Today was my first day in a new ward. It is unavoidably true that one of the reasons for our move was to find a fresh start in a new ward. By way of synopsis, our son Jordan came out (gay) three years ago. While it was a great shock, our family rallied around Jordan. As we became more educated, we realized how damaging being in the closet is. We were not ashamed of him. Also, our ability to protect Jordan was severely limited unless he was out. So we crashed out of the closet as a family.
The impact of this news was jarring to both family and friends. Our learning curve was steep. While well intentioned, many were not willing to look past stereotypes. In Church, this was manifest by gossip and passive aggressive behavior that felt very much like shunning. Our leaders looked up the Priesthood leadership chain for direction and found none. In this vacuum, they came to the conclusion that we were just one family.
“We are not going to upset the apple cart for just one family,” was what we heard over and over from both the ward and stake level.
This emboldened those who were offended by a gay youth in their midst. A few refused to take the sacrament from him as a Deacon. Others would shame him (and us) in the name of defending marriage. As this Church environment grew intolerable, we sought refuge in a neighboring ward. But the same overall policy was in place. As my son was now a Teacher, I reached out to his young men’s leaders: the counselors, the YM President, the Bishop, and asked them to please get him involved in preparing the Sacrament. While he was ordained a Teacher, he had never participated and no one bothered to reach out. Ultimately, nothing was done. When Jordan finally turned sixteen and the Bishop asked him if he was excited to become a Priest, Jordan said no.
“Oh that would never happen.” The Bishop reassured.
“But it already has….” Jordan replied, “when I was a Deacon.” He was never ordained a Priest. And he rarely attends Church.
This story is the beginning of a process that has dramatically impacted my family’s relationship with the Church. In our first ward, I wasn’t crushed by the fact that our ward had a few people who were largely uneducated on LGBT issues and were deeply hurtful to us. That was something I expected. I was crushed by the fact that my friends and people I had served with for 10+ years stood by and did nothing. They were paralyzed by indecision looking for permission to love a gay youth. And there was no leadership or members willing to say that refusing to take the sacrament from someone found worthy by the Bishop is wrong. Or that disparaging him or his family is off limits. So we were alone.
In our second ward there was cool tolerance, but not acceptance. When the Bishop was faced with the situation that in all likelihood some members would object to a gay Priest blessing the sacrament, he could not affirm that he would have that gay youth’s back. Trust was broken.
When that trust is breached, it often causes a chain reaction of faith trauma. It is in that moment when we realize that our faith was the glue that held all the various parts of our testimony together. This overarching faith masks the truth that we have come to know and experience very few things. Certain principles or historical events that once bothered us, but we put on the shelf, are now front and center. The testimony of the whole is now insufficient to allow us to ignore the Church’s deficiencies.
For most of my life, I believed the stereotypes that people leave the Church because they are either spiritually weak, led astray, they are easily offended, or they just want to sin. But now, because of my experience, I believe it is usually founded in a breach of trust. In some way, the Church, its leaders, or the doctrine fail us. Now many will say that the Church is made up of imperfect people, but the Gospel is perfect. It is true that the Church is made up of imperfect people. But it is also true that the whole of the Church is the body of Christ, which is the sum of its people.
“Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fullness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
This extends from the top of the Church to the very bottom. Terryl and Fiona Givens in the Crucible of Doubt (which I highly recommend) dedicate multiple chapters to dispelling the myth of prophetic infallibility that dominates Mormon culture. Most members will acknowledge that the prophet isn’t perfect. Yet in the same breath they say that the prophet can never lead the Church astray. While truth and/or doctrine might be fixed, our understanding of any given truth changes frequently. Misconceptions on this fundamental point can often be the biggest stumbling block of all. I often hear “either the Church is 100% true or 100% false.” But this ignores the fact that God has chosen imperfect men to lead His church. Even a superficial look at the Bible and church history makes this clear.
The recognition of this fact is as necessary for the believer as for the doubter. Believers and doubters can be pushed into false ultimatums that are very destructive. Believers who hold to this ‘black and white’ viewpoint are too easily shattered when they discover something that is hard to reconcile. When even one imperfection is brought to light, then this ‘black and white’ thinking can lead them to deny there is anything good or true in the Church.
What believers and doubters both need is empathy and love. There is no space for empathy and love when we are so polarized that we can’t see the good in another person. Bill Reel and Steven Garff have an excellent discussion on exactly this topic that I highly recommend.
So I find myself in this limbo between my Church (where I feel conflicted) and those outside the Church (whom I feel great empathy for). I have felt firsthand this experience of destroyed trust. I have learned to understand some of the difficult experiences that others have faced. I have a close friend whose trust was broken when the Church’s support of Prop 8 violated their conscience. I have a close friend whose trust was broken when the gospel topics essays outlined a very different story of common Church teachings. Forty plus year members of the Church are finding out messy parts of Church history and their trust is broken. Another friend was taught as a youth that obedience to covenants were a very real physical protection and shield. When there was a horrible accident that resulted in extensive chronic pain, trust was broken.
This is more than just trying to troubleshoot specific issues of why people leave the Church. I am not asking you to leave the 99 and go after the one. Half the flock has left! Our wards and stakes have a 50-60% inactivity rate. If we truly mean to minister to them we must change how we approach them. The following is a list of suggestions to hopefully assist our friends to rebuild a healthy spiritual relationship with Mormonism. Many of these are situations and dialogue I have had personally. Some are the experiences of others. Some just represent my hopes.
- Having shared religious beliefs is not the only way to make friends. It is possible to make friends based on other criteria. You can even make friends with gay people.
- Don’t make another person’s loss of faith and trust about you. Blaming a child or sibling for threatening to destroy your eternal family is very destructive. Don’t accuse another of ‘losing the spirit’ or ‘the light in your countenance has gone out.’ Your hurt feelings because of their loss of trust in the Church is making it about you.
- Restoring broken trust is not accomplished by victim blaming. Whatever reasons have led someone to doubt the Church, delegitimizing their experience demonstrates your lack of trust in them. Restoring trust is a reciprocal relationship. Even if you don’t understand, grant some validation to another’s experience. If you cannot show empathy, you cannot help restore another’s trust.
- Don’t preach. We are a Church that likes to have quick and ready answer to everything. In all likelihood, if someone you care about has shared with you their crisis of faith, they have explored many, if not all, of the related Church teachings on the subject. They are not stupid. “I don’t know,” is a perfectly acceptable answer.
- Bearing your testimony is not an answer. And while it might bring the spirit, it also frequently ends an otherwise beneficial conversation. You can encourage another to continue to seek spiritual answers and pray.
- Don’t be dismissive of another’s experience or marginalize the reasons that their faith is shaken. If they matter to you, then the issue threatening their faith should matter to you.
- Most people honestly struggling with faith and trust are doing so because their conscience and integrity are deeply troubling them. They may not see things as you see them, but they are being honest with themselves.
- Shaming others for not keeping Church standards (when they might hold those standards in doubt) is very counterproductive. Don’t create a false ‘you are either all in or all out.’ The moral whiplash may cause them to reject everything they once valued.
- Love them. Don’t allow a spiritual division to be the only dimension to your relationship. Make sure they understand that your love for them is your first priority.
- Allow their pain to be real. Feeling what your friends and family are going through will create bonds that could lead them back into fellowship with the Church.
- Be patient. Allow people to work through their doubt without your judgment. Anger is often a legitimate emotion when we feel our trust has been violated. Allow for weeks, months and maybe years while others learn to find their way.
- Find and build on the elements of testimony that they still value. They may not have explored what elements of their testimony are still intact.
- Build on the foundation of Christ. Act as you think Christ would. Be the Good Samaritan, binding up the wounds of the injured. Healers get blood on their hands and their hearts break nursing the wounds of their loved ones. Don’t hesitate or run away.
- It is possible for people to have a fulfilling relationship with God outside of the Mormon faith. Encouraging others to maintain the truths they have found and build on them is excellent.
I know this is not an exhaustive list and I encourage others to add to it. Repairing trust will take much longer than it took to break it. Our wards and stakes are 50-60% inactive because we are not very good at this. I know I would be grateful for those who reached out to me and my family in this way. I hope in my new ward I can find the home my family needs.
PS – This is the first of three articles written on Trust, Sadness and Grace. Look for Sadness in a few weeks.
Tom has also written:
- Seeing Through My Tears (January 2015) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/seeing-through-my-tears/
- Doctrine of Celibacy (October 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/the-doctrine-of-celibacy/
- What Words Can’t Define (August 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/what-words-cant-define/
- A Difference of Opinion (June 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/a-difference-of-opinion/
- Shame and Affirmation (June 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/shame-and-affirmation/
- Cool Tolerance (March 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/cool-tolerance/
- It’s Complex (August 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/its-complex/
- Christmas Cards (January 2014) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/christmas-cards/
- What the Heck is Traditional Marriage? (July 2013) –http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/what-the-heck-is-traditional-marriage/
- Defending Marriage (May 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/defending-marriage/
- Why Does the Lord Allow His Covenant People to Err? (April 2013) –http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/why-does-the-lord-allow-his-covenant-people-to-err/
- The Catalyst (January 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/the-catalyst/
- The Victoria Theater (June 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/the-victoria-theater/
- Of Pain and the Journey (September 2013) – http://nomorestranger.wpengine.com/of-pain-and-the-journey/
- I See the Image of Christ in My Gay Son, Lord (August 2012) –http://mitchmayne.blogspot.com/2012/08/a-fathers-poem-to-his-gay-son-from.html