I want to leave.
There, I said it.
No—not my marriage. I want to leave my church. The church's new ministry focus excludes me from using my giftedness in any sort of serving capacity. But there's a hitch. He wants to stay. He wants to stay in case we're supposed to be part of the solution—to help them see the dangers of this new philosophy of church ministry. Considering we aim to be in agreement on any life-changing decision, the church membership dilemma causes more than a little heartburn.
Leaving a church is much like leaving a marriage, though. It should not be considered lightly. It's like severing a part of the body. I respect my husband for wanting to be sure on such a big decision. If we make the move, we need to do it with no regrets and no burned bridges. We're praying for peace of mind and discernment. We realize we need to be open-minded to whatever God directs and take any selfish agenda out of the decision.
Perhaps you and your spouse are facing a similar dilemma. How can you come to a unified decision?
Questions to Ask While Waiting for an Agreement:
- What attitudes do I need to change to better reflect God's nature and purpose in this situation? Is there someone to whom I need to give the benefit of the doubt (including my spouse)?
- What actions do I need to change to glorify God more?
- What personality glitches do I need to be aware of in myself that could be causing conflicts with others at church?
- What signals might clue me in to God's direction for our church attendance decision, as I pray for discernment and timing? How is my eagerness to leave affecting my church life?
- How can I be a better spouse as I wait? What new ways of communicating and supporting my spouse do I need to learn?
- How is my eagerness to leave affecting my marriage? How is my determination to stay affecting my marriage?
After you've discussed the issue with your spouse and made it a matter of prayer, several action steps can help you resolve the disagreement and to come up with a decision that pleases God and works best for your family.
- Set up an appointment with the individuals involved (such as church leaders or pastors) to resolve conflict as problems arise. Whether you stay or leave the church, this is a crucial step.
- Find a way to serve the Lord in church or in the community so your obedience to him is not stalled out or stagnating as you wait. Operating from a spirit of servant-heartedness always gives you a better rather than bitter outlook.
- Find fellowship with believers within and outside your current church family to see where you notice the best opportunities for "iron sharpens iron" edification.
- Research the Bible for answers, rather than relying on feelings and opinions. Be careful not to twist Sripture to validate your point of view. Receive what God says to you through his Word.
- Make sure the issues that concern you are matters that would still disturb you five years from now, and are not of little consequence in the scope of things. Learn to let insignificant issues go and be sure not to fixate on matters that don't matter. Sometimes we get upset at change when it isn't the real problem. The real problem might be that we don't feel appreciated anymore, or noticed. Is your problem a self problem or a reasonable red flag?
- Ask—what is God trying to teach me? Do I need to trade my current way of thinking about the church for a new way of thinking?
God's Accountability System
When it comes to making decisions, God has an accountability system in place for spouses. "Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands" Ephesians 5:22-24 (MSG). The decision to stay or leave a church should be based on the best way to live out love and respect.
For the Spouse Who Wants to Stay
Be open to reviewing the biblical reasons for leaving, and listen to why a new church might be a better option for fellowship, growth and service. Ask your spouse to help you see God's direction and purpose in the decision to leave so you can support the decision wholeheartedly. Consider whether your current church is impeding your family's Christian walk. Be open-minded about the possibility of leaving your current church for the betterment of your family. Discuss why staying is important to you, and why you think it is a part of God's direction and purpose.
Sherry wanted to pull her family out of church because the children's ministries had changed and she was apprehensive about the spiritual formation of her kids. Could they really get as much out of the sermons for grown-ups as they would in an age-appropriate program? This was a genuine concern. It was difficult for her husband, Mike, to think about leaving, because he experienced his own spiritual growth in that church as a child. He wanted to pass on his own church memories and traditions to his children. Sherry prayed and waited until Mike decided it was more important to focus on the future for his children than to fixate on giving them a church legacy that was no longer thriving. At that point they were both ready to move forward in a new church setting.
For the Spouse Who Wants to Leave
Ask God to show you the best way for your family to grow in him and serve him. Yield your desire to leave the church and be open to honoring your spouse's request to stay if it is for the spiritual good of your household. Consider your spouse's reasons why the family will grow in the current church setting. Be sure you aren't running from a personality conflict. Resolve issues with others in your current church prior to making a decision about leaving or staying. Present your reasons for wanting to leave in a way that expresses a genuine pursuit of godly actions and attitudes, and assure your spouse this isn't merely an attempt to escape problems and conflicts.
When both spouses seek the other person's point of view and pray together from a desire for the best possible outcome for spiritual growth, they usually can reach a unified decision. Going back to our passage in Ephesians, how can wives and husbands best show love and respect in determining to stay or leave?
It's common for spouses to have disagreements in marriage, and it's not a sign of a weak marriage or even an ungodly marriage. This disagreement taught me that sometimes the time isn't right for change. Perhaps God has other details to work on, outside our control. For example, we first visited a church when we came to town and had no peace to join, so we visited and joined another church. Then, when we could no longer support the new practices of our church, guess where God moved us? Back to that first church—the one we had thought wasn't right for us when we first moved to town. In the time that had elapsed, the pastor had resigned, the church membership was vital again and the church leadership was more involved in the heartbeat of the church. We couldn't have known that was going to happen when we first visited. Later, it was the perfect timing for our new church home.
Waiting It Out
- While waiting, focus on growing closer to God and to each other.
- Commit to communicating any new church issues that come up. Explain how the issue affects your spiritual growth, your Christian service, and your attitude.
- Be vulnerable in sharing with your spouse any possible signs you notice that it's time to leave, hurtful comments from other church members or leaders, or red flags in the way a church is operating. Resolve those issues as they surface.
- Avoid discussing your frustrations with other church members, because such talk often leads to sowing seeds of discord.
- Don't give your spouse the silent treatment when you don't get your way regarding the church membership decision. This also applies to intimacy—Scripture is clear it's never right to manipulate or sulk by refusing sexual intimacy. Also avoid guilt-trip maneuvers. Unfortunately, a decision such as this is the perfect opportunity to display passive-aggressive tendencies, so be aware of the signs and nip it in the bud if you see it in yourself or your mate.
- It's tempting to find reasons not to attend your current church if you're unhappy there. Slight symptoms become an excuse to call in sick. Or you rationalize not attending certain sermons or programs when they don't fit your interests or needs. If you find yourself missing church more than going, this is a sign that you need to reevaluate where you are attending church.
- Sometimes God moves in one spouse before he does the other. Don't assume one spouse isn't hearing God's direction for the new thing. Maybe one individual needs more time to get used to the idea. Russ and I rarely sense God leading us to change something at the exact same moment. There have been times when he has spoken to my heart a year or two ahead of when he spoke to Russ. Maybe so I'd be ready to uproot when it was time, without hesitation. I'm glad God prepares me for our moves in advance.
Since first writing this article, we've made the church membership move. We had to work through all the steps mentioned here before we were ready. When we made the switch, we knew it was the right time. We had peace of mind, knowing we had followed God's steps. In doing things his way, we honored him, honored each other, and didn't hinder his work in either church.
If church attendance has become an issue in your marriage, do what it takes to find a place of worship where you can thrive in fellowship, spiritual growth, and Christian service. In doing this, you will fulfill one of the very special needs in your relationship to God and each other.
Kathy Carlton Willis enjoys fiddling with words as a writer, a publicist, and a writer's coach at KCW Communications. She gets jazzed by inspiring others to find freedom and inspiration through "aha" light bulb moments. Kathy shines, whether she's shining the light on her clients, or reflecting God's light during speaking events. KathyCarltonWillis.com