“Things were sideways for a while,” my friend admitted. She went on, “leaving my church was the hardest choice I’ve had to make. I’m still figuring it out.” I wish this was an unusual conversation, but it was actually the third one I had with friends or clients about leaving the church…in one day. Call it Covid, call it the next reformation, call it God’s reckoning. But you can’t turn to the left or right—politically or literally—and not find another high-profile Christian—or the Christian next door—who’s giving up on church.
As a pastor surrounded by other pastors, I admit that we can find ourselves a little defensive and more than a little sad about this mass exodus from church. And if you are one of those who’s considering leaving, let me say that we are also a little worried that when you leave the church, you’ll also leave the faith. We believe in the power of community, in the power of worshipping together, not just because it’s what we do but it’s because it’s what God has called us to do together.
But in the midst of it, I also know that it’s time for us to shoot straight with you about what do if things go sideways for you. How do you know it’s time to leave? Here’s three signposts that it’s time to walk away:
God’s Word is not the foundation.
There are a lot of churches who can being doing good things, putting out great content…and be completely misaligned with God’s Word. Having God’s Word as the foundation of the church is not just about the sermons. It’s about rhythms of life that represent a biblical foundation in all things, from the way the staff treats one another to the stewardship of finances to lifestyle modeled by leadership. In one of the less-popular passages in scripture, there’s a time when Jesus explains that there will be people who claim to be doing good in His name, but are not driven by obedience to the Father but by their own motives. And his response? “Then I will tell them plainly: ‘I never knew you.’” (Matthew 7:23) When a church stops (or never starts) making a relationship with God the main focus of the work, it might be time to step away.
You see a pattern of unsafe leadership.
There are three characteristics needed in order for a person to be capable of healthy leadership: honesty, empathy and repentance. An honest leader is able to admit their faults and engage with their own weakness. An empathetic leader is able to see things from another person’s perspective and enter into their experience with compassion. A repentant leader is able to admit when they’ve gone wrong, and actually show action toward a different direction. If you begin to notice a pattern of powerful leaders in your church who seem (or are portrayed) as above it all—if you notice a pattern in your pastor of skirting honesty or never being wrong or becoming isolated in his/her leadership, you may begin to notice a pattern that, over time, will derail the beauty and integrity of the church. Sometimes the only way to know if leadership is unsafe is in what happens when you approach a leader with a concern. Are they honest? Are they empathetic? Can they enter in with repentance and humility? Your church may have the greatest children’s programming or the coolest worship sets or the greatest mission, but if leadership is unsafe, run, do not walk, away from the congregation. But please don’t nurse a grievance that you do not communicate. Pastors are not perfect. If you are brave enough to reach out to your main leader or pastor, and they are willing to engage with you, they are showing a humility that points toward good leadership, not away. Your church won’t be the perfect place for you—it’s not heaven. But leaders who are willing to listen, to engage, to empathize even when they don’t agree with you are safe leaders.
You’re secretly (or not secretly) becoming divisive.
Your church may be built on a foundation of God’s Word, and your leaders may be safe, but perhaps, over time, you’ve begun distant in your community. Perhaps you don’t like how your church is handling race, or Covid, or injustice, or the LBGTQ-IA community. Maybe your season of life has shifted, and you are resentful about the direction of the church.
As a pastor, what I want you to know is that most of us get it. We get that seasons of life shift, and it might be time for you to align to a different church. But what’s excruciatingly painful for pastors and leaders is when they know there’s division within the body but you won’t own up to it. It’s painful when they see someone with a powerful presence cast doubt on the vision or direction of the church—or even worse, on the leaders—because it’s not the direction they would choose. There’s a huge difference between losing a biblical foundation or being around unsafe leadership—and just not preferring the direction the church is headed. In fact, when I meet with people who are feeling restless in their churches, my first question is “has God released you from this community?” My second question is “have you met with your pastor or leader?” You may end up leaving the church, but don’t leave without a conversation.
There are times when God calls us out of congregations, but He’s never calling you out of the church. The church is His body, his chosen vessel for expressing his glory and bringing the good news of the Kingdom to our broken and hurting world. But you can leave a church with destruction in your wake—or you can leave a church with your blessing. If there’s not an egregious breach of power or morality, it’s OK to choose to leave with gratitude, trusting God to work through that church and to step you toward your next community of faith.