When aspects of the gospel don’t quite sit right or don’t fit into the church’s prescribed sphere of faith-promoting answers, it is a common practice in Mormonism to distance one’s self from such issues if they can’t be resolved. This is usually done under the pretense that God’s ways are not our ways so we can’t understand it like God intends yet, or it is something that simply isn’t important to know or feel right about in this life, or we don’t have enough information to make sense of it so we should ignore it now and ask God after we die. A variety of metaphors can be used to describe what is done with these issues: place it on the back burner, put it on your shelf, put it in your “for later” basket… any trope that means that you don’t need to worry about it now and should just focus on the things that do make sense is usually employed. For me, I’m going to choose the analogy of a reservoir of water that is held by a levee. Any time a person starts to have troubling doubts, comes across information that isn’t faith-affirming, or has an experience that doesn’t match up with the promises of the gospel–most people just pour that doubt into the reservoir and lay another sandbag against the levee to protect themselves from that doubt. Sandbags include extra scripture reading, in-depth prayers, having more family home evenings, increasing tithes or fast offerings… pretty much anything that promotes further dedication to the church will act as a sandbag to strengthen a levee.
When red flag items arise in one’s Mormon experience or education, the process of dealing with these issues is comparable to collecting water in a pail and dumping it onto the retaining side of the levee. The issues range from problems in the restoration narrative, finding out that important aspects of Mormon history have been white-washed, moral objections to aspects of the lives of Joseph Smith and other church leaders, the modern church’s spending habits, finding out that doctrine has changed over time, historicity concerns for the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, how the church treats LGBT people and feminists, racism in both scriptures and in past Priesthood practices… the list can go on and on and it varies from person to person. For many people, those issues I just listed aren’t concerning or they do find answers that satisfy–but from my experience, these are the most common things that are currently fodder for our Mormon reservoirs. Sometimes it isn’t even a list of finite issues, but simply the summation of difficult life experiences or a deep spiritual upheaval that act as catalysts for a dire crisis of faith. Often times, a person’s reservoir might be low and their levee completely unthreatened but their crisis or transition of faith is thrust on them when the testimony of someone they love has floundered. In truth, we are all affected when the collective waters rise.
Any one bucket of water isn’t going to break your levee, so you continue to collect bucketfuls, dispose of them behind the levee, and you doubt your doubts just as you’ve been taught. There is a point in time, however, when a person becomes so tired of hefting buckets of water over the levee that they realize that something’s going to give. For me personally, I had exhausted the correlated resources approved by the church education system and that was the reason my unanswered questions were piling up; this led to the breaking point for my personal levee. It was at this point in time that I stepped out of correlation and entered objective study. Since I believed the church was true, I also believed I shouldn’t fear studying further and learning more. Despite my deep scripture study and ardent prayers, soon the small whispers of warning became deafening sirens in my head and I could no longer stand the cacophony. I started having mini anxiety attacks during lessons at church and I no longer could tell simple Book of Mormon stories to my kids without feeling like there was something there that God didn’t want me to teach. When I turned to God for help, I felt a distinct impression that He wanted me to draw closer to Him, but the only way to do that was to be brave enough to face the flood.
The levees holding back the doubts of thousands of Mormons are starting to burst. When the levee breaks, you can feel the rushing water remove the firm ground from under your feet. The layout of the whole world becomes altered by the pulsing, riveting swell. As the waters push by, you can see everything you knew about your future slip into a void of unknown. This will more than likely be one of the times in your life that you will feel the most isolated and alone. There might be sleepless nights, anxiety, depression, fear, and a period grieving. It is incredibly common to feel like there isn’t a single person that you can turn to; either to confide in or to ask for advice. In reality, your life and faith will never be the same again. No matter what, even if the levee is rebuilt–the terrain upon which your Mormonism was founded will never return to its virgin state. This doesn’t mean that we all leave the church, it simply means that we won’t ever be the same Mormons that we once were. We are permanently altered and must rebuild in the flood plain, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
But what does rebuilding look like? Well, that is different for everyone.
- Some people leave the church
- Some people gain a deeper, nuanced faith in Mormonism
- Some people no longer believe the truth claims, but are able to own Mormonism as their tribe and remain important members of the Mormon community
For those who stay but are open about their unorthodoxy or who perhaps advocate for institutional changes, they will more than likely find a great deal of push-back in their wards. It can be profoundly fulfilling to be an unorthodox member of the LDS community, but it can also be incredibly wearisome to constantly defend and explain your nontraditional actions or your uncorrelated beliefs. I am a big believer that you should never let anyone else define Mormonism for you, so I absolutely support and revere those who create a bigger tent instead of leaving. The lives that can be touched through staying and the personal growth that come from selfless dedication to a cause are incontrovertible. The church needs these members.
If you do end up leaving the church, it is very likely that other Mormons will assume you were a lazy Mormon or never had a testimony in the first place, that you didn’t have the spirit with you, were offended, were beguiled by Satan, were reading anti-mormon literature with reckless abandon, or had a proclivity for a certain sin so you found a loophole in doctrine to blame for your exit. You will have an endless amount of people bear their testimony to you and promise you that if you study the scriptures and pray, the Lord will answer your prayers in a manner that would lead you back to full activity in the church. This can be incredibly patronizing because of course prayer and scripture study are a huge part of most people’s process so it is really obnoxious for people to assume or imply that it wasn’t. Very few people will ever consider the fact that leaving the church was by far the harder choice to make than simply choosing to stay. Even fewer will believe you if you tell them that you prayed, studied, were faithful and righteous, and that you ultimately felt the Lord confirm to you that it is His will for you to leave the church. It will be very hard for many Mormons to believe you when you say that you are happy, you are at peace, and that your life and internal happiness or spirituality is better now than it was before. Or, perhaps, if you are in distress in your temporal life and or are questioning the existence of God as a whole, some Mormons will see this as proof of what happens to those who stray and will pity you.
Through this transition of faith, you will find who your true friends are. Yes, you will lose friends; perhaps even people who are precious to you. But you will also be surprised by the many people who will reach out to you that you never knew cared. Some will tell you that they love you despite your differences; and perhaps that one snooty goody-goody at church (the one you feared the most) will prove to be the most caring and understanding of anybody. It is quite possible you will grow closer to members of your family or that your bonds will grow even firmer after this trial. At the end of the day though, you honestly have no control over the assumptions that others will make of you or the choices they make in regards to your relationship. We all must do our best to listen to each other, empathize, and have charity as we interact with people who have not yet faced or may never face a faith transition and thus do not understand yours.
I think the most difficult aspect of this impasse is the impact it has on the family. If you are not married yet, it is very possible that your parents, siblings, and friends will grow deeply concerned for you or even distance themselves from you entirely. If you are married, then there will be an inevitable hurdle between you and your spouse that you will have to overcome before you can both be completely open with each other. Sometimes spouses come to the same conclusions and move forward hand in hand. In other situations, the damage and change caused by the aforementioned flood will prove to be the defining point in their marriage. Some will move forward as split-faith marriages and other marriages will dissolve completely.
It would appear that we are in an age of Mormonism where personal levees are bursting in unprecedented quantities and yet we still all manage to feel alone and stranded in the process. No matter the outcome of your faith transition, please know that you aren’t truly alone. Whether it’s a personal faith crisis, someone whose spouse is leaving the faith, or just a person who is feeling pained by seeing so many people leave– there are people just like you out there who understand what you’re going through and there are networks of support in place to help you heal. It is our responsibility as brothers and sisters to find a way to be supportive, respectful, and empathetic as we rebuild in the flood plains. It may take a few months or it might take years, but I’m promising you right now that it will get better. Just because your levee broke doesn’t mean that your future is bleak; it simply means that you have an opportunity to build something even stronger.
Resources for transitions of faith:
One of the best books to read to better understand how to create open, supportive, constructive dialogue is The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz.
If you find yourself lacking a sense of spiritual identity or are seeking non-denominational spiritual direction, I highly recommend reading The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. (It has nothing to do with Mormon prophets, just so you know)
For those who are in mixed-faith marriages, I think that the following Mormon Stories episodes will be the most useful to people as they define and build a new future for their family:
- 182-185: Navigating a Marriage When One Loses Their LDS Testimony
- 143-146: Raising Children in a Non-Traditional LDS Home
- 123-125: What to do when your husband loses his LDS testimony — Jacque Parts 1-3
- 157-159: How to Improve Your Marriage After One of You Loses Their Testimony
- 330: Raising Children in a Mixed-Faith Mormon Home
- 141-142: Staying in the LDS Church after a Crisis of Faith: StayLDS.com Co-Founder Brian Johnston
I also highly recommend listening to Mormon Stories podcasts of both those who stay and those who left so you can truly have a chance to see both points of view and weigh them thoroughly.
- Make Love AND War!: Maintaining Positive Relationships During Faith Transitions—A Spiritual Framing
- Preserving and Strengthening Relationships During Faith Transitions
- Integrity with Self and Family: Parents on Sharing Their Faith Transitions with Their Children
- Mapping LDS Faith Transitions (with help from James Fowler)
White Fields Educational Foundation is dedicated to assisting individuals as they navigate religious transition. Mormon Expressions is the podcast associated with White Fields, but they also provide counseling services and workshops. These can be incredibly helpful for people as they transition and need one-on-one, personalized help.
- Counseling Services
- Additional information and schedules of upcoming workshops will be available soon. I will include those here as soon as the information is available
For those who leaving, who are staying, or who just need support–most of us find friendship and help on Facebook. There are many Mormon-themed Facebook groups, but you do need to be discerning in which groups to be active in depending on your needs. Many fringe communities can go in cycles of being aggressive or overly confrontational about belief and descent and at this point in time I find these groups to be the most supportive and appropriate in tone. Again, that is my own personal opinion, but these are the ones that I currently recommend:
- Exploring Sainthood Community
- Mormon Stories Podcast Community
- Mormon Stories Sunday School Discussion
- Mormon Expressions Podcast Community
- A Thoughtful Faith Support Group (Mormon / LDS)
- LGBTQ, Family and Allies – Mormon Stories Support Community
- Mormons Building Bridges
- Mormon Feminist Housewives Society
- Young Mormon Feminists
For those who are the believing LDS member in a split-faith marriage and are seeking support of those in the same situation, I hear wonderful things about the closed (nonpublic) Facebook group Another Testament of Marriage.
*If anyone thought I was unaware that I was making references to the song “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin, please know that the Zeppelin reference was totally intentional because I love Led Zeppelin and that is one of their best songs ever.