Caren McLane has a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Community Health Education from BYU. She met her husband, Todd, her freshman year while at BYU. They are the parents of 5 children and live on a 4-acre “hobby farm” with chickens, cows, and dogs. She volunteers at the library and hospice and has blogged since 2014. Caren has served in a variety of callings in the Church and is currently serving as the JustServe coordinator in her Montana Ward.
I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts for months now. As a friend and I had a teary conversation recently, it hit me why I hadn’t been able to write anything. It’s because I don’t have the answers, I’m right in the middle of it all, I’m still figuring it out, I’m not sure what it’s supposed to look like.
Except that I’m here. I’m willing. I’m trying.
I want to be both the friend where religion doesn’t have to come up at all while also being available to listen for hours. While I don’t want it to come between us, I want to hear their experiences and what they think, to be safe if they ever feel like talking about it. I want them to know we have a million other things we can talk about while at the same time acknowledging how tender and big religion can be. I want them to know I’m curious and eager to listen, but I also want to be respectful of where they are and allow them space to figure things out.
The only evidence I have that anything is working is that our friendships and relationships are not only intact but that I, at least, feel more connected and closer than ever to my friends and family who are not in the church anymore.
The Awkward “Why”
As far as our conversations about it all, I’ve tried to leave it up to them because I’m not sure what they want. And that’s on me. All I need to do is ask if they feel like talking about what’s been going on or if they would rather not. I guess my hesitancy in asking is wanting to maintain our friendship.
I don’t want to make it awkward or to ever let religion be a wedge between us. So, with my longest friendships and familial relationships, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never even asked what made them leave, how they’ve felt about it, or even what their current beliefs are. I think it’s because these people left years, even decades, ago, and back then it felt like it wasn’t polite or any of our business to ask about something so personal. And at this point, after so much time has passed, I feel awkward about bringing it up, I hardly know where to start.
Tell Me Where You Are
It hasn’t been long since we’ve started to become more open and have more dialog within our culture. But because of that shift, I’ve had such emotional, insightful, and long conversations with several friends about religion in recent years. I could tell things were changing, and I decided it was worth taking the risk to ask them what they were going through. I wanted to be a sounding board, to hear these individuals who were already dear friends. We had a history, a framework of friendship, and so it was natural and safe to ask what they were experiencing and feeling and thinking.
“Tell me where you are, what’s been happening for you, what’s your story.” My husband and I have gone to dinner as couples, we’ve had friends over, we’ve sat in each other’s living rooms, we’ve talked in the hall at church, and I’ve gone on long walks. But again, these have all been close friends.
A Little Late and A Little Fake
On the other hand, I know of others within my friendship circles who are also questioning or who have left but with whom I have no real connection other than the occasional social gathering. It would truly feel disingenuous to insert myself into their stories about something so tender and personal as a faith transition when we don’t already have a strong friendship and foundation. I think this is exactly what is so offensive when we suddenly try to befriend those who are wavering. To me, this isn’t the time to, out of nowhere, strike up a relationship. Friendships take time and lots of casual, normal interactions, to feel comfortable enough to share such private, intimate feelings of grief and loss and change. Anything other than that, ward members showing up with cookies out of the blue, invitations suddenly after years of being in the ward together, neighbors who want to get to know you now… it all feels like a little late and a little fake.
Perhaps, a lesson to be learned as leaders and neighbors, is to take the time to better know those in our circle of connection so that we can be available, should it be needed, to be a listening ear on all the good, the bad and the ugly. Whether it has to do with faith transitions, personal trials, or anything in between.
Mostly I’ve just tried to keep things as comfortable/the same as they’ve always been. And I honestly don’t know if that feels just right to some or insensitive to others. Some I know have felt grateful that they were able to just slide away, that no one pursued or questioned them. Others feel disappointed and unnoticed that no one asked or seemed to care about this major change in their life. I have friends in both camps. From my perspective, I honestly just want them to feel at ease and loved no matter what they choose or where they are or go. I want them to know that religion doesn’t have to be in our relationship at all, I’m here no matter what.
We Have So Much in Common
I wonder if I’m the one with a wall, protecting our relationship rather than allowing it to grow and change and become even more authentic and intimate. I also wonder if I’m afraid of being misjudged, that they might feel like I have an agenda about how to “get them back” or “fix them” or “convince them,” when in reality all I want is to avoid making it harder for them by thinking they have to defend themselves; I just want us to keep on being friends.
I also don’t know that people view me as approachable when they’re leaving while I’m solidly staying. And yet, just as they’ve changed over the years, so have I. I’m not as rigid in my thinking as I was as a teenager and young adult. I have my own questions, I’m curious, I love hearing what people think about everything. I wonder if because I’m a long-time active member they feel they already know how I’d react. But I’m not blind, nothing much shocks me, I’m mature enough to know we all have our own take on the world. I love that we’re different; but more than anything, I believe we all have so much more in common than not.
I sometimes project and think people who leave assume that they know what I believe or think because they were just here. But I feel like members these days are all over the place in their beliefs and interpretations and practices; to me, there’s no typical member, every marriage is a mixed faith marriage, and we’re all just figuring things out. But I do feel like there’s been a positive shift in the past several years, and maybe it’s just getting started in some places… but the people I surround myself with as authors, podcasters, lecturers, and friends are progressive, open-minded, articulate, accepting, intelligent, questioning, faithful thinkers, researchers, and movers. We WANT to change the thinking of the past, to switch up the paradigm that faith looks the same for everyone, to question cultural ways of interpreting doctrine, to be inclusive, and to maintain relationships and build new ones with all kinds of people and ways of thinking.
In my experience with family and friends, I’ve found it most comfortable to just take religion off the table. At least as something that could divide or differentiate us. I want us all to feel like we can continue as always, that nothing will change the love I have for them. But, at the same time, I want to be present and available to walk through the questions and grief and anger and disenchantment, and transition. So, in that sense, I feel I’ve been wrong in not asking. And yet I honestly wanted them to feel it didn’t matter to me, that it wouldn’t change our friendship. I’m trying to be different for my friends who are leaving now, but I don’t know how to go back in time.
It saddens me when members say they have to just be superficial now that their loved one has left the church. I’m well aware that our religion tends to influence much of our lives, but I just don’t buy it in every situation. It depends.
I have friends of different faiths or who don’t align with any particular religion or who have left this one who I am much more able to talk with in-depth than many staying members of the church who sometimes tend to be very shallow. I suspect it’s because anything other than traditional doctrine/accepted practice tends to be uncomfortable and a little threatening.
On the other hand, I enjoy a deeper, more satisfying exploration of ideas with friends of differing religious perspectives. In fact, I think it’s because they’re usually readers and listeners and learners and thinkers that we do have a lot to talk about! From podcasts, books, movies, articles and studies, performances, trips, current events, the houses and projects we’re all working on to how we’re navigating the teen and young adult years with kids and in-laws, health issues, messy relationships all around, caring for parents, aging, finances, marriage, and all sorts of mixed emotions, my friends and I never, ever, ever run out of things to talk about. Religion never even has to be a thing; and yet, sometimes a friend will want to talk for hours about nothing else and I’m game for it all, I’ll take conversation of any kind because that’s connection.
Remembering We Truly Care
For now, all I know is what’s helped build bridges. It starts with both sides assuming the best from the other and remembering we truly care about each other more than we care about differences of opinion or life choices. I feel like we need to trust the relationship, all the years we’ve shared, and to remember the inevitable ups and downs that are part of any relationship that we’ve managed through. We need to continue to give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good intentions. We need to be vulnerable with each other and admit when we’re having a hard time understanding or seeing things the same, but assuring one another that we’re here, we’re willing, we’re trying. We want help seeing another way.
It’s taken many years, I’m ashamed to say, to make these deeper connections viable. I feel so regretful and sad that my friends in the past (and even still, I’m sure) have had to be someone different with me than they authentically were, that they thought they had any reason to feel that I would judge them. I think they’ve felt embarrassed drinking or swearing around me, they didn’t want me to see their tattoos or new clothes or lifestyles they thought I wouldn’t approve of. I have deep sorrow over it all especially because it inhibited closeness and made them feel they couldn’t be themselves.
I’m so sad when friends show relief that I don’t care that they’ve come out, for instance, as if that should ever be anything. But as I’ve become friends with such amazing people, I have been so disappointed to hear that they didn’t think we would accept them because we’re “Mormon.”
We have got to do better at sharing our unwavering and unconditional love because no one should ever have to worry about something as basic as showing up authentically. I can’t tell you how sad it makes me to think of anyone being afraid to be anything than who they are, and yet I know I’ve contributed to their pain and discomfort. I wish I could change the past and be more obvious about how much none of that matters to me. There must be something that still puts people off though, and that’s hard for me because while I love my beliefs and try to live congruently with them, it doesn’t mean I’m not open to all kinds of other ways of living. I don’t know how to show that though.
An Authentic Space for All
I actually love it when someone is quiet while we pray because it tells me that they’re comfortable not having to conform and be different for us. I like that they’re okay drinking whatever they want with me, that we can go to coffee shops, that they have their coffee and tea stashes here on our shelf for when they visit.
I love that they don’t have to preface things they think I might be shocked by, that they can talk naturally without filtering. I love hanging out with my friends with different lifestyles and beliefs who have enriched my thinking and my life so much. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for their acceptance of me, someone who could represent an institution or set of beliefs they no longer subscribe to and that has contributed so much to their grief and upset, that they see me as a person and not the church. I’m so deeply thankful for the respect they show me. Largely due to our strong foundations and our desire to maintain what we’ve always enjoyed, I have seen a warmth and closeness growing within my relationships over the years, both in and out of the church.
And yet, here we are. This is all very one-sided. We are desperately in need of hearing much more from others and their experiences and perceptions, what is helpful and what has been hurtful. I’m grateful for the things I’ve heard and read that help me understand and see other perspectives; I do believe there are many who are trying to help us build these bridges. Because, in my mind, there’s no reason we can’t continue to have the friendships and relationships we’ve always derived so much strength and joy from just because we change our minds about something, even something as personal and big as religion.