E. Ballard: Where should I go? #ldsconf

In the Sunday Morning session of October Conference, Elder Ballard gave an impassioned sermon asking those who are considering leaving the church to consider what they are leaving behind. This talk feels particularly relevant to me, as I am currently feeling a lot of pressure, internal and external, to clarify my relationship with the church. I haven’t been to church recently and, even though it is not for the typical reasons one doesn’t go to church, I still feel less Mormon for it. I may well be stopping and catching my breath, as Elder Ballard suggests, or I may be on my way down another path. I honestly can’t tell right now.

When I stop to consider the things I love about the church, it is only occasionally coincident with the sorts of things the church talks about. I love the Book of Mormon, and the Gospel and Doctrine of Christ. I love the notion of theosis, I’m intrigued by our henolatry, and I’m particularly humbled by and devoted to the notion of an open canon. I’ve long felt that the Mormon notion of priesthood, defined as a broad power to act in God’s name in the service of his children, is a powerful tool for helping people look outside themselves.

Elder Oaks stated in his talk, on Saturday afternoon, that there is a difference between a conversion to Christ and a conversion to the church. I feel like I’ve been (somewhat shakily, always tentatively) converted to the Gospel. When Elder Ballard discusses the things I’ve learned in church about Christ, the Atonement, the purpose of life, I’m reminded of the things that draw me into the church. But then he talks about church organization, traditional values, and the temple, which are much more of a mixed bag for me. There are things I love and things that are very off-putting in how we’ve embodied Christ’s church. And, frankly, there are lots of wonderful doctrines to be found in other Christian (and non-Christian) churches, probably equal to our own in providing purpose, moral guidance, and a sense of eternal belonging.

For all my life, I’ve been drawn to this church. I’ve defined myself by it. I’ve contemplated the scriptures, argued about them online and elsewhere, fought to defend it, and criticized it when I felt I should. It is something I’ve taken very seriously, because I’ve felt called to do so. And I still do. But, it could not possibly be any more obvious that the church isn’t interested in me.

Not that I think it should have to be. A church that catered to my every whim, political, social, and spiritual, would be a church that I’d treat with suspicion. But, at the same time, it is tiresome to be treated with suspicion, as a kind of miscreant, for one’s whole life as well. I often feel like a barnacle, clinging to the Old Ship Zion, hiding on the undercarriage and mostly bothering no-one, but worried that one day I’ll be scraped off the hull when the officers have nothing better to do. It always seems safest to just hide in that shell.

So why bother? I don’t know. I have a testimony of the Gospel, I even have one of the church. But I also have a testimony that God wants me to speak out in whatever little way I can. Even if I mostly sit on my hands in real life, or skip church entirely, my writing here (what there is of it) may well be the most important aspect of my testimony. It demonstrates that I think the church is important enough to care about, to discuss, to appreciate, and to argue with. Whether or not it is the only path to Christ, God, or the words of Eternal Life, it is so obviously my path, where I found my God, and where I find my words, that I cannot imagine my life without it. So, I guess, I’ll probably start moving forward again eventually. Or not. I really don’t know right now.


  1. Brilliant. I feel much the same way as you. Although I definitely disagree with Elder Ballard. The Church left me, not the other way around.

  2. Kristine A says:

    This was almost exactly what I felt. Thank you for capturing it so succinctly.

  3. A Happy Hubby says:

    Not to detract from a very heart-felt blog post that I can relate to, but your “I often feel like a barnacle, clinging to the Old Ship Zion” made me laugh. That analogy sure is getting some unexpected extensions, such as someone that said, “I want to stay on the boat, but I am seasick”, or “I want to stay on the boat, but people on the boat keep pushing me overboard.”

    Best of luck on your path (and keep up the good writing)

  4. You’re speaking what many are feeling. I didn’t listen to all of GC this year, for a number of reasons. I want to stay. For now. And every day is an “I really don’t know right now” kind of day. Where would I go otherwise? I don’t know that either. I just have to keep deciding every day if the not knowing is reason enough not to go, to leave. Thanks for sharing the kind of testimony I wish we could hear more often.

  5. Juicy Fruit says:

    “For all my life, I’ve been draw to this church. I’ve defined myself by it.”

    “…it is tiresome to be treated with suspicion, as a kind of miscreant, for one’s whole life…”

    You sound like a battered spouse. One who loves who they thought they married but keeps getting beat up everyday.

    Five signs (handpicked for this situation) of an emotionally abusive relationship:

    1. Your feelings and opinions are rarely validated.
    2. You feel like you are unable to discuss problems in the relationship.
    3. You feel “stuck” or confused most of the time.
    4. You feel emotionally numb or helpless.
    5. Does your partner act excessively jealous or possessive?

  6. I’d like to stay in the boat, but my fellow passengers keep vomiting misogyny and homophobia everywhere and the stench is making me sick.

  7. The conflation of the church and the gospel, and the focus on remaining in the church, is where he (and the church) lost me.

  8. jlouielucero says:

    I’ve felt that way at times, but I engaged more with the church structure and helped and served my best and have found that my voice has had an impact in my area and I have seen it help others. Maybe I’m naive about believing things will change, but I definitely think it’s more likely to change if I get more involved not less.

    Also, to another commentor, even though I have felt differently, I don’t think the church or the majority of its followers wants to push anyone out, but, at least for me, the refining of myself by staying despite feeling pushed has made me better and my faith in Christ firmer.

  9. As a fellow miscreant, I appreciate the perspective and influence of those who stay in the boat and help it to sail a bit more true. Seriously, thanks to those of you who do the hard work of fostering dialogue when it is difficult and you are made to feel like a barnacle. As jlouielucero shared, I’ve found that as I do what I can to serve on board the ship, I am generally pleased at how receptive and encouraging fellow-passengers are. Yes, my hope for a better world/Church may be overly optimistic, but it is what anchors my soul.

  10. I stay in the boat because while holding to the rod I came across a single mom who needed my family’s help. After becoming close friends and helping with babysitting, a broken washer, broken pipes flooding her apartment, and several priesthood blessings this woman returned to full activity, took out her endowments, and has gone through a complete change in countenance. I look back and see the hand of God in all of it. I remember the hand of God pulling me back through the love and care of others. Let there be differences in opinion and understanding of doctrine, leadership, and direction. But I’ll never leave the saints. I will love them. Serve them, teach them, journey with them. Gather them. I find little reason to leave church generally when engaged with those who need love.

  11. “But, it could not possibly be any more obvious that the church isn’t interested in me.”

    Would you care to elaborate, or at least drop a hint?

    BTW, I’m a very recent reader and really like your stuff. I hope you keep it up.

  12. Having been a member all my life I too have struggled with how I feel within the church. The church, or rather its members, at times have made me feel (as was perhaps my erring perception) unwanted and unappreciated. There have also been times when I have been privileged to know good members of the church that in every way exemplified the love of Christ. Also, I keep going to church because I have had on some occasions undeniable experiences that I know God is mindful of me, that He loves me, and has blessed me as I have asked for His help. This knowledge has in wonderful ways reaffirmed for me the truths of the church and its reality and has preserved me thus far despite whatever feelings I still struggle with. As I have contemplated others in scripture and Church history who were willing to sacrifice everything even unto death I have come to know this, it is worth fighting like hell to stay in this church. It has truth found nowhere else and there is a reason it is only found in this Church, because it is God’s only true church on earth. The church may be difficult to understand at times but faith has part in God’s plan. With all this said, and for what it’s worth, I would encourage you to stay on the journey. Along the way there will be stretches of storms as well as beautiful sunsets but upon arriving to your destination you will find indescribable joy to know that the journey was worth it. Hang in there John, you’re loved by many fellow passengers, seen and unseen, on this Old Ship Zion.

  13. That engagement with your faith community or opportunities for service are not unique to Mormonism. But continued activity creates the assumption and general expectation that you believe in mainstream orthodoxy. At some point, given the non-existence of “big-tent” Mormonism, you will forced into choosing between hypocrisy or exposure of your true colors ( that don’t correspond to the church’s doctrine).

  14. I concur with Ryan’s comments. There is lots of love in this world, but I have never felt more loved then when receiving love from and giving to the saints. Of course the good ship of zion is not the only ship in the ocean, but it is the best I have found, warts and all, and i have been around the ocean. Sincere best wishes on your journey and know there are many saints who care and love you no matter the course you decide.

  15. Doney Done Done says:

    I think the church wants everyone, so long as they conform and consent to the will of leaders. They want a manageable bunch. So when some folks feel “the church doesn’t want me” it may mean “The Church only wants me, but a colonized me. As I stay quiet, don’t try to speak up, don’t try to make change, follow obediently and shelf the things that don’t work for me.”

    Women with mostly no voice or real leadership and only one deemed “sorta necessary” per conference session? No problem. Most members don’t bat an eye. All white, mostly Utahan top 15 leaders for a “global church”? we members can provide dozens of “good” reasons leaders of other ethnicities and cultures need to stay where they are in their own countries. No prob. We got this.

    We have answers to excuse every act of cruelty, every mistake, every doctrine that excludes someone. We can do it in our sleep.

    More and more I feel control and coercion motivates our leadership rather than being spokespeople for a living God. For so long that happy “spirit” we are supposed to feel has fled for me when they speak, either in anger at what is being said in the name of God, or sheer boredom at more attempted manipulation.

    As with any good organization, the members of our church do the hard work of making sense of unChristlike nonsense and doing the mental and emotional gymnastics to find beauty and service and love even amid glaring problems. It’s pretty amazing what good people will do to protect and prop up the church despite the flaws that harm some folks and cause division and pain. Any good that happens is because our members love Jesus and really want to make the world better, and they do this sometimes because of the church, sure, but just as often in spite of it.

    Every LDS family that surrounds their LGTBQ son or daughter despite all the rhetoric, all the fear mongering, all the hatred, all the cruelty, is a testament to pure love. All the people that learn to forgive people in the church who’ve abused and harmed them based on advice from handbooks and Bishops and Stake Presidents and despite the fact that our own leadership (talking to you Oaks) publicly announces “The church makes no apologies” is a miracle and a testament to human goodness.

    The leaders of our church stopped speaking for Jesus (for me) last November. They want yes men and yes women. Now, finding beauty, love, support, kindness, charity, peace in so many places I am finding that God is actually bigger than the Mormon church. And the amazing thing is, I get to use the tools given me by this church to recognize this.

    I have been taught to listen to my feelings, my heart, discern when I am in tune my entire life. I know the feeling of being guided by the Spirit very well. And the relief, peace, and love I feel outside of Mormon church is going to be surprising to me for a long time. even something as simple as going to another church where being single doesn’t make me lesser is huge. I have realized God doesn’t pity me or going to hold me in lesser regard because I am not married. It’s pretty great out here, folks.

  16. >“For all my life, I’ve been drawn to this church.”

    You were born into it, bro. It’s all you know. That’s a hard thing to give up.

  17. “You were born into it, bro. It’s all you know. That’s a hard thing to give up.”

    It’s more than that. At-one-ment is a hard thing to give up.

  18. Entrenched says:

    I guess I’m the opposite, I’m there at church every week, do my calling, and everything, but I don’t have the belief (my brain seems to be pretty agnostic, about all aspects of religion). I’ll never say “I know” or bear my testimony, but I also never express my doubts except with my wife. On conference, there was a lot of talk about how hard it is to lose faith, but I think I’ve always been religious but not every spiritual, and realizing how little I believe didn’t come as any kind of shock, despite being a returned missionary and BYU grad. I guess I’m just too embedded in the church as community, while at the same time never feeling like I belong while with the members of the community. It’s awkward. Best if luck on finding your place.

  19. I appreciate the support, from folks both in and out of the church. Where I am is a strange and awkward place to be and, honestly, I’m a little embarrassed by this initial response. I don’t really know how to process these testimonies (pro and con church). But I’m grateful you all care enough to give them.

    To be fair to the church, the levels of suspicion have varied as I’ve traveled about. In Mormon minority areas, I’ve been generally more broadly welcomed and invited to participate in the work of the church. In Mormon majority areas, I’ve often been shunted to the side for not fitting in. Not always, but enough. Which is fine, really. I get that I’m not a Mormon majority Mormon. And I feel like I’ve now done a disservice to the many people who’ve been kind, patient, and tolerant of me and my eccentricities and pride for many years. My life in the church has not been uniformly or even mostly bad. I’ve just always been different.

    I also agree that the church is truest when we are actually in the trenches helping one another. I do need to do more of that in my own life.

    I suppose that the church is interested in me in the abstract. They want everyone who can be to be exalted and they want everyone who can be to be happy. But being in the church, in the US, means that certain assumptions regarding political leanings, social outlook, and economic agendas are taken for granted. And, over and over again, you are othered for not holding those ideas. Not even sinful ones. The way the world treats you for being Mormon is the way you are treated in the church if you don’t conform to the way people think you should be. Not badly and not unkindly (at least, not right now), but not like you are a particularly valued member of the community either. The leaked videos certainly indicate that (although, of course, they may have been edited for presentation and cherry-picked for content; maybe there are similar videos out there in which the Brethren discuss the benefits of state socialism and the need to maintain equality in civil rights).

  20. I like barnacles. Did you know that not only can they cling to a ship, but also a living organism, like a whale? Did you know that they most often grow in clumps or communities wherever they can find a productive environment? What a marvelous metaphor.

  21. Every cult insists that their members have nowhere else to go…The Jehovah’s Witnesses use the same line.

  22. Hey John,

    Thank you for sharing your experience here. I’ve been thinking about it since I read it last night. I definitely empathize with how you feel, as I felt that way for 2 (3?) years myself. One day I was out to lunch with my (devout Mormon) Mom and she told me – “It’s time for you to go”. It shocked me, but it was the permission I needed to move on. Our family visited many churches, and spent many weekends at home. At one particular church I felt like there was a message that I needed to hear. So I came back the next week. And the next. We’ve been going there for 2.5 years now. I feel the presence of God there every week. The gift of that church in my life is, to me, such a powerful example of God’s hand in my life – second only to my husband and my kids. It has showed me that God wants to have a relationship with me and my family. I feared that if I left the Church that God would abandon us. He didn’t. The experience of attending that church has been deeply healing. To anyone that wonders where they would go, I would just say that God is so vast and that he will meet you in places that may surprise you. Best of luck. <3

  23. I don’t mean to be attacking the author in any way… I in fact sympathize with him… It must be hard to be a minority (politics, race, gender, etc) in any group, especially one that often conflates certain non-gospel beliefs with the “gospel.” However, I find it ironic that many of the things that you want with the church is not found in the more liberal bloggernacle that constantly complains about the conservative authoritarian nature of the church. Many times I see those who views differ from liberal beliefs chastised and told they are not Christian for there beliefs on different economic and social issues. They are made to feel like the “others”….

  24. There are echo chambers both in the church and in the bloggernacle that makes people feel unwanted and restrains the coming together of the body of Christ

  25. I’m always so curious about posts like this. Full disclosure, three years ago I began attending an Eastern Orthodox church and two years ago I began the process of joining the Orthodox church.

    I felt so. Much. Like. You. In the Mormon church. And so my solution was to just find a better boat. Everything has been better. Everything. Prayer, theology, beauty, Sunday worship, philosophy, metaphysics, cosmology, my relationship with other people in the church.

    I guess I’m wondering why so many Mormons do feel like there isn’t any other option. Many say they’ve looked around and can’t find any other church that provides for their particular set of needs. I guess I’m not going to question that too much, but it does make me wonder. Other groups and religions have charity, faith, love, hope, service, etc. in abundance! They’re just embedded in a different culture so it’s going to feel different until you acculturate a little. No, another church is not going to feel like “home.” It’s a new, strange, weird, different experience. That’s just part of the process. If you grew up Mormon and visit a mosque, it’s going to feel weird. That doesn’t mean Islam isn’t the right place for you, it just means you have to reframe your expectations and question your assumptions about what you should expect from other people to feel welcomed.

    Likewise, some people say things along the lines of, “I feel like I want to leave sometimes, but Mormonism has the best people I’ve come across” or “I have never felt more loved than in the Mormon church.” But again, these ideas seem to me to be somewhat myopic – the way that love and goodness are expressed are going to be culturally embedded. The other interesting thing about statements like this is that you don’t choose a hospital based on whether it contains the fewest or least sick people.

    I hope this doesn’t sound critical. I am truly supportive of everyone in this journey because it’s all so hard for all of us. But it’s so hard for me to understand someone who *may* be welcomed happily and warmly on another boat, yet clings desperately as a barnacle to a different one.

  26. Arthur,
    I don’t doubt anything that you say. Maybe someday I’ll move to a new faith (I’ve talked in the past about my interest in Unitarianism). However, right now, I do feel called to be Mormon, whatever that means in my case.

  27. Bruce Spencer says:

    as a merchant mariner by trade it seemed using the phrase “Old Ship Zion” might not have been the best analogy… every ship needs to go to the shipyard on a routine basis for maintenance and repairs… and to have those unwanted barnacles scraped off… and eventually all ships get scrapped for the value of their steel…

  28. Arthur,
    To some it’s not just a Church. As mentioned in the talk, the Apostles had no where else they could go, knowing what they knew. I’m sure other disciples felt differently, going to Judaism or to the Roman gods, feeling they were just as happy and fulfilled there (if not more), but for some it’s just the way things really are. It’s a rare gift that I occasionally envy.

  29. Thanks for sharing this, John. If you’ll excuse a bit of silliness, when you mentioned the barnacle analogy, this was what I thought: “Who lives as a barnacle under the sea?” “JOHN C. SQUAREPANTS!”

  30. A Happy Hubby says:

    Ziff – thanks for making me spit out my soup on my monitor while reading this on my lunch break!

    I hope Spongebob – oops, I mean John, can take a joke.

  31. Ryan said it the best. The essence of the gospel is to help others. I know it is for me. Some may become weary of the everyday church stuff, but if anyone can show me, in the overall, a better way to live, I’ll go there. I’m 82 and no one has come even close as of yet. It’s easy to find fault with members who harp on gays and other things, but let them know, in a gentle manner how you feel. I’ve done it and I think I have influenced some. Following many BCC posts are always fun. Even readings from the dis-gruntled.

  32. pconnornc says:

    “That engagement with your faith community or opportunities for service are not unique to Mormonism”

    I think the “uniqueness” that our faith brings is the breadth and structure of it. It pushes out to all members (whether they want it or not). It also provides practical roadmaps for ministering. Home & visiting teaching are a fundamental expectation of everyone – with a mechanism for regularity of ministering and follow-up/reminders if you haven’t.

    So much of what we learn in lessons and activities is geared toward how to serve – both leading and following.

    The structure and organization of our church also allows for drawing upon greater resources – both from a training or in relief (I believe those who have participated in regional disaster relief can speak to that!)

    Additionally our congregations (especially outside of Utah) have the socio-economic diversity that drive the kind of ministering that gets us out of our own problems.

    I have had many members of other faiths marvel at what we do both at the micro and the macro level in this world. And this ministering works both ways! I always think of it as kind of a marvelous work and a wonder ;-)

    I get that everyone’s experience of this is not the same – but hopefully there is little debate of what we are striving for. I have found patience with those who are “vomiting in the boat” through the understanding that sometimes they are out ministering with a zeal and effectiveness that I cannot match – even if their understanding of Christian love is still growing.

  33. “I have a testimony of the Gospel, I even have one of the church.”
    Many have testimonies, few are converted.

  34. Very true, IDIAT. Very true.

  35. Davidferg says:

    The Church has a remarkable tendency of getting in its own way. Like John C. I find the doctrine of Christ as presented by the Church truly wonderful. But far too often I get distracted from that by the Church’s position in the culture wars, the humdrum of fluff lessons about nothing, the varieties of activities, and the interesting but tangental philosophy of it all. I am always mystified by how much Christ is in focus in General Conference and so out of focus in my ward, whichever ward that happens to be. There’s so much to do, and study, and think about in Mormonism—not to mention the distraction of the culture wars—that what time I do spend thinking about my beliefs is often limited to the truly least important ones (though they don’t feel like that in the moment). That’s when I notice that my testimony feels flat and I find myself frustrated with the Church.

    I’m lucky to be a GD teacher right now. It incentivizes me to dig deeply into the Book of Mormon. I find very little use for the Book of Mormon at the superficial level that most people read it. When I dig deep I am astonished at just how inspired it is and just how fully it demonstrates Christ’s love. The lesson manuals don’t really encourage that sort of reading. Like I said, the Church has a remarkable tendency of getting in its own way.

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