How Not to Break Up with your Church…

HOW NOT TO BREAK UP WITH YOUR CHURCH…

By Deacon Godsey
Pastor, Vintage Church

(NOTE: If you’re in a spiritually abusive situation, feel free to disregard the following…these thoughts assume the existence of a fairly normal, run-of-the-mill local church setting where nothing abusive is taking place.)

I often feel like one of the things I’ve become most effective at in my role as a Lead Pastor is developing the “spiritual gift of ecclesiastical repulsion,” or “the ability to cause people to leave one’s church at an alarmingly consistent rate” (#NonTraditionalSpiritualGifts.) I tend to be just “conservative” enough to be disqualified for the “woke Olympics,” but just “liberal” enough to qualify as a “heretic” (which usually means: we disagree on what is ultimately a non-essential issue. Perhaps you can relate?!)

Now, I’m truly grateful for the bible college education I received back in the mid 90s, but if I’m honest, there were two glaring omissions from my undergrad program that I wish I’d received a “heads up” on re: point-leadership in a local church: (1) how to mentally preparing myself to deal with the emotions you face when people inevitably decide to leave your church, and (2) how to effectively counsel people through the logistics of that decision.

In my experience (and perhaps I’m alone here, but I suspect I am not), one of the most surprising expressions of a lack of emotional health and spiritual maturity in the lives of the people I’ve served has been the all-too-regular experience of those who choose to leave our church in some truly bizarre-yet-seemingly-acceptable ways. In many cases – if not most – the problem hasn’t been the “what” (the actual decision itself), but the “how” (the logistics of how that decision gets executed.)

In most cases I’ve actually thought, “You know what, this decision makes sense…its hard, but I get it. I think this is ultimately the right move for them and for our church family.” The problem, however, has been with how folks have gone about it. There have been a few who’ve handled it brilliantly (i.e. a person-to-person, face-to-face discussion allowing for a conversation to help process thoughts, feelings, questions, concerns, etc. in the context of relational community), but that has sadly been the glaring exception. More often than not, its been handled in a way that leaves me scratching my head wondering what they were thinking.

After numerous opportunities to process this kind of stuff over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the issue is primarily a relational one: I see the relationship I have to our people as one that exists in the context of an “extended family,” while those who have left either don’t see it that way, or they simply don’t know how to go about saying “goodbye” in an emotionally healthy, spiritually mature way.

With all that in mind, I have some thoughts on pastoring people how NOT to go about “breaking up” with their church, with the “break up” language used intentionally, for three reasons: (1) it sets these issues in the appropriate relational context (2) whether folks want to admit it or not, that’s what it feels like, so I think its good to handle it accordingly, and (3) it allows me to use the following category headings which I’ve found helpful in trying to process my own thoughts and feelings along these lines. So without further ado, here is my TOP THREE WAYS NOT TO BREAK UP WITH YOUR CHURCH (in no particular order):

THE “DEAR JOHN” LETTER/EMAIL or (worse yet) TEXT

If you’re going to leave your church, especially if you’ve been there a while and have developed relationships with anyone in leadership, you really need to have this conversation in person. I know it will be tempting to think you can just handle it in print, but this is rarely-if-ever advisable in a dating relationship, and the same is true here. You might think your situation is totally unique, and that your justification for doing so is the exception, but I strongly encourage you to prayerfully consider if that’s really the case, or if your hesitation – or unwillingness – to discuss it in person is actually a reflection of your fear of conflict, or your desire to avoid any potential emotional awkwardness (neither of which are emotionally healthy or spiritually mature justifications for ending the relationship in such a cold, distant way.) A letter, email or text simply does not communicate respect for the heart(s) of the other person(s) involved, or honor the nature of the church family relationship.

THE “SILENT BUT DEADLY” or “GHOSTING” APPROACH

If you’re going to leave a church family you’ve been a part of for any noticeable length of time, where you’ve established relationships of any breadth or depth, don’t simply slip out the back door without telling anyone.
No emotionally healthy or spiritually mature person would conduct himself or herself this way in a dating relationship, and the same holds true in the local church setting. Again, this method might be the one most comfortable for you, but it will leave others to deal with the emotional fallout and relational damage left in your unintended-but-unavoidable wake.

THE “EXTRAVAGANT GIFT + GHOSTING” COMBO

We actually had someone give us an incredibly nice gift – face-to-face even! – only to find out later (after noticing we hadn’t seen them in a while and asking their ministry team leader if they’d been in contact with them) that they’d decided to leave the church and simply hadn’t told us. One minute they were smiling and giving us an incredibly generous gift, and the next minute, “Poof!” they were gone. If you did this in a dating relationship it would be awkwardly puzzling to say the least; in a church setting? Yeah…it’s the same.

Simply put, this two-prong rule of thumb is a good one to encourage people to stick with:

  1. If you’re going to leave your church, do so in person. Own it. Value the relationships and hearts involved enough to treat the decision with the respect and care it deserves; not just for your own comfort, but for the sake of everyone else involved.
  2. If you wouldn’t break up with another individual human being this way, don’t do it with your church family. The old “love your neighbor as yourself” and “do unto others…” principles are incredibly relevant here, both in one-on-one settings AND in the context of your extended church family.
About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.