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Tom Tolman teaches leadership to future military officers as the director of the Army ROTC program at James Madison University. He has served in two branch presidencies, as an elders quorum president and as a missionary in Japan. During his military career he has led and served in a variety of units including the 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Special Operations Command, British Army Headquarters and the United States Military Academy at West Point. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Tom lives in Harrisonburg, VA with his wife Erin and four kids – Emma, Mary, Bennett, and Connor.
Be sure to listen to the attached interview where Tom and Kurt talk in detail about what led up to Tom giving this talk in sacrament meeting.
I like to run. A few years ago I was training for a marathon. Every Saturday I’d go for a long run – sometimes as long as 20 miles. After the run, I had a particular craving for and would usually eat a large bowl of ramen soup. After one run, a friend pointed out that the raman soup I was eating was terrible and contained high levels of sodium increasing my risk of high blood pressure and other problems. I stopped eating the soup.
As it turns out, because of the long runs and the physical activity, my body actually needed the extra salt.
Thomas McConkie, author of Navigating a Mormon Faith Crisis, used a similar metaphor to talk about our spiritual needs. He wrote:
We have similar cravings spiritually. They feel counter-intuitive because in our mind, we know what we need for spiritual nourishment. Our culture has taught us what a proper diet looks like: read scriptures, go to church, pray, lose yourself in service to others. Repeat. Of course there is true sustenance in this formula. In Mormonism, it’s a bit like the spiritual food pyramid. And yet, we know more about developmental nutrition now than ever before. There are modifications in our diet that can lead to exhilarating growth spurts. There are different kinds of nutrients that we crave during different phases of our spiritual becoming. There are foods we need that we might not realize just how much we need.
We all need different food.
We all know members of the Church who aren’t attending regularly. Or at all. A close friend. A family member. Well over half the members of our branch don’t attend and that’s pretty normal across the Church. Why is this? Sometimes we are quick to propose reasons – perhaps they were offended; maybe they wanted to sin; maybe they were misled by some anti-mormon material or they just weren’t diligent enough in their scripture study and prayer.
Perhaps, in some cases, despite our best efforts, everyone doesn’t find the spiritual nourishment they need at church. When we, in well-meaning ways, attempt to force others to follow the diet that has always worked for us sometimes the consequences aren’t what we hoped.
Now, I’m not speaking in some hypothetical or theoretical sense.
I’m going to be very candid. About two years ago I had what we often call a crisis of faith. Many of the things that I had regarded with great certainty I was no longer able to view the same way. I had questions about seer stones and polygamy. And dozens of others. Nothing seemed to quite make sense.
In the midst of my questioning, I felt alone and like I was suffocating. Although I sat on the stand each week and was surrounded by loving and well-meaning friends and family I felt like my questions weren’t appropriate. That my questions might be contagious and cause others to doubt – an outcome I didn’t want to inflict on anyone. That my questions, if verbalized, would cause others to question my dedication or worthiness. That my questions would be viewed as a threat. So, I remained silent.
By November last year my questions were getting in the way of my service and I asked to be released from my calling. Although I loved everything about serving in the branch presidency, I thought that our President and the branch deserved a more committed counselor.
I also needed some space to figure out why the spiritual food that had for so long formed the basis of my diet was no longer working.
I think as saints we spend a lot of time trying to improving the church experience for the members who attend every week. But I don’t think we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to improve the church experience for the other half of our membership who doesn’t attend. Perhaps there are some things we can do that will help us be more inclusive instead of squeezing talented members out.
As I have thought about this, I have come across many wonderful talks as General Authorities are trying to address this challenge.
Elder Ballard recently told saints in Southern Utah,
There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking questions or investigating our history, doctrine, and practices. The Restoration began when Joseph Smith sought answers to his sincere questions…When someone comes to you with a question or a concern, please do not brush the question off—do not tell him or her to not worry about the question. Please do not doubt the person’s dedication to the Lord or His work.
I’ll be frank – our culture is such that I was afraid to talk about my doubts or questions. Now let me be clear – I’m not talking about anything anyone actually said to me. This is not a passive aggressive rant about some wrong I’ve felt. In a talk about being less judgmental I don’t want to be judgmental myself. My individual interactions with leaders and other members has almost always been wonderful but there are sometimes comments I come across that are intended to be helpful, but ultimately hurt. These might be comments in Sunday School or Ward Council about a member who is less active or not attending – an well-meaning explanation attempting to explain the reasons behind their lack of dedication. Let me give a specific example.
In November 2015, the Church introduced a new policy that created some controversy. If you follow the news of the Church I’m sure you have read about it. For some, this policy was an act of love. For others, it was an opportunity to follow the prophet despite their own personal concerns. Others, like myself, had questions.
On the Church’s Facebook posts about the policy, a popular comment was one about how this was an opportunity to separate the wheat from the tares. The implication was clear – if you had questions about the policy you were a tare.
The reference to a tare, of course, comes from the Biblical parable of the wheat and the tares. In the parable we learn of a man who has sowed good seed in a field only to find that an enemy has also sown tares, which is a weed resembling wheat.
Matthew 13 (emphasis added)
27 So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?
28 He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up?
29 But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
30 Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.
Although it might be comforting to know our enemies will receive a harsh final judgement, I don’t think the message in the parable is really about the burning. It’s a message to us about our own judgement of others.
Jesus tells the members and leaders of the Church to “let both grow together until the harvest.” The message is clear – Jesus is telling us that we will get it wrong. When we try to pick out the tares, we are going to cut people off and push people out. We are going to root up the wheat.
Sheri Dew recently gave a talk at BYI-I where she addressed her own challenges regarding the policy. She said:
I recently engaged in a wrestle. When the policy was announced that the children of gay parents might not be eligible for baptism at age eight, I was confused. I did not question the Brethren or doubt their inspiration, but neither did I understand the doctrinal basis for the policy. So I asked the Lord to teach me. I prayed, searched the scriptures, studied the teachings of prophets, and pondered my question in the temple. This went on for several months. Then one day a colleague made a statement that sparked a new thought for me, and in that moment the Spirit illuminated the doctrine in my heart and mind. I consider that answer personal revelation and not something I should teach. Though I have wept with friends to whom this policy directly applies, the doctrine gave me peace and understanding.
I don’t think Sister Dew is telling us that she has an answer and so we should all be comfortable with her answer. In fact, she explicitly says her answer is personal. She is, however, telling us that it is okay to wrestle with these things. Despite her many years serving in church leadership and her frequent interaction with General Authorities, even she has had to wrestle with this. For months.
When I look around I see so much talent that has left the Church. So many of my friends. Sometimes I wonder if we have pushed them out – we have said, or implied, that it isn’t okay to have questions, doubts. We have perhaps said you can wrestle – as long as you don’t bring any of questions or doubts to church or Sunday School. So, many of us wrestle in silence. And many leave.
The Church has made great efforts to highlight our diversity. In the well publicized I’m a Mormon campaign thousands of members from around the world published online profiles. In the Church’s Meet the Mormons movie an African American bishop in Atlanta and a female MMA fighter from Costa Rica are used to tell the Mormon story. I submit that in addition to welcoming racial and ethnic diversity we also need to embrace the learning and growth that comes from discussing diversity of thought and opinions. We should allow for a wider variety of spiritual dishes and recognize that what works for us may not work for someone else. Sometimes that is scary.
My experience has helped me start to see the world from new points of view, and consider other perspectives. What is the experience of a single woman in the Church? What about someone born gay? If my struggles with faith have been so hard given my privilege, how much harder must it be for others.
You and I have both heard beautiful talks in the Church where someone talks about their faith crisis and how that led to amazing experiences that strengthened their faith. Usually through a profound momentary spiritual experience or miracle. This isn’t one of those talks. My experience hasn’t led to certainty. And it hasn’t been brief. I still have questions and doubts.
But it has led to greater empathy. I have grown through it. Even grown spiritually. I think I’m in a very healthy place spiritually as I catch glimpses of light in the dark night of the soul. But, perhaps through it all, I realize this is a journey. There are highs and lows. I have so much to learn.
A few weeks ago, during a fifth Sunday lesson, the Bishop shared a quote from Lis Wiseman that really fed my soul. Sister Wiseman delivered an address to BYU students called The Power of Not Knowing. Through her life’s research, she has discovered a seemingly counterintuitive principle – that one of the most powerful shifts we can make as a leader is moving from a place of knowing to a place of inquiry.
She said, “…when people linger too long on a plateau, a little part of us dies inside. But when we step out of the space of knowing-where we are fully capable-and step into unfamiliar territory, we feel alive.” Taking this step can be scary but it is necessary for growth. Watching others take it, outside of our ability to control their actions and the consequences of their actions can be even more frightening.
Questions, however, are good. I understand that in the Gospels Jesus asked over three hundred questions. He asked questions. And, surprisingly, when others asked him questions he rarely directly answered them. Of the nearly two hundred questions he is asked, he answers less than ten of them. There is goodness in avoiding the rush to certainty and allowing ourselves and others to sit in the space of inquiry.
I reflect often on the fascinating article called Stages of Faith written by John Paulien, a Bible scholar. I’d like to paraphrase a few of his words,
[Occasionally] at the very height of spiritual success, something [can] happen that we least expect….It is a [faith crisis,] a personal crisis, [some] have called the dark night of the soul. Past certainties suddenly become inadequate. We call into question everything we have ever believed and everything we have ever done. We feel like failures, like we can’t do anything right. We are humbled. Our world caves in. Our faith, which sustained us powerfully up until this point, doesn’t seem to work anymore. All of our answers are replaced with questions. God either vanishes from view or breaks out of the comfortable box we held Him in. We “hit bottom,”…and can seem to go no further on the spiritual journey. We have saved others, but ourselves we cannot save. We feel completely alone and abandoned by God…
There are examples of this…in the Bible [and throughout our scriptures]. The classic case is Job, who did nothing to deserve it, yet went through both real-life tragedy and an inner crisis of spiritual depression almost to the point of suicide (Job 3:1-26)…[Even] Jesus, who at the very point His glorious mission is revealed to Him ends up [buffeted by Satan for forty days.]
….[This] dark night of the soul seems like the end of all our spiritual hopes and dreams, but it is not. It is actually a summons to deeper intimacy with [our Heavenly Father.] ….We realize that, while the God we have known up until this point was real, we need to rediscover Him as if for the first time.
….In spite of how it feels, this darkness [can be] a call from God. It is a sign that [Heavenly Father] is deeply engaged in your life. While doubt can be a negative thing for spiritual life [and doubt can lead to more doubt,] the dark night of the soul is a doubt that can lead to deeper faith.
So, you may be wondering, what does my testimony look like?
In the dark night of my soul, sometimes I wonder if Nephi was a real person. Or Job. But, regardless of the historical plausibility, I do know there are powerful lessons to be learned from their stories.
In the dark night of my soul, sometimes I wonder if Joseph Smith had the exact experience we read about in the Pearl of Great Price. But I do trust he had a life-changing spiritual experience and I trust that I can have one too.
So, how do we help those with doubts? Do we tell them to feast on the words of Christ? Do we serve up a platter of our favorite spiritual food? Do we tell them of our own certainty? If we are in a position of authority as a parent or leader, do we enforce compulsion and emphasize obedience despite our understanding of the importance of free agency?
What have I found helpful?
Erin was talking with a close friend, the wife of our former bishop, about my faith crisis. Her friend reassured her. She said, “Tom is one of the most honorable men I know. I trust he will be alright.”
When I heard this, I cried. It’s just what I needed. Just those simple words of unconditional acceptance. I think we need more of that. Unconditional acceptance and trust that we each have our free agency and are likely to find the spiritual food that nourishes us. We each have internal conviction and goodness and can follow the light within us.
For me, this is how we mourn with those who mourn. By offering gentle, nonjudgmental support, we can help others in their deepest trials. This is sometimes called “holding space” for someone. Author Heather Plett describes how we can do we do this.
It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.
To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.
It means, simply, to uphold our baptismal covenant of mourning with those that mourn.
I take comfort in Elder Uchdorf’s words. He said:
“Brothers and sisters, if you ever think that the gospel isn’t working so well for you, I invite you to step back, look at your life from a higher plane, and simplify your approach to discipleship. Focus on the basic doctrines, principles, and applications of the gospel. I promise that God will guide and bless you on your path to a fulfilling life, and the gospel will definitely work better for you.”
Returning to our food metaphor, I think he is saying if the feast is leaving you unwell then step back and just have some bread and water. Or maybe even some ramen. I’m grateful for the permission to simplify my discipleship and hope through my actions to allow others to do the same.
To me, at our best we are a zion community. We aren’t perfect, but the gospel and the relationships we have with each other can help us grow. Grow together until the harvest.
Thanks Tom for taking the time to share your journey. I have a lot of parallels. I had my initial faith crisis while serving in a bishopric, then in another bishopric I had my faith transition. I too am still very active, but I feel like I can’t talk about any of my issues at church. Even though I have told my wife she does not even want to read the church essays. So I can’t talk even at home. I don’t want to “attack” her beliefs, but it does feel she does not care about my concerns. More of “just get back in line and be quiet and that is how you get into heaven.”
Anyway, I really enjoyed your talk. It reminds me a bit of this High Counselor talk http://rationalfaiths.com/you-belong/
And thanks Kurt for being willing to bring this topic up (again). The church desperately needs many more fully-believing members like you. One of my core issues is that I don’t feel that even the top leadership fully believe God is at the helm. They over and over don’t want to give the whole story as they want to “help God” because the truth would make everyone leave the church. If someone really believed that God was running the show, they would believe that God is more powerful than the history of imperfections of people in the church.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really liked the ‘you belong’ talk. I have quoted parts of that in my own talks previously.
Thank you so much for this article, it was the best one I have read on the topic and I will be referencing it often. Beautiful.
Celeste, thanks for the wonderful feedback. So glad you enjoyed it.
I like the attitude of acceptance. As lds members it’s easy to be quick to judge. If the church was all about helping people live better then I would still be a part of it. Unfortunately it has to be all about truth claims and obedience and sacrifice in its current state. As such I think there is as much harm as good that comes from it. I’ve lived many places and truth claims are not unique to the lds but neither is happiness. I had to ask myself was I actually a better person inside my religious views or outside of them. After that the decision was easy.
Thank you Tom. I really have not had words to express to my family what I have been feeling and struggling with. I think I will share your talk with them. It’s beautiful.
I really enjoyed this article. I do believe we can do better. This had helped me to see the error of my ways and hopefully I can be better at “holding a place” for all my brothers and sisters as they work through their questions or doubts.
Beautifully written. Thank you.