Being at church has at times been a major struggle for me. My first major panic attack happened during a Sunday School lesson while I was in college, and the months following that experience I struggled with inexplicable intense anxiety in both church and other social settings. After some time and with the help of therapy, medication, and prayer, church became again a place of peace rather than panic for me. Unfortunately, that anxiety returned full force last summer.
My husband and I had only been married a few months when he shipped out to basic and advanced individualized training for the US Army, leaving me alone in our new apartment and new ward. Both missing my husband and anxious about being alone, I knew that drawing strength from other ward members and attending church was that much more important for me—even though it felt much harder.
When I told people that church attendance was difficult for me, a lot of people gave me practical advice like, “Ask for a calling! Sit next to someone new! Go to the ward activities!” These are wonderful and helpful tips, but because of my anxiety and depression, I usually left those conversations feeling a bit overwhelmed. Rather than focusing on specific practices, what helped me the most was adjusting certain mindsets I had about church and church attendance. Here are a few of those outlooks that helped me attend church despite feeling uncomfortable and out of place.
It's Okay to Leave the Garden
A good friend of mine once told me that leaving home to go on a mission was like getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden. However, she also said that coming home from a mission also felt like leaving the Garden. She joked that it’s almost like as soon as you are comfortable where you’re at, God tells you to leave and start over.
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For many people, church is like the Garden of Eden: comfortable, familiar, and safe. For others, church is challenging and uncomfortable, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, leaving the Garden of Eden was a painful experience for Adam and Eve, but they later rejoiced, knowing that had they not partaken of the fruit and left the Garden they “never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” (Moses 5:10). Leaving the comfort and familiarity of the garden allowed Adam and Eve to grow and access God and his blessings in ways they otherwise couldn’t.
I believe that all of us, at some point, are going to feel a little uncomfortable at church. It could be because of a stray hurtful comment, a disagreement with a Church leader, or simply a feeling of awkwardness and exclusion that leads us to feel out of place. Unfortunately, a common first response to discomfort is for us to avoid it entirely. Avoiding pain is not unnatural. After all, the thought of pain and injury stops us from touching hot stoves or jumping off high surfaces. But I have learned that in spiritual instances, avoiding pain can mean we also sacrifice things we value—like renewing and keeping our covenants, serving others, or standing in holy places—for temporary freedom from discomfort.*
Sitting in those sacrament meetings after my husband left often meant sitting with my own feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and even anger over the situation. But by still attending church and allowing myself to experience those feelings, over time I was able to see the other side of those difficult emotions, which included relief as others reached out to me, hope from the teachings I heard, and love that I felt from God. Although at times uncomfortable for me, attending church allowed me the opportunities to experience life and grow in ways that I couldn’t have had I stayed home in my personal Eden.
We Need to Bloom Where We Are Planted
Over the past few months, I’ve interviewed several young Latter-day Saint widows and widowers about their experiences. In nearly all of my interviews, I was told that it was hard to find a place in the church after the loss of a spouse. I hear the same kind of remarks from my LGBTQ friends, my single friends, my divorced friends, and others who find themselves in somewhat unique situations.
In many ways, I can relate to that feeling of being out of place. I never expected that I would be a “military wife,” and to be honest, it was something that I was passionately against for a long time. Even after I had a strong, peaceful confirmation that moving forward with the military was right for my family, I still struggled with the new reality of being home alone and going to church by myself—knowing it was something I would have to do throughout my life during my husband's deployment.
But in 1 Corinthians 7:24 it reads, “Let every man, wherin he is called, therin abide with God.” I look at this verse as a scriptural way of saying “Bloom where you’re planted.” Our individual journeys are going to take us to places that we didn’t expect or even want, and during those times it’ll be easy to say, “Well, I’m just passing through,” and then twiddle our thumbs until the next location. I got so focused on moving onto the next stage of my life—waiting for my anxiety to go away, waiting for my husband to come home—that I struggled to find opportunities to grow and thrive where I was at.
My friend and fellow ward member, Chelsie Pratt, had some especially great insight about this. By age 27, she had lived in 22 wards. It would have been easy for her to simply think, “Oh, I won’t be in this ward forever, so why invest in it?” Instead, she has always chosen to bloom where she was planted and serve and participate in her ward without worrying about how long she would be there.
Her example of investing time and love into her ward reminded me of a story Elder Stanley G. Ellis told in a recent general conference:
“For 16 years I served in the presidency of the Houston Texas North Stake. Many moved to our area during those years. We would often receive a phone call announcing someone moving in and asking which was the best ward. Only once in 16 years did I receive a call asking, ‘Which ward needs a good family? Where can we help?’”
Whatever ward you attend and whatever stage you are at in life, you are valued and needed. If you feel a little out of place in your ward, take that as an opportunity to “bloom where you are planted”—whatever that could mean or look like to you.
Our Worship Can and Should Sometimes Include Others
I had a stake president say that we come to church to sit at Christ’s feet and learn from Him. With this in mind, he would have us imagine that Christ was present in our sacrament meetings and Sunday School lessons. His advice reminded me of the story about Christ’s appearing to two of His apostles after His death: “And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him” (Luke 24:15-16). These apostles unknowingly sat and conversed with Christ. Would their actions have been different if they had known? Would I act differently if I knew Christ was present in my Sabbath worship?
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A favorite hymn that we often sing in church is “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” where Christ is revealed as a wayfaring, downtrodden man: “The stranger started from disguise. The tokens in his hands I knew; the Savior stood before mine eyes.” We find Christ in our scripture study, prayer, and quiet contemplation, but it occurred to me that we can also find Christ in those that surround us. For a long time I wondered why I needed to attend Church to connect with God, thinking I could do that out in nature or in the privacy of my home. But I realized that in serving and communing with my brothers and sisters in Christ at church and other ward activities, I was communing and serving with Christ Himself. I didn’t need to imagine Christ as present in my Sabbath day worship because there He was, represented and reflected in the people surrounding me.
I come to Church to renew my covenants and continue learning gospel teachings. But I also come because I’ve learned that communion with others is a sacred and essential aspect of church worship. There’s a reason that we don’t partake of the sacrament and learn Christ’s teachings solely on our own. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson said, “It is important to recognize that God’s ultimate purpose is our progress . . . One cannot fully achieve this in isolation, so a major reason the Lord has a church is to create a community of Saints that will sustain one another in the ‘strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life.’” He later continues, “In the Church, we not only learn divine doctrine; we also experience its application. As the body of Christ, the members of the Church minister to one another in the reality of day-to-day life.”
This realization propelled my desire to continue attending church despite my struggles. I found Christ in my connection to others, in my coming together to worship Him with His covenant people. I believe that church worship is structured to remind us that this isn’t a journey we take alone—we’re on this path together. And among us, Christ walks and guides and directs through His called servants. We can find Christ not only in our scriptures and in the stillness of quiet contemplation but also in loving and reaching out to those in our congregations.
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But even when I leave my personal Eden, bloom where I’m planted, and find Christ in my worship with others, I still at times feel a bit out of place at church. I think I’ll always feel a little out of place and uncomfortable not just in church but in life. This feeling reminds me of the line from the hymn “O My Father”:
Yet ofttimes a secret something Whispered, "You're a stranger here," And I felt that I had wandered From a more exalted sphere.
During those times that I struggle to feel like I belong, I try to remind myself that coming to church, renewing my covenants, learning the gospel, and communing with God and my brothers and sisters there will help set me on a path to the place I do belong—my heavenly home.
*“The Family: A Proclamation to the World” reads: “Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.” If avoiding church is more than just avoiding discomfort for you—if it causes a severe amount of pain or if your individual circumstances necessitate a different approach to gospel learning—seek direction from the Lord and from Church leaders who can help you with your individual circumstances.