Telling your pastor you’re leaving.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 August

Are we obligated to give our church an exit interview before we leave?

Got a question from a reader: “Last year my pastor preached about the steps you need to take before you leave the church. One of them was you first have to go to your pastor and talk it over with him. But most of the reason I’m leaving my church is because of him. Do I really have to talk with him first?”

No. You don’t have to say a word. You can go to another church immediately.

This “You gotta talk to the pastor before you leave” idea doesn’t come from bible. It comes entirely from pastors. They wanna know why you’re leaving.

Ideally, it’s because pastors wanna help. People leave churches for all sorts of reasons. And the pastors are hoping maybe, just maybe, they can help you work out some of those reasons, and change your mind. (I think it’s naïve of them to hope so, but many of them will try it just the same.)

Often, and more realistically, they’re troubleshooting. They wanna know why you’re leaving in case it’s the church’s fault. What can they fix? What can they do to prevent people from leaving in future?—to “close the back door,” so to speak?

And yeah, sometimes it’s not at all for noble reasons. Sometimes pastors want the chance to defend themselves. “You’re leaving because the church does [a bothersome behavior]? Well, we’re meant to do that. God wants us to do that. We’d be compromising the gospel if we quit doing that. It’s wrong of you to object to that.” Really, the discussion’s not gonna do a whole lot to convince you to stick around. It’s just to make the pastors feel vindicated and self-righteous; to feel they did nothing wrong, and you’re in the wrong for leaving. If that’s the sort of meeting you suspect you’re gonna have (’cause that’s the way the pastors tend to defend themselves every other time a problem comes up), definitely skip it. It’ll be no help to anyone.

Worst case: The pastors wanna do nothing but browbeat you for leaving. Or threaten you with hell, because they’re convinced their church is the only outpost of God’s kingdom there is, and everyplace else belongs to Satan. Don’t go to those meetings either.

If you really do want them to know your reasons for leaving, write them an email or letter. You needn’t read what they send you in response—especially when you suspect it’ll be hurtful. That too is optional. You needn’t send them anything.

What if your church made you sign a contract, when you became members, which required you to have an “exit interview” before you leave? Simple: They can’t legally enforce it. At all. (Contrary to popular belief, employers can’t legally enforce exit interviews upon their employees either. So your church definitely hasn’t a leg to stand on.) If they persist, tell ’em to either get a subpoena or leave you alone. And of course no court will grant them any such thing, ’cause separation of church and state.

Such churches may insist, “You promised us before God,” and hope this argument convinces you to attend any meeting they deem necessary. And yeah, when we swear to God, we oughta abide by any such promises, because God holds us accountable to them. But let me remind you that marriage vows are also a promise before God—yet Jesus permits people to divorce those who cheat on them. Mt 5.32 There’s a significant difference between promising God, who never goes back on his word; and promising humans, who regularly do.

So if your church mistreats you—and in so doing, defies God—you’ve been cheated on. You can divorce your church. Insisting you can’t, or that you must only do it on your church’s terms, is just more mistreatment. All of it manmade. None of it biblical.

When you’re in the wrong.

All right, thus far I’ve mostly written with the assumption the church is in the wrong. ’Cause when churches and pastors insist on an exit interview, if not demand one, it’s not biblical for them to do so—and they should know this, yet they don’t care. Kinda suggests there are a few other things wrong with them. Legalistic things.

But in my experience, just about every time Christians leave their churches, it’s not the churches that’re the problem. It’s the Christians.

  • Christians who are looking for “the perfect church,” as if such a thing can exist before Jesus returns to earth. Well they found a flaw, it’s a dealbreaker, and they’re off to try another church.
  • Christians who insist we can’t agree to disagree on certain issues. Like a church which doesn’t align enough with their politics. Or a church which doesn’t stand up for certain things they consider fundamental. Or a church which practices more grace than they’re comfortable with. Or less grace.
  • Christians who want positions of authority, but aren’t mature enough, so they’ll keep bouncing from church to church till they find one that’ll indulge them.
  • Christians who don’t want responsibility, and whenever a church expects ’em to participate, they figure it’s time they leave.
  • Christians who “aren’t getting fed.” By which they mean they’re quite familiar with the preacher’s favorite points and platitudes, but they want more. They’ve grown beyond spiritual infancy: They’re like a 5-year-old girl who’s still getting spoon-fed with a baby spoon, who needs a bigger spoon, and oughta hold it herself. In other words, they’re ready for the Holy Spirit, not their pastors, to be their primary instructors. But they can’t understand why baby food is no longer filling, blame the pastors for feeding ’em wrong, and go look for another church. That church isn’t gonna satisfy ’em either. (That is, unless it teaches something novel, which captivates ’em for a time… but isn’t necessarily better.)
  • Christians who have doubts. As we all will, from time to time. It’s totally normal. But rather than deal with them (or, commonly and unhealthily, suppress them), some of us freak out and quit church.
  • Awful human beings whom nobody in the church wants to befriend—and yeah, to some degree that’s kinda on the church. But some of them get really tired of all the Christians telling them, “Please don’t do that,” and quit to find a more tolerant church.
  • Christians who want their church to have more ministries or resources they can tap. Sometimes for valid reasons, like the kids find the children’s and youth ministries to be boring. Sometimes invalid, like they want a singles ministry so they can have a bible study where they can “hook up” with people.
  • Christians who want better worship music. More dynamic speakers. Nicer facilities. More attractive church attendees. A church coffeehouse. You know, cosmetic stuff.
  • Christians who get tired of all the same old people, and just wanna meet new people. (Maybe people who don’t know their baggage?)

Anyway, you can see why none of these people would ever wanna participate in an exit interview. They’re not leaving for anything but selfish, carnal reasons. This fact is gonna come out in any exit interview. It’s embarrassing.

Although I’ve known Christians who really aren’t as embarrassed by this stuff as they should be. They’ll totally admit it: “Your church needs to condemn the homosexual agenda way more often than you do. You make it sound like God loves those people.” Nothing’ll convince them they’re off, or outright wrong. They’ll even demand the church change to suit them: “Either start preaching my agenda, or I’m outta here.” Although whenever pastors do try to please such people, they’re outta there anyway. Because ultimately, they want the church to be about them. Not so much Jesus.

Christians who worship themselves can be jealous gods.

When pastors wanna help.

Pastors wanna know what’s going on with the people of their churches. And when their people just ghost their churches (“ghost” being the current slang for leaving without saying goodbye), they wanna know why.

Usually for sincere reasons: Pastors wanna make sure people aren’t leaving because other people in the church were awful to them. Or because the ministries are dysfunctional in any way.

When people are going through rough times, often they decide their problems take priority over church attendance. Pastors wanna help, but they don’t know what’s going on, or whether they can help, or how. ’Cause many people will go to a church for years, yet never share their needs. Never ask for prayer support. Never treat church like the support system Jesus intends. Pretend everything’s just hunky-dory; that their lives are perfect because Jesus fixed everything. You know, lies of omission. But pastors wanna help! It’s their job, y’know.

Frequently, pastors put a whole lot of time and prayer into their churches. They spend a lot of time with the regulars. They pray with ’em, and for them. They invite ’em to stuff, answer questions in their bible studies, sometimes have private times of counseling and encouragement. They make friends of the people in their churches. And when these friends decide, “Nope, not going to this church anymore,” and leave without saying goodbye… well, pastors know this sort of thing happens. Still hurts though.

So you can see why they’d ask for an exit interview: Is it anything they’ve done? Is there anything they can do? Can this relationship be salvaged?

Yeah, there are the self-defensive reasons. I’m not talking about those pastors anymore. I’m talking about the ones who really are following Jesus.

These are the pastors who really get their knickers in a twist when I advise Christians they don’t have to attend any exit interviews if they really don’t wanna. Because these pastors only have the best of intentions: They wanna restore relationships! Isn’t restoration what God’s kingdom is all about? And here I am getting in the way of that.

Still sticking with my advice though.

For two reasons. The most obvious one is that it’s not gonna solve anything. Either the people are wrong for leaving, and never gonna change their mind; or the leadership is running the church wrong, but they’re never gonna change their mind. Such meetings aren’t gonna be productive. At all. Everybody leaves convinced they’re in the right, the others are wrong, and they’re more hurt than before.

What about Matthew 18, wherein Jesus tells us how we’re to confront Christians who sinned against us? Folks, those meetings should’ve taken place way before people quit a church. (And if you’re truly following Matthew 18, there should’ve been multiple meetings already.) Claiming, “But Matthew 18!” as your defense for an exit interview is at best following the passage wrong, and at worst an excuse which you know is total rubbish; i.e. hypocrisy.

Nah; if people are leaving, pastors already blew their chances to reconcile anything. They should’ve met with the people the very first time these people looked like they had serious doubts and questions. Nip those weeds in the bud, not leave ’em to fester and grow. I realize pastors are busy, and don’t have time to take meetings or make phone calls over every little problem. That’s why they need to delegate such things to mature Christians in their churches who do have the time. But enough about this tangent.

The other reason is that there is a biblical response to when people leave a pastor’s church:

Matthew 10.14 KWL
“Whoever doesn’t accept you, nor listen to your words:
As you go out of their house or town, shake their dirt off your feet.”

It’s the pastor’s responsibility to point people towards Jesus. If they did that, but people won’t listen, their duty is done. If people go to a different church, where they still might follow Jesus, great!—but their duty is still done. And if the people go nowhere—which might happen—still the pastors’ duty is done, and Jesus’s next words apply to such people:

Matthew 10.15 KWL
“Amen, I promise you: It’ll be more bearable on Judgment Day
for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than that town.”

Yikes. Hope the people are going to another church.

But basically, if people don’t wanna listen, if people wanna leave, churches need to let ’em leave. Stop hindering them. Stop making them jump through hoops before they can go. Ask for feedback, but never demand it, and realistically they shouldn’t expect it. You might wanna help, but you’ve gotta recognize some people don’t wanna be helped.