November 21, 2011

On leaving the church

Every once in a while, when they find out I’m a pastor’s wife, new acquaintances ask me church-related questions. My favorite one is: how do I find a good church to attend? I like this question because it’s an easy one to answer. My philosophy is simple and it comes from almost a decade of observation as a pastor’s wife who is also a member of the congregation. Here is what I say:
You pray for God’s wisdom and guidance as you search for a church home. Then, when you find one where the Bible is preached and taught, that meets your family’s specific needs (children’s ministry, youth group, whatever your circumstances), where the people are loving and you feel God’s presence you stay and you stick to it.
It’s just not that complicated.
You stay and you work for the good of those people. You stay and you find out your role in that Body of Christ. You stay and you build relationships, open your heart to God’s teachings, and serve your brothers and sisters.
You stay and become a member of the family.
And you don’t leave.
You don’t leave because someone hurts your feelings because someone sometime will. You don’t leave because you didn’t like this event or that sermon because you won’t always. You don’t leave because there is better music or more dynamic preaching down the road because there will always be. You don’t leave because things are not being done your way because this is not about you alone.
And you don’t leave because people in your church are not afraid to lovingly and biblically point you in the right direction when you are headed down the wrong path. That’s what people who love you do: they care enough about your soul to risk your anger and point your sin out to you so that you can right your relationship with God.
That’s a church that is worth going to.
There is no such thing as a perfect church. Churches are made out of people with imperfect leaders and imperfect ideas. Looking for a perfect church will leave you wandering like the Israelites for forty years, never settling anywhere, never putting roots down. And you will wonder why you are as dry as the desert. We were never meant to do this alone. And church-hopping and church-shopping will only leave you lonely.  
So when you find a home you don’t leave lightly.
You leave if God calls you to help start a ministry somewhere else where there is a need. You leave if the Bible is no longer being upheld in word and action. You leave if your family’s needs change and that church can no longer accommodate them and you cannot help them start the ministries that would. You leave prayerfully and carefully for when you are gone that church is never the same without you. They have lost a valued, cherished, and important piece of their family. The Body hurts and grieves.
And if you choose to leave, you show respect to your pastor by letting him or her know. This is a person whose job is to worry about your spiritual and emotional well-being. And the good ones spend many hours thinking about you, praying for you, worrying about you, writing you an e-mail, taking you out to lunch, investing their lives on you.
Leaving without an explanation it is one of the most painful things you can do to your pastor.
He or she will wonder if there was a problem. He or she will worry that you simply quit going to church altogether. He or she will be heartbroken that the Body is no longer complete. You are not simply a face in the crowd to your pastor. He or she loves you. It is his or her calling to do so.
Leaving a church is not like changing grocery stores without telling the manager. If you respect your pastor as a person, as a friend, as a human being, take the time to let him or her know you are leaving, even if the conversation is difficult, even if you are leaving angry, even if it is uncomfortable for you. He or she will appreciate this simple act of closure, honor, and compassion.
It is the right thing to do.
I hope with my answer not only to help them understand the process of finding a Christ-community but also to give some insight on how painful loss is to a church as a congregation. Finding a church is important, but staying in one is even more critical to both a person’s spiritual growth and to the community in which they have chosen to enter.
On a side note the pastoral family feels the loss in a very personal way. That it is inevitable and part of ministry in a church, does not make it less painful. Some we had known were coming and we understood, some we had sensed were coming but still saddened us, some blindsided us, some baffled us. Some we felt we were sending out with our blessing to be lights in other communities and some we felt were in the best interest of all. Nonetheless, no matter the situation, we have never shrugged our shoulders and just let it go. We have always grieved and prayed for God’s grace in all situations.

Joining with Michelle:

And Jen:


Nancy said...

Well said. I forget who said this (D.L. Moody, maybe?) but I like to quote it often, "The biggest problem with the church is that I'm in it." We're all a bunch of sinners, drawn together by grace, given the opportunity to live out the gospel together. Sometimes it's painful, but when we are committed to things like forgiveness and reconciliation, our actions demonstrate the power of the gospel. Thank you for sharing what it looks like from the perspective of the pastor when folks leave without a word. We need to be reminded that our pastors take seriously the work of shepherding our souls. Happy Thanksgiving, Gaby!

Deborah said...

Very true. The most important part of a relgious community is that it's just that - a community. I once left a synagogue that was right for me in many ways, because nobody ever talked to me. I was always standing alone. I know the rabbi felt bad when I told her, and I wonder if the problem could've been fixed earlier, before I left.

Debbie said...

Well done. Really, well done. My family is struggling right now with this very issue. I keep feeling that God is calling us away from our church for a variety of reasons that I won't share. None of them are the illegitimate issues you mentioned but more a reflection of the fact that the "Bible is not being upheld in word or action." God sent a very specific light to us in that direction, but now that light is moving on.

To be honest, I'm weary.

And yet, I love that church. Leaving it would be like gnawing off my arm. Therefore, I just pray and seek.

Thank you for this very, very timely post this morning, my blog friend.

Gaby said...

Nancy, thank you for your encouragement. Being part of the church is one of the most painful and most rewarding areas of our lives, isn't it? Happy Thanksgiving to you as well!

Deborah, thank you for sharing this. Often I wonder if someone would not have stayed if only we had known that they were feeling lonely. Often we get people walking in our doors simply because at the other churches they visited no one even said "good morning."

Debbie, I'm sorry you are struggling right now and I will keep you in my prayers as you decide what to do. I have had this written for a while but my husband wanted to me to wait and he gave me the green light today. Maybe just for you?

Taleyna said...

Such a timely post for me today. I really struggle with whether or not we are where we should be. The reasons seem so petty and all seems to add up over time. We've been going there 5 years and yet despite teaching VBS, doing committees, etc. I still feel like a visitor.

Michelle DeRusha said...

Gaby, I'm really glad you detailed this here, because I think sometimes people just simply don't think. They leave, and they don't understand the grief they leave in their wake. To tell you the truth, I never considered the fact that a pastor and his/her family might be deeply hurt by a family's or individual's decision to leave the church. This has been very eye-opening for me.

Unknown said...

If leaving a church doesn't tear you up, you didn't invest in that church like you should have. Or, like you said, the church wasn't upholding it's biblical end of the bargain. I love your honesty in this post, and it's truth.

Heart n Soul said...

Very very good!! ... and nice to find your lovely blog :)

Unknown said...

As the daughter-in-law of a priest, I see the wisdom in your words. Such a good message.

Kathleen T. Jaeger said...

Our lives are meant to be lived in community, your post has reminded me of this. When I become focused on me, I forget that my actions do affect others. Perhaps surprisingly so. We should not take our actions lightly; we have a bigger impact than we think. Thanks for the loving reminders of how to live in community.

Jennifer said...

Like Michelle, I never looked at leaving a church through the eyes of the pastor. I appreciate your wisdom.

However, I have thought about the other details you mentioned. I've felt frustrated at my own church for a variety of reasons, but I realize that there is not a perfect church. Relationships take time to build, and I know God has a reason for our family to be where we are. I think, unfortunately, too many of us look at church as a place where we need to be served and don't see our roles as servants, as well.

Jerri Miller said...

Beautifully written! You said all there is to say about being a member of a church!