This Good Elder Must Leave the Church

A church elder—I’ll call him George—is grieving the loss of the church he has shepherded since its earliest days. He and his wife wanted to know if they should leave.

Here’s a synopsis of how George described the problem:
The senior pastor no longer cares what the elders say and doesn’t want to hear what they think. He says he can do whatever he wants. He doesn’t need elders. He wants yes men, which I am not. Our relationship has soured. Continuing at the church is very difficult and quite uncomfortable. Face-to-face meetings have been unfruitful. If we stay, I’m a hypocrite and I’m miserable. If we leave, the church may be hurt, and we don’t want that.

We’ve always been taught that elders should not leave the church because the church would be hurt. At what point does that potential damage fade? I trust no one at the church and so I have no one with whom I can discuss these issues. How should I proceed? I’m all ears.

My response:
1.    It’s the Lord’s church, it is no man’s church. 
2.    The Lord owns you. You are not owned by any man.
3.    You are a follower of Jesus Christ first. You are not an elder first and you are not a small group leader first. Your service to the church is an outpouring of your commitment as a disciple of Jesus.
4.    You signed up to serve as an elder within a specific context and within a specific culture that included a plurality of elders who shared authority and responsibility. That culture has changed. You do not agree with the culture change and have argued against it.
5.    You are not obligated to continue serving within a context that significantly has been altered against your counsel and against your original commitment and against the original covenant relationship.
6.    If you and your wife do not support the new culture and have consistent heartburn against the new culture and its leaders, then you must leave. 
7.    How to discern that you genuinely do not and cannot support the new culture:

  • During a significant season, you consistently are frustrated, sad, even angry about the significant changes;
  • During that season, your counsel is regularly ignored or dismissed;
  • During that season, you are miserable;
  • During that season, you discern that the change is contrary to your significant conviction about biblical leadership;
  • You are forced out of positions of influence because of your disagreement;
  • You consistently feel alone, lonely in the church;
  • You are looked upon with suspicion;
  • You do not trust the leadership of the church;
  • You reluctantly or out of duty publicly support the church and its new culture, but not joyfully and not genuinely;
  • You do not—or you do not want to—joyfully, sacrificially and generously give out of your finances to the church;
  • You are distracted about these issues when participating in worship services;
  • You feel like a hypocrite for staying in the church.

8.    Yes, if you leave, your leaving will hurt some people, particularly if you kick and complain on the way out. If you stay despite agreeing with my above checklist, you will hurt yourselves spiritually and will risk becoming bitter and resentful and . . . hurting the church.

I know you are seriously pondering these things. If you leave, you must leave peaceably and quietly. Explain your position to the senior pastor, but do not fight with him or others. Simply stand by your convictions and leave well. It’s a large decision, of course.

George wrote me back: We’ve talked about every point you made. Sadly, we’ve experienced everything you described under point 7. We don’t want to hurt the church. Be assured there will be no kicking and screaming on the way out. We’ve been slowly drifting off.

So, this good elder and his wife are leaving, with good reason. They’ll land at another church, where they’ll surely continue serving the Lord well.