I was recently asked to speak at my Stake conference regarding my experiences leaving the church for several years, and my recent choice to return. I decided to use this opportunity to teach a lesson sorely needed in LDS communities about how we treat those who choose to leave. The below is an adaptation of that speech.
I’d like to share with you my experience leaving the church for several years, and my recent decision to return.
Your instinct might be to get excited. You might hope that I’m about to share the secret sauce that will bring loved ones back into the fold. I’d like to tell you right up front that this is not my intention.
My goal is not to show you how to explain away someone’s doubts, or to rekindle their testimony. Rather, I want to share what I and others felt upon leaving the church — regardless of our reasons for leaving.
I invite you to maintain an open heart while reading, as there are parts that may stir up feelings of defensiveness or frustration. If this happens to you, I invite you to look inward and ask yourself, “Why am I feeling this?”
Why People Leave
People leave the church for many reasons. Some have been deeply hurt or offended by other members of the church. Some feel deceived and betrayed by the church because of inaccuracies in church history. Some have been deeply wounded by the actions of leaders or official church policies that affect people they love. Others doubt because of the imperfect actions of our founding prophet, Joseph Smith. And many just plain don’t feel like they fit in.
Regardless of why people leave, it’s what they often experience upon leaving that makes them never want to come back.
If you’ve never left the church before, it’s hard to comprehend the experience. You must understand that it’s almost impossible to just “leave” the church. For most of us, the church is embedded in who we are. It’s part of our character, and our identity. Mormonism is enmeshed in our values, our morals, our family relationships, and our friendships.
Many of us have steeped in Mormon traditions and heritage, dating back generations, since birth. Which makes choosing to leave the church — regardless of the reason — difficult, complicated, and so incredibly painful.
People who leave experience feelings of extreme loneliness, betrayal, and a complete loss of identity. It’s as if the foundation they’ve built their life around is crumbling. They feel anger, devastating sadness, relief, and frustration. They feel a need to belong while at the same time feeling a need to be alone. They feel deceived, judged, looked-down-upon, and very confused.
It is a horrible experience that robs you of your ability to trust others — especially those who belong to the organization that has caused you so much profound pain and suffering.
Because of this, those who leave the church often become cynical, skeptical, and jaded.
Members Make the Pain Worse
Now you have a small glimpse into the pain most people go through when they begin to leave the church. With that in mind, consider how much more painful it would be to go through these struggles, deal with the seemingly endless wave of emotions, and suffer through these trials while the people you’ve leaned on and trusted your entire life suddenly start distancing themselves from you, avoiding you, pitying you, judging you, or criticizing your character and your choices.
Not only are you struggling with a deep, personal spiritual battle that you didn’t choose, it also feels like you’re being punished for it by the people who proclaim to love you most.
I invite you to consider the words of Christ in D&C 81 : 5:
Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.
If anyone in our community needs succoring, compassion, support and empathy, it is the people undergoing a faith transition.
Just last week, I asked a Facebook group notorious for its community of ex-Mormons — many of whom are very vocal about their frustrations with the church — a question: What would you tell a member of the church to avoid doing if they don’t want to cause unnecessary pain for someone they love who has chosen to leave?
Here are some of the responses:
- When people treat you with pity and say things like, “I’m praying for you.”
- When you’re turned into a “project” and people only come to your house to fulfill a calling or “under assignment from the Bishop”
- When your family is turned into a weapon and used against you, like getting grandkids excited about church with the agenda of motivating parents to take them in the future, or using a family member’s temple sealing to pressure a less-active member into getting a temple recommend when they’re not worthy or don’t desire one.
- When you make assumptions about why someone leaves — like that they just want to sin, they don’t have enough faith, or they were never truly committed. I can’t tell you how many people said they’ve been gone from church for YEARS and nobody ever asked them why they left and sincerely listened to their answers.
- When you don’t reach out as a friend. Once some people stop coming to church, you might feel uncomfortable and ignore them because you don’t know what to say.
- Sending missionaries to visit them when they move to a new neighborhood despite constant requests to not be contacted by missionaries.
- Assuming that leaving the church equates to a loss of morals.
- Bearing your testimony to them with the assumption that it will somehow magically make their doubts and struggles disappear.
So the problem we’re running into is that people leave the church because they’re hurt… and then in an attempt to bring them back, we hurt them even more.
What You Should Do Instead
So if you can’t do any of the above things to convince those you love to come back to church, what do you do?
The answer is simple: Stop trying to get them to come back to church!
Just love them.
It wasn’t until I had a bishop who invited me into his office — not to get me to come back, but to express his love for me and show empathy and understanding for what I was going through — that I even contemplated coming back.
We talked about my struggles with the crushing guilt that came from the pressure I felt to live up to a cultural standard of perfection all the time. We talked about my anger towards God and towards the church. We talked about my frustration with Joseph. We talked about the lack of compassion we often show to people who are different than us.
He listened. He empathized. He understood. He invited me to talk more.
He helped me grapple with my own faith, and showed me that it’s ok to be a different kind of Mormon… the kind of Mormon who wrestles with tough questions. One who doesn’t have all the answers. One who doesn’t “know” the church is true.
Just like my Bishop — and a handful of unnamed friends and family both in and out of the church — helped me along my journey, we (myself included) need to do a better job of caring for people not because they’re part of our faith, or because it’s our calling, but because it’s in our character to love them. It’s part of who we are to have genuine concern for our neighbors.
Here’s a secret: People know when you approach them with an agenda. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, most of the time we’re not approaching our loved ones who have left the church “out of love,” as we claim. We’re approaching them because we’re terrified they’re going to screw up our shot at Celestial Glory.
We’re scared that if they don’t change their behavior, we’ll lose them forever, and our hope of having an “eternal family” goes out the window because of their “selfish” choices.
We fear their choices will echo through eternity as generations of their posterity are lost to the wiles of Satan.
These fear-based attempts to re-convert are always more about us and our personal worries and concerns than it is about them… despite how we try to justify it to ourselves.
Brothers and Sisters, I have to ask… do you have faith? Can you trust in God’s plan? Do you believe in a God who has a path for each of his children — even those who question their faith?
We need to change our focus from criticizing and shaming people for their differences and struggles in a manner that pushes them away from the church.
We must not criticize people for going camping or boating with their family on the occasional Sunday… or they’ll never come back!
We must not guilt priesthood holders for the color shirt they wear to church, or for their facial hair. Instead we need to express gratitude for their attendance and contributions… or eventually they’ll leave and never come back.
We must never refer to our young women who dress in a way we perceive as immodest as “pornography.” This is a terrible, shaming behavior that creates deep emotional wounds that will drive these young women away… and they’ll never come back.
We must not shame young men for looking at pornography, masturbating, coming home early from a mission, or choosing not to go at all. These struggles are incredibly heavy to bear in our community. Adding the weight of judgmental words only drives these young men into depression and isolation. They’ll leave… and never come back.
We must not cast judgment on mothers who choose to pursue a career outside the home. When we judge a woman’s capacity as a mother, it makes her feel small and insignificant and like a failure. These women will leave, and they’ll never come back.
The Most Important Question
I want to leave you with one question.
This question will determine the future of our neighborhoods, our communities, and our church.
This question will determine the quality of your relationships with your friends and family members as their faith evolves and changes throughout life.
Here it is:
Can you create a loving space in the church for our brothers and sisters whose faith is different from yours, whether in the church or outside of it?
Is there a place in the church for families who only attend services twice a month?
Is there a place in the church for members who have a strong dislike for Joseph Smith?
Is there a place in the church for a member who drinks coffee?
Is there a place in the church for a member who swears, or watches R-rated movies?
Is there a place in the church for a member who struggles with opioids, alcohol, or looks at porn?
Is there a place for people who want to be a member of the church solely to be part of our wonderful community ?
What are you doing to create a welcoming space for these people? What might you be doing to push them away… forever?
At its best, religion pushes us to challenge our own thoughts and behaviors. It inspires us to be better, and to examine our contribution to the problems of our world.
Religion at its worst focuses on excluding, condemning, threatening, judging, and controlling others by shame and guilt.
The gospel of the Jesus Christ I believe in — the gospel I try to live by — encourages me to improve myself, to reflect on how I can be better while accepting and understanding the weaknesses of others.
The gospel of Christ does not encourage us to be complacent with our own growth and progress, while being judgmental and demeaning towards the sins and struggles of others.
Christ had a name for people like that. It was “hypocrite.”
I leave you with one last scripture. It’s perhaps the most profoundly important scripture we have, and I hold it dear.
John 15:12 — This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you.