Preparing to Leave a Church You Love
Leaders don’t always get to stay where they want; sometimes they need to go where they’re called. This means that we may find ourselves leaving churches we love in order to see the plans of God unfold.
We left our local church two years ago—a church we served, led, loved, and still love. A place where we knew we were supposed to be until we no longer were. I led the women's ministry and my husband was a pastor there. Leaving was heart wrenching, and when we sat down to tell the other elders about our decision, I ugly cried.
We will never look back on that time and say, "We can’t wait to do that again!" If you love a church and have been part of building it up, leaving is never a simple decision. There was, however, beauty hidden in the mourning because it reminded me of how deeply we had loved and been loved.
I refuse to justify the nonchalance with which people join and leave churches. I’m concerned they will never experience what being a part of the church truly looks like. They will not taste the sweetness of authentic community or know the grace of lives knit together. This is why we approached the decision to leave with prayer and seriousness.
It was shocking when I felt a shift surrounding where we were plugged into the church. I always try to hold my roles loosely—along with where we live, where our kids go to school, and other decisions we make—but I couldn't understand why God would ask this. I began to ask him to make a way—a way to stay or a way to go. A path was soon laid against my will, but it was clearly his.
By all means, we must go where God sends us despite our feelings (I’m looking at you, Jonah), but this doesn’t mean that we won’t experience emotions as we do. It’s wise to be prepared so that we can make plans to leave in a healthy way. As the way began to unfold, I begged God to show me how we could end our time with this group of people well. Here are five things that helped me prepare emotionally for leaving when God told us it was time to go:
1. Grieve the loss.
Brace yourself, this is going to hurt. Rhythms of life are built around your weekly routine, holiday traditions, and interactions with people—and these are all about to change. I cannot begin to explain how you will miss the people whose eyes you’ve looked into week after week! There will definitely be loss, and it’s important to make space for working through your grief.
There will be times the emotional toll does not feel worth it, so take the time and do the work that helps you know that this move is from God—ask the hard questions to ensure that God is orchestrating this change, not you. This will help you feel confident that you are acting out of obedience rather than simply chasing ambition or leaving because you’re hurt. That reassurance will help you as the different stages of grief hit.
2. Expect resistance from others.
As a leader, you have touched the lives of others, and they’ve placed trust, even if it is a small amount, in you. When you leave, some people may feel that you have betrayed this trust. They may know intellectually that God sometimes asks people to do things and doesn’t tell them why, but their emotions may still follow unexpected paths. Be prepared for a wide variety of emotions as you begin your exit.
It is the human propensity to tell ourselves the story about the situation that makes us most comfortable. This means the stories that people tell about your departure may not be true (even those whom you served shoulder-to-shoulder with). That doesn’t mean, however, that you have to correct each one. Consider who you want to talk directly with about leaving, and take the time to make phone calls or sit down with these people, sharing what you can while supporting the leadership of the church (insofar as it does not violate Scripture or conscience). You want to finish well, so take the advice of Paul from Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
3. Trust that God will call someone to take your place.
The people you are leading are God’s people first and foremost, and he will not leave them without someone to shepherd and care for them. Keeping this in mind will go a long way to help you end well. First of all, you may feel—both as you prepare to leave and after you’ve left—that you’ve abandoned people. You may also have mixed feelings about the person who may end up filling your role, knowing that the new person may not carry on the work you’ve started. But know this: God will send someone to do the jobs he wants to be done. If he’s calling you elsewhere, he’s also got a plan for filling your current spot.
4. Know that building new community won’t be easy.
You have probably taught on how to build and maintain healthy community in a church—maybe you’ve even written curriculum about it. Actually building a new community, though, is tough work, even if you know God has placed you in this new community for a reason.
In fact, your idea of community, your role in it, and your understanding of how it develops may have to transform as you enter a new community. You will most likely experience loneliness and feelings of being an outsider. Understand that deep community, trust, and connection are most often built over time as people walk through both trial and triumph together. Be patient, faithful, and active about getting to know the people in the new community God has sent you to; but don’t expect what took years to develop in your current role to materialize overnight in your new one. We must resist looking back to determine what should be.
5. Lean into the excitement.
Starting over will rarely come with ease, but godly leaders risk being hurt if it means getting to love what God loves. It’s okay to have hopeful expectation about what God will do. As you step into the next chapter of God’s story for your life, you can be excited about new people, new cultures, and new opportunities. We can ultimately trust in the fact that, “The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1, ESV). Know that you’re still part of the global church—you’ve just been reassigned.
Chara Donahue is a certified biblical counselor, writer, and speaker, and has been involved in ministry for the last 15 years. She is the founder of Anchored Voices.