How to Leave a Church Family and Find a New One

Early in my ministry, two different families left our congregation within just a couple of months of one another. One family left in a way that has allowed us to remain friends, even 17 years later; the other family left in a way that caused considerable pain to me and others within the church. Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that you might need to make a change in your church family. You have prayed, you have sought advice from others, and now you have a clear sense that the Holy Spirit is leading you elsewhere. How should you leave your previous congregation, and how might you find a new church family to be a part of?

The Power of Prayer

It almost goes without saying that this process should be approached with no small measure of prayer. Not only is it wise to pray about whether or not it’s time to leave, but wisdom would lead us to see that the next steps should also be approached with prayer. Pray that the Holy Spirit might help you articulate your thoughts and that the Holy Spirit might help you to have difficult conversations when necessary. And finally, pray that God might lead your family to a new congregation where you can flourish.

How to Leave

If you have not yet done so, it is usually wise (and appreciated by the pastor!) for you to set up a time to meet with your pastor to outline your thoughts. If it is early in the process, perhaps your concerns can be addressed in a way that will allow you to remain active and involved in your present congregation. But perhaps there are reasons that would preclude you from remaining in your church. In some cases, the distance to drive back and forth to church may be too great. In other cases, you may have changed your theological viewpoint in a way that might make it difficult for you to remain in your present church in good conscience. And in still other cases, there may be other reasons that mean that remaining just isn’t an option for your family. 

Rather than simply disappear from your church, your church leadership will appreciate hearing from you about why you are leaving. This can be done either by arranging a meeting or sending a letter to your leadership. This might even be an opportunity to be a blessing and an encouragement to your church. If you are leaving because you are moving out of the area, for example, this can be a time to express your appreciation for all that the church has meant to you over the years and to encourage the leadership to keep doing what they do well. While you should be honest in expressing your concerns, it's not be helpful to be vindictive, angry, or hostile. Focus on being clear and on being civil. Name-calling, long rants, or denouncing theological position of your church will probably not be constructive.

As you leave, you should be careful to avoid behavior that would be considered divisive by the congregation. While you may have concluded that you need a new church home, others may not share this conviction. Exiting the congregation and trying to take other families with you is behavior that only serves to cause deeper wounds within the church.

Finally, your congregation may have a formal process by which membership is transferred. If so, you should ask that this process be initiated. If you aren’t sure if there is a process, or what that process involves, ask your church leadership what they would like you to do.

Take your Time Finding a New Congregation

Finding a new church home can be a time of mixed emotions. You may be eager to put down roots in a new church community, or you may be apprehensive or even reluctant, for fear of being hurt by a new body of believers. Given that the church is a body (1 Corinthians 12) and given that the church ought to be a place where every member uses their gifts to serve other members (Ephesians 4:12-13), it makes sense to take your time. Rushing to join a new congregation, or joining one before you’ve taken the time to really know the church may lead you to find that the new congregation isn’t a good fit after all. There are several concerns that you should take into account.

Hold to your convictions

First, consider your theological tradition. Whether you are Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Catholic, Charismatic, Reformed, Baptist, or non-denominational, you will have the best opportunity to find a church home when you are looking within churches that fit with your theological convictions. Unless you are very open to changing your theological beliefs, finding a church where you love the style of worship but where you have fundamental disagreements with the theology is likely to set you up for frustration down the line. Better to find a congregation that matches your core theological convictions.

Dwell in God’s word

Second, seek a church that is centered on God’s word. The Apostle Paul warns us in 1 Timothy 4:3 that there will be a time when those who teach or preach will only communicate ideas that our “itching ears” want to hear. In other words, we ought to guard against settling into a church that simply seeks to entertain or a church that preaches or teaches merely what we want to hear. God’s word is the spiritual nourishment that we need inside and outside of church (even if there are times when we may not always like what it says to us!). Our long-term spiritual health depends on dwelling on messages that are grounded in scripture, and call us to trust in the finished work of Jesus, and live it out in our actions. Pay careful attention to what the pastor and the leadership communicate, from the pulpit, in the classroom, or even on social media, to ensure that the message is faithful to scripture.

Express your heart in worship

Third, find a church that helps you express your love for Jesus. Some of God’s people sense the beauty and majesty of God when they sing accompanied by a pipe organ, others are better able to praise God with guitars, drums, and pianos, and still others do best when singing acapella. There is no right or wrong style of worship that is mandated in scripture. In fact, scripture invites us to be free to use all manner of instruments in praising God (see Psalm 150). However, we each have a style that most clearly resonates with us. Find a church that aligns rather closely to how you express your worship of Jesus.

Engage in service

Fourth, find a church where you can serve. The church is not a service-provider, and we are not consumers. Rather, the church is a “holy priesthood” and a “temple” in the service of God (see 1 Peter 1 2:9 and Ephesians 2:21). Both images describe a place where we are called to actively serve! You may already have a sense of the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given you (or, you may still be seeking to discover this), but when you look for a church home, you ought to seek a place where you can be active in serving. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you find a church that already has a ministry where you can be involved. It may be a congregation that is in need of a new ministry to the poor, or needs volunteers to lead worship, or caring for the elderly. If the ministry doesn’t yet exist, but you are gifted, this may be a beautiful opportunity for you to be involved in a church in a way that helps them – and you – to grow together!

Embrace the imperfections

Finally, find a church that is imperfect. The congregation that is a perfect fit for you does not exist. The church that is a perfect spiritual home for you does not exist. The perfect church does not exist. This means that any congregation that you find will not line up perfectly with all of your desires. The pastor may not be the most captivating communicator. And the church that you find will certainly have some people who will bother you, or even offend you at times. But welcome to the body of Christ! As you seek to find a new church, be prepared to embrace the realities of an imperfect and fallen church that exists on this side of heaven. Don’t shy away from a church that is good in many ways, just because it’s not perfect in one way. Find a way to plug your imperfect self, and your imperfect family, into an imperfect church, so that you may grow together towards maturity in Christ.

Finding a new church home where your family can be nourished and strengthened in your faith isn’t always easy. Take your time in seeking the Holy Spirit’s leading, and trust that he will help you find a church family that will be a place for your family to serve, worship, and enjoy the community of believers that is the body of Christ.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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