Saturday, June 9, 2012

Church Search Chronicles: On Saying Goodbye

'Letters Play Important Roles in our Lives' photo (c) 2010, William Arthur Fine Stationery - license: the most difficult part of this church change has been knowing what—and how much—to say when people from our previous church reach out to us.

I've been in their shoes plenty of times. People leave quietly. Life gets busy. You don't immediately notice they're gone because of so many variables like vacations, ministry responsibilities and different service times. 

Sometimes, tragically, a month or two can go by before you realize that a fellow member is gone. As soon as it hits you, you get this dull ache in the pit of your stomach. You suddenly realize that something must have been wrong for a long time. They've been agonizing over their situation in the shadows, and you had no idea. What went wrong? This isn't how church should be.

This time, I find myself on the other end of that dynamic. Our last Sunday was about a month ago, and the email, calls and Facebook messages are starting to trickle in. We're grateful for their concern, but it's hard to know exactly what to say. So many questions swirl around in my mind: How do we maintain the relationships we have with everyone in the wake of this, without dragging them into the details? How do we assure them that this was a well-thought-out decision, without divulging the specific disagreements we had? How do we say it in a way that doesn't cast doubt in their mind about whether they should stay? Should we say anything at all?

This morning, something happened that I wish happened more often. I woke up at 5:59am with a fully composed message in my mind. I didn't ask God for it, and He didn't speak it to me. But it's the message I've needed to say to everyone in our little church who may have been wondering where we were—and even those who hadn't yet asked.

I sent it out, in individual messages, to everyone I could think of at our former church with whom we hadn't directly spoken. I've decided to share it here, since several of you have contacted me who are in the same situation in your own church across the country, or the world. I hope you find it helpful as you struggle to find the right parting words for those you love so dearly in your former church. I have removed any proper names.

One last word of advice: if you are not emotionally in a place where these words are true of you, wait until it is true of you to send it. For me, it took about a month to arrive at a place where I could honestly say everything in it.

* * * * *

Dear [name],

By now you are probably well aware that we have been absent from [our church] for a few weeks now. Having been in your shoes—watching people leave a church and wondering what happened to them—I wanted to reach out to you so you don’t wonder what happened to us, or where our relationship with you stands.

Our reason for leaving centered very closely around [brief and general statement of reason], which we attempted to reconcile in the [number of weeks/months] leading up to our decision to leave. It had nothing to do with you, or anyone outside of this situation. Realizing that leaving [our church] meant leaving regular fellowship with you was what made our decision the most difficult.

Please know that even though we are no longer at [our church], we still love you very much, and think of you often. We hold no grudges or bitterness or animosity toward you, or toward the leadership. We want to stay in touch, but will leave all contact to your discretion right now given the sensitivity of the situation. If you see us in the store, at a wedding or funeral, or anywhere else at any point in the future, you can be sure that we will be as glad as ever to greet you with open arms.

Times like these give us a greater longing for heaven, where we will all be reunited in perfect fellowship at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. We would have hoped to continue that foretaste of fellowship with you on this side of glory, but we realize that these things happen for a reason. God is still on His throne when people decide it is time to leave a church. He is working all things together for our good and His glory.

Please keep us in your prayers as we look for another church home. And we will continue to pray that God’s will would be done for you, and all the people at [our church], in the weeks and months ahead.

With much affection,

Scott for the Bennett family

How about you? What have you found is the right thing to say to folks at your former church? We could all benefit from your wisdom.


  1. As a minister's wife, I would be most glad to receive that kind of a letter... Brilliant, loving, mature response. And you're right - so many leave in silence and I would much rather know that they were going to a different church than worry that they had fallen away from faith.

  2. Scott - I would love to paraphrase this and use it! Thank you - very helpful. (I won't actually use it...but you are giving me some good ideas here)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.