If we don’t understand, how can we minister?

David Ostler is a guest contributor to Leading Saints on the challenges of faith in the 21st century. He and his wife Rachelle serve as Church Service missionaries in their Northern Virginia Stake, focused on faith challenges. He served as a bishop, stake president and with his wife as mission president in Sierra Leone West Africa and Director of the Hill Cumorah Visitor’s Center. He maintains a resource guide on faith challenges at www.stakeandwardresources.org, where this article was originally published, and can be reached for comments or questions at dbostler (at) gmail.com.

Some data about faith crisis

First, faith crisis is a terrible term. To reduce anyone to a two-word term oversimplifies everything. We are all different and our faith and its development are unique and personal. If we are doing it right, our faith will always evolve and change. For some, faith can be shaken down to the core – for purposes of this post, I call this a faith crisis. For some, this becomes a faith transition into a new kind of faith, for others it can be leaving prior faith behind – when it completely breaks, it can take months or years to reassemble, if ever at all. However it happens, it never goes back to what it was.

Over the last month, I completed two surveys to understand how stake and ward leaders are approaching the current challenges of faith. I ran the first survey in partnership with Leading Saints. I appreciate their help and the work they do. They will publish training material based on the survey results. There were 514 respondents that were current or past stake or ward leaders and are active in their church attendance. The second survey was of members of a virtual community that helps members stay engaged in Mormonism, but know of the difficult doctrinal and historical issues. Many are experiencing a faith crisis. From respondents, I analyzed 329 responses of members who say they are currently experiencing a faith crisis. For simplicity, in this post, I call them faith crisis members.

While the data do not allow me to claim with utmost confidence that the results are fully representative of either of these groups, there is good reason to think that these results are not significantly off-base either. I believe these results are “ballpark” estimates but should be used with caution. While the results point to clear conclusions, they also point to areas for further research and analysis.

What is a faith crisis?

As mentioned before, faith crisis is a bad term, but the best I could find to test how leaders minister to this unique group of members. Both surveys defined a faith crisis as when “a person discovers new information about the church and enters a state of intense dissonance and stress resulting in a loss of faith in some or all foundational truth claims”. The trauma can include divorce, loss of a job, a brother’s suicide attempt, a death of a friend, an intentional or unintentional action by a local Church leader, or anything that creates stress and dissonance. From the outside one can’t judge what is a trauma or just a bad day – it is based on the perception of the person.

Psychological researchers have developed models of how faith can change or develop through our adult lives.

Leaders and members see faith crisis differently

I asked stake and ward leaders and faith crisis members what they thought were the contributing reasons for an individual’s faith crisis. I gave them 11 possible reasons and asked if they strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree with the reason. I show the comparison between leaders and faith crisis members in these charts which I will explain one by one.

% who strongly agree about the contribution of the issue to an individual's faith crisis

Leaders often think that a loss of faith comes from a person being offended, because there is a conflict with a member or a leader or because the person wanted to sin. However, in this group of members, almost none cited it as an important contributor to a faith crisis – in fact, a majority strongly disagree that they contribute.

Over the past year, I have talked with many members who don’t attend, one said, “I no longer live Church commandments, but my disaffection and decision to stop attending preceded my commandment abandonment.” Another said, “Please tell the truth about why people are leaving instead of blaming it on us wanting to sin or be lazy or that we didn’t try hard enough.

Elder Uchtdorf said, “One might ask, ‘if the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?’ Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple.

So, what are the reasons?

Stake and ward leaders recognize Church history, gender, LGBT, and transparency as important, but in every case, they underestimate the issue’s importance.

% who strongly agree about the contribution of the issue to an individual's faith crisis: questions/gender/LGBT/transparency
For these members, issues of Church history, gender, LGBT, and transparency may be triggers which cause trauma leading to a faith crisis. They may re-evaluate whether they trust leadership and the Church, or feel they can be a part of the Church community or even feel that the doctrines and teachings are relevant or meaningful to them. It may leave them confused as to what they believe and whether they can trust Church leaders to tell them the truth about our history, understand issues associated with gender and sexuality, or provide visibility into Church decision making.

One member told me, “Trust. I have a very hard time trusting the Church because of the many times I was lied to about Church history”. Another said, “I think the Church is full of good people. I do miss the community and the ability to go anywhere in the world and have a built-in social structure. That said, my faith journey has led me to believe that the brethren are not actually speaking for God on a day-to-day basis – which definitely makes it hard to ever go back. So much of the Church is based on this idea of revelation – and if the prophets are fallible, there’s not a whole lot left.

We may wince with these comments and may disagree with the issue or their characterization, but the comments are heartfelt. They really feel this and we can’t dismiss their feelings.

Elder Uchtdorf said, “We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question. … And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.

It doesn’t diminish the Gospel of Christ to admit we individually and as an organization make mistakes.

Judgment and Fitting in

Stake and ward leaders and faith crisis members show a lot of agreement about the importance of cultural issues to faith.

% who strongly agree about the contribution of the issue to an individual's faith crisis: values/relevance/judged/fit-in
All recognize the impact of judgment at church. In a recent article, a researcher, Jana Riess, PhD, reported that 40% of women cited judgment as one of their top three factors for why they left Mormonism. Click here for her article. If we look around, it’s not hard to see judgment. Perhaps in our desire to protect the purity of our doctrine, show our obedience to the commandments, or show faithfulness in our callings, we reinforce a culture of judgment.

Many authors have covered judgment and fitting in. Here is a story that Jana Riess tells from her research. A young woman “explained how she was preparing to give a talk in a foreign language (she was visiting Mexico with a study abroad program). Before Sacrament meeting, another woman from the congregation came up to her and covered the young woman’s legs with her coat because she thought her dress was too short. This left the woman even more insecure than she felt before. She was nervous to give the talk, nervous to speak in a foreign language, and now she felt exposed, judged and unsure of herself.Click here for the article.

This same article talks about labels we use in the Church to create judgment. Labels include Liberal, Unmarried, Drinks Coke, Feminist, Divorced, Not a Parent, Recovering Addict, Tattooed, Early Returned Missionary or Doesn’t Wear a White Shirt. Aren’t we all just children of Heavenly Parents?

Beyond judgment, leaders and faith crisis members recognize how important it is for members to feel like they fit in. One surprising finding that I may blog about in the future is that only 30% of leaders strongly agreed that they feel like they fit in. We, including leaders, should feel that we belong to our Church community.

Shouldn’t the Church community be one where every member can say, “The Church community accepts me and supports me as I develop my own spirituality and relationship to God? This is characterized by feeling like I fit in and belong and supported by the community.”

Elder Uchtdorf said, “When it comes to hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges or wanting to cause harm, please apply the following: Stop it! It’s that simple. We simply have to stop judging others and replace judgmental thoughts and feelings with a heart full of love for God and His children.

More to the Study

One additional finding that I will likely blog about is that women and men leaders and faith crisis members had very different answers for some of the questions. I encourage male leaders to discuss issues of faith with women in the room, and for the men to make sure that they truly listen.

Conclusion

Can you imagine a doctor not trying to understand a patient’s symptoms before treating? So too, when leaders understand better why people have differences of faith, they can be more effective ministers.

Every person is different and has their own concerns. The best way to truly understand is by building a relationship where the person will trust you and then just listen to what they say. Just listen. Just accept that their issues are real to them. Ignore the impulse to try and talk them out of their reasons.

Just listen.

We should cultivate the attributes defined in scriptural articulation of how we obtain God’s power in our callings, families or our own lives including long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned and kindness. We should always show forth an increase of love and let them know that our faithfulness to them is stronger than the cords of death, letting our bowels be full of charity. (See D&C 121).

I Need Your Help

To further explore leaders understanding of faith crisis, I am looking for current ward or stake council leaders who would be willing to participate in a short 30-minute interview with me so that I can more completely understand leader approach and understanding of faith crisis. If you are interested please CONTACT US.

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