Griping about Church Leaders and Policies in Front of My Kids

Griping about religion

First of all, I don’t have a lot to gripe about when it comes to the Church or its leaders. This isn’t a holier-than-thou attitude, I’m sure that if I looked hard enough I’d find plenty with an organization as large and with as many moving pieces as the Church, just that with all the demands for my big family I’m saving my gripe energy for the elite charter school that wantonly discriminates against homeschool applicants (ahem). Plus on a local level my bishopric probably puts in 20+ hours of uncompensated work every week, largely to help my children’s religious formation, so I have no desire to look the gift horse in the mouth. 

Still, of course, sometimes things come up. I don’t really work for the Church in any significant capacity and I’m engaged with it of my own free will and choice; If they want me to drive out an hour to undergo a multi-hour training that would completely wipe out my precious and rare weekend time with my family, I just tell them no. If Elder so-and-so only seems capable of speaking in cliches, platitudes, and quotes from his superiors I’ll internally roll my eyes and maybe mention something to my wife but will move on; the little gripes are more of an intellectual exercise than anything at this point, and they don’t really affect me personally if I don’t let them. 

Still, kids pay attention and are sensitive to parental examples, and one of those little anecdotal correlations you pick up is that children of parents who gripe a lot about the Church during their sensitive developmental period tend to inherit the habit, and they are much more likely to eventually leave (unless, and again just my own anecdotal observation, the griping parent happens to be clearly toxic, abusive, and dysfunctional, then the kid is often on the road to seminary teacher, molly-Mormondom). 

Consequently, as somebody whose premise is that I want my children to stay in the Church (as it currently is, no change needed), who believes that it is the way of truth and light, I know I need to watch myself on this point, even if griping can be sort of a guilty pleasure, the Swedish Fish of cognition that you know is rotting your insides but gives you a jolt in the moment.

They aren’t a majority, but I’m surprised at how many parents seem to think nothing of chronically griping about the Church in front of their kids, whether on the local, general, or historical level. When considering where we should be on this or that continuum of membership, one litmus test I sort of apply if how many children of people like X are still in the Church. While on individual level that has arguable validity (e.g. Laman and Lemuel), in the aggregate I think it’s reasonable that if you see hardly any children of people who are X-type members in the Church, then, if I decide that I do in fact want to affiliate with the Church, it’s sort of a non-starter to become X. 

Of course, this is not to say that there should be no recognition of the humanity of leaders or the fact that people disagree with the particulars all the time, or that we should sycophantically sing the praises of high Church leaders in a sort of weird personality cult way (sorry, speaking of gripes…) I wouldn’t be doing my children any favors by giving them unrealistic expectations about Church leaders or the tools or perspectives to deal with being let down or worse. (And yes, I’m aware that the boundary between that and “griping” is highly subjective.) 

“The light of the body is the eye.” If the failings are the focus they’ll become bigger and bigger until that’s all that there are. To be more specific; if, for example, you do a sort of implicit association test and the first thing you think about Brigham Young is “racist” or Joseph Smith is “sex,” you’re probably missing the point. 

D&C states that “cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, and cry they have sinned when they have not sinned before me, saith the Lord, but have done that which was meet in mine eyes….They shall not have right to the priesthood, nor their posterity after them from generation to generation.” Growing up this scripture was always a little confusing to me and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Why would their posterity not have the priesthood by dint of their parents? However, as I’ve had the aforementioned experiences, where people are very seriously accusing the prophets of having sinned when they have not sinned, it becomes clear that at some point it is difficult for the intergenerational transmission of religion and belief to operate once certain lines have been crossed and the fruit has been poisoned, even if the parent does stay in the Church. Children of non-gripers may leave or may stay in the Church, but it seems rare for children of chronic gripers to stay in any active capacity. 

20 comments for “Griping about Church Leaders and Policies in Front of My Kids

  1. I’ve seen the same things, and I do the same things, for the same reasons. That doesn’t mean pretending that everything is perfect all the time. Instead it means a lot of unseen work that goes into making sure things run reasonably well, in general or for a specific individual, and a lot of effort to point out and exemplify productive alternatives when things aren’t perfect.

  2. I don’t know. Well, yes you have a point about parents who do *nothing* but gripe. But I have heard more people leave because they were brought up with the idea that once the prophet has spoken, the thinking has been done, and then they find out that church leaders are humans doing the best they know how and they make mistakes. It is the disillusionment that causes them to doubt, then they start digging into things like polygamy that always bugged them and find out history stuff and are even more disillusioned. And I have seen more, especially women, who leave over things like the sexism in the temple ceremony. And I admit that is changing, but then again people leave over the changes in the temple because they struggled to understand it and then it changes, no explanation.

    I think children need to be raised with the idea that “prophet” doesn’t mean he talks every Thursday in the temple face to face with God. I think they need to know the prophet uses the same hard to understand promptings of the Holy Ghost as the rest of us. And if you stress that nobody is perfect, not parents, not them (your children) and not church leaders, that children will grow up with more realistic expectations.

    Of course it has to be more than words. You have to recognize your own mistakes and apologize to your kids when you make mistakes. You have to remind the children that the church should expect more revelation and to change the stuff that isn’t perfect and programs that are not working, and change any prejudice of church leaders. Just like the ban on blacks members holding priesthood, things will change.

    That is what I have seen keeps people in the church the longest. The reality that the church is good but not perfect. And when you see a real problem that hurts people you are not afraid to acknowledge it.

  3. I don’t know if my children have ever heard me griping about the church. But I do know that for the last five+ years, they’ve heard me teach them about the gospel principles in our (nearly) weekly Come Follow Me lessons. I hope that will cover for some occasional griping.

  4. Good post. Even better response by Anna. Raising children healthily in the church requires occasionally pointing out where leaders have made mistakes, including doctrinal ones. For instance, in my home (where my wife and I preside) my children are taught that the racial priesthood and temple restrictions resulted from leaders applying teachings from their racist society rather than revelation.

    But as in any relationship, our leaders mistakes cannot be the focus. We must forgive when an individual or organization repents, and we must honestly acknowledge our own weakness and errors. Thus my wife and my examples of temple worship, scripture study, prayer, etc are of utmost importance. The good must be the focus. But the evil must still be identified and pruned away.

  5. As a rule, in my home and in the presence of my children, there is nothing said to refer to the Church in a negative way. One of the habits I’ve developed to avoid mingling facts or truths that might be taken in disparaging or negative light about the Church, is to refer to “the institution.” The Church has two parts: the institution and the congregation. In John’s Revelation, he depicts the institution as Harlot, and the congregation as Bride. In criticizing the institution, we make a observation of the tendency Joseph Smith warned us about, namely, that “unrighteous dominion” is the Rule, not the exception. As such, we needn’t be flabbergasted when the institution doesn’t live up to our expectations, when it makes mistakes, or when it seems completely out-of-touch with the congregation. Rather, we should expect these things. At the same time, it’s a sign of health in the Church as a whole, when we are able to speak freely and criticize institutional behavior or policy, without fear of being ostracized by the cognitively dissonant or more scrupulous zealots among us. To criticize the institution isn’t the same as to criticize the Church. The institution is a man-made appropriation, an attempt to order the work of the Restoration: it’s going to be messy at times, absurd at times, sometimes contradictory, sometimes in total error. What harms the Church most is when we become divisive and intolerant, when we split ourselves into those-for, and those-against, over perceived disagreement or difference of opinion. Throughout the scriptures both extremes—the complainers in opposition and the zealots in assertion, are who destroy the culture of the Church. We ought to be able to dialogue openly and entertain all positions, with the shared intention of resolving issues—so long as our hearts are unified in the effort of seeking the Will of the Lord.

  6. I agree with all this. I guess it’s kind of a continuum. If bad vibes about the Church outweighs good vibes then kids will (reasonably) question why be in it in the first place. Being realistic about both the good and bad will help prepare them for the messiness and all the “glass darklys” while being clear about where the strait and narrow is.

  7. The Church is an integral part of our life. We have strived to help our children have a broader view of the faith, using the words of prophets to explain the scriptures, but also Church scholars when they give commentaries on the scriptures. At home there is space to express your apprehensions regarding the Church with complete confidence and from there we begin to seek the understanding of why certain things happen, why some people in the church sometimes act in a not so Christian way. They have seen us serve in the Church all our lives and know the challenges and uncertainties of those who hold the keys of the priesthood, so through these experiences we try, together with my wife, to ensure that our children’s experience in the Church is not that of a fairy tale, since today, as teenagers, they see that life is not so easy and that it is important to have a positive and reflective faith. I don’t know if it has worked for me, because sometimes they feel more identification with Laman and Lemuel than with Nephi, who seems to them like a philosopher Smurf.

  8. I agree with Anna 100%. One of the biggest issues with people leaving the church in the last 8 or so years is finding out that the church was not all rainbows and butterflies as taught in seminary. The prophet gets his revelation like we do. The prophet sometimes doesn’t get revelation and has to make a call on his own, just like we do. Prophets all have their own leadership styles just like we do in our callings. Nelson is the best example of this since BY! I dont think there is anything this guy has not touched in his short time as pres.

    If we teach our kids that the past and current prophets are prophesying every time their lips move, its not going to go well. If we teach our kids that our leaders past and present made no mistakes, the kids are going to be disappointed…eventually. Policies are just that and should not be worshipped or treated as anything more than the current standard. To me, griping about policies is fair game. Griping about the people who are doing their best to serve for free is not fair game.

    The church is not more important than the Gospel of Jesus. The gospel is simple, the church is not so much. Separate how you see the two and it all makes more sense IMO. Past and present.

  9. Anecdotally, my parents raised five children. Three of us remain in the faith tradition, and two of us do not. My parents valued the church and I cannot recall them consistently complaining, though it probably did happen sometimes. How does your analysis control for the individual agency of children who grow up to be adults and who are able to make their own informed choices about whether or not to remain members of tcojcolds? Blaming the parents for not being enough when grown adult children live their own lives is not cool.

    If I recall from other posts from the OP, your kids are still young. Let’s make a note to re-visit this post in 25 years.

  10. @Chadwick: Oh, they very much might leave the Church, I’m not saying they won’t, but the point is in the last line: “Children of non-gripers may leave or may stay in the Church, but it seems rare for children of chronic gripers to stay in any active capacity.” As I make it clear in the OP, the point isn’t that children who raised with non-gripers will stay in the Church, it’s rather that the children of chronic gripers almost certainly don’t.

  11. I’ve found that most of the children that leave the church have parents who are politically very conservative, and frequently exhibit fundamentalist (philosophically-speaking) tendencies. In fact, I’d bet that parents with the worst relationships with their children (if they kids are less-active or have left the church) are from this group as well.

    Now, you see what I did there. I judged. Was the judgement righteous? I effectively placed an entire group of LDS parents on notice they are likely to lose their kids and/or have horrible relations with them. It doesn’t matter if it is true or untrue. The damage is done. My thoughts on the matter is that outspokenness is a personality trait. It is not a sin. And sometimes we remain ignorant of problems unless someone has the wherewithal to point them out.

  12. @Old Man: I don’t get it, so are you saying that children of people who present a negative view of the Church to them as they are growing up are just as likely to stay? I’m sure you can find some, but the whole point is that they are less likely (which I think is pretty commonsensical), and that that has implications for how much I gripe in front of my kids.

  13. Stephen, my point was perhaps not clear.

    In my experience, unless the parents leave the church when their kids are too young to keep going by themselves and therefore the entire family leaves together, parents with older kids will experience a mixed bag of their kids leaving/not leaving regardless of what the parents do. So even if the parents complain, some of their children will choose to stay. So my point is that children of gripers will do what is best for them notwithstanding the gripes. The choice to stay or leave is not as simple as simply saying if you don’t parent a certain way, your kids will leave. You are completely disregarding treating the children of gripers as a human being capable of making their own informed choice. If you have the data to prove me wrong, by all means. But even if you could identify griping parents, you would probably still find at least one kid will stay in, which would upend your conclusion.

    Also, not at all surprised to hear you don’t consider yourself to have gripes with the institution. It was built for you, after all, being a cisgender heteronormative white American male.

  14. I’m guessing this is going to turn out to be quite a complicated equation in the coming decades. We’ve been a little hit an miss with our own kids and it’s anyone guess how that turns out just as it is for anyone’s children. I did overhear my kids talking about what they described as an abundance of Utah associates around their age having faith crises and leaving the church and those friends sharing various upsetting “scandalous” information that caused them to leave. They both joked how they had already known all the information and thus would answer “well, yeah” to the various bombshells. So maybe our policy of being open about the controversial stuff was helpful to them. One of those daughters is active and one is not.

    My wife often explains that she and I don’t mind arguing in front of the kids because she’d read somewhere that was helpful to model conflict resolution. We generally like to lean towards openness about disagreement, whether our own of church issues. We feel like just as we model our own conflict resolution, we can also model such things in regard to the church.

    My guess is that such resolution skills are going to become more and more useful to church members generally.

  15. @Chadwick: Sure, free will and agency has a role, but it’s just as silly to pretend that how the Church is framed during the early sensitive period is irrelevant.

    @Stephen Fleming: I definitely agree that modeling how to resolve concerns while demonstrating an overall positive disposition towards the Church is very important and will become more so.

  16. In your evidently close and prolonged observation of other families and their griping habits, have you compared church-gripers with complainers about school teachers and principals, coaches and dance teachers, and other adults in children’s lives? (Not so much political figures, perhaps, because kids din’t often interact with presidents and mayors.) In other words, is there any difference in daily effect or outcome between griping about church leaders and other adults that kids are generally expected to respect, or at least obey within their sphere? Or is this just another way to draw lines between your sheepiness and others’ goatiness?

  17. Far be it for me to pass up a chance to signal my righteousness, but yes, that makes sense. If somebody’s a griper in general then it makes sense that their kids could develop a more pessimistic view towards authority and institutions more broadly.

  18. Ardis, anecdotal, but my family demonstrates this pattern outside the church. My father was extremely critical of our public school experience as children. We frequently heard griping about curriculums, policies, school leadership, district wide budgets, decisions, etc. His griping wasn’t the only factor, but somehow he was still surprised when all of his grandchildren were homeschooled. None of us belong to that institution anymore.

  19. It’s a huge problem in things like school sports and music. Parents who suggest that a coach/director is an idiot dramatically undermine trust and harm the whole program. It’s one reason some school districts put rules in place about topics that coaches will not discuss with parents. Now it’s true that many coaches and directors are bad, but one of the worst things parents can do is to belittle the coach/director in front of the child. As long as your kids keep playing in the orchestra/team, they need to respect and trust the adult leading it. Was the orchestra always good? No, it was often bad, but I tried to model productive ways to respond to the situation and avoid complaining about the director.

  20. This is a great post Stephen, and great comments. It’s a fascinating thing to balance. As a parent (and early morning seminary teacher; this morning we covered 2 Nephi 27), I see this dynamic as one that involves competing imperatives. My desires (for my own children’s religious formation and commitment) mirror Stephen’s exactly… yet I also make great strides to model what a “real” testimony and life of devotion means, which does in fact often include a “realness” about the church and the gospel (and sometimes a willingness to express skepticism or question things, or at the very least say things like: I don’t understand this). My own hypothesis is that I hope the “good’ outweighs the “bad” – – or rather, the constructive outweighs the griping. That seems intuitively crucial to me. Having said that, I can’t assert definitively what the right ratio is, or whether there’s some sort of Gottman-esque balance between the two. (I’m sure I’m not describing this exactly right, but Gottman famously showed that marriages succeed when there’s something like a 5-to-1 ratio of complements to critiques.) So anyhow, my hope is that — similar to what Anna is saying — there’s value in kids observing a realistic faith that can weather some questioning and “griping”, in that they can also see an example of someone who constantly magnifies callings and bears testimony, despite those questions or gripes. So… yes. I love this conversation, and can identify with it.

    One of the things I’ve been thinking about the past few years, however, is about a sort of “selection effect” over time. That is, maybe consistent with Stephen’s assertion about Twitter subscribers/posters: Who stays and who goes, over time? In other words, if we faithful parents/leaders overly self-censor our questions/gripes/criticisms, does that hasten the eventual departure of young people who are more inclined to question or hold nuance? And if so, how does the church body change and evolve? What does that future church group look like for our children once they’re grown? If the ‘main’ conversations at church (during meeting times, and elsewhere in our now more limited family-centered, church-supported approach) are increasingly weighted toward unicorns-and-rainbows discussions that shy away from anything that looks like a gripe or a question, sure: like Stephen, *I’m* ok. I can privately gripe or roll my eyes with my spouse… but what’s the longitudinal effect of keeping all of that out of sight, as it were? Is there a collective “dumbing down” of our lived theology and willingness to engage in the practical gospel at church, that goes along with it being taboo to be occasionally self critical of the institution? In my opinion, the correlated materials and changes coming out of CES aren’t necessarily helpful along these lines, either… seminary students aren’t even asked to read the entire Book of Mormon anymore, and the suggested lesson plans are increasingly proof-texty vs meaty.

    All of which is to say: yes, there are many of us who comfortably occupy a space of full activity while also embracing some nuance about questions or gripes. But if we can’t model to our kids what it looks like to constructively question (or even occasionally gripe), what happens a generation down the road? Is it the case that the organization/structure/norms are now almost (perhaps inadvertently) oriented toward making the retention of precisely these kind of “dual citizenship” members more difficult? And if so, what happens then? Kids can get worn down if they feel like they’re constantly swimming upstream. Is there a risk that an unwillingness to question or criticize just contributes to the “self selection out” of young people who might 1) conclude that the church’s teachings just aren’t that relevant or helpful for their actual life questions, or (perhaps more to the point) 2) say to themselves, I can’t relate to church people, they can’t even handle any self-criticism of their own institution and all the smart folks seem to have left.

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