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How to Leave a Church Well
Whatever the reason for leaving, "transplant shock" is not uncommon. There are ways to minimize it.


When I recently changed churches after many years, I felt like I had been uprooted. Just as plants can be uprooted by storms, errant baseballs, drought or redecorating, there are many reasons why people leave churches.

Sometimes people move or are unhappy, while others have a sense of calling. Whatever the reason for leaving, my experience of "transplant shock" is not uncommon.

The way we handle the leaving process has a lot to do with whether an individual blossoms and grows, and whether the church functions as a healthy garden. The good news is that there are ways to minimize transplant shock.

Grant Gordon, a pastor who works with congregations in transition, describes a feeling of disappointment when people simply disappear from a church. He suggests churches benefit from an opportunity to say goodbye to someone who is leaving.

"It's strange and sad," Gordon says. "We use family language in the Church and we welcome people to our family, but then we just let them go without blessing them. People have a desire to be blessed," says Gordon. "When there is no information [about why a person has left], people assume the worst."

Involve church leaders and staff in the process of exiting a church, says Gordon, ideally before a final decision is made. A meeting between people considering leaving and their pastor and another elder can resolve issues or provide important information for the church.

Gordon says he likes to ask people to "stand before the congregation and share their intention and decision to leave, just before communion. It seems an appropriate moment." Prayer and touch are often part of this blessing.

Churches find different ways to bless people as they leave. Many churches offer symbols to people who leave, such as keepsakes made by local artists. Sometimes people leaving give gifts in return. Shannon Smith*, whose family moved across the country, left a treasured plant with the church, and she and her husband read a letter to the congregation before they left.

Chaplain Lori Schmidt of Kitchener, Ontario says such rituals are a particularly helpful way of assisting in making a healthy transition. "A ritual is very powerful because you become a participant in the process," Schmidt says.

"Rituals touch us at the physical, emotional, spiritual, mental and social levels,"

Rituals also help with the deep emotions connected with leaving—or being left. When someone leaves a church, other members may feel sad, angry and even abandoned, while people leaving commonly feel fear and anxiety, as well as sadness and disappointment.

Sometimes, it is difficult to acknowledge these feelings. One man who left his church to attend one closer to his home says, "I don't think they would feel good about admitting publicly that people were leaving for any reason."

While Gordon notes it is "only human" for church leaders to "feel insecure about the negative stuff," and it may be easier not to deal with those who are leaving, acknowledging the departure enables those leaving to connect with their new church, while those left behind are better able to connect with new people who come. It also allows people to come back.

If people don't process the experience of leaving a church and what led to it, Gordon says "either they will find it hard to connect with a new church or they will jump in as if it never happened, maybe ending up repeating the process."

Some people who have not experienced closure to this process find themselves unable to join a new church.

… they were "lopped off like a branch."

Frank Greene*, who was involved in leadership in his church and agonized for years about leaving, says, "I wish there was a mechanism where we were free to say, 'We've sought God and we believe this is the way for us to go,'" but instead they were "lopped off like a branch."

If a church does not bless people as they leave, Schmidt suggests various private rituals.

Write letters "expressing feelings of gratitude, disappointments, frustrations, loss of hopes and dreams." If the letter is a hurtful one, it can be ripped or burned as a symbolic gesture, while other letters may be treasured as a remembrance. All family members, including children, should be involved in this process.

A family could also have a ceremony where each member brings a picture, a piece of writing or something that symbolizes the old church; they can pray together and close with a symbol of the new start the family hopes for.

More good news is that transplant shock is usually a temporary condition. Six months after making the move, I'm putting out new roots in a new church, treasuring memories and friendships of where I've been, and growing in the Body of Christ.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

Susan Fish is a writer and editor based in Waterloo, Ontario. She has recently published an award-winning novel Seeker of Stars. Her website is: www.susanfish.com.

A memoir of one of the magi, Seeker of Stars breathes new life and passionate humanity into a familiar story. Seeker of Stars is a portrait of a man with desires, needs and pain who comes to recognize God's leading through unexpected journeys which lead him to a place of surprising wholeness.

Originally published in ChristianWeek, May 26, 2006.

 

 
 
 
 

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