A woman I’ll call Paula joined her church in an urban neighborhood in the 70’s. But as the demographics changed over time, church attendance declined. What had once been a church of 300 members shrunk to about 50 worshippers in the 2000’s.
It wasn’t just demographic change that led to the decline. Paula perceived a deep lack of trust among the membership. While some leaders tried to be open in their communication, others enforced an atmosphere of quiet resistance. “It was impossible to have open conversations about what to do. You always felt like people didn’t trust you.” Whenever change was introduced, a contingent of older leaders could be counted on to cross their arms and say “No.” Paula often felt like she didn’t belong, but she kept trying to bring new ideas to the table.
Even as the atmosphere in the church got heavier, many people were unwilling to acknowledge they were dying. Meetings were held to discuss the situation.
“Closure was brought up a couple times in thoughtful ways, looking at the facts, and (the conversation) was just shut down,” she says.
Finally, Paula did “the hardest thing I ever did in my life.” She stood up at a congregational meeting and announced she was leaving the church. She openly gave her reasons, and suggested people talk to her about it if they wanted. She promised to stay on for a couple more months to orient others to her volunteer roles. “I need to do this for me,” she told them. “So many people just disappear when they leave a church. I wanted to be more open and intentional about it.”
No one asked her about her decision. Some people just avoided her altogether.
Not long after that, the pastor also announced his departure. Then the choir director and council president resigned. Each leader who left openly articulated their reasons. Paula now says the departure of these key leaders was an important turning point. Within less than a year, the church had closed its doors.
While it is usually beneficial for a group to stick together through tough times, some congregational systems may display increased dysfunction and denial in their last days. Are all the members obligated by loyalty to stay until the end? My answer would be no.
A community mired in dysfunction can no longer be the seedbed of healthy discipleship. In this case, faithful Christians may need to seek a new community. If a departure is carried out respectfully and honestly, it can be an act of self-differentiation that helps others decide where they stand and what they wish to fight for.
Maybe you are tempted to just “slip away” without saying anything, to prevent hurting people’s feelings. If you do that, you leave a hole, not only of your personhood and spiritual gifts, but of your insights and feelings that the congregation could learn from.
If you are considering leaving a church that is in decline, make a list of your reasons and consider whether your action is leading you toward Christ, or away. If people in the church have hurt you, is revenge a part of your decision? And where are you going from here? What kind of faith community do you need? What kind of church needs you? And what spiritual gifts have been nurtured in your old church that will be used in your new one?
Maybe you are thinking, “Oh, I could never leave. The church would fall apart without me.” Think again. The Church is God’s project. Not yours.