Special Assignment

About two and a half years ago a local church leader gave me what he dubbed a “special assignment” to go and visit with a young couple who had had a faith crisis and were no longer believers. He had talked to them and they told him they would appreciate such a visit, but this leader didn’t feel competent to discuss the things they wanted to discuss. I told him I would be happy to go to their home and talk to them about their issues, but I wanted to manage expectations. That is, I didn’t want anyone to think I was somehow miraculously going to cure their faith crisis. If I did it, my goals would be much more modest. I would want them to understand that no, they’re not crazy; and yes, these kinds of issues exist. If they wanted to talk about specific issues I would be happy to do so, but more from a perspective of trying to explain how many Saints deal with such issues, and not from a perspective of trying to argue against their newfound knowledge altogether. He agreed with these constraints, so I made the visit.

Below is a copy of the email I sent to the leader after my visit;

I just got back from meeting with X and Y for about two hours. . .  It went about as well as one might hope, but I don’t expect them to return to activity anytime soon.
The Gospel Topic essays threw them for a real loop. They’re intended to gently introduce members to challenging issues, but for them they had an opposite effect. They felt as though the essays were articulating things they had been taught were anti-Mormon, and so they felt blindsided by them. That led to some more searching.
Our discussion was wide ranging, but my main goal was to get them not to perceive themselves as apostate (which they had started to do). Lots of people have questions and doubts, there’s nothing wrong with that and they don’t need to feel bad about it. I think this is the main thing I managed to accomplish during our discussion.
I gave them some suggestions of things to read, and I had the impression that they will take me up on the suggestions.
They were very grateful that I took the time to talk to them, and I think they appreciated that I didn’t make them feel like antagonists. I gave them my contact information and encouraged them to contact me at any time if they want to talk more about the Church.
As I said above, I don’t expect them to return to church in the near term, but if they do the reading I suggested I could see them possibly coming back down the road (with a more nuanced view of things). Time will tell whether something like that ends up happening.
Best,
Kevin
The couple never returned to activity in the Church, but I was happy to have the opportunity to talk to them and reassure them that no, they weren’t crazy, and yes, such issues do exist In retrospect it seemed sort of like an exit interview, one that they very much appreciated. It seems to me that when someone has already resolved to leave, there’s not much point in arguing about points of history, scripture, doctrine or practice. Discussing those kinds of things seriously is fine if you catch the process at an earlier point. But in this case, better to facilitate an amicable separation that fosters at least some sense of ongoing goodwill.

Comments

  1. Anon for this one says:

    Our local leader a few years ago asked myself and a few others to similar assignments. There was a sister specifically asked to do this with other sisters. He said these were not “handbook calls” as he put them. He said he didn’t want progress reports, but only wanted to hear if something really major happened either way. The vast majority of people he said might call me did not, but those who did took some time.

    One man eventually returned to the church and the temple after a year and a half. Before he moved out of state, he told me that when he came to me (after the referral from the leader), he assumed I would have 20 pages of answers to his questions. I had merely suggested that he share with me what he was reading and studying and we’d talk about it. When he brought in alleged quotes from early leaders like Brigham Young, I would look up the originals and let him read them. Naturally, many of them had been selectively edited and the full quote usually calmed his concerns. Once he saw that I wasn’t simply going to rebut his concerns, he opened up and, after a year and a half of meeting every two or three weeks for a few hours’ discussion, he went back to the temple and has been going ever since with his wife. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. That’s not to say that it was easy.

    I’ve helped a few others over the years in this way and I’ve found some common factors in these types of conversations:

    Kevin is right. If the people are going to leave, they’re going to leave. The only ones who I had success with were those who came to me once they were referred, or once I spoke with them, agreed to talk with me. Those who I attempted to “chase” for lack of a better word, obviously didn’t talk to me, nor did they come back.

    I found that focusing on the positive faith issues they wanted to keep was a big deal. If they love Jesus and the New Testament, encourage that. If they love the Old Testament and the rituals of Moses, encourage that. I always found a frank “inventory” of where they were in their belief on issues ranging from God the Father, Jesus, the Atonement, The Bible, modern prophets, Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon, polygamy and Book of Abraham on a scale of 1-10 was helpful. They would self-identify and usually the first named above would be fairly high and the last ones near zero (if a positive number at all). Then we would go to work on the positives they wanted. I found that eventually, they would create a faith matrix that worked for them.

    Finally, it takes months and years, not days and weeks and the vast majority of it is building a relationship through the discussions. It didn’t hurt that while I’m supportive of the church and its leaders, I have some unique views on certain deep issues of theology. It was ministering at its heart and it filled my need to use what I believe are gifts I’ve been given in such a service to my fellows, even for those who chose a path outside the church. It was positive for all of us and the Lord will ultimately judge, not me.

  2. Kevin.Barney says:

    Thanks anon for sharing your experience. I can see the wisdom in delegating this kind of thing, because once someone is at this kind of stage if you try to bs them with rote church answers you’ll lose all credibility, but it is very difficult for a leader to go deep into the weeds on challenging issues. They’re just not wired that way, which is presumably why they are leaders to begin with. Far better to delegate these kinds of discussions to someone who can get their hands dirty if need be.

  3. Thanks, Kevin and anon. I’ve also found that simply speaking “from a perspective of trying to explain how many [different] Saints deal with such issues” has been worthwhile, when invited to do so. I’ve not had success in even having such conversations when asked by a bishop to do so, but have had worthwhile conversations and sustained friendships when I or an acquaintance initiated it. It remains to be seen whether I’ll succeed in even having the conversation with the member the bishop most recently asked me to see if I could find a way to help with such matters. If we do get to the conversation, I think anon’s more experienced report will be helpful.

  4. Eric Facer says:

    Kevin, the most important sentence in your report to the church leader is the following: “They felt as though the essays were articulating things they had been taught were anti-Mormon, and so they felt blindsided by them.”

    Where had they been taught that these things were anti-Mormon? At church. Before the Internet made so much of this information accessible, who discouraged members from consulting “alternate voices” about these topics? The church. Whose manuals deliberately glossed over the warts in our history and the peculiar evolution of many of our doctrines? The church’s.

    Last Sunday I had the privilege of attending a presentation by Jana Riess, in the home of Greg Prince, of the findings in her new book “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church.” I lost track of the number of slides where the following reason was given by young people for their inactivity: “I do not trust the church to tell the truth.”

    The issue isn’t Joseph Smith chasing 14-year old girls or the influence of Masonic rituals on our temple ordinances. It is trust. And repairing a relationship originally built on trust takes years. Many. Many. Years.

    Perhaps it makes us feel better about ourselves when we say, “well, if they’ve already decided to leave the church, there’s nothing we can do about it.” But that’s disingenuous, to say the least.

  5. GEOFF -AUS says:

    This is not possible where I live. My Bishop does not see anything less than “I know” as acceptable. I commented that I was pleased that much of the sexism had been removed from the endowment. I was called to his office and told I could not use terms like that about the church, and that as I could not be trusted I would not be giving talks while he was bishop. He is in his 30s and I am in my 70s.
    It is exciting that there are some who are willing to talk about reality.

  6. Sister Anony says:

    Last year, at the suggestion of a stake priesthood leader, my bishop and I discussed my teaching a special short-term Sunday School class on some of the Gospel Topics essay.

    The idea fizzled very quickly when it became clear the bishop didn’t trust me, or the idea (I’m not sure which). He wanted to approve every detail of the lessons ahead of time. He forbid me from suggesting anything less than full infallibility of past leaders or direct revelation being behind every past issue. I was to bear my testimony to the truthfulness of the bishop’s understanding of essays he had not yet read. He ruled out some of the most important essays as topics of lessons. He would sit in the back of the room and correct me “if necessary” during lessons. The only topic he was enthusiastic about covering was on the LGBT policy — which I could not teach, other than to state what the policy was: the other essays traced history and what brought us to this point in connection with a topic, but there was no such material available on the LGBT policy other than the unconvincing claim that we didn’t want to teach children something at church that was contradicted at home.

    Probably needless to say, the idea went nowhere. I still think that, done right, it could have helped a lot of people who were disturbed but still attending church meetings.

    I would have been a faithful teacher, too.

  7. Anon for this one says:

    FWIW: The local leader who called us is now a GA.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Sister Anony, when I was GD teacher I taught lessons on a number of the essays. I never asked permission to do this, I just did it. The lessons were very well received.

  9. Sounds like your bishop knew the right person for the job. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Never returned to activity? Two and a half years doesn’t constitute never. It’s a pretty small window. Give people a little more time. A life time at minimum.

    And while church activity means one thing, maybe gospel/spiritual activity means another? Maybe they are active in more ways than we realize.

  11. Amazing and ironic, Eric Facer and GEOFF-AUS. The orthodox local leaders don’t trust loyal members trying to begin a many-years-long rebuilding trust discussion, which is the big issue for millennials. We keep setting ourselves up for failure.

    The stringent orthodox are the most vulnerable to a faith crisis if ever forced to think about disturbing topics.The upper leadership does very little to rock the boat. I guess in the short term, the happy orthodox are more likely to pay tithing. Until we tell the truth, the hemorrhage of members will accelerate. A few people will stay in a marriage with a liar and cheater, and the same probably holds for church too.

  12. Credit to you, Kevin. And your local leader.

    >Don’t expect them to return.
    >If they do, it will be with a nuanced view.
    Or as some people say, the genie does not go back in the bottle.

    In my experience, if you go in with these principles well in mind much good can happen. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even start.

  13. I am one such millennial that does not trust the church–meaning its leaders–to tell the truth. I am willing to assume they mostly what they believe to be right, just as the rest of us do, but I believe they make small errors, catastrophic errors, and all kinds of errors in between…just like the rest of humanity.

    I believe genuine, heartfelt conversations like the ones described in the post and comments may be the best way to minister to each other. If we want millennials to stay, they need to know there are possibly reasons to stay that have nothing to do with most of the truth claims–nothing to do with the supposed extra insight or trustworthiness of leaders: “A few people will stay in a marriage with a liar and cheater, and the same probably holds for church too.” Perhaps more would stay despite a nagging fear or even conviction that the institution is corrupt to some degree if they could find purpose in trying to remedy the problems–in being part of the solution. Comparing church participation to marriage may be a good start…do you stay with and continue to work alongside people because you agree with and receive what you want from them? Or do you stay because the process of striving with others is in itself purifying?

    Current trends and identity politics in particular seem to pressure people to prove their purity to justice, equality, goodness, and the like by cutting off any suspicious ties–to avoid affiliation with any “unclean” institution, person, or thing. I think it is a mistake to be persuaded by this rhetoric. To really emulate the example of Christ, it seems clear that we are to engage with whatever people we can in whatever contexts we can and simply go about “doing good.” I’d like to think that many from the millennial and Z generations will be open to participating in the church if we can help them successfully shift from, “I’m here because ‘the church is true'” (whatever the hell that means…that once you’re a member you don’t have to think anymore?) to, “I’m here because the church is full of people–my spiritual siblings–and the gospel is all about relationships, service, and growth, so why not start here?”

  14. *willing to assume they mostly do what they believe to be right

    *prove their purity and commitment to justice, equality, goodness, and the like

    Good grief.

  15. Kevin – what books or other items did you recommend the couple read?

  16. “but it is very difficult for a leader to go deep into the weeds on challenging issues. They’re just not wired that way, which is presumably why they are leaders to begin with.”

    With most local and general Church leaders, it’s not a matter of wiring. It’s a matter of time. Most leaders have been working their way up the hierarchy (usually not intentionally), but because of this, their time has been restricted in most cases to administrative stuff. They simply haven’t had time to study Church history or theology in any depth. Heck, I would bet $100 that most stake presidents don’t have time (or take time) to attend Gospel Doctrine class twice a month. So they don’t even get the half-baked, simplistic doctrine presented through Church curriculum. Consequently, if they try to step in and “solve” a faith crisis, they usually make things worse. They can’t wrap their heads around the notion that neither the Church nor its theology is perfect.

  17. Half baked, simplistic doctrine… Heh.

    I’m a full endorser of every manual I’ve ever read or been taught from, even though they aren’t perfect. I’m a full endorser of every general conference talk I’ve heard, even though many of them I can fill in gaps with nuance, where others might instead choose to find disagreement.

    What’s crazy about the half baked accusation I know God the Father. I know His Son. The knowledge is deep and personal and started with those simplistic classes but didn’t end with me rejecting them, but building upon them with my own study, service, and sacrifice.

    You want to know God? Or just argue about him online? Simplistic is the sniping and debating we get online etc. So much can be said that the spirit constrains from being said.

    If you want to know more, make the proper sacrifices and learn for yourself.

  18. Anon for this one says:

    CRH– The recommended readings are as individual and varied as those who have the challenges. In my experience, it depends on what they want to look at. The old saying, “You can lead a horse . . .” really applies in these circumstances. Once the faith crisis happens, there are a lot of questions, so the person (if they so desire) has to begin the rebuilding on their own. My practice is simply to make sure that they let me know what they’re reading or studying (online or otherwise) and then I read along with them and we discuss. On occasion, there will be something that they read that’s incorrect or academically dishonest (there’s a lot of that from the attackers and some of the apologists), but the vast majority is honest in its presentation. Then it becomes something they want to build for themselves. Once they find something that has a plausible explanation to them (that works for them), then Alma 32 kicks in and they can build upon that. Remember, Alma says that simply the desire to believe will be enough to begin the rebuilding process. The framework will be VERY different from what they had before, but it will be theirs and it will be much more solid.

    As for the reading, I’ve found that the more frank and open the books or articles are (and the best documented) the more helpful. I’ve found books to be better generally than articles, although it depends. As for publishers, it helps to know what they put out and their “editorial” stances–even when they deny they exist, they do. For example, Oxford, is more technical and less devotional. Its as important to do your homework before recommending something so you know how (or even if) it will be helpful. Also, know what the people read that sent them where they are. If it was a policy–that will be harder. I went to the Mormonthink bookstore. That was an eye-opener. One-sided doesn’t begin to describe it. Of course, Deseret Book is the same way. I’ve found there’s nothing wrong either way, but it helps me to know what there is before i make recommendations. As for those recommendations, I’ll repeat, it depends on the person. Very individualized.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    CRH, I was afraid someone was going to ask what I recommended; I honestly have no recollection. But I agree with Anon that any such suggestions would be highly individualized.

  20. John Mansfield says:

    One night a missionary companion and I were teaching, and our host felt a bit disconnected from us. He explained, “I have some strange beliefs.” My companion said, “Whatever your beliefs are, we respect them,” and he said it in a way that our host felt enough confidence to say aloud what he believed. “I believe in . . .” The man’s belief was something very easy to laugh at, but my companion, a newer missionary, replied without missing a beat, “I respect that.” In my time with that missionary there were several occasions to observe that loving others as much as we love ourselves is a real possibility that some few do actually put into practice.

  21. Here to second Eric Facer & Mike’s comments. Going down the line, issue by issue, is neither the problem nor the solution. Feeling duped by a lying institution is the problem.

  22. Billy Possum says:

    Thank you, Kevin, for this good post. I’ve been through a faith transition over the last decade, and have felt (mercifully) inoculated for many of the sharp theological issues that have become mainstream in that timeframe. Not so, unfortunately, for many in my ward. Our stake presidency does a good job of addressing the faith crisis issue (there’s at least one significant address every stake conference), but at the ward level, I don’t get the sense that our leadership even realizes that there’s a cultural moment going on that puts belief at risk for many.

    I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I have this feeling that our ward will lose dozens while I (and several others like me) sit with our “music,” our potential for real service, still inside us. How did you come by the assignment you discuss in the OP, and do you have advice for how others might find a way to contribute like you did?

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    The leader I mention in the OP just asked me out of the blue to do this. It was the first time in my life I had ever been asked to do such a thing, but I was happy for the opportunity and I thought it turned out to be a good thing to do.

  24. Anon for This says:

    Billy – I’ve been approached privately by several members of my stake (and their relatives) who just really needed to talk to someone about some of these same issues without be judged or dismissed. The way it started was by me not avoiding difficult topics when I teach either GD or RS and making it clear that people do struggle with these things and that’s okay. One person approached me after a class and then asked if she could give my name to someone else.

    Having said that, I keep very much on the down-low as I know very well that neither my Bishop nor my SP would approve of my meeting individually/chatting on the phone with other members. And I’m no longer in a teaching position as not everyone appreciates my frankness (and I am SO careful to always be inclusive to traditional members’ views too).

  25. Anon for this one says:

    Billy Possum,
    I had “volunteered” my services to the SP for a while. My Bishops knew of my interest and I had done this in other areas of the country where we’d lived. I would seek out those who might have a need and ask to be assigned as their Home Teacher, or I’d be the GD teacher and notice they weren’t attending and then seek them out. It works. Don’t keep your music inside. As with any other service, you’ll either be welcomed or you won’t. Kevin would be an excellent choice for any leader to ask to do this. Its another form of “bearing one another’s burdens” although many don’t think outside the box enough to see the service opportunity for what it is.

  26. Don Hartman says:

    I stopped attending because I felt my concerns about certain policies were being dismissed. It seems like a lot of members distance them selves from those having problems and not holding to strict dogma.

  27. I read this last week along with most of the comments. It was interesting to me and thought provoking. Today I took a friend/sister (whom I Minister to) to stake women’s meeting. Afterward we talked for several hours about why she no longer attends church. Your post helped me keep my mouth shut and my ears open to listen. She speaks Spanish mostly; I speak English only. I know I am not always understanding her well. I tried really hard today. She expressed lots of concerns, changes in her beliefs, experiences from the past that have been harmful to her testimony and to her children’s feelings. Thank you for helping me be quiet and listen and offer only a few thoughts, mostly that I have doubts and questions also. We both agreed that our favorite thing about the Church is the temple where we feel good and loved. How I wish she were still going there!