You don’t leave a church because you’re thriving there. And after 13 years, you don’t leave easily. But what do you do when the place you’ve called home no longer feels like one? Back when I’d first moved to the city and settled into an apartment that overlooked a vacant mall’s parking lot, I felt isolated. But my former church soon anchored me. The faith I was raised in took root there in new ways. I made my first grown-up friends, brought my first dish to a potluck, felt a sense of deep warmth at Sunday evening gatherings in friends’ homes after the service. I found a place and a people. I loved my membership. Then I joined the church staff.
Illustration by Hokyoung Kim
Looking back, my time on staff was costly. Working Tuesday through Sunday, I slowly lost touch with the people who had nurtured me in those early days. Instead, I made connections with fellow staff members. All day I was around people I admired while helping with sermon prep and writing a weekly devotional for the church. Heady stuff for a young man looking for his place. Dangerous stuff for a naïve kid who wasn’t aware that he needed boundaries.
Recently I was looking through old pictures from that time and found one of my wife and me two months after we got married. We were standing in the crisp autumn sunshine, holding pumpkins—a rare Saturday together since I worked 20-30 hours every weekend. Sorrow washed over me as I looked at two young, happy people. Seeing each other only on weekday evenings and briefly on Sunday afternoons was not an ideal way to start married life.
You can hit pause on friendships (though I wouldn’t recommend it). But you can’t hit pause on marriage. After two years of choosing between my new wife and my job, I quit. And suddenly my relationships with other staff members disappeared, just as the ones with my friends had previously vanished. Life had pulled us in a new direction. We looked up one day and realized we were alone.
Our church attendance grew sporadic the summer before we started visiting other churches. To be frank, we could have used some accountability—someone checking on us, asking where we’d been. I hadn’t seen it coming. Waking up to the fact that my family had become disconnected from the body of Christ was a shock. We’d fallen through the cracks.
By then the church had grown exponentially, so there were far more unfamiliar faces than those we recognized. We could sit through the service and leave, often without talking to anyone or anyone talking to us. It felt wrong to take in a Sunday service the way you might take in a ball game.
In a large church, small groups are supposed to bridge the gap between corporate worship and daily life. We tried three. The first two slowly petered out and disbanded, but our third seemed as if it was the one. Then some of the people started planning a weekend getaway intentionally excluding one family—a family my wife had invited. And that was it for us.
The decision to leave our church came at the end of a long season—nearly 10 years—of enduring and hoping we would find a way forward. It hurt to leave, and honestly, it was right that it did. We left as members in good standing, who would miss the good pastors and spiritually healthy, well-rooted people who remained there. Our decision wasn’t an indictment or critique of the church—far from it. Still, we left as a family who no longer felt at home.
Visiting a prospective church one Sunday, my wife and I were walking with our children when a set of twin boys came running up. Classmates of my elder son, these boys were genuinely excited to see their school friend at church. I couldn’t have asked for a better welcoming committee. My wife and I each had the thought, Maybe this is our new home.
A month later, we were sitting in the church fellowship hall at the annual Christmas dinner. The hall was full of tables and the tables full of empty plates as the meal was winding down. Someone got on a mic and asked all the kids from the choir to come to the front. Our older son was sitting at a table with some kids his age and looked at me for reassurance that he didn’t have to go up. But to my complete astonishment, my younger boy—barely 4 at the time—rose from the table. I remember looking at him as he walked away from us and saying something like, “Hey buddy, you sure? It’s OK if you want to stay with mama and me.” But no—he just went up and found a place on the risers. He didn’t sing much since he didn’t know any of the carols. But he joined in as if he belonged.
It’s hard to express my gratitude for how quickly our new church embraced and drew us in. It was almost disorienting at first. But then we found a small group, and my wife and I often marveled at how an evening with those people could take a Sunday of grumps and doldrums and utterly transform it. We have relearned how to be known and prayed for, even in our most vulnerable hours. We’ve relearned the beauty of confessing our own darkness (Ps. 32:1-11). We’ve even gotten that text when a few hectic weeks and weekends have kept us away on Sundays. “Just checking on you guys. Doing OK?” I answer those texts a little sheepishly, but grateful someone asked. Grateful they and others keep asking.