People in your ward doubt the validity of gospel and you don’t know it. You don’t know it because they are afraid to tell you, their leader, that they doubt. They are afraid how you will respond, what you will say, and what you will do. Some are even afraid their newfound doubts will cause you to begin to doubt because they were once fully convinced of the gospel’s validity too. No, they haven’t sinned or need an excuse to sin—they just doubt.
If the bishop, or any other leader, is lucky enough, members with deep questions about the restored gospel will actually set an appointment to meet with you before they fade away into inactivity, or worse. This type of appointment is one of your greatest leadership tests. A moment when you will feel like you need to say the right thing or you might unintentionally push them away.
To help leaders prepare now rather than in the 15 seconds you will have when they say, “I’m not sure I believe anymore” here are seven things leaders can consider to help those in your ward who doubt.
Validate, Validate, VALIDATE
Most people who have developed doubt in the claims of the LDS Church feel like they have gone crazy. They live in a church culture where they see people every month stand and deliver a testimony with “every fiber of their being.” These strong testimonies can be inspiring for many, but for those suddenly doubting, they feel like an outlier for even having thoughts of doubt.
Validation is the first step to a productive conversation. No matter how radical or outlandish the leader perceives the member’s new perspective, it is critical to validate the fact that any normal, believing church member could develop such questions. Validating their doubts, concerns, or different beliefs doesn’t mean you agree with them or that you should give them the impression you agree with them. Validation is simply recognizing the feelings a member might feel as he or she wrestles with a newfound perspective. For example, if an individual shares with a leader that she has read new information that causes her to question Joseph Smith’s validity as a prophet of God, the leader could say, “I can imagine you have been feeling confused, unsure, and possibly even betrayed by this new information. It is important to realize that questions and doubts are part of a normal process we all go through as we strive to discover a deeper faith, even when we thought we had a stable testimony of these principles.” When a doubter hears validation, she suddenly realizes she isn’t going crazy. If she feels like her perspective is scoffed at or dismissed, she will realize the mistake she made by trying to communicate her concerns with her church leader. Remember, she won’t feel loved if she feels like you are trying to win a disagreement or straighten out her beliefs.
Offer a New Framework
When an individual experiences a faith crisis he feels he is in a spiritual free fall. He begins to question concepts in life he had never questioned before—especially those concepts based on faith. He moves from a life of certainty to a life of questions. This destroys hope and stimulates anxiety.
One of the best ways a leader can help others to establish a foundation of hope is to give the individual a new framework in which to start reconstructing his faith. Up until now, most with an LDS background have had a black-and-white framework to define their faith. They thought they had most of the answers that helped them understand the world and the eternities. It’s not so much that the doubter’s faith has been damaged; it’s their framework of defining faith that is needing repair.
In my experience, James Fowler’s Stages of Faith is effective when needing a dynamic framework for understanding the human experience related to faith. We hope to produce more resources on Leading Saints that better explain this model, but for now, I encourage you to review it online. It is relieving for both the leader and the member when the member understands he is not in a crisis of faith, but rather, in a transition of faith. Many have gone through this transition before and maintained a strong belief in the religion they love.
Here is a quick understanding of how an LDS member might experience Fowler’s Stages of Faith model:
- Stage 1: “Heavenly Father gave me a nose and a family!” (Toddler age learning)
- Stage 2: “Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, he knows the way!” (Primary age learning)
- Stage 3: “This is the True and Living Church restored by God in a perfect way.” (Black and white learning)
- Stage 4: “The Book of Mormon was mainly translated from a seer stone?!?!?! If this is true I’m going to have to figure out a new way of structuring my faith in order to fully benefit from what the gospel offers.”
- Stage 5: “I love how much nuance there is in the gospel and the history of the restoration. It challenges me with new questions the lead me to a new understanding of the gospel.”
- Stage 6: Jesus Christ was at stage 6 and He was at the highest level of charity and was only focused on love and justice.
That’s my basic understanding of the six stages. Note that a given stage is not superior to any other stage; nor is it required that everyone go through each stage in order to have the highest faith experience possible. For example, I am very much a stage 3 Mormon. I see things more black and white than stage 4 Mormons, not because I am naive to facts, but because I classify those facts differently than individuals in stages 4 or 5. Also, many leaders want to try to encourage Stage 4 believers to come back to stage 3. It doesn’t work like that. The toothpaste is out of the tube and you aren’t putting it back. Thomas Wirthlin McConkie also offers other effective frameworks in the LDS context.
This is a simplified overview of this framework and we need more content on Leading Saints about it. For this article, it is important for a leader to have a framework outside of the traditional black and white framework so that the leader can help the individual in crisis to know he is not in crisis, but rather, he is in a transition. You, as his leader, must restore a framework before you can help him restore faith.
Encourage Further Engagement in the Gospel
When a member of your ward suddenly finds himself in a faith transition, they find less purpose in the orthodox day-to-day or week-to-week gospel experience he or she once enjoyed. You might have a former elders quorum president who loved the weekly lessons in Sunday school but now he is skeptical of everything the gospel doctrine teacher says. Or a sister who was a faithful scripture reader up until she experienced her free fall of faith. We, as leaders, want members moving forward, focused on receiving further revelation and discovery rather than slowly giving up. They might feel like their spiritual progression is served better by spending the majority of their study in skeptical articles that reinforce their doubting, rather than discovering a deeper faith in scripture. Asking the person to stop reading or viewing certain publications will not be helpful. It creates a perception that you, as a church leader, are still trying to “hide” something. Invite them to give at least equal time to Church publications and scriptures, and to continue to rely on prayer for further guidance.
With that said, it should be noted that many of these individuals are more engaged in the gospel than every before. It’s important not to assume that because they are doubting then they must be too focus on skeptical literature. Applaud them for their search for deeper truth and encourage the use of scripture and Church publications in their committed search for truth.
As you encourage these individuals to engage in the gospel, stress to them that you are not trying to “reset” their faith, but rather, to help them discover deeper belief. President Howard W. Hunter said, “I have sympathy for young men and young women when honest doubts enter their minds and they engage in the great conflict of resolving doubts. These doubts can be resolved, if they have an honest desire to know the truth, by exercising moral, spiritual, and mental effort. They will emerge from the conflict into a firmer, stronger, larger faith because of the struggle. They have gone from a simple, trusting faith, through doubt and conflict, into a solid substantial faith which ripens into testimony.” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1960, 108).
Give No Impression of Wrongdoing
The free fall experience that a faith transition can put someone through is scary enough, not to mention the further anxiety that comes from the feeling that the member is doing something wrong. By giving the impression that the individual is sinning or wanting to sin destroys trust and confirms the fears the member had before meeting with a church leader. I love Michael Goodman’s perspective that doubt is amoral and the fact that someone is doubting a truth of the gospel does not mean she has done something wrong. Like many situations, the role of the leader is to slow things down and help her take one step at a time. Canceling a temple recommend and removing a church calling might seem like obvious first steps, but you might find those actions only cause distrust and further alienate the member.
Of course, this is where priesthood keys and inspiration come into play, and I would never fault a leader for doing what they feel impressed to do, but we need to get away from the idea that punishment is needed because we classify their doubt as a sin, or that their doubt is hiding sin. Always seek first to understand and validate.
Counsel With Your Ward Council
With so much happening in an active ward, it’s easy to go through the motions of weekly classes at church. Everyone sitting in Sunday School assumes there is nobody with deep questions sitting in the classroom and we all have an established testimony of the gospel. I assure you there are more individuals questioning basic LDS beliefs in your ward than you realize. That was my experience when I served as a bishop. I fulfilled my responsibilities and didn’t even realize my second counselor was having deep concerns and doubts about the Church. It would serve a ward council well to spend time in your council meetings discussing how to make the three hours of church instruction on Sunday a more inviting atmosphere for all stages of belief. If we are not intentional about discussing this it is easy to default to black and white ward culture and cause some to think, “there is no place for me here.” I’ve talked about this before in the context of fast and testimony meeting.
Become Familiar With Church Resources
It is shocking to still hear stories where current lay leaders in the Church are not giving time nor attention to the Gospel Topics Essays the LDS Church has published. There are even stories that church leaders are discouraging the exploration of these essays during church or even refusing to explore them personally. These are remarkable essays and by studying them it will make a leader better equipped to validate concerns that doubting members face. It will be such a relief for these individuals when they find out their local leader already knows some things related to their concerns. This is another topic for your ward council to discuss.
Think Before Testifying
Bearing a testimony is something a leader should be doing often. There is no doubt there is a power behind inviting the Spirit into the room through testimony when interacting with someone who is doubting his lifelong beliefs. I encourage testifying, but I fear leaders are bearing testimony to chase doubt out of the room. A leader must realize the reason for a member’s doubt is not the absence of hearing strong testimonies—in fact, hearing a strong testimony can remind the member she still doesn’t have a strong testimony. Hearing phrases like, “I know” can motivate an investigator to desire the same level of belief, but for someone that is doubting, it can remind her that she still doesn’t “know.” Elder M. Russell Ballard has said, “Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher [or leader] bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue.”
The reason validating (as mentioned before) is so important is because when the leader validates a member’s new perspective, she is encouraged that you know this troubling information and you still retain a strong belief in the gospel. So as you testify, do so with the intent to encourage rather than to change her mind in the moment.
Trust the Grace of Jesus Christ
Remember that as a leader, you were not called to “fix” it. Our heart breaks for those who suddenly feel they are standing on a foundation no longer firm. We want to be the leader who says the right thing, shares the right scripture, and helps reestablish a bulletproof testimony for the member once again. The reality is that many will walk out of a bishop’s office still not sure. They may even spend some time away from the church seeking answers church leaders feel we already have. But we must never overlook the Grace of Jesus Christ who will always be reaching out to them and that His Grace truly is sufficient for what they face. Do your best to love, encourage, testify and then… let go. Have faith in their journey and that it can still have a purpose whether they are outside of the LDS Church or fervently praying in church.
What has worked for you as a leader striving to encourage those who have lost their faith? What else can we add to this list?