One of the more difficult things in life, I think, is learning when to stick something out and learning when to walk away from something. Sometimes the choice is obvious. Sometimes it is not. When the decision is about whether or not leave a local church the decision can be even more difficult.
The local church is not an impersonal entity, like a stock that you can buy or sell shares of based on what you think the market will do. It is instead a personal entity, sometimes very personal. You have relationships with the people who attend, sometimes longstanding relationships. You know them and they know you (hopefully). These relationships can help keep us in a local church when we want to leave. Sometimes that is a good thing, but other times it is a bad thing.
So with that in mind, in this post I want to discuss when and/or why you should leave a particular local church and go somewhere else. Notice the last part of that sentence. This is not a leaving the Christian faith post. This is a leaving an unhealthy local church for another healthy local church post. What I am discussing is not what do if you are having a crisis of faith. What I am discussing here is when something goes wrong in a church you are currently attending. Your faith is fine. Your relationship with your church not so much.
The “you” problem: wherever you go, there you are
Before you decide to leave though make sure that you take care of the “you” problem. That is, do an assessment of yourself and your current attitudes, feelings, mental state, etc. and make sure that you are not the problem. For instance, are you depressed? Burnt out? Anxious? Angry? All of these will negatively color your perception of a church. If you don’t address them and take care of them it won’t matter where you go because you won’t like any church in such a compromised state.
Also take stock of the attitudes that you are bringing into church. For instance, do you resent the leadership for some reason? Did they say or do something that angered you? Did they fail to do something you think they should have done? Did you bring it up to them? Do you know why this made you angry? Whatever emotion it is I think you are better off first exploring that emotion and understanding what is causing it. This might mean talking to a therapist or counselor, but a trusted friend could also be helpful. Until you understand why you feel the way you do when walking into church you won’t be able to correct your own attitude and heal your wounds, nor will you be able to mend the relationships that were damaged. You are also setting yourself up to repeat the same scenario in your new church if you don’t explore and deal with these negative attitudes.
Finally, to close out this discussion of the “you” problem, if you’re just generally feeling discontent have you discussed and explored these reasons with someone knowledgeable (e.g. therapist, counselor, wise friend, etc)? Not knowing why you feel discontent sets you up for feeling discontent yet again in a new church.
Again, the point in me saying all this is to make sure that you take care of the “you” problem before you leave, not to convince you to stay in a particular church. This will entail involving someone else in your thoughts and feelings. If there is one thing that I think we are all good at it is deceiving ourselves as to how things actually are and how we actually are. I think the perspective of a third party is essential to accurately understand these matters.
The growth problem: are people improving spiritually?
Another thing to consider, and this might help you identify whether or not there is a “you” problem, is if people are growing and improving spiritually. In a heathy church people will be growing and improving spiritually. If you are not growing spiritually, but other people are then there might a “you” problem. Emphasis on might. It could be you, but it might also be the church.
Some churches are just not a good environment for certain people to grow in. I’ll use myself as an example here. One of the main reasons why I decided to leave the revivalist-evangelical church “tradition” was that I recognized there was no longer any room for me to grow spiritually in that type of church. I was good with details and technical things (thanks in part to my gaming habit) which landed me a spot on the technical production team, but there wasn’t much beyond this that I could do in that particular tradition. I wanted to do all this nerdy-scholarly type stuff like learn Greek and Hebrew, study church history, study theology, study historical theology, and all sorts of stuff like that. However, the “tradition” itself didn’t really seem to value these things, nor did there seem to a place where I could even use such knowledge.
For me this type of knowledge isn’t just something that is nice to have that I can trot out to impress people with how smart I am. This knowledge is essential for my faith. If I don’t get this knowledge there is a pretty good chance that I am not a Christian because there would be too many issues and objections that would not have answers. So being in a church where these things weren’t valued and where there was really no outlet for me to use this knowledge was a pretty clear indication to me that I needed to be somewhere else.
Reasons to leave
Outside of the aforementioned “you” problem and growth problem there are four good reasons, I think, to leave a particular local church. There are probably more than four reasons, but I think these will cover most of the good reasons to leave. The first two are, I think, fairly obvious reasons to change churches, but there is a little bit that I think needs to be said about them. The second two are also a little obvious, I think, but there is much more that needs to be said about them.
First is physical relocation. Sometimes when you move it is obvious that you need to find a new church, other times not so much. When I moved from Florida to Dallas for seminary it was obvious that I needed to find a new church. There was no way I was going to fly back every weekend just to attend church. Aside from being expensive it would also subject my body to a tremendous amount of stress.
But what if I had moved only 30 or so miles away? Should I still find a new church? Well, I think that depends on how stressful it is for you to get there on Sunday morning. If it’s just yourself (and your spouse potentially) a 30 mile drive on Sunday morning might not be too stressful. However, if you also have to get kids ready in the morning a 30 mile drive might very well be too stressful. You want to arrive at church (ideally) relaxed and in a good mood, not stressed out from a hectic morning.
New ministry opportunity
Second is a new ministry opportunity. This could be an opportunity in another city or state or even country. Or it might even be at a different church in your current city. The main thing with this one, I think, is to make sure that whatever ministry opportunity you are pursuing is indeed what God is calling you to do. There are many things that you can accomplish with your own abilities under the guise of “ministry,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean that God ever called you to that ministry. Anyway, ministry discernment is a whole post or book in itself, so I’ll just leave this one at that.
Third is doctrinal issues. This one can be pretty tricky because disagreeing with a church and/or its leadership does not necessarily mean that you need to leave that church. The major points of the faith, like the Trinity and Christ are big issues that are worth leaving over. Other issues however, like the method of baptism (e.g. immersion vs sprinkling) are much less important and it would still be possible to attend a church and hold to a different position.
Also making doctrinal issues difficult to navigate is that it will require you to accurately understand what the views of your local church are. This will likely require you to spend some money on books and read them. I mean actually read them. Open them up and ready every single word on every page. A Google search and/or a quick gloss of a Wikipedia article is not sufficient for investigating the beliefs of a denomination or tradition. Even assuming that the article is accurate in the first place it probably will not contain enough depth to allow you to actually understand the issue it is discussing. In other words, it will give you a conclusion, not a perspective from which you can make your own conclusion.
If your church is part of a particular denomination you should be able to at least get started from the denomination’s website. If your church is independent they should have a detailed doctrinal statement that you can go through and ask questions about. If they don’t have this document and/or they don’t allow you to ask doctrinal questions, then that is a red flag for me. Asking doctrinal questions should be a perfectly allowable and safe thing to do in a church; if it isn’t then you should probably look elsewhere.
Fourth is abuse. The type of abuse I have in mind here is the type that comes from church leadership. To be sure, church members should not be doing these things either, but I think there are different responses you take in that situation, namely reporting them to church leadership and letting them take care of the situation before deciding to leave a particular church. If church leadership takes care of the problem, then great. If they don’t, then leave.
Abuse that comes from church leadership though is a bit trickier to deal with, at least in my experience. For starters, depending on the denomination, they can actually have a fair bit of protection from the upper levels of leadership in the denomination. This protection (probably) exists to protect them from false accusations, but in practice it can also protect them from true accusations as well. Then there is also the existence of a “good old boy network” 1 to consider as well. If they are part of this network you better believe that others in this network will protect them because that’s how good old boy networks operate.
I’m not saying any of this is ideal or right. I’m just saying that it does exist and it can make confronting church leadership about abuse suffered from another member of church leadership difficult. And when you are in such a situation the only recourse you are left with sometimes is just to leave.
Now, I suppose that abuse could take more than three forms, but for this post I will just mention three: verbal, physical, and sexual. Sexual abuse from church leadership is a situation where you should leave that church immediately and automatically. Don’t think about it. Don’t excuse it. Report the abuse to the proper authorities and leave that church and don’t go back. There is no situation where you should ever tolerate sexual abuse from a leader in a church.
Physical abuse from church leadership is also a situation, I think, where you immediately and automatically leave. Outside of self-defense, which is a perfectly acceptable situation to use physical force I think, there isn’t any reason for a church leader to use physical violence against a church member, or anyone else for that matter.
Verbal abuse, is, I think subjective to a certain extent. That is, what some outside observer might interpret as verbal abuse might not be perceived as abuse by the person receiving the comments. I say this because I have had people apologize to me for saying something to me that I wasn’t offended by. In fact, in some cases I was actually grateful for what they said because it exposed a misunderstanding in my thinking. A disagreement between two people does not necessarily mean verbal abuse is happening. I’ve had some very good and productive arguments with people. As long as the argument remains focused on the issue it is probably not abuse.
Sometimes verbal abuse can also be difficult to even identify because it can be subtle and/or take place over time. For me when I think of verbal abuse I think of a long tirade full of personal insults and degrading statements against someone. However, there are more subtle forms, like manipulation, which is meant to keep you under control that might not be easily recognized. Consider the all too common (unfortunately) scenario of a pastor having an affair with the church secretary. You are at the church offices for some reason and witness them in the act and the pastor says something like: “You’ll be harming the mission of God if you report this to anyone. I’m too important.” That statement is intended to control you so the pastor doesn’t get in trouble, and is in fact verbal abuse. You should report them.
Joining a church is, I think, a serious commitment that should not be taken lightly. If you consider a church to be your home church you should be committed to that church. You should not be hopping around from church to church year after year. However, when you join a church you do not take a blood oath to never leave (and if a church asks you to do this, don’t). Cases of abuse are good reasons to leave a church. Doctrinal disagreements are also good reasons to leave (or let others leave) a church. Sometimes leaving a church is necessitated by moving or a ministry opportunity. Don’t take leaving a church lightly, but also don’t get hung up thinking that you are forever bound to a church just because you became a member there.
A good old boy network is basically a loose association of people who use their power and influence to watch out for one another. It can be very similar to cronyism depending on the circumstances. ↩︎