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Elder Bruce C. Hafen: Mentoring students through prevention

by | Nov. 30, 2020

This is the second part of a four-part series from Elder Bruce C. Hafen about helping those who may be dealing with questions or doubts based on Faith Is Not Blind, the book he and his wife, Marie, co-authored.This series is adapted from an address Elder Hafen gave to religious educators.

Even before publishing Faith Is Not Blind, we had the sinking realization that many of those we’d most like to reach don’t read many books. They’d rather read a Facebook or Instagram post or watch a YouTube video. So we asked some real people to tell us about their real-life experiences with complexity. Then, encouraged and led by a few family and friends, we began recording these stories—which eventually became the faithisnotblind.org website, highlighted now by seventy filmed twenty-five-minute podcast interviews (more to come) with honest, engaging Latter-day Saints of many ages and backgrounds from across both the United States and Europe. (Free audio versions available under “faithisnotblind” wherever podcasts are found.)

As we and our little team relistened to these interviews, some clear patterns and insights organically emerged—how faithful, normal Church members have navigated “complexities” of all kinds into the maturity of “the simplicity beyond complexity.” I want to share some of our main findings now, as some of the illustrations within three categories that will, I hope, help you mentor your students—preventing harm, listening with empathy, and helping when possible. Much of what follows comes from young adults just like those you teach. 

Editor's note: In this second part of this series, we will focus entirely on mentoring through preventing harm but listening with empathy and helping when possible will be address in parts two and three of this series.

Faithful students who are spiritually well-grounded and who recognize that questions are a normal part of their spiritual development are better prepared than other students to prevent faith crises and turn difficult challenges into faith-building experiences. 

Regarding spiritual grounding, religion teachers, like doctors, try first to “do no harm.”1  That’s why President J. Reuben Clark said, These youth are “seekers after truth[, and] doubt must not be planted in their hearts.”2 It’s also why Elder Neal A. Maxwell was distressed about teachers who “fondle their doubts” in “the presence of Latter-day Saint students who [are] looking for spiritual mentoring.”3  

Moreover, most BYU students probably are not actively caught up in struggles with Church critics. So let’s be cautious about making them wonder if the Church is a sinking ship or that their faith is inferior if they haven’t had a faith crisis. The large majority come to your classes with a firm testimony about what President Clark called the two “essential fundamentals,” that Jesus is the Christ and that Joseph is His Prophet. Probably only a minority of them will experience a genuine faith crisis, but nearly all will encounter other forms of complexity, opposition, and even trauma—unanswered prayers, hard marriages, no marriages, health problems, financial problems, and so on. And many will have family members and friends who struggle with faith issues.

► You may also like: Elder Bruce C. Hafen: Dealing with questions and doubts about faith

That said, students who don’t yet have their own deeply rooted testimony of the fundamentals are perhaps the most vulnerable. Much of the battle over anti-Church topics has now shifted from academic, research-based arguments (where Church scholars have established an impressive record)4 to personal and online proselytizing—often by aggressive and deceptive former Church members who are well-funded, who effectively use social media, and who prey especially on the relatively underinformed and ungrounded. 

Good parents teach their children to live the commandments and to develop their own well-informed testimony, especially in their own relationship with God. Without that anchor, when young people confront a faith-jolting experience, they may ask, for the first time, do I really believe this? Some will then work hard to build their own private relationship with God. But for others, aggressive anti-Church arguments can collapse their fragile faith like a shell built around a vacuum.

For example, one young man had parents who didn’t teach or model authentic private religious behavior for him. In their family, “Church” was only about performance-oriented public religious behavior. He grew up feeling pressured into Church meetings, seminary, a mission, and a temple marriage—but only because his parents pushed him, and they complained if he didn’t respond. His parents also suffered from unfortunate dysfunctions that made them (and, by natural extension, other Latter-day Saint parents) seem to him like hypocrites. 

Now he’s in an unnerving midlife crisis, and he finds himself shatteringly vulnerable to the whole list of anti-Restoration arguments. A Latter-day Saint therapist tells me that, in his experience, this pattern is not uncommon now, especially in Utah families. When people who have only such a limited background leave the Church, they aren’t really leaving “the Church” or the restored gospel; rather, they are leaving a superficial imitation—what one friend calls an “impoverished, depleted” version—of the Church, the only version they really knew. 

You will find many natural opportunities to help your students—especially the spiritually malnourished ones—to learn what it means to develop their own private relationship with the Lord, their own full-blown experiment with Alma’s word. People value what they discover more than they value what they are told. Help them discover Him for themselves. It’s been striking to learn from those seventy podcast interviews that the single most important factor in seeing stronger faith emerge from various complexities is whether one has, or develops, a close personal relationship—a “connection”— with the Lord. That’s what Holly called “the closeness.” It was the game changer for her. 

Sometimes the complexity itself can be the catalyst to find that close connection, if people are meek enough to allow it. As the pioneer handcart survivor said, “We became acquainted with [God] in our extremities. [And] the price we paid to [know Him] was a privilege to pay.”5  Not all trauma survivors would feel that way. As Elder Maxwell said, “Experience can either soften or harden doubts [and perhaps trauma], depending on the person's supply of meekness.”6 

 In conjunction with our Faith Is Not Blind podcast and website, Sarah d’Evegnee, Eric d’Evegnee, and Jacob Hess are also analyzing forty written “stories of return” by people who overcame their personal faith crisis enough to return fully to the Church. The complete findings of their analysis— and the stories themselves—will be posted on faithisnotblind.org, probably in the second half of 2020. They are identifying the most common themes and patterns in the experiences of people who return, which will help others with their journeys through religious complexity—and the teachers, leaders, parents, and friends who support them. Among their key preliminary findings thus far, they report that “while the stories reflect numerous and widely varying consequential moments and emotions, one’s experience with the Divine reflects the single most important hinge point in all the stories.”7  

Another significant source of prevention is to teach students that hard questions, opposition, and complexities of all kinds are normal and natural—and often enable genuine learning. For example, one of the main themes to emerge from the seventy Faith Is Not Blind podcast interviews is that being taught beforehand about complexity rather than being surprised by it helps prevent crises and can foster progression and an attitude of appreciation for the richness of history and doctrine. Those who’d been taught this perspective saw their doubts and questions as part of a normal, healthy process rather than being upset or ashamed by them. Often they had a mentor (a parent, leader, or teacher) who taught them this understanding from an early age. These people were actually able to nurture their faith and enjoy the developmental process. [For examples, see the podcasts with Tyler, Bill, Marcus, and Sarah.]8

The interviews also revealed that some had believed that if they really had “faith,” they should also have a “perfect” or “completely certain” testimony. Therefore, these people tended to have an “all or nothing” attitude. So when they experienced any uncertainty or serious questions, they became completely unmoored. Many of them referred to this as a “faith crisis” because of the way they viewed the term “faith.” And some felt they couldn’t stay or be active in the Church unless they were completely certain in their testimony. [But when they learned] to broaden the way they perceived “faith” or a “testimony,” they were able to work through their doubts and allow themselves to have a dynamic faith that grew and developed. [See Kristine, David L, Zach, Jason, Ryan.]9

Much like the use of an inoculation to help build immunity in children, our interviews show that those who were taught difficult yet age-appropriate concepts by parents or good teachers were much better prepared when any “complexity” later arose. For example, Bishop Kevin Knight from the Oakland California Stake recently asked the nine hundred members of the faithisnotblind Facebook group for insights to help him lead an assigned discussion among the bishops in his stake on how to counsel “youth who have doubts.”10  Samples from the replies: 

When I first started having doubts, I felt so much guilt. I thought that I wasn’t using enough faith. But I’ve since learned that my questions are what helped me build stronger faith. Questions are beautiful opportunities to grow and become stronger. 

Truth will stand up to questioning. It won’t weaken. The key is having them feel comfortable coming to parents or Church leaders with their doubts, rather than Google.

I would tell them that having doubts is normal. Doubting is an important part of the path to a true, strong, unshakeable testimony.

And Bishop Knight responded: “That’s a key point—[to] ensure our youth know that questions—even doubts—are normal and should be talked about openly with parents, leaders, and friends. Kind of like how it used to be common not to talk with children about sex and now it’s well understood that we need to.”

In today’s world, there really are some similarities between talking with our children about sex and talking with our students about criticisms of the Church. On both subjects, the internet now offers totally unfiltered “adult” versions that “tell all” of the supposed but often false “secrets” that aren’t appropriate to discuss in classroom settings. One other aspect of “prevention,” then, is asking when and how to prepare students to react when they first encounter sensitive, faith-related information. 

We now have a superb model for answering this question—Saints, the new narrative-based, official history of the Church. Written by gifted Latter-day Saint historians and writers, it weaves reliable, readable, and well-documented accounts about many issues into natural, matter-of-fact key stories from Church history. On topics ranging from multiple accounts of the First Vision and translating the Book of Mormon to seer stones and plural marriage, Saints puts specific issues into a broad, understandable framework—without giving the issues undue attention or taking them out of context. Then if a reader wants to know more, clear and authoritative footnotes point the way for further inquiry. It also helps that the new Foundations of the Restoration class taught in institute classes and at BYU treats Church history more thoroughly than in times past, providing further background for topics and issues that could otherwise be a surprise to students. 

After we teach clear and age-appropriate contexts of this kind, we encourage students to ask questions—any sincere questions. That’s a good reason for having footnotes. And whether we discuss the question in class or in private depends on the question and on the student. In either case, we are matter-of-factly open to discussion. 

Some teachers may hesitate to respond to difficult questions, but we never need to say more than we know. In fact, it may benefit some of our students to learn how we have worked through our own questions without always finding absolute certainty about the answers. And we don’t need to be experts on Church history and related subjects, although it will help your more thoughtful and inquisitive students to sense that their religion teacher at least reads and listens well enough to have a good general sense about the issues of the day. 

Yet again, our perspective and our attitude about what we’re discussing are usually more important than what we say. And if students sense that we seem defensive or afraid to talk with them, they probably won’t want to talk to us anyway. As President Ballard counseled Church religion teachers, we should know the content in [the Gospel Topics] essays like you know the back of your hand.11 If you have questions about them, then please ask someone who has studied them and understands them. [Also] become familiar with the Joseph Smith Papers website and the Church history section on LDS.org and other resources by faithful LDS scholars.12

Church members naturally expect the Church’s religion teachers to be better informed about these subjects than typical local leaders, especially since some data suggest that the Gospel Topics essays still aren’t well known among local leaders, let alone among Church members.13 And as President Ballard added, “You can help students by teaching them what it means to combine study and faith as they learn. Teach them by modeling this skill and approach in class.”

At the same time, religion teachers are not therapists. Some students, sensing that you are approachable, may need appropriate boundaries—because those who have long-term problems, like addictions or disorders, may take more time than you can give. And they will probably be better off talking with a professional therapist or their bishop. Meanwhile, you can lead them to the Church website, which offers them very helpful material on a variety of tough challenges. 

Moreover, religion teachers can’t all be actual experts in Church history research simply because developing informed historical expertise is so demanding. And do-it-yourself approaches are as prone to possible weakness in history as they are in medicine, law, or engineering. Jed Woodworth, managing historian for Saints in the Church History Department, put it this way: “Many have tried to become experts on Church history and have found their efforts to answer on historical terms falling flat.” But “the truth of the Restored Gospel does not hinge on research. Rather, testimony is established through experience.”14  Knowing well the broad outlines and key events of Church history is valuable and even inspiring. But unguided tours of deeper research waters can be problematic—not because one will then know too much, but because one is likely to know too little to evaluate evidence, sources, and context adequately.

It is still true, however, that the Church’s rich resources in Church history have never been more open or more complete than they are now, and we should encourage and guide students as they pursue historical topics that interest them. Interestingly, the Faith Is Not Blind podcast interviews showed us that those who had specific questions about Church history or scientific issues navigated their research experiences more positively if they had learned in advance not to be surprised when they discovered that the evidence they find will not always be conclusive and is usually subject to varying interpretations and contextual patterns. And those who wanted to do their own historical research had more satisfying and more reliable experiences when they had a trusted, qualified mentor with whom they could discuss their research methods and questions (see podcasts with David P, Janiece, Jeff, Ryan, and Jason).15

Image titleWe often encounter unexpected questions and complexities that can challenge our faith. Faith Is Not Blind offers fresh concepts and tools that will help readers learn from these experiences, rather than feeling disillusioned by them. Available now at DeseretBook.com


Notes

  1. Hippocratic Oath taken by medical students preparing to practice medicine.

  2. J. Reuben Clark Jr., “The Charted Course of the Church in Education” (address to seminary and institute of religion leaders, Aspen Grove, Utah, 8 August 1938).

  3. Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 166. 

  4. See, for example, from two evangelical scholars speaking to their colleagues in 1996 after their visit to BYU: “At the academic level, the Evangelicals are losing the debate with the Mormons. We are losing the battle and do not know it. In recent years the sophistication and erudition of LDS apologetics has risen considerably while Evangelical responses have not.” Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, “Mormon Apologetic, Scholarship and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?,” Trinity Journal (1998): 179–205, quoted in Hafen, Disciple’s Life, 512–13, along with the more complete context.

  5. Francis Webster, quoted in James E. Faust, “The Refiner’s Fire,” Ensign, May 1979.

  6. Neal A. Maxwell, That Ye May Believe (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992 ), 191–92.

  7. Jacob Z. Hess, email message to Bruce Hafen, 12 April 2020. For a good description of how a relationship with God helps with faith challenges, see/hear the podcast with Espen Amundsen.

  8. Sarah d’Evegnee, email message to Bruce Hafen, 12 April 2020.

  9. d’Evegnee, email message to Hafen, 12 April 2020.

  10. Faith Is Not Blind Facebook Group post, 17 November 2019.

  11. In 2013–14 the Church posted eleven new Gospel Topics Essays on churchofjesuschrist.org, providing thorough, well-documented articles on many of the topics that had attracted the most interest and visibility by anti-Church websites, podcasts, and blogs—such as plural marriage, race and the priesthood, gender, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Heavenly Mother, Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Abraham. 

  12. Ballard, “Opportunities and Responsibilities.”

  13. Ostler, Bridges, 29–31, 136–38. In seeking a remedy for this lack of awareness, David Ostler’s own home stake organized a successful weeknight institute class devoted just to these essays. It was taught by a mature and well-qualified instructor and attendance was voluntary (pp. 137–38).

  14. Jed Woodworth, email message to Bruce Hafen, 7 February 2019.

  15. d’Evegnee, email message to Bruce Hafen, 12 April 2020.

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