Mistaking Scaffolding for the Soul

I ran into a friend recently whom I hadn’t seen in months. She told me she was stepping back from the Church for a while. There were a number of factors, but the biggest was her commitment to care for her mentally ill son in a way that best served his needs. It had become difficult when our ward switched to a Sunday afternoon start time. She was frustrated that her leaders didn’t seem to believe her when she tried to explain how difficult this task was. She was frustrated when her son told her after a ward member had visited him, “Mom, I don’t want to be the reason you don’t go to church.” She was angry that her son would ever get the idea he wasn’t her number one priority.

Elder Ballard once said, “Sometimes we get so focused on bringing people to the meetinghouse that we forget we are supposed to be bringing them to Christ.” If the role of the Church is to bring people to Christ, how can we assure that we are serving the needs of the people and not the needs of the Church? Is it possible that for some people, in some situations, being on the “old ship Zion” is not the best place to nurture their relationship with Divinity? For many people the Church is a place of refuge and respite. It is a place of community and of communion. But what if it isn’t? Can we engage in the difficult work of examining how policies, practices and attitudes might need to shift? Can we allow people space and freedom from guilt trips and shame if their spirituality resides outside of organized religion?

Like many people, my dad liked to create a mental picture of a gospel concept. One of his lessons I remember best is when he taught us about the Kingdom of God and the role of the Church. He likened the Church to scaffolding. Scaffolding can be really useful, but isn’t meant to be permanent and definitely isn’t pretty. It also evolves as work on the true building progresses. More scaffolding is added and parts are taken away when they are no longer needed. Harold B. Lee said, “Much of what we do organizationally… is scaffolding, as we seek to build the individual, and we must not mistake the scaffolding for the soul.”

As I reflect on my own journey within the Church, I’m grateful for overwhelmingly positive experiences with members and leaders. I’m grateful for my mom who stuck by me when I decided to attend a different ward after being bullied in my Mia Maid class, despite a lot of push back from our bishop (he reminded my mom I wouldn’t be able to hold a calling if I went to another ward). I eventually returned to my home ward after graduating high school at age 16 and had to endure comments from a few young adults who made fun of me for wanting to go to Relief Society with a bunch of “old ladies.” (Fortunately the “old ladies” were very welcoming.)

And yet it is difficult to reconcile my feelings when I hear stories where the well being of the support system seems to take precedence to the well being of individuals. It is hard to think about how women are treated in the Church, and gays and minorities and sexual assault victims and “doubters” and divorcees and on and on. It is hard for me to reconcile my frustration when people are silenced, ignored or devalued while also reflecting on my own blind spots, privileges and times when I just feel too tired to engage in the difficult work of understanding and loving another human being. I am grateful to be part of a congregation of people working to be more Christlike and also grateful to be part of communities that challenge how religion is implementing Christ’s teachings.

I like how Reverend Deborah L. Johnson articulates the role of religion. “The purpose of religion should simply be to help people integrate the truth of their spiritual nature within the context of the cultures in which they live. Religion should always turn people back to the truth of themselves.” She goes on to describe a growing awareness among people of who they are in Spirit and with that growing understanding, a sense that some of the religious practices and institutional policies that have been around for centuries are based upon false notions and false ideas. In effect, she is saying that as people have come to see and focus on the beauty of the soul, they also see how some of the institutional scaffolding is not helpful. I love her positive outlook on the evolving consciousness of humanity, which is in contrast to many of the doomsday reports on the wickedness of the world and hemorrhaging churches. Yes, there is still so much to improve in the world and within churches, but those gloomy reports don’t reflect the kindness and love I see everyday as people work together to build each other up.

My dad left the Church when I was 15. For a long time I missed the beauty of his soul because I was looking for all that scaffolding which was no longer there. He wasn’t attending church, giving me father’s blessings or going to service activities. It took me a long time to see him for who he was and see the ways in which his kindness and love brightened the world. It took me a long time to see the crooked walls and misplaced windows as part of the beauty of his building.


Tirza lives in New England with her husband and four kids. She spends as much time as possible reading, sleeping, and playing outside.

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13 Responses

  1. JNB says:

    Thank you for this beautiful article! “It took me a long time to see him for who he was and see the ways in which his kindness and love brightened the world.” <—Likewise, as someone raised in the church ("we love him, BUT we just wish he'd come to church more often"), as if there was something "wrong" with people who didn't attend, as if they were somehow lacking, less-than. That narrative needs to change. We need to begin to see that bodies seated inside a chapel every Sunday are no better than those outside it. In fact, the Lord's ministry in New Testament times teaches us how the most active and high-ranking members of the church went around attacking those on whom our Lord focused most of his ministerial energies: those on the *outside* of the synagogues. And in the end, it was those same self-righteous, uber-active church members and leaders who had Christ killed, so we are more than validated in our yearning to appreciate those outside the church's (human) approval. Our relationship with Christ and those on whom He focused his ministry is what matters most–not our relationship with churchy church-worshipping zealots.

    • Buffy the Vampire Slayer says:

      You mean those churchy church people that lead the music, play the piano, prepare the sacrament, conduct the meetings, teach the Sunday school lessons, teach the bratty primary kids, serve in the nursery, serve in the library. . . etc.? Funny how these discussions about loving thy neighbor never include those quietly busting their A$$ to keep the Church afloat.

      • JNB says:

        Nope. I have two callings teaching youth and children, so that’s not what I mean.

        I mean people who worship priesthood leaders and church, rather than worshipping our God; centering church on people/male leaders rather than on our Savior

      • Tirza says:

        I definitely think we need to change the narrative of people outside the church as lacking. I know it was frustrating to my dad to have every conversation with his mom peppered with questions of when he was coming back to church. Too often I’ve seen the focus on outside indicators (church attendance) instead of engaging others or ourselves on harder-to-operationalize spirituality.

        I know I’ve been frustrated when my husband seems to be the only one to volunteer to help with things, but I think that narrative of “helpers” versus “slackers” or those “in” or “out” needs to change. Anything that makes people feel separate and disconnected does not help the goal of becoming one in Christ. The church is there to serve the people, not the other way around. If our work in the church is making us feel resentful or better than others then perhaps it’s time to examine how practices might need to change so the focus is more on building people rather than keeping the church afloat.

        My family are some of the most Christlike people I know, but they also get in the leader-worshipping-everything-the-church-does-is-wonderful-and-straight-from-God-mindset, which makes it really difficult to have conversations about women’s issues or any of my struggles with the church.

  2. Dani Addante says:

    Great article! My husband and I attend another ward than the one we’re officially in, because he works Sundays and we want to attend church together. I know several people who attend another ward because the time works better for them, and I think that’s perfectly fine. Mark 2:27 says that the Sabbath was made for people and not people for the Sabbath.

  3. Kathryn says:

    Beautifully said. Thank you!

  4. Anita Wells says:

    Thanks for this profound reminder

  5. Joan says:

    Thank you! A wonderful analogy I had never thought of or heard before.

  6. BT says:

    I love the scaffolding analogy, and you reminded me of a poem I once saw in a NYC subway. I like to think of the speaker as our Heavenly Parents:

    Scaffolding by Seamus Heaney
    Masons, when they start upon a building,
    Are careful to test out the scaffolding;
    Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
    Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.
    And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
    Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.
    So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
    Old bridges breaking between you and me
    Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
    Confident that we have built our wall.

    • Tirza says:

      Thanks for sharing. This makes me think of the transition to ministering. It seems it can be challenging and uncomfortable at times but ultimately I think the hope is that solid walls of unity are constructed and we can get away from the performance-oriented scaffolding.

  7. Wendy says:

    Such a profound and beautiful post. Thank you, Tirza. If only we could hear this kind of talk at general conference.

  8. Ziff says:

    I love this analogy, Tirza.

  9. vajra2 says:

    A few days ago a family member was bemoaning how her daughter who has left the LDS church has changed so much, and how she was now “in the world” and “worldly”, and on and on and on, I had to remind her that her daughter was still the same warm and kind person she has always been. There was a long pause – and I mean long – and she finally said “Well, I guess you’re right. I do still love her.” To say that this was disheartening is putting it mildly.

    The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. Look at the moon.

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