Anyhow, we talked about a lot of things and at some point before we were finished, he turned to me and said, "My wife and I have really been struggling about an important decision we feel we need to make and I'm wondering if you can give me some advice. What are good reasons for leaving a church?"
Interestingly enough, he had tweeted something very similar recently and it had been kind of rolling around in the back of my mind. I had fully intended to ask him about it before our conversation was over, but he beat me to the punch.
As a pastor, of course, this is the kind of question I hate. No pastor wants anyone, ever to leave their church...well maybe certain special individuals, but...I digress. For the most part we're just not wired that way.
And now, faced with the question in person, you would think that I would struggle with how to answer. But if there was ever a moment that that the Holy Spirit gave me words to say, it was in this moment. Almost naturally and off the cuff I responded with a 3-point answer (I know...so very stereotypically pastoral of me).
I said, "Maybe you shouldn't be asking about good reasons for leaving a church, but instead you should be asking yourself 'what are bad reasons for staying?' And I continued with the next three thoughts (these are for mature fully devoted Christ followers only by the way, not for church hopping consumers):
- A sense of obligation...
To stay in a church community strictly out of a sense of obligation is a bad reason for staying. If you are feeling that God has a greater calling on your life and you don't have the kind of opportunity to fulfill that opportunity in your current situation (because of disagreement with or inability to buy into the stated vision), simply hanging on because as a leader, you feel obligated is not a good reason. The other danger in this is staying because you somehow feel that if you go, everything will fall apart. It's hard to believe but none of us are truly indispensable.
I know...this was a shock for me too!
- Comfort...Again, if you are sensing God calling you to something new and more challenging, to simply stay in your current situation because it is comfortable and familiar is a cop out. We get to a point in our lives when everything seems to be working well. We like that we can predict what happens next. We feel that everything is so familiar and comfortable that we don't need to worry about anything unexpected or out of the ordinary. We like that everyone knows us and looks up to us as a leader and we don't want to jeopardize that sense of security.
But Jesus talked about taking up a cross...about denying ourselves to follow. This doesn't sound comfortable to me.
Sometimes we hesitate to transition because we have made so many good friends in our church and we don't want to leave them behind. We need to understand that transitioning to a different church community doesn't need to affect the relationships we currently have. 'Friends are friends forever if the Lord's the Lord of them'. Isn't that what the old Michael W. Smith song says? I believe that relationship transcends context. With all of the social media available to us today, we have even more opportunity to connect - even over thousands of miles - and keep relationships flourishing. And our true friends won't judge us or hold it against us when we do something for the right reasons and for the greater good.
He proceeded to tell me that this past weekend he had sat down and just started writing down what he considered to be the reasons for staying where he was. He wrote that he is in leadership and because he is leader he feels kind of obligated to stay. People look up to him. They expect him to be there, to be committed, and to hold things together. He even said that he contemplated the fact that if he left, everything might fall apart...weird.
Then he wrote that another reason to stay was because the situation is so comfortable...easy. He has been attending for so long and now has proven himself as a leader. Everyone knows him and looks up to him. He knows what is expected of him and does what needs to be done.
And last, he said that he wrote down that they love their friends in the church and would hate to leave their friends behind and potentially miss out on those relationships.
I am blown away again even now as I write this...that the Holy Spirit would be so faithful to give me those exact things to share with him about. In the end, there is still a lot of thinking and a lot of soul searching for him to do. We should never make these decisions lightly. But I pray that God will continue to speak to his heart...and to mine.
I'm not suggesting that everyone should suddenly begin to question whether or not to leave your current church. If you're happy there and being challenged from the Word and serving and finding meaning in your walk with Christ - don't mess with it. But if you're just going through the motions and you feel God is calling you to something greater, something bigger, something more challenging...then start to pray and to really examine and evaluate your reasons for staying put.
It occurred to me that these thoughts are especially geared to people in leadership...and to pastors in particular. But that's another story.