grief exponential

grief exponential August 4, 2011

boxed in or boxed out

When someone leaves a church for whatever reason… they finally decide it’s no longer for them; asked or pressured to leave; lose much of the church due to something like a split; the churches ceases to exist; they move to another area and can’t find another church to settle in; etc… they will often experience grief.

But the grief is on two levels:

  1. The first level is grieving the loss of the church. Especially if church has been a huge part of their lives for years. Church often permeated much of their lives, so when they leave it, it leaves a huge hole. I compare it to a senior who retires from work. The grief, the trauma that many retirees feel is acute… sometimes so acute that many rapidly decline in their health, get depressed and even die. Even though they might be happy to not have to work, work was such a huge part of their lives that they can’t make the adjustment. It’s like that for many who leave a or the church.
  2. The second level of grief is the loss of all the relationships. The church isn’t just the organization, but a conglomerate of countless networks of relationships, some of them intimate. Suddenly, all these relationships vaporize. I compare this to someone losing their whole village. The church provided a kind of gathering place, so that they’ve lost the one guaranteed means of gaining, nurturing and maintaining relationships. It’s all gone all at once. Eradicated. Sure, some of it was their own doing, but the grief cannot be dismissed just because of this.

It’s critical that you not deny yourself this grief or underestimate its effects. The trauma such people experience is often serious.

I know what I’m talking about. I’ve experienced this grief more than once. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever really get over it. The effects of grief linger still.

Do you know what I mean?

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  • Anita

    WOW. I know EXACTLY what you mean. “Vaporize” — precisely what happened to many relationships that I thought were very close UNTIL I left their church. Thanks, David.

  • I know exactly what you mean, because we’ve been through it more than once ourselves. One time, the pastor just pulled the plug on our church plan with no real notice (“Next week, we’ll have a potluck… we’re done.”), another time we left because of the out of the box issues and feeling like the Lord was saying “it is time to go”.

    There’s definitely a grieving process, although we were intentional about trying not to burn bridges. We still have “relationships” with a number of people from each of those churches that we left.

  • Jeannie

    Oh boy! Do I relate. I left a church ten years ago that is still having an impact on my life. The trauma was horrendous. Even though I believe leaving it was the right thing, it was so difficult.

    I have finally found another church that I am cautiously a part of. They don’t make me feel boxed in and I am free to have my own opinions and ask my own questions…however, I still greive the tight knit “family” that was at the other place.

  • Pat Pope

    I understand what you mean, David, but the kind of grief I’m experiencing is over rejection when I all I wanted to do was work for advancing the Kingdom. Unfortunately, there were those who had an ownership mentality of the church and they decide who gets to sit at the table and participate. Sad, really and it angers me that they are left in power year after year virtually unchecked.

  • I do. We just announced last month we’re leaving our church home of 10 years.

  • Sandy

    Yes David, unfortunately I am too acquainted with grief!

  • Tara


    I got so angry because I had to leave a church I once loved for our own safety. Then people label you bitter and tell you you are obviously spiritually immature. ARGH!!!!

  • Eddy Hooper

    The first thing I thought of when I saw your cartoon is the song from Twila Paris with the lyrics:


    It’s hard to feel like you are wanted when you are relegated to the outside due to conflicting viewpoints and a church out of touch with its patrons.

  • Yes!!

  • Elderyl

    I understand EXACTLY what you mean. I left officially nearly a year ago, unofficially several months before that. I love my new church, but there are still residual affects from the old one. It is like PTSD sometimes. I hear a certain phrase and get anxious or am nervous about doing something in the new place. People in the new place are puzzled because they haven’t been through it. I love my new church family but I grieve the weekly (or more often )connections to the old one. I still live in the same town and run into the folks from the old church. They grieve, too. They also are trying to stick it out in an unhealthy place. I spent an hour the other night, while at an event with my kid, listening to an elderly widow pour out her heart about how lonely she is in that place. The people we left feel rejected as well. I haven’t told most of them why we left. People don’t want to hear that their pastor isn’t what he seems and tells people to leave and isn’t interested in ministry outside of the walls of the church or those who cannot financially support it. I’ve come to understand that that particular unhealthy church is made up of many great people who get dysfunctional when they come together in old church family patterns. But, I still miss them.

  • Jeff Sjolander

    Excellent point David.

    It’s too bad that people tend to underestimate this effect. Some people never recover from exactly this trauma, and it doesn’t have to be a brainwashing cult like mine was to be terribly and unjustly hurt by such an experience.

  • I understand this! Although we stayed at our church, some of my very best friends left. The relationship has never been the same since. I never thought of it as going through a grieving process but you are so right!I still find myself grieving the loss and wishing these friends and I still had that connection! Thank you for sharing this post!

  • Sarah

    Yes I do David.

  • ttm

    Sadly, I do know what you mean. Happily, for me, not every curve on the path away from institutional church has been like walking barefoot on crushed glass. I’m careful to remind myself every now and then how wonderful it is to glimpse the world from a different place and how freeing to soak in the wonder of God without the noisy static of “church.” Those grateful reflections seem to temper the times I replay the “You suck, heretic!” tapes in my head and have to restrain myself from jumping off the nearest bridge. (Perhaps Post Church Stress Disorder has caused me to become bipolar…) ;^)

  • Do I ever!!!

  • That is exactly how I felt after I got divorced…except the church left me, not me leaving it. Somehow I was a leper because I decided to leave an emotionally abusive situation. Leaving cost me…credentials for ministry, support base, and friends. I had very close friends and co-workers stop talking to me. They all believed that I was wrong because that is what the denomination traditionally taught. (I was supposed to “be a man” and stand up to my emotionally abusive wife, and somehow force her into submission, you see.)

    Between my marriage and the church experience, I DID get PTSD. While I still seriously believe in the truth of scripture, I have to fight sometimes being very bitter toward the man made institutions of religion.

  • andrée (the other francofun…)

    Yep ….

  • Yeah, when a pastor left and our friendship vaporized. This happened twice. But leaving the church was good for me. And since they didn’t come looking for me, evidently for them too.

  • sarahmorgan

    I certainly know what you mean…..after 30 years of moving around the country and participating in various churches that were glad to have me be part of their work & ministries (as a musician), I find myself now living in a small, very isolated, undereducated and underexperienced town, where I’ve been rejected by more than one church on the basis that I know too much (I apparently make everyone else feel stupid) and have too much experience (i.e., I make everyone else feel inadequate). It would be easy to ignore these reactions if they didn’t produce such destructive results — I’ve learned the hard way how unChristian the “Christians” here will act when they feel their status/image/power is threatened. I have finally come to grips with the fact that church work will not be a significant part of my life in this location — a profoundly discouraging conclusion, because there’s so little else to do in this town, and I cannot move away any time soon — but not before going through a prolonged (and continuing) grieving process for the loss of something I loved that had been a part of my life for so long.

  • Still grieving. It’s sad that a lot of relationships in church turn out to be “ministry based” – i.e., without the structures of ministry, there really isn’t much of a meaningful relationship. We’re loyal to our institutions instead of to each other; loyal to the pastor instead of to Christ.

    In my case, the ones that used to be “family” treat us like enemies. We tried to stay friends but they’re busy “doing Kingdom work” and we’re no longer in their list of priorities. They felt betrayed so they get back at us by rejecting us.

    “Church” is supposed to mean all followers of Christ regardless of congregation. But we compartmentalize. Makes me think of that magic trick where a magician saws a lady, mixes up the boxes and puts her back together. Our institutionalized thinking cut up the Bride of Christ, put her into several boxes and left her that way. And we wonder why no one’s clapping. Sick, right?

  • Connie

    Hey there David.

    I do know what you mean. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it all the way. My life is a lot emptier now because I cultivated a lot of relationships and activities for years and years and now, none that exists in my life. I thought I was ‘building God’s kingdom’, and doing his will.

    Now, because the church was my family (my natural family isn’t in my life because of dysfunction), and the church isn’t a part of my life, I feel like I’ve wasted years and years. The “church” stole so much from my life with its claims and assertions. I believed all of it and was as devoted as I could be.

    I don’t like any of that, but I’m moving onward.

    And yes, I get you, and I know what you mean. It’s so incredibly sad.

  • Pat Pope

    I’ve been thinking about this topic some more and you know, people are really weird. I have only a couple of people from the church that I left that still talk to me through Facebook or in person. In fact, I’m meeting one for dinner next week. The rest are silent. Knowing the church as I do, some people just don’t know what to say. It’s like when friends divorce, people tend to act awkward and often just stop speaking to one of the parties out of awkwardness. But my goodness, they’re still a human being! Whether a divorcee or church attender, don’t they (we) warrant being spoken to? Just a simple “hi, how are you”. But I guess in one sense people are afraid the conversation will go to “what happened” and just want to avoid getting involved. However, I never initiate conversation about what happened. When people have reached out to me, I’ve answered their questions, but NEVER initiated a conversation about why I left. I think in another way it shows how superficial some of our relationships in the church can be. Once a person leaves, it’s as if we have nothing else to talk about.

  • yes – I know that path too. I grew away from the church as I found more and more it asked things of me that conflicted with my conscience. I broke all contact because I couldn’t face the grief I knew my change of path would cause those whom I had loved. Night after night I woke from dreams of being on the outside literally sobbing my heart out.

    I gave myself space and time and slowly found my way to a new place and home in druidry. The path is tough. I know I did the right thing for me.

  • Elthuin

    We were disfellowshipped by email by our pastor of 16 years. My children lost their friends,people that declared that they were brothers and sisters to us crossed the road rather than speak to us,we lost everything…I saw that as the people of God and the apostle to W…… as he called himself had rejected us it seemed logical that God had also. I cannot describe the depths of despair I endured watching my family so hurt by those who declared love for us.8 years on and the pain still lives on and my faith is non existent!The church has grown and the pastor travels all over the world preaching and being feted by everyone.He is now high up in the G12 organisation doing very well thank you!! He has left a trail of hurt people who also left or were also asked to leave.

  • LoveGracePeace

    I became a Christian at age 50, 12 years ago. While reading the entries in this blog, I recall the reasons why I rejected church for most of my life–the standard reasons: hypocrisy, false authority, sniping, rigidity, self-righteousness to name a few.

    When I became a Christian, I was eager to dispel the observations of my pre-Christian experiences. Sadly, I cannot do that. The reasons I rejected Christianity–Christians–are as plain to me now as when I was a non-believer. And the snapshot of what that looks like is right there in the Bible: today’s church is a Pharisaical manifestation of human intention.

    I have told people in the churches I have attended that I am glad I was not raised a Christian. Not a great bonding statement. But the reaction to it reveals an insight for which I search. The reaction of my FORMER pastor was classic: Oh, nothing can replace my Christian upbringing. My response: Christ plus brainwashing is still brainwashing. Christ is enough.

    That pastor does not see that he is naked. That goes for the great majority of pastors out there.
    I pray all those hurt by churches will see that they got attached to a toxin, not to Christ. And you DO NOT need to be in a church to live a Christian life. All you need is Christ.

  • Elderyl

    A year later, I’m becoming the”nakedelder” for those in my old church. Not sure it’s what i want to be. The grief ‘s nearly gone

    now, swallowed by gratitude for being in a healthy church.

  • Thanks for sharing Elderyl. I’m happy for you.