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How Do I Participate at Church When I Feel Like I Don't Belong?

The following content has been republished with permission from bridgeslds.com.

We come from different backgrounds, cultures, and genetics; each of us is unique. It’s one of the wonderful things about life. We get to associate with and learn from people who are different from us. The variety of people help us learn the lessons of life, develop empathy, see things from different perspectives, and appreciate the diversity of our Heavenly Parents' children. Even when differences lead to conflict, we can learn how to get along, resolve conflict, and respect others. Coming unto Christ doesn’t mean we give up our differences; it means we commit to follow Christ in our differences.

I have studied the reasons why people disaffiliate from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The reasons vary, but many feel unaccepted by their ward or by the Church as a whole. Research from Religion News Service backs that up. Feeling judged is one of the largest contributors for disaffiliation with the Church and it is the single largest reason given for millennial women.

Our church buildings have a sign that says visitors are welcome, but sometimes because of church culture or our differences, we may just feel unwelcome or that we don’t belong. The hardest differences are likely those that put us at odds with the culture of our ward or the ideals taught by the Church. Here are just a few:

  • • Our personal circumstances may not match some perceived cultural ideal. We may be single or divorced or childless. Both parents may work outside of the home, either by choice or by necessity. 
  • • Mental health or emotional challenges make it hard for us to have the joy of the gospel or even take part in church meetings. 
  • • We may identify as LGBTQ and wonder whether there is a place for us. 
  • • While we may believe many Church teachings, we may feel cultural resistance preventing us from expressing our beliefs, concerns or reservations. 

It’s not supposed to be this way. The Savior’s arms are extended to all of God’s children. We must always welcome all who want to participate. Elder Uchtdorf said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a place for people with all kinds of testimonies. There are members of the Church whose testimony is sure and brightly burns within them. Others are still striving to know for themselves. The Church is a home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or the height of our testimony. I know of no sign on the doors of our meetinghouses that says, 'Your testimony must be this tall to enter.”

Welcoming includes not just accepting differences in faith but also differences in personal circumstances. 

But wards are full of people just like us, imperfect and with different backgrounds and experiences. It’s hard for some ward members to understand our differences and they may have limited experience and understanding of difficult issues. Some may try to say the right thing but just don’t know how. They may judge and make hurtful comments. Some are so certain in Church beliefs they can’t understand how one could not believe. They may try to find something in our lives to blame us for unbelief. They may even look for the secret sin which explains away our differences. In these kinds of settings, it’s difficult for us to express our true feelings because they don’t seem welcome. We learn that when we express what we really believe, we can be met with judgment and rejection.

It’s natural to hope our ward will change and accept us for who we are. While some wards are better at acceptance, none will be perfect. We may find ourselves surrounded by people who just don't understand us or know how to welcome. Sometimes we may not see the love and welcoming that those around us show. 

What do we do in these circumstances? 

We cannot let our difference define us.

We are children of Heavenly Parents. We are divine and have the potential to be like Them. Even if our differences are great, we should never let those differences define us. Our divinity is in our DNA—that’s what should define us.

We can take ownership and have courage.

It’s up to us to find belonging. Family members, leaders, and those around us may never how to help us feel welcome. They may not even know we feel like we don’t belong. We must remember we are not at the mercy of others to show belonging. We can’t wait on the sidelines for others to welcome us. Instead we can take ownership to feel a part of your ward, family, or group. We can find ways to take part in a way that maximizes our commonalities. I know an openly gay man who went to his bishop and said, “I want a ministering assignment. Is there someone who you would feel comfortable with me being their ministering brother?” This man just wanted to serve. We can find ways to participate that don’t center on our difference. We can join the choir, clean the building, volunteer for service projects, or join groups. Depending on our current situation, we may not be asked to teach or give a church talk but we can bear our testimonies, talking about the things we hope to be true, the things we hold dear, and the struggles we feel. There is almost always a way we can take part in church despite our differences. 

We must remember we aren’t alone.

From the surface, it may seem everyone is a part of the group, but in reality, almost everyone has doubts and concerns. Some people have similar challenges to ours. We just don’t know it. Almost every family is touched by doubts, mental illness, issues of gender and sexuality, family complications, etc. And even if our issues are unique, we can try and find belonging through Jesus Christ. Through the Atonement, He knows us perfectly (see Alma 7:11-12). 

We can be generous in how we view others. 

The Savior’s work is with the sick and broken (see Mark 2:17). We are all sick and broken. When we feel we don’t belong, we can remember those who don’t understand us or who exclude us are just people, too. They may well be like us, uncertain in their own participation. They may be like a duck; calm on the surface but paddling hard underneath to be a part of the group. Elder Holland spoke of this when he said, “So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. 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.” With compassion toward others and by understanding their limitations and weaknesses, we learn empathy and compassion. 

We can confide our non-belonging.

This may take courage and vulnerability and may not be possible in all circumstances, but when we share with others we may find a connection. Being thoughtful and prayerful, we may ask for a moment with someone and ask to speak with them. Then, we can say something like, “At times, I feel alone. I see how welcoming you are and I wonder whether you could take me under your wing.” We could write a note to the bishop that says, “Bishop, I feel alone in the ward. Do you think I could speak in church? I can’t speak about all topics, but I can speak about. . . ” We could speak up and acknowledge our challenges, perhaps saying something like, “I struggle with anxiety and sometimes it is hard for me to have people ask me what I am up to, whether I am dating, and how things are going with school. If I act a little put off, know I struggle with thinking about the future.” When we are open, we often find others who welcome our courage and find belonging and connection with us. 

We can create belonging for others.

Our awareness of how it feels to not belong gives us extra understanding for others who feel the same way. When we see someone who is struggling to feel connection, we can reach out and show it. If there is a comment that we know will make someone feel marginalized, we can respond with compassion and inclusion. 

We can be patient.

At times we may want to just leave because our differences and non-belonging are just too much, but we gain little from burning our bridges. Relationship and connection take time and are made through common experiences. We don’t know how long it takes or whether it will ever come, but the more patience and wisdom we show, the more likely it is that we can find connection and belonging. 

We can practice self-care.

Taking ownership of our belonging also means that we take care of ourselves. We may find self-care through scripture, prayer, meditation, a good therapist, good books, walks in nature, or exercise. We should be careful to not burn out in our efforts to connect within the Church. We can avoid volunteering too much, pretending to be something we are not, or subjecting ourselves to things that aren’t spiritually or emotionally healthy. There may even be a time to step back and heal. 

We can remain connected to Christ.

Only the Savior and our Heavenly Parents completely know us. They love us without reservation and have done all they can so we can have peace, joy, healing, and belonging. No matter who we are or what we believe, we always will be loved and be of worth to Them. We must make sure we don't think we are defective or broken. All of us make mistakes, and although we may carry guilt from our mistakes, we must never believe we are mistakes. We are worthy of love, respect, and kindness. We must not doubt our eternal potential, which, regardless of our differences, happens through grace and love. 

Much of the Savior’s ministry was to those who didn’t belong—the woman with an issue of blood, those afflicted with leprosy, the publicans, the woman taken in adultery, and the Samaritan woman at the well. He taught us we are all part of His work and we are part of the same family. Perhaps in our efforts to belong, we can find others who long for belonging. In our sympathy and suffering, we can embrace and welcome them in their differences while the Savior heals them. 


David Ostler has lived and served on four continents as a bishop, stake president, mission president, and as a director of a Church historical site and visitors' center. He has served three full-time and two church-service missions, most recently in his home stake working with ward and stake leadership to understand why people no longer believe or no longer attend. With his wife, they have six wonderful children—some of whom no longer hold basic Latter-day Saint beliefs. He has written Bridges: Ministering to Those Who Question, a book about how to minister to those who question which will be released in July 2019. Details can be found at www.bridgeslds.com. He is a contributor to Faith Matters and Leading Saints.

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