I didn’t know leaving would be so hard. I couldn’t really imagine how it would feel to separate ourselves from the community that grew us. That building and those people were synonymous with home. And after 22 years of life in that place, leaving felt like leaving home.
For a number of reasons related to God’s calling on our lives and the places He wanted to grow us, leaving was the right decision. But with such sincere love for the community we said goodbye to, it was important to us that we finished well.
People leave their local church for good reasons and bad reasons. Whatever the catalyst is for stepping away, how you leave is just as important as why you left.
For those making the difficult transition out of their worship community and into another, remember the following as you begin saying goodbye.
Emotions are important, but they can be deceiving. They can impair our judgment and tempt us to speak words that are neither beneficial nor wise. Sitting your pastor down to pour out your wounds and then walk out the door, or moving around the community to spark small fires before turning your back on them is foolish and selfish. Don’t burn bridges on the way out. Instead, spend a lot of time saying thank you and leave graciously.
Honor the People Who Brought You Here
Those pastors who labored over sermons, visited you in the hospital, cleaned up the trash in the parking lot after everyone else left. The women who made meals when you needed help, the old ladies who told you they were praying for you (and you knew they meant it), the youth leaders who bought you coffee when you had braces and couldn’t drive yet—honor them.
It’s easy to step outside of the house you’ve been living in and start breaking it down with subtle (or blunt) critiques. It’s easy to air the dirty laundry once you no longer call it home. Don’t trash talk the church that you left. Choose your words carefully, remembering that they are as much the Bride as that new congregation you love so much. Speak kindly and lovingly. Always.
Don’t Assume You Know More Than Those Who Stayed
When we sense God calling us in a new direction, it’s not hard to look over our shoulders and believe that we have “outgrown” our past. It’s not a stretch to believe we have somehow gained insight others missed. Remember that whatever is leading you away has to do with you. Keep it about you and the places God is calling you to. Don’t use it to pass judgment on the people who are called to stay.
It may not be the right community for you anymore, but it probably is the right community for a lot of other people. When we start drafting members to the sanctuary across town, we are no longer showing respect for the church we came from or the Body of Christ as a whole. The Church is made up of local congregations spread across the globe. To recruit from one to another is competitive and shows a lack of perspective for the larger picture of the Kingdom.
Take Your Time
The temptation in a transition like this is to jump to the next thing and dive in head first. Give yourself space to pray, listen and visit services in your area without assuming you know what’s next.
And when you think you have found a place you’re ready to call home, take time to get to know the community. Rather than showing up on the first day with a list of suggestions and 10 ways you can help, just introduce yourself. Develop a better sense of their culture before volunteering to overhaul the worship team or asking to teach at the next marriage conference. Get to know them and let them get to know you.
Don’t Make it a Habit
It’s reasonable to expect that at some point in our adult lives, we may find ourselves navigating a move to a different church community. But I would suggest it is less likely that God will “call” us into a new community every two years. Churches are full of broken people and will never be perfect; we each contribute to those imperfections just as much as the next person.
Prayerfully consider where you will plant yourself and then grow down. Develop deep roots that become stronger in difficult seasons and that can withstand disappointments or conflict. Jumping from church to church every few years says more about us than it does about the churches we are in. Plant yourself and commit to rolling up your sleeves to work through the mess.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is perhaps best known for the picture he paints of what it means to love each other. Interestingly, Paul had a difficult relationship with the church in Corinth—to the extent that he stayed away at one point in order to not create more frustration and pain for them.
Knowing this and reflecting on his charge in 1 Corinthians 13, we gain fresh perspective on how to love the communities we have left. Let us love them in a way that is patient, kind and not self-seeking. Let us love them in a way that is not boastful, prideful or dishonoring. Let us love them in a way that keeps no record of wrongs. Let us love them in a way that protects them, trusts them, hopes for their future and perseveres against conflict. Let that be the way we love them, even after saying goodbye.