Sometimes as active members, we are caught up in being the best Mormon we can be, the most observant, ticking all the boxes, perceived well by other ward members. We can forget that the point is to become a better person by following Christ’s teachings, not just to become a better adherent to a set of religious requirements or a better person as defined by the community.
But shouldn’t this be the same thing?
No, of course not. Every religion includes all sorts of expectations that drive behavior:
- Tenets or beliefs.  An example in Mormonism would be the Articles of Faith. Another would be the types of things that usually constitute a “testimony”: belief in Jesus Christ, feeling the spirit, the Book of Mormon, ongoing revelation, living prophets, the resurrection, the atonement, etc. One tenet that drives behavior (or justifies it) is the 12th Article of Faith, belief in being subject to governments.
- Values and principles. Some examples of this include hard work (aka “the Protestant work ethic”), food storage, donating time and talents to the church, being honest in our dealings. Sometimes American values or conservative political values creep in as well, specifically principles around deference to authority, being guardians of tradition or equating wealth with righteousness.
- Codes or behavioral rules. These are more codified requirements like the Word of Wisdom or the Temple Recommend questions or things specified in the Church Handbook of Instruction. 
- Rites and ordinances. These are related to ordinances and include things like how we dress to perform temple rites or to administer the sacrament or hold office in the church (such as missionary or bishop).
- Cultural norms. These are simply the behaviors that the majority of members consider normal for Mormons. Tricky areas include things like what constitutes breaking the Sabbath, what is appropriate attire for church, how and when garments are worn, definitions of terms like prophet or revelation, and what kinds of opinions are welcome at church.
These categories are not entirely separate. There are certainly examples of cultural norms that have become codified, such as writing them down in the For the Strength of the Youth pamphlet or even a local action like written guidelines for a youth camping trip, adding questions to the Temple Recommend interview or elaborating on what is written there, or verbally telling someone he must shave regularly to hold a certain office at church. And of course, you may adhere to these things or you may not; you can be Mormon and not adhere to all of them. If you do adhere to them, your adherence to them could create positive outcomes or negative ones. Being a “good Mormon” simply means an emphasis on adhering to these things.
So when is being a good Mormon not going to lead you to being a good person? Whenever your reasons for adhering are impeding your personal growth or are creating judgmental or excluding attitudes toward others.
Some poor reasons for adhering include: conformity, insecurity, fear of authority, fear of loss of status, peer pressure, seeking advancement, passive-aggressive compliance, fear of retribution or judgement, or desire to gain praise and approval of humans. Some good reasons to adhere include: respect for elders and others in the community, humility, desire to please God, helping others by eliminating unnecessary friction. Likewise, non-adherence isn’t always a virtue. It could be motivated by negative qualities like attention seeking, narcissism, peer pressure, pride, selfish motives, creating a personal martyr narrative, self-destructive wishes, anti-social feelings, insecurity, free-rider behaviors, overreacting to personal hurt, retaliation, or complacence. But non-adherence can also be motivated by virtuous qualities such as improving a broken system, creating more inclusion for others, adding diverse perspectives to strengthen a group, enabling a group to progress, course correction, prompting positive change, fostering growth and global reach, and encouraging spiritual self-reliance, including one’s own.
When people for whatever reason are trying to decide whether or not to stay in the church, a good question to consider is whether being active in the church is helping you to be a better person or just a better Mormon. And the answer to that question lies in our individual motives for behaving the way we do at church and the outcomes our behaviors create for us. Church, if we are doing it right, should help us to examine our motives and basically to deal with our crap and become better people, closer to achieving our full potential. 
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that some of the people whose motives are the most dysfunctional are the least likely to consider leaving or reforming their behavior. They benefit from their actions in the church, and rather than the church making them a better person, for some it brings out an ugly side that stalls their spiritual growth. Jesus noticed the same trends in Jews during his day: those who loved to be seen to fast or give alms, those who counted their steps and harshly punished anyone who was less exacting in their observance; they were very successful within their religion. As a Rabbi once remarked, “Jesus was a bad Jew,” meaning he was not observant. He broke the rules and refused to behave in order to be accepted by others including those in authority.
Maybe a few more “bad Mormons”  who stay in the church nonetheless would make Mormons realize that rules and social approval don’t always make us better Christians or better people. After all, we all sin; some sins are just easier for our community to notice. Following Jesus’ teachings even when our own culture dislikes what we do and even when authority disapproves is about as Christian as you can get.
This brings me to another thought I often have when people get tied up in knots about what the church does. It’s just church! Church is just one part of our life experience. Family, community, the country we live in, our economic circumstances, the resources we have, and yes, our church, all of these are part of the conditions in which we live on earth. If life is meant to test our mettle, as we believe in Mormonism, then the conditions aren’t what’s being tested: we are. Yet, how easy it is to get caught up in the test conditions! The conditions matter less than our reactions to them because we are the ones being tested. Are we too loyal to the conditions? Are we reactive to them? Do we try to help others succeed? Do we make it harder for others who struggle in the test, particularly if they struggle in an area we find easy?
If our human existence is a test, then what matters is our intelligence, our character, how resilient we are, our patience, and our attitudes generally. How are we doing at developing those things? Is our involvement in church helping us to become more patient, more helpful, more resilient, more intelligent, to have more integrity of character, to take more ownership for our actions? Or is it driving the opposite behaviors: divisiveness, focus on our reputation (caring what other test-takers think of us), blaming others for our choices, ostracism of others, and competitive attitudes rather than cooperation? Only each individual can answer for him/herself.
 That’s right, people. Tenets. Not tenants.
 Of course Jesus was a minimalist when it came to codified behavior by reducing the ten commandments down to two. I admire his editing skills.
 In some cases, a person’s way of being Mormon is actually making them a worse person, someone who is less Christlike.
 By “crap” I mean the negative psychological motives, like insecurity, entitlement, resentment, passivity, indecision, fear of rejection, cowardliness, approval-seeking, temper, lack of ownership, and so forth that stymie our personal growth, that prevent us from becoming godlike or being like Christ, that halt us from reaching our potential. These are the life lessons that we will be presented over and over again in our lives until we learn them and our behavior changes.
 I’m looking at you, Kirby.