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How to Leave a Church (When You Know It’s Time)

An In Touch guide to better spiritual health

Michelle Van Loon and In Touch Ministries staff March 22, 2024

Should I stay or should I go? On any given Sunday, some of the people worshipping next to you in the pews might be asking this very question about your church. One of those people might even be you.

There are some obvious reasons why a person may leave a congregation, including a move to a new home or a change in family status, such as marriage or divorce. But in some circles, if other kinds of concerns led you toward the exit doors, you may have been branded a “church shopper” by leaders and the departure ascribed to your consumer habits, lack of commitment, or spiritual immaturity. 

Illustrations by Abbey Lossing

While it might be fun to shop for a new pair of shoes, few find the process of “church shopping” enjoyable. It’s awkward and disorienting to be the new person in the crowd when you’re looking for a church. As a result, some avoid that uneasiness by staying too long in an unhealthy congregation out of a sense of loyalty to the past, a hope for change, or the comfort of a network of familiar relationships.

Knowing how and when to leave a church home can be a painful and confusing experience. We’ve put together this guide to help you work through the process. And while leaving a church is never a decision that should be made lightly, always remember that it’s yours to make—prayerfully, with wise counsel, and with an eye toward deepening your relationship with God, the one who can and will be found no matter where you choose to be (Ps. 139:7-10).

Evaluating the Situation

Experts on church trends estimate that about 7% of us will leave our congregational home in any given year. Most, but not all, will choose to transfer from one community of faith to another.

Every person’s situation is different and every congregation unique, but there are a number of important reasons you might be considering leaving your church. Some common examples include:

  • Relational conflict—The goal in an interpersonal clash should be reconciliation. However, it is sometimes healthier for the opposing parties to put some distance into a ministry relationship, as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 15:36-41.

  • Doctrinal disagreement—You may have joined a church that held to a particular set of doctrinal convictions, but a change in leadership or shift in congregational culture may be leading that local body in a direction you can’t endorse.

  • Spiritual abuse—Shepherds who abuse their power do immeasurable harm to the people they’re pastoring. In Matthew 18:1-7, Jesus issues a stern warning to those who would perpetrate harm on the weak and vulnerable. The principle applies to all of those in a position of spiritual authority over others.

  • Family needs—Your church might not have a ministry for your special needs child or be able to accommodate a family member who speaks English as a second language, for example. And you may not feel called to take on the mental and physical challenges that come with creating a program to meet those needs. Other household factors may weigh into your decision as well—anything from trying to maintain the peace with an unbelieving spouse or children to the demands of work schedules or caring for an aging relative. Leaving to find a congregation that will support you is a reasonable option.

  • Lack of fruit—What is the effect of the church’s teaching on the other areas of your life? Are you being strengthened in your faith, your relationships, and your vocation, or is the church focusing on cultural and political issues that aren’t bearing the kind of fruit Jesus said will endure (John 15:16-17)?

Making the Decision

Should I stay or should I go? is a question that merits prayerful reflection, but it has a companion question that might be equally important if you are considering leaving your church: If I go, how should I leave? There are no simple answers, but some helpful principles can guide you as you seek to discern God’s heart on the matter.

Begin with prayer. In Psalm 139, David expressed trust in the God who made him and loved him perfectly. He ended the psalm with this prayer: “Search me, God, and know my heart; put me to the test and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there is any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (Ps. 139:23-24). Be willing to let the Holy Spirit interrogate your motives and reveal any issues you may need to resolve in order to make a wise decision.

Seek Wise Counsel. Another important part of the discernment process includes talking through your concerns, preferably with someone apart from your current church circle. This person may be a friend—or perhaps even a professional counselor, particularly if you’re concerned about possible spiritual abuse in your congregation. Sometimes simply talking to an outsider can help you gain perspective on your situation.

Here are questions to ask yourself—or someone you trust—as you work through your decision:

  1. Might my motives be selfish, or are they driven by a genuine desire to follow God?

  2. Have I played a role in the current situation that’s causing me to consider leaving?

  3. Have I done everything I could to make it possible for me to stay?

  4. Have I considered the impact my departure will have on others? Myself? My family?

  5. Am I making this decision in a holistic way, paying attention to both logic and my emotions, or is one of the two dominating my thinking?

  6. In this church, am I becoming the person Christ intends for me to be? How am I helping to advance the gospel?

  7. Is there anyone I should reconcile with before I leave?

  8. How should I say goodbye to those I am leaving? How can I let them know that I love and value them, regardless of my decision?

Write it out. In a similar vein, it may be helpful to write about your concerns—even if you’re not in the habit of journaling. This practice can guide your prayers and may reveal deeper questions you haven’t yet voiced about the current church. It may also clarify what to look for in a congregation and how you might best serve in a new church, should a decision be made to leave the present one.

Meditate. It can be helpful to use this time of discernment to clarify what you believe. Meditating on the words of a historic creed of the faith, such as the Apostles’ Creed, or immersing yourself in one of the gospels can reorient your soul to the things that matter most about following Jesus. It is easy to lose sight of Him when your church experience is marked by confusion, sadness, and conflict. 

Leave slowly. You may want to take the process in stages before deciding whether to make a permanent exit. Try stepping back from any ministry responsibilities you have. Consider whether some of your frustration with the present church may be a sign that you’re burned out from serving. Use the space that has opened up in your life as a time to rest, which will by definition help bring perspective. You might even use some Sundays to visit other churches and thereby gain a sense of what other options are available.

Taking the First Step

If you decide it is time to go, be prepared to communicate in some fashion to church leaders. Certain congregations have formal mechanisms in place for deactivating membership. If dealing with a toxic pastor or an intractable theological difference, you will want to weigh how much really needs to be said, as some unhealthy leaders may not respond to your decision in a supportive way.

Make it your goal not to respond in kind. If you’ve been hurt by the church, it is natural to process that pain with others who understand the situation. But use caution in talking about your former congregation, especially with those who may know some of people involved. That caution is an active way to be on your guard against bitterness (Heb. 12:15). For instance, pay attention to your physical reactions regarding those with whom you’ve had a conflict: Do you feel the fight-or-flight rush of an adrenaline response when you think about or encounter them? Can you make eye contact with them? The answers to those simple questions can be a helpful early warning system alert about what is happening in your soul, and you can respond calmly rather than react from a negative place.

Be prepared to process some emotions. Finally, recognize that you may experience grief. Some or all of your relationships with members of your former church will likely change, and the experience of leaving will change you. A day is coming when every tear will be wiped from our eyes (Rev. 21:1-4), and together we’ll be one whole, healed body. Until then, we navigate our way homeward in a broken world, but one that has space and grace enough for us to prayerfully choose the church homes that are right for us.

The decision to leave a church is never an easy one, particularly when it comes after a long period of relational or theological conflict. It may feel as though you’re carrying spiritual “baggage” you didn’t anticipate, but that’s okay. There’s no timetable for closure, so it’s fine to take things at your own pace. And while processing whatever emotions come your way, remember you’re not alone. Scripture tells us that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” and “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Ps. 34:18; Prov. 18:24). By taking the time to prayerfully work through these steps, you can lighten the load and—secure in God’s love—move forward with greater confidence toward your next congregational home.

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