Why We Didn’t Divorce Our Church (even though we wanted to)

We wanted to leave. We really did. Frustrated, disillusioned, and disappointed, we were ready to go. We were done.

But, it wasn’t that easy. We’d been a part of this community for years. We’d worshipped, served, love, and sacrificed alongside every one of these people for so long. We’d made commitments.

It felt like a divorce.

How do you just walk away from your church?

via Flickr (misterraitch)

A while back, I asked “What would make you leave your church?” That’s exactly the question that my wife and I were wrestling with several years back. And, after much soul searching, we decided to stay. I’d like to explain why. But before I do, I need to say something of why we wanted to go. It was more complicated than this, but these were the most pressing issues.

  1. Stagnation. The church excelled at fellowship. It was one big family. We loved each other and enjoyed spending time together. But, we did little outside the family. We’d spend a lot of time talking about how to impact the community, spread the Gospel, reach the lost, etc.  But it never really happened. We’d do it for a season, and then slip back onto the cozy shelter of our potlucks, small groups, and Sunday school classes. Sure, we supported lots of missionaries, and the children’s and youth ministries often reached new people with the Gospel, but the church itself seemed to be treading water.  And even though nothing much happens when you’re treading water, it gets pretty exhausting after a while.
  2. The Pastor. Bringing on a new lead pastor is always an interesting experience. You have to adjust to a new personality, leadership style, preaching style, theological perspective, and philosophy of ministry. It’s not surprising that so many pastoral transition go badly. This was no different. The church had hired a new lead pastor, and my wife and I were having a difficult time with the transition. It just wasn’t good for us, in almost every conceivable way. Although I’d long argued that a church was more than its lead pastor and that you shouldn’t leave a church just because you didn’t like the pastor, we were now experiencing first-hand what it’s like when your pastor really isn’t a good fit for you. We were still involved in productive ministry, but neither of us could see how this could continue long term.
  3. Lack of Leadership. This one was and is the hardest to pin down. I can’t point at any one thing that caused us to be concerned about the overall leadership of the church. It was more a series of little things that together that suggested a lack of decisive leadership on the church’s elder board.
  4. Support for Women. I won’t go into this one too much because I know how sensitive this area is, and I don’t want this to become a post on the role of women in the church. But, I have a gifted wife and amazingly talented daughters (though my youngest had not yet arrived on the scene). So, I’ve long been sensitive to how a church speaks to/about women and the extent to which it involves and supports women in significant ministry roles. (This is true regardless of whether the church is egalitarian or complementarian). And, I had some real questions about whether this church was a good place for us to be long term.
  5. Personal Discontent. I don’t know how else to say it. I’m sure this was a combination of all the above, along with myriad of other, smaller issues. Regardless, we were both struggling with a pervasive discontent that left us really wanting to move on. Indeed, we weren’t looking for reasons to leave; we were trying to see if we had any reason to stay.

Looking back on that difficult time, I wish I could say that we had good, principled, theological reasons for staying. I’d like to brag (humbly) about how well we handled the situation, and share our wisdom and insight with you. But, I can’t.

Here are some of the reasons that I’d like to say caused us to stay at the church.

  1. We understood that the Church is built on grace. If we are going to be Gospel-shaped communities, we need to exemplify grace throughout the Church. So, I wish I could say that we could stay because we wanted to model grace by continuing to work as broken people alongside other broken people to exemplify the Gospel in a broken world.
  2. We understood that the church is not about us. Recognizing that the church exists primarily to glorify God and make his glory known in the world, I wish I could say that we stayed because we placed God’s glory and his mission above our own dissatisfaction.
  3. We were committed to relationships. Seeing the Church more as a family than a social club, I wish I could say that we decided to stay because we valued those relationships so highly.
  4. We knew that the church was more than the pastor. As I mentioned earlier, I have long maintained that people make a sad mistake when the equate the church with its lead pastor. It’s so much more than that. And, I wish I could say this is one of the reasons that we stayed.
  5. We knew that the grass is not always greener. In my experience, leaving a church because you’re dissatisfied rarely works for long. Every church is broken. How could they not be when they’re filled with broken people? Every church fails in some way. This may sound overly pessimistic, but my guess is that if you’re totally satisfied with your church, it probably means (a) you don’t know enough about it yet or (b) its weaknesses and blind spots match yours well enough that you just don’t see them anymore. So, I wish I could say that we stayed because we realized that leaving out of discontent was not a good solution.

In other words, I wish I could say that we stayed because we caught a vision for the Church’s true purpose and how this particular church could still live out that purpose despite its frustrating weaknesses.

I wish I could say that. But I can’t.

We stayed because we were leaving eventually anyway.

We’d already made plans that would require us to move within a couple of years. With the end so clearly in sight, we stayed. We figured that we could gut it out for two years, and then walk away without causing the kind of pain and disruption that would have resulted from just walking away.

Was that the right decision to make? We spared the community some pain, and we were probably more involved in significant ministry for those two years than we would have been as new people at a different church. But, it was a very frustrating two years, especially for my wife. And, in hindsight I fear that we enabled the church to continue some bad patterns because we didn’t force the issue. Maybe staying was the right decision, though our reasons for wanting to move on still seem pretty compelling to me. But, staying because we were leaving anyway was a cop out. In the end, we took the path of least resistance. And, that’s never a good enough reason for staying.

The church deserved better.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 14, 2011, in Pastoral Theology, The Church. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Loved this post. Loved your thought process and honesty. I loved that you wrestled with your theology and feelings. Loved that you stayed and hated it, but stayed anyway. Is it possible to stay and still be divorced?

    • Thanks Mark. And yes, I do think it’s possible to stay together and still be “divorced.” It’s like the married couple who really wants to separate but can’t afford to. They’re not really married, they just live together. It’s sad, but it happens.

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