This essay is intended for LDS Church members who have recetly (or not so recently) encountered a major trial of their faith, and are trying to figure out what options for church engagement are available to them. In my experience -- the 2 most obvious options are either: 1) remaining a traditional, literalist, conservative member (not an option for many in this scenario), or 2) leaving the church altogether, either formally by resigning or informally by "going inactive" (an option which many choose -- some with great success, and some with much regret).
While I am in full support of those who choose either of these options -- I write this essay to let people know that there is also a "middle way" within Mormonism that lies between orthodox, literalistic observance and complete abandonment.
This essay explores approaches to navigating the "Middle Way of Mormonism."
Finally, if you are completely content with your membership in the LDS Church, or if you have left the church and feel no desire to return -- this essay is not for you.
These points will appear obvious to most of you, but I must include them to address past misunderstandings:
When someone becomes disaffected from the LDS Church, it is quite common for them to be accused by family, friends, and fellow ward members of lacking faith and commitment. It is also common for them to be accused of grave sin or disobedience to church teachings. I'm sure that's true of some people, as I've communicated with literally hundreds of disaffected Mormons over the past two years. But it has been my experience that most disaffected LDS Church members were "guilty," if anything, of caring too much about the church, not caring too little.
I receive at least two or three emails a week recounting basically the same story -- your story:
At some point between adolescence and adulthood, you became very serious about Mormonism. You were likely among the most committed, devout, observant members of the church in your family or peer group. You held a literalistic view of LDS doctrine, took statements by LDS General Authorities (past and present) very seriously, and perhaps even went a bit overboard in your level of Church service.
Over time, one of several experiences, or a combination thereof, happened to you:
As you traveled down this shocking road of discovery, you began to feel as though the framework for your entire world was falling apart. Your family relationships, your friendships, your code of ethics, even your identity -- virtually everything about you was anchored in Mormonism. Where could you go from here?
Because you had been taught to view Mormonism in a binary fashion -- as either completely true or completely false -- your immediate inclination was to declare it now false, and to abandon it completely. However, there was still a great deal that you loved about the Church, and abandoning it did not feel quite right either.
In my experience, for someone who has reached your level of commitment and devotion to the LDS Church, it is almost impossible to simply "un-Mormon" yourself. As I mentioned before, your entire identity, moral code, sense of spirituality, family and social structures, and even framework for life have been built upon the foundation of Mormonism. It is the same for me. Mormon is simply who we are. This is our tribe: our people. We are Mormons through and through.
The task of comprehensively extricating yourself from Mormonism would be comparable to trying to remove the wooden frame from a standing house, and expecting the house to remain in good stead. It is likely impossible to do in any constructive manner. Think about what it would take to completely eliminate Mormonism from your life: it would involve completely ripping your life apart. This alone is a compelling reason (for many, not all) to consider finding a way to stay within Mormonism.
While I could write an entire book on the many benefits of LDS Church membership, let me share with you a few of them:
If you can replace all these things by leaving the church, then by all means follow your truth. Just make sure that (warts and all) you are trading up, not down.
Now, on to the major purpose of this document: more than 30 tips on how to remain in the LDS Church after becoming disaffected.
First of all, remember that losing idealistic perceptions or expectations, and replacing them with more realistic ones, are two very important components of human maturity. Our parents are much more limited in capacity than we thought when we were children. The same is true with our teachers and leaders. The founding fathers of the USA were much more complex than we were taught growing up (Jefferson held slaves, and may have fathered children with a slave, Benjamin Franklin was a philanderer, etc.). Businesses can do both great and terrible things. Same with governments, schools, and even charities. The world is imperfect. Any organization that is comprised of imperfect people is going to have serious flaws.
Even though it might strike really close to home, it's a fair question to ask: why should it be any different with religions, or with religious leaders (past or present)? If perfection (or anything close to it) is the standard for any organization or individual, who will ever measure up?
Finally, if you already find yourself severely disappointed with, or even disaffected from the LDS Church, it should be completely logical for you to no longer expect perfection from it in any real sense. You can simply drop this unrealistic, unhealthy expectation.
Eventually, you may be able to replace anger at the behavior of the brethren and certain members with understanding for their positions. If you try, it's not hard to do. They come by it honestly. You may have even been dogmatic or boring yourself at one point on another. If this is true, then you, of all people, should understand them.
Regardless, this is the essence of Christianity and lovingkindness: to love, forgive and look for the good. Avoid actively pursuing reasons for annoyance or offense, even when you feel that you are being marginalized by people who do not understand you and possibly fear you. If you can find a way to love them and forgive them, even as Christ did, you will be a better person for it.
In my experience, most dogmatic, orthodox people are so for a good reason. Maybe they've had a death in the family, and cling to religion as their only hope for seeing that loved one again. Maybe they are struggling with addiction, or depression. Maybe they suffer from abuse at home, or a horrible marriage. Some of the people who cling to dogmatic religion most tightly, are the ones who are least happy, and most scared in their lives. This situation -- above all others, perhaps -- deserves our love and respect. Even for the purely sincere -- do you really want to run around trying to disabuse them of their beliefs? Isn't that like running up to random children to tell them that Santa Claus is a fraud? People cling to belief for all sorts of reasons -- and thoughtful, kind people will respect this. If you really want to emulate Christ, start with empathy.
Many disaffected folk expect LDS General Authorities to constantly apologize for all the past errors of the church, and to actively promote awareness of the most controversial aspects of LDS Church history. These are unfair and unrealistic expectations.
Let's take a moment to consider the situation of LDS General Authorities:
If you were in their shoes, and the future of the church were riding on your shoulders, would you seriously rock the boat, and risk destroying an organization that you loved, believed in, and knew was an asset to literally millions of families worldwide? In my opinion, to do so would be grossly irresponsible.
Thus, their dilemma.
You might feel as though the church has a responsibility to be completely open with all of its major flaws and weaknesses, but in the real world, this is probably not very realistic. For example, do you live up to this standard in your own life? Do you tell everyone you meet, or even everyone close to you, all of your deepest, darkest secrets? While it's true that the LDS Church claims to be God's one and only true church, we also acknowledge that in reality, it is run by imperfect men, in less-than-perfect circumstances. Given that realization, why would we expect the church to be any different? It is unreasonable to expect complete transparency from human beings and human organizations -- even ones that claim divine authority. Humans simply don't work that way.
I am not saying it is right for anyone to withhold information about their own wrongdoing from those who depend on them. Ideally, we should all be willing to confess the things we have done wrong and try to make amends. That is the ideal for individuals and for institutions. But we all fall short of that ideal sometimes, in some areas. We can come to understand the human institutional impulse to remain silent about missteps. We may eventually look with compassion on the ways in which humans and institutions seek to hide their flaws, we may forgive, and we may leave ultimate judgment to a higher Judge. Even while we do all that, we do not need to say that hiding one's flaws is right or blameless.
Strive always to be thoughtful, respectful and temperate in your desires to "educate" others, especially in group settings at church. Treat devout Mormons with the same level of respect that you would a devout Muslim or Catholic, in terms of respecting their knowledge and beliefs. You would never remind a Catholic whom you didn't know well about the controversial aspects of their church's history, such as indulgences or child molestation (unless you were just plain rude). You would never mock or question a Muslim about the historicity of Mohammad and the Koran. So why would you treat devout Mormons any differently (unless you got to know them on a personal level, and built up a relationship of trust with them)?
Wholeheartedly resist the temptation to disrupt Sunday School, Priesthood, or Relief Society with controversy. Even though these meetings are promoted under the guise of education, education is clearly not what they are about. They are primarily about convincing members to be obedient to church commandments, and to promote (as much as possible) wholesome living. Learning is far from the primary or even secondary goal. Try your hardest to respect the actual, unstated purpose of the gathering. Instead of disrupting, simply don't attend if you are unable to maintain your cool. Over time, perhaps after some distance, you may find yourself able to attend again with more patience and empathy.
The binary world view means thinking that something is either completely true, or completely false. It does not allow for middle ground and does not account for the natural complexities of life and the universe.
If you have fallen prey to the "true/false" paradigm in your thinking, drop it completely. Yes, the church pushes this paradigm, for example by saying that the Book of Mormon is either the most marvelous work ever revealed or the vilest hoax ever perpetrated, but don't let statements like that affect you. Church leaders believe "it's all true, or none of it's true," and virtually all growing churches do the same. Teaching the "true/false" paradigm is what growing churches do. Did the Catholic church grow in its heyday by claiming to be just one good option among many? No. They killed people by the thousands who didn't believe in their way as the one and only way. Same with Protestant religions in the 17th and even 18th centuries. Same with Islam.
If you think about it, what's the point of a denomination at all, if it's not "God's one true path?" Overall, the churches that have let up on emphasizing their "one trueness" have not grown as quickly as churches that continue to trumpet themselves as the one and only. Growth means living; anything less means the church is dying. LDS Church leaders believe that emphasizing the church's "one trueness" is an essential component of survival. They may be right -- just see the growth rates of the Reorganized LDS Church (now Community of Christ), Unitarian Universalists, or Episcopalians for counterexamples.
When you move past the "true/false" paradigm, you can dramatically lower your expectations of the church. Don't think of it as God's one and only true and perfect church while all others as abominations. If you think that way, the church will always fall short. Instead, think of it as a bunch of men (and a few women -- in terms of leadership) who are just trying their best to fulfill their callings while balancing work, family, and personal stuff -- and stumbling a great deal along the way. Don't think of its leaders as having a direct, telephone-like communication line with God. They probably don't. As Paul said, "we see through a glass, darkly." "We" means all of us.
When asked recently why the LDS Church denied priesthood to the blacks, President Hinckley answered, "We don't know." I take him at his word. Even if the leaders want us to believe that they have direct lines of communication with God (this comforts many), in most instances, this communication is murky at its very best. Consequently, you should no longer expect it to be any other way (even if they try to convince you as such). As it is with you, they just try their best to receive inspiration -- and you know how difficult that can be at times for yourself, let alone for 12,000,000 other people.
For many, many years in the LDS Church, the conditioning for children, and the heavy emphasis for teenagers, has been to say, "I know this church is true." There are at least two very important things going on in that phrase:
In other words, they've won your complete and total allegiance, and have discredited all other religious options, before you've even had the chance to mature and work things out for yourself.
This is not a bad thing. Again, it's simply what religions do. It may be exactly what many young children need to give them reassurance and certainty through the insecurities of young adulthood.
So while perhaps it has been healthy for the vitality of the organization to do this, and likely for some individuals as well, I believe that the heavy emphasis on "knowing" and "true" in this church, and the devaluing of "faith," is ultimately spiritually damaging to its members. When these children become adults, they begin thinking from an adult perspective about what they believe. As they realize that their convictions fall far short of empirically "knowing," they may experience deep feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. Faith has become devalued to the point of becoming almost an embarrassment.
Many, and this is particularly common with LDS missionaries, even feel compelled to lie about their testimonies, just to fit in and avoid feeling ostracized. If one were to stand up in the church today, especially as a missionary, and say, "I believe the church is true. I hope the church is true," they would likely be evaluated by their peers as being weaker in their convictions and inadequate compared to those who say, "I know." I think Christ would not share this view.
Faith is the first principle of the gospel. It is foundational -- and it is glorious. Christ Himself said, "because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." He didn't say "blessed are those who know." He said "believed." And He clearly is elevating those who do not know, over those who think they know. In other words, it is actually a "blessed" state to hope and believe, and not know. We should not in any way feel embarrassed by the fact that we don't know the church is true, or that God and Jesus live. We should feel proud to be believers, in spite of our lack of knowledge.
In addition, the Doctrine and Covenants clearly describes "faith" and "testimony" as a gift -- something that people are either given, or not given (at least to begin with). Consequently, it's perfectly scriptural for some members to have a strong testimony, and for others to simply hope or even not believe (in the conservative sense). The church (and its membership) must allow for this.
Also, it is highly unlikely that those who say they know, actually do know. Instead, they are simply parroting what they were conditioned to say since Primary. There is clearly a certain status and prestige to be gained by bearing your testimony with deep convictions within your congregation (the whole "I know with every fiber of my being" thing).
Regardless, don't let the "knowers" bully you into thinking that you are inadequate, or in any way a second class citizen in the church. Be proud of your hope and belief. Be proud of your faith.
Finally, what in the heck does it mean to call a church "true"? What an odd usage of the word. To me, it's like calling a ham sandwich "true." It just doesn't mean anything.
Churches are made up of imperfect and constantly changing doctrines and policies, along with imperfect people, all struggling to do the best they can in a messy world. We all see through a glass darkly. All of us, the church leaders included. A church can be good, or even great -- but never true. (Ham sandwiches can be good, too.)
We simply need to find another word.
Regardless, stand up and take your place in the church as a proud, faithful, non-knowing believer. You are in every way as legitimate as the "knower" sitting next to you. If you don't believe me, believe Christ. He said so Himself.
A "buffet Mormon" is someone who does not believe every doctrine the church might teach and does not do every task the church might ask of them, but chooses among what is offered and leaves the rest. The term "cafeteria Mormon" means the same thing.
Proudly embrace the title "buffet Mormon." No one can eat everything in a buffet. And no one (including the prophets) can do everything that is expected within Mormonism. So, if you think about it, all Mormons are "buffet Mormons." It's just a matter of to what degree, and how guilty we make ourselves feel about it. Sure, we should all try our best to be as good as possible. But we all fall short, prophets and apostles included. Believe me on this. No one can do everything required by the LDS gospel with perfection (gardens, journals, scripture study, all the prayers, temple, callings, perfect parent and spouse, earn a living, genealogy, etc., etc.) So instead of feeling guilty about it, embrace it. Decide your limits, and balance your life to the healthiest extent possible. Several recent conference talks have even encouraged this.
You may decide that you simply cannot or will not pay 10% tithing to the church. If you have arrived at this place, you may also decide it best to stop going to tithing settlement (if it makes you uncomfortable), and to not feel like you have to give an explanation to anyone. Consider your charitable contributions between you and God.
But if you or your family are benefiting from attending church, then you don't want to be a complete freeloader, do you? In that case, consider giving 5% (or whatever you are comfortable giving) to the church. You might give the other 5% to other really worthwhile charitable organizations. There are lots of good causes out there: cleft palate repair, children with AIDS, homeless shelters, the Red Cross, environmental movements, NPR and PBS, or other forums, publications, or programs that are important to your spiritual development.
I'm quite sure that God Himself would gladly accept these offerings as legitimate in His eyes. And I'm even more sure that the church would warmly accept 5% rather than 0% (if it comes to this).
If attending church every Sunday is too much, consider skipping once or even twice a month, but make sure to replace it with something more uplifting. Some examples might include: a visit to another church, a hike in the canyon, or a family-centered devotional at your home. The key is to increase spirituality and connectedness to family and community, not decrease it.
Also, I found that once I started skipping church, I actually ended up missing it a great deal. Now I usually feel bad when I miss. It's kind of like a t-shirt that a friend of mine (who had a few too many suitors) used to wear: "How can I miss you if you won't go away?"
If you aren't crazy about parts of sacrament meeting, but find yourself wanting or even having to attend, bring a good book (preferably a spiritual one). Tune in to the meeting when things get personal or spiritual, and tune out when things get boring or lame.
Finally, if you hate Sunday School, Priesthood or Relief Society -- consider skipping them occasionally, or only go on the days you like a specific teacher. Nursery is also a wonderful calling of service, that allows you to avoid those final two hours altogether if you're not in a place to appreciate them.
In summary, personalize and fine tune your sabbath worship. Make it work for you and your family. Over time, you may even find yourself enjoying church classes again -- but it will be on your terms, coming from a grounded place of agency, peace and free will.
Turn down callings that don't work for you. Ask for ones that do. In an ideal world, you could accept any calling and you would magically have the time and testimony needed. But if a calling isn't healthy for you or your family, God (and even the brethren) would clearly want what's best for you, right? And who knows what's best for you more than...you? They can't possibly know your entire situation, so just be honest with them if you can't serve in the way they'd like. I don't mean tell them your entire situation (see "Be really careful what you tell others" below). Just tell them that calling isn't right for you, and maybe suggest a calling you would be more likely to accept. Trust me, they'll take whatever service you are willing to offer (eventually, anyway). If they won't, then, bonus! More free time! That said, meaningful service is irreplaceable for healthy living, as you know.
Don't attend the temple if it makes you uncomfortable, and don't sweat it. You can come back to the temple once you've had a break, if you actually miss it.
Feel free to reject all LDS "doctrine" that makes you uncomfortable. If you don't want to believe that God caused a worldwide flood that killed innocent men, women and children, then don't believe it. If you don't think proxy work for the dead makes any sense for an all-powerful God, then fuggedaboudit.
Anyone who has studied LDS Church history will confirm that lots of things that were considered hard, unchangeable doctrine have been completely wiped from the books (e.g., polygamy as a requirement for salvation, blacks as less valiant in the pre-mortal existence, dynastic sealings, multiple baptisms, Adam-God theory, Native Americans as descendants of Lamanites, etc.). So if you don't like a doctrine, just wait a while. Like the weather, it has a good probability of changing anyway (at least over time).
In summary, embrace what works for you and your family, and reject (or at least put down for now) what doesn't. Throw away all of the guilt. And most importantly, know that God would really want it this way.
Seriously. You are the captain of your ship. Free agency was given for a reason.
At the judgment day (whatever that is), God won't accept, "Well, they told me to do all this, and even though I felt bad about it, I did it anyway, and it goofed up my life," as an acceptable answer.
Instead, He's likely gonna say, "I gave you a brain. I gave you emotions. I gave you instinct. I gave you experience. I expected you to use them."
As Bonner Ritchie is fond of saying: only you can protect yourself from organizational abuse. Try to remember this truth at all times, as you would with a job, school or marriage. Make sure to never allow yourself or your loved ones to be put in a position of being taken advantage of.
Never let your "good sense" safety guard down -- not even with the church, or church leadership. Not with scoutmasters. Not with Young Men's or Young Women's leaders. Not with home teachers. Not even with bishops.
Detach your care, concern, and self-esteem from the judgment of other church members. To become a buffet Mormon, it means that you must not care what orthodox people think about you from a religious perspective. Religion is ultimately a private thing. It's nobody's business but your own. Don't get defensive when people talk badly about you and judge you. Don't become paranoid at what they are saying. Get to the point where you love folks, but seriously don't give a hoot about what they think of you in terms of how you display your religiosity. One thing's for certain -- they are most likely hiding their weaknesses, and putting their best foot forward. They have their weaknesses, too. It's only a matter of what they allow you to see or think. In the end, most people just try their best in private (often falling short), and in public, they put on as good a face as they can.
At church, focus on the people, and not on the "hard to swallow" teachings or doctrines. Get to know people, and find out what makes them tick, why they think the things they do. Even the most dogmatically obnoxious members can actually become wonderful friends if you take the time to get to know them on a personal basis. Work to uncover what's behind the posturing.
This might not work for all of you -- especially those who generally don't like people. But because I'm a people person, this really works for me.
Don't judge the church purely by the actions and words of the most vocal, obnoxious members. In every ward I've attended, the majority of LDS members are quiet, reasonable, practical, sensible folk. Focus on them -- and ignore the blowhards if you can't make them your friend.
Try to keep in mind that the general membership of the church is often completely out of step with the LDS Church leadership. Culture is very hard to change with 5,000,000 active members. Sometimes it just takes time.
If you listen very carefully to General Conference these days, you will find that a great deal of what is taught today by LDS authorities is actually quite positive, uplifting, and even progressive. Long gone are days when General Authorities waxed on about Kolob, Adam-God, Quakers on the moon, and the "darkies." Here are the days when General Authorities often urge compassion, tolerance, and basic, clean Christian living.
So keep that in mind. Large ships sometimes take a long time to turn around. The brethren really are trying. We church members are sometimes slow to see and hear the gradual changes.
My wife and I actually teach our kids (and this is kind of tough, I'll admit) that we don't go to church because we think our church is better than others. We tell them that we go to the LDS Church because:
In addition, we never discuss the church with them in terms of it being "true" or inherently superior to other churches.
Early in our transition the middle way, we would use Sunday dinner time to ask the kids what they were taught on Sunday, and to "de-program" or "disabuse" them of any bad teachings. This was valuable because it re-trained them to realize that they didn't need to blindly believe everything they were taught in church.
While there are several traditional LDS or Christian teachings that we reject, here is a short list of a few examples:
To summarize, teach your kids to do in church what you teach them to do with everything in their lives, including TV, movies, books, school, friends, etc. Seek out the good in these things (for there is great good in all of them). Avoid the bad in these things. Teach them to never blindly believe or follow everything they're told in any of these areas -- church or otherwise. Should your children demonstrate respect? Of course, for those who deserve it. Never blind obedience.
Teach them to use their heads, hearts and spirit -- together -- to determine for themselves what's right, and what's wrong. The church is actually a wonderful laboratory to help practice, and eventually instill this teaching within them.
When we first started sitting our kids down for Sunday dinner and asking them to enumerate all that they learned in church that day, we would then start picking it all apart. We tried to systematically analyze and criticize all of the bad stuff.
As you might imagine, this ended up being a very negative experience for all, and tended to amplify the negative aspects of their church experience in their minds. Simply put, this was a disaster.
It took us a while to realize that cynicism and negativity were more harmful to our souls than dogmatic religious tenets and observance. Consequently, we have tried to teach our kids correct principles, tell them they don't have to believe all things they are taught, and encourage them to focus on the positive aspects of church in our conversations, wherever possible.
In summary, we strongly recommend keeping your focus on the good in the church, because there is much good. Kids should definitely feel comfortable talking openly about their frustrations. But they also need to be reminded to seek out the good in imperfect situations: in church, and in all other aspects of their lives.
Many (not all) of the people I see leave the church are struggling emotionally, in addition to whatever they are feeling about the church. Maybe they have poor health, a really cruddy marriage, a job that makes them miserable, etc.
I'm not saying that these folks don't have good cause to be frustrated with the church at times. What I am saying is that some people who leave the church might also have personal problems that extend way beyond the church. Instead of facing those difficult problems, they might focus all their anger at the church. The church is an easy scapegoat because it's a human organization being expected to live up to "only trueness." So, of course it let them down.
In the areas where you're seriously disappointed by the church, I'm sure you have cause to feel that way. But in addition to dealing with your church-related frustrations, consider looking very closely at your personal life unrelated to the church. Try to determine if there are any personal issues eating at you from the inside. Jesus taught, "if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." This teaches us to deal first with our personal and interpersonal issues, so that we do not drag the church into the situation. Buddha taught: Fix yourself, and make peace with your faith tradition before you ever consider abandoning it for something else (even if the "something else" is Buddhism). If you do not resolve the issues that trouble you, you will just bring the anger and issues with you wherever you go. All you have to do is look at the RFM board to know that healing is not necessarily on the other end of the journey away from the church.
Oftentimes, leaving the church turns out to be an exercise in "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." In many instances I've personally witnessed, the church has served as an imperfect means of bringing about genuine healing in people's lives. By discarding the church, you may risk discarding one potential path to resolving your personal problems.
To borrow a metaphor, an immunization is not perfect. It hurts your arm (or other body part). It causes you to bleed. Sometimes it can even make you feel "woozy." But it can also heal you, or prevent you from getting sick.
So it can be with the church. Not always, but definitely sometimes. The church, warts and all, can be a wonderful place to inch towards perfection. See Eugene England's essay on "Why the church is as true as the gospel" for more insight in this regard. It's definitely worth the read.
If you are not feeling spiritually filled by your affiliation with the LDS Church, do not hesitate to supplement with other sources. I know many, many active LDS Church members who look to other faith traditions to supplement their spiritual needs. Some look to other Christian denominations or Buddhism to fill a void.
Best of all, this approach is even encouraged by LDS scripture, LDS doctrine, and both historical and contemporary comments by LDS General Authorities (references available upon request).
Think of the church as a place to serve, not a place to be served.
Without the church-supported community, how else would you find out about the sister who is pregnant, on bedrest, and needs a meal for her family? Or the good brother, or child, who has cancer? Or the widow? Or the father who has lost his job?
Chances to serve are chances to love, to build meaningful relationships, and to build your own sense of worth and self-esteem. They are even chances to "lose yourself" in service and put your own problems in perspective.
Nonetheless, in giving service, you do not need to run faster than you have strength. You can respond to many service opportunities by silently saying, "if I could help, I would. But my needs and my family's needs come first, and I do not have the emotional or financial resources or time to help in that particular situation."
Still, the church can be a great place to find out about opportunities to serve that will fit your ability to give. And who knows, every once in a while (especially if you've paid your dues by serving others), that service just may come back to you in a time of real need.
Don't think of the church as a place to "receive." Think of the church as a place to give. Eventually you will find that in giving, you receive.
I never advocate lying, but I would encourage you to use extreme caution when speaking to church members -- especially church leaders -- about your issues regarding church history, doctrine or culture.
Do not unnecessarily introduce topics or issues to church leadership that will threaten their faith, or cause them to question your loyalty. Resist the temptation to go into the bishop's office and dump all of your doubts and fears upon him. Frankly, the overwhelming majority of bishops are not trained or equipped to handle tough church history or doctrine, or even simple nuance for that matter.
Most of the time, LDS bishops are just trying to keep their own jobs and families from falling apart and keep the ward running, while trying to convince Sister Jones to not leave Brother Jones. Tackling polyandry and peep stones are about the furthest things from their minds -- and should probably remain so.
If you never bring this stuff up, it likely will never come up. If you do bring it up, it can lead to really uncomfortable, and even highly discouraging situations.
Also, realize that there can be a huge variation in approaches and reactions depending on the bishop. I've seen super-tolerant bishops who will accept virtually any type of faith as valid (even a hope) -- and I've seen bishops who are hard liners, and will actively seek to prevent you from baptizing your own children if you happen to express the wrong concerns.
Be very careful before you open up to your bishop about these matters. Once you do, there is likely no "stuffing the genie back in the bottle."
The temple recommend interview process is very intimidating to folks who have become disaffected from Mormonism. More often than not, we hold in our minds an extreme, literalistic, orthodox (and I'd add dramatically unrealistic) expectation as to what the bishop, or even the brethren expect us to believe when they ask the recommend questions. For example:
Truth be told, there have been numerous LDS General Authorities who differed among themselves on a whole host of fundamental aspects of Mormon doctrine -- from the nature of God and man, to the atonement, to Word of Wisdom observance.
We should not assume that our interpretations of church doctrine and policy must align perfectly with those of Brigham Young and Bruce R. McConkie. Apostles themselves have differed greatly over issues like evolution, birth control, age of the earth, Book of Mormon historicity, valiance of blacks in the pre-mortal existence, etc.
Consequently, you might consider lowering the pressure that comes from assuming your answers to the bishop's questions have to line up exactly with the most literalistic and extreme interpretations of LDS doctrine. There's a reason why David O. McKay stopped publication of Bruce R. McConkie's Mormon Doctrine; it's because much of it actually wasn't.
When they ask about belief in God, they don't ask if you believe in an anthropomorphic God. At a minimum, perhaps you believe in some divine power, force, and sense of meaning or purpose in this life. If so, is it dishonest to label that indescribable power "God," and to then answer this question in the affirmative? Perhaps it's something to consider.
Also, it would be silly to deny the possibility of an anthropomorphic God. Who really knows (in the end) what is out there. We might even be surprised. This is what I call "faith" or "hope" -- and certainly it meets Christ's bar of worthiness (as mentioned above).
Once someone begins studying the process by which the New Testament was compiled (not actually written by the apostles, but handed down by oral tradition sometimes generations before it was actually written down), it becomes quite natural to begin questioning your assumptions about a historical Jesus. Fortunately, when they ask about Jesus and the Atonement, they don't go into this detail. Instead, they simply ask if you have a testimony of Jesus as your savior (or something to that effect).
Well, at a minimum, I do believe that a man named Jesus once existed, that his teachings have "saved" me from much trouble, pain, and sadness in my life, and that He ultimately died as a martyr for these teachings.
So at a minimum, I accept Jesus as my personal savior in this manner. I'm also very open, and even hopeful, that there is much, much more to the story. Again, this is called faith and hope.
I will admit that there is much about the mechanics of the Atonement and the afterlife that I do not understand, but fortunately I am not alone in this regard (by any stretch). Who really understands the Atonement? I would argue that no human really does.
Restoration, as you will notice, is one of the broadest terms of all. What exactly do they mean by The Restoration? Do they mean the articles of faith? The Book of Mormon? Dynastic sealings? Adam-God theory? Polygamy? Theosis?
I can assure you that you could say to virtually any bishop, "I don't believe that polygamy is doctrinal, nor that blacks were less valiant in the pre-mortal existence," and you would still qualify for a recommend, even though Joseph or Brigham "restored" these doctrines, and taught them as immutable.
And so it is with other aspects of the Restoration. In my mind, there are core teachings of the Restoration, and peripheral ones. For me, the core teachings of the Restoration are: faith, repentance, baptism, service, charity, love, families, clean living, etc.
In addition, I feel very comfortable believing that the teachings and theology taught by Joseph Smith in many important ways drastically improved upon, and in some cases even restored truth and goodness to the world, relative to the prevailing Christian teachings of the day. Just take a few of the 13 articles of faith as examples:
For me, there is enough goodness and truth in the "Restoration" to allow me to say that I have a testimony of it.
I do not understand, nor do I agree with every teaching uttered by Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. But then again, neither does President Hinckley. See his comments to Larry King about polygamy ("not doctrinal"), and his comments to Time magazine about God once being a man ("I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it") as two examples. Didn't President Kimball himself say that Adam-God was not doctrine? If Presidents Hinckley and Kimball have clearly taught us that not all that was uttered by Joseph and Brigham are included in the "Restoration," it is my opinion that we should believe them.
In conclusion, there is much good in the "Restoration" that I can stand behind. That said, I don't feel compelled to believe all that has been associated with it from 1830 to now.
When they ask about my support of Gordon B. Hinckley, I feel very comfortable accepting him as my prophet, for two main reasons. First, I no longer expect perfection from any man, prophets included. Second, I listen very carefully to his conference talks, and virtually everything he teaches today I feel very good about, including staying out of debt, avoiding pornography, being a good husband and father, etc.
I'm not crazy about the church's stance on gays and women, but I see the church as making positive progress (relatively speaking) on these fronts. As long as they continue to march in the right direction, I can easily take the good with the bad, and accept President Hinckley as my personal prophet, seer, and revelator.
That said, I am not required in the interview to denounce Buddha, Ghandi, Martin Luther, or even David Wilcox as being uninspired, so I don't feel compelled to read this into the question.
I used to feel troubled a bit by the keys and authority part of the question, but I now feel very comfortable accepting that President Hinckley has the "keys" or authority to lead members of the LDS Church. I don't feel compelled to deny that God may have made other provisions for the remaining 99.95% of His children.
And again, who knows for sure? Maybe the church does have some uniquely special and specific role to play in the "salvation" of the world. If not spiritually, then maybe temporally. This, again, is where faith (or hope) comes in to play.
When they ask about my support of anti-Mormon groups, I answer honestly. I am a board member of Sunstone (motto: "faith seeking understanding"), and I both blog and podcast on Mormon issues. That said, everything I've ever advocated within a Mormon context has been oriented towards helping people find a way to stay in Mormonism, not leave it, if they can find a way to make it work.
I have never advised people to leave the church, nor have I claimed that the church had an overall negative impact on the world. And I have never claimed that our church leaders were not inspired (at least in some way). I do try to stand against ignorance, bigotry and evil within the church, but I believe that the brethren and I actually share this goal.
I am a huge fan of the Word of Wisdom, law of chastity, honesty, absence of abuse, tithing and garments (for men at least. I have great pity for the women in this regard. Some of the seams are clearly not designed with women in mind).
Anyway, throughout my life, I have tried to obey all of those commandments, even when I felt disaffected from the church. So my recommendation to all of you is: never let up on these practices. Clean living is the way to go.
That said, it is fair to say that at least some of these items are open to some personal interpretation. For example:
Please know that I am not in any way advocating dishonesty or deception here. I am simply noting the undeniable reality that many of these questions are subject to at least some private interpretation. We should feel assured in knowing that the brethren ultimately and wisely have left this decision between us and God -- and for good reason.
Resist the tendency to abandon all faith, just because you have become disappointed by certain aspects of your faith tradition.
What's wrong with believing that there is both inspiration and imperfection in all things, including our church? And just because the LDS Church has fallen short of your expectations, can you not also objectively acknowledge that there is still inspiration and goodness within?
So, resist the temptation to deny that truth, goodness and spirituality within Mormonism.
Every rose has its thorns. Every beauty queen or high school hunk has a pimple or two.
Some people struggle with the complexity of crafting an approach to church that feels right to them and the difficulty of maintaining their convictions when the tide of the church community sometimes seems to be moving in another direction. Many say, "why bother?"
For me, aside from all that I and my family gain from membership in the church, it helps to know that in many small ways, I'm doing my part to eliminate ignorance, pain, and insularity within Mormonism.
In general, the way to positively impact the members of an organization is to do so from within. Once you've removed yourself from the community, it is far too easy for them to tune you out, so to speak.
For the past year or two, my mantra for Mormon Stories has been:
The church needs more voices in support of these tenets -- not fewer. In the "body of Christ" analogy, all body parts are needed, even the backside, so to speak. By remaining a legitimate member of the group, you can play an integral role in helping making it better for those who remain within.
They need us, and we need them. It's that simple.
There's an old saying that is pithy, but nonetheless valid: "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." In my experience, this has been true.
Think of your engagement with your ward as a credit/debit system. Try to focus the bulk of your time and energy on serving those around you. Be at as many service projects as you can. Show up for every move you can. Bail the high counselor out when his car breaks down. Take meals to your bishopric and Relief Society presidency. Be the type of Christian you want the church to represent.
Then, once you've done all you can to build up a bank account of love, respect and credibility within the ward and stake, you may be able to slowly, gently, and in a non-threatening way let both your leadership and select members know you are not a typical Mormon, in some ways you are unorthodox or different. Over time, you will not only be able to discover others like you in this regard (and there always are -- they are usually among the quiet or "inactive" ones), but you will eventually find people who are willing to open up to you, and discuss things freely (though maybe only in a one-on-one setting).
Over time, if you keep your bank account of ward service "in the black," you will change hearts and minds. You can literally transform an entire quorum or Relief Socity or even a ward community into a more loving, open minded, informed, and compassionate place.
The potential is limitless.
The "Middle Way of Mormonism" is not for everyone, and is definitely not likely to be sanctioned by church leaders anytime soon.
Nonetheless, I have corresponded with literally hundreds of disaffected Mormons over the past two years, and it always amazes me that an astoundingly large percentage of those who have left the church have not (in the long run) found the peace, solace and spirituality that they thought they find would upon leaving. Some have, I will admit. But a heavy percentage to this day write me to say, "I wish I could go back. I thought I wouldn't miss it, but I do. I desperately miss the church. I just don't know how to return, or how to make it all work."
I hope that for at least some of you, these suggestions will prove useful in this journey back.
Regardless of your choices, if you've made it this far in the essay, we are connected.
As a fellow traveler on this wonderful and bizarre Mormon journey, I wish you Godspeed. Please keep in touch.
Some additional resources you may find valuable in this context:
From my "How to Stay" Presentation:
An audiovisual screencast on why people leave the LDS Church, and what family, friends, and community can do about it:
4 "Why We Stay" Audio Presentations from the Sunstone Symposium (HIGHLY recommended):
My full story in audio format:
The "Stages of Faith" series of podcasts:
Stages of Faith refers to a book by James Fowler, who describes developmental stages that occur throughout youth and adulthood in any religious context.
Interviews with Richard Bushman in audio format:
Richard Bushman is a Mormon historian, author of a biography of Joseph Smith called Rough Stone Rolling.
Classic essays on staying in the church as a different sort of Mormon:
Online communities where people support each other in finding and maintaining a middle way in Mormonism:
Please let me know your thoughts, and how I can improve.