Australia is among the most mobile societies in the world, with 15 per cent of the population changing address in the year before the 2016 Census. When you look back five years the proportion of people who’ve moved jumps to 39 per cent.
For Christians, this means our church friends will move house. A lot. Like Isaac Shumack.
Over the past 10 years, he has changed churches five times. Now working at Toongabbie as the pastor responsible for church membership, mission and youth, he’s using his experience to help the church care for those joining the congregation.
Having had his fair share of church farewells, Mr Shumack shares his insights on leaving church, farewelling friends and how to act afterwards.
It’s never easy
If your reasons for going aren’t something straightforward like changing jobs or moving to another city, it’s important to be clear about why you’re making the move – before you announce your departure.
“We can have such a mixture of motivations – we can even fool ourselves for why we are making certain decisions,” he says. “We may decide to move because of deeply held personal preferences mixed in with aspects of church life which have tired us out after years of meeting with other sinful people.”
He recommends having a chat with a wise Christian to check your heart before making a firm decision.
Regardless of the reason, leaving a church is never easy. “Church is a family,” he says. “Prepare for the grief of not meeting with those you’ve grown close to. Communicate with others what you’re finding difficult about the move. It helps to have people to chat with about the move.”
"Prepare for the grief of not meeting with those you’ve grown close to"
Say your goodbyes well
How you farewell your church makes a difference. Taking the time to say goodbyes lovingly can provide encouragement to others in what can be a sad time.
“You’ve gone through life together [with your church] for many years,” Mr Shumack says. “You might need to have particular conversations with specific people to show them how much you care or how much they meant to you. You’ve got an amazing pastoral opportunity. You can challenge, encourage and be encouraged by others. Go for it!”
You won’t be able to keep in touch with everyone and have room for relationships with your new church family too, so it’s good to give thought to which friendships you will keep.
“Make it clear that you’re keen to pursue friendships long term so that you can prepare for that,” Mr Schumack says. “As a ministry training apprentice, we used to call this ‘posse building’. It recognises that, as the years go on, you collect Christian brothers and sisters from all kinds of groups and you don’t sever ties with them just because you stop going to church together.
“The principle is long-term Christian friendship,” he adds. “You’ve shared so much over the years. Going through all kinds of trials and being taught God’s word together binds us as brothers and sisters. Just like a family isn’t easily divided, leaving a church will inherently be difficult because there is such a strong unity in the gospel.
“For anyone leaving, be mindful of your capacity but you’ve grown great relationships through Christ. It’d be a missed opportunity to sever ties completely.”
When Mr Shumack left his church in Newcastle to move to Sydney for Bible college, he actively sought people out and made plans for friendships in the future.
“I didn’t realise how hard moving a few hours away would be,” he says. “I’m more diligent to chat on Facebook or Zoom. Sometimes we run Zoom hangouts, and we have a Facebook group.
“I think planning out weekends to [go] back can be helpful... I planned to visit Newcastle in the first six months [after moving] so I could catch up with old friends and continue that support network and feel that connection with them.”
Guard your tongue
Once final goodbyes are said, we need to be aware of the danger to speak badly about our past church. This is especially tempting if we have been hurt or feel burned by things that have happened.
“Be mindful how you speak about the body of Christ,” Mr Shumack warns. “In Scripture we see that the church is esteemed by Christ – it is loved – so be mindful about how we speak about any churches: ones we’ve been a part of in the past or churches we are just joining. We can recognise their sinfulness, but we need to be mindful of not gossiping.”
A good antidote to gossip and bitterness is to practice gratitude and exercise self control. “Pursue thankfulness in all circumstances,” he says. “That was really helpful for me in joining my new church, and to think about how I was praying and speaking… Imagine if your past church members heard you speaking about them to your new church. Would you say it in the same way?”