Those who leave…

When my husband (John), a ‘golden’ convert to the church and an RM, first told me that he was losing his testimony, I got angry. Much of my anger stemmed from the fact that my husband’s choices changed my outlook on our future relationship. I felt that if John was changing his ideas about church doctrine, he might also be changing other aspects of his behavior that would seriously impact my ability to trust him. I wondered if his beliefs in Mormonism diminished, would his belief in our marriage and his love for me diminish, too? During that tough time I read many church talks about apostasy and I pondered the comments I’d heard over the pulpit on this topic. I’d heard bishops say that those who lose testimonies have hidden sins, or leave the church simply because they are unable to live up to Mormon standards. I thought of people I’d known whose standards changed dramatically when they left the church and/or whose marriages crumbled in the wake.

In the years since John first told me of his loss of faith, I’ve come to believe that some people do leave the church for doctrinal reasons, not necessarily because of sin. I think it’s difficult to judge this, though, because if we see this same person a few weeks later with a cup of coffee in hand, do we assume that they really left because they had problems with the Word of Wisdom?

And I wonder what your experience is–do you know those who have left the church for doctrinal reasons and not because of sin? If so, how were they judged by their Mormon community after their departure? Did people assume they left because of misdeeds? Was there gossip about possible transgression? Do you think that someone who once had a testimony can lose it without sin as a catalyst?

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. madhousewife says:

    I knew a family where the wife had been less-active for many years, and decided to be active again when her husband wanted to join the church. A couple years later they both decided to leave. It wasn’t because of sin or because anyone offended them; they honestly just couldn’t accept some of the church’s doctrines. I also think–and this is doctrinally-related, too, IMO–that they were overwhelmed by the expectations placed on them, in terms of time given to the church, preparing for the temple, etc. Church started being more like work than something spiritually edifying. Also, even though they said everyone in the ward had been just great to them, they always felt a little out of place, culturally. (They were crunchy liberals, the ward was more conservative.)

    I don’t know what percentage of people leave JUST because of doctrinal issues, but I don’t think people ever leave JUST because of sin (or because they want to sin). It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that most people leave because they get overwhelmed and disillusioned. I don’t think being overwhelmed and disillusioned counts as a “morality issue.”

  2. madhousewife says:

    To answer your question more precisely, I don’t think anyone assumed this couple left the church because of “sin.” Maybe the less-charitable in the ward took a “well, they just couldn’t hack it” attitude. Theoretically, if you’re praying and reading your scriptures and blah blah the usual, you’re supposed to be virtually apostasy-proof–but I don’t know if I buy that. When I discussed it with this couple, they said it just didn’t make sense to them to stay when church was so stressful and making them unhappy.

  3. Lucy says:

    Jana,
    Thank-you for this post. My husband has doctrinally never understood the temple and has chosen not to attend. Many people assume it is because of sin. One dear friend even tried to convince me that he must have a problem with pornography. The idea that he did not feel that the temple was congruous with his belief in God seemed ludicrous and impossible to her.
    As I have struggled with my own testimony of the church, I have wondered about the kind of person I would be if I left. I think someone can loose a testimony without sin being a catalyst. When I told my husband that I had lost most of my testimony of the church and wanted to leave, he asked that I first do everything possible to be living the principles of the gospel, and then if I felt I still needed to leave he would support me. I now have five callings, pray and read scriptures daily– I feel like a fraud. Even as I try to do all that is asked, I find my testimony slipping.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The disconnect between Church-taught history and non-Church history books is so vast that when members are exposed to the new information, their testimony weakens and they often leave…

    …this isn’t sin, but a product of the Church’s choice to keep things hidden.

  5. tracy m says:

    I’m a golden convert too. You can leave the church and have it have NOTHING to do with sin.

    Should I ever drop out, it would be because of doctrinal issues- and I can relate completely to the people who left because church was not edifying, but work and alienating. We feel that way much of the time; yet for my husband and I, both converts within the last 5 years, we have struck our own ballance, and that is why we are still here at all.

    It can and is overwhelming to join this church. Also, when you are the only members in your entire family, and your family hates what you have done, the tension and stress that causes are huge. It would be different if we had generations behind us, around us and over us, supporting us. We do not. And it’s plain hard.

    But…

    We stay anyway. Not because we don’t have issues, either. We stay, in a nutshell, becuase this church is the closest thing to ringing true we have ever found. I have no doubt there are areas where mistakes have been and are made. It’s a church run by people, after all. Even inspired people are still just people…

    We move slowly, we are ok with chosing what we will partake in and at a pace we are comfortable. We have not gone to the temple yet- and frankly are not in a rush to do so. Because we have been ok with telling the leaders who would fast-track us to back off, we are comfortable staying.

    But if the day came when we were no longer moved by the spirit to stay, our leaving would not be because of temptation or because we do or desire sin.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The scriptures talk about those being blinded by the craftiness of men, too, so I imagine someone could leave with honest-to-goodness doubts without sin being the root cause (although I wonder, is lack of faith a sin of sorts? BOM says God is angry when we don’t understand His mercies and the atonement and such — I dunno). I do think it’s sad when men’s views cloud the truth of God.

    I always hold out hope that someone who has left will come back. I believe God is merciful. We should be too.

    I have seen someone leave and pride was the subtle sin at the root of it all. Not the kind of sin that people will usually assume is at the root, but I think often this can be the case. I have my own pride issues, but this was clearly one of the factors — thinking that person knew better than God and the church and its leaders, as well as other people. Making the whole pursuit intellectual instead of spiritual…seeking to be right rather than to be humble. Being incredibly unkind to family and esp ward members. Some deep pain, too, methinks, is there, but it’s ultimately covered by intellectual pride. Sad to watch the light fade in that person’s life. Sad to think of the pain, too. The person has built a wall so thick that no one can get in, except those who validate intellectual “points.” Hard to reach out to someone like that, although heaven knows I have tried and will continue to do so.

  7. Steve M. says:

    I’m sorry, but I can’t help but think that the idea that someone doesn’t leave the Church unless they are transgressing, or unless they want to transgress, is a way avoid dealing with the idea that perhaps they had persuasive, legitimate reasons for leaving.

    Just my two cents.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Legitimate by what standards, though? This comment strikes me as odd, unless one doesn’t believe ordinances, authority, continuing revelation, restoration of all things, etc legitimate enough reasons to stay.

  9. Anonymous says:

    As one who has left the church, I can say that for me it is mostly because there is a discrepancy between certain doctrine and my own deeply held beliefs (that’s another topic altogether). But that’s not the only reason, and my separation did not happen overnight, nor with any deliberateness.

    Rather, it has been a slow, sometimes painful process. I grew up in this church and culture, and it had been pounded into my head since seminary that the church’s doctrines were absolute and irrefutable.

    Perhaps my separation began, ironically, the day I received my endowment in the Ogden temple, just before departing for my mission. The temple ceremony was a radical departure from the plain, non-ritualistic sacraments that were the norm outside the temple (it was the old, pre-1990’s ceremony), and I could not reconcile the extreme differences in my mind.

    Part of my separation developed as a result of living in a stake with leaders who were so ultra-conservative that you couldn’t get a temple recommend if you told them you had gone to an R-rated movie (yes, they added this to the temple-recommend interview questions).

    And another part of it was a result of feeling ostracised for being a single, unmarried adult over age 30. My worth as a human being was systematically discounted when I reached “a certain age” without a spouse in tow.

    I was always taught in seminary that those who leave the church are evil because they once knew THE TRUTH and are now rejecting it, as opposed to those poor slobs who haven’t yet heard THE TRUTH and are therefore not responsible for their actions.

    I still love my Mormon heritage. I am not “anti-Mormon”. I still welcome my home teachers and am good friends with the elders quorum president. I admire the bishop of my ward for his compassion. I appreciate the many good things that the church does in this world. I even help out with service projects on occasion.

  10. Beijing says:

    I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on my mission (boy, was staying there and serving an honorable 18 months the wrong decision). After returning home, certain LDS church situations continued to trigger debilitating flashbacks. Two of the most painful were interviews and any kind of home visit. I was assigned the home teacher from Hades, who continued to visit (despite my repeated requests for no contact) in a rude, pushy way early on Saturday mornings. After struggling to get him to leave me alone, I would then spend the rest of the weekend crying and having panic attacks due to the flashbacks.

    When I put my no contact request in writing to the bishop, he wrote back to say that if I didn’t come in for an interview within 30 days and explain to him why I wanted to remain a member of the church, he would take my name off the church rolls, supposedly because I requested that in my letter. That was clearly NOT what I requested; all I wanted was for the visits to stop! But I couldn’t prevent the bishop from stripping me of my membership (no mention of any sins or church court) without exposing myself to another unbearable situation–an interview.

    My parents say my sin was pride, because I was too proud to go have a sobbing panic attack in the bishop’s office within the 30 day period he imposed on me.

    The rumor in my ward–I spoke with several people who heard it straight from the bishop–is that I left because I was initiated into Wicca, and am now literally a Witch, having turned myself over to Satan’s control.

  11. Deborah says:

    I hope people who read this click on Jana’s “I was angry” link and read her moving account of first hearing about her husband’s doubts.

    People sometimes ask me if it is hard to be in an interfaith marriage. But we went into this marriage _knowing_ we had different beliefs — and without any expectation of “changing” the other. I imagine it’s more challenging when a same-faith marriage becomes an interfaith marriage because of the choices of one partner. That’s the leap of faith of marriage. When we say I do, we “looked down one as far as [we] could/To where it bent in the undergrowth.” Who knows what’s around the bend . . .?

  12. Steve M. says:

    Legitimate by what standards, though? This comment strikes me as odd, unless one doesn’t believe ordinances, authority, continuing revelation, restoration of all things, etc legitimate enough reasons to stay.

    It’s my thought that, in trying to help members work through concerns and stay in the Church, we can’t start with the assumption that they have no legitimate reason to leave the Church. Although you may believe that their staying in the Church is the best for them in the long run, assuming from the get-go that their intention to leave is wrong and that their reasons are unfounded doesn’t really encourage emphathy or understanding. If we approach them in a strictly “resolve concerns” attitude, with no intention to sincerely listen to or validate their concerns, we’re only going to drive them out of the Church faster.

  13. pjj says:

    Yes, I do think it is possible for someone who once had a testimony to leave just over doctrine, not because of sin. I think, as others have said here, that blaming someone’s loss of testimony on sin is a way of reassuring those who are still faithful only bad people will leave. It’s a way of dismissing very real concerns of those who leave. I’m still sort of active, but just can’t accept some things, such as the church’s political involvement with the far right over gay marriage, the general far right political tone which comes out in conversation with many members, and frequently sneaks into our meetings, the position of women in the church…. it goes on and on.Yet, I do not smoke, drink, do drugs, have sex outside marriage, etc. I think that those are the list of sins that many members think cause other members to leave. But they don’t have any appeal to me.

    There was a family in our ward with one son with severe autism. His care was very hard on the parents and they disagreed over some things that should be done for him. I think that they did not get a lot of true friendship from people in the ward over their situation either. The parents have divorced, and the mother has quit coming to church and requests no contact. Someone else from church saw the mother at a swimming pool here, wearing a bikini, and mentioned it in a group where I was, along with a snide comment about that it was obvious why that woman had left the church– so that she could dress like that.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I left when I was a Gospel Doctrine teacher AND temple ordinance worker. I had continuously held a valid recommend for ten years and had never been eccleastically disciplined. As my secular knowledge and education increased, I became convinced that the LDS church was not what it purported to be. I left, and have never been happier.

  15. AmyB says:

    Even if the LDS church is the one true church on the earth, it’s not necessarily helpful for the members to think it is. It can easily lead to dimished respect for people of other faiths. It can lead to judgment and poor treatment of people who genuinely take issue with certain doctrines or policies within the church.

    I grew up thinking that anyone who left must have some kind of moral flaw. I am deeply ashamed of that now. We have a list of reasons why people leave- they were offended, they want to sin, they were decieved, etc. These prejudices and ideas are utterly unhelpful in trying to see people for who they really are. They do not help us build friendships, lead to deeper understanding, or help us treat others with Christlike love. Good, thoughtful, people can search, ponder and pray and come to the conclusion that the church is not “true” or that is is not the right place for them.

    I am grateful to see many commenters acknowledging that there are genuine reasons to leave. Again, saying that there is no valid reason to leave (even if it were true, which I personally don’t believe) only hurts relationship and people and decreases our ability to understand and love them.

  16. Wes says:

    I must say I am very sympathetic to many of the comments on this post. I have been excommunicated, and semi active in my past. I am also married to a Baptist woman (who loves God and me). I was excommunicated because of sin, but I do not believe that those who leave only leave because of sin. But I do believe that regardless of the reason (sin, doctrinal issues etc) leaving the church boils down to the fact that the power that would hold one close to the church was not as strong as the power that would pull one away from it. And if the church is true as I believe it is, then it is important to be in it. I have experienced sin, offensive behavior, embarrasement (did I spell that right?) being overworked with callings and responsibilities and most other things that cause people to leave the church including the occassional doctrinal doubts. But in the end I say to myself that inspite of those things that would pull me away from the church I want the power to stay because I believe it is true. If you don’t believe it is true, then I agree that staying seems a little pointless. But after all that I have been through (I forgot to mention humilitating divorce) I can’t imagine leaving the truth behind for anything.

    Church for me used to be something between me and my family, or me and my ward. Now it is something between me and God. I don’t care anymore what others think. I go to church because I love God and the restored gospel. I can’t imagine coming so close to losing that again.

  17. Tatiana says:

    I think there can be many reasons for leaving the church, not just sin or doctrinal reasons. I personally believe the church is true, but I don’t feel comfortable in the physical buildings, I don’t feel that I fit in. I’m culturally really different from most of the people in my ward, and I’ve never been comfortable in large groups of women. I’m much more comfortable in mixed groups or with guys. The rest of life isn’t so gender segregated as church is, so I can’t seem to find my place in my local wards.

    However, I do believe the church is true, and I uphold the standards, read, pray, tithe, and give to the PEF, Humanitarian aid, and fast offerings. I guess God wants me to be uncomfortable at church, as discomfort is often the prelude to learning. I am planning to go back, to keep trying, and see if somewhere, sometime I can make it work.

    Because I’m so inactive, though, some might think I have left the church, for sin or doctrinal reasons, but in truth I stay away because of social and cultural reasons. Because I feel like an alien among those people. I feel close to God, and know I am a Latter Day Saint, but I have to stay away from church when the feeling of alienation gets too strong. I return here to the online church, where I feel at home and among friends. =)

    I wish Salt Lake would establish virtual wards. I think that would be too cool! I would love to give a talk in an online sacrament meeting.

  18. TylerD says:

    I think Wes explained it pretty well. I believe staying or leaving is the result of a combination of testimony and external forces pulling you from Church. Like he said, if you don’t really have a testimony that the Church is true, staying is less meaningful. Without having a first-hand knowledge of it, I think most people either leave because they don’t believe it’s completely true (see Wes’ comment about staying being pointless), or they’re too embarrassed by something they’ve done to keep attending. Regardless, it’s not my position to judge. I think most people would be happiest being active in Church. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a member. But if someone chooses to take another path, hey, they’re working their way through life like I am, and I’m not in their shoes. I’ll still pray they’ll find a testimony the gospel is true (like I believe!), but we all struggle through life, and the Lord (who knows all things) will show great mercy to us all based on the mortal challenges we have to deal with.

  19. Anonymous says:

    this church is the closest thing to ringing true we have ever found

    I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on my mission

    Is there some place I can read the whole story?

  20. Lynnette says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I’ve watched a number of people in my life either leave or contemplate leaving, and it’s an idea I’ve kicked around myself more than once. I very much disagree with the idea that sin is the only possible explanation for such a move. Something that I think isn’t always appreciated is that leaving is often a tremendously difficult choice. Loss of faith, loss of trust in your religious institution–those are real losses, ones which can be horribly painful. To assume that people in that situation are simply opting in favor of sin strikes me as both unfair and uncharitable.

  21. Norbert says:

    Very interesting. I can only add my experience, with no claims that it is universal.

    I left the church a few years after a difficult mission and too much time in Utah. At some point, I felt that belonging to the organization I saw as the church was not making me a better person, and that I could not cope with the gulf between the feelings I had about what made a person ‘good’ and the behavior I saw in church. Looking back, I can see that my personal spiritual habits had slipped–I was not reading the scriptures, and I was not praying regularly, partially feeling like .

    But I missed going to church sometimes, so I ward-hopped about once a month, and even visited other churches from time to time (which I rarely found spiritually satisfying).

    How I came back is a long story . . . basically, I had a bishop that needed some practical help for some members of the ward, and he encouraged me to be a useful member of the ward on my own terms. I basically re-built my testimony piece by piece, starting at nothing. I also think leaving the US helped immensely. Being outside of church culture has helped me find clarity and real spirituality within the church. I won’t say that I never find the whole thing challenging, but I feel stronger than I ever had before.

  22. Janna says:

    Is leaving the church synonymous with not going to church?

  23. tracy m says:

    Stephen-

    Here is my conversion story…
    http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=682

  24. Jason says:

    No one has mentioned selfishness and laziness as reasons for leaving. Those along with pride are most likely far more likely to be a reason than sin – although I suppose they could all be seen as a sin in some respects.

  25. AmyB says:

    Is leaving the church synonymous with not going to church?

    I think that’s a great question. There is a whole spectrum of people, from the active, fully believing member, to the person who attends church but might not believe some or all of the doctrine, to those who consider themselves members but are less active or inactive. We’ve also had posts here about sabbaticals, where people might not be attending church for a time, but certainly still consider themselves members and remain part of the church. Then there are people who make a conscious decision to “leave the church” who are making a physical, mental, and emotional separation from it. For this group of people (at least the ones I know personally) it is a deeply felt, often agonizing decision to make.

    I just don’t think it’s helpful to judge people for leaving. Saying they leave because they are lazy or selfish or prideful, or [insert judgment here], just isn’t helpful or charitable. I’m sure just as many people who stay are at times lazy, selfish and prideful as those who leave. We’re all human. If we are truly loving we will not demonize or patronize those who come to a different conclusion than we do in regard to the church.

  26. Ronda says:

    At the Sunstone symposium in August my husband and I and two other couples told our stories in a session titled “For Better, For Worse, For Apostasy?

    Since my husband began going through a major period of re-evaluating his beliefs we have met a number of other people who are struggling with their relationship to the church, some have stopped attending church and several have had their names removed. While I can not know completely, none of these people appear to be struggling or have left because of sin or the typical “becoming offended” but rather because of deep doctrinal questions or differences and feelings of betrayal that can come from learning more about the church’s history than the official published version includes. Some, who are themselves heterosexual, are deeply troubled by the members treatment of, and comments about homosexuality. Others are troubled by the arrogance and judgments they hear expressed towards other religions. There are numerous other issues which can trigger deep pain and suffering in one’s relationship with the church.

    I think generalizing and labeling people who stop attending or leave completely as having sinned may be a way to avoid listening to those are struggling with their relationship with God or the church. My observation is that many members are afraid to interact with those who are struggling, afraid that they might also be pulled into the abyss. But it can be wonderful to find a non-judgmental listening ear during these difficult times.

  27. jana says:

    Dear Ronda:
    It’s a thrill to have you comment on this post. Your Sunstone panel was wonderful and has had great impact on me and others in the bloggernacle.

    Like you, I agree that the labels are harmful, but I’m aware that they exist and I wanted to explore the consequences of such in this post. I am delighted by all of the thoughtful comments, including yours. You’ve given me much food for thought as I contemplate my own faith journey.

  28. Paula says:

    I think that leaving the church is not synonymous with not going to church. I think that a lot of people who don’t go to church much would be surprised to find that others label them as “out of the church”. In fact those labels often push the person out of the church further. A few years ago, I had’t gone to church for a couple of months, such as ill parents in another state. I was surprised to get a call from my bishop about a special meeting with a visiting general authority for stake conference the next day. Only a few people were invited, to hear him speak, and to ask questions, before the main meeting. I wasn’t feeling well, but went anyway.I was silly enough to think that maybe it was going to be an actual discussion of important issues. Maybe it was kind of a feedback session for the authority so that he talked to someone besides church leaders. To my great surprise, it was a meeting for investigators, and less-active folks. Hmm. He drew the plan of salvation on the blackboard, in stick figures, and told the story in sort of a childish way. It brought home to me how little my leaders knew me, and that they were rather to quick to make judgments about me. (And yes, I am making judgments about them.) I think that no one should be making judgments about someone else’s spiritual level. (Particularly without having gotten to know them first.)

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