Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How to leave a church

While many churches have a clear notion of leaving the church others don't really recognize this. Mormons and Jehovah's witnesses can have problems leaving a church without being excommunicated (disfellowshipped). Some conservative Presbyterians are moving towards "covenantial membership". Catholics can have trouble leaving under any circumstances. The purpose of this blog post is to walk through the process of quitting a church. If a discipline process is underway you may want to examine (How to Survive Discipline series in particular there is overlap with How to Survive Discipline -- Resign quietly (part 7) ).

The first question is whether you really want a transfer rather than to sever your membership. Most churches have transfer processes, and most churches will be amenable to a transfer process. A transfer is going to cause a lot less anger and resentment. You will also most like not burn your bridges. Almost all churches have rules for conducting a transfer and it is many times not looked on as harshly. Note, however that many churches will not issue a letter for someone starting the disciplinary process unless you are willing to have them cite the problems. Sometimes an unethical pastors will start a process so as to avoid the rules regarding transfer. Such a pastor is likely to be a problem regardless of how you leave, so the important thing is to keep good records. If either is the case make sure that the receiving pastor is aware of the disciplinary process. Coordinate your actions with the receiving pastor if possible.

If the receiving congregation is not seen as "of like faith and practice" a member can request a certificate of standing rather than transfer. That is you aren't asking the congregation that you are leaving to approve of the move but rather to simply certify your current status. (i.e. they are certifying you were a member in good standing prior to your desire to join a "bad church"), This is also more friendly and cooperative then simply leaving. The act of going through this process reduces the bridge burning problems and in general members probably should try and go through the transfer process. In summary:
  1. Find out what your church's transfer process is.
  2. If you need to transfer to a specific congregation, inform the pastor (and hand him a written document) that you are initiating a transfer process and will be "shopping" for an alternate church.
  3. Once you have a specific congregation:
    1. Ask for a letter of transfer.
    2. If they refuse because "the other congregation is not godly" ask for a certificate of standing
    3. If they still want to get you involved in a long drawn out process then it is time to simply terminate membership.
  4. Join your new church.
In this rest of this I'm going to be assuming that a letter of transfer (under practical conditions) would be or has been denied. That is you wish to terminate membership in your current congregation and then join the receiving congregation rather than transfer or simply terminate membership and not have a receiving congregation (which may for your church constitute apostasy).

The key here is to make clear your intention and leave behind a paper trail. Church discipline is dependent upon informed consent. Your goal here is to be withdrawing consent. Words like:
  • Termination of membership
  • Disaffiliation
  • Withdraw of consent
Are absolutely key. If possible try and use all 3 terms.
The Catholic church is probably the most difficult to leave so they provide an excellent example of a "worst case scenario". Most Catholic literature about people who leave the faith assumes one is joining a heretical or schismatic church and thus the heresy or schism in itself constitutes an excommunication. However it is possible to leave the church voluntarily without specifically joining another (which would be the closest equivalent of erasure or "renouncement of jurisdiction" in presbyterianism). The process here requires an assertion of understanding: that is they have required that a person must (APCAM)
  1. Perform an act to indicate they wish to separate (mere thought is not enough).
  2. The act must be persistent that is it must take place over a long period of time, in particular it can't be a single event.
  3. The person must be contumacious that is they must be firm in their conviction and not express hesitation.
  4. They must be aware that their acts lead to an end of their membership (excommunication, erasure...) That is they must be aware of what they are requesting.
  5. Finally they must actually be a member. The church cannot expel non members (the pope is exempted from this).
If you are intend to leave a church making sure you qualify for all of these 5 criteria will be key. Most churches do hold that the above list is sufficient to terminate membership. Note however in the above list how important it is to use strong language regarding your status. Weak language indicates a lack of awareness and a lack of contumacy.

For a Presbyterian example the Orthodox Church's Book of Discipline is quite clear on how one severs their relationship.
When a member of a particular church, whether or not he be charged with an offense, informs the session that he does not desire to remain in the fellowship of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the efforts of the session to dissuade him from his course have failed, it shall erase his name from the roll and record the circumstances in its minutes, unless the session institutes or continues other disciplinary action against him.
One act that meets all of the criteria is for you to issue a letter of disassociation. A letter of disassociation has a few key parts.
  1. Formal statement of disassociation, terminating your membership.
  2. A brief history of your introduction to the church and your positive impressions
  3. A discussion of "major issues" that forced you to disassociate. This part can be grouped by related topics, such as "Doctrinal", "Personal", "Social", "Organizational" and so on.
  4. An explicit list of requests (e.g. "Don't do follow-up calls", "Don't try to shepherd my children"). If you have no specific requests, you can leave this part out. This is the withdrawal of consent.
  5. Conclusion. (e.g. wish them well on their quest to find meaning, and assure them that you are pleased to have made your decision to broaden your search for truth).
The formal statement is simply statement indicating you are no longer a member. They look something like:
  • I hereby renounce all claim to membership in church XYZ.
  • It is with great reluctance that I am forced to resign my membership from church XYZ
  • Many hundreds of hours and over seven hundred compiled scriptures later, my clear conscience will no longer allow me to uphold the convictions common among (name of denomination)
This has to appear somewhere in the letter to make it clear that you no longer consider yourself a member. This can appear anywhere but its the most important part. If you signed some sort of church covenant agreeing that you can't leave you want to explicitly acknowledge signing it and renounce it here, "including in this renunciation of membership is renouncing the contents of the church covenant I signed on March 13, 2001". Religious freedom is a civil right not a contractual right, you cannot sign away your right to leave a church. The covenant is in effect only as long as you want it to be.

The second part is important for explaining your reasons for membership. Because it occurs in the letter you are acknowledging you were at one time a member and that this is being drawn to a close. It goes hand in hand with the 3rd section which explains why you've decided that the new information/status is causing you to leave. I.E. you are indicating the bad outweighs the good. These two sections are often far too specific to offer much advice. The key thing is (if possible) you want to include some point of disagreement with a statement that is required for membership (generally the profession of faith). By doing this, you can establish you are not merely fleeing a disciplinary procedure but no longer share their beliefs. You'll want to pick a genuine area of disagreement. So for example:
  • Quiting the Mormons: I no longer believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet or that the Book of Mormon is the word of God.
  • Quitting a Baptist Church: I have come to believe that children are part of God's covenant and should be baptized at birth.
  • Quitting Soka Gakkai: I no longer believe that chanting the Gongyō will bring benefit to my life.
If doesn't have to be that fundamental it could be much more minor proving its a part of the creed:
  • Quitting Baptist church: Our profession of faith requires assent to the Nicean creed, however I no longer believe that Jesus is of one essence with the Father.
  • Quitting the Mormons: I no longer believe in the gift of tongues
If there is no areas of theological or ritual dispute that you can mention inform them that you agree you are engaged in an out of process erasure and they are free to record it as such.

After this the next step is to establish how you want the church to treat you as an x-member. This is where you can make explicit your request that oversight of you (including discipline) halt. This is where you can indicate what the contents of the announcement should be, for example you may (and probably should) indicate that this letter is public and they may read it in full and show it to people if they feel the need to make an announcement. For organizations that tend to be resistant to allowing you to leave you may need to be a bit harsh. However nothing more than something like:
Since I have voluntarily resigned from the organization, and are therefore no longer a Jehovah's Witness, I expressly prohibit you from disfellowshipping me or in any way defaming my character before others. If I am disfellowshipped or am slandered in any way, I will have to take legal action against you.
I have prayerfully considered the vow I made. Jesus said "My yoke is light." I am casting off the burden I have been under for so many years while under the scrutiny of the man made organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. In full faculty I am stating that I am disassociating from that organization. I no longer want to be recognized as a Jehovah's Witness because it does not fill the expectations I was led to believe.

(1) I do not want my family to contacted or coerced in any way.
(2) At my death I do not wish to be remembered as a Jehovah's Witness.
(3) There is no need for prayers or further attempt to reverse my decision.
(4) When the Congregation makes an announcement it should be an announcement of disassociation not apostasy

Finally the conclusion. Again this should be friendly if possible. A thanks for good times, a statement of best wishes or blessing on current members... are all appropriate.

some samples: Gloria Muscarell, Juliann Velasquez, Melissa C. Thiring, Mormon no more sample

Now go on and do what you want. At this point you are no longer a member according to any Christian tradition. Legally you have withdrawn your consent and you have a much greater degree of legal protection against defamation and harassment. Congratulations, its over!

There is for some poeple a tricky part. Convincing yourself that you aren't damned or evil or fallen for wanting to leave. David Rattigan wrote a terrific article about the issues and fears you are likely to face. You may even want to join (or at least read) a group for people leaving whatever faith you are leaving. This blog maintains a leaving list of support groups.


Cynthia Kunsman said...

This is an excellent review. Ten plus years ago when I left my cultic church, since they did not afford me informed consent about their abusive techiniques, I felt perfectly fine about leaving without "leadership consent." I would add to those exiting a church that if you have strong convictions and reasonable evidence that your group is cultic, just bolt and figure things out from a safe vantage point. With so many non-denominational churches and small/independent denominations about, these are probably more suspect than a larger and "more formal" denomination.

I appreciate the message that (a person is/you are) not bound to a group if they choose not to be bound. You have the right to remove or distance yourself from intimidation. Often this is a huge stressor when deciding whether to remain or leave an abusive group. I believe that God will bless you and your decision of faith to keep your heart pure by getting out of a bad situation (provided that you are not just avoiding deserved discipline). You may risk losing record or validation of your time spent in a group (and time recovering perhaps), but the benefit that you reap from leaving an abusive or manipulative group far outweighs the "equity" you lose when you leave.

CJ said...

As a former Catholic, who left that denomination in 1981, I was never given any trouble by anyone other than a couple of my older relatives. I went to a Catholic college and several of my friends were and still are Benedictine priests and nuns. While they questioned my choice, all have remained my friends, and one Sister played the organ at my wedding in 1980, while another was my bridesmaid, which was celebrated in a Baptist church!

CD-Host said...

CJ --

I'm glad to hear that leaving was so painless for you! Excellent.

In terms of the part you were probably responding ti, if you just left you probably are technically still a Catholic in a state of scism. All you would need to do is repent and you could be readmitted to full communion. That contrasts with most protestants who would need to go through initiation.

CJ said...

Perhaps. And the fact that when I finally joined another church, I chose to become an Anglican (this was WAY before the whole gay-ordination fubar) may have had something to do with it -- the RCs recognise the validity of the priesthood and the Sacraments of both the Anglican and Orthodox Churches, in most cases, because of the Apostolic Sucession.

Dave Hodges said...

"the RCs recognise the validity of the priesthood and the Sacraments of both the Anglican and Orthodox Churches, in most cases, because of the Apostolic Sucession."

Actually, just the Orthodox churches, but not the Anglican ones. Their Sacraments were declared null and void by Leo XIII.

Anonymous said...

Wow so there is legal recourse for Jehovah's witneses because individual members are not given an informed consent to sign outlineing what really happens if you question authority, study independently, if you are the victim of abuse of authority, no whistlblower protection. and on and on, they kinda make up the rules as they go along. And have defamed character, and sanctioned even excommunication for persuing one constitutional and human rights for justice outside of the org, "informed consent" who would have thought how did they miss this?? I fell a windfall coming one.

CD-Host said...

Anonymous --

I think you may be confusing a few different issues. Are you talking about a specific case? If you would like you can email me or post here regarding it.

Anonymous said...

I attend a good church and don't want to leave it or anything. But it has no official membership. They have a partnership class that invites you to join a church family by clarifying the church's vision, mission and theology so that you know what you are connecting to. After that you just get connected and relationally function.

My guess is that if you where to leave, you just leave and say goodbye. What would you do in those cases.

CD-Host said...

Anonymous --

They have a partnership class that invites you to join a church family by clarifying the church's vision, mission and theology so that you know what you are connecting to. After that you just get connected and relationally function.

You aren't giveing me much to go on. But "getting connected" and "functioning relationally" sound like membership to me. Especially if they have a class. Ask if there is some sort of church covenant, or other agreement as part of your "relationship". Basically I'd always recommend a letter of transfer, standing or disassociation if the church disciplines.

angelo said...

As I left a comment on another post about the way Catholics view the Church, it seems to me that the above requirements imply the Catholic Church considers this as leaving Christendom entirely. As a previous commenter noted, you can simply "suffer" excommunication by joining another Church and just never look back if you want.

Lonewolf said...

Where in the scriptures Old Testament or New Testament does it say you are to request a letter and blessings from you current church to leave? I have been searching and have not found any place to concur with this protocol. This appears to be a teaching of and by man, not anything that God himself instructed. It does say fail not the assembling of yourselves together...and it says to be with those if like faith, however if I get a job transfer from my "mega church" the pastor dies not even possible personally know me what scriptural bases requires one to do do?

CD-Host said...


It is a "teaching of man". It is a cultural tradition. Particularly important for discipling churches and churches with an agreement not to engage in "sheep stealing". If you current and future church both don't follow it, then likely it won't matter for you.

Unknown said...

Many times, sadly, when a member attempts to leave, there are trumped up charges initiated, i.e. membership vows, etc. If the letter of resignation is received prior to any charges levied, the member is free to resign in a clear conscience. I would agree that if there was already disciplinarian processes started, this will be problematic.