Why the Way You Leave a Church is More Important than How You Came

July 14, 2020

As a layperson or a church staff member, it’s likely you’ve left a church at some point – or will leave a church in the future. When that happens, I hope you’ll remember the points of this post.

  1. People will remember how you leave. They’ll forget even the most miraculous works of God to bring you to the church if you leave in a negative way. Even a few weeks of negative can erase years of positive.
  2. Those who remain may be wounded if you leave poorly. Especially if they’ve loved and respected you, they may not understand why you’ve suddenly changed. Long-term friendships can be broken.
  3. Your family can be scarred by a bad ending. You might try to shield them from the pain, but few of us do that well when we’re wounded.
  4. Poor closures usually color future ministry opportunities. Once you’ve been hurt and carry wounds, you’ll always wonder if more wounds lie in the future.
  5. Division left by bad departures can destroy a congregation’s unity. This sometimes happens when departing members challenge others to take sides on the issues.
  6. Good departures make ministry a celebration. Rejoicing over victories is always better than battling over remaining disagreements.
  7. Healthy closure paves the way for the next leaders. One of the best ways to help the church’s next leader is to leave in joyful response to God’s calling – not in anger.
  8. Leaving well fosters long-term friendships. Moving to a different church doesn’t have to harm relationships if the departure is handled well.
  9. Good leavings promote Christian unity. Regardless of where we serve, we pray for and love other congregations when we’ve left well. Good memories promote harmony between churches.
  10. People will remember how you leave. So, I repeat #1 above, but with a different flavor. Leave in a positive way, and churches often forgive years of negative. 

What would you add to this list? 

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  • Make life easy for the one following you. Create a book of procedures, things that you do, people you have special relationships with. Document those things that wouldn’t be included with a job description. For ministers, it could contain names and numbers of prayer partners, contacts at the local funeral homes, counselors and the like. Since I’m in the Media Ministry of my church, I am in the process of creating a book that contains all of the documentation of our systems, passwords for computers and vendor websites, serial numbers & purchase dates of equipment. Anything that you can think of that will be important for the one following you to make their job easier. Its also good for emergencies as well. My book is called, “Hit By A Bus”. So incase of illness, my boss or replacement can look at the book and instantly know how to stream our service by following the instructions.

  • Jeffery Murdock says on

    I just left a ministry position a few weeks ago. The way we leave a church is vitally important. Two thoughts about this. First the ongoing ministry and witness of the church is far more important than any person or group. The witness of the church should not be damaged. Second not only do we have one opportunity to make a good first impression we have one opportunity to make a good last impression.

  • How about writing about starting over when you did leave a difficult situation?

  • After 55 years of ministry I would leave less and stay more. The green grass over there looses green real fast. It is always best to “love out” your battles to the glory of God.
    Bob Hammer

  • Elder Monique Coleman Isaacs says on

    A Minister friend wants to know “how do you know when it’s time to leave”. I already receive your emails. I am including her name and email below. She’s struggling.

  • Bob Myers says on

    I love the premise embedded in the title of your blog. From our first day in a local ministry, I believe ministers should have their departure in mind. How can I leave this church better than I found it? Unfortunately, as you allude to in your blog, we don’t always get to control the circumstances of our departure.
    I left a toxic church of my own accord but I was determined to take the high ground. I was honest with my leaders, telling them that their refusal to support my wife (she was personally attacked by a former associate) and me made it impossible for me to continue with them. Nevertheless, they asked me to stay. I was shocked at their blindness. With the congregation, which I loved (you can’t be a pastor and not love your people) I was gracious and ended my tenure there with a short series on the first two chapters of Philippians. (You don’t get much more positive and affirming than that!)
    It has taken quite a while for me to heal. God opened a one-year interim position for me at a hurting church that provided mutual healing. My first interview, however, about three months after my departure from the toxic church was unsuccessful. I was depressed and unable to keep my fears and frustrations bottled up. That was OK and providential, I believe. I’m in a healthy church now which has helped to bring about healing. For a couple of years I wondered if I would ever find joy again in ministry.
    As for the church that I left, they are limping along. Given the circumstances of my departure, they were unable to attract a pastoral candidate so a hospital chaplain who, interestingly enough, had been on the leadership team when I was there and was instrumental in my departure, took the position. They’ve dwindled but it is probably best to have a chaplain in place as the pastor. Dynamics there make it difficult for the church to have a visionary pastor. It’s all in God’s hands and I certainly do not wish them ill. How can I? They are still the Bride of Christ.
    Thanks for your post. My retirement from my current church is less than five years out, Lord willing, and that reality is frequently in my thoughts as I lead and make plans for this church into the future. I want to leave it better than I found it.

  • Aaron Lavender says on

    Thanks Chuck, this was helpful to me personally as I am planning to retire the end of October after 34 years here as the senior pastor.

  • Bob Jayne says on

    Excellent insight, every one of the top 10 are valuable information. The one I can think of is if there is a sore spot or issue the danger of continuing to spread your feelings about it where it hurts those in the church who don’t really know what’s going on. I guess that could come under #5.
    Thanks, Chuck appreciate it.

  • Hamilton says on

    Chuck, amazing that God’s planning put this message in front of me today. Because of a revitalization push with our church, God has created the miraculous opportunity to bring back a full-time Pastor to the field. So, my current Pastor and myself (Worship Minister), both Bi-Vo, will exit the church one Sunday and the new Pastor and whatever staff he is assembling will begin the following Sunday. Personally, I have has a previous experience of a quick exit from a past church, also with a new Pastor coming, and I left with as little fanfare as we could so as to not affect the new Pastor. In this case, the abruptness of our exit concerns me, but I respect my Pastor’s guidance and will gladly follow his lead. Knowing the potential for an initial damage of the new ministry direction, I am praying for the continuance of God’s work at this church body, and regardless of a person’s circumstance in leaving, the most important thing for a servant of God to do is push aside your feelings and Pray, Pray, Pray for the Father’s blessings on that body.

    Trust me, He is able.

  • Excellent article. The last sentence was an open-ended question about additional thoughts. When purposing to leave well is a priority, it’s a reminder of how much the church matters to the God, whose church it is… it is a mental memo of the Kingdom of God being much greater than our past or present arena of involvement. It’s a commitment to live theology, and reinforce our “practice” of treating church as the family of God.

  • Shelley Illsley-Martin says on

    Every pastor wishes for a smooth transition from one to the next. Hoping to make an impact and leave Jesus legacy behind so a smooth transition occurs for the next pastoral brother or sister. Unfortunately, no matter what you do with good intentions, people are people. They control, they manipulate a pastor and the ministry. I am not a person to leave just because things are going astray. Trying to reconcile ill feelings nd thoughts surrounding what a pastor should be doing in Christ is hard to journey through. Churches spend alot of time telling the pastor what he or she should be doing instead of supporting them in what they do in Chrsit. Instead of suggesting pastors leave in a smooth transition maybe we should be writing a blog to congregations on a pastors role, the trainig they have that congregations lack, and how to treat them as the overseer of all that happens. We are are not employees, we are slaves to Christ right alongside congregations.

  • Prayers are answered in the darndest ways. This Comming Sunday is my last sermon at the church I am leaving, it has been a test of my patients, an interrogation of my own faith, and one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. It is also a dying church. I’ve been shocked at the retaliation and behavior launched at me directly in the pulpit, and the dysfunctional game playing by key board members. If I could I would wipe them from my resume. My last sermon will be on trusting God to heal us all. I’ve been fantasizing about playing Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville as my last song before the benediction. Your words of wisdom are well received. There is a still quiet voice within us that heals, It is the voice of God. You have helped get my head right, Thank you, Chuck
    I found your article while looking for information from one of Thom Rainer’s podcasts on the Pew research.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Thanks, Judith. Just prayed for you and your transition.

    • Bruce Worley says on

      I too had to leave a church after 6 years of trying to revive a church. There was a coup-de-tat from some power brokers and at the end I decided to push for a severance instead of fight on the church floor. We knew that even if we won the ministry was killed. It is interesting my last two sermons were about forgiving and loving one another and it is like none of them ever heard a word that was said. It split the church and those that left have formed a new church with my leading them. Though still living in uncertainty it has helped in the healing process to know that some people understood the call to a higher standard. Some understood that our faith is not just a Sunday ritual we go through every week. But nevertheless it hurts to know that there are still many innocent people that know nothing. I was there one Sunday and gone the next. Many even believe that I must have did something wrong. I did I preached the Word and called people out of their complacency. But some churches just want to die and not be revitalized. I don’t know if I left in the right way, but sometimes you are not allowed to leave on the best of terms. I sympathize with Judith.

    • Bob Myers says on

      I’m very sorry for your circumstances. Been there. I’m praying for you right now that God would give you grace for this final Sunday and for healing in moving on. From my own experience, I know that God will infuse his grace into your life through circumstances and friends on the pathway ahead of you. Be aware of your own interior life. Tend it carefully and do not be afraid to seek professional help. May God’s Spirit flood you with his peace in the coming days.

    • Great sermon,. My name is Joseph from Kenya in East Africa Am TRUSTING GOD To help me start a Teaching Ministry because where I fellowship. We have a lot preaching with lot’s of fight from my juniors in ministry who have those privileges i always Teach after 3 months by then i have atleast 12 new messages and because I have a calling,. Your message is on GODS Time in my life,.kindly help me what makes me feel wasted while am here?

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      Just prayed for you, Judith. Thanks for sharing.

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