Stay or Go?

When a church is rocked by a scandal folks face a choice: stick it out or get out. Michelle van Loon, in a thoughtful post, poses some reflections, but I wonder what your experience is?

Should you stay or should you go? Besides being a riff on the title of one of the great pop-punk songs of the early 1980′s, it is a question with which congregants whose leaders have had moral failures by their leaders must grapple. Whether it is the stuff that grabs headlines (like the Sovereign Grace Ministries lawsuit or the sexual misconduct charges filed against leaders Virginia’s  Richmond Outreach Center) or the kinds of things that spur gossip in a local community (a pastor’s affair with a congregant, a church secretary embezzling funds, an ugly political power play by a disgruntled posse of church members), church members who have not been directly involved with the implosion must still deal with the fallout. Church finances take a hit, attendance drops, reputations suffer, the leaders left in the wake tend to turn inward as they cycle through all the emotions that accompany loss….

As you do, I’d like to offer eight questions for you and your immediate family to weigh in prayer as you try to discern if you’ll stay or if you’ll go:

(1) What do you know to be true about the sin(s) of the leader(s) of your church? Was there a direct confession of wrongdoing? A carefully-staged public relations campaign by the remaining members of the leadership team? Or is gossip your primary source of information?

(2) If relevant to the situation, has local or federal law enforcement been involved? Have your leaders been eager to cooperate? Why or why not?

(3) How are your leaders handling congregational “leavers” in the wake of the crisis? Are they pursuing these people without any ulterior motives in order to listen to their hurts and confusion, apologize for their own wrongful actions when necessary, and blessing them? Are they simply letting them walk out the door without a word? Or worse, cursing them as weak-willed or traitorous for not sticking with the group?

(4) How has this situation affected your relationship with this church? Do you trust those who are now running things? Why or why not?

(5) How has this situation affected your relationship with God?

(6) Because leadership sins are rarely one-off, impulse-inspired events, it is likely that the sin in question was flourishing in the shadows and/or being covered up by others for some time. It is also likely that what you were being taught or experiencing in church life was warped in some way around these secrets. Can you identify how this hidden sin might have affected the messaging and ministry of your church during the time it is reported to have occurred?

(7) Are those from your particular social/fellowship network staying or leaving the church? What kinds of conversations, if any, have you had with them about the situation?

(8) If you have younger children (even if you don’t, it’s still a worthwhile exercise) – consider how would you explain the issues at church to them. What would you tell them about what the Bible says about these leaders and their sin? What would you tell them about what the Bible says about the way we should respond to this sin?

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  • We recently went through a church split. For my family the question we asked is if God’s Holy Spirit could still work here or was he being hindered. We ended up leaving because the leadership kept holding on to their sin. There was no confession or repentance. For me this was a sign of God’s spirit being hindered.

  • MatthewS

    Adapting from a section in Jeff VanVonderen’s great book about spiritual abuse (he uses the terms “fight or flight” but I think “should I stay or should I go” is catchier), a quick rule of thumb might be to look at the leadership and ask if they are headed basically where you want to head in how they are handling this and where they are going in general. The saying is that the fish rots from the head, and the leadership has a lot of influence in how the body tends to go. If the leadership is not headed the right direction, it will be probably just be a fight if you are going at cross-purposes to them. Barring a miracle, you aren’t likely to change the leadership. Conversely, if the leadership is going the right direction, even if the current state of the body is pretty bad, the body is likely to eventually begin rising to the leadership of the leaders. So if the leadership is something you can support, then “stay” may be the default choice.

    The flip side, even if the state of the body is pretty good at present but the leadership is going down paths you can’t support, then “go” may well be the right answer.

  • Pat68

    As one who served in leadership and left, I can tell you my decision to do so was long and thought-out even as I was experiencing pain. But I wanted to be clear in my head and my heart that leaving was the right thing to do and for the right reasons. Ultimately, it became necessary for my own spiritual well-being. When I left, there were those who tried to talk me into staying or coming back, but they were unaware of much of what went on behind closed doors. It’s always easy to give people advice without the benefit of the details. Those who were working against me and behind my back said nary a word and they are not people who I would want to continue working or worshiping with as it became clear the church was their’s and anyone that interfered with their plan would get rolled over.

    Same old story with this congregation and probably others like it: the would-be peacemakers have little to no idea what goes on behind closed doors. And for those that do, their preferred tack is just to poo-poo it and wish for everyone to get along without addressing the real issues. Meanwhile, the power brokers continue to be elected to positions and continue virtually unchecked. New pastor but same old people pulling the puppet strings.

    Every church has its power brokers, it’s just a matter of how much they are control and influence they’re allowed to exert over a congregation and its ministries and business dealings. In the end, I came to see I was not compatible with this church in more ways than one: doctrinally and culturally and am worshiping somewhere now more in line with my beliefs and also more inclusive.

  • metanoia

    Put yourself in the first century church. When they had a scandal….they dealt with it!

  • Pat68

    Here’s a quote that really resonated with me this morning:

    “We must try to be at one and the same time for the Church and against the Church. They alone can serve her faithfully whose consciences are continually exercised as to whether they ought not, for Christ’s sake, to leave her.”
    … Alec R. Vidler (1899-1991), quoting an unknown German theological student in Essays in Liberality, SCM Press, 1957, p. 27

  • Peter Davids

    The discussion assumes that there is more than one church available, which is not something that one would find in the New Testament or later in the first few centuries of church life. Even in Rev 2-3, where there are some churches in pretty bad shape, the “faithful” or “overcomes” are never advised to leave or to form their own group, just to remain faithful. I look in vain in the New Testament for such an option. In fact, if, as confessed in many churches, the church is “one, holy catholic {universal] and apostolic” then we are indeed assuming a fairly modern situation in which this is theory, but not practice. In the theory leaving a church would make as much sense as a finger deciding to leave a body because there is infection in the body.

    From the point of view of Family Emotional Systems, to leave a community is a form of cut-off, and for continued emotional and spiritual growth on either side this cut-off will have to be bridged. I see the issues in churches in which I preach years, even a decade or more, are the original event.

    This is not intended to criticize those who decide that for their own emotional/spiritual health or that of their family they must leave. I may be in a place in which I cannot protect my children or in which I cannot stay connected and remain healthily differentiated. I may need to develop and the group may too. But I need to recognize it as my goal.

    What I do intend to point out is that the assumption that there is more than one church in the area is, from both a biblical and at least early church historical point of view, strange. Furthermore, it leave me as the primary decider, which is part of the disease of western individualism, rather than it being a decision guided by a spiritual director and group of counselors and in submission to church leadership (perhaps regional leadership).