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How Do You Find Meaningful Connections at Church?

Guest Post by James McMurray

First of all, a quick thanks to Jessawhy for encouraging me to expand on a question I posed to her several weeks ago and for offering to post it.  I admire the level of thoughtfulness on The Exponent and can only hope these ideas and questions are at all worthwhile (and hopefully not some tired retread of previous posts here or somewhere else).  With that said…

During my mission, I had the choice experience of teaching two daughters of a woman who had been estranged from the church for a number of years but decided to bring the gospel back into her life.  As I grew closer to this incredible woman, she shared with me the tragic details of her disaffection.  Her husband had committed some serious sins (ok, crimes), and when she went to seek guidance and comfort from her bishop, he basically said, “Oh, I’ve already talked about it with your husband, everything has been dealt with.  You may go now.”  Lives were shattered.  Families destroyed.  Hope was lost.

Needless to say, I have been terrified to serve as a bishop ever since.  A tremendous opportunity to serve?  Yes.  A tremendous potential to foul up people’s lives despite good intentions?  Absolutely.  Regardless of my calling, I feel it is important to connect with my fellow ward members, especially those I home teach.  While I often do a bad job of befriending others without any extra help, I’ve become aware of an additional complication from lurking on the bloggernacle for awhile now.

There are obviously many people who have very honest gospel-related questions and/or concerns that may not be consistent with labels like “active” or “faithful.”  I believe the bloggernacle provides a valuable outlet in this regard.  However, in “real life,” many with these issues either outwardly conform, lay low, or simply stay away – but in all three cases, I am usually not in a position to connect with such people.

In part, I wonder if this is because I have all the outward appearances of being a “mainstream” member (i.e. white shirt nearly every week, scriptures in tow, or whatever).  Perhaps another major reason may be that I am a married man and am not in a natural position to reach out to many within the social context of my ward.  I would almost certainly never have had the opportunity to connect with this woman on my mission had it not been for the small plastic nametag I was wearing.

So while I would enjoy connecting with those in my ward that might have genuine desires to discuss challenging topics (or less challenging topics more earnestly), I wonder if my outward appearance might cause some to pass me over as a good candidate for such conversation.  For example, as much as I appreciate them, I am not often inclined to bring my home teachers into my life beyond a fairly superficial level.  Why would anyone else feel so inclined with me?

There are a few obvious answers:  “You just have to get to know someone well before that can happen,” “Don’t dress like a wanna-be stake president,” “You’re not responsible for EVERYONE in your ward,” and of course “That sort of relationship isn’t appropriate.”  With that last one, I recognize there are some obvious pitfalls, but do we really just leave it at that?  For all I know, there could be readers of this (or other) blog(s) from my ward, but I’d never know it.  If so, what a tragedy!

So, my questions to you are:  How can we overcome the obstacles that prevent us from engaging in more meaningful conversations with those around us?  In some ways, I realize it’s as simple as saying “Just start the conversation,” but I believe there’s more to consider based on the spiritual, cultural, gender and norms in our wards.

Jessawhy

Jessawhy is a wife, mother, community volunteer, activist and student. She is currently working towards a Physician Assistant degree.

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  1. Angie says:

    I was discussing this very topic last night with a person in my ward. We both feel that it is extremely important to somehow be able to connect on a deeper level as a community. I don’t know that I have answers, only my experience…

    6-8 months ago I had determined that I was one of those people that would just ‘stay away’ because I had too many questions, and no one to answer them. I had made peace with that decision, and felt like I was finally starting to find some measure of happiness in living outside the church (there was no happiness in the church – only guilt and misery) and pursuing my own path.

    Then this same member of my ward showed up on my doorstep about 2 months ago, and essentially said that he had been praying for someone to help, and that God had led him to my doorstep.

    We’ve had several conversations since then regarding my questions. I have been so grateful that in every one of them, there has been no judgement, only acceptance, understanding and a desire on his part to help me find answers.

    This particular member is a counselor in the bishopric, and my first impression of him was that he was an uptight, conservative Utah Mormon, and that he definitely wouldn’t be OK with some of my more liberal leanings :-). I have found that not to be the case…from my experience, my answer would be (1) pray about someone you can have meaningful conversations with (of course after praying, listen then act), and then (2)as the ‘listener’ validate the ‘struggling’ persons concerns and pass no judgement, and don’t try to ‘fix’ the person. I don’t know that there’s an easy way to overcome the obstacles in the way, but I’m grateful someone decided to push past them for me.

  2. css says:

    I have recently tried to be more honest with my Visiting and Home teachers as well as friends in the church about my questions, concerns, and doubts. What I have discovered is that instead of rich dialogue, I have opened a can of pity and somewhat condescending “I’m worried for you,” :Please help me explain why you have a problem with that becasue I never have?”, or the ever present “Are you sure there aren’t other things (aka sins)going on in your life t?”

    It’s hard. Me being honest has only made me feel more alienated. As someone who never even considered leaving the church, I am feeling more and more estranged the more I talk.

  3. Douglas Hunter says:

    Making a meaningful contributions to class discussions on Sunday is an important starting point. I think that once people see that we don’t think or speak in stock answers and questions, that in and of itself signals a greater willingness to think and be challenged, which in turn can build trust and eventually lead to dialogue. One of the defining characteristics in the Mormon community is fear. Fear of getting it wrong, fear of being an outsider, fear of being confronted, etc. Speaking honestly and thoughtfully at Church helps dispel such fear and eventually leads to dialogue. A few weeks back I mentioned social and economic justice in sunday school and that led to a good discussion after class. Frequently after class is when the best discussions happen.

  4. kingoftexas says:

    I used to work at the UofU (I wore suits all of the time.). While going to work at about 5:00am I stopped at an Exon to put gas in my motorcycle. I have a custom American eagle, rigid, ghost flame paint, chopper. Ok, except for the chopper I could have passed for a stake president. From the time it took me to put gas in my bike get a tuna sandwich, cheetoes and some milk. I had found out that the casher and her husband that was visiting her. She confessed he wasn’t really her husband but they wanted to get married. He was adopted by a prominent LDS pioneer family. I can’t remember what he said he did for a living. He hadn’t been to church in some time. I reminded her of her father. He is a lawyer in San Diego. They were going to visit him soon for her little sisters bahmitza. Oh and she wanted to be a modeling agent. I HAD NEVER MET THESE PEOPLE BEFORE.
    This happens to me all of the time just this time it took less than 5 minutes.
    Most people need someone to talk to. Actually someone to listen to them. Leave pride at home. This is about them not you. Sometime a person needs to unburden themselves; not compare stories. (That is when you forget about pride even if you have better stories.) You have to sincerely care about people and you can’t be judgmental.

    I couldn’t decide on which story to tell but both are relevant.

    The 13th and the 15th ward shared a building in downtown Salt Lake City. I attended the High Priest Quorum at the 13th. (My ward.) I worked at the homeless shelter and everyone that would ask me about the Mormons I would take on the temple tour. I would explain about the church and take them to the 15th ward. We would attend Gospel Essentials and Elders Quorum then I would turn the missionary on them. Both Bishops had noticed I was attending both services and never asked me my name. I attended both wards weekly for almost two years. (That’s irony.) It wasn’t until the former Bishop asked me to pass the sacrament that they found out who I was. I told him I couldn’t pass the sacrament because I held no Priesthood.
    This was probably an anomaly for reasons I shouldn’t discuss. But; there are members in the two wards I’m in now that I am sure could use someone to talk to. You don’t have to wait for a prompting to talk someone whose countenance is troubled. Get out there and make friends. We really are family.

  5. James says:

    Thanks to you all for your thoughtful comments. Angie, I think you’ve described one of the best ways to approach this, while css has highlighted one of the biggest potential problems. Ultimately, kingoftexas is right – we (you, me) have just gotta decide to do it. I know I just get too complacent in my church routines, sometimes.

    Douglas, you’ve touched on another key way I’ve noticed as well. I immediately perk up anytime someone goes “off script” in a talk or lesson (as teacher or student). Don’t get me wrong, the standardized church materials serve a good purpose as well, but it is refreshing when people don’t simply regurgitate everything over and over.

  6. Caroline says:

    I think starting a book group or a study group would be a possible place to begin. You could invite a few people you suspect are interested in Mormon studies. Assign an article from Dialogue to read, and then meet monthly for discussions.

    That’s what has helped me. I’m on the edge of things because I’m a liberal and a feminist, and both my book group and study group have helped me form great friendships. Even with people in my book group who are nowhere near where I am politically.

  7. Jessawhy says:

    James,
    Thanks for writing a great post (I hope you don’t mind the title I came up with). These are important questions that we need to work on.
    For me, I’m not afraid to tell people what I think, but I am afraid to start the conversation.
    I mean, what am I going to say, “Don’t you think the temple ceremony is a little sexist?”
    That would go over like a lead balloon.

    Sometimes people aren’t open to embracing the doctrinal concerns of others because it threatens their own testimony (to varying degrees). Often, the purpose of organized religions is to reinforce the belief system and crowd away doubt. If I allow myself to consider a truth that is not part of the correlated materials (or that some of the church’s teachings are untrue or hurtful), I become a heretic, or someone deceived by Satan.
    That’s a pretty good reason to toe the party line, it seems.

    One of my friends on another liberal Mormon forum tries to introduce some of the murkier gospel topics in his EQ lessons. He gives the listeners enough information and questions to help them see another perspective, but also one possible answer, so they don’t have to leave the class experiencing cognitive dissonance, unless they choose to.
    That seems like a good idea, and someone could do that with comments or as a teacher.

    For me, the biggest fear I have in connecting more deeply with ward members on a gospel doctrine level, is that I’ll plant doubts in their mind that they can’t handle. I don’t want someone to struggle with the issues that challenge me if they’re not ready, or if they don’t want to.
    Sometimes that’s why I stay quiet.

    Again, thanks for the post.

  8. Steve says:

    I’ve tried to shake things up in Gospel Doctrine class on many occasions, and I’ve earned a reputation as a crackpot that never gets called on. There is intense pressure in the church to conform, especially in Utah, and those that don’t toe the line have a tendency to be ostracized by otherwise well-meaning members.

  9. mb says:

    I think the key is to change the goal. If my goal is to engage in meaningful conversation then I’m looking for something that fills a need of mine. If I, instead, have the goal of asking individuals sincere questions and then really listening, fully engaged, to their answers in order to ask more questions and understand them, then I end up with all sorts of interesting connecting conversations with all sorts of different people. Some of those end up as interesting intellectual discourses. Many end up as simply a deeper connection. They all end up enlarging my soul.

    So, change your goal from something you want for yourself (discussing challenging topics with those who wish such conversations)and into something that you wish to be a bright spot for someone else (being someone who is sincerely interested in his/her opinion and in honest, friendly, genuine conversation). It sounds simple. It really works.

    Maybe the in the ward culture where you live this doesn’t work, but in all the wards and branches I’ve lived in (west coast, east coast and south central US) it does.

    Most people will respond well to an honest, interested, listener. Become such.

  10. tanya says:

    I personally try to have conversations in my lessons geared to promote thinking on a higher more positive level. To often I have walked out of classes not feeling good enough, but I want to let people leave with the feeling of hope.

  11. James says:

    mb, you make a great point, and I hope you didn’t take my thoughts as purely self-centered. After all, one of my main points was how we can draw these conversations from others who could potentially benefit from having a sympathetic ear.

    That said, I do probably get caught up sometimes feeling “Wo is me!” regarding the level or types of discussion sometimes, so your point is well taken. I think in general, we are much better off when we are focused on those around us rather than ourselves (in ANY situation)

  12. cupcakegirl says:

    I’ve tried and I just feel like I’m beating my head against a wall and inviting suspicion, criticism and rejection. So for me the answer is that you don’t. It’s not worth the trouble that it brings. So all I can do is sit there and bite my tongue. Or stay home. But there is not room for meaningful dialogue and diversity of opinion without getting into a lot more trouble than it’s worth.

  13. Douglas Hunter says:

    cupcakegirl,

    where do you live? Myself and others know people all over the US who are more thoughtful and open to discussion. Maybe we could help you find some local support.

  14. Noah says:

    I think this is the result of being a very image conscious and at times competitive people. However, I find that the greatest condemnation towards those with difficult questions comes from those who are the least secure in their own beliefs but don’t want to admit it. The age-old maxim “the more I learn, the less I know” certainly applies to me. When I hear people proclaim they “know” this or that in Testimony meeting, I interpret it more as a hope they may have. Mormons tend to forget that they are neither supposed to be dogmatists, nor blind followers. To me, the value of faith is acknowledging that there are compelling arguments on both sides of the spectrum, and that, in terms of the ultimate questions, the verdict is still out. Not only do I believe faith-building is a lifelong endeavor, but I also believe it requires a holistic approach. Brigham Young once stated that it is time for us to cease being children and start being philosophers. Philosophical discourse requires questions, and lots of them.

    To answer the question, I believe we should engage one another in much the same way I believe we should engage people who are not Mormons: We should do so openly, honestly, with everything on the table (with the exception of certain parts of temple ceremonies). The people who are unwilling to do that are the ones who lack faith, because faith is a process, and it sincerity, not silence, is the criterion necessary to make it grow.

  15. mb says:

    James,
    No, I didn’t take your thoughts as purely self-centered.
    And I think it has generated some thoughtful replies and outreach.

  16. angel chick abilene texas says:

    I have MS and so miss alot of meetings. I am new to my ward and have not met the Bishop or others so I feel very isolated. I did recieve 3 e-mails from my Bishop about the times of meetings etc. However when I sent an e-mail request for help and information he did not respond(that was two weeks ago). I ask him if their were any D&C DO NOT IGNORE ANY REQUEST FOR A SOURCE OF KNOWLEDGE YOU HEAR> GOD Bless you all/

  17. angel chick abilene texas says:

    Sorry my comment did not make sense at the last my request was for a quad or indivdual books in large print as i am home bound and mine were lost in our move except for a 1974 BOM paperback. I can pay a small amout for a used Quad or for paperbacks each month as I get an allowence of 20.00 dollars from my spouse. Anyway my point was seek out those you feel or are led to in the ward and listen they may say something in passing that will let you know what thier need is from you. If someone ask for something respond even if the answer is NO. at least then they feel you cared enough to listen. God Bless You All.

  18. K says:

    My ward is full of weirdos, so I stay home as much as possible. I don’t want them to bother me. I do try to attend sacrament in order to do “damage control” for my children (so I can explain later that our church does not say it’s a sin to drink Pepsi,) or to distract my kids when the speaker begins saying inappropriate things (like pulling out a noose and talking about his suicide attempt.)

    Oddly enough, one of the young men attempted suicide by hanging at his high school about a year later.

    My Bishop is always on his soapbox over tiny issues that are not really important in the grand scheme. I also have a hard time listening to a person who abandoned his first family tell me how important it is to be to church on time.

    So, when sacrament is over, I jet for the door, and I hope that the Mormon brats don’t pick on my son too much during the rest of his meetings. My son is the good kid who knows the right answers and participates in class, and the other boys tell him his answers are stupid and make fun of him in the normal heathen teenager ways, even though those boys come from families of many Mormon generations.

    I’m sure there are some wards with decent people who are capable of discussing religious topics without interjecting 12 Mormon myths in the process. Count your blessings if you have a ward that isn’t full of nutcases.

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