I was gasping for breath as my best friend drove us away. Maybe it was raining, maybe not. It felt like it should’ve been raining like tears streaked on the car’s windows. It was a full snot, screaming, and messy tears kind of crying as we pulled out of the church parking lot for the last time after we were told by church staff if we were leaving anyway, we might as well just leave now.
And so we left the grounds immediate and just like that, over five years of commitment and ministry was over. In an instant, the church and I were now two separate entities.
It felt like how I imagined a divorce would feel.
I realized that I just divorced my church. And it wasn’t amicable.
Leaving a church under difficult circumstances, whether it is because of a difference of opinions, God’s call elsewhere, or other reasons, is heartbreaking. Even leaving one that wasn’t healthy for me anymore, has been one of the most painful and haunting experiences of my life. Here’s why:
It’s not just breaking up with a building; it’s breaking up with a whole bunch of other people. The lady at the welcome desk who’s always in the know, the elderly greeters, and those people who you just say “hi” to in passing—they’re not in your anymore. Those peripheral friends with who you have a few inside jokes, but nothing more, are gone. You say goodbye to the safe confines of knowing and being known.
Maybe it’s me, not them. A lot of self-reflection comes with making a major life change. Am I doing the right thing? God, is this really want you want? I can be the solution to this mounting problem. Well, maybe I’m not seeking God enough. These questions and thoughts are mentally draining. But eventually, I came to the point where I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t sing on the praise team with mock sincerity. I could not stomach attending Sunday services. I was getting spiritually and physically ill because God told me to go and I stayed too long. Sometimes it’s actually them, not you.
But it isn’t supposed to be like this! We all love God, for crying out loud! No, it’s not supposed to be like this and it breaks the heart of all involved. I did not take lightly the issue of leaving my church of five years. It was prayed over for almost 10 months. There was restlessness, dissatisfaction, and a sense that the church was unhealthy. And it grew more and more unhealthy despite my best efforts to allow God use me to be the change. Change can’t happen in hardened hearts, so sometimes we need to dust off our sandals and move on. It happened to Jesus and the apostles and we can expect the same. Plus, people can all love God and still make decisions that don’t honor Him. Other times, it’s just about agreeing to disagree
It causes spiritual and emotional wounds, which we try to hide. I’m fine, right? I followed God to a new church and because I’m doing what God wants, I’m fine. Right? Right?!?! I was not and am still not “fine.” I miss things about my old church, like the youth group students and the friends I had and belonging to a community. I miss being able to just pick a Bible study and lead it and helping with VBS. But I don’t miss the other parts—the ones that are stuck deep within me, that ones I need to offer up to God and forgive, the ones I dare not write about because the wounds are still too fresh. So many thoughts and feelings are between my journal, God and me. It seems wrong to talk about our pain, how church leaders failed us and hurt us, how we feel all washed up and used up, and how we’re not sure if we want to be a part of a community again.
It can be a lonely, misunderstood journey. It has been for me. Literally, people just don’t get it unless they’ve been through it. I run into people who left the old church as well. We talk about things that happened at the old church sometimes while standing in the hallways of our new church, not sure if we should laugh or cry at the ridiculousness. It feels like we all survived this major thing and have become spiritual refugees in a strange, new church. We were front row Christians, and now we still in the back row hoping no one will notice us, yet desperately hoping someone will reach out to us.
You are brave. No matter what your old church says, what rumors you may hear, or what takes place, you must not let it destroy you. You made the difficult decision to walk, maybe run away from a bad, unhealthy, and possibly spiritually abusive church, and that takes a lot of courage. Walk hand-in-hand with God as He guides you for in Him is your true strength.
I had a plan. I would slowly fade out, savor the last moments keeping a mental scrapbook, and I would move on to a new church to find rest, to be fed, and to just be.
But it didn’t end like that.
I didn’t ride off in my cosmic gray Hyundai Elantra proud of my work with youth, women’s ministry, praise team, and volunteerism.
Instead, it was harsh and sad and shameful. Yet I know my God has and is still walking with me through this wilderness. He knows how He will bind these wounds and use them for His glory. He will gather these ashes and create beauty.
No matter what ending you had planned, remember that God will use this to mold you, grow you. He has far, far better things ahead than what you leave behind.