I wasn’t really paying attention to which street my GPS told me to turn on. But when my gaze fell to the left, I locked sight on the old studio building I used to call my church home. Immediately, it brought up a visceral tenseness that I could feel in my whole body. It took a couple of minutes for my mind to catch up, but once I consciously reminded myself that church chapter was behind me, relief flooded my body.

There was no climactic ending to my time at this church—no specific scandal, or great abuse. But there were years of subtle (and oftentimes not-so-subtle) guilt-ridden sermons, emotional manipulation, unhealthy leadership, and poorly addressed church conflicts. And if I’m honest, I can see now that I also contributed a good bit of personal baggage. It was baggage that happened to create a toxic combination, considering the specific areas of brokenness this body of believers was dealing with. The result was a lot of church hurt.

I wrestled with God about leaving my church, because I felt (and still feel) strongly that the answer to brokenness in church isn’t necessarily to “run.” Churches are made up of broken people after all, so some level of hurt is unavoidable. There are definitely unhealthy situations where getting far away fast is best, but I didn’t think this was one of them. Plus, I’d grown to love many people in the congregation. The idea of walking away felt almost like abandoning a duty.

But it eventually came to a point where all that was holding me to this church was a misguided sense of guilt, and a belief that it was my responsibility to “fix” the church. When God reminded me the church was in his hands (not mine), and he’d care for the church even as I stepped away, I had peace about moving on to a new chapter.


So, I Left. Then What?

Coming to terms with leaving my church was a painstaking journey. But once I made the decision, I realized I had a whole new glaring obstacle to face: finding a new church.

Ugh. I doubt I’m the only one, but I think finding a new church is just SO HARD. While I’m grateful there are so many options where I live, it’s also overwhelming. And I hate the temptation I feel to go into “consumer” mode and start rating churches based on offerings and amenities.

I’d looked for a church plenty of times in my life, but previously, it’d always been because of some life circumstance, like moving or marriage. This time, because of the difficult experience I was walking away from, I was looking for a church with a level of skepticism and cautiousness that was new to me. I didn’t want to drag my last bad experience into a new one, but I also wanted to avoid repeating history.

I don’t think there’s a truly comprehensive guide on how to find a new church and reconnect with God’s people. But, any of us who have suffered church hurt, and have still bravely reengaged, probably have a few insights to offer.

Whether you’re looking for a church after church hurt, or just generally in the process of finding a new church, maybe these insights can be helpful handles to you—they’ve sure helped steady me as I’ve walked this bumpy road!


#1: When you’re looking for a church, look for accountability

As I was looking for a church, one of the first things I desperately needed to see was reliable accountability. How accountability structures look from church to church can vary, and I knew that. I wasn’t looking for a specific church or leadership structure—I just wanted to be sure there was some kind of formal process for leaders (especially a pastor) to be accountable to other leaders (or pastors).

Any church where a leader was set up to make unilateral, unchallenged decisions about biblical interpretations, preaching, church finances, church discipline—or any host of important matters—wouldn’t be a community where I’d feel safe. Especially after experiencing church hurt at a place where that kind of unilateral power wasn’t handled well.

Accountability among leaders isn’t a guarantee that poor decisions won’t be made, but it’s a way we can honor God’s design for the church. Leading other Christians is a big deal (Acts 20:28), and the New Testament has lots of examples of high standards for leaders (1 Timothy 3:1–5). Without accountability, there’s no way for leaders to be held to these standards… or really any standards at all. And honestly, accountability is a gift for leaders. The pressure to lead and guide God’s people should never fall exclusively on a single person’s shoulders—not when God designed the body to be dependent on one another (1 Corinthians 12:18–20).


#2: When you’re looking for a church, value transparency

As I was looking for a church, admittedly with my guard still up, it was important to find a place where there was lots of transparency.

A really important place for a church to offer transparency is with the budget and finances. How much money is coming in? What’s being done with that money? Are regular budget reports available to the congregation?

Lots of us have complicated personal relationships with money and know how quickly it can stir up conflict or turn relationships sour. None of us are immune to the lure of money, and we know it can be dangerous, and certainly has potential to lead to plenty of church hurt (1 Timothy 6:10).

A church being open and transparent about the funds they steward doesn’t guarantee brokenness won’t weed its way in. But, having those systems of transparency in place gives it a little less room to grow, and offers more of a chance to be exposed where and when it does.

Transparency in other ways is important too. It might not always be appropriate for leaders to share every detail about every decision, but it’s assuring to see leaders share openly with the congregation in appropriate ways about hiring decisions, big purchases, an upcoming change of practice, or things along those lines.


#3: When you’re looking for a church, listen to your gut

Finally, as I reflect on the journey of finding a new church, I’ve had a bit of a personal revelation. If I visit a new church and something just feels “off,” but I can’t quite put my finger on it? That’s okay. I don’t have to be able to articulate a justification for looking elsewhere. Maybe there’s something going on that I don’t know about, or maybe it’s just not the place God has for me at the moment.

At my old church, there were many points at which I felt uneasy about some things that were going on. However, I rarely had enough information to make informed and confident conclusions (I’ve never really been one of those “fully in the loop” people). Nevertheless, looking back, I can see those feelings of unease were not unfounded. In fact, they were probably the Holy Spirit trying to guide me (John 16:13).

While every gut instinct might not be directly from God, I’ve learned it’s well worth my time to bring my gut feelings to him to try to discern what’s going on. Because, even if those gut feelings aren’t from the Spirit, you can bet there’s something to be unpacked there, and something God can teach you through them. And if I really doubt my gut feeling about a church, I can always visit one more time and see if it’s still there.   


If It Feels Like Looking for a Church is Exhausting and Hard, It’s Because It Is

Looking for a church can be really hard. God made us for community, and it makes sense that we experience unease when we’re struggling to find the right place to get plugged in. The difficulty of finding a new church is only exacerbated when we’re looking after experiencing church hurt in a previous community.

If that’s the case for you, I’m so sorry. It’s a lot! And if you’re exhausted and tired, it’s understandable. Take the time you need to process things with God and other safe, trustworthy believers.

Then, when you’re ready, I hope you remember (like God reminded me) that church hurt doesn’t mean we have to withdraw from church altogether to try to protect ourselves from getting hurt again. Instead, as we take brave leaps of faith and join a new faith community, we can trust God to give us discernment. We can ask him for his protection even as we engage with a little more caution. Understandably, we’ll probably have some extra walls up, but we can trust he’ll still help us get connected with the right people, who will lovingly care for us and invite us in anyway. And that sort of community is exactly what God made us to experience, and it’s worth the search. Don’t give up!