I am not the kind of person who just changes churches. I know there are no perfect churches, and leaving one community with its griefs and frustrations would mean joining another with its own problems. Churches are made up of frustratingly finite humans, after all.
But I did leave the church I’d been at for more than 20 years: the church we’d raised our children in, led by pastors who had shepherded my heart. I didn’t change churches because I was fed up or angry or was looking for a better ‘fit’. In some ways, the new church was less ‘comfortable’ than the one I’d left. Figuring out why I would consider leaving and how to do it was a process that took months of prayer and discernment. Here are some of the factors I wrestled with on the journey:
There were things about my former church that were frustrating to me, but I had taken to heart the advice of a family member with experience in the corporate world: rather than leaving because you’re frustrated, sometimes you need to stay to be part of the change. I knew my motives needed to be because God was calling me to move, and not that I was throwing in the towel. I spent a long time thinking and praying through my motives in why I might move away from my church.
Just as important, though, was processing my motives in considering moving to another church. What was attracting me? I know I am a joiner by heart, and wanted to make sure I wasn’t just moving on to something that seemed shinier and sparklier, or didn’t have the complicated emotional history that comes with any long relationship. When my husband passed away, I lost the person who was most able to hold up a mirror to me and help me with this kind of self-examination, and so without him I needed to spend extra time with God asking him to really search my heart (Psalm 139:23). I wanted to be both called and sent by God to make any change, and so I wrestled with both my discontentments and my longings before him (Psalm 38:9). I met with a Spiritual Director who encouraged me to journal through some questions, and writing things down helped me to notice and name things that had been swirling in my head for a while.
Enrolling in a seminary class introduced me to the idea that the Christian life has a couple different components: orthodoxy refers to correct doctrine, and knowing the content of what we believe is right. Orthopraxy is correct living, and seeing the fruit of the Spirit in our lifestyles. But one aspect I hadn’t thought about was orthopathy, which refers to the place of our emotions and affections being right. Learning that the Holy Spirit would have us pay attention to what feels like love, joy, justice, and mercy was a new thing to consider. As I prayed through the options, it helped to pay attention to not just my head’s reasons, but my heart’s longings also, which God used to help me get a bigger picture of his leading.
I kept asking God to make his next assignment clear to me, and as I gave myself time to process and offered the options up to God, I reached a point of saying “either answer is fine, Lord. I could stay or I could go, and I’ll serve you wherever.” I asked him for guidance and wisdom, which he promises to give (James 1:5), and over time, the leading felt clear.
Out of respect and gratitude to those who had shepherded me for so long (Hebrews 13:7), I wanted to make sure I spoke to my former church leaders before letting anybody else know I was thinking of moving. Even though I knew it would be difficult, I made appointments to speak to each of the pastors face to face. The conversations were sad—it felt like breaking up—but it gave me an opportunity to share my heart and not leave them hurting and guessing about any silence.
After talking to the pastors, I reached out to some of the people I was most closely connected to to let them know: some I emailed, some I talked with. These would always be my sisters and brothers in Christ, even if I was worshipping elsewhere, and it was important for these relationships that they hear of this change from me rather than via the grapevine.
Once I’d said my goodbyes, I reached out to the pastor of the church I would be moving to. “I know this is not a perfect church,” I said, “and I know you’ll disappoint me and I’ll disappoint you. But this is where I sense God calling me to right now.”
For all their differences, both my former and my new church are part of the Kingdom of God. No matter which one I attend, my hope and prayer is still that in the bigger scheme of things they are coming alongside one another to do the Kingdom Work God has called us to do. I pray and hope for the flourishing of both. The question for me as I considered leaving was, Which hub of God’s family was I to serve this bigger calling in right now? For now, that answer is clear.