Church members can experience a crisis of faith for a variety of reasons. Whether stemming from a discovery of an unflattering but true account of Church history, a negative interaction with a Church leader, or a recent change in the Church Handbook, each person’s reason is valid and should be treated as such. Here are ways those experiencing a faith crisis can cope, as well as ways loving members can support them.
Anatomy of a Faith Crisis
For many people who undergo a faith crisis of profound proportions, their whole world comes crashing down because that world had been built on the truthfulness of the Church and the structure that the Church provided in their lives.
Given that they spent years testifying, “I know the Church is true,” and given that they now no longer believe that declaration, they call into question everything they ever knew. The old ways of knowing have become suspect. They ask, Can I trust past spiritual experiences? When the edifice of faith seems to be trembling, what authorities or sources or voices or experiences can I rely upon to settle such pressing questions? How do I know that God lives? How do I know that Jesus was resurrected and atoned for my sins? For that matter, how do I know what is sin and what is righteousness? How do I know that the moral standards taught by the Church are the best way to live my life? How can I know anything at all?
It is one of the most confounding things that can happen to a person, especially to someone who has been a committed member of the Church for many years.
When Church Is Hard
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by membership in the Church. There are so many ways to fall short, so many people to disappoint and offend us, so many people for us to offend and disappoint, and so much that is clearly human. When members of the Church or its leaders fail to live up to the values they espouse, it’s easy to question the value of maintaining our association with them. If Zion is the ideal society, then it’s immediately apparent that our local wards, and therefore the Church as a whole, fall woefully short.
There is no magic formula for remaining in the Church when doing so is difficult. But perhaps these suggestions will serve as a useful prompt as you ponder your own situation and your own inspired way forward, whether in your own faith journey or in your ministry to those you love.
The Church is such a big institution—so complex, so varied, so all-encompassing, with so many possible activities and rules—that to some, it seems impossibly hard to keep up. For some, Church life can even seem oppressive and judgmental. Sometimes it’s just too much.
Since you can’t do it all, don’t try. Simplify. Pick out a favorite scripture and live by that. It might help to refrain from thinking of Church life as a massive to-do list that one can never exhaust. Rather, it might be that the Church’s many meetings, programs, and classes form a rich inventory of possibilities. It’s true that some of us can treat the Church or the gospel too much like a buffet where we self-servingly avoid what’s best for us. Even so, we literally can’t hope to do it all. For all of us, realizing that there is no way to do everything, especially all at once, is a simultaneously freeing and stretching stroke of insight. If I could do only one thing well today, what should it be?
Creatively work it out.
If there is something in the Church that bothers us, we work it out the best we can. We can’t solve problems by doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We have to be creative and proactive—“anxiously engaged.”
Naturally and inevitably, there are problems in every quorum, every Relief Society, every ward, and every other level of the Church. We identify the problems and then work to solve them. We find compromises that work for us. But we don’t just impose our ideas on everyone else, any more than we enjoy being imposed upon. We act in ways that show sensitivity and compassion for our people, rather than being limited by inflexible practices. The Church is made up of its members—in many significant respects, we are the Church, and we determine its course and future.
Create spaces of inclusion.
At some point, someone thought up the idea of ring ceremonies so that family members and friends who could not attend temple sealings would not be entirely left out. Some Church leaders aren’t crazy about ring ceremonies, and in practice they can still be awkward and not quite a suitable replacement. But the ceremonies are important as an effort to create inclusion where it is otherwise not possible. We want to be in the business of creating additional space for exceptions to long-held rules, many of which are important but nevertheless have unintended consequences that we want to try to avoid.
We have to think about what we value most. As a blogger recently put it, “If your goal is to find a way for people who struggle with issues to remain in the Church,” then we need to make church a place where all types of people want to be and where they feel genuinely valued when they are there.
Us Against Them?
Of course, none of the suggestions above do anything to change the Church Handbook, a seemingly resistant Church leader, persistent structural differences between men and women in the Church, or instances in Church history that make us uncomfortable. To create a church where people’s legitimate concerns can be heard and their experiences honored, we have to build the confidence that members and leaders of the Church can work together and listen to one another.
So much disillusionment comes because we feel we can’t trust one another, and that it’s us against them (whoever “we” and “they” might be). We must find a way to have healthy, mature conversations about difficult and complex matters—if not always in public Church settings, then at least behind closed doors in private conversations and always as fellow Saints who are at least trying to love one another and be like Jesus.
Not every problem can or will be solved immediately. But when we foreclose constructive dialogue or disallow critiques based in love and genuine concern, then cynicism naturally sets in as people become frustrated, feeling that they are not valued and that things will never get better. By the same token, those naturally inclined to be cynical must learn to temper their feelings by cultivating trust, openness, and generosity toward others. Paul provides good advice when he counsels, “Let your conversation be always full of grace,” because only in that space of grace we will “know how to answer everyone” in godly fashion (Colossians 4:6 NIV). At the beginning and end of the day, the Christian virtues of mercy, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness must govern our interactions and conversations with one another. If we cannot do that, the body of Christ will be neither healthy nor whole.
Staying or Leaving
For some people, the Church feels toxic, and they can’t bear to be present. For others, it is not so clear. They are still attracted to many of Mormonism’s virtues, even while witnessing or experiencing some of its shortcomings. They genuinely agonize about whether to stay or leave.
It is possible to live within the Church even while racked with doubts, questions, and feelings of alienation. There are many benefits of staying within the community even if you are distressed by one or more of its aspects, and even if you have to renegotiate some terms. In most cases, issues can be best worked through in the company of other Saints rather than by leaving them and the Church behind.
Sometimes we tend to think we are either in or out, that we either believe or don’t believe. But humans are more complicated than that. We have believing and unbelieving parts in us. We might think we disbelieve, but with some other part of ourselves we believe. It works the other way as well—even devoted believers have questions and problems. The human psyche, including our spiritual life, can rarely be reduced to mere binaries. We experience and live in paradox all the time. To find truth, as Joseph Smith suggested, we have to work through and often live within contraries.
Paradoxes and Contraries
Living with contraries is not only the burdensome lot of those who question or who feel they do not fit in. Living with contraries is equally important for those true-blue believers who may feel unsettled by members of their wards and families who seem unorthodox, weird, or liberal.
Can we as individuals and a Church community deal constructively with the inevitable questions and problems we encounter, or will we see them only as existential threats? Will we reduce those who doubt to the status of lost souls who must correct their views in order for us to maintain association with them, or will we treat them as family members whom we love and care for—and maybe even learn from?
Though difficult to quantify, I would suggest that we have a stronger corps of informed intellectual Mormons now than ever before, at the same time that we have a growing body of the intellectually disaffected. We have a larger, more active, and more spiritually committed group of Mormon feminists within the Church than at any time in our history, yet still we see so many for whom continuing gender inequality is a cross they simply cannot bear. There are more active and temple-worthy gay and lesbian members of the Church than ever, just as debates over sexuality and marriage have in recent years vexed us in unprecedented fashion. The people who choose to stay are not simply naive or blind or victims of false consciousness any more than those who choose to leave are inherently biased, blinded, or wicked.
Support from Members
Because spiritual knowledge is prized as such a virtue in Mormon culture, doubt seems deviant, and the people who struggle with doubt are suspected of actually covering up some deeper sin or preferring to indulge some kind of lifestyle not approved by the Church. However, in most cases, it is not our place to render a verdict on the state of another person’s soul, and we will be far more effective (and better Christians) when we give people the benefit of the doubt.
To simply assume that someone with doubts is guilty of some grave moral transgression or to cause that person to feel in any way unfaithful or unworthy merely because of his questions displays a lack of charity. If someone gathers enough courage to raise a question with a parent, spouse, bishop, seminary teacher, or friend and then is met with judgment or scorn, he or she will likely be left feeling isolated and alienated.
Perhaps not quite as immediately damaging, but usually just as unconstructive, is for people to take evasive action when confronted with a friend’s or family member’s doubts. A response of “read your scriptures and pray,” while certainly good advice in principle, is often unhelpful in such cases for two reasons: For one thing, chances are the person has already tried reading her scriptures and praying about her questions. For another, a formulaic answer demonstrates a lack of concern for the person and his actual problems.
To love others, to be in a true relationship with them, is to mourn with them when and how and where they are mourning, to comfort them when and how and where they need comfort, to know in depth and detail what their burdens are so you can help lighten them (see Mosiah 18:8–9). Avoiding tough situations, dismissing concerns as insignificant, or giving prepackaged answers without thought or care all come off as naïve—or worse, as insensitive and uncaring.
When the people we love are in pain, our first response is not to blame them or dismiss them or trivialize their hurt. We go to them. We embrace them. If words fail us, we simply sit with them, as did Job’s friends. Mostly, we love them regardless of their beliefs or place in the Church.
Stigmatizing doubt to the point that people feel guilty for even having questions is not conducive to spiritual growth. Neither is it helpful to ignore questions as if they are invalid, unimportant, and wrongheaded. In fact, how we deal with doubt in the Church today is one of the most pressing tests of our collective discipleship.
My plea to those who are struggling in the Church and feel adrift is simple: Find some kind of tether that works for you. Find something or someone in the Church to connect to, even while everything else seems tenuous. Find a way to stay in the orbit of the Church as it orbits around the Son. For those who already feel their feet are planted on solid ground, my plea is also simple: Be the type of friend, family member, or fellow Church member who provides the safe connection that we all so desperately need.
Learn many more important ways to stay planted in the gospel of Jesus Christ in Patrick Q. Mason’s forthcoming book, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt. Available starting December 28 at Deseret Book stores or at deseretbook.com.