-pity. The really sick ones may use God in all kinds of manipulative ways, tell you you are sinning, or other tactics to try to make you feel terrible.
If this occurs, keep two things in mind. First, you are doing the right thing in leaving! Second, just like always, you are still responsible for yourself and your own conduct. No amount of spiritual/emotional immaturity on the part of your pastor excuses it in you (or vice versa, of course). You can still succeed in lovingly breaking up with your church and moving on to whatever is next for you.
This series has not even addressed the question of whether or not it’s actually time to break up with your church. Perhaps the love and communication issues won’t be a problem for you, but you are struggling with whether or not you should leave. There are times and reasons when leaving must happen, and times when maybe it’s not the best idea. I will address those issues in my next series.
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…continued from How to break up with your church, prt. 3
4. Common characteristics of those who have broken up with my church in a loving, healthy, and classy way
- They set up a time to meet with me and affirm their love and respect for me, and that they look forward to meeting with me. Notice that this would be impossible if they had been gradually building up a list of complaints or grudges against me, so it begins with relating in healthy ways to begin with.
- During our conversation, they share their “journey,” from coming to Wildwind Church and being excited, to eventually realizing maybe they need to move on. They honestly share their change of circumstances, how their hearts/situation/needs have changed, and then non-critically share why they don’t feel Wildwind is the place for them anymore. Sometimes, though not always, they even express regret for not talking to me sooner, or other mistakes they may have made. The point is, they are honest, but vulnerable and open. I see their hearts and, whether or not I agree with their decision (sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t), I respect both that it is theirs to make and the way they are making it. I am filled both with regret over losing them, and with deeper love and respect for them, and this often becomes the basis for great fondness and affection between us that continues long after they are gone.
- They express love for our people (and often for me), and appreciation for the relationships they have enjoyed. They affirm the value of Wildwind Church, and their respect for our calling and our work in the community. No pastor (except very toxic ones) needs to hear that he/she is perfect, or that their church is the best place for everyone. But everyone wants to be spoken to respectfully and lovingly and be appreciated for their work. This is true for all loving people as they attend, and true for all who lovingly leave.
- They often share ways in which I, and/or my church, have impacted their lives and express an understanding that, for a certain season, Wildwind was the place for them. Most pastors understand seasons, that they come and go. Remember, most churches are right place only for a season even for the pastor.
Do not be concerned that you may be too gentle, and your pastor may fail to learn whatever lessons there might be to learn in your departure. No matter how kind and loving and reassuring you are, your pastor will probably ache when you leave. Even if you take great pains to assure them they have done nothing wrong, they will question themselves for a while. The sweeter and more loving and gentle you are, the more your pastor will respect you, love you, and miss you when you are gone. The meaner and more angry you are, the happier they will be to see you go. Who wouldn’t feel that way?
Some might think, “But I’ll be so angry. I’ll have so much I want to say.” I would ask whether you’ve had a conversation with your pastor already. If not, why have you waited? There is little point in saying those things now that you have already decided to leave. If you have talked with your pastor already, then your pastor already knows how you feel. Consider that he/she either did not agree with you about the situation and decided not to take action, or agreed and wasn’t able to take action for reasons only he/she knows as the leader, or agreed and is planning on taking action but now isn’t the time, or perhaps is still considering it. There are probably other possibilities, but these are the main ones.
In any case, what value will there be in venting your anger, frustration, or disappointment? Will you feel good about yourself after the conversation? If you see your pastor at dinner in a few weeks, will you be able to shake their hand and wish them well with a clear conscience? Regardless of why you left, won’t you still want the pastor to think well of you and not struggle to look you in the eye? Won’t you want to be proud of the way you conducted yourself, even if your pastor fell into the group of pastors who do not handle this stuff well? Do you ultimately want to leave a legacy of love, or of anger and negativity?
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…continued from How to break up with your church, prt. 2
3. Do not break up with your church by sneaking out, or sending an email, letter, text message, or voice mail
Mature people break up with a conversation, face to face, if possible. Among the immature ways people break up with the church, sneaking out is probably the most common. Every pastor can tell stories of families who stop attending and do not respond to their efforts to follow up, and then they find out weeks or months later that a family has been attending a different church. Thinking of this relationally, it would be like deciding not to actually end your current relationship, and allowing your ex to find out through the grapevine that you are seeing someone else. The more deeply connected you are to a church (Have you only been there a few times? Are you a regular attender? Are you a member? Are you in leadership? Are you on the administrative board?), the more responsibility you have to end the relationship in a mature and loving way, just as a marriage must be ended more carefully than a relationship where there have only been a couple of dates.
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…continued from How to break up with your church, prt. 1
2. When you break up with your church, avoid a litany of insults and criticisms
In any human relationship, this will be destructive and hurtful, and it will certainly be the same for your relationship with your soon-to-be-former church and pastor. Every pastor has been on the receiving end of this too many times.
- We don’t like….
- You have never…
- We’re frustrated/angry because…
- If only you were/were not the kind of person who…
- God told me you need to…
- The problem is [your preaching, your theology, this or that personal flaw or failure, this program or lack thereof, this or that person, etc. ]…
Have you ever been in any relationship where you never told the other person that something was bothering you until the moment you ended the relationship? That would be super dysfunctional, right? The vast majority of the time, the first time I ever hear many complaints (and every pastor I know would agree) is when a person/couple is telling me they are leaving the church. Of course there is actually little point in sharing it at that time. A person’s choice not to discuss it sooner, when there was an opportunity to fix what was broken, may be largely responsible for why they are now leaving in frustration.