Church Concerns and the Command to Mourn with Those That Mourn

Responses to my last post reminding me of something I’ve been thinking recently: the fact that individuals can have quite different experiences with the church. The most extreme form of differences would be the extreme faith crises and a couple of examples serve to illustrate the pain these can cause. Alma 7 says Christ “will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people … that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people,” which I see as linked to the command to mourn with those that mourn. Those in faith crises are clearly mourning.

The examples in the links are of the more extreme type, but I think we also know that struggling with concerns at a less extreme level is also common, and can also be quite painful as well. For instance, just a few months ago, the new bishop’s wife gave her first talk in the ward as bishop’s wife, saying she’d been assigned testimony. She took the opportunity to give a talk I’ve rarely ever heard and NEVER from a bishop’s wife: how she has been struggling with the church, how she would appreciate people being kind to her during her struggles, and how we all ought to be kind generally to those who struggle.

The only other time I’d heard anything like that was about a year earlier from another young couple recently moved into the ward, who addresses similar issues. Add to the equation the fact that the new bishop called that husband as his second counselor, so the new bishopric is pretty interesting.

But this also highlights what I think may be growing trends. Struggling with the church, especially among those under 30, seems to be a growing trend (these couples are in their late 20s, I guess that’s a trend in leadership also) so much so that I’ve now heard such talks about personal doubts from my new bishopric families.

I’ve sometimes had the impression that our church community can view the faith struggler as something of an “other” to the more ideal faithful member, and that the bishopric families would be held up as models of that idea faithfulness. If so, my bishopric seems to be crossing that boundary. If the trend is to call younger and younger bishops, my sense is that this trend will likely grow.

Based on such concerns of the apparent struggles of this younger generation, during my last 1.5 years as bishop, I put what we call our “safe-space group”: a place to allow people to come and talk about possible questions or concerns with the church in the context/hope of helping people cope and stay.

Lots to say about that experience in later posts, but one of the things I wanted to share from the get go with those who attended was the need to avoid any kind of “us v. them” attitudes with the more orthodox members who would not be interested in such a group. “You can understand that you are different, but we’re seeking to be fellow citizens with the saints. Different is okay, but let’s not make claims that different is better. Just different.”

The call, I said, was to empathy: participants wanted greater empathy from more orthodox members and needed to share that empathy as well. But that can be hard, and I shared this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to illustrate. Looking at things from different perspectives is helpful in that empathetic quest, but as Calvin learned, it can also be really difficult.

So are we called to mourn with those who have different experiences with church than we might have? My sense is that different points of view are going to become increasingly common, and that learning to get along will become increasingly important.

32 comments for “Church Concerns and the Command to Mourn with Those That Mourn

  1. I love your “safe-space group” idea. I would have loved to have that in my ward/stake but when I was bishop, those who questioned were told to keep it too themselves and not ask. I would meet with them one on one when they would agree to it but I have always felt that the members needed a place that they could go within the walls of the church to freely, and without concern of being “labeled”, discuss any issues they may have. As you I am sure know, they instead go to the xmo community and they are very welcoming and have answers about every question.

    Members that experience a faith crisis are for sure in mourning and it rocks their world. Telling them to read the BoM and say prayers typically doesn’t cut it. Looking forward to hearing more about the safe place group.

    Different points of view will be the new norm and the church/members, IMO, must figure out a way to make all those views feel comfortable enough to sit in the pews. As one who is experiencing this very thing now, it is hard for me to attend my meetings being the odd man out. Very hard.

  2. I am really fascinated to hear all of these stories. Appreciate your approach both to your writing and sounds like you were a tremendous bishop.

  3. Wonderful idea on creating space within our community for those who doubt. The Church proper does not have a good outlet to share faith concerns, and we need more approaches that give space for faith to breathe, change, and grow.

    A key part of what you said is the warning against falling into divisions. A few of my friends who struggle with their faith have changed to now wear it as a badge of honor…as if those who do not publicly share their faith struggles are somehow less interesting or intelligent. I still admire those who are actively wrestling with faith questions, but I agree with your approach that the longer goal is a community of saints, where we are one, as opposed to a bunch of interesting loners who sometimes sit together.

    And for what its worth, I’ve found that even the “orthodox” members who do not seem to struggle with their faith, often have wildly different views of church doctrine and policy. (I think these posts have called our religion more of an orthopraxy, anyway).

    One final note on the “command to mourn with those who mourn.” Elder Renlund just gave a BYU Devotional where he discussed the baptismal covenant, and rhetorically asked ‘where does the command to mourn fall into the covenant?’ He said it is NOT part of the covenant…but instead is the fruit of someone who has embraced the covenant in their heart. In that sense, it is less a command, but more of a desire to truly mourn. I really liked that insight!!

  4. You remind me of a ward I was in with a member who drank coffee and would often miss teaching the primary class she was assigned to (and I’m pretty certain does not read T&S, and it was a long time ago)–and then her husband was called as the bishop. I suspect that sort of thing happens more than we realize (although I’ve never seen a mixed-faith marriage bishop who had to have a non-member wife who had to share her husband with the Church for 20+ hours a week; that would be interesting.)

  5. REC, I’m very sorry to hear what you’re going through. Not to be presumptuous, but we do put our meeting on Zoom, though our group is pretty small (less than 10 usually). We hold it at our house.

    If anyone is interested, I do like to have a chat with people prior to joining. [email protected]

    Thanks, Brian!

    Thor, yes, my sense is that we’re going to see some growing tension. Many leave, but many figure out how to stay, and such “figuring out” can involved making adjustments to beliefs that not everyone is comfortable with.

    Stephen, it’s actually quite different than that. Again, these guys were called very young and the opinion of all the stake leaders was they the were the embodiment of young Mormon ideal qualities. They really put off the Peter Priesthood, Molly Mormon vibe. Very few people (I’m quite sure no stake leaders) had any idea of her faith struggles prior to calling her husband. I sure the stake leaders viewed her as the ideal bishop’s wife. (I’m curios what they think now!)

    That’s a bigger point I want to make, the old boundaries of who’s “ideal” and who isn’t seems to be coming down. This new generation, I’m finding, just seems to think quite differently than us old dudes, and the church turning more and more leadership over to them is going to be interesting. I have a future blog post planned on the topic.

  6. Something like this would have been and still would be so helpful as I have struggled for decades. I try to offer this on a low key, individual basis to people. You can talk with me about anything. If you want, I’ll listen and empathize. If you want, I’ll offer some ideas on how I’ve been able to stay very active and committed during that time. if you want, we can explore issues together.

    I think something like this has to happen. If we want people to remain in the Church, there has to be a place where they can discuss real questions in honest ways in a believing atmosphere. Because you’re also right–if believing members can’t offer that, former members certainly will.

  7. I wish we utilized something like Fowler’s stages of faith. If I recall correctly, each stage from stage 3 on are potential havens for adults, although stage 4 can be painful (faith crisis) and (hopefully) transitory. But we don’t have to all view religion in the same way. Stage 4s will test boundaries and Stage 5s will blur and redefine and start seeing the sacred everywhere, driving Stage 3s batty. But that is okay, because some stage 3s are black and white thinkers and can be quite insufferable. Stage six is rather dangerous. Those folks are paradigm shifters and spend their lives giving to their fellow human beings. I am joking a bit, but we should make homes for those who see things differently. The bottom line is that each stage has value to the human family and we can’t have too many at stage six.

  8. I agree with thor that “The Church proper does not have a good outlet to share faith concerns.” I feel like a lot of the people who make Church curriculum or deliver talks are people who have not experienced a faith crisis. For example, the CFM Sunday School manual last year said, “The counsel to the Hebrew Saints who were tempted to ‘draw back’ from their faith . . . could also help those who are trying to help loved ones in a crisis of faith.”

    The scripture passage they were alluding to said (among other things), “but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.”

    I can guarantee that that scripture is not going to help someone in a faith crisis.

  9. Like Old Man, I wish we either created or used some stages of faith framework to give credence to normative adult development. I also have come to dislike the term “Faith crisis”, as it implies the person has some form of disease that could be avoided. It’s also conflating Faith and Belief, which I don’t think are the same things. If I’m in “faith crisis”, the medicine the orthodox church would apply wants to send me back to Eden, where things were simple and innocent, eliminating the complexities of life. I am also currently in what feels more like a faith transition, it feels like there is something bigger and more mysterious than the tidy map I was given as a child. My faith is being challenged by the dissonance between a simple world view and the reality that stares me in the face daily. My faith is being challenged by beliefs I have held for years that either don’t bare the weight of evidence or seem irrelevant to being a disciple of Jesus.
    It seems apparent to me that religion, like any other institution, is just as susceptible to being hijacked by sin (self-interest) and repurposed for personal gain. I cannot ignore the fact that many of our doctrinal positions or cultural baggage do not match up very well with Jesus’ actual teachings. It feels like our structure, tone, and practices sound more like the Pharisees than the reformation Jesus was attempting to construct.

  10. I agree that a safe space for people struggling is very helpful, but it’s difficult to pull off. There really can be a big gap between those in a faith crisis/transitioning and more orthodox members who often see such a crisis as potentially threatening. The crisis can look like an attack on the faith.

    Perhaps I’ll get into it more, but one thing that really surprised me when I put the group together was exactly this: a lot of ward members seemed to find the concept suspicious or concerning, even perhaps threatening. So that really suggests to me that getting these kinds of groups off the ground can and will have a lot of barriers to overcome.

    My guess is that lots of leaders would probably balk at such a notion of stage progression. We tend to want to stick with the validity of the basics and often tend to have something of a “one size fits all” attitude to spiritual practice. So these attitudes can add up to challenges to those with concerns or thinking outside the box.

    At the same time, I do think that we are going to see more and more people gaining greater comfort with finding a place for themselves within the church despite unorthodoxy.

  11. This may be somewhat of an oversimplification, but I think these principles may help.

    Faith is a choice. Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge.
    For many of us, as children, we were presented with one side of the narrative. The Church is true, and here’s why. That’s all fine and good–milk before meat and no need to give equal time to the adversary (referencing Boyd K. Packer’s “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect”) and all that.
    However, later on, some of us seem to be surprised that there exist many reasons to not believe what they were originally taught. The advent of the internet makes it more likely for these reasons to be discovered sooner, rather than later, by many young people in the Church. It should be expected, however, that reasons not to believe exist. The choice would not have effective opposition and faith would not be a choice if the vast preponderance of evidence were too one-sided.
    So there are reasons to believe and reasons not to believe in the Church’s truth claims. The Gospel Topics essays and other apologetic material may help resolve some of these concerns in favor of the Church. But counter-explanations also exist. Apologetics has its place, but mostly, it uses the reasoning of people to make arguments in defense of a cause. Argument, by its nature, can never be definitive.
    So we get to choose. If you’re aware of them, there are forces pulling in both directions. However, when we exercise the faith to believe, we will gradually see more and more confirmation of the truth of that choice–signs follow them that believe. Even so, we’re still free to make our choice and leave the path at any time.
    Ultimately, it’s like Joshua said–“Choose ye this day whom ye will serve . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” That’s faith–to choose to believe even when you know there are reasons not to believe.

  12. Personally, I think the number of people who are “suffering in silence” within the LDS sphere is much, much greater than most of us (including leadership) would like to admit. Like most suffering, I don’t believe it is remaining static, nor is diminishing; but rather growing in its’ size and intensity. Some would probably refer to this phenomena as a “cancer” or a sickness within the Saints – and then others (perhaps like me) who see it as monumental, foundational shift looming on the horizon. From my perspective, I think “the Church” better deal with this rapidly changing reality in positive, welcoming, proactive ways or they truly will simply become a Financial/Real Estate Investment Firm; with the beautiful façade of being a Church of Christ.

    Note: One only needs to attend any Sacrament Meeting (on any given Sunday) and observe the number of “faithful members” who disengage immediately following the taking of the Sacrament. If one watches closely, it’s stunning to observe the number of people who are there – for whatever reason – because that have to be.

  13. Perhaps those who are experiencing the intense pains of faith crisis/stage 4 are experiencing incredibly intense growing pains. They are turning or have turned into new creatures, one that does not fit so easily into stereotypical church roles. Unfortunately this does cause alienation for those who struggle. It needs to be noted that some find their life callings as institutional loyalists in Stage 3. Others find their meaning and missions in other ways, perhaps outside the roles assigned in the institutional church. I know a couple who attend sacrament meeting, but who now rarely accept callings (although they are an amazing ministering couple, quietly and consistently serving widows) and who have decided that they will not serve a church mission during retirement. They intend to serve as docents in a museum, working with the homeless and as reading volunteers at a Title I elementary school. These are missions that fit them. I have frequently found that those who best “mourn with those who mourn” are those less inclined to rigid orthopraxy.

    I wonder if some Christian thinkers were correct in assuming that there is a “church invisible,” or people scattered geographically and historically quietly doing work that God approves, adding their humanitarian and charitable acts to the rich history of this planet. While they are not directed by the “church visible” they are known to God. Joseph Smith did receive word that there were “holy men [and women] that ye know not of” (D&C 49:8).

  14. I think a lot of these comment highlight a point I want to make here and in upcoming posts: again, that we are seeing more and more the different experiences that people are having with the church. Those who become disillusioned and want to leave is a big theme, but a bit of a different topic, as here I’m more interested in those with some shifting beliefs but who still want to stay.

    In our first safe-space meeting after I got released, I asked participants what they got from the group. One said, “We felt like we could disagree with things (he highlighted blacks and the priesthood) and still be good members.” Another highlighted that she felt like she could voice disagreement and still feel like she belonged.

    And it’s that sense of belonging that interests me, as they were both “youngish” (under 30), and represent what I think will be a growing trend. Though committed members, they’ve ruffled a few feathers by having some of their unconventionality on display. Again, I think we’re going to see more of that kind of thing, and I would assume also more of the discomfort that can go with it.

  15. Stephen,

    Is the purpose of expressing unconventionality on a given topic, like blacks and the priesthood, to vent, to have a place where they feel understood?

    The facts of every church related controversy are the same regardless of our faith “stage”. Our choice is we get to choose how we think and feel about it. And my primary concern if approached about a “safe space meeting” is that rather than helping people to choose to think about whatever the doubt or concern is in a way that facilitates faith, they help people choose to think and feel about the doubt or concern in a way that expands the concern. The line between a helpful meeting and one that isn’t, is probably quite small.

  16. I remember clearly the first time I met someone who saw the church unconventionally on a big ticket item like me. The power of it was realizing that I wasn’t completely nuts in how I was experiencing this church item. It was such a relief to realize it wasn’t just me. That’s a huge positive of these groups.

    Michael, the problem with intentionally limiting individuals with concerns to church-approved or church-positive-only answers is that it is glaringly obvious to the questioning individual that this is occurring. Doing so creates distrust and pushes the individual to look outside the church entirely for less biased information (or often differently biased). Which is exactly where we are now and a major step in the the shelf-breaking cycle.

  17. ReTx,

    I don’t know how I or anyone else could limit the discussion that way, because the internet is almost free and if I wanted to find a non-official church POV on a given topic it would be trivially easy to do so.

    I’m more saying that I’m curious and cautious about the result of this type of meeting. Is it to help people to feel understood only? That’s probably a really healthy thing. Is it to help resolve the concern and help them feel better about the topic? Also good. Is it to perpetuate the concern, find others to revel in with it and convince other people they should have the concern too? to sort of mainstream the “unconventional” view within their ward or stake? In my mind, that isn’t helpful.

  18. Said better than I could, ReTx.

    These were the parameters we had for the group (and what I tell new people who want to join). “This group is a ‘safe space’ to allow people to discuss questions or concerns about the church. Expressing concerns and viewpoints is all allowed, but keep in mind that the purpose of the group is to help people stay in the church. Therefore, our overall orientation is in that direction. If people are upset and want to leave the church and really don’t want us (or anyone) to stop them, this is probably not the best place for them.

    “The rule therefore is simple. Feel free to voice your opinions, questions, and vents. Feel free to disagree with each other under the important caveat that in your disagreement you do not insist that other group members agree with you. Let’s make this a safe space for all.”

    It’s gone really well and as I’ve hinted at, two of the three new bishopric members that replaced me (including the new bishop) were in the group. So that was interesting. All say it’s been really helpful and were encouraging when I said I’d be discussing the group here at TS.

  19. To clarify a little more, Michael. One thing I do in the group is to offer my own tidbits and insights on my own making sense of difficult issues in the hope of being helpful. At the same time, I very much wanted to move away from insisting on any of my answers being authoritative in a church leadership sense, so I make it clear to them all to feel free to disagree.

    In the first meeting we had after my release and their call, I felt a little disoriented with the role change and wanted to brainstorm with them about what the safe-space group would be like now. I had felt like I was mentoring and ministering as a part of my bishop calling and now the roles were reversed.

    “We weren’t coming to you because you were the bishop,” the now 2c said. “We were coming because you were a knowledgeable person.” Basically, they all insisted that nothing change, that I just keep running it like I did. And they’ve continued to insist on this.

    I got the idea to start the group when I got a text from a mid 20s YSA, saying she’d been away from the church a few years, wanted to come back, but had some questions. When we met and she started asking me the expected stuff, I realized that my unconventional views on things could be a little awkward. So I thought it would be better to share in a group, where lots of people could share ideas, including me, but where I would not (hopefully) come across as the last word like it felt sitting there in the bishop’s office.

    And like I said, the results seem to have been pretty good so far. But again, putting this together isn’t easy, and it does really help (maybe require?) for a person to be both knowledgeable and empathetic. So I’m hoping to create some more such people to potentially run other such groups.

    We went over everything they asked: LGBT+, all the history stuff they asked about including all the Joseph Smith polygamy stuff. Roles of women in the church is an ongoing discussion etc. Everything.

    Here’s what one of the participants said when I asked them if mentioning the group here was okay. Dave, said absolutely mention the group and added, “We looped in various people who wanted to talk things out and made them feel included and heard. We showed that tricky conversations can be had without devolving into a grumblefest. We gave context to problematic history in a way that can’t comfortably be done in church services.”

    And another: “I agree with Dave! I don’t mind the group being mentioned on the internet. If we can spark conversations elsewhere that’s great!… Speaking only for myself, I’m in a much better place now than when we moved here. Obviously there’s still a lot I don’t know or understand and would like to talk about, but I don’t feel as desperate or lost. And a huge part of it is just knowing there’s a group of people in the same boat!”

  20. But just to be clear, this did not mean that the group participants always (or even most of the time) came to agree with more standard orthodox answers and views. Again, a big reason for this post and series is about those in the church who want to be here but have unconventional views. More to come!

  21. Stephen, that’s really cool, thanks for sharing more detail. It sounds like you’re doing good work. My own personal experience with these kinds of groups is mixed. In one group, it quickly devolved into an anti-mormon screed and the ringleader left the church. In the other case, I was a part of an informal group of friends who discussed many issues and I think it overall had a very positive impact on those who were struggling with some issue or another.

    I look forward to reading about more of it.

  22. What you describe Stephen is something every stake in the church should have had in place 10 years ago. I reached out to my stake pres about a year ago to see if we could do this very thing and did not even get a reply. I would love to help people try to stay in the church with less than orthodox views on everything. You have to get the right moderator and knowledgeable people but I think there is enough to pick form in an average stake. Best calling ever!

  23. Implementing common stake run safe-space groups, while I do think we’ll see some stakes attempt such things in the future, will be hard to implement on a large scale. My sense is that to be effective it really is important to do what many commenters have suggested: allow an open dialogue and allow for participants to come to their own possible “out of the box” conclusions. Allowing such thinking can go a long way to making people feel safe, but such an allowance can very quickly clash with orthodoxy.

    Orthodox culture does tend to lean toward wanting to promote, even enforce, orthodox thinking: “I’m the leader so I’ll tell you what the right answer is.” Again, that kind of approach is quite off-putting to those who struggle, but I get the sense that lots of leaders would not want to relinquish that authoritative stance.

    Thus many would find a “freethinking” group without imposition of orthodoxy to be a potentially dangerous thing. Again, this is something I want to talk about in future posts: getting along when ideas increasingly vary.

  24. Oh I have no illusions that the church can do these groups through CES or other official church guidance. It would have to be carefully hand picked moderators, free to think outside the box, and not controlled by some uber- orthodox Stake Pres. The leaders just need to let it happen and let members know they can attend/participate safely. I am surprised someone in your stake didn’t ask you to stop holding these meetings.

  25. Nope haven’t been asked to shut down. Again we’re not very big and have had bishopric approval. But the group wants to keep meeting regardless, so we now see it as something I’d started the group as bishop but since that (previous) ward had been dissolved, so we now consider ourselves to be independent. So that’s the agreement we now have with each other.

    Come check us out if interested, REC.

  26. Once a month at my house away from the two-hour block. The day of the month is usually picked at the previous session, but right now we are holding our meetings at 4 PM Pacific time. And we do Zoom.

  27. Over ten years ago, I received a preliminary copy of the infamous CES Letter about a year prior to publication. I immediately recognized the harm it would cause. I reached out to CES professors, BYUH faculty, my local leaders—tried to bring attention to the potential problem so that adequate response might be prepared to combat it. I was told not to worry, not to read such things, and that leadership was prepared to steer the ship away from any lurking icebergs. So it was peculiarly painful to watch thousands upon thousands of otherwise faithful members fall away in disillusionment and disaffection—like a slow-motion crash nobody could do anything about. When a response was finally mustered, taking form in the Gospel Topics Essays, more falling away occured.

    I have worked with a lot of folks experiencing “faith crisis” for a number of years. One of the common denominators is a conflation of faith and belief. When differentiated, we often find that so-called “faith crisis,” is in fact “belief crisis.” Faith isn’t belief. Belief is propositional, faith isn’t. Faith requires hope, belief doesn’t. In fact, we can move from faith to ordinance to covenant, without a single belief system. This pattern has been highly effective in my experience working with friends, loved ones, and strangers, concerning doubts and disillusion over historical or institutional issues of the Church. Too many Latter-Day Saints build testimonies upon the sands of belief, so that when the storms and waves arrive, the ground beneath is swept away, and they find themselves drowning in an existential crisis. We can avoid this if we discern between faith and belief. There is great safety in moving from faith to ordinance to covenant. Ordinance allows for deeper exposition and richer, more meaningful symbol in our teaching. From there, we move to covenant—not as contract, commodity, or loyalty oaths, but rather as kinship, relationship, and proximity—the central metaphor for covenant in the scriptures is marriage, the Wedding Feast. This pattern has been effective and rewarding for hundreds with whom I’ve shared it with. For a more academic treatise, I recommend “Faith and Belief,” by Harvard Professor of Comparative Religion, W. Cantwell Smith (Princeton University Press, 1979). Also, empathy is paramount, and patience, and love—regardless of the angst or anger vented. The primary emotion experienced in crisis is betrayal, which takes a bit of effort to work through. Notice also that “anti” material focuses on targeting belief systems—almost never does the stuff address ordinances or covenant. So our belief systems are a vulnerability, and we can bypass this vulnerability by moving from faith to ordinance to covenant, without a single belief system. Hope this helps.

  28. That’s a very interesting way of framing a number of issues I want to talk about here, T.M. My beliefs around our standards narratives have certainly shift considerably, and for me, my covenants with God and church members are things I find very meaningful. I have a new post where I talk bit about this a well.

  29. T.M. I had the same experience but not about the CES letter but the Joseph Smith Papers. I also asked the leaders (my SP who was CES) what the church was preparing to do for the members when they read these books. Crickets. Good news, not many read the JSP. Bad news, lots have read the CES letter and it is, as you know, very bad and can take a life-long believing member to an x member in 24 hours. I am fascinated with your faith/belief view on what helps these people. I dont claim to completely understand your view but I dont want to belong to a church that I dont know/believe is God’s church for me. My faith is not in the ordinances, books, current and past leaders or covenants that I have made. I believe/know this is the church for me because God revealed that to me. No faith anymore. This to me, is the foundation that the waves cannot wash away. The temple doesn’t have to be “true” for me to believe. The BoM does not have to be true for me to believe. God is all I need for me to believe. I admit that my membership is not a traditional one as my primary focus is my relationship with God and not the traditional things of the church.

    Having said that, if you are able to help others with your faith/belief concept then awesome! Thanks for sharing!

    Stephen I look forward to participating in your group.

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