Pastors' Forum


Proper Protocol for Leaving a Church

Is there a proper protocol for people leaving the church? It always seems difficult when people leave the church. Some are gracious in departing, some are not, and others just disappear. This can be painful to me as the pastor and unsettling to church members when their friends leave. I’d like to be able to teach some reasonable guidelines to people about the proper way to leave the church if that becomes their decision, but what’s reasonable for me to expect of people who depart for whatever reason? Has any pastor taught his people on the proper way to leave the church, and if so, what are the main points or considerations?


Rev. Tony Cooke – Broken Arrow, OK
I’ve never jumped in on a Pastors’ Forum question before, but I want to share a thought or two on this issue regarding proper protocol for leaving a church. I’ve heard Pastor Gerald Brooks humorously refer to “The Last Supper.” He wasn’t speaking of the one Jesus celebrated with his disciples, but rather, those meetings when a church member wants to meet with the Pastor to communicate an impending departure.

What follows are some general guidelines that I think are good for a person who is considering leaving a church.

Church members should exercise graciousness and courtesy in leaving a church. They should ask themselves this question: “If I was a pastor, and someone was going to leave the church, how would I want them to leave?” Leave in such a way that if you ever decide to go back, the church and its leadership will be glad to see you returning.

Don’t burn bridges and don’t plant negative seeds in leaving!  Examine your heart to make sure there is no offense involved in your decision. If offense is involved, it needs to be dealt with spiritually, emotionally, and relationally. If you, as a church member, are leaving because you’ve “seen faults,” what are you going to do when you see faults in your next church? Faults are everywhere because people are everywhere. If a person has been offended and has not dealt with it, they’ll simply carry that root of offense into the next church, and that “offense button” will be pushed again!

Leave alone. Don’t be a part of influencing others to leave the church. You don’t want to be blamed for others making the decision to leave. Even if you’re not offended, people who are offended can use you as their “poster child” to justify their own departure.

Communicate respectfully with the pastor about your decision to leave. In doing so, it is appropriate to express appreciation for the things that were received during your time at the church. Express sincere thanks for the pastor’s ministry and the church’s to you.

If you were in a leadership or working role, make sure that you are not leaving a gap in the church. Work with that pastor in making sure that, according to his desires, you’ve trained your replacement or left good written procedures regarding your responsibilities.

If you are frustrated with certain things in the church you are leaving, it’s best to keep those things to yourself. Some of those frustrations may be based on unrealistic expectations or even immaturity on your part. When you land in another church, you may find out that the grass really wasn’t greener on the other side, and you’ll be glad that you weren’t vocal about your frustrations. You may even find that once you’ve gotten away from a certain church, that there were a lot more positives there than you realized, and you’ll be glad you can go back without having to offer a lot of apologies for careless and critical things you said.

When Jesus cast an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue, the spirit, before departing, convulsed (or tore) the man and cried out with a loud voice (Mark 1:26). I don’t mean to over-spiritualize this, but it seems that when people are motivated by a wrong spirit, or even by their own carnal tendencies, they’re not content to leave peacefully and quietly. They want to “tear” the body and make a lot of noise in leaving.

Deuteronomy 28:6 says “Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” Let’s make sure that we are also a blessing when we come in and a blessing when we go out.

Pastor Walker Schurz – Lusaka, Zambia
We address this issue during the membership class. There is a section where we review expectations:  what we expect from them and what they can expect from us. We talk about a few points regarding “leaving correctly.”

We ask them to come and see myself or another pastor in our church so that we are not guessing when they leave. There may be legitimate reasons like a job transfer or that they feel like God is moving them to another congregation. Whenever information is missing, we begin filling in the blanks which is neither healthy nor accurate.

We have been fortunate that those leaving even when upset, do not try to spread their discontent. I cannot think of an instance where we tried to talk someone out of their decision or threatened that bad things would happen if they left.

Other than a few cases where people left in a huff, many people have taken us up on this offer and it has been very beneficial for both parties. We are able to have a discussion about whatever is the prevailing issue and it helps bring closure for everyone. We close the meeting with a prayer for them and their family that God would guide and bless them. I let them know that the door is always open for them if there is a special occasion so that they do not feel uncomfortable if they visit in the future.

Thankfully, there is no shortage of unchurched people who we can continue to reach and bring into the family of God even if our church walls have a few cracks in them.

Pastor Gary Martin – Collinsville, VA
This is a very touchy subject to me. I did it the wrong way years ago and had to learn the right way. Keep that in mind as you read my methods of dealing with this situation.

My initial teaching on the “proper way to leave a church” begins when someone starts attending my church. Most people are always anxious to tell you their story as to why they left another church and why they are choosing yours. I always take this opportunity to make sure they have communicated with their former Pastor as to their leaving his/her church. I imply that before they can become members of our church, they must have made things right with their former Pastor. By “making it right” I mean they must let their former Pastor know of their leaving. My preference is for them to have a verbal conversation with their former Pastor, although some aren’t able to do that. That in itself is a pretty good indicator of possible future problems. If they just can’t handle speaking with their former Pastor, I suggest they write a letter. I explain to them how it makes me feel when someone has been attending our church and all of a sudden just vanishes. I try to get them to see the situation from a Pastor’s perspective and from the Body’s perspective. I try and show them it’s just common courtesy. I ask them if they really want to spend half their time in WalMart hiding from people and posting look-outs up and down the aisles?

The next time I teach on the “proper way to leave a church” is during the New Member’s class. I explain to them what we expect them to do as members of our church if they ever decide to leave. We expect them to come to Pastor and tell him their intention to leave. No “Why Fors” are necessary. Then to keep the concept fresh in everyone’s mind, at least 2 or 3 times a year during a sermon, I will touch on the proper way of telling your Pastor if you decide to leave the church. It just comes out, if you know what I mean. Therefore, if a member leaves they will usually come tell me and most of them tell me the truth as to why they are leaving.

Now when someone comes to me to tell me they are leaving, I never try to change their mind. I listen, thank them for what they did at the church and then stress they find a good church.  Since we are not a large congregation, I will bring them to the front on their last Sunday and pray blessings over them and send them off. That way “everyone” now knows what has happened to the Martin family. I may even follow-up with them a month or so later to make sure they have found a good church. It is very important to me that they don’t fall through the cracks and drop out of church altogether.

Pastor David Emigh – Sand Springs, OK
When people leave the church it can be a difficult thing. The most important thing is for the pastor to not take it personal. We have to face the fact people are going to leave the church. The best thing we can do is make an exit ramp for them. If people are gracious enough to let me know they are leaving, I write them a letter and thank them for their attendance and past service. I let them know if they ever desire to come back that the door is open. I only do that if I want them to come back.

We must face the fact that not everyone is called to our church and they will not be a blessing to you if they do not share your heart. You are better off to let them go. Pruning will take place in your church. If I really wonder why they left, I try to find out why and if there is something I did not do or could do better. I evaluate that, but remember you are not going to please everyone.

I have on occasions used instances in my sermons to educate people on the proper way to leave, but I do not spend a lot of time on it or make it a big deal. The bottom line is people are going to do what they decide to do and we have to love them and go on.

There have been a few times I have written to people who left without communication and addressed that, but be sure and be led by the Holy Spirit in that and do not get in the flesh.

Pastor Tim Kutz – Bartlesville, OK
As a pastor I came to an understanding that most people in my congregation are not as “spiritual” as they think, or even as I would like to think. We know very well that a mature person is really a person who walks in love. Unfortunately, most Christians don’t make walking in love their priority as they should. The real question is:  Am I going to make it a priority in my life?

As I was teaching a pastor’s class recently, I sensed the Lord say something to me concerning this; this was God’s Word to me personally. I heard Him say to me, “I am not going to judge people on how they treat you, but I am going to hold you accountable on how you treat them.” The scripture that He gave me was James 3:1—My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (NKJV)

This is the same thing that Jesus faced when people hung him on the cross, and Jesus asked the Father to forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing. As hard as it is to endure, we must first forgive people and then just let them go. Not everyone is going to stay with us. We must humble ourselves and realize that some pastors have different vision than us and God will gather people around them to help them fulfill that vision. Some of those people may currently be in your church.

Those who are in the ministry with you, serving you as staff members, should know better. But there will still be situations when, for whatever reason, people divide the church to fulfill their own leadings. They say it is the Holy Ghost, but the Holy Ghost will not lead someone to divide the church. Actually, the Holy Ghost tells us to take note of people which bring division and to avoid them (Rom 16:17). The Bible tells us that we are to be first led by “integrity.” Prov 11:3—The integrity of the upright will guide them, but the perversity of the unfaithful will destroy them (NKJV). The Holy Spirit will never lead someone outside of integrity, and integrity will not divide a church.

People leave churches in three conditions:
1.) To align themselves with a pastor’s vision at the leading of the Lord.
2.) Because they are offended.
3.) Because they are walking away from integrity.

You will find that you will not be able to change people’s minds about any of the three. Your part is to walk in love and remember after this separation (death), if you trust God and have a spirit of faith, there will be a resurrection. New life in your ministry, a future and a hope will come to you if you walk in love and believe God.

The biggest thing that you can do is to teach much on walking in love. Teach people about the trap of the offense. Make Pastor Hagin’s book on avoiding offense or John Bevere’s book on the “Bait of Satan” a book-of-the-month every so often and promote them to your people. Then in teaching people to be led by the Spirit, teach them to be first led by integrity. Tony has an excellent sermon on this and I am sure he will come and minister this to your people or send you his notes. Teach people on the office of the pastor and the place of the shepherd in the lives of the sheep. Bring in people who will intentionally teach on honoring the gift of the pastor. This is not self-serving. This will set the people up for God to move in their life through the things he gives you to speak to them. If people begin to gossip, the sheep will recognize the spirit of division and avoid them or silence them. There will be many things that the sheep will deal with and you won’t even know about it.

There is something that the Lord specifically addresses in Ezekiel. Teach this to people at a time they are entering the church and there is no rumblings of division. The Lord said through Ezekiel: ‘And as for you, O My flock, thus says the Lord GOD: “Behold, I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. Is it too little for you to have eaten up the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the residue of your pasture—and to have drunk of the clear waters, that you must foul the residue with your feet? And as for My flock, they eat what you have trampled with your feet, and they drink what you have fouled with your feet.” ‘Therefore thus says the Lord GOD to them: “Behold, I Myself will judge between the fat and the lean sheep. Because you have pushed with side and shoulder, butted all the weak ones with your horns, and scattered them abroad, therefore I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them….Ezekiel 34:17-23.

Some people aren’t just satisfied to leave, some have to trample the pasture as they leave so that the pasture does not look attractive and nourishing to the remaining sheep. Love the ones who remain and be a shepherd to them and feed them with knowledge and understanding. Leave the judgment to the Lord; He’s righteous in what He does and He will take care of the goats and the wolves. After you’ve cried for “Absalom” for a night, get up and encourage yourself in the Lord, and love the ones who have stayed.

Pastor Rob Wynne – Linden, AL
It seems as if most people that have left my church, God has at one time or another used me or my wife, Rose, to bless them substantially spirit, soul, body or all of the above. I do not take it personal nor do I dwell on such things. However, I do check my own self to make sure that I didn’t cause my own bug infestation. As hard as it may be for anyone to believe, I have ignorantly caused some of the problem. There I’ve said it. Boy, that kinda hurts! I’ve always been able to get happy in the same britches that I got sad in.

Living in a small area, I see most of the folks that have left and I act as if they should still love me. To start, I believe the first responsibility falls on us because we are the leaders. If people are grumbling and complaining, I try to be especially nice to them. They should not be able to say that I acted unchristian, although I must say that I fired one man and banned him when he threatened to beat me up for the second time. I also called the police on him the third time at a local café. But I have seen him since and was able to shake his hand and be friendly. As a result of this approach, we have had other families that we treated well on the way out come back and be productive members. Secondly, I personaly haven’t addressed the issue head-on and may never. I usually mix hard issues in sweet unsuspecting wrappers. I have never wanted to throw a suspicious light if it is not necessary.

Pastor Brad Allen – San Mateo, CA
When people are leaving a church, they’re not teachable. So you have to tell your leaders and volunteers how to properly exit the church in leader’s meetings.  I never use this in a Sunday message, but it’s a good 2-3 minute portion of a membership class and 2-3 minute portion of your leader’s meetings once or twice a year.

People do leave. It’s going to happen. So you have to deal with it ahead of time. This is what I tell people.

1. A church is a family. You’ve made good friends here. When you leave, it will hurt some people.

2. So be considerate and allow a lot of time. Six months is proper notice. These are real friends here. This isn’t a WalMart job where two weeks notice is fine. It’s a church family.

3. Your decision to leave is between you and God. You cannot try to influence others to leave. If you do so, you’re at odds with the pastor and the mission of the church and will hurt your reputation and relationships.

4. Edwin Louis Cole was a great men’s ministry leader. He wrote a great book about Entering and Leaving. His main point was that the way you leave one place determines the amount of grace you will have upon arrival in your new location. Leave well and leave with honor and you will arrive well and be honored in your new place.

5. Pastors meet with each other. Pastors talk to each other. Pastors tell each other to look out when troubled people leave their church and may be headed to the other pastor’s church. Pastors call each other when they find out that a new person just came from another church. They need to find out why. There is no such thing as “social promotion” in the kingdom of God. If you didn’t learn your lessons at one church, God will see to it that you repeat the lesson at the next church. So stop thinking that the grass is greener somewhere else. When a pastor finds out a negative reason why you left your last church, be certain that he won’t let you in a position of authority.

6. Grace. Your church is a family and it will have imperfections that require grace. You need grace, so does your church. Forgive people quickly, talk things out, give grace when people don’t do things properly and God will see to it that you receive grace.

Pastor Rick Sharkey – Spokane, WA
To me, a church is a personal and relational institution that God created, Jesus is building, and the Holy Spirit is moving in. I take my appointment seriously as the overseer and father-like one. I personally invest my intentions into this calling without hidden agenda. My wife and I pour ourselves into people and they get into our souls.

In 29 yrs at this institution, it seems we have felt the personal loss as scores of our children leave. It seems like those that left acted like they were leaving a job, patronage of a department store, or a student leaving a school. I had to seek God on this dynamic because I didn’t know how many of these “departures” I could emotionally survive. The Lord gave me I Cor:4-14-16 “…ye have ten thousand instructors, ye have not many fathers…” In a moment of time I realized that I gave myself as a father to all my congregation but many only received me as a leader, organizer or a teacher. I felt as if my children were leaving our home but they only felt they were leaving school or a store that they were done shopping at. This came to light in my heart. I needed to develop a skill in judging who were children and who were students that would eventually graduate and leave to go home to or find their place in God’s bigger picture. To some I will be a father in spirit and to others nothing more than a teacher or a spiritual medic to administer in a season for their healing.

Some leaders of churches seem to be more evangelistic or prophetic and don’t seem to have the fatherly attachments. I personally am an attaching personality, so I must be more disciplined in my heart so I don’t get emotionally spent and have to leave the position God has graced me with. So as a great man I know said, “Get smart and toughen up buttercup.”

Pastor Mark Boer – Boise, ID
I think it is important to note first of all, that it is unrealistic for us to think that everyone will leave the proper way even if we do teach them how. The reason for this, is many leave because there is something wrong and therefore are not really focused on doing the right thing at that point. Whether it is an offense or backslidden condition, they are very much consumed with themselves and therefore not really concerned about the feelings of others, the welfare of the church, or proper protocol.

However, with accurate instruction, I do believe we can help some to resolve their issues and stay-put, while others can leave gracefully without carrying a load of guilt and unresolved problems.

The steps that I recommend are:

1. If a person has a serious disagreement, they should meet with the Pastor or a ministry leader to allow for clarification and explanation. Many times people are hung up with an inaccurate understanding of a teaching, event or policy (if a person simply believes that the Lord is leading them out, they should still take time to meet and not be too quick to make such an important decision).
2. If after three weeks they are still unable to follow the leadership because of this issue, then they are to meet again in order to part as “brothers” and discuss taking the high road and not hurting others or the church on their way out.
3. Follow up with them in one month with a phone call.