The Dynamics of Family Culture and the Church

In the family in which I’m a son, my mother, my oldest sister and I are all active in church.  I have two sisters and two brothers who are out of the church.  And so far as I can tell in our family dynamics, that particular status plays no role whatsoever. My family has a culture whereby one’s participation in the Church or not is essentially irrelevant to that person’s place in the family.  If you’re an active, engaged member, great.  If you’re an inactive (urgh, less active) member, fine.  If you’ve left the reservation entirely, peachy.  You’re still part of the family and we still love you without distinction.

Admittedly, this would not be the case if my father were still alive.  Like a lot of Mormon parents, he would go to the mattresses if someone in the family started to withdraw from active engagement in church.  But he died over 30 years ago, so at the head of our family stands my mother.  And she is a saint beyond being merely the latter-day kind; she is love personified.  And it would never occur to her to slap down one of her children or grandchildren or, now, great grandchildren based on their relationship to the Church.

My own two children are also out of the church.  And while that was definitely an adjustment at first, now I don’t give it a second thought, I guess in some measure following in my mother’s example.  What I care about is that they are great human beings, which they indeed are.  (I actually take a certain pride that they felt free to come to their own conclusions about the Church.)

I often see situations where parents perceive their children or other family members slipping away from the Church, and they panic and push–really hard–to keep their kids in the fold.  And so without realizing it, they often push so hard that they turn their kids into little anti-Mormons, because they are putting them in a position where they feel they have to justify their decisions about their relationship with the Church, and so they spend time trolling the internet and building their case.  This is a fairly common dynamic that shows the unintended consequences of an overly strong parental desire to keep the kids within the religious fold.  (My kids may be out of the church, but they respect both the church and my involvement in it.  They’ve simply come to the conclusion that it’s not for them, a conclusion which I in turn respect.)

I acknowledge that when the kids are still minors living in your home, it can be very difficult figuring out how much to push and how much to stand back.  But once they become adults living outside your home, my sense is that a lot of pushing doesn’t do any good, and simply has the effect of fracturing the relationship.

I’m curious about what your experiences are.  How do these dynamics play out in the culture of your own family?  Are you satisfied with that situation, or would you like it to change, and if so, in what way?  Is it possible to change such a family dynamic, and if so, how would one go about doing that?  Your thoughts and experiences appreciated.


  1. During our last stake conference one of the speakers talked about how he struggled to keep his son in the church–how he worked so hard and was doing the right thing by pushing. He then stated that he finally went to God for help in bringing his son back to the church–and that he basically got a spiritual slap in the face. He’d been so sure he’d been doing the right thing–but he hadn’t. He started working on being a better example and a better father/grandfather–and not pushing–and his relationship with his son improved significantly. One of the best talks I’ve heard in stake conference by far.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Sounds great, Tim; thanks for sharing.

  3. When I started leaving, my Dad threatened to kick me out of the house. He didn’t, but it obviously created significant distance between us. That pattern repeated itself as two of my three sisters left, though in their cases it was later in their life and other threats were made.

    I think it’s his orthodoxy, that causes extreme fear for our eternal future, that made him react this way. Not an excuse, rather an argument against such extreme orthodoxy. I think that my mother, similar to yours, who would rather die than lose her children to arguments such as these, told my father in no uncertain terms, that what he had threatened would never occur. I know when I brought my future wife to my parents house for the first time, and told them we would only need one room, they never batted an eye.

    So, through the years, because of my mother’s insistence on family at all costs, he has managed to adjust to reality, and has found ways to reduce the distance and heal some of the hurt he caused. Our family isn’t especially close, but it could have been so much worse.

  4. As you consider the scriptures, beginning with Adam, it is apparent that differences of attitudes toward God within the family is one of the most common of occurrences throughout all time. That is probably one of the most powerful evidences of free agency to which anyone could point.

    I think that you have touched upon the key, foundational ingredient, which is that the best way to relate to any and all family members is through love. The second, perhaps, is sacrifice, which I define as the willingness to absorb unfairness. The third, is to remember that the Gospel is not just a preference. It really is the pathway of greatest happiness, which we desire for all of our loved ones.

    What to do? What we do is continue the love and association and the family embrace in the family circle. But we go beyond that. We know that we cannot live someone else’s life for him or her, but we can live our own, we can make changes, we can act in kindness. We pray for inspiration to know what WE can do to help our loved ones draw closer to God, and then we follow up on the inspiriation. It always makes things better.

  5. We respect agency.

    We love our family members.

    Family is important. A child or sibling who chooses to _____ is still a child or sibling. Whether in prison or lost to sin or whatever, he or she is still a child or sibling.

    It is entirely appropriate to grieve a child or sibling’s loss or departure, and to earnestly hope for and work towards his or her return and redemption. We mustn’t too harshly criticize those who try to protect and save their children or siblings. They’re children of God, too.

    It’s strange, isn’t it? Sometimes, when one imperfect child of God leaves the fold, we want to celebrate and think of him or her as the hero; but when another imperfect child of God tries to keep his or her own child in the fold, we want to criticize and think of him or her as the villain.

  6. Kevin, this reminds a little of President Kimball’s family. His oldest left the faith and it created considerable tension between father and son. Mother stepped into the breach and maintained the family connections. Pres. Kimball never quite reconciled to the situation, and couldn’t help badgering on occasion. But Camilla was able to mend things to some degree at least. It seems like a frequent situation in church culture. Another current GA I know has forbidden more than one grandchild to be a part of the social family over their (quiet) difficulties with the church. I don’t judge these kinds of things, though it’s hard not to mourn the losses some families to sustain. My own siblings have had varying connection with the church, but it didn’t make too much difference in our relationships or with my parents. In their case, it was my mother who couldn’t stop pressing guilt buttons. Luckily, everyone was used to the tactics and though it created some distance between parent and child, it had a more negative effect on the feelings of spouses. The whole issue can be a terrible challenge for some and I sympathize.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    WVS, I’m glad you mentioned Spencer Levan, that’s a great illustration of how these things sometimes go.

  8. According to one study published in 1989. 78% of those born LDS will be inactive or “disengaged”, which is the sociological term, for at least one year during their life. 55 out of those 78 will become not only disengaged, but will become nonbelievers as well. In other words, a majority 55% of those born in the Church have had or will have a period of their life of disengagement and nonbelief. But out of those 55 disengaged nonbelievers, 31, or roughly 60% will return to the Church and belief before age 66. (Stan L. Albrecht, Marie Cornwall, & Perry H. Cunningham, A Religious Leave-Taking: Disengagement and Disaffiliation Among Mormons.@ In Falling from the Faith, ed. David G. Bromley, pp. 62-80. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications 1988). According to a Pew study published in 2009, 70% of those born LDS remain LDS–albeit with periods of wandering, which is one of the highest percentages reported for any denomination.

    Unlike our radical reformation Anabaptist brothers and sisters (Mennonites, Amish, etc . . . ) we do not have a formal Rumspringa custom in which our children/adolescents leave with our blessing to take a period outside the community to decide whether they want to return. But I do think we have an informal Rumspringa that people can and do take a “leave” at any period of their life. And generally if and when they choose to return, as many or even a majority do, there is no question that their decision to be a part of the community is unforced and one with which they are completely comfortable.

    The Amish have a retention rate of around 80-90%. The reasons for this retention rate–after Rumspringa–is subject to much study and much debate. See I think there are sociological factors in play among the Amish leading to higher retention that do not exist in other communities, and I am not sure how desirable those factors may be.

    I have known people who have “returned” to our LDS community after 50 years or more of disengagement and even disaffiliation. And interestingly, in many ways, it is almost as if they never left. Except they have stopped wondering whether they want to be a part of the faith community–they have made the decision, they have tried the alternative, and learned through their own experience what they find to be healthy and good in their lives.

    Many people I know, including relatives, have taken a leave (disengagement, disbelief, or disaffiliation) because they believe the truth claims are, to them, demonstrably false, and that those critical truths may be found elsewhere (or at least not in our community).. That is, those people are following the same path as Joseph Smith did–looking for truth. Maybe they have not used the right tools to evaluate truth within the Church, or maybe they have not “doubted their doubts” enough, or maybe they have not been taught in the right way, or maybe they are not ready to accept whatever truths there are here without further study and experience outside the fold. Whatever the reason, I honor and respect their agency and have trust and faith in them and in God that God will lead them in the paths they should go.

    So do I rejoice when someone takes a leave from the fold–especially a relative, friend or loved one? Not really–I miss them. I think our community is diminished by their absence. But I rejoice as they exercise their God given agency and intelligence to seek the truth wherever found. And, while I may be wrong, I happen to think that truth and goodness are found in our community and eventually many, or most, or hopefully all, will return, stronger, healthier, more committed and wiser.

    In the meantime, just as the Amish take a fairly hands off attitude toward their youth during Rumspringa, I try to do the same–loving, listening, supporting, empathizing, enjoying the goodness and kindness in their lives, mourning with them when they mourn, comforting when comfort is needed, and, only if asked, expressing my opinions or any advice they seek about the Church or anything else. In short, treating them exactly, or almost exactly, the way I would treat them if they were not on leave (whether that leave turns out to be temporary or for the duration of mortality).

  9. I am unhappy with the situation in our family and the attitudes shown to those who have left the Church. It’s not so much outward behaviors that are the problem, but underlying divisions – dogmatic members who view those who have left as ‘walking in darkness’ (which means they see themselves as superior and ‘walking in the light’ – this is terribly egotistical, and imo, a destructive mindset, to both the person holding it and to family members who have left. And to be fair, this mindset is often reciprocated – both sides believe they are seeing clearly now). This attitude shows through, no matter how much they try to conceal it. There’s a very oppressive blanket of fear permeating the LDS side of things. Questions are seen as threatening and faithless, and the sentiment “I’ve never questioned anything in the Church” is held up as the highest, most noble example of faith. In my opinion, that very attitude has helped drive half the family away. It’s as if close-minded members feel they’d be disloyal to the Church if they were to love their ex-LDS family members freely and completely. Their love is conditional, and is often felt more like condescending tolerance. It seems to all stem from fear. It all feels like pretending instead of an honest pursuit of truth, which would never hurt anyone. The truth has nothing to fear. But people are afraid and just want to defend instead of being willing to seek and be wrong or admit mistakes. I think a great deal of the problem is rooted in people putting the institution of the church at the center of their lives, instead of putting the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center. People who put the institution at the center of their lives seem to become less spiritual, not more, in my opinion. It’s as if they won’t take responsibility for their own spirituality or the great power they have (that we all have in us). They turn it all over to a corporation, shutting their minds and hearts off. I can’t imagine standing before my maker and saying “I just shut my brain off and did whatever the Church told me to do.” I can’t envision a God who would be pleased with this abdication of responsibility – even though it is often held up as the ideal. So, although I am actively LDS, there are divisions within LDS family members too. I am deeply bothered by our culture’s tendency to refuse to be open and perfectly honest, and by our eagerness to give ‘The Church’ all power over our spiritual lives.

  10. I certainly cannot comment on the situation in your family or the views of your family members. Family relationships are powerful, intricate, awesome things that defy adequate description. That is why love, sacrifice, and patience are so important to the family–and worth all of that.

    As far as the “Church” goes, I seem to recall a recurring theme among the prophets, especially the latter-day prophets, is that salvation is found in internalizing the principles of the Gospel, principles of faith in Christ, hope, and charity, and all of their related virtues. The prophets have emphasized to Church members that they have to get those principles into their lives, transforming their lives, making them more Christlike. It involves active and affirmative embracing of that process, an open-eyed, fully knowledgeable adoption of the Savior and His program. Without taking on that personal responsibility, there is no salvation. I think that is what “being in the Church” means–so much more than merely showing up for the meetings.

  11. I grew up with two families where the dad force fed the kids into “activity” but not into faith and it wasn’t suprising that all of those kids(11 in total) except for 2 are totally inactive. My parents never forced anything really on us, except for seminary and my entire extended family (10) is active, so far anyways!

  12. When a son left the church at 14 and a daughter at 15, I prayed long and hard for inspiration to know what to do. I was not directed to do anything, so I didn’t. I figured they are God’s children and he would let me know what I should do beyond loving them and being their mom. Now, 15 years later, they are not active in any church but still part of our family. I am just glad they are alive. My husband prayed, in the prayer we say as a couple, for them to come back to church every night until a month ago. I asked him to stop saying that in the prayer we say together. It felt too judgmental after all these years.
    My dad may not come to Thanksgiving if a certain niece is there–she left the church, had two children out of wedlock, and has a drinking problem and other assorted distasteful behaviors. Too bad for my dad. I have invited everyone.

  13. I left the LDS church years and years ago. At the time I very much felt the conditional love that many LDS parents give or retract from their questioning children (and ultimately left home because of it) and I think Kevin is correct that it forces us to have to refine our arguments for why the church is faulty in order to try to justify ourselves to parents and friends. Ultimately those arguments fall on deaf ears and a difference of belief hardens into mutual contempt. (As Sqwit mentions, if you’re talking about your son or daughter “walking in darkness”, that’s your side of the contempt).

    The problem with pushing kids to be active in the church is that too often it is a one-way street. Your kids have to be able to push back (and ask questions about prayer, revelation, priesthood authority, whatever) and you need to be able to roll with it without resorting to the nuclear option of guilt, ostracism and shaming.

    Over the years I’ve softened. The arguments of my teenage years are no longer as compelling and I’m more willing to cut some slack for some bad bishop advice, bad teaching, and too strict parenting and acknowledge the fact that God is not something about which one can have a set opinion that will last a whole life. I believe David’s statistics above; once the bitterness fades, if the beauty is there, a person can always feel the tug of their home church.

    But right now I’m raising children of my own in a different denomination and the one lesson I’m applying from my own experience is that my testimony of Christ is told by my behavior, and if I can’t exemplify holiness in (at least!) how I treat my children, then no other argument will mean a damn to them. No matter what happens, they’ll return home, and home is where they’re loved. Inasmuch as their participation in the church is important to me, then they’re loved there, too.

  14. Thank you for this.

  15. Religion is the moralization of spirituality, largely symbolism of what lies ahead. I think of the mortal church as the narrow part of an hour glass, a temporary transition for all, some longer than others. We need saving ordinances while we’re here or later in death, the rest seems to be about the length of the path we choose to take to return to the presence of God. Degrees of glory? Aren’t they a progression of recognizing and embracing the godhead on their level one by one? Isn’t hell about getting stuck somewhere along the way? Eternity, doesn’t that give us a long time to get there if we need it?

    DavidH says: 55% of BICs experience disengagement and nonbelief but 60% of those eventually return. Isn’t this largely about conversion or at least acceptance? If we want to reduce the disengagement we need to find ways to allow conversion/acceptance process to take place while remaining engaged, that means increasing tolerance for doubting and questioning perhaps even facilitating it and it means giving up trying to quell doubts with trite Sunday school (non) answers. And that will require introspection on the part of those who lack that tolerance that they might not be threatened of feel insecure by the questions of those who doubt.

    My family was too rigid in their closed minded orthodox iron rod belief placing church ahead of family in importance and this false dichotomy resulted in conditional love and acceptance. I’m the oldest of four, we all left the church, I was the only one to return. In contrast my now adult son was allowed to wander in and out of activity as he chose and he eventually settled in as an active believing member.

  16. I personally think the core of the problem is that believers won’t acknowledge the substantial weaknesses of the Church. They are real. The Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham are problematic. Joseph Smith did a lot of questionable stuff. The Church has a history of not being truthful. Those are real problems. They need to be acknowledged but most who discover the problems are told to pray harder, ignore what you’ve learned or all that you’ve discovered is deception. A truthful recognition of the problems with an (accurate) statement that Church really don’t know how to resolve some of these issues would go a long ways to keeping people in the Church. Frankly admit the problems and hope for a resolution at some point is the better course.

    Unfortunately, the typical response drives people away and prevents so many from seeing the good that is in the Church. And, there is much good.