I was on staff at a church for several years. Attending and working at a church for a long time allows you to meet many people; some of which you grow close to in one capacity or another.
You work side by side together, get to know each other’s families, have dinner in each other’s homes, participate in White Elephant gift exchanges at Christmas, celebrate birthdays, send dinners to each others homes during challenging times, laugh together, pray together and yes, even fight together.
Being a part of a church is an all-encompassing experience. When you’re involved, you’re completely INVOLVED.
I remember when word would trickle through the grapevine a family or individual was leaving the church and attending somewhere else. It was oh so easy to take their decision personally or to judge their motives.
But now I’m on the other side of leaving. I’m the one who left and I’ve learned just how painful a decision leaving a church is. No matter how much time taken, how much effort, thought and prayer put into the decision-making process, unintended consequences occur.
- Friendships are lost. I expected to lose some friends as a result of our decision to find another church home. I actually thought I knew who I would lose but the list was longer than I anticipated. It still stings. People I’ve known for a long time suddenly don’t recognize me at Target. A random email carries a bit of venom from an unexpected place. It would be easy to retaliate, beat my chest and scream at the unfairness of it all but instead, I mourn for once was and what could have been.
- Friendships are challenged and changed. I have a handful of really close friendships and I’m so grateful those are still going strong today. But our relationship has changed. I hearken back to the days of being on church staff and taking someone’s decision to leave personally. I think my decision affected some relationships in the same way. Conversations are a bit stilted and even censored on some subjects.
- Traditions end. This realization barreled through my heart like a runaway freight train this holiday season. After many years of spending Christmas Eve volunteering or working at our former church, sharing meals together in between services, seeing coworkers little children all dressed up in their Christmas finest, this year was very different compared to years past. I missed seeing my best friend’s daughter in her Christmas dress. I missed singing Silent Night and lighting a candle at the end of the evening. I missed telling familiar faces “Merry Christmas” as we headed home to spend the holiday with our families. Traditions I didn’t even realize existed until they were gone.
- Starting over is hard. After an agonizing decision to worship at another church was made, we are now in the midst of doing the hard work of getting involved and trying to make the new church feel like home to us. We will be volunteering soon, attempting to attend Bible studies, and make an effort to meet people. It’s tough being the new kid after so many years of being part of a whole. Truth be told, I think we feel a bit adrift these days as we strive to feel at home and known.
It’s my feeling leaving a church is similar to feelings of getting a divorce. Much is lost, rebuilding must occur, and you feel as if you’re missing a huge part of yourself. We really tried to leave in the right spirit and in the right way but damaged still occurred; this grieves us both. I’ve lost count how many times my husband and I have gone over our decision to leave and it always comes back to the same result: it was time to go.
Knowing this, I still walked into Christmas Eve services feeling quite sad and a bit angry. I inwardly lamented worshiping on Christmas Eve in a room full of strangers. I missed having a church family, even the one that wasn’t right for us anymore. As the usher guided us to our seats, I looked down at the end of a pew and spied a familiar face; someone else who walked the same road I’m walking. I looked at this friendly face and waved. She smiled and waved back. After services, we hugged in the vestibule. As we herded the kids out into the parking lot to head home, I realized God made sure I knew I was still known and still have part of my spiritual family. It’s small now but it’s not gone.