It was a wintry night in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Emily Snyder was watching a stranger walk by her apartment window. As a young missionary, Snyder was anxious to get out and serve, but her companion had been struggling with her testimony and it was at that moment that Snyder had a thought.
“I remember sitting there … and thinking, ‘I did not sign up to teach my companion the gospel of Jesus Christ. I signed up to teach other people. I signed up to teach the people in Russia,’” she says.
But then Snyder had an experience she’s never forgotten—a beautiful moment where she felt the Spirit teaching her, saying, “Nope. You signed up to teach about … Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter where or to whom, you signed up to bring people closer to Christ. And right now, this woman that has made covenants is sitting in your apartment, and she needs to know who Jesus Christ is,” she recalls.
Now, Snyder is a world away from those missionary days in Russia, but it has shaped her personal mission in the years since. “I have a tender heart for those that have made covenants and those … that need reminders about why they do what they do and … who their Savior Jesus Christ is,” she says.
That desire to help others keep their covenants has guided Snyder during her diverse life experiences: Starting her career as an elementary and junior high school teacher, she then became senior secretary for Relief Society General President Julie B. Beck followed by a position as executive assistant to the late Harvard professor Clayton Christensen. After her work in Boston, Snyder received her MBA from Columbia Business School and became Chief of Staff for Magnolia—the mega home décor brand established by Fixer Upper stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. But through all her professional experiences, Snyder has never put to the side her desire to help those who have made covenants keep them.
Most recently, she’s drawn on her passion and expertise to create Why I Stay, an Instagram account that explores people’s faith journeys. Launched in August 2021, the account is so named because it highlights the paths of people from all backgrounds and religions who choose to stay in their faith. It’s also a platform that fosters community, building bridges and bringing people together so they can know one important thing—that they belong.
Snyder can trace the idea for Why I Stay back to the years she spent working with Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen. While Christensen is recognized as one of the great business minds of today, one of his greatest loves was sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and he wrote about his convictions and conversion to the gospel in an essay called “Why I Belong, and Why I Believe.” This essay was located front and center on his personal website and it resonated with Snyder, who felt that “because he had the words articulated, he was ready and willing to appropriately share at any time.”
Additionally, Snyder had been in the middle of many discussions about missionary efforts—which she says were a constant topic of conversation—while she worked with Christensen. Those discussions left her wondering “if there could be a world where missionaries worked with members to help them write and articulate ‘why they belong and why they believe,’” she wrote in an Instagram post.
However, the idea never fully came to fruition until a couple of months ago, when Snyder was talking to a friend and had an empowering realization.
“[I] had the thought, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t need to rely on missionaries. [Through] social media … I can give the invitation.”
So this past August, Snyder introduced Why I Stay on Instagram. In her first post, she explains that many people she loves have chosen to leave their faith communities. She also says that she believes a choice to stay or a choice to leave requires a great personal wrestle and either outcome deserves compassion and respect. And while there are a number of places talking about leaving religion, this space on Instagram would be for people of all faiths to share posts about why they stay.
“There [are] a lot of conversations about people leaving. And I completely respect how hard it is to leave a community in which you’re embedded and in which you’ve created life with,” Snyder says. “Community forms so easily in our faith. And to leave that and to walk away from that is very, very hard and complicated. … So I respect that place—and yet I also want there to be a space for individuals to understand why they do what they do.”
While those who leave their faith often express their decision for doing so, Snyder says, those who stay haven’t really been invited to do the same.
“There’s a lot of space to articulate … why you’re leaving the community. You have to articulate it and know personally why you’re leaving. But we haven’t invited that space to … articulate why we’re staying,” she says. “I’m not trying to convert anybody. I’m not trying to convince anybody. And I think that’s why I’ve loved this question is because it has nothing to do with anybody else and it is completely a ‘This is why I make the choices I make.’”
Devon Jarvis, who wrote a post about why he stays in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, agrees that the people who share on the page would otherwise likely go unheard.
“I think what I’ve come down to is we live in a world of polarizing views of extremes. We tend to hear the most extreme of both sides of everything, so it’s really easy to find a general conference talk on why we should stay. And it’s really easy to find all the reasons people leave—those voices tend to be really easy to find. [But] I think the majority of us are somewhere in the middle just quietly doing our thing and we don’t always hear that.”
Jarvis says he pondered his reasons for “Why I Stay” for about two weeks before sharing his post, sifting out the unnecessary words and having his wife read over his statement as he revised. The process wasn’t easy, either: Snyder asks those who write a post to keep it to about 400 words, a difficult task considering the topic is so thought-provoking. But Jarvis says that the timing to share felt right.
“For me, I felt like it was important to be able to say, ‘I’ve been a member of the Church my whole life. I’ve been an active member. I served as a bishop, I’ve done all of these different things, and I still have times where it’s hard. And I still have those times where I have to continually go, ‘OK, why am I doing this?’ And those are the voices that I feel like are important to hear,” he says.
In his post, Jarvis, who has always been committed to the gospel, shared some experiences he’s had that caused him to answer the question of why he stays.
“My seminary teacher chose to leave the Church. A few years later, my mission president chose to leave the Church. Many friends have chosen to leave the Church … but more of them continue to stay. It forced me to ask myself ‘Why am I staying?’” he wrote on Instagram. “I’ve tried to come up with a really profound reason, but it is really simple: I stay because of Jesus Christ.”
Jarvis has observed that in many of the testimonies shared on the account, the Savior is often people’s main reason when they explain why they stay.
“The coolest part to me as I’ve read all of the posts is that we’re all in different stages of life. … But the underlying theme is that we all share that common ‘We love the Savior,’” he says. “There’s not an exact perfect way to be a member of any church. We’re all so different but have that one thing in common.”
Jarvis’s thoughts resonated with many people after he shared the post on his personal account. Recently, he even learned that a friend who read his testimony shared it with a relative living on the other side of the world. This man had stopped attending church but the post helped him feel like he wasn’t alone, and he decided to go back.
“I think he just needed to know that there are other people that are like, ‘Yeah, it’s not always easy but we do it because of our basic testimony of the Savior,’” Jarvis says. “I think if we could take what [Snyder’s] project is trying to accomplish even just in our small little influence—in our ward or congregation or community—and just share some of those things, it has the potential to make our congregations … and our [communities] better.”
“Who said I’m staying?”
Just as Snyder hopes Why I Stay will be a space for people to talk about their decision to stay, she wants to be a part of creating a culture of understanding—especially regarding each person’s relationship with God.
“I ache in a world that doesn’t listen very much anymore and doesn’t give respect to each other to say, ‘Hey, if I believe in the Atonement of Jesus Christ, then I believe that we all get to figure this out for our own accord,’” she says. “I believe that that is the whole purpose of the Atonement of Jesus Christ … is that we each get to have our experiences to know our God.”
Snyder says her relationship with God has changed over the years, but that’s to be expected— just as her understanding of her parents is different today compared to when she was a young girl. Similarly, she believes one’s relationship with God gets to evolve.
“I’ve wondered if we’ve allowed permission to have a space of that growing relationship with God,” she says. “The God we learned about in Primary songs isn’t not real, because the parents of my 7-year-old self are my same parents. But that relationship and understanding need to change.”
Why I Stay is therefore intended to be a place where people can talk about their journeys and the twists and turns each person has taken. It also focuses on why people are staying at this moment—even if they don’t know what’s ahead.
“One person when I invited them to write something said, ‘Who said I’m staying?’” Snyder recalls. “And I said, ‘Fair. So fair. But today you are. So I’m very curious about why today. I don’t care about tomorrow. But I’m curious about why today.”
Snyder believes it’s important for everyone to know the moments when they have witnessed the hand of God in their life—even if it’s just for them to reference when the going gets tough. And if experiences like that don’t come to mind, she thinks it’s an opportunity to consider what one can do to change that. Having a tangible reminder of belief can make all the difference in having an anchor during hard times, she says.
“We have our patriarchal blessings, we have our favorite scriptures, but what is it of my heart that I can go back to [and] be like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right. I do love this. I do show up for this,” she says.
There is power, Snyder adds, in people being able to express why they are staying in their faith. If used in a non-pushy way, it can be a tool to know why someone has lived the life that they have. It can also create healthy conversations with others.
A Missionary Opportunity
Angela Baldwin has had many conversations with people after sharing her faith journey on Why I Stay. In her post, she explained how she once had doubts about the Church and discussed what helped her get through that time.
“Several years ago, I navigated through a ‘faith crisis’ only to find myself more committed than ever to my faith tradition and all the flaws that accompany it,” she wrote. “It was a very dark time full of complex emotions and a physiological withdrawal of the Spirit that was devastating. When I recognized that I was truly at a point of sink or swim, I did the work to stay afloat … and eventually, I made the effort to swim. And THAT is why I stay.”
Baldwin explains that letting God into her life again during that time took effort, but it’s how she ultimately found peace.
“The work was deciding that I wasn’t going to be angry with the Lord. I was going to open those channels of communication again through prayer and just really give to Him and to the Savior my thoughts and my confusions and my concerns,” she says. “I don’t know how to explain the awareness I felt from the Spirit at that time or the peace that was spoken to my heart that the Lord loves me and was in no way disappointed in me.”
Since sharing her post on Why I Stay, Baldwin has heard from friends and acquaintances who are experiencing the same confusion she once did. She has looked at these conversations as missionary opportunities and hopes that others realize one can be in the Church and not have received a personal testimony of certain things just yet.
“It’s OK to travel through these questions and confusion—and you can still come out the other side close to God and with a testimony and with a desire to stay in the Church. Just because you feel conflicted about something doesn’t mean that needs to be an automatic exit from the Church,” she says. “I can very much stay and be a faithful, active member of the Church and still not know everything. And that’s perfectly acceptable.”
Baldwin says her husband, children, and extended family didn’t realize the extent of her struggle with her faith. So sharing her experiences on Why I Stay put her in a vulnerable position. Still, she felt that if her thoughts could help someone then she needed to honestly share her experience.
“I was afraid of how it would be received. Getting to the other side of it so many years later and having chosen to stay in the Church and reconcile my confusion, I feel so confident that the Lord is satisfied with me,” she says. “When the Spirit finally returned it was such a feeling of acceptance and pride—but like the kind of pride that a parent would have in a child that accomplishes something really hard.”
One of the things Baldwin appreciates most about Why I Stay is how honest the conversations are on the page.
“I feel like there has not been one [post] that I have read where it feels like it came out of a Sunday School manual,” Baldwin says, adding that the feeling of the page is both open and positive. “I feel very taught by everybody’s message because it comes from such a personal place, and you can feel how people’s testimonies have been developed based on their own life experiences.”
Why I Stay has been a safe space for many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to talk about their faith. But Snyder has reached out to members of other faiths, too, believing that the conversation around staying in one’s religion is similar across any faith community. She also hopes that highlighting different faiths will expand people’s perspectives.
“I believe there will be a day when we’re all allies to God, that all allies for God are fighting the same fight. And I don’t know that it will turn into a true fight, but as I’ve watched and observed and been in conversation and shared sacred experiences with men and women from various faith communities, we are very similar,” Snyder says.
Recently, Snyder invited her friend Patoya Hall, who is Baptist, to share her thoughts on Why I Stay.
“Jesus Himself is honestly my greatest joy and delight,” Hall wrote. “That sounds lofty but it is true. If not for this needing to be a somewhat developed Instagram caption, I’d say that sentence and come to a full stop. Jesus is why is I stay.”
Why I Stay has also provided members of other faiths more opportunities to express their beliefs in a public way. Snyder points out that while Latter-day Saints have many chances to teach and speak in church settings, in other faiths ministers primarily teach their congregations. So this is a new space for people of many religions to share their thoughts.
Opening the door to talk to people of various faiths has led to good questions and conversations about religion, Snyder adds.
“There are a lot of similarities in other people’s worlds as we look over the fence. There are a lot of faithful people doing a lot of beautiful things that love their God just as much as our world loves their God. And vice versa,” Snyder says. “I’ve had amazing conversations about questions about our church, questions about their world, and just opening up that conversation in a non-converting place of just learning.”
A Labor of Love
Snyder frequently posts on Why I Stay so that people who follow the page know they can depend on it. Reaching out to people and asking them to share has been a beautiful experience for her.
“While each person’s thoughts have been powerful and brought new insights into my life, the process of thinking about who to invite, crafting the invite, creating the conversation, and then continuing the conversation has been one of the holiest processes in my life right now. I have seen God’s interest in His individual and specific children as I have extended the individual invitations,” she wrote on Instagram.
When Snyder was a teenager, she discovered for the first time the importance of individual invitations, and it has impressed her ever since: She recalls being in a high school English class as a sophomore when her teacher saw that she had thoughts on the discussion and called on her. Stumbling over her words, Snyder tried to end the conversation quickly but her teacher patiently waited for her to articulate her thoughts. Today, Snyder has similarly found that personally inviting people to share in a safe space has been an important step in the process she has created for Why I Stay.
But inviting people to share on Why I Stay and posting regularly is no easy feat. While Snyder is able to draw on her network of people, she has also offered followers the opportunity to extend personal invitations to those they’d like to hear from.
“As you invite and have ‘eyes to see’ the miracles it can create, I promise they will come. Because I have witnessed them over and over,” she wrote. “This is actually a new and tender reason why I stay … these moments of Heaven’s awareness of this little corner on social media is proof for why I stay.”
Ultimately, Snyder says she relies on the Lord in this project, doing her best to make the pieces come together but trusting that He will take care of the rest.
“And really handing it over to be like ‘OK, loaves and fishes. Here are my loaves and fishes and Lord, I’ll trust that whatever you’re going to do with this if there is anything for anybody, you’ve got it,” she says.
In addition to the question of Why I Stay, Snyder asks each person to talk about what their favorite spot is in the world, what their favorite talk or scripture story is, and what their favorite cartoon is. The thought is that these responses will capture a little bit of who each person is without looking into social or marital status or identifying them in any way. Each post is essentially a celebration of people who have their battles but are practicing being more of who they ultimately want to be.
“Everybody has something that they can give. And it usually is a pretty tender, sacred thing,” Snyder says. “So [it’s] that foundational mindset of there are a lot of stories to be shared—there are a lot of people that have deep, powerful hearts that are willing to share if they’re invited.”
A Personal Mission
It’s been years since that dark winter night when Snyder was looking out her apartment in Russia and realizing that her companion needed help understanding who the Savior is. But whether as a young missionary or a professional, there’s a higher purpose that drives Snyder in the many things that she does.
“I think my personal mission would be helping those that have already made covenants keep their covenants deeper and better and know why they make their covenants. That piece is a huge driver for me,” she says. “And then helping each other cross into new lands with new people and not be fearful of other communities and conversations and cultures.”
She also hopes that Why I Stay is just the beginning—that other spaces will bring community and understanding about faith while helping people connect in authentic ways.
“There [aren’t] a lot of places to know the quiet … things on our hearts and the quiet things that are happening. This is hopefully a spot that can be replicated in so many other arenas to create permission and space to appropriately share the hard things and the struggles,” she says. “We can do that. … We become more real for each other, and we can show up for each other.”