This past week a close friend and colleague in ministry told me the story of a family leaving his church for reasons that most of us would consider trivial at best, resentful at worst. It is likely that the issue stated is not the real issue for the family, but regardless the hurt in my friend's heart is deep and a family has left the fold.
Just last night at a 'back to school' night I ran into three different people who have either left our church altogether or just haven't been around for more than a year. In one case, there was an awkward exchange of pleasantries, in another a warm smile and inquiry and in the third a delightful conversation about recent challenges they are facing.
People leave churches everyday for understandable reasons that are just part of life: they move away, a new marriage, they reach the end of life. In these times we work to make leaving the church as positive an experience as when they first joined—a time marked with joy, promise and possibilities.
People leave churches for other less-understandable reasons as well. Some are angry over a specific issue, while others point to a general malaise of spiritual growth; some will point to preaching or music that doesn't inspire them, while others lament non-specifically that they just don't feel "connected."
In larger churches, people come and go in anonymous ways which make creating closure difficult, if not impossible. In smaller churches, the departure of one family can cut the community to the core. But regardless of size, here are few thoughts on leaving church that might make our covenant-making and our promise-keeping more what God hopes for the people of God:
If you are leaving the church, let someone know. Employ the same grace and care that was extended you by the church when you joined. Your church needs to be aware of the real concerns you have and would rather hear from you personally than from someone else or in a chance-encounter in the community.
If you are thinking about leaving the church, think again. Pick anyone you know in the leadership structure of your church and call that person—just to talk. A hope would be to get to the real issues beneath and behind the surface reasons. Your spiritual health, well-being and growth remain the church's primary concern.
If you are staying, get engaged. We know that being engaged in the life of the community is critical to a sense of belonging. There are literally hundreds of ways for you to share the journey with others that will deepen your inward, outward and upward relationships. Get to your big church (worship) and small church (small groups) every week.
For the moment, be reminded that we are ultimately defined by discipleship, not mere membership. You have important gifts of God to share with a world very much in need. You have remarkable gifts of God to receive. Giving and receiving requires relationship. Let's keep our connections strong, rooted in unity, service, learning and worship.
The Rev. John F. Ross is senior pastor at Wayzata Community Church (UCC) in Wayzata, Minn.