When I read sad posts like this one from a former church leader who slowly awoke to the fact that something was terribly wrong at the top level of his organization, tried to reform it, and ended up leaving the congregation, I feel for the author. Been there. Twice. In both cases, we ended up leaving the congregation. When I think of the years my husband and I devoted to meetings, prayer, discussion, meetings, letters, more meetings, phone calls, and emotionally-draining and time-sucking drama leading to the decision to leave, here are seven things I wish someone had told me about what life would be like after the big exit:
(1) Your household will become quieter than it has been for a long time. You’ve been focused on dealing with the conflict for months or years. Then *poof!* – it’s over. Oh, you may get a round of phone calls, visits or email inquiries from people at your former church trying to figure out what really happened or share their frustrations with you, but eventually, the phone calls and emails will truckle to a halt.
(2) You and your family may become a subject for gossip, speculation about your spiritual lives, or shunning. Depending on how toxic the situation was at your church, some of the people who worked with you the most closely at church will be responsible for the gossip. In some cases, they’ll do so out of hurt that you left. In other cases, they’ll do so to scapegoat you, protect themselves, and guarantee that the sheep in their fold stick close to them without asking too may questions.
(3) You will feel a sense of relief. After you spent who knows how long trying A, B, C, D, E…Z to see if your relationship with other church leader(s) could be saved, you have now exhausted all possible options. It’s over.
(4) You will feel a sense of deep sorrow. If you were in leadership, you were heavily invested in what happened in the church. You supported the place with your time, talents, and gifts and received all the emotional perks of being in the inner circle. Leaving is a lot like a divorce, and your grieving process may go on for years. Yes, years.
(5) After the active grief fades, you will be stunned to find out how few true friends from your former church you have. And at least a couple of them will surprise you. You never would have imagined that these people would be the ones who would choose to stick with you. And you never would have imagined that others in whom you invested so much time and love would become little more than your former religious coworkers.
(6) You will come to recognize that your participation in church leadership was perceived as an endorsement by most of the congregation as long as you were in your role. Most people won’t know about the intensity of the behind-the-scenes political and spiritual warfare taking place. They believed you were a happy team player for much longer than you probably ever were.
(7) You will never be the same. You will have lost some innocence. You won’t trust quite as readily. Your faith may undergo some changes. All can make you a wiser and more gracious person. Or a bitter one.
What would you add to this list? If you’ve been through something like this, what did you discover about God? About yourself?
Note: I’ve written here about what you as an innocent bystander/church member might want to consider about whether to stay or split if your congregation has been rocked by a scandal.