Faith transitions are brutal – for everyone involved. Those who are facing information or experiences that no longer resonate with their religious upbringing or conversion find themselves in painful situations where they feel confusion, pain, tremendous loss, doubts, having to redefine much of their personal, spiritual and relational identities, and are often facing less than ideal responses from their loved ones and church communities. Those who love their faith and believe in its principles and doctrines are usually at a loss as to how loved ones could leave or stop believing the things they themselves find inspiring, hopeful and sacred – feeling deeply grieved, uncertain as to the future, and unsure as to how to relate to loved ones that may now seem foreign, angry and threatening to the status quo.
There have been a few articles and talks given from Church sources (Ensign articles, General Conference addresses, etc.) that have attempted to give some guidance during such difficult times – usually directed to those who stay within the Church. And they often have good information focused on the principles of loving others and remaining charitable to those we would disagree with.
However, I have worked enough with people on both sides of this issue to know that this is a sensitive topic, that language chosen often hurts in unintended ways, that each situation is unique, and that it can often be tragically difficult for divides caused by faith differences to be bridged.
There is an article in the February 2016 issue of the Ensign, written by a mother whose adult daughter has stopped attending church, called When a Child Leaves the Church. I thought it would be useful to get the perspective from someone on the other side of this family dynamic. I have permission to publish the following thoughts Carson Calderwood penned – so that the perspective from those who leave on their own accord, or have been disciplined and no longer feel welcome to attend, can also be heard.
I wish the Ensign and LDS church would be more compassionate in their references of those who leave the church….
I’ve tried to avoid Mormon topics recently because the more I let go and move on the happier I am and the more I’m able to love those family and friends in my life that are still Mormon. Many people are starting to look into the unbiased (positive or negative) church history, or stand against current policies affecting women or LGBT folks, and come to the conclusion that it is not what they were raised to believe and therefore leave. Thus, the church has been talking about those that leave a lot more and publish articles like this in the Ensign. I can’t help but raise some counter points:
1. “… if I could just tweak the situation a little, my daughter would reestablish her spiritual trajectory.” Please don’t assume we have lost our spiritual trajectory. Most that leave out of personal integrity actually feel that they have improved in their spiritual trajectory (especially after dealing with the social fallout that occurs).
2. “My head spun with worry, and my heart filled with guilt and anguish that I had failed her as a parent.” Please don’t feel guilt over our decision. In fact, I feel like my parent’s wonderful examples of hard work, integrity, dedication to truth, etc. all were fundamental attributes that led me to my decision. Even though we may disagree, realize that you didn’t fail, you actually did a great job to raise a person that could be strong enough to do something so hard and scary.
3. “A father shared that he felt his children were rejecting him and his way of life.” See #2 above
4. “Some of the most righteous families in the scriptures struggled with rebellious children.” Please stop referring to our actions as rebellious, or weak. PLEASE don’t compare us to Laman and Lemuel or Cain or Satan as this article does. The only reason why we made such a difficult decision, one that we knew would hurt you deeply, was because we couldn’t live what we felt was a lie. When we came to the conclusion that we have, continuing to act like we fully believe is dishonest. Would you rather have us be dishonest? I tried to live openly and authentically with my lack of disbelief and Mormonism isn’t yet a place where that can happen.
5. Be positive and accepting. The rest of the article does a good job of explaining how this is the better way to be happy and have a good relationship! Thank you Ensign for including this.
6. “Often family members do return after a period of wandering.” Please understand that there is a big difference between someone stopping church activity because they aren’t sure about what they want to do in their life or because they want to live a life against church standards when they still believe. Most members like myself do not “wander.” We did research from church approved sources, often more than most active members, and came to a conclusion that the church, although a great group of people trying to do good, is not God’s one true church. We deliberately chose to leave and almost no one who leaves for those reasons ever comes back. So, despite what this article says about never giving up, please don’t give up on love. But do give up on thinking that my actions are the same as Cain, Satan, Laman and Lemuel. It greatly inhibits the relationship that you could otherwise have with those that have left the church for reasons of personal integrity.
I would second some of Carson’s thoughts in offering some basic guidelines to prioritize relationship health in times of faith transitions:
- Respect and discuss other’s spiritual trajectories as you would want yours respected and discussed.
- Allow that “spirituality” may have many different meanings and paths – and though it is normal to grieve when loved ones choose paths different than our own, remember that it is everyone’s right to have their own spiritual journey. Our Mormon principles on agency are very useful in this regard.
- Having children/loved ones make personal decisions about their spirituality is not a reflection on you. You are not a failure/success as a parent/spouse/friend just because those around you make personal choices about their spirituality that differ from your own.
- Decisions about spiritual paths are not “rebellious” or “a period of wandering.” They are legitimate and personal decisions. Would we say someone who converts to Mormonism is “rebelling” against their parents & communities, or “wandering” from their faith of origin?
- Avoid provocative language (i.e. being deceived by Satan, justifying sin, faith is weak, lost their testimony, reject the gospel, etc..). The terms we use to discuss these issues are often laced with negativity and halt what could otherwise be productive conversations.
- There is a difference between “rejecting gospel principles” and changing spiritual paths. The primary gospel principles are fairly universal and include values and morals that most religions and cultures believe in (i.e. charity, honesty, the “golden rule,” etc.).
- Look for common values – what do we still very much share and have in common (i.e. integrity, service, what it means to be a contributing member of society, health, etc…)? It is so easy to notice the differences when we usually have so much more in common than we remember at times like these.
- Although it is normal to want someone to return to the faith community, do not expect it. And do not focus your relational process on whether or not they will return. Your loved one does not want you to be a missionary to them – just like you don’t want them to try and talk you into believing differently. They want you to be a friend, lover or parent – depending on what role you play.
- Remember that well differentiated systems allow for noncompliance at the same time that they allow for connection and compassion. And that becoming better at differentiation is a skill we all need to improve upon. We can focus on love, charity and acceptance as the Gospel principles that will help the most.
Ultimately, it is my strong belief that faith journeys should not be a reason or justification as to why family relationships are damaged or especially severed. I would hope that our theological positions and beliefs could be held in ways that make room for others’ positions and beliefs. I believe this is what is at the heart of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To quote the New Living Translation of Colossians 3:14:
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.