Saturday, February 1, 2014

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

There always have been, and always will be opinions on how, why, when and indeed, if, a person should ever choose to leave their church. In the last few weeks there have been some good articles floating around the internets; first there was Five Reasons Why You Should NOT leave your church, which was closely followed up by Five Reasons you SHOULD Leave Your Church.  Good times, and no lack of opinions on those interwebs, right?

What happens when you have already left your church and you are stuck in that awful middle place? It's likely if you've left a church, you are in some way hurting.  It's probable, if you were at all connected to the other people in your church, that your leaving might have caused pain. I wouldn't want to for a second pretend to speak for everyone who has ever left a church, but I just thought maybe, it would be helpful or at the very least, cathartic, to give insight into our story. We left our church a few months ago, and it still hurts.

Leaving a church is never as easy as it looks from the outside.  If I have learned anything so far from our experience it's  that over-simplifying and assigning motives to someone else's story, especially without talking to them personally, is a mistake. Life is rarely tidy enough to fit into a neat little box of obvious reasons. Rachel Held Evans said the other day :Leaving a church can be incredibly painful and difficult. How about we not rush to judgment about why some people make that decision?

To give a little context, we were not just "attending" our church.  We were involved, invested and trying in every way to be a positive part of the congregation there. We thought for much of the four and a half years we attended there that we were on the same page.  The other point that I want to make very clear is we were in no way abused by the leadership, or anyone else from the church.  There is a difference in being hurt BY the church and just hurting because you wish things were different and leaving is difficult.  We are in the latter category - so when people ask if we've been hurt by the church the answer is always an emphatic- no. Technically, we are hurting, but not because we've been intentionally hurt.

We left, oddly enough, because we loved our church and wanted to release it to fulfill God's purpose and calling for the people that call that church home. I believe that different churches have different callings and purposes in God's kingdom. They should not all look that same. However, it's a tricky thing to talk about all of that when you are leaving without it sounding like you are talking in terms of better or worse, so we've not talked about the details at all, really. In the end, we chose to leave, and my purpose with this post isn't to play the sympathy card, I'm hoping for understanding.  If anything else this experience will help me be more gracious to others when they leave, and that's the good thing about pain. It teaches us better than just about anything else.

Wouldn't it be great if I could come up with Five Things to Know About People Who Leave Churches, (maybe that will come later!) but this whole concept doesn't seem to fit neatly into talking points - it's all about all the feelings and so the best thing I've come up with so far is an analogy:

Leaving a church that you loved and were involved in feels a lot like breaking up with a serious boyfriend:  

*My Mom and I have been writing back and forth, she's my favourite counselor on call, and what follows is a mish mash of our conversations and my thoughts.

Getting involved in a church is like seeking to find the right partner. There's attraction, infatuation (this church is SO great!), seeming perfection (why aren't ALL churches like MY church!) , deepening of involvement and commitment (volunteering, becoming involved in leadership, praying for, caring about the people you are serving) ...which is where the hazards in the relationship start to expose themselves. (hey, wait a second, do you mean what I think you mean?)  Then if you can't get the reaction you want from your boyfriend, or he has no desire to meet your needs, or doesn't seem to care if you are unhappy (recognizing that you could be causing these same feelings in him as well) make a decision on whether the relationship is worth giving yourself too. (Praying things would change, praying you would change, praying that all of this doesn't mean what you think it means, cause man, you are NOT a church leaver...)

Leaving doesn't make you happy (actually it makes you sadder than you thought you could ever be). You wanted him to be the right guy. You invested yourself and you wanted a return on that investment... a marriage, children, a white picket fence (a place to serve, a purpose in building the kingdom, people to share the life with)...the works.

Now here you sit, alone and heartbroken over what you have lost and how all your dreams are shattered. You are going through buckets of ice cream and cases of Kleenex (yes, and yes) and he has already got a new girlfriend. It's not fun, but it's not new either. (But it sure stinks) 

The analogy also extends to the awkwardness that leaving a church inflicts on the relationships you have with people that are still at the church. It's like the siblings and family members that are left scratching their heads and what appears to be a sudden break-up, and they don't understand why you could have broken things off, when after all, you were such a cute couple and looked so good together.  

Anyone that's broken off a serious relationship will tell you that how things look, and how things are, aren't always the same.  Sometimes, two really great people break up and go their seperate ways when neither one has done anything sinful.  I'm hoping that's true - I'm hoping we're both really great people, and it's just sad for me, that it didn't work out like I hoped it could.  I think that's the hardest thing to explain to others.

I'm sure reasons for leaving a church are as varied as the people who make those decisions.  For us, leaving our church was done because of our great love for the church.  We recognized that to stay would leave one of us in the relationship always miserable.  We did what right now feels like the harder thing, for us. I'm hoping against hope that one day, it won't feel so fresh and raw, and we will find a place to connect, serve, and start over again.

Don't even get me started on how finding a new church is like going on a BLIND DATE.  I'm just not ready to go there yet.

Can you relate? Is this what leaving a church felt/feels like for you?


  1. Good Morning...a very good read this morning and we are going through the book "Stop Going to Church" which is also very good. We seem to be in the same spot when we come back from we stay, do we leave, does anyone care we might leave. We are hesitant about speaking to anyone about it because Christians don't always know the word "confidential". So we will pray for you and please if God brings our name to you, pray for us so we know what to do when we return the end of May. Blessings...Judy

  2. So much of the church (both leadership and the laity) is *not* driven by the Spirit, but by the flesh. It frightens me to wonder how much. And so a lot of the movement that you see when people switch churches is merely the fat cells in the body of Christ undergoing a geographic relocation. That consumer mentality about the church: we've all seen it, all decried it.

    But when those who ARE listening to God's voice are called to move on, those that stay have to trust that those who leave are doing so under God's will. For the church being left behind, it feels like rejection ("Why are you leaving us? What's wrong with us?"); for those who are leaving, there can be a massive sense of uncertainty. And the upheaval can be considerable, with friends and spouses' friends and your children's friends all being thrown into flux.

    God often has a mission for us that we cannot see clearly, and so if God asks you to leave a church because your work there is done, you leave in faith, and move on in faith. And then pray: "My will, my desires, my gifts (which you gave me!), my time -- they are all Yours." And for a time God may have you doing nothing in particular in any church. There's nothing wrong with waiting for orders from on high.

    1. Hi Wes, Thanks for commenting.

      I agree with your last two paragraphs for the most part, but I think part of the problem of hurt starts with the attitude you seem to be sharing in your first paragraph.

      We do it in all sorts of areas of relationships. We assume the best in our motives (I'm listening to God) and the worst in others (They are just fat cells moving around and are not listening to God). We talk like this all the time, and then when someone feels it is time to move on, there's hurt before they begin because we've told them what we think of people who leave. I think that's a place where we can begin to change our language to be more gracious. We will never know all the details of someone else's story, so I should assume the best of their intentions/God's speaking to them.

      Your last sentence reminds me of a study I did years ago on Milton's poem -"On His blindess" where he talks about waiting to hear from God is "doing" just as much as active work for God! Thanks for joining the conversation!


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