As virtually everyone knows by now Senator Barack Obama has removed himself, and his family, from the membership at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. This happened following the sermon preached at Trinity by Father Michael Pfleger, a priest who has been a friend to Obama for some time and a man who even had a volunteer role in his campaign for a season. Father Pfleger has been a popular priest inChicago for some years, serving an African-American Catholic parish as a Roman Catholic priest.

All politics aside I am saddened that all of these events came to this place. I can’t help but think that this controversy ended poorly for the Obama and his church. Whereas he once said he could no more deny his friendship with Jeremiah Wright than his relationship with his own family now he runs away from the people he worshiped with for twenty years because there is obvious political fallout to his membership. Whereas he gave such a brave and stirring speech several weeks ago, meant to put all this behind him, now he opts for leaving the church when another explosion occurs.

One thing is certain, leaving a church should never be a decision any of us makes with ease. We should never do it lightly. There are reasons to leave a church, I do not deny, but most of the ones that I have heard over the years fall well short of what I think are truly good reasons.

In Obama’s case he clearly was advised that membership at Trinity was now too politically harmful. The precedent here is that membership in one’s church become an “issue” in presidential politics. This can’t be a good precedent at all. I respected Obama for distancing himself from Wright’s comments, at least those that were generally unacceptable, while at the same time retaining his friendship with Wright and and his membership in his church. I can’t say that I respect this choice to leave in the same manner.

Should you be a member of a church only where the pastor says what you agree with week by week?

I would suggest that membership in a congregation where the pastor now and then troubles you could be quite beneficial if it is handled properly. I do not become a member of a church based on agreement with the pastor

When the media, and the right-wing pundits, went after Obama relentlessly the assumption was that people should be members of churches only where the pastor’s positions on various important issues lined up with their own. If the pastor sounded like a racist then you should not be a member. That is so easy for white media to argue when many of them remained in a church where racism was (and in some cases still is) inherent to the very culture of the church.

But what pastor has not resorted to rhetorical flourishes that he might now wish he could take back? (I believe strongly in extemporaneous speaking in the pulpit so I have clearly failed on this front myself.) And I have also said things that should not be taken quite so literally either. The goal of preaching is that through many human words the living Word of God might be heard. The media has no concept of this idea and the sad fact is that few of us do either.

Scriptural truth is passed along in many ways. A church has an educational ministry, a worship ministry, a prayer ministry, a care ministry, etc. No one pastor, on a single day or through a few sermons, determines the whole ministry of that church. The pastor uses images, stories, and ideas to stir the thoughts and the imagination of listeners. A good minister will handle Holy Scriptures well. Some do not handle them well at all.

The Rev. Jack Cherry, pastor of Clover Hill Reformed Church (RCA) in Hillborough, New Jersey, suggests in this month’s Church Herald magazine, that the better question here might be: “Is there a tipping point?” Is there ever a time when an individual needs to find a different place of worship and ministry for their local church? The answer, of course, is yes. I had people leave my congregation (during my 20 years of pastoral labor) and I felt some of them made the right decision. I had others leave when I felt they quit way too soon, more over not hearing the whole story clearly enough.

At what point do you say, “enough is enough” and then leave a church? There is no simple answer. There is no “one size that fits all” solution to this troubling issue. Certainly heresy or unrepentant sin in the leadership would be good reasons to leave a church. But even here you have to be careful that the right process has been followed. In our modern context one person’s heresy could be historically faithful Christian teaching. I preached, for example, on the Trinity some years ago and several felt I was a heretic when the opposite was really the case. 

I am sure of this much. Good pastors will offend us now and then. They must, in fact, trouble us and they will even trouble those from outside the church who hear their words and do not have a context or a spiritual understanding of them. The church is never to be a political club of the like-minded. It should rather be a diverse and different group of folks who are united by their common commitment to Christ and his kingdom, not to their own agenda. The world cannot understand this at all. What saddens me is that much of the church doesn’t understand it either.

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  1. Adam S June 10, 2008 at 7:16 am

    I did not go back and look, but if my memory is correct, at least part of the reason for leaving the church is to protect the church from the constant pressure of investigation. That I think is a good and honorable reason for leaving the church. Other reasons may not be as honorable and good.

  2. patjohnson June 10, 2008 at 9:13 am

    Thank you for writing this. The last paragraph especially really strikes home. I have been contemplating leaving my church for the last several months. My reasons included my frustrations with one pastor as well as personal feelings of hurt and betrayal from other church members.
    This year, going to church every Sunday has been so hard- grappling with feelings of anger, frustration, bitterness, and despair. Because it is a small church, these struggles are more pronounced.
    God has taught me that coworking with others is really a struggle with myself- a struggle to love and serve others who often drive me crazy. Yet I still feel so burdened from serving in this church. A recent incident this week shook me to the core, to the point where I resolved to go to another service this Sunday.
    But in the last 24 hours, God has been speaking to me through His Word and through various events to be faithful to my church despite how I feel. (It is also interesting that I came upon this post this morning!) I feel God pulling me towards Him and teaching me the primary purpose of being a part of a church- to serve rather than be served.
    I do think that in some cases, people have valid and prayerful reasons to leave. But in this case, I need to wrestle with my problems instead of seeking the easy way out. As I write this, I still have a feeling of dread when I think about my church. Pray for me to grow through this and not allow satan to discourage me.

  3. Anonymous June 10, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    Your post is very timely indeed, for I too have been thinking lately that it’s time for me to move on from my church. In fact, I’ve been doing some research into this because I’m curious what exactly is a “good enough” reason to leave one’s church. What is the tipping point?
    In reading the comments by Pat I can identify very much with what he’s saying. Similar to his situation, this isn’t a doctrinal issue for me as much as a personality conflict with a particular pastor. He’s great behind the pulpit and his knowledge of the word of God is outstanding; but his interpersonal skills leave a lot to be desired. I’ve tried to be honest with him about my struggles because I thought he was someone who would understand me, listen to me, and lovingly try to help me. Instead I’ve been met with rebuke and judgment. Maybe he thinks it will help me, but right now all it’s really done is make me angry and frustrated, to the point that I don’t want to share anything with him.
    I’ve taken courses in human services and interpersonal dynamics, and I’ve had enough experience with other pastors (from previous churches I’ve been in) to know that there is a right way and a wrong way to listen to people and help them work through whatever issues they are struggling with.
    Yet, I feel like Pat, that simply moving on isn’t the answer either. Like him, I pray that God may show me the way and help me as I work through this very difficult time.

  4. Serena October 31, 2008 at 10:38 am

    I am contemplating leaving my church also. My pastor abuses his authority. He is very rigid and dogmatic. I do not trust him. Most counseling sessions end up a sermon. He loves to attack people (bully people). He is very careful on whom he picks on. He disrespects his wife, children, mother and father. Yes, I believe leaving a church should be taking into consideration, But why do we allow Pastors to get a pass. I would not allow anyone to treat me in this manner, and yet I feel like I might be punished if I leave. I am seeking GOD. I know we serve a loving GOD and he does not approve of this abusive pastors.

  5. Rose LaPan-Davidson March 4, 2009 at 9:13 am

    I have been struggling with leaving my church but there is a part of me that is not willing to give up on the people I’ve become friends with. I came to my church via my husband and had difficulties at first because I was raised to be a very free thinker. Over time, I found a niche and group whose thoughts were similar to mine. Concurrently, I found our congregation to be diverse, yet we all worked together for mission, etc. Then, we were assigned a new pastor whose agenda seemed different than what I thought our church’s mission was. Many people left, esp. those “free thinkers” like myself. Even my husband, who is more conservative than I, has become uncomfortable. I also have young children to consider, who have grown up in this church. Some people have confided in me that they do not get their “spiritual food” from our church. Some have started outside study groups to maintain their connections; I’m sure some are waiting for this pastor to be re-assigned but, word is, he would like to retire from our church. I’m not ready to give up on what we once were; but I do not like confrontation and I do not wish to get into any theological debates. Our pastor did a sermon series on investigating other faiths, but it was highly biased toward his own theology. The message was not one of accepting others for their beliefs but more of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. I have been in a position before in which a lot of ppl expressed concern, but no one verbalized it to anyone in authority. I get the feeling I may be the one to say something yet again–a task I don’t look forward to. Then again, maybe it’s the push we need to try to meet each other on even terms and move forward.

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