Leavin’…on a Sunday mornin’

Leavin’…on a Sunday mornin’ November 3, 2012

“I want to leave my church, but I feel as though I’ve committed to them for life,” my friend K. said to me recently.

She went on to explain that her congregational leaders taught that membership was a covenant between the member and the church. There was no exit clause unless a person moved out of the area. “That isn’t to say that people don’t leave the church anyway. But when they do, everyone acts as though there’s been a bad divorce in the family.”

When a church invokes words like covenant in order to define the relationship of members to itself, leavers find themselves schlepping some brand-new baggage with them to their next destination. Before you whip out a harmonica and start singing The Church Shoppers Blues about the lack of commitment of these leavers, I point to a survey describing the career trajectory of pastors. Admittedly, its a few years old now, but the numbers in the survey should give you a sense that pastors don’t always stay in one place until death do them part. Leaders leave their churches, sometimes in response to God’s calling, health or family issues – and sometimes, fleeing for their lives from a runaway case of ugly church politics.

But no matter how many leaders become leavers, there are always many more of us congregants on the move. I recognize that a formal process by which believers have been brought into the family of the church has existed from nearly the very beginning. Since the movement of leavers also known as The Reformation caught on five hundred or so years ago, exiting one’s mother church is usually never pretty. For the sake of the entire body of Christ, I believe this needs to change.

My husband and I have been official members of two different congregations. The first used covenant-type language for membership language. In exchange for our affirmation of the church’s doctrinal positions, our agreement to tithe, our commitment to participate fully in the life of the church (be a regular attender of a small group, pray for – and in fine print, “Don’t question” – the leadership team, serve), we were considered members. I am not sure if I have a block, but I honestly can’t remember what the leaders promised to do for us, if anything. But we loved the church, so we signed, so to speak, on their dotted line. Seven years later, we left the church after being on the blunt end of a regular pattern of spiritual abuse. Though we later learned the leadership’s pattern of abuse served as a very distracting smokescreen camouflaging the pastor’s adultery and porn addiction, all I knew at the time we departed was that we’d just been through a bad, sad breakup. It took a very long time to work through the loss. I believe that the added layer of the vow we’d broken in order to leave the church added another facet of failure to the whole mess, a failure that lingered spiritually in our lives like a swarm of flies around a trash can in the mid-August. Then there was the cursing of us done by the leaders, in the form of gossip. Though the gossip was a mark of their dysfunction, it smeared our bad baggage with excrement, thus attracting more flies.

Nearly a decade later, we took the plunge into membership again. We did so after our earlier experience only because membership was a one-year commitment, renewable annually**, and Bill and I were moving into leadership roles. There was a little more grace in this arrangement, as well as an opportunity to reevaluate our level of involvement. There were some congregants attending this church who, for various reasons, had once been members and had chosen to downshift to non-member status. Non-members couldn’t vote, and they were prohibited from serving in a leadership role, but otherwise, non-members could freely participate in the life of the church. Our relationship with this congregation ended when we relocated.

In my conversation with K., it occurred to me that most churches don’t know what to do with leavers. I’m not talking about the leavers who nail a list of grievances to the front door or the ones who fade away. I’m talking about the ones who may have a sense of calling to a new congregation, or disagree with the teaching or direction of the church and believe it would be best to move on rather than stay and be labeled a Problem.

What would it look like for church leaders to offer prayer or even (*gasp*) a blessing for those who let their church leadership know they’re leaving? I understand these situations can be awkward and weighted with the sense of failure or rejection, perhaps on the part of both parties, but I believe that this act of submission to the Head may be a life-giving act that brings health and healing to a local church as well as the entire body of Christ.

What has your experience been when you’ve left a church after being a member? Have you been cursed or blessed? Church leaders, I know a few of you read this blog – how do you handle leavers?   


**My husband and I are not members of the church we’ve attended for nearly 3 years, and have no plans to change that status. 

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  • Amanda

    We *try* to welcome the opportunity to release people to the new place to which God is calling them. The most disheartening thing is when people simply disappear without explanation. While I can understand your objections to membership as “covenant,” I do think there are ways in which the relationship between a congregant and a church is like a relationship: there are good reasons and not-so-good reasons for leaving, healthy ways and destructive ways to leave a church. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to think about these things.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      There are indeed lots of bad ways to leave a church – and even when those who leave feel as though they have a good reason, a leader may disagree or engage in a little recreational motive-questioning of the leaver, labeling the departure “wrong”.

      My pie-in-the-sky ideal of offering a blessing at best, or even simply prayer, even when it is difficult or there’s disagreement, is my own hope for growing a culture of reconciliation. (Even when there’s been irreconcilable differences!)

      “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Rom. 12:18)

      Thanks for thinking aloud with me, Amanda. Blessings to you as you navigate these issues in your congregation.

  • Amanda

    Amen, Michelle!

  • A Friend

    We left the church we attended for 25 years to become Catholic. I told a small group of men that I belonged to of our intentions, and one friend mentioned that after being members for so long, and serving in leadership roles for many years, that there should be a “going away party”. I knew better, and explained that our leaving would not be seen as a “goldly” decision. A couple weeks later, we confided our decision to one of our pastors. We were told that it was like getting a divorce. He went on to explain that our younger children would walk away from God as a result of our decision. We felt immediately ostracized, and even though we spent a couple months to transition for the benefit of our children, the pastors of our church would not speak to us or even acknowledge our presence. Even at a memorial service of my sister-in-law, no pastor even spoke with is or offered their condolences. It was no surprise to us, because we had witnessed this occur with others who had left even on “good terms” and I recognized that becoming Catholic would be seen as a “falling away from Grace”. Thankfully, God never deserted us, and proved Himself faithful by supplying us with rich fellowship in a lay Catholic ministry as well as the friendships we have made in our new parish.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      I am so glad you and your family have experienced such renewal and joy after becoming Catholic. I am not surprised by the vile judgments pronounced over you by your former church. Sad to say, I would have been surprised if this group had behaved any differently, in fact! You did deserve a blessing, and I’m glad you’re receiving it in your new church home.

      Thanks for sharing your sad experience. As you know, you’re not alone in the kind of treatment you received from those former church leaders. It’s little consolation, I know – but as you discovered in a new way in the wake of that sad departure, God is a faithful friend, and loves us without condition. Blessings to you and your family.

  • Tim

    There is one of those extreme-covenant churches in our town. You actually sign a covenant there, and if you leave they shun you. The town is small enough that this can really hurt. We have a few friends who have come out of that church with horror stories.

    When it comes to covenant, though, I quesiontthe use of the word for the relationship between congregants and the congregation as a whole. Christ is in covenant with his people, individually and collectively. I don’t recall reading in the Bible that the people of God are in covenant with the church, though.

    As for where we are in church attendance, we recently left a church we’d been at for decades because (as you put it so well) we “disagree with the … direction of the church and believe it would be best to move on rather than stay.” Based on your Scripture link, I’m now going to start calling this “pulling a Barnabas.”


    • Pulling a Barnabas – I like it!

      You’re right, Tim. We are not in covenant with a church, or even the big “C” Church. We are in covenant with God. Never does he say, “Eye, you are in a covenant relationship with Hand.” He tells us we are to have equal concern for one another, whether we are in a place of visible or invisible service (1 Cor. 12:12-31). Scripture uses the language of mutuality and cooperation under the headship of Christ. We are members of one another. That’s language I can affirm wholeheartedly, whether I’m an “official” member of a congregation or not.