How to leave your denomination ... for all the right reasons.
Seven years ago, my wife and I felt God calling us out of our denomination into another network of churches. Being in connected relationships with like-minded pastors and churches was important enough for us to navigate the choppy watters of change.
Some said, “Stay and be salt.” Yet, I sensed no call to take my “salt” there. (I know of a Spirit-filled priest whose calling in life is “to save as many as he can before they kick him out.”) Albeit humorous, note how he is certain of his call. I could not say the same. My “salt” had been trampled on, and others who stayed to be a prophetic voice discovered that they were ignored as well.
It ought to haunt us that no county in the country has grown one percentage point in the last 30 years with regard to the number of Christians. The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization released a report in 2010 forecasting that by 2050, in the Western world, the number of Christians will drop far below the population increase.
Though some denominations seem willing to shift gears and make the radical changes needed to see that these projections don't come true, many strategic churches and pastors are being led by leaders who seem intent on doing nothing different.
Some say denominations are like The Eagles' song “Hotel California”-you can check in, but you can't check out. They view affiliation as a marriage-“'til death do us part.” Scripture does not support this rigid view of denominational affiliation, and there may come a day when paths and partners change.
The episode in Acts 15:39 among Paul, Barnabas and Mark makes ministry affiliation more like parenting than marriage. With his sights set on the city, a son may turn down Dad's offer to take over the family farm.
Every year, denominations graciously and openly welcome congregations who, for a variety of reasons, are leaving other faith families. Few are as gracious and open when one of their own congregations, for a variety of reasons, decides to transition out. Our denomination was willing, but not initially. More dialogue was needed to discern if parting company was even necessary.
As a pastor, I sometimes sit down with those who are not embracing the vision of the house to encourage them to find a fellowship more fitting. Perhaps pastors need this permission as well.
One faithful brother I know has been whining for years about “what they [leaders in his denomination] are doing.” His misery has damaged his ministry.
What spared us was a word from God to “'leave … your father's household … ' ” (Gen. 12:1, NIV). Abraham's father, Terah, was only able to go with him halfway to his destiny. Only when Terah died in Haran did Abraham enter the land of promise.
The booster rockets on the space shuttle are essential for the first leg of the trip into space. But they must be shed if the ship is to continue on to orbit Earth. In my case, the denomination was the booster rocket launching me into ministry. Keeping it strapped to my side for the next leg of the journey seemed detrimental to my destiny.
The issue of affiliation is a critical consideration, especially now, when God is strategically linking up people and churches to complete the Great Commission. Numerous pastors and congregations are finding themselves unequally yoked and are open to good godly counsel on what to do about it. How we go about positioning ourselves for greater kingdom usefulness is crucial.
Typically, severing denominational ties is an ugly endeavor-a drawn out bitter fight. People leave congregations hurt and unhappy, the local church spends years in recovery mode, and, most grievous, energy we ought to expend in mission is diverted to “discord management.” Yet, there is a gracious way to go-if God is indeed calling you to go.
We left with blessing because we behaved. Rather than lose people, we gained momentum. It was out of that experience I compiled this list of principles that I believe reveals what constitutes leaving a denomination in a godly way.
1. Stay in a place of prayer. For a guy who loves strategy, charting courses and figuring things out, this was the best counsel I was given. Getting with God will keep you from self-righteousness, high-mindedness and arrogance. Wrestling with God kept me out of multiple wrestling matches with people. Moses crossed the sea settling the hearts of the people with these words: “'The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold your peace'” (Ex. 14:14, NKJV).
2. Stay gracious and humble. Before you point out the spirit of religion in the denomination, check for a spirit of rebellion in you. Spiritual superiority in you will sabotage any openness in them.
Affiliation is important, but do not blame the system over you for your lack of success. Chances are there are numerous stellar congregations in your faith family who are thriving under that system. The fourth fastest growing church in America is in the denomination we left.
3. Eliminate unethical options immediately. Taking the bulk of your congregation with you, and leaving a reeling remnant with the building and denomination is unethical and unhealthy for the body of Christ and the advancement of the kingdom in a city. Additionally, a spirit of rebellion will be sown into your new work. Disloyalty is an imminent danger for those seeking to sever denominational ties.
It is not right or fair for the beloved senior pastor to threaten to leave the church if the church votes to stay denominationally affiliated. Moreover, only founding pastors and pastors with a long tenure in a congregation can escape the accusation that they “stole” a congregation away from a denomination or wooed their allegiances.
Manipulating members will instantly lift God's hand of favor. We need to discern the difference between God calling us to go and God calling a congregation to go. If there is no way to exit ethically, God is not calling you to do it.
4. Stay put until God says, 'Go.' The Lord told Isaiah to “go out from there” but to not make his flight “with haste” (Is. 52:11-12). Allow adequate time. Relationships take time to develop and need time to change. As long as you are under a denomination's authority, submit to its rules.
For instance, setting up pastors in our church-plants, ordaining and overseeing them, were actions unallowable in the system we were under. Clearly God calls us to these things, but a higher call is to submit to those in authority over us. Following the correct sequence is the supreme consideration, and patience will be richly rewarded.
5. Use Scripture and prophetic words cautiously. Isaiah 52:11, partially quoted above, was a verse God gave me, but it was not a verse God gave me to beat the denomination over the head with-especially the part about “depart … touch no unclean thing.”
When God is calling us out, those with prophetic gifts will probably be the first to figure it out. Yet, we found that God wanted to speak to us about us, not speak to us about them. For sure, we treasured select passages and heeded several key prophetic words.
Both became pivotal in our decision-making process.However, putting them before the general population would have been inconsiderate and hurtful to the good people in the other denominational congregations in our area who simply had a different God-given assignment than ours.
6. Make sure it's a 'missional move.' A move out of a denomination must be more about who you are than about how bad they are. In the initial meeting of our congregation, I outlined every area of incompatibility with our denomination. Yet, I made it clear how there was really only one deal-buster: We were unable to fulfill our apostolic assignment under their governmental structure.
We made a choice to speak well of them, and though we would have been “right” (in our minds) about the other issues, we would have been “wrong” ultimately. Our mission was not to tear them apart in our people's eyes.
7. Make sure it's not a step away from accountability. People still tend to equate denominations with accountability and independent pastors with unaccountability. Though that is easily arguable, the perception is reality, and we are wise to go the second mile in showing we value and submit to genuine accountability. Those who have run from cover to go do their own thing have made it harder for those with nothing to hide.
8. Resist the temptation to react to rash words. Early on, a denominational representative told my elders I was leading them down a “disastrous” path. Though able to articulate how staying in the denomination would cap our potential in God and therefore be the real “disastrous” direction, the Spirit quickened me to let it go.
Months later, after he had time to really hear our hearts, he told our congregation the direction we were going was “different” and that we should not “pass judgment in disputable matters.” Without us saying a syllable, “disastrous” was downgraded to “different.” Time changed his tone.
Particularly frustrating were the arrows shot “in secret” (Ps. 64:4). These were rumors spread by people in the community-mainly half a handful of unhappy ex-church members who, with misinformation and half-truths, started a short-lived slander campaign. Let Psalm 64 be your guide. Let God vindicate you. Psalm 64:8 says, “He will turn their own tongues against them” (NIV). Bless when others curse. Be sure not to allow your own anger and hurt to influence responses.
9. Be above reproach. All church meeting notices should be sent to everyone well in advance with a courtesy invitation extended to the denomination so questions can be addressed from their perspective. Bylaws need to be reviewed regularly and followed precisely.
When an enemy launches an attack under the cloak of darkness, dropping mortar rounds all around you, firing back will only reveal your exact location and their next round will be a direct hit. In other words, if they were missing their target, try not to say something that will soon lead to your undoing. No cheap shots in anyone's absence. Stay innocent and blameless.
10. As a gesture of goodwill, return all monies given over the years. Honestly, you could faithfully carry out the first nine items on this list and still have a bloody battle on your hands. We found that money made the difference.
At the meeting concluding our affiliation with the denomination, we presented the denominational representative with a check for $156,452.87-the exact amount they sowed into us more than a decade ago at the planting of our church. God quickly honored this gesture by unexpectedly releasing double that amount back to us within three months through a land/building transaction.
We handed him the check asking that they use it to plant new churches in the region. They were delighted and prayed blessing over us-and we prayed blessing over them. The denominational representative then gave us a great word from God-a message about how we are first called to peacekeeping, then to peacemaking, if divisions do arise.
He said that his purpose in coming to our meeting was about the third step, a call to peace-giving. The spiritual power in our returning this money and his reciprocal giving of peace was inestimable.
Every church and situation is different, but these 10 principles are worthy of prayerful consideration. There are no guarantees except that God's favor is a given when we relate graciously to others in the body of Christ.
A brother once told me that when he left his denomination, he literally “felt claws come out” of his back when the decision was finalized and “the unholy alliance was severed.” Yet, on the night this transition was “official” for us, the denominational rep said to me, “So, you must be feeling pretty good right now?”
My answer was honest, yet unusual for a non-weepy guy: “No, I kind of feel like crying-I have 20 years with you guys. I feel a bit like a son who is going out to establish a house on his own.” It was bittersweet-they weren't “bad,” and I wasn't misbehaving. Since then, there have been no regrets, only substantial releases of power and anointing we attribute to the favor of heaven on how this was handled.
To interact on this topic and others covered in this issue of the magazine, visit www.ministriestoday.com, click on “Interactive” and go to “Pastors' Discussion.”
Steve Hickey is pastor of Church at the Gate in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the author of Obtainable Destiny (Creation House Press).