I once had a girlfriend who I treated rather poorly. Not so much during the dating part; I think, overall, I treated her pretty well. It was the breaking-up part that I handled in such a way that she could rightfully call me a "jerk."
Somewhere along the line, a couple months into the relationship, I realized I wanted out. I still appreciated her as a friend, but the whole 'dating' thing just wasn't working for me. No fault of hers, there. I just needed to end the relationship, but didn't know how.
So I started ignoring her. I found ways to be busy, ways to keep myself some distance from her. It was the classic conflict-avoidance strategy, wherein the hope seems to be that the other party will 'get the message' and just go away. It was horrible, I know. But I wasn't quite mature enough to recognize that.
She eventually bailed me out, bless her soul. She chased me down and forced me to spill it; we had a good heart-to-heart talk and broke off the relationship there in the student lounge at Azusa Pacific University. And I can say with all honesty that she deserved better. And that I'm glad she had the emotional security to demand I talk, recognizing that the news probably wouldn't be what she wanted.
Many years later, following a Sunday morning worship service, a man from our church family came up and asked if he could talk with me. He was blunt: he loved our church, but for reasons which he explained (mostly dealing with the health of his wife), he had to leave and seek out another church to join. He was clear about his reasoning, he answered all my questions, but at the end of the day, he was gone.
I appreciated his honesty. I appreciated his heart. I appreciated that he did the tough thing and spoke to me about it. And I was able to pray for him and bless him as he went on his way. From time to time we'd run into each other, and it was always a good reunion. with no hard feelings.
All too often, that isn't the case. In many (most) instances, families and individuals choose to leave churches in the same manner in which I (sort-of) broke up with my college girlfriend. As in, little or no communication. They just disappear. Wander away. All is smiles and happiness one week. . .and three weeks later people start asking "Does anybody know what happened to them?"
I suspect I know the reason why, if even because I recognize it in my younger self. People don't naturally like conflict. People don't like hurting others. People don't relish having difficult conversations. So rather than address their desire to move on, they simply drift away, deciding it's easier to ignore it than deal with it. And hoping that time will pass by and this unfortunate incident will soon be behind us all.
Unfortunately, the easy way is never the healthier way. It's certainly not the mature way. One of the marks of maturity is knowing how to deal with the hard decisions, how to speak hard truths to those around us. Back to my college sweetheart - in my strategy I was avoiding the hard truth I needed to speak, a conversation certain to disappoint her - but I was really just prolonging the pain, and causing her more anxiety and confusion along the way. How much better was my church friend who spoke the hard truth, but removed any need for self-doubt, fear, or confusion?
So let's be clear about this: the mature, clean, healthy way to leave one church family for another is to simply speak the truth. Let the pastor and leadership know exactly why you are leaving, where you think you might be going; let them know if there are issues that need addressing. No, it's not healthy to use this time to take unfair parting shots as you run out the door, but it is healthy to let everybody know not to expect you around any more.
Because slinking out, simply disappearing leaves everybody wondering why. It leaves room for accusations and gossip, it leaves room for people to make up their own reasons for your leaving. It leaves leaders wondering if they've somehow failed you. It just leaves way too many unanswered questions, too many dangling emotions. And then. . .when you run into each other at the grocery store, it's all just so awkward, dancing around questions that you've already shown you don't want to deal with.
In case I'm not being explicit enough, let's summarize it this way: mature adults know how to break relationships off cleanly, be they dating relationships or church memberships. On the other hand, the "let's just stop going and hope nobody really notices" is a mark of immaturity. You may think you're letting people off easy, but in reality, it's the exact opposite. It only makes things worse.
So, from this pastor's heart to the church at large, I make this suggestion: grow up and learn how to handle conflict in a mature manner; speak the truth in love, as it were. Just make your thoughts and feelings known, be ready for some hard questions that may come back to you. Please, don't force your pastor and church family to try to guess where you went and why you left. Better a short, decisive pain than one that lingers on for months and months and months. . .