Sorting by

×
Skip to main content
Listen To Article

I have read so many things in the past few years about why people are leaving the church.

As churches, we’ve critiqued, we’ve analyzed, and we’ve second-guessed ourselves, attempting to find the magic formula that will not only attract people, but will also convince them to stay.

  • Is it our commitment to Bible-based preaching?
  • Is it music?
  • Maybe it’s our stance on some key theological or political issue?
  • Is it how we respond to the inevitable PTSD after COVID?

After years of serving as a staff member of a church that has been my home for forty years, I find myself often growing cynical about the fickle nature of church membership.

I don’t want to be judgmental or mean about this, but the truth is that we’re seeing a mass migration out of churches to either a different church or back to the comfort of the living room. There are many different reasons for this migration, but it has had a deep impact on those who have chosen to stay, especially on those who have felt called to leadership within the church.

In a word—“abandonment.” I’ve felt it often. I felt it a number of years ago when someone with whom I had felt a strong bond moved away. I couldn’t shake the feeling of sadness and grief, even though her moving away was necessary for her family. Years later, when she returned, I shared those feelings with her and she was surprised at my feelings of abandonment; you see, there’s a huge difference between leaving and staying, even though separation is the result of both decisions.

Those who leave have made a conscious choice, and those who stay feel the weight of those decisions over and over. We watch our church family gradually shrink every time someone chooses to go. I’m not judging the reasons or convictions, I’m only saying that it hurts . . . deeply . . . every single time.

It’s difficult to be on a mission in the world, when our team is constantly changing and our plans have to be reshaped. And this doesn’t even begin to address taking the time for the emotional recovery that comes with each loss.

There’s really no good way to leave a church, but there are some ways that are better than others. For those who remain, the worst way you can leave is by not saying anything and just being absent until someone notices. We don’t know whether you wish to be left alone, or pursued, and we often make the wrong decision. Or sometimes, the church receives a carefully-worded letter of explanation which is an attempt at closure, but rarely is successful. And, once in a while but not often, there are face to face conversations which may be uncomfortable, but at least provide an honest attempt to understand each other.

I don’t know if I’m speaking for everyone, but I’m sure many would agree with me that the pain of losing people feels personal. People with whom we’ve had close relationships, whose children we’ve help raised, whose cancer diagnosis devastated us and whose joys and triumphs we celebrated. It feels like all of that history was not enough—that we were not enough.

I know that in the moment, your decision to leave felt really important. What I don’t understand is how it was more important than all of those other things we have been through together.

For someone like me, who doesn’t handle broken relationships well, sadness and self-doubt are my go-to feelings. I tell myself stories. I read between the lines. I have imaginary conversations that are upsetting even though they only happen in my head. Then, when I see you, I feel awkward and strangely guilty.

I’m not sure that writing this has been helpful for anyone, other than helping to clarify my own thoughts and feelings. I don’t know how it will be received by those who have left. I do believe, however that I speak on behalf of a large group of people who have been relatively silent.

Our silence doesn’t mean we’re okay. We miss you.


Theda Williams

Theda Williams is a commissioned pastor in the Reformed Church in America. Currently, she serves as the Pastor of Women’s Ministries at Community Reformed Church in Charlevoix, Michigan. She has served on staff in a variety of roles since 2007.  Theda and her husband Ron have three grown children and several grandchildren.

9 Comments

  • Chris says:

    Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for writing this. I don’t know of anything more painful in our church lives than to have people you’ve worked next to for years – laughed with, dreamed with, prayed over – walk away without a word. And you stay. You can analyze, rationalize, and even work hard on forgiveness. But that doesn’t take away the pain.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Yes, as a pastor, I know the feeling well. I served in a high transition environment, so it was frequent for people to move away, and that I didn’t find so hard, but it was those who stayed nearby, and who just dropped out, after our having poured so much into them (counseling, encouraging, baptizing, visiting, supporting) that bothered me. I didn’t feel betrayed so much as used, exploited. Occasionally you hear that they cite one mistake somebody made, one thing said wrong, a weakness–as if that weren’t what they rest of us had to reconcile ourselves to all the time. Hard feelings, yes. Uncharitable on my part, no doubt. Needing to be let go of, of course.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Yes, this is helpful. Thank you. One of the words I appreciate in the New Testament is “remain.” There are times when leaving is necessary, but often I believe we’re called to do the hard work of love and community instead. This is our part so that the kindom (not a typo) may flourish.

  • RZ says:

    If I may suggest a slightly different paradigm here…. Church leaders and pastors in particular are literally married to their churches, emotionally. Bless them! Parishoners are increasingly not. A privileged society has options, perhaps too many options, including virtual ones now. The church thrives under adversity and need, while it goes dormant under prosperity A pastor frames the question as what (s)he can do for her/his church and for THE church. Many parishoners mindlessly ask what the church can do for them. Once that cost/ benefit ratio tips in the direction of too high a cost in either energy, money, boredom, or emotional distress, people leave, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. The peer pressure of others leaving and a growing disregard for tradition certainly add to this trend. And during the last decade, the evangelical church’s identity is increasingly confused and polarized. The local pastor must compete with false, nondiscerning narratives that flood the airwaves. The church mirrors, rather than contrasts, the surrounding culture. We have often allowed this to occur by not declaring an intolerance for intolerance. There are many other factors, of course, and I am not convinced the church of 50 or 100 years ago was that much deeper spritually so much as it was tradition-tied. I wonder if this is all a cycle we must endure. This faithful-remnant theme is not new.
    I do believe this discussion is necessary and helpful. The problem is all of ours to own. Thank you for this well written prompt and for being vulnerable.

  • Thank you. You said it well and it’s a needed voice.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Yes! this was heard and necessary. And could even be applied to more broadly to marriages, friendships, politics etc etc etc. Thank you for your honesty and how difficult is when only one side is willing to build the bridge.

  • Phyllis Roelofs says:

    Thank you for writing this. However, it must also be kept in mind that leaving a church by choice may not be easy. To be considered are sadness, loss, strained or broken friendships, sometimes anger, and more. It is kind and loving to bless people on their way even if we don’t understand or agree with their decision. I would certainly appreciate that courtesy if I am the one choosing to leave.

  • Doug says:

    Thanks for this, Theda. I’m guessing lots of pastors have had similar feelings. I know have.

Leave a Reply