Faith Crisis: A Developmental Map (and an impromptu book review)

A month and a half ago, the organizers of the inaugural Allegheny Pilgrims retreat asked me to present on managing a faith crisis.

Why me? I thought. I’m still figuring this all out. I’m more likely to give people a faith crisis than to help them through it.

Mormon Faith CrisisAnd then they recommended a book: Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis by Thomas Wirthlin McConkie. If you’re in the middle of your own faith crisis, I highly recommend it—this is the first book I’ve seen that treats a faith crisis as an opportunity.

Let me explain that. Most of the rhetoric we hear about someone in a faith crisis falls into two categories: “She’s lost her testimony,” implying that someone has chosen to sin rather than obey the commandments, and “She’s so naïve,” implying that faith was all a big hoax to begin with.

In my experience, neither is true.

I used McConkie’s book as the backbone of my presentation, and it worked out really well, so here’s the sum-up, as well as a general shout out to the Allegheny Pilgrims, who put on an amazing retreat, and a general invitation to any of you who think you might enjoy a MoFem retreat but you just don’t know anyone and it would be awkward to go alone and whatever. (Find one. Sign up. Say that you read about them on the Exponent blog. I promise people will be awesome.)

McConkie addresses faith crisis by putting it in terms of adult developmental psychology. If you’ve been exposed to lots of business-speak, as I have, you might recognize these categories as the Torbert Action Logics. And if you find yourself kicking yourself in the head that you never applied this set of thought to your own path through Mormonism, well, join me.

The main idea is that we don’t stop developing emotionally and psychologically at the same time we stop developing physically, and somewhere we need to make allowances for the way our brains change over time. Because they do change. The way we approach the world changes. The things we want out of life change. The things we think are important change. I’m still embarrassed for my younger self who wanted a showy kitchen with stainless steel appliances, and for the same self who figured that if she just obeyed the commandments and did what she was supposed to, nothing really bad could ever happen.

So here’s the basic rundown of the Torbert list, starting with the category concerned with things of the mind:

Torbert_1The first level of true adulthood is what we’ll refer to as the Diplomat–someone who really wants to do everything right. The Diplomat is a conformist. If everyone else in the group is wearing a white shirt and tie, she wants to as well. If everyone else is talking about modesty, guess what’s important to her? She’s thrilled to be in a group, and most of her identity is rooted in what the group stands for. Her biggest crisis in her faith is that she can’t follow the commandments perfectly, and she feels a lot of shame about it. If you think of the rules as a script, the Diplomat wants to know when to say her lines.

One step above the Diplomat is the Expert. Still firmly rooted in her identity group, she wants to know the group’s rules and regulations (and maybe show them off a little). She knows a lot about her own group. When she has a crisis, it involves not knowing which sources are correct or reliable. If the rules are a script, she knows her part by heart.

And then we have the Achiever, who is pretty much the Ultimate Mormon: she sets goals and attains them. If the rules are a script, she knows everyone’s lines and can prompt people to come in at the right time if necessary. Their biggest problem is that there are so many things to achieve in life that they have to focus on just a few of them–and then they fear that they’re becoming cafeteria Mormons.

(I’m going to add here that a whole lot of business-speak both in and out of Mormonism centers around how to be a better Achiever. If you’ve ever had cause to sharpen your saw or prioritize so that the big rocks have to go in the jar before the pebbles and the sand, well, that’s being an Achiever. It’s a good thing. Achievers are functional. They make the world work. Without them, we’d live in chaos.)

If you add up the numbers, you’ll see that these three categories cover 78 percent of the population (note that I’m using McConkie’s numbers, and that the percentages vary based on whose research you’re following). I suspect that in Mormonism the percentages are higher than this, because these are the people who function really well in an expectation-based society. They want to belong to a group, they’re good at making their group function, and they get things done. It also means that the vast majority of leaders in the LDS world belong to this category, and if you’ve ever had an ugly run-in with a church leader you may easily accept the idea that Experts and Achievers constitute two-thirds or more of our institutional leadership.

Torbert_2While we’re at it, I’m going to point out that the category below Diplomat is the Opportunist, who (fortunately) represents only 4 percent of society. The Opportunist is what we term “natural man” or (since this is a feminist blog) “natural woman” in Mormonism. The Opportunist is primarily concerned with things of the body, and as such is outside the “mind” category that we’ve been discussing. The Opportunist thinks it’s perfectly okay to lie, cheat, and make empty promises if it gets the job done. If the drawing bears any resemblance to a certain U.S. presidential candidate, that’s purely coincidental.

On the other hand, there’s an upper limit to the “mind” category, and it’s a doozy. It’s easy to shift from one logic to another within a category; in fact, we do it all the time. But crossing that line? That’s hard. I grew up playing the violin and piano, so there are some repeat marks at the beginning and end of each category to show that we can’t just play straight through: we do a lot of repeating before we can go on to the next line.

Torbert_allThat’s because the shift from Achiever to Individualist is a huge one. The Individualist’s sense of self is no longer rooted in the group I.D.; she recognizes that other people have their own way of approaching life, and she asks, “What is ‘truth,’ and is mine the only one?” McConkie points out here that what Terryl Givens calls “the rhetoric of certainty” doesn’t do it for us anymore. The Individualist looks at the script and asks, “Why are we using this script? Is there a better one? Are they all part of some great meta-script?” Only about 11 percent of people in our society (and, again, possibly fewer in Mormonism) are Individualists. That means in a typical Relief Society of about 55 women, only 5 will be Individualists (and four of them will be in Primary or Young Women callings). It’s a small group, and the fact that Individualists are willing to go off-script (you knew the script was in there for a reason!) is highly disturbing to people who can only recognize Diplomats, Experts, and Achievers as “good” or even “valid.”

I think that the majority of people who talk about experiencing a faith crisis or a faith transition are probably individualists. Certainly the majority of my workshop participants at Allegheny Pilgrims identified that way, and for a good reason: Individualists seek to understand, and what better way to understand other people’s experiences than by going to a retreat where everyone will be talking about them? The retreat’s theme was “Finding God in the Margins,” and it’s possible that the Individualist logic is the first step at which we realize that God can exist and act in a non-hierarchical way. Before this, we’re convinced that blessings are predicated on obedience to principles; beyond it, we can choose to see God acting everywhere, perhaps especially in the places where we don’t “deserve” grace.

Beyond the Indivualist is the Strategist, who only makes up about 5 percent of society. (I think I’m particularly lucky; at least one of the members of my current bishopric is clearly a Strategist.) The great thing about Strategists is that they don’t really think of “crisis” with the same lexicon most of us do–they’re more likely to categorize it with “opportunity” and “paradigm shift” than with “uncertainty” or “fear.” These are people who can transform what most of us think of as junk into treasure. If you’ve ever had the luck of working for a Strategist boss, you know that they can take your small actions and make them part of something great.

I’ll end with describing the Alchemist, a person who doesn’t even bother to work within previous paradigms and sets out to construct new ones. If you’re a fan of the musical “Hamilton,” you might recognize Lin-Manuel Miranda as an Alchemist. (Side note: if you aren’t a #hamfan, go listen to the music now!) This isn’t the end of the Torbert scale, but suffice it to say that there are precious few Alchemists in our lives.

And now, three questions:

Where do you find yourself on the developmental scale?

Does the framework of adult developmental psychology take on extra meaning if you believe in the principle of eternal progression?

And what is our responsibility to other people if we believe that we are to be “Saviors upon Mount Zion”?


On prolonged sabbatical from her career in arts administration, Libby is a seamstress, editor, entrepreneur, and community volunteer. She has a husband and three children.

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17 Responses

  1. Jennifer says:

    I’ll take my opportunity and use it to the fullest.

  2. Jeff G says:

    Great post!

    With the caveat in mind that I reject any hierarchy in these categories (I have a pretty deep suspicion of the uses to which developmental psychology is often put), I fall squarely within the alchemist category.

    Of course, my rejection of any straight forward interpretation of the model is actually predicted by the model itself. So, it might be that by rejecting it, I inadvertently confirm it. (Not sure what to do with that kind of logic!)

    It would be interesting to see which type of personalities tend to congregate around which blogs within the ‘nacle.

    • Libby says:

      Yeah, my cognitive breakdown happened when I realized that this model is itself used by a lot of Mormon business professors/thinkers. 🙂

  3. Jeff G says:

    To elaborate a bit on my suspicions toward dev. psyc….

    I most definitely acknowledge an evolution or transformation in mentalities. What I object to is when we call this transformation a “development” or “progression”. This little trick suggests that all those who differ from our own ideals are either 1) undeveloped or otherwise “behind” us or 2) deviant.

    I reject all such moral ideals that are, almost inevitably, built into such conceptual models.

    • Jeff G says:

      More simply put, when such psychologists take themselves to be studying “healthy” development, they necessary label all those who do not meet the morality built into such a model as either 1) immature or 2) ill.

  4. Andrea says:

    Very timely dear Libby! I’m speaking on spiritual resiliency at the adult session of stake conference, I’m going to borrow a few bits from your presentation.

  5. Cruelest Month says:

    Lovely post Libby! I’m going to Amazon (from this page of course) to buy the book. I’d listened to a podcast but was still undecided on whether or not this book would be useful to me. Like other commenters I don’t love the idea of hierarchy, but I do love the awareness that values and what we want most shift over time.

  6. R says:

    You made my day by including a reference to my current obsessions (Hamilton) in an article about one of my favorite books! Such a beautiful convergence!

  7. Holly says:

    I wish I had been able to make it to the retreat and appreciate the sharing of a juicy tidbit from it. I also don’t love a prescribed hierarchy, but find the different mentalities immensely useful. I will be buying that book via the link too!

  8. Rachael says:

    Having read (multiple times) and loved the book , I just wanted to point out McConkie explicitly considers this a non hierarchical model of growth. These stages are about developing complexity, not necessarily virtue. You can be a strategist and not a very nice person. So moving through these stages isn’t hierarchical in that sense. The other key point is that if you go through these stages ina healthy way, you learn to incorporate the “genius” of each stage, like nesting Russian dolls. Each stage contains important spiritual and psychological skills that we integrate into our being. I think he does a great job explaining this, so I highly recommend reading it! It’s been a life changer.

  9. Heather says:

    I love this. I’ve been leery of the book because the author’s name makes me nervous. (Is there a shallow & judgemental category?!) But you have convinced me I should read it. Thank you!!!

    • Ziff says:

      Ha! I’m definitely in the same boat. I haven’t read the book, but I did listen to a podcast he was on, and it sounds like he’s definitely way outside the norm for his family.

  10. Ziff says:

    If anyone’s interested to hear more about the book, Gina Colvin had an interesting discussion with McConkie about his book on A Thoughtful Faith near the end of last year.

  1. May 15, 2016

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