Church Leader: What Happens To You When You Quit After Conflict?

Church Leader: What Happens To You When You Quit After Conflict? September 19, 2013

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. 

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  • Pat68

    When I left the last church I was in, I felt lower than low after being disrespected and undermined by congregants and fellow elders. I had swallowed and overlooked a lot in 12 years, but in the process, I was beat down. I felt worthless. It took me a year before I felt like I was healing and recovering. I was very angry at the people who treated me so poorly and the ones who poo-pooed the issues. But I was also angry at myself. The whole ordeal brought to the fore familial issues and things that I had internalized that kept me in a place of letting people disrespect me. I also felt like I had not been true to my race by sitting in a church where so many apparently had little exposure to people different than them and I was either not seen or I endured ignorance like being asked why my black friend and I looked alike or sitting through the showing of a xenophobic video during a sermon about Muslims. Over time, the Lord showed me how he too was rejected and could do no miracles among the people. He was utterly rejected and that’s when I felt I could identify with Him most and realized that I was not worthless. There will be people in this life who will make you feel that way, but it’s not true. Often, the issue is them. In some instances, and I think it’s true in my case, they are threatened and this is how they act out. Some will stop at nothing to protect their turf. I have since found my voice and I express myself and do not feel the need to justify myself for other people. I also realized that others will not know completely what you went through. Oh, they may know some of the details, but what they don’t know or can’t see is how you’re affected internally. All they see is what appears to be a strong person, but they have no idea what is going on inside of a person. In my case, I didn’t talk about what I was feeling, so when people want to brush aside your issues as something you just need to “get over”, they really are minimizing you and the effect that something had on you.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Pat, I used to feel a lot of anger at myself for staying in a bad situation for too long. Some time with a counselor helped put that anger in perspective. Leader types are often perceived as strong people, but as you noted, others don’t have much of an idea about what is going on inside of us.

      It sounds like you’ve allowed that painful stuff to translate into wisdom – and a ministry of encouragement to others (like me!)

      • Pat68

        Thanks, Michelle. Yes, I’ve come a long way in the 2.5 years since leaving that church.

  • Tim

    There’s a congregation in our town that shuns people who leave, whether they were former leaders or merely attenders. One thing those people find as they leave is that there are other congregations ready to welcome them and help them process the change they are going through. But this may be a factor of our town being fairly small and that shunning congregation being fairly well-known among the local evangelical set for their cult-like practices.

    • Michelle Van Loon

      It does help when other local churches (no doubt populated with former members of the dysfunctional church) understand that new members coming from that church arrive with baggage.

      • Tim

        Precisely, Michelle. We’ve gained a lot of experience with the people who left that church. Oddly, it continues to exist despite decades of this type of thing.

  • Rusty Lee

    people can seek healing and restoration with the support of this group;

    • Michelle Van Loon

      Thanks for passing on the link, Rusty Lee. It looks as though there’s some good resources on the site.

  • Sheila Helm McGowan

    “Leaving is a lot like a divorce, and your grieving process may go on for years. Yes, years”… this is sad but true. But, on the plus side ( at least from my perspective), my faith has been transformed and deepened in ways I never would have expected. God truly brings good out of very painful and ugly experiences.

  • Julie Zolnik

    Leadership is lonely in general, but especially lonely in a church environment where Satan is doing double duty to discourage and separate serving believers.