An anxious faith

By Emily Larson

One thing I haven’t missed one bit about this pandemic is attending church.  Our church services shut down fairly early into the pandemic, and for a while, we were simply encouraged to do services in our home.  We did that a couple of times, but we fairly quickly evolved into having quiet Sundays at home, simply because it was easier to do nothing than it was to plan and carry out a Sunday meeting and lesson.  Eventually, our ward moved to Zoom meetings, and we have opted not to attend, mostly because we forget, but also because we’ve come to really love our quiet Sundays without any church.

I don’t think I realized until this pandemic that Sundays could be lovely!  Whenever people referred to it as a “day of rest,” I would sarcastically grumble that it’s only restful if you aren’t trying to wrangle four little kids into a pew and throw enough snacks and books at them to keep them quiet.  As my kids have gotten older, and as my relationship with the church has become more complicated, attending church became a source of profound anxiety and distress.  While most of it was fine, there would always be one talk, or one testimony, or one comment in Sunday School that would get under my skin.  Sometimes it was a truly racist/sexist/bigoted comment, but sometimes it was something entirely faithful and benign, but would remind me of the heartache I felt around many church issues (like attending the temple).  I would spend at least 3-4 hours after church processing the experience, and trying to help myself stand solid in my own truth and relationship with God, while also holding space that everybody has a different experience.  I felt strongly that I could believe a certain way, and other people could believe a different way, and that’s ok, because a diversity of viewpoints and experiences is the whole point of attending church based on geographical boundaries.  But in order to get to that point, I’d have to expend a lot of emotional energy unpacking and repackaging whatever happened at church that week.

I remember reading a blog post on Zelophehad’s Daughters a few years ago that really stuck with me.  Lynnette wrote about attending the Episcopal church, and how attending it was such an edifying experience, and she didn’t realize that attending church could be a net positive in her life.  She wrote,

The thing is, without even realizing it, I’d developed a religious identity centered around angst. And part of me liked that. Part of me even believed that faith that wasn’t completely wrenching maybe wasn’t the real thing, maybe wasn’t worth pursuing. And I liked that image of myself, of the person whose faith was so real, so committed, that I wouldn’t let even the hardest aspects of the church, the things that were so difficult for me, take away my connection to it or my willingness to stick with it. I’d adopted a narrative about there being something extra virtuous about going to church when it’s kind of a brutal experience. I mean, anyone can go to church when it’s easy to do so, when you mostly like it. But it takes someone special, I figured, to keep going when it feels terrible. I don’t know that I ever consciously articulated this point of view to myself, but it was lurking underneath, and definitely influencing my decision to stay.

I resonated with this deeply at the time, but I feel it even more now.  I told myself that it was a feature, not a bug, that going to church was so hard!  It’s a measure of true discipleship to really wrestle with your faith, that the struggle and the suffering made my faith deeper and more rooted.  But what I’ve come to realize is that my wrestle wasn’t always a wrestle – sometimes I was just getting punched in the face.  And now what I’m trying to pick apart is how much of my church attendance is painful because it’s growth, and how much of it is painful because it’s injury.  Is spiritual growth supposed to be this hard?  Is it ok if I just don’t do anything on Sundays and feel edified?  How much church do I need in my life?

As I’ve taken a step back during this pandemic, I’ve learned that Sundays don’t have to hurt.  And it’s a scary thing to realize, because what if all of the energy I put into my angsty faith wasn’t actually virtuous?  What if it’s not supposed to hurt?  And can I really consider myself a spiritual or faithful person if I just watch TV with my kids and do puzzles on Sundays?

I don’t know that I appreciated how lovely our Sundays had been until I got a text from my bishop, asking to meet about a calling as our ward attempts to meet in person again soon.  All of the anxiety came flooding back into my body, and I was almost paralyzed with the familiarity of feeling like I had been punched in my soul.  “Oh yeah,” I thought.  “I remember feeling like this.”  All that anxiety, just from a text!  And I realized that while some of the pain I’ve experienced really has been from growth, a lot of it really has been unhealthy and damaging.  And, like Lynette, I am beginning to believe that “faith could still be meaningful and worthwhile and genuine without quite so much angst and internal conflict. That there might be a different way of being religious, and that gritting your teeth and continuing to attend services that regularly beat you down isn’t necessarily virtuous, or admirable, or even wise.”

Has your relationship with the church changed because of the pandemic?  If so, how?

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21 Responses

  1. Mormonish says:

    Please publish this everywhere. You are not alone in your feelings, so thank you for articulating them so beautifully and gently. You never say the words “spiritual abuse” but religious demands that trigger the levels of anxiety you describe is abusive, and the triggering response you experienced when asked to step back in is your heart and mind sending you warnings. You and Lynnette are right – ““faith could still be meaningful and worthwhile and genuine without quite so much angst and internal conflict. That there might be a different way of being religious, and that gritting your teeth and continuing to attend services that regularly beat you down isn’t necessarily virtuous, or admirable, or even wise.” It’s good to use your own spiritual instincts to find a path that is safe for you.

  2. DJ says:

    This post captures so many of my same feelings. I am in Young Women’s and am happy to contribute in that calling. But when I think about going back to sacrament meeting and traditional church attendance I immediately feel anxiety and dread. I’ve actually found myself not wanting the pandemic to end because I don’t want to feel obligated to attend church regularly. All other aspects of my faith have stayed the same. But I’ve realized how much angst Sunday church attendance causes me. Nice to read your feelings on this too.

  3. Elisa says:

    Oh wow. I could have written this, except not as well! But my feelings are the same! Including the anxiety over text messages asking me to do something!

    What I realized is how even though Church is only 2 hours long, it somehow eats up the whole day. You have to plan your day around it, get ready, sometimes have meetings, process the hard stuff that was said, etc etc etc. Only 1 of my 4 kids likes attending so it’s a total struggle. Since I work full time, that means Saturday is my only day off to spend enjoying my kids and family. 1 of 7 is not enough.

    I am also sorting out how I feel about it. The Church tells us that our Church experience is up to us and that we are there to worship and serve and not necessarily to get anything out of it ourselves. And I agree that not every week is going to be great. But if we go week after week after week without being edified because all of the talks are things that just 100% don’t resonate (like telling history I know isn’t true, or leader worship, or anti-gay stuff, and very little Jesus), at some point I feel like that’s a problem Church needs to fix rather than blaming attendees for their own bad experiences. No other institution can really get away with providing poor experiences and then telling their patrons that’s the patron’s fault.

    I don’t know where I’ll come out on this. I did finally decide and get the courage to say no to anything and everything Church asks of me that I don’t feel comfortable with. I didn’t pay tithing (am donating elsewhere), am not renewing my temple recommend, and asked for a lighter calling. The reception I’ve gotten has actually been really positive (YMMV) and to me this is a way to salvage the relationship and maintain some kind of Church connection without the anxiety (which matters since my husband is all-in and I think the community is good for my kids). We will see how long that lasts but I think it’s totally fine to figure out how to fix that part of your life whether it’s not attending anything, finding somewhere else to attend, or radically redefining your participation so that it works for you. I’m trying the last for now but we will see.

  4. Laur says:

    The pandemic has been a blessing for me in many of the same ways. Thanks for taking the time to spell it out.

  5. Chiaroscuro says:

    I agree with you. Sundays are not meant to hurt. If it was a day of rest for god, why should we feel guilty if we rest? Anxiety and stress do not feed the soul, they torture it, monotony and indoctrination do not feed the soul, they starve it. Quiet, nature, walking, reading and reflection, poetry, these things feed my soul. I think we each need to recognize what we need and allow ourselves to go after those things. Whatever that means

  6. KR says:

    I feel almost exactly the same way! I’ve never enjoyed Sundays more. I don’t want to go back to hours or days of torment due to attending Church.

  7. Fairie says:

    I know this is primarily a women’s page, so I’m not surprised that all (most?) of the comments are from women. But I do have to say that I think it’s women who have these feelings more than men do. In the Mormon church, men are the deciders. They are the speakers and the pronouncers. They give the blessings and healings. They feel important. I think if you ask many men (especially leaders) how they feel about online church, they’d say they really miss it. They miss the adulation, the worship (of themselves), and the chance they have to stand before the congregation and give their opinons of things.

    • Elisa says:

      this is a really interesting point! my husband misses church and I don’t. Some reasons for that: he *understands* the LGBT and women’s issues but doesn’t *feel* them like I do so church isn’t triggering; he’s still pretty TBM so doesn’t get as flustered by the leader worship and literal historical claims; and (I think this is a big one) I think Church meets a social / community need for him that it doesn’t for me. I don’t think he connects with other men outside of Church in the same way as in Church (since men can’t be touchy feely) whereas I feel like my connections with women at Church are often superficial. (He doesn’t doesn’t have a lot of friends in our area, where we are fairly new, and he doesn’t work outside the home like I do, so he has different social needs.). But for SURE I think men are more engaged at church because they are in charge.

      That raises another issue that I’ve been noticing as an adult and curious for people’s perspectives. Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, my perception was that there were a fair number of disengaged or less-active men (we called “Jack Mormons” – hah!) with very committed wives. I knew virtually zero less active women; the women seemed to be dragging their husbands to church.

      Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen the opposite. Disengaged or less active or totally inactive women with active husbands (I hate those terms but bear with me). And I do wonder if a big part of that is because of what Fairie has pointed out. I think women have become fed up with not having a voice and being treated worse at church than they are outside of church (whereas in the 80’s and 90’s, they were treated badly everywhere). I also wonder if they are sometimes more sensitive to LGBTQ issues. I really hate gender essentialism and resist lumping women and men into monolith categories, but it’s a trend I can’t help but notice and be curious about. Has anyone else noticed this?

      • Mina says:

        I have felt extraordinarily fortunate because I feel all the things in this post and in these comments, and so does my husband. We’ve both always been in this odd spot of feeling internally on the fringes a little, but generally carrying very heavy leadership callings and “fitting in” quite naturally externally.

        Over the past couple of years we have been exploring our relationship with the Church and our beliefs in greater depth and talking through it together. This pandemic has heightened this process for us. Our thoughts are not always exact, but we are both in the same place in our process enough that we neither feel threatened nor marginalized. He’s also opening up to the Female experience in the Church, and the Black experience, and the LGBTQ+ experience in some very profound ways. Neither of us are anxious to get back to church on Sundays. Our home church experience has been powerfully meaningful. I honestly don’t know what we will decide to do once it becomes expected again to attend.

        I realize that my one experience is simply that, but I suppose I’m hoping to assure that it exists. There are men in this camp. It might not be the trend, but it’s there.

    • Emily says:

      I think this is a really interesting point – my husband is very much the same way. He shares so many of my concerns, but he isn’t viscerally affected by the policies and papercut comments the way I am. He is seen and valued there, and he admits that he is in a privileged place at church. His experience seems much like Elisa’s husband’s experience – his social/communal needs are met there in a way that they aren’t met elsewhere, and it works for him. I am grateful for your insight here.

  8. Elisa says:

    @Mina that’s wonderful. My husband doesn’t feel the same way that I do but he understands why *I* feel the way I do and he listens. I also made the mistake of not sharing a lot of feelings with him for a long time because I didn’t want to freak him out, so I have had a really long time to sit with and process all of this and it’s a lot newer to him.

  9. Dani Addante says:

    This resonates with me as well. I’ve noticed my anxiety with church sometimes changes, sometimes it’s higher and other times lower. I’ve really enjoyed staying home and taking a break from church. But I do miss the ward and RS activities.

  10. SisterStacey says:

    This is hard because I miss church. Yes, it was painful and Sunday School and RS could be hard, but I’d been in Primary for a year and I loved it. I loved my kids and I loved remembering when my faith was simpler. I’ve noticed so many people saying they don’t miss church, but most of them have families and kids. I’m single and so my access to the sacrament (which is what I miss the most!) has been limited to when my ministering brother invited me to come to a “Sunday service” at his house over the summer. With the cold weather, they came about a month ago and that was hard. I feel alone and I miss the sociality of church. I saw that affected by the change to the two hour church. Then my ward started having meals after church once a month. And I miss that. I’ve been watching our sacrament meetings on Youtube and occasionally attending RS and SS on Zoom, but it’s hard, because it’s not the same as in person and I still don’t feel that sense of belonging. Even though I’m struggling with my faith, I miss church. But I learned a long time ago that single women in this church are rarely thought of.

  11. Carolyn says:

    I have not gotten around to reading Exponent for some time, and here I am, first thing I open…and it is speaking to I am so thankful for your courage to share and write what you really are feeling. We become accustomed to saying what we think is expected of us which is not always the truth. I am not Mormon, but I sensed some commonalities…perhaps you might not see them which is OK.
    I have been active in a Church…somewhere nearly all my life….Bible Studies which I love if taught by an expert. But now in my older years, I suddenly realized that I was not being spiritually fed and hadn’t for many, many years. We Lutherans tend to have a lot of music…and it was good..until one by one the singers started leaving for churches with a larger program…and talent. Those left are faithful..but the music gets slower every year, less harmony every year, and just not as enjoyable. I know that people give what they have and I do appreciate that. But powerful music spoke to me…it no longer does. I needed sermons based on Scriptural teachings…words of Jesus…but our church was slowly being taken over by those with ‘social issues’ as their focus. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you are still feeding the flock…then we had some who focused on the ‘green earth’…composting, plastics, water waste, etc….again, all admirable…and we were told to take care of this Earth…but you must still feed the flocks. And then: For the most most part our congregation was comfortable reaching out to the LGBT who needed a safe, welcomed place to Worship…which is fine, except when one third of the sermons ended up being about loving the gay community with no feeding of the flock to keep us strong in the faith so that we could do that…have the courage to stand up for them as children of God…etc….. I was not aware that my husband was also as disappointed until we shared one day. He did not want to influence my decisions as to whether to move on or not. I would go to for feeding…and so disappointed almost every week. Then it got to where I quit expecting to be feed…but rather to have another pep-talk on the
    latest social issue…..I was naughty…I would count the number of times I heard the name of Jesus…some times it was…once. I hungered to hear the words of Jesus and then taught HOW to do what He asked…so then I lost interest in going. A couple of ‘cliques’ had developed and we knew them all but did not feel welcomed. It seemed as if fellowship with the friends was why they came…It got to where we didn’t think we had a reason to go…and skipping became frequent. We are slowly moving towards another Church…profound music..they are joyful when they sing, not mournful…and I always leave knowing what I was supposed to learn that day. It will be difficult after about 30 years and being very active…to move on but we feel we must. We are not being fed whatever it is we ‘need’. Lots of unwanted emotions to deal with…once children are out of the nest, I feel it is a bit more difficult to make new friends…to find those with things in common…but we pray for the courage and the strength on this new road ahead for us. Blessings to all here….for sharing.

  12. Lizzie says:

    This post gives voice to many of the feelings I have had. I too enjoyed a respite from the regular meetings when things shut down with the pandemic. I would love to make that more permanent. I agree that two hour church feels much longer with the preparation beforehand and processing afterwards. But I lament that I don’t have the luxury of keeping that break from church. My husband is in the bishopric of our ward and very much a believer. Even though my beliefs have changed and church doesn’t have the value for me that it used to, I will remain active for many reasons — having a say in my children’s spiritual education, maintaining a good relationship with my spouse, honoring commitments, etc. Our ward is also really lovely and open to many opinions so I rarely feel that I can’t openly dissent. (I recognize not everyone has this same experience or tolerance and I may not always approach things this way). But all this means I can’t just keep on relaxing on Sunday. Because of my husband’s calling and the fact that most people in our area prefer to remain sheltered in place while we do a hybrid zoom/ limited attendance meeting, I have been one of the few people attending church In person for the last few months. It’s still a burden to be there as essentially a single parent with kids who don’t want to be there. But, while I used to worry about whether my kids were sitting up straight and looking at church materials during the meeting, I now let them sprawl all over the floor or read whatever they want. They’re happier, and I’m free to listen to the talks or focus on something else as I want. It’s not a totally relaxing Sunday, but it’s better. Maybe the key is perspective and not letting the experience be burdensome for you — whatever shape that takes for you.

  13. Bryn Brody says:

    I don’t miss most of the lessons or talks, and I don’t miss the music (yawn) but I do miss the social aspect of it. Not enough to go back once we start up again (maybe we already have?!? I’ve been ignoring the emails), but enough to wish for a space I can attend, weekly, under “obligation” so I don’t feel guilty about it, where I’m met with hugs and secret chocolate stashes hidden in tote bags. Because chocolate is always better when we sneak it.

  14. Mary Young says:

    I’m a convert. I joined the Church shortly before my 19th birthday, after watching my family join when I was 15, go to the temple when I was 16, and fall into complete inactivity when I was 17.
    During that time, they never grew or changed or really gained testimonies. In fact, my parents became even more selfish and abusive than before their baptisms. But I gained a testimony. When you know, you just know, and so you change your life. I married a returned missionary with a strong testimony, from a strong family. We had eight children; I wrestled kids for 30 years while he was mostly on the stand in leadership positions. I was a teacher and leader myself, and loved the growth that brought.
    The day I was sustained as Gospel Doctrine Teacher, four men individually stopped me on my way to the nursery with my youngest; each one offered to take over for me during the class without a moment’s notice when “it got too hard for me”. I never once called on any of those men. I didn’t care if their arms fell off. They were jerks, but the Gospel was still true.
    The bishopric counselor in charge of Seminary a few years later called the night before class started (!) to tell me I’d have 50 students and he was coming to provide discipline. I told him I’d had the rolls for months, there were 25 possible students, every one had been contacted several times, and I was confident in my ability to maintain classroom discipline on my own. That particular misogynist called me two weeks into the semester to ask if his kids were actually attending class. His sons were jerks, too, but nothing I couldn’t handle. They learned they couldn’t pass Seminary simply because they were guys, and the Gospel was still true.
    The point? Church can be tough on so many levels for so many reasons, but there is a good reason the Lord asks us to “meet together oft”.
    We need each other.

  15. mtp says:

    This is lovely. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I have used this time to ease away from church attendance and have so much less anxiety in my life. It’s a real lesson to me. I have many friends who have no intention of leaving the church or attending less frequently but they also all express their love for this time of home church and several are prolonging the at home period as l long as possible. I hope that home church might have some effect on the future way we “meet together as a ward” church.

  16. Emily says:

    Thank you all for your lovely comments. It’s so nice to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

  17. Jon G says:

    Thanks for your article.

    For myself, it has been 1.5 yrs since I attended church, while the rest of my family of 6 has attended faithfully without me. I first stopped attending for my own mental health. I have been working on being more honest and authentic and not attending church has been a big part of that. I replaced church attendance with outside activities that brought me peace and vitality such as hiking, kayaking, and skiing. Doing these activities served a second purpose as my wife struggled to get our 4 kids to go to church if I was home when they left. Without fail one of my kids would ask why they had to go to church when I was at home or if they could just stay home with me.

    I have grown to love my sundays and they are the highlight of my week. When services were closed in our area it was an extra treat to have my family join me in nature. It has been great. Our ward reopened a few months ago but I live in an unnamed state that lies somewhere between Utah and Canada. Most of the congregation does not take COVID seriously and do not wear masks or distance in any way. My wife attended for a time but it has gotten to a point to where she does not feel that it is safe to attend. Time will tell if she choses to go back.

    I feel that if the church does not do something different it is going to have a hard time retaining members.

  18. Ramona Morris says:

    In never realised how anxious I was until the first Sunday when I returned to church after enduring a summer of illness. When I walked into the church building, I felt a disconnected feeling and my throat began to close up. I’m not saying I’m thankful for covid because I know it has destroyed so many lives but when the second wave hit my island, I was so happy to not have to pretend that I loved church. Then today, I get a call from the Relief Society President asking why I’m not attending church via zoom. I have probably attended any other branch that wasn’t mine. I attended in Canada, Utah and even as far away as India but whenever it comes to my tiny branch I legit break out into hives. I legit get you so much for this. Stand in your truth sister.

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