Leave the Church and Keep my Small Group?

You are a small group leader at your local church, and everyone in your group gets along great! As friends, your group talks together, laughs together, builds memories together, prays together, learns together, and spurs one another on together. The group is solid.

Then, someone in the group announces he or she is leaving the church but really wants to stay in the small group. After all, the group has been together for quite some time now and means so much to everyone.

As the leader of the group, what should you do? Should attending separate churches ruin the friendships? Is there really any harm in allowing that person to continue in your group while joining with a new local church? Is there any harm in letting them stay in your small group, while attending a different church?

This decision can be difficult, often wrought with differing opinions, raw emotions, and even healthy and necessary grief. While the decision can be difficult, often the best decision requires a healthy and clean parting of ways freeing each party to move forward and thrive. In contrast, choosing to keep the small group intact despite a member leaving the church often proves unhealthy for everyone involved.

Here’s my advice: It’s not healthy for anyone long term.

Unhealthy for your small group.

This just gets really awkward. The group knows that he or she left the church, likely for philosophical reasons. The group as a whole still supports the church; all except one! Pursuing the vision of the church together, discussing teaching that happens during services, or adding more members to the group has become awkward.

Unhealthy for your church

Think about this in familial terms: I have a family. And I love my family. But if I decided to leave my family and join a new family, that decision comes with repercussions. When I got married, my wife and I started a new family. I’m still connected with my family of origin, but it would just be weird if I showed up every night for dinner at Momma’s house. And my wife wouldn’t appreciate that either!

I also have kids now. And it would be really weird if they ate and played at our house, but decided to sleep at a neighbor’s house every night. I’m all for them being friends with the neighbors - but their family is here, not across the street!

Truth is, a church is the people. To say you are “Leaving the church but keeping your small group” is an oxymoron. What you are actually saying is “I don’t like my big church, but I like my small church.” And what you are avoiding to say is “I don’t like the pastors or leadership of my old church, but I really like the environments for discipleship and community they have fostered. So I will benefit from the effort they have put into this community, but I won’t partner with them in any other way.”

Unhealthy for their new church

The person who is leaving your church is now (hopefully) joining with a new church. Well, that new church likely wants them to get involved in ministry and community with their new congregation. But they have old ties that they will not let go of.

I realize church engagement isn’t a competition. But a local church is a family of faith, and the whole church needs the whole church to be fully engaged with this family.

Unhealthy for the one leaving

If this person is allowed to stay in your group long term, they will not be able to fully move on. Unable to fully engage their new church community. Unable to fully invest in new relationships. Unable to move past their reasons for leaving your local church. I’m not trying to be mean when I say this, I’m just talking straight - leaving a church comes with relational repercussions. Churches are communities of people who follow Jesus together; if you decide to leave a community of faith you are also choosing to change relational dynamics with those people.

Please understand what I am not saying. I am not saying that all ties should be cut with the person leaving. It is critical for the universal church (all Christians worldwide) that we maintain Christian friendships with people outside our local church. But a church’s small group ministry is an extension of commitment to the church at large.

What should you do when someone in your small group is leaving your church?

I think it’s wise to have a transition time. The purpose of a transitional season is to leave well. Here are some ways you can help your friend transition out of the group in a healthy, mature way:

  • This person should talk through their reasons for leaving with the group. No need to be secretive; just let them be real. They should also talk things over with the pastor of the church.
  • The group should send them intentionally. Perhaps a cookout or a social, followed by praying and blessing them as they transition.
  • It might be needful to allow them to be part of your group while they make their transition. You as the group leader to can help them make that decision. But there should be a date on the calendar for their final time with your group so they will feel the freedom to move on and embrace their new church family.