I’m actually really excited about the next few posts. In this one I will be speaking about how to support those who doubt, who are in a crisis of faith, or who have left the church. In the next one I will discuss the different possible paths forward after learning about all the ins and outs of church history and difficult issues. I will include how my own values, beliefs, and behaviors have changed and where I have landed, at least currently. In the third post from now, I will discuss the positive aspects of the LDS church, and there are honestly many. So at least for the near future, the tone of these posts will be a bit different than those that have come before.
But this is the post that I have been waiting to write. The post that I think will help me, as well as those reading, the most. If you only read one of my posts the whole way through, make it this one. If you are a member of the church, I’m sure I am not the only one that you know that has serious doubts. I’m not the only one that has distanced themselves from the church or completely left. Whether they be your child, an acquaintance, a co-worker, or a friend, we all know someone that has decided to no longer attend church. And I promise, I will not be the last. In the future, you will hear about more people like me. People that you never thought would doubt or leave the church will do so. Some will leave due to difficult questions about church history, policy, or doctrine. Others that have served missions will stop attending. Individuals or couples that have been married in the temple will make known their disbelief, just as I have. It will be terrifying for them, and it may be difficult for you to understand how to approach the situation. In the end, this post is for both groups of people. It is for those that leave, so that they will hopefully receive support, as well as those that know people that will leave in the future, so they will know how to support them.
My hope in writing this is that those that struggle in the church have a bit of an easier time than I did. I hope that your friends and family will have a greater understanding of your journey when you have your difficult discussions, write your letters, or when you make your Facebook posts. I hope your fear is reduced by hearing these words and that you find strength and comfort from them. I hope you get the support you will need. And I hope that those believing members of the church will listen to and follow this advice when interacting with those friends and family that doubt or leave the church. Please honor their experience and give them the reassurance that you will remain close to them through their own search for truth, even if it leads them down a different path than yours.
Many of the points I will make here are taken from a video and slide presentation by John Dehlin called “Top 5 Myths and Truths about Why Committed Mormons Leave the Church” (https://youtube.com/watch?v=EP3GJeYIN3s). I contacted him and he gave his permission to include his work here. I have added some points of my own as well. I will first discuss things to avoid doing followed by things you should be doing when interacting with those that doubt or stop believing in the church.
First, the Don’ts:
Don’t: Make assumptions
Don’t assume why people have begun doubting or why they have stopped attending church. It is easy to make guesses based on incomplete information but you will almost always be incorrect. Making assumptions doesn’t get you closer to the truth but it will likely cause hurt feelings in the future.
Don’t: Believe the myths
Don’t automatically believe that people like me were obviously sinning, were offended, left due to being lazy, never had a testimony or didn’t have a strong testimony, or were deceived by anti-Mormon material. As I stated in my last post, Elder Uchtdorf has stated there are many reasons why members doubt or leave. The decision to distant yourself from the church is often a long, miserable experience that is not taken lightly. I was just like you, until I wasn’t. Someday you might be just like me. I will be here for you if that ever happens. But don’t believe the often-used reasons you have heard in the past. In my experience, they are simply and completely wrong.
Don’t: Guilt them, preach to, or lecture them
Don’t try to make them feel bad by saying things like, “You are ruining your eternal family.” “Your kids will grow up without morals.” “I know that you know it’s true.” As I have stated before, the process of getting to a point where we are comfortable talking to people about our disbelief is almost always long and difficult. We have gone through a lot and it takes a lot to be open with others. Please don’t try to convince us how we are wrong or how you are right. Odds are we have already fought this battle with ourselves and still came to the same conclusion. Guilt is never a good motivator.
Don’t: Tell them to just read the Book of Mormon, pray harder, or bear your testimony
Again, we have often spent months or years reading and praying. Many of us have gotten to the point where we no longer believe the Book of Mormon is historical or that it is scripture, so reading it would not help. I realize that telling us to read, pray, and bearing your testimony is what you have always been told to do if you or someone you know has doubts, but this is not how to help us. You need to understand why we have made the decisions we have in order to determine how to help us. We often have specific aspects of the church that no longer work for us. Any and all of these reasons are legitimate. We need answers to our specific problematic issues and there are often no faithful answers. While the church may completely work for you, just because it works for you does not mean it works for us.
Don’t: Tell them to repent or try to reconvert them
This one should be relatively obvious but I have heard many stories of family and friends being less than supportive of an individual’s free agency. Please realize that those that leave the church are doing so because they believe it is the right decision for them. Trying to tell us that we are wrong or are making a big mistake without knowing our reasoning is not going to help. We are not being prideful, if anything we are humbling ourselves by allowing ourselves to, at the very least, entertain the idea that we may have been wrong about our most dearly held beliefs. Calling us to repentance does not change anything, it only damages the relationship.
Don’t: Judge or fear them
I know how hard it can be to feel like people outside the church look at you differently because you’re Mormon. It can be a very uncomfortable feeling. Please don’t do the same thing by judging those that doubt or leave. During our individual process/transition, there will be changes. For different people these changes will look differently. I know some that decide to change very little and continue attending church while others stop attending completely and undergo drastic changes. Don’t judge us for these decisions. An example of this might be that we choose to drink black or green tea or coffee. While these things are against the Word of Wisdom, which church members believe is a commandment from God, people in my situation no longer believe this to be true. Some religions do not permit you to eat shellfish, or beef, or to own a dog as a pet. If you no longer believe that God is against these things, whether we are talking about eating beef or drinking coffee, it makes less sense to continue to follow these practices if, in moderation, they have been shown to be safe. Please respect our decisions and don’t judge us as less moral or upright if we no longer follow the specific practices you do.
Don’t: Avoid or shun them
I realize that it may be difficult to spend time with those that no longer believe the same as you. But we notice when people drop off the map. It’s hard to not feel like it is directly related to your disbelief. Know that it can be just as uncomfortable for us but we are desperately trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy when it feels like our world is falling apart. Please don’t remove us from your lives. I realize that those that no longer believe can be angry. This phase is almost always temporary. Most of that anger comes from feeling lied to. If you can imagine your parent not telling you that you were adopted, then finding out at age 40, but only because you got a DNA test, you would likely feel betrayed. They could have told you, but they thought they were protecting you. You would likely feel angry. But over time the anger softens and you can discuss your adoption without those angry feelings. This is an imperfect but somewhat similar analogy to what those like me feel like when we come to the conclusion the church isn’t true. Allow us some grace in this regard and allow us time while keeping us involved in your lives.
Don’t: Try to give answers if you haven’t specifically and significantly researched the issue
I can’t emphasize this one enough. Those that doubt almost always have specific concerns that they are struggling to understand in a believing way. Those that leave the church have decided that there are no answers to these questions that allow the church to remain God’s true church. Don’t try to give the typical answers. I know this is what seems like the right approach, but it isn’t helpful. We know the same gospel answers that you do. We were in your shoes in the past. We believed and were taught the same things.
Don’t: Refer them to apologetic sources (unless you are willing to hear a respectful response)
As I wrote in a previous post, an apologist is someone that has taken a position (the church is true) and subsequently looked for information to support that position. So, it may seem like a good idea to send a conference talk, or talk about how to faithfully cope with your doubts, or a link to the Gospel Topics Essays or FairMormon website. There are many reasons that people choose to leave the church as well as many catalysts for doubt. As such, without knowing why individuals have gotten to wherever it is that they are in their faith journey, sending this type of information is not often helpful. In my case, I have read almost everything that is available along this vein. I continue to read talks given by the general authorities on the topic of doubt. I follow FairMormon on Facebook and am updated on what they are doing. Others that have left the church based on social issues or other individual issues they can’t reconcile would likely not be helped by this information either. But if you do wish to send something, please be prepared for a response. If you have information you would like to give please be open to information that we have learned as well. This isn’t a tit-for-tat thing, it’s a respect thing. We have issues with the church that are difficult to resolve so please listen to us if you are offering information of your own.
Now, on to the Dos:
Do: Realize that we are seeking truth
The idea that someone that leaves the church may be seeking truth is something that I had never even considered when I still believed. Yet this is the predicament I find myself in. When I dug into church history and doctrines and discovered difficult information that I had never heard before, my goal was to determine the truth of these claims. As I continued my journey, and with the information I had found, I came to the conclusion that I could no longer believe that the church was the one and only true church on the earth. Please understand that while members of the church believe it is true and that there is no reason to look elsewhere, I cannot agree with this. Those like me seek acknowledgement that we are trying to determine for ourselves not only our own personal truth, but objective truth as well.
Do: Be kind
I understand that as a fully believing member of the LDS church, you may be hurting too. When a loved one makes choices that go against your beliefs, it can be hard to accept. It’s a relatively natural reaction to become angry, defensive, or argumentative. I’ve already stated how those that no longer believe can feel this way as well, so I’m not blaming or accusing at all. But even if you are hurting yourself, be kind. We are still the same people. We still want what’s best for ourselves and our families. We still want to raise our kids to be the best people they can be. But the way we do these things may look different. Please be kind even if we do disagree.
Do: Eliminate agendas
Those in my situation want contact from friends and family. We want support. We want relationships to continue. We don’t want to be a project. We seek acceptance for who we are, as in who we have always been as well as who we are becoming. Just be with us rather than trying to fix us. You may not believe me when I say this, but we aren’t broken.
Do: Respect their choices
As I have stated before, those that leave the church are changing. You may or may not agree but at least we believe it is for the better. But please respect the decisions we make. Before we stopped believing, our future was largely decided for us. We knew what was expected and many decisions about life were already made. And when you believe the answers come directly from God, you don’t have to question whether you are doing the right thing or not. Now, we have to reconstruct our world and determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. We also have to determine why things are right or wrong. If you see or hear about us making a decision that may be different to what you believe, try to understand from an outside perspective. For instance, if you no longer believed in the church, what decisions would you make? Why would you make them? What might you do different? If you can honestly separate your perspective from that of the church, you might be able to see why we make the decisions we do.
Do: Call your loved one and set a time to talk
This is one of the most important points of this post. If you haven’t had a good discussion about the topic of changing beliefs with your doubting friend or family member, please get in touch. Tell them that you want to understand. Tell them that you will just listen to what they have to say. Set boundaries beforehand if needed, for instance if you don’t want specific information, but let them know you are a safe person to talk to. Ask about their change in belief and invite them to explain it to you. As I have said numerous times previously, those going through a faith transition just want to be heard, understood, and respected. We want to be loved even though we no longer believe the same way we used to. But please, call and talk. Each person in my position will be open to discuss these things to a differing degree but as long as you love them unconditionally (and this has to be more than the “love the sinner, hate the sin mentality,” as I feel like this belief is extremely harmful) they will feel it and appreciate it immensely.
Do: Ask what they need and support them the way they want to be supported
Everyone is different, whether you are a believer in the LDS faith or not. Those that doubt or no longer believe should not be painted with the same brush. Each would likely prefer different methods or degrees of support from those close to them. For example, my wife is more private than I am, so she would rather people reach out to her without necessarily talking about church things, while I would rather these things not be the elephant in the room. There is nothing wrong with asking, “Hey, what do you need from me right now? I’m here for you and want to help.”
Do: Do the work to understand them and become more informed about the difficult issues
There are ways of doing this that would be considered “safe”. First, if you are a believing member of the church, you should read the Gospel Topics Essays (https://www.lds.org/topics/essays?lang=eng). All of them. In past posts I offered an out if individuals did not want to learn about difficult information. That was for the purpose of reading my posts. I did not want people to feel forced or even pressured to read difficult information in my articles. But for the purpose of understanding those like me, you definitely should read these topics. You should learn what the church teaches about the translation and historicity of the Book of Abraham, polygamy and polyandry, as well as the priesthood and temple ban for black people. You should learn about the numerous First Vision accounts, the translation method of the Book of Mormon, and commonalities of Masonic rites to the temple endowment. After you have researched the Gospel Topics Essays, you should move on to Fair Mormon (fairmormon.org). Spend some time here to learn about the different issues that may have impacted your loved one. Again, the information on both of these sites is attempting to answer difficult questions from a believing perspective. In other words, these resources were written for believing members in order to help them remain believing members. There is a “but,” however. But, if you really want to know the ins and outs of these issues, you really need to go further by researching the sources cited. These can be found by scrolling down to the bottom of each article. Read each of these sources to discover for yourself what is being said rather than simply reading what these websites say the sources are trying to convey.
An example of why you should read sources for yourself is that the church often uses information contained in sources that is favorable while omitting information that is not. The Gospel Topics Essay “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham” includes this quote from the source Letter to the Editor, Painesville Republican, Feb. 15, 1838: “I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven,” wrote Warren Parrish, Joseph Smith’s scribe. But the church omits the following information from the same source: “For the year past their (Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon) lives have been one continued scene of lying, deception, and fraud, and that too, in the name of God.” To reiterate, the church used the first quote from a letter to a newspaper in order to promote faith while omitting that the writer stated, in the same letter, that he believed Joseph was a liar and fraud. To be fair, I have also found discrepancies in critical sources as well. I have not simply listened to the contrary voices about the church, as I was critical of the unbelievers just as much as I was of the believers. But this is an example of why it is important to read sources while looking into this information to determine for yourself the veracity of what is being said.
If you have made it this far, thank you. Thank you for being open enough to read through this post, not knowing what information might have been included. Thank you for being caring enough to look for information that might help you support those close to you that are in faith crisis or transition. And I will thank you in advance for those of you that will follow through with these points of advice.
In my next post, I will discuss the different options of belief after learning the difficult information that is out there regarding the church’s history. I will write about my own beliefs and values and how they have or have not changed. I look forward to continue to be open and honest about my journey and I hope that my vulnerability will be accepted without judgement.