The Senior Pastor at Rocky Hill Community Church in Exeter, California writes a blog post called “How to Leave a Church.” In light of my own experiences and surveying the modern evangelical landscape I ask this one question. Does this post honestly reflect reality given the issues of spiritual abuse, toxic leadership and the emergence of harmful organizations like Acts 29 or Sovereign Grace?
“I’ve given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can’t divorce a book.”
“Divorce is never a pleasant experience. You look upon it as a failure. But I learned to be a different person once we broke up. Sometimes you learn more from your failure than your success.”
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.
Matthew 10:14 NIV
Rocky Hill Community Church is an Evangelical Free Church in the town of Exeter, California. This church is one of many in district known as EFCA West which is led by Steve Highfill. Exeter is a small town in the San Joaquin Valley and is in Tulare County. It is not far from Sequoia National Park. The history of Exeter goes back to when the Southern Pacific railroad built through the San Joaquin Valley. The city of Exeter was incorporated in 1911 and the community today remains small with a population of over 10,000 according to the last census. The area that Exeter rests in is known as “The Citrus Capitol of the World.” In addition to agriculture, Waterman is also established here.
Rocky Hill Community Church was planted by Dave Ward Miller. Dave earned a psychology degree from Grace College. He then obtained a Master of Divinity from Grace Theological Seminary and finally a Doctorate of Ministry from Talbot School of Theology which is located at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Dave served as the lead pastor in Grace Fellowship (today Seacoast Grace) in the Long Beach/Cyprus area for over 11 years. He also pastored the Church of Rocky Peak in Chatsworth, California for 16 years. Prior to being at Rocky Hill Community Church he pastored GateWay Church for 4 years in Visalia, California. Dave is active in the Exeter’s Lion Club, enjoys riding his Indian Chief motorcycle or Harley. Plus he enjoys reading non-fiction and engaging in skeptics. He has been married to his wife Sandee for over 30 years and has three adult children, and six grandchildren. Other staff at this church includes David Welch, Devri Hughan, Raquel Bayle, and Rose Maldonado.
On Dave’s blog on September 22, 2015 he wrote the following article called “How to Leave a Church.” I believe Dave means well, but I think his article has many problems, and some concerns that need to be raised. Today the evangelical landscape is complicated. Between the resurgence of the shepherding movement, organizations like 9 Marks and their theological dictatorships, and the rise of Neo-Calvinism leaving a church can be hard. Again I think Dave means well, but there are a number of issues I noticed when I read this post. I am going to comment below in red, and as always I invite you to read and comment below.
To leave a church is one of the most difficult decisions to make and it should be. Emotions make leaving well rare. If you are considering leaving a church or know of someone considering, or in the process of leaving, the following guideline may prove helpful.
1. Leave thoughtfully – make sure you have good reasons for leaving that honor the Lord. You will someday give account for this decision, and you are setting a personal precedent. There are good reasons for leaving. If the church has lost its purity and is soft on sin, especially in leadership or if the preaching or mission is not biblical, then leave. Sometimes your personal or family needs require a church that addresses those legitimate needs. It’s also ok to leave if you disagree with the direction of the church and find yourself at odds with the leadership. Better to find a church that fits your preferences than be a divisive unhappy person over non-biblical matters. Humbly pray for God’s leading. If God convicts you of your hurt pride and petty disagreements, then repent and get back to serving and supporting your church. There are no perfect churches. If the Spirit leads you to leave, move on to points 2 through 5.
I really want to stress that I believe Dave means well, but here is one thing that troubles me. When issues of doctrinal purity or being soft on sin is raised it tends to be viewed as if the church runs the risk of being exposed to liberal theology. Or that heresy only comes from the left. In reality heresy, and theological problems actually come from both sides of the spectrum. People are often obsessed with liberals bringing in heresy, but lets stop for a moment and remember that conservatives can also bring in heresy. The current form of complementarism I regard as neo-fundamentalism. You also have organizations like the shepherding movement which is also neo-fundamentalism. While I acknowledge Dave saying its okay to leave if you disagree with the leadership of the church I have to ask the question. What do you do if you are in a Sovereign Grace, 9 Marks, Acts 29, or Harvest Bible Chapel that is controlling and locked into a membership covenant? How do you get out when questioning your pastor can be viewed as sinful? How can you separate when the theology system you are in is all about Lording over people? Some of the emails people have sent me are heartbreaking. Also I have to ask…is divisive the right word to use? How does one define divisive? There are people who can ask legitimate questions who are called divisive; especially in an age with authoritarianism on the rise. That said, I appreciate the fact that there is no perfect church. I get that and acknowledge that as well.
2. Leave honestly – first tell the leaders of the church of your leaving and the reasons. Communicate in person or by a call rather than in writing. “Speak the truth in love.” Your reasons may help the leaders to make needed improvements. Or your reasons may confirm that you have a different direction and/or priorities than the leadership and your leaving is best for you and the church.
Here is the problem with what Dave Miller is saying. In many places this won’t work. I think of what Karen Hinkley did at Matt Chandler’s The Village Church in Dallas. She communicated she was leaving the church. After all her life disintegrated in a short amount of time. Her dream of being a missionary ended, she discovered her husband was sexually attracted to children, addicted to child pornography, and instead what happened? She was told to submit to the Elders who pulled the Hebrew 13:17 crap on her. Steve Hardin if I recall correctly was texting around the clock, and stalking her. She went to the leaders of the church and tried to leave honestly and they would not let her. Heck even after she moved from Dallas to North Carolina and The Village Church still wanted her to submit to their authority. So here is the question Dave Miller….what do you do when your church acts like a cult? How are you supposed to leave?
3. Leave quietly – this is not leaving silently as that is nearly impossible. But leave without making a lot of noise. After telling those in leadership, then your circle of friends and partners in ministry, stop talking about the church and focus on the future. Don’t continue to talk down the church or its leadership, especially when in your new church. Keep quiet. If people ask why you left, be as positive as possible dwelling on the Lord’s leading.
Keep quiet about your old church? What if your old church is covering up child sex abuse? I think of the awkward situation I had here in the Washington, D.C. area with Fairfax Community Church. The church made a man on the Virginia Sex Offender Registry the Care Group Director. Then they concealed the information from the congregation and came down hard on people or ignored them if they raised questions about it. If you have someone who poses a threat should one stay silent? Should one be quiet? If the church leadership is engaged in illegal activity should one not say a thing? This blog writes a lot about the Evangelical Free Church, and I have been writing about Steve Estes church outside Philadelphia which excommunicated an alleged rape victim to cover up illegal activity to protect the Senior Pastor’s son. One other thing that I don’t get…why does leaving a church also mean the end of friendships with that church? Why can’t Christians remain friends with people after they leave? Why are they cut off, ignored and given the silent treatment?
4. Leave graciously – whatever the valid reasons for leaving, they are still negatives. One way to offset the negativity of your departure is to write a letter to the pastor and leadership that lists several fond memories and ways the church ministered to you while you were there. No matter how great the problems in the church, there are positives you can mention. One caution here–don’t not make the compliment a backhanded criticism. For example, if you’re upset that the church removed hymnals, don’t think mentioning the blessing of singing from a hymnal will be taken as a compliment. Avoid mentioning any controversy even as an intended compliment.
Here’s the problem…what if you former church is engaged in sin? After all pastors are sinful..are they not? What if you tried to work things out with your former pastor because you want to do the right thing and in his corruption he dismisses you? I know these are difficult questions but this blog often deals with the dark side of religion and church. This blog was born out of pain and trauma. I see this point about leaving graciously as being quite troubled.
5. Leave quickly – without just dropping the ball on your ministry, leave as quickly as possible. Don’t hang around week after week and tell church people of your future plans to leave. It shows you want people to beg you to stay, or worse, you want to pull others to follow you away. Make it s clean cut, not a slow ragged tear.
Many of the people who I have spoken to and been in contact with never wanted to leave their church. After all some had been involved for years in their church. The place may have been theologically hijacked. Or there may be a massive scandal that takes place. Or another factor is that they are dealing with a pastor who is toxic, perhaps has a personality disorder or maybe mental illness. These things happen, as there are many people who are pastors that quite frankly should not be pastors at all. But there are many instances where people are driven from their organization when instead they want to stay, or they never had plans of leaving.
6. Leave completely – don’t announce you have left and stop attending church worship, but then remain in a small group or continue involved in a ministry like the kids, youth, men, women, recovery or other ministry. To do so obviously becomes divisive. That is why wise church leaders will ask you to leave the small group and/or ministry and encourage you to lock in fully with your new church. You need to be “all in” with your new church in worship and serving. Your new church deserves your undivided attention.
I wonder how Dee Parsons would feel about this, after all there are a number of people from her former church called Providence Baptist in Raleigh, North Carolina who still are in the same Bible study. I have met them and attended one of them as she asked me to come to one. I think what this shows is that this is more about control. Many pastors need to understand that they are not the sole person responsible for a person’s soul. Jesus is… And can I just say this is the second time (if I counted correctly) that the word divisive is used. What does trouble me is that this is being taught in a small community of about 10,000 people. In small communities leaving a church can be exceptionally hard, as people bump into each other frequently. But here is this other aspect that troubles me…why the “us” vs. “them” mentality? The us being Rocky Hill Community Church vs. another church in Exeter or a nearby town in Tulare county? Why do churches have to compete against each other? Is that right? Is that correct? I don’t believe that is healthy at all.
Helpful Insight as to “Why Did They Really Left the Church?”
If you want to know the real reason someone leaves a church, look where they land rather than listen to what they say. Sometimes what they say and where they end up are consistent, but often not. If people say they are against the church removing pews for padded chairs and go to church with pews, their actions fit their reasons for leaving. But if they go to a church with padded chairs, be assured there was another reason for their leaving. If a person says he is leaving because the church is relocating its facility several miles away and attends a church near the pre-location, then the reason truthful. But if he joins a church facility near the place where his previous church is planning to relocate its place of gathering, then it is obvious he had another reason for leaving. I offer these two examples because I have witnessed them. Often people leave a church in protest to a new building program to join another church that recently finished a lovely new expanded expensive facility!
The one thing that I find troubling about what Dave Miller said is that I don’t think he gets the scope of toxic churches or spiritual problems. When your church is corrupt and theologically sick leaving it can be hard. I didn’t see Dave Miller write much or even acknowledge spiritual abuse issues. The evangelical landscape is littered with broken and destroyed lives and its time we acknowledge the depth of the problem and deal with it. People leave a church for far more than the color of the carpet or the fact that your ass is sore because the wooden pew is hard to sit on. Those are the reasons you always seem to hear about. What you don’t hear about is allegations of criminal activity, child sex abuse, theological hijackings, toxic leadership, pastors who have a personality disorder or mental illness. There are so many reasons why people leave and its time we talk about them. That said, I am going to give Dave Miller the benefit of the doubt. Unless you have been burned from a church you will not understand it. There are a lot of people in evangelical Christianity who are naïve and have their head in the sand. I am not saying Dave Miller is like that, again I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt. As always I invite criticism. I want to go on record as stating that this post has been emailed to Dave Miller and the leadership of Rocky Hill Community Church. With that I will close with some Plankeye. Take care guys and know that I love you.