If you are a believing Latter-day Saint parent, your greatest hope is that you and your children will all be together in eternity. But—with increased disaffiliation from the Church—many parents, maybe even most, have or will have adult children who no longer believe.
The phrase “No empty chairs” is a part of the Latter-day Saint lexicon and is used to describe parents’ desires to have all their children with them in the eternities. It’s powerful imagery that reflects the beautiful doctrine of eternal families found in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Like you, I love my children and I want all of them to have the blessings of eternal families. Some even apply it to having all their children together at one time with them in the temple.
I googled the history of the term and the first significant use I can find is from the April 1984 general conference when President Benson said, “As parents and grandparents in Zion, it has been the shared hope of my wife and me that all of us will be together in the eternities—that all will be worthy, without a single empty chair.” Some have suggested that it really came from Lucy Mack Smith, who said, “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another, and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together.” You can find the phrase on Pinterest, in blogs, and there is even a song of that title written by Janice Kapp Perry and Orrin Hatch.
So, what do we do when one of our children lets us know they no longer believe in the practices and doctrines of the Church? What do we do if we feel we have empty chairs?
I have adult children who no longer believe and have talked with other parents in the same situation. I have also talked with dozens of adults who no longer believe about how their parents reacted to their changed faith. I have learned that each situation is different, but here are some common ideas that may be helpful for parents with children who no longer believe.
1. Don’t preach or lecture.
Preaching is almost never helpful. When answering the question, “If I have family or friends who are less active, how far do I go in my attempts to bring them back?” President Ballard said, “My answer is please do not preach to them! Your family members or friends already know the Church’s teachings. They don’t need another lecture! What they need—what we all need—is love and understanding, not judging.” When I have talked with those who no longer believe, they tell me that when a parent preaches, even if it comes from love, it creates division, shuts down discussion, and makes it harder to retain a close relationship. Worse than preaching would be to try and manipulate them back to belief. But there are positive ways to respond to create a lasting and loving relationship.
2. Listen to understand and validate.
When someone leaves the Church, often one of their biggest concerns is whether they will still be loved and accepted by those around them, especially their parents. The best way you can show that you accept them is to listen to them and let them tell you what is important to them. You will be tempted to interrupt and tell them they are wrong or to testify or to formulate a response, but don’t. Just listen to what they want to tell you. Be patient. They will likely only tell you a little of what led them to their new beliefs, but if you listen in a way that builds confidence, they will fully share what they believe, which gives you a chance to express your love and continued acceptance. It may take months and years. While you are listening, make sure you validate their thoughts. That doesn't mean that you have to agree. Validating means you can accept that their feelings and thoughts are real to them. Its a way of showing empathy.
3. Use words that affirm; don’t use labels.
Always use words that affirm when talking with or about your adult child. If you use labels, such as apostate, anti-Mormon, faithless, heretic, or non-believer, you reduce a real person with feelings, hopes, and dreams to a single word that is often used to describe an enemy or someone who is out to destroy God’s work. Labeling shows them we don’t want to understand them but think of them in simplistic and negative ways. It's better to describe their faith as believing differently or no longer believing in the teachings of the Church or no longer attending. These terms show less judgment and provide more ground to build a loving and meaningful relationship.
4. Accept and love them fully.
Do everything you can to let them know you love and fully accept them. Make sure that your differences in belief don’t define your relationship. Every situation is different, but for me it means I don’t care whether they drink coffee around me, order wine when we go out to dinner, and have their unmarried partner join for family vacations. I do whatever needs to be done to let them know that I love them, even with our differences. I have told my children that no matter what they do I will love and accept them. I have done all I can so they can believe it.
5. Remember agency and the love of our Heavenly Parents.
Don’t be afraid of your child’s choices. An essential element of the gospel is the recognition of a person’s agency—their ability to choose for themselves what they believe and how they live. We fought for that and are grateful we have it in our lives and need to respect and honor it in our children. The gospel teaches of the perfect love our Heavenly Parents have for all Their children. Their efforts for our happiness and growth are limitless in time and effort. They love us perfectly. Our belief gives us hope, not fear.
6. Take care of yourself.
I think the most difficult challenge for parents is when they realize that their hopes and dreams for their children may not happen. These challenges include when a child chooses a different way of believing. We love our children, and, if that happens, we grieve. It's real, emotional, and hurts. We need to find ways to heal from our own pain. Find the support you need so that you can heal. But find a private way to grieve and deal with your pain. Telling your child about how hard this is for you isn’t helpful. They know that. You are still the parent and you need to help your child know that you love them regardless.
And don’t blame yourself.
At our house, my wife and I still talk about no empty chairs, but we talk about having no empty chairs at the dinner table, around the pool, on a vacation, at their life events, and in all the chairs from our children’s lives.
Lead image from Getty Images
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.