Rachel G. Hackenberg is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. In a recent Huffington Post piece she raises the issue of individuals who choose to leave their churches, or whole congregations that feel compelled to depart from their denomination. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-g-hackenberg/letting-you-leave-church_b_1501481.html?ref=religion
Hackenberg suggests the proper response to church leavers is to bless them on their way.
Of course she is right. What else can you do? Individuals leave churches. Congregations separate from their wider communities. It happens. It is impossible and undesirable to force anyone to stay in a situation they have come to find untenable. And, there is no doubt that there are times when it is simply unhealthy for some people to remain in a particular community.
What I find troubling in Hackenberg’s piece is her attempt to list the reasons that may cause people to leave a church.
If you’re not being spiritually fed within this church’s walls, please, be blessed as you seek another faith community to encourage you. If you have been hurt or scorned or disenfranchised by a church leader, pastor or congregation in your life, please, leave to find the safe space needed for healing; I certainly hope that someday you will participate in a non-injuring faith community, but I affirm your need to leave the Church at this time. If your congregation can only relate to your denomination with animosity or apathy, be blessed as a faith community to spend time in discernment about your wider church affiliations.
If you struggle to relate to your faith community with grace instead of ultimatums, unable to pursue your own and the congregation’s growth without also seeking power, please, for the sake of the Church’s health, let me bless you as you leave. If the color of the carpet is pivotal to your experience of God (a logistical issue which, when debated ad nauseam, becomes precisely one of those reasons why people dislike organized religion), please know that I will affirm your choice to leave in protest over the carpet color.
1. You are not being fed. Churches need to be places of spiritual nourishment. Worship, teaching, and spiritual fellowship play an important role in assisting spiritual growth. It is essential to be part of a spiritual community in which one feels nourished. But, it is also possible that by offering nourishment and encouragement to others, you may find yourself deeply nourished and supported in your spiritual life.
2. You have been hurt by your church. There is no doubt that churches hurt people. It is terrible when it happens and every member of every church community bears responsibility to do everything in their power to mitigate the hurtful realities of being in community. There are certainly times when a church community becomes so toxic and vicious that the only healthy choice is to leave. But Hackenberg’s suggestion that you set out to find “a non-injuring faith community” is I hope only tongue in cheek. There is no such thing as “a non-injuring community”. Pain is part of the package of living in a world with people. Wherever two or three are gathered together, there will be hurt. We grow by facing the painful reality that we will often feel let down by people, not by rushing from community to community in the futile attempt to find a place where we will never be hurt.
3. “If your congregation can only relate to your denomination with animosity or apathy” or “If you struggle to relate to your faith community with grace instead of ultimatums, unable to pursue your own and the congregation’s growth without also seeking power” then leave. Whether we stay or leave, discomfort always provides an opportunity to grow in our practice of,
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22,23)
4. And then there is the truly momentous issue of “the color of the carpet.” I can only hope Hackenberg is trying to generate a smile here. But, perhaps this is the one issue in church leaving that most hits the nail on the head. The truth may be that people leave churches and congregations leave denominations for imperfectly grasped reasons of which they themselves are only partially aware. People leave communities because something has arisen that makes them feel uncomfortable. It no longer feels like a place of belonging. There no longer seems to be a fit. So, at some point, it feels easier to move than to engage in the difficult exercise of self-examination asking what is it that I am reacting to here, what are the lessons I might be able to learn by staying, or what are the real reasons for needing to leave.
There are obviously times when it is necessary to leave a community. But we are always called to engage deeply in a process of self-examination asking if there may be deeper reasons behind our desire to depart. Whether we stay or go, if we enter fully into an honest process of self-awareness, we and the community will be enriched whatever the outcome.