I just got out of a seven-year relationship. I was pretty in love, and I put my whole heart into it. I gave of myself and tried to think about what was best for “us." Through this relationship, I met some of my best friends. I actually grew from it a lot.
Of course it wasn’t always perfect. Miscommunication and unmet expectations were often at play. Sometimes I got jealous when anyone besides me got attention, and it was hard any time big changes occurred. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t heard. Sometimes I couldn’t remember what it was like when we started out.
It ended amicably and we still talk. We reminisce about the good times, ask about the family and wish each other well. It’s one of those nice scenarios where nobody got too hurt. I said what I needed to say, and now I’m moving on.
Then I had to deal with being single. I hadn’t been alone in seven years. I felt a little lost, especially when I decided to “get back out there.” It felt awkward being in new settings and meeting new people, trying to learn all the traditions and unspoken rules. After six months of searching and healing, I was ready to step into a new relationship.
I’m talking about my church.
Leaving a church feels a lot like a breakup. The process can be healthy and relatively easy, or it can be dramatic and ugly. I’ve experienced a few of the latter, so I went to great lengths to make this time different.
The decision to leave wasn’t easy. After so long, I had poured so much of my life into this church. I was a deacon, children’s church volunteer, small group leader, art worship leader, Sunday service point person, fitness instructor and lots of other things I can’t even remember. Apart from these leadership and service roles, I had grown incredibly close to many congregants and fairly attached to the staff. I met and married my husband there. But it came down to the simple fact that I just wasn’t growing there anymore, despite my efforts and devotion.
When my husband and I finally made that decision, we sat down with one of the church leaders to discuss why we felt we weren’t growing, and some of the concerns we had with the direction of the church’s new mission. He heard us out very thoughtfully. It was a tough conversation. I cried. At the end, he said, “If you stay, stay with grace, but if you leave, leave with grace.” It was nice to hear someone offer the same freedom we felt.
So we left. We “moved on.” We continued attending our small group for a while, but we felt very out of the loop as time passed. Our closest friends are still close friends, but the people we only saw at church events, we never see anymore. We got the church newsletter and even that felt awkward. We actually live around the corner from the building, and pop in now and then for various reasons. But it doesn’t feel like our home anymore.
We went on an extensive “church tour,” exploring denominations we knew nothing about and discovering a lot about our spiritual identity individually and as a couple. We saw beautiful revelations of God in so many different contexts.
Finally, we found a new home. It’s so very different from the last. But we are still glad we made the move, and grateful for the experience of leaving well.
If you are considering leaving your church, ponder these questions:
• Is there anything I can do to change the situation?
• Have I fully communicated my frustrations with someone in leadership?
• Is this really God’s prompting?
• Is my current situation unhealthy?
• How can I “leave with grace”?
• What options do I have for spiritual community elsewhere if I do move on?