Leaving a church can be as painful as the death of a loved one or as difficult as a divorce. Grieving is a painful process, it takes time, and moves through stages or steps. The loss of a close friend or relative causes us to weep, mourn, struggle, and be acutely depressed. This is also true for leaving (losing) a church. Leaving a beloved church can be compared to losing your entire family. The leaver loses precious friends - brothers and sisters in Christ. The people we worship with, pray with, study with, and serve with, are not easily left or easily forgotten. The pain can be excruciating.
Active and devout Christians don't leave their home church on a whim. Leaving is not done lightly, though it may seem that way to others. Often the leaver suffers in silence for a long time before revealing he/she is struggling, upset and hurting - or even angry.
The process of leaving follows the five stages of grief, though not necessarily in the same order and each stage can be revisited. The process takes time. The stages are:
1.Denial - "This can't be happening." In this stage the leaver denies what is happening. He or she smiles and ignores troubling issues. The leaver disregards negative thoughts and events; avoids facing feelings of disappointment or even confusion.
2. Anger - "I'm angry about what's happened to cause this." In this stage feelings of anger and critical thoughts erupt. The leaver complains and expresses anger to close friends and family members and to God.
3. Bargaining - "I won't have to leave if....?" In this stage the leaver hopes for things to change, for the pastor to leave, or for things to change for the better; he/she yearns for any way to delay or prevent the inevitable loss.
4. Depression - Tearful laments define this stage. Leavers experience low energy, sadness, even hopelessness. Leaving, though scary, may be a relief at this point. But depression continues.
5. Acceptance - Eventually those who leave accept the loss. Leavers move on to another church and enter a new church family. Many realize later that their painful loss has led to personal growth.
For leavers who are reading this, my prayers go out to you. Read and reread the stages of grief above. It helps to recognize the steps and to expect chaotic feelings and thoughts in the midst of this. It also helps to journal about your thoughts and feelings. And most of all it helps to lean on God. Talk to him, read his Word, and continue to trust him no matter how bad you feel. And begin looking for another church. We are not supposed to give up meeting together. (Hebrews 10:25)
For potential leavers, my prayers are with you also. Hang on for the next newsletter before deciding. Hang on until God clearly directs you, also.
For pastors and elders, please recognize the painful road "church switchers" are traveling. Pray for them, listen to them, and love them-whether they are coming or going.
To read about my own journey and to learn more about changing churches, look on Amazon for Changing Churches: A View from the Pew.
"On this rock I will build my church." Matt. 16:18