NOM = “new order Mormon” — a general term for people who self-identify as Mormon, yet maintain unorthodox beliefs or practices. I mention this because there’s a bit of drama going on right now with John Dehlin. John is one of the most well-known church members associated with the NOM world (he does the Mormon Stories podcasts) [update: to clarify, John doesn't self-identify as a NOM -- he says, "over the past year I've distanced myself from any particular model, and instead just want to help people find joy wherever they feel led."]. Apparently he’s been called in by his stake president, and the two of them are working out whether or not his beliefs call for church discipline.
John’s approach to this conversation has been to present his work as a positive contribution to the church, showing how he reaches out to members who feel alone and unsupported by the regular church structures. In a sense, John is working to demonstrate that there is a whole segment of members who want to be part of the church, but who find that the church is not meeting their needs. This is an interesting approach, but its success depends on whether church leaders actually want these uncorrelated Mormons to stay in the church.
In group conflict, there is often a static faction (the side representing the status quo) and a dynamic faction (the side agitating for change). The static faction can respond in one of several ways to the actions of the dynamic faction. Here are three possible responses I see in this situation:
- Working toward harmony. When one spouse in a marriage is dissatisfied and wants to leave, the other spouse’s first response will often be, “What’s wrong, and what can I do to make it right?” There’s a desire to work things out. When done well, they can use this approach to help redefine the relationship in a way that allows both spouses needs to be met. The static faction (the spouse who’s happy with things) and the dynamic faction (the spouse who’s unhappy) work together to better understand each other and create a solution that works for both of them.
- Fighting for the status quo. When the southern states attempted to secede from the United States, the northern states fought to keep them from leaving. However, in this case the goal wasn’t to reach out to the southern states and find a way to allow their values to co-exist. It was an attempt (ultimately successful) to maintain unity through enforcing the static faction’s values on the dynamic faction.
- Welcome separation. Imagine if the Palestinians said to Israel, “We’re tired of all you guys. We’re leaving.” Do you think Israel would make overtures to keep the Palestinians from going? I don’t think so. They’d smile, wave goodbye, and be glad to be done with the conflict. In this case, the static faction (Israel) has no vested interest in maintaining unity with the dynamic faction (Palestine).
John Dehlin’s approach is based on the hope that church leaders (the static faction) desire to work things out, that they want the unconventional members of the church (the dynamic faction) to stay. I certainly hope this is the case, but I’m not certain. I can imagine things progressing along the lines of any of the three scenarios above.
When “difficult” (unorthodox) members threaten to leave the church, I can imagine that some church leaders might see that as a welcome relief — “Great, they’re gone. That makes things easier. Now we don’t need to worry about their silly concerns or indulge their disobedience.” Or I can imagine the northern/southern states approach of, “Yes, we want you to stay, but you need to obey our rules. We love you and will do everything we can to keep you here, but you need to understand that it will be on our conditions.”
But what I hope for is the marriage approach — the opening of a dialogue whereby church leaders can sincerely say, “I’m sorry that this is so difficult for you. Please help me understand the problem, and let’s see what we can do to make things work.” The foundation for this approach is open communication, mutual respect, patience, willingness to experiment, and a sincere desire for understanding. I hope the best for Bro. Dehlin, and I believe that there’s room in the church and in the gospel for those who ask questions. I’ll be interested to see how this drama unfolds.