Earlier this year, I left my church. Not any church mind you, but the church at which I had spent the last 24 years, the church that served as a healing balm during the most difficult season of my life, and the church where I learned to lead from the sidelines as well as from the stage.
Two years earlier, I had sensed this day was coming. And I prayed that I would leave well.
During those two years, endings from my youth would often come to mind. With deep regret and sorrow, I remembered the times I had left jobs and relationships in rebellion or rage, dishonoring God and myself, and damaging others in the process.
I had never learned how to leave well.
I’m grateful that one of my closest friends, and the pastor of the church I ultimately went to, taught me how.
Why I Left My Church
But before I tell you more about how I left, let me first share with you what was going on inside of me.
A significant interior shift preceding my move began with a growing desire to impart to young, emerging leaders what God had been pouring into me for years. With it, a calling to mentor women who lead in nontraditional roles and ways, also surfaced.
As a professional coach and spiritual director, this had been the main focus of my work for a while now. I thrived in this environment, as did the women who came for help.
Concurrently, I felt a growing call to spiritual formation and the creative, contemplative lifestyle. I began to explore classic, but sometimes forgotten, Christian disciplines, such as silence and solitude, slowing and Sabbath, the prayer of examen and more.
Of course, in hindsight, I see how important and necessary this time was for many reasons. Primarily, it was a time of filling my inner reservoir with living water that others might later draw from it.
At the time, I didn’t see it. I just felt it was slowing me down, and I chafed at the restraint.
Finally, the moment to depart came two years later, when I learned that I church I had felt drawn to for years, was launching a campus the next town over.
It seemed like an ideal fit on so many levels—they were called to reach the very people I felt called to serve in this season; they were über creative; and although their theology was orthodox, the methods they used to minister were decidedly not. On the surface, it seemed like a perfect fit.
Intrigued, I contacted their Pastor of Coaching (What are the odds, right?), who put me in touch with the campus pastor for the new location. During our first meeting he made it clear that I would be warmly welcomed at the church . . . but not before talking with my current pastor.
It was the very thing I had wanted to do, but didn’t know how to do it well. And it was what I watched my friend do with humility and grace, as she and her husband moved across the country to plant a church.
Now, it was my turn.
I scheduled a meeting with my pastor on a snowy afternoon in December. Sitting in his office watching the snow fall gently outside his window, I felt blanketed by God’s love and as safe as a child being tucked in at night by his or her parent.
I admired my pastor tremendously, although I didn’t always agree with his perspective on certain issues. He was a man deeply dependent on God who, from what I could see, lived a life of prayer. I not only admired him, I had grown to love him after more than 24 years.
My pastor didn’t hesitate to ask me the hard questions. I love that about him. “Did you feel your gifts weren’t used here?” “What is going on in your home life?” “How is your marriage?”
We talked about dreams and legacy and the beauty of God-sized dreams. And I thanked him for leading well and told him what a healing place the church had been in such a significant time of my life.
As the snow fall grew heavier, we decided to tie up our time together with prayer, but not before he asked me to come back the following day for a time of prayer with his wife and a few other members of the staff. He wanted to “commission me and send me out” from their midst with a prayer and a blessing.
Can you believe it?
Tears of gratitude and thanksgiving fell, and I walked out affirmed and confident that I had not left my church. Rather, God had sent me out for His purposes and His glory.
There’s a big difference between leaving and being called out.
Lessons learned from this journey will carry me forward for years. As I reflected on what I learned through the process, I wanted to share it with you, because I believe there are people who need to hear this message.
- Wait on God’s timing. Although I knew for two years earlier, I was being led out; I remained prayerful, seeking God’s perfect timing. When the right time came, I moved quickly. Godly confidence was the fruit of years of prayer.
- Give honor to whom honor is due. My pastor had paid a price for his faithfulness to the gospel. He fought many spiritual battles and I could see the toll obedience to God had taken. I honored him and blessed him for his ministry in my life and his service for the kingdom.
- Check your heart motives. Are you leaving because you don’t like the worship music or the preaching, or are you leaving because God has called you out? Have you dealt with any impure heart issues, such as unforgiveness, a judgmental spirit, or bitterness before meeting with those in leadership?
- Practice the discipline of restraint. God often gives a vision that will unfold in the future. Use it as an opportunity to practice the discipline of restraint.
- Communicate clearly. Don’t just drop out of the life of your church with no explanation or communication with leadership. Not everyone needs to meet with the lead pastor, but you should meet with someone—a small group leader, the worship and creative arts pastor . . . whomever you serve under.
A lack of authenticity and uprightness in the way you handle your departure causes damage to the hearts and lives of others. Walk in love because He first loved you.
I learned that the decision to leave your church should never be taken lightly. It should also be made with prayer, counsel, and in God’s timing.
In my opinion, far too many people leave churches today for reasons that are nothing more than their own self-centeredness — they don’t like the music, or the preaching, or the band is too loud. Really?
We should go to church to contribute, not to consume. It’s time for the church in America to grow up.
I like a phrase coined by a colleague, “If you are called to stay, stay well. If you are called to leave, leave well.”
Whether you stay or go, do it all the glory of God.