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Elder Bruce C. Hafen: Mentoring students with empathy

This is the third 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.

While all of your students need your listening ear, the ones who are honestly struggling with doubts and questions desperately need your true compassion. In several podcast interviews, we learned how disheartening it was to have family members, friends, Church leaders, or teachers judge those with sincere questions for their “lack of faith,” sometimes making them feel misunderstood, unloved, or unwelcome—or all three.

Many students will have questions or hear rumors they find unsettling enough that they need help. However, our young adult friends tell us that some of their friends in distress probably wouldn’t take their questions to a Church leader or religion teacher. Why? For one thing, in today’s culture they often share their generation’s general distrust of institutions, especially religious ones, and the people they perceive as representing those institutions. Also, as one young friend said, they worry about being “judged and lectured to”—which tells us, even if overstated, that adult leaders and teachers would benefit from extending greater empathy.

In the meantime, those in need often just talk with friends who may be as uninformed as they are, which only compounds their concern—sometimes in a contagious way. And then they may go to the internet together, without needed perspective or guidance, and the virus spreads.

Studies and interviews among Latter-day Saints who have experienced a variety of faith crises confirm these impressions. As Sarah d’Evegnee found in her podcast interviews,

Many who shared their doubts with friends and family didn’t find a sincere listening ear; rather, they were met with dismissive attitudes and immediate efforts to “fix” their issues. But some had friends and family who extended empathy, honestly listening rather than immediately trying to give advice. These tended to stay in the Church rather than choosing to leave. 

Moreover, many felt they were doing something “wrong” if they had serious questions and doubts. Those who were able to stay in the Church seemed to need added assurance from a leader or family member to know they could stay without yet having a “strong” testimony of complete certainty. Their expectation that they or their testimony had to be “perfect” was a major catalyst for the pain and the discomfort they experienced. Simply knowing that staying in the Church was possible, even when they had doubts, helped them stay. [See interviews with Janae, Jordan, Emily C, Emma, and Alyson.]

As Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “I know of no sign on the doors of our meetinghouses that says, ‘Your testimony must be this tall to enter.’”1

David Ostler found through his surveys and interviews with people experiencing a faith crisis that they were often unwilling to share their problems with local Church leaders because they believed the leaders simply wouldn’t “get it.” And even when they did talk with their leaders, many found the leaders to be defensive and critical, rather than really hearing them out. Some leaders also wrongly assumed that the doubter’s main problems were not praying, not reading the scriptures, and not obeying Church standards—even when they were already doing these things. These attitudes tend to push the questioning person away from further discussion. So Ostler’s advice to leaders quotes Stephen Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”2  

Other research shows that, even when religious topics aren’t involved, non-judgmental sharing of experiences is a far more powerful way of changing minds than either trying to shame the other person [or] trying to convince them through structured arguments. . . . Advocates often call out unacceptable views, which can intensify people’s resistance, or they make their case through talking points [which] has little effect. We found that simply listening and sharing a relevant personal story successfully lessened people’s resistance and increased their openness.3

One BYU student told us that religion teachers and campus bishops sometimes “don’t understand the seriousness and depth of emotion that questioning or ex-members experience. It is one of the most intense, traumatic experiences, full of genuine grieving, [uprooting] a childhood of understanding, a community, [and] family members.” Yet “apologists” often “defend the faith” with such superficial responses as “don’t be so quick to believe the first wrong wind that blows.” Such dismissive attitudes from authority figures may reinforce fears that the Church doesn’t care, can’t be trusted, or has hidden information—and a loss of trust is often a much bigger concern than specific historical or doctrinal questions. If we can take unsettled students seriously and “listen loud” with genuine empathy, that sends a needed signal of trust.

Jed Woodworth, whose experience as a Church historian has led him into many such discussions, has also learned why two apparently similar people may react to the same new information very differently—one may be disturbed by it while the other welcomes it. Why?

The intellectual problem presented to us should be placed within the larger life context unique to the person to whom we are ministering. Another person, when presented with the same information, does not feel the wound the doubter feels so keenly, underscoring the importance of understanding the particular life course. Our listening should seek to understand why this person finds the information damaging. Why is resilience not a possibility for them?

Recovering the life context often involves the discovery of other unhealed wounds: harmful family dynamics, discouraging missionary experiences, clashes with institutional authority, naïve views of Church history, idealized views of prophets, sin, lack of recent spiritual experience, shame or anger stemming from the Church’s position on social issues, or other kinds of disappointment.4

So, he concludes, if the questioner doesn’t feel understood in his or her personal context, that only compounds the institutional trust issue. And unless a person feels heard, nothing else we do or say will matter much. Finally, only after a mentor helps the person through what may be an extensive spiritual healing process can the original intellectual issues be reframed in new and acceptable terms.

Notes:

1. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth,” Ensign, November 2014, 22.

2. Ostler, Bridges, x–xii, 6, 42–44.
3. Mike Cummings, “Study Finds Non-judgmental Approach Can Reduce Prejudice,” Yale News, 7 February 2020, at https://news.yale.edu/2020/02/07/study-finds-non-judgmental-personal-approach-can-reduce-prejudice.

4. Woodworth, email message to Hafen, 7 February 2019.

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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



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