Leaving A Church Community

The purpose of this post is help believers who were once part of a church, but have never reconnected with a Christian community.

Is it possible that they haven’t reconnected with a new Christian community because they haven’t fully left their former church?

My hope is that by sharing about my own pain I can help people go through the process of separation so they can reconnect with a new church community.

It is surprising how little has been said about the correct way to leave a church community.

When something is said about leaving church, it usually implies that there is something wrong with you if you were to leave your church.

I get this. I am a pastor.

We do not want people to leave our church, so we don’t like to talk about this, but I feel something needs to be said so that all of us can heal. 

It is not good for the man to be alone.” Genesis 3:18

We are not created for isolation. We are designed to be part of a community.

We see two communities in the Bible, the Family and the Church.

Both are precious to the Lord. One is not more important than the other, but they function much in the same way.

I am currently teaching a series on Boundaries at 3 Rivers Church.

A Boundary defines where you end and I begin.

Boundaries are developed when we begin to pull away from our parents to create our own identity.

In other words, you must determine who you aren’t, before you determine who you are.

Matthew 19:5 is a good boundary scripture.

This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.

An adult child goes through the following stages as he or she matures and creates healthy boundaries.

  1.  Family (Dependence)
  2.  Not Family (Independence)
  3.  New Family (Inter-Dependence)

The “Not family” or independant stage is incredibly painful for both the child and the parent as each create new boundaries. Typically the “Pulling away” stage is marked with a lot of tears, conflict and anger. This is normal, but you cannot stay in this angry stage.

God’s plan is that you become confident in who you are, find a confident spouse and create your own family. As a mature adult you are not going to create an exact copy of your family of origin. You will adopt some things that you learned from your parents and reject others.

If we follow the same boundary logic concerning our church community it may look something like this:

  1.  Church
  2.  Not Church
  3.  New Church

Leaving a church community is an incredibly painful experience for both members and pastors, not unlike when an adult child leaves home. Many times there is conflict, anger and tears, but that does not mean it is not the will of God.

One of the most painful parts of ministry is losing good people.

Pastors, we need to understand that we do not own the members of our church community. Jesus was the one who gave His life for the church and we need to trust He knows what’s best for everyone.

For the church members, separation is part of the maturing process – discovering who you are, which begins with discovering who you aren’t.

This is what happened to Paul and Barnabas in the book of Acts when the Holy Spirit said, “Separate unto me Barnabas and Saul for the special work I have called them to.”

Paul was called to create a new kind of church – different from the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch, but before he could do that there needed to be a separation.

The emotionally painful process of separation is necessary for maturity, but you cannot not stay there forever. It’s God’s plan that you pass through it and be a significant part of a new church community.

Debbie and I recently walked through one of the most painful experiences of our adult life as we left a church community that we had been part of for 17 years. As with most pastors our entire lives revolved around the church. The direction we had from the Lord was, “We needed to stop doing what we were doing to take the next step.”

We were both on staff, so we both resigned from our jobs, but the biggest loss was not the loss of income, it was the loss of community.

You actually go through a grieving process when you leave a church community that you have been a part of for years.

I Want To Define Four Parts of the Separation Process

For me, the first part of the separation process was this incredible feeling of loneliness.

The people that were still part of our former church community stopped talking to us. It’s not that they were bad people, they were just busy ministering to their community.

I remember Debbie crying one day, “I thought these people were my best friends, but it was all pretend. We did life together for a decade and then they just vanished.

Admittedly, this separation is painful, but it is a necessary step. It’s not unlike the adult child that never leaves home emotionally.  If he continues to get his community needs met from his family of origin, he will not create a new family.

The Lord wanted us to start a new church community that was different than our former church. If we continued to get our community needs met from our former church we might have left physically, but not emotionally. Eventually we may be able to be in relationship with some of our former friends, but the dynamics of the relationship with be different.  It will not be what it was before. It will be different – just like a father’s relationship with his kids changes after they leave home.    

The second phase of the separation process is anger.

I got really angry about how some things were done in my former church. There were mistakes made by the leadership and instead of admitting the mistakes and learning from them they doubled down. These were things that clearly hurt the church, but the leaders couldn’t seem to see what so obvious to everyone else.

The anger phase is a necessary phase for spiritual maturity. This is the part of defining who you aren’t, so you can discover who your are, but you cannot stay angry. You need to leverage your anger to do something proactive.

When Christians stay hurt or angry with the church they never leave the independent stage. (The truth is that if you are still angry at your former church, you haven’t fully left yet. )

Spiritually these Christians are functioning like a teenagers. They may even attend a new church, but they rarely accept responsibility, so they don’t mature. To be a fully functioning adult, you not only accept responsibility for yourself, but you look opportunities to help others grow.

The third step of the separation process is to define who you are and start looking for a new church community.  

What does a healthy church look like? What is important to you?

I hear a lot of people today saying something like this, “I still believe in God, I just don’t believe in church” or “I still believe in God I just don’t believe in organized religion.”

That is not good, if that is what you believe. You were created for community. If you are a Christian, you need to be part of a Christian community. There is no such thing as a perfect church and I can’t promise that you won’t be hurt again, but there are a lot of good churches with healthy boundaries. You just need to find one.

The fourth step of the separation process is work.

Notice what the Holy Spirit said in Acts 13, “Separate unto me Barnabas and Saul unto the work I have called them.”

What comes after the separation? – work.  You have two choices. You can either start a new church or you can find a new church community and help them. Either way it takes a lot of work.

Be proactive. Take responsibility for your own spiritual growth and and begin to help others.

The Apostle Paul said it like this, “He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does it own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy growing and full love.”

At 3 Rivers Church our mission statement is “A Place To Grow”

As Pastor, my responsibility is to create a loving, safe, environment that stimulates growth.

Your responsibility is to accept responsibility for your own growth and that begins by helping others. Some people will say. “Pastor Mark, I’m not a strong enough Christian to help others. I haven’t read the Bible in months.”  Then make a commitment to teach a Sunday School class and you will have to read the Bible.

My point is stop letting your past control your future.

Get involved in a church community today.

Mark Harper

7 thoughts on “Leaving A Church Community

  1. Sharon Jackson says:

    Mark, what a wonderful article
    Long time, no see Brother
    I am still using your curriculum all these years later!
    Sharon Jackson

    • Super Church says:

      Hey Sharon, good to hear from you. Glad to hear that you are still in your race. Have you tried our totally new Super Church 2.0 curriculum? (I know I am biased but It’s really good.) Let me know if you want to check it out and I will sow one set into your ministry

  2. Linda Fischer says:

    Mark, I’ve been getting your emails for quite awhile, but usually just skimming the headlines. (sorry! lol) But today, I went back to my work email and saw this article. I couldn’t believe it was there. Incredibly timed for me as I was transitioned” out of my job as children’s pastor and Sunday was my last day. Thank you for speaking some absolute words of truth to my heart. We are not moving out of the area, so I have been making all kinds of plans to stay connected with as many friends from the church as I can, but I see now where that may hinder building relationships at whatever church we join. (I’ll still hang onto some besties though.) Thanks so much for sharing this.

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