During a recent Sunday School lesson, I heard a former bishop state, “What bishop hasn’t had to deal with a member thinking about or actually leaving the Church?” Whether that represents reality or not, I am not sure, but according to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of U.S. members raised LDS that are leaving the Church is substantially increasing. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, approximately 10% of members raised LDS no longer viewed themselves as LDS. In the early 2000’s, the percent that no longer viewed themselves as LDS was 28%, increasing to 30% in 2007, and currently the percent that no longer view themselves as LDS is approximately 36%. Stated differently, over one in three members raised in the Church in the United States no longer view themselves as LDS.
On this topic, in late 2011, Marlin K. Jensen (Emeritus Seventy and then Church Historian) stated the following about members leaving the Church: “The fifteen men really do know (First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 Apostles), and they really care. And they realize that maybe since Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now” (transcript and context can be found here).
This statement has led me to wonder:
- How big was the apostasy during the Kirtland era?
- Why did a meaningful number of members leave the Church during the Kirtland era?
- What are the current primary reasons why members are leaving the Church?
- By considering the reasons why members have left the Church in both the Kirtland and modern eras, can we identify a root cause for why members leave the Church? If so, how might leaders of the Church help disengaging members work through that root cause?
How Big Was the Apostasy During the Kirtland Era?
The largest exodus of members from the Church occurred towards the end of the Kirtland era (approximately from 1837-1838). Around this time, there were approximately 2,000 saints in Kirtland, and approximately 200-300 (10%-15%) left the Church. But, what was really unfortunate was that of those that left, 50 or more were leading members of the Church (this represented about 1/3rd of the Church’s leadership), including:
- The three witnesses to the Book of Mormon
- A member of the First Presidency (Frederick G. Williams)
- Four members of the Twelve Apostles
- Several members of the Quorum of the Seventy
Apparently, the state of the Church was such that Heber C. Kimball (someone who stayed loyal to Joseph Smith) stated: “There were not twenty persons on earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.”
Why Did a Meaningful Number of Members Leave the Church During the Kirtland Era?
There seemed to be a perfect storm of a variety of factors, but the storm revolved around the Kirtland Safety Society. The Kirkland Safety Society was a bank established to help with the Church’s credit needs and assist with ongoing land transactions as the local population grew with the influx of saints. But, getting the bank started took money (investments). Investments came from Joseph Smith, approximately 200 different individuals and families in the Kirtland area, and at least thirteen outside sources.
For a variety of reasons, the bank fell. Some of the reasons included:
- Three rather inexperienced people running the bank (Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Warren Parrish), who made some unwise decisions, such as continually printing bank notes leading to inflation (hindsight is always 20/20)
- The National Bank Crisis (think 2009 all over again)
- Some evidence to suggest that Warren Parrish had embezzled funds
The aftermath of the bank’s fall was rather devastating. For starters, the bank closed its doors with $100,000 of debt, and the 200 members who had invested in the bank lost all their investments. This led to (1) half of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles accusing Joseph Smith of improprieties, and (2) 17 lawsuits brought against Joseph Smith, 10 resulting in judgements, for which he was jailed for several months. At one point, the Church raised $38,000 to bail Joseph Smith out of jail, which in today’s money is nearly $1 million. So, not only did people lose money, but then they were asked to give money to bail Joseph Smith out of jail. Once out of jail, Joseph Smith left Kirtland for Missouri, at least partly to run away from the law and the suits against him.
It was during this time approximately 10-15% of the members in Kirtland left the Church.
What Are the Current Primary Reasons Why Members Are Leaving the Church?
One recent study on the topic, conducted by Jana Riess, surveyed members who had left the Church. She found three primary reasons why recent Church leavers (primarily Millennials) have left the Church. These reasons are:
- Feeling judged or misunderstood
- Not trusting the Church’s leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues
- The Church’s position on LGBT issues
Additionally and interestingly, Jana stated in a personal correspondence that “It has been surprising, actually, how many younger former Mormons still have what Mormons would call a ‘testimony’ of the core tenets of LDS belief.”
For all former Mormons, which included recent leavers as well as not-so-recent leavers, the reasons for leaving the Church are a bit different:
- No longer being able to reconcile personal values and priorities with those of the Church
- Stopped believing there was one true Church
- Not trusting the Church’s leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues
Based upon these findings, it seems reasonable to imply that people initially leave the Church for reasons such as feeling judged or because they do not agree with a position of the Church, but over time, their perceptions change to not being able to reconcile their beliefs with the Church’s or no longer believing there is one true church.
Is There a Root Cause for Why Members Leave the Church?
Looking at the context surrounding members leaving the Church in the Kirtland era and the primary reasons why recent leavers have left the Church, there does appear to be a primary root cause for why members leave the Church: fairness issues. Given all that happened in Kirtland after the fall of the Kirtland Safety Society, it seems likely that the primary reason why members left the Church was because they likely felt they had been treated unfairly. Similarly, each of the primary reasons why recent leavers are leaving the Church today are rooted in fairness issues. Feeling judged is largely another way of saying that one feels as though they are being treated unfairly. Not trusting leaders “to tell the truth about controversial issues” is rooted in a concept called informational fairness, which is defined as the degree to which individuals are provided truthful explanations for decisions. And, disagreement about LGBT issues are rooted in the idea that there is a certain population that is being treated unfairly.
Fairness issues are not something to be taken lightly. Organizational research has repeatedly found that fairness issues begin a chain of reactions within an individual. First, fairness issues causes strong emotional and cognitive reactions. Second, these strong reactions often lead to a reduction of trust in the party responsible for the fairness issue. Third, this reduction of trust leads members of a group or organization to feel like they do not belong or identify with the group or organization. This is depicted below.
When I worked for Gallup, Inc., using survey data, I analyzed the effect fairness issues had on employees and customers. To me, the statistics were unsurprising. When employees or customer experienced a fairness issue, they were several times more likely to turnover or take their business elsewhere compared to employees or customers that did not experience a fairness issue.
The same phenomenon occurs within a church context. When Church members are dealing with a fairness issue, even if it might seem small or trivial to an observer, we need to be quick to realize that they are experiencing some very real negative feelings (right or wrong) that lead to (1) trust loss and (2) reductions in their sense of belonging and identification. If there are enough unfairness-induced reactions, or if the unfairness-induced reactions are strong enough, a logical next step for individuals is to separate themselves from the cause of the emotional and cognitive pain—the Church.
I do not want to make this article about me, but I do want to personalize what is to follow. I consider myself an active, temple-recommend-holding member of the Church, one that has never deviated from the gospel path in my adult life (although I am not claiming any sense of perfection), and one that has consistently served in the Church, largely as a member of my wards’ ward councils (e.g., ward mission leader, ward clerk, Sunday school president). From about six years ago to two years ago, I experienced a series of fairness related issues associated with the Church. These fairness issues were comprised of issues related to poor ward leadership, doctrine-related issues, and Church culture-related issues.
These issues initially resulted in negative emotional and cognitive reactions (e.g., “How could my bishop treat me this way?” “How could my bishop treat them that way?” “Why isn’t the Church being very transparent about this issue or decision?” “Why are the promises made by Church leaders not being fulfilled?”). These reactions caused me to have a reduction of trust in overall Church leadership, local leadership, and fellow members. Along with this reduction came a sense that I didn’t “fit in” in the Church, partly because I began identifying less and less with the Church.
During the four years that I was dealing with these fairness issues, I often felt alone. I felt alone because when I reached out to my close friends as a lifeline, their responses came across as being insensitive and uncaring (I identify such responses in the “What Not To Do” section below). I also felt alone because I did not feel like I could express my thoughts, feelings, and emotions at church. My perception was that if I expressed my thoughts, feelings, and emotions at church, I would be viewed negatively, be shunned as unfit for service within my ward, and that I might lose any social status that I had within the ward and amongst my ward friends.
How Might Leaders of the Church Help Members Who Wrestle With Fairness Issues?
Feeling like I am now at a distance from my raw feelings and responses to my fairness issues, I would like to articulate some recommendations for what leaders should not do and what leaders should do when serving and helping a person working through fairness issues. These recommendations come from my own experiences, the experiences of others that have worked through fairness issues, and through my doctoral-level expertise in fairness, management, and general organizational behavior principles.
What Not To Do:
Let me start with a few recommendations for what a leader should not initially do when he/she becomes aware of a member who appears to be disengaging from the Church due to unfairness issues. These “what not to do” recommendations are common approaches leaders and members take, and unfortunately they often have the opposite effect as intended. They are common because they are wise and valid advice. But, they often have the opposite effect as intended because if the timing of the approaches isn’t just right, the approaches come across as being insensitive at best and hostile at worst.
First, it is unwise to downplay their emotions/reactions and suggest that they need to repent or change their attitude. Some leaders might see that as a proper approach as it is “giving it to them straight.” But, such an approach is likely to make things worse. In the mind of the person who feels like they have been wronged, it is not necessarily helpful to tell them that their response to being wronged is wrong. To the person that has experienced a fairness issue, the message that they need to repent or change their attitude (1) suggests that you do not value their feelings, and (2) creates sides, suggesting to them that you are not on their team (which may be far from the truth). If this message needs to be given, it should happen after you have legitimized their feelings, understood their side of the story, and their emotions have cooled down. It is only then that they will be open to having a forgiving heart.
Second, it may not be wise to lead with telling them that they just need to stay close to the prophets and apostles. When I recently taught a Sunday School lesson on this topic, I asked the question, “What can we do to help members that are disengaging from the Church as a result of a fairness issue?” The primary suggestion that the class offered was that those who are disengaging need to just stay close to and trust the prophets and apostles. While that is a well-intended, natural suggestion/response, and normally sound advice, such advice neglects the likely phenomenon that those disengaging feel like they have been treated unfairly because of the prophets and apostles of the Church (see reasons 2 and 3 for why recent leavers have left the Church). Thus, it seems a little insensitive to suggest that disengaging members need to trust men who are central to their perceptions of unfairness. Such a response may send the message that you do not care to understand what the person is going through. Suggestions to stay close to the prophets and apostles is important, but appropriate timing and sensitivity is crucial.
Third, it may not be beneficial to push them further into the Church or Church curriculum by giving them an additional calling or by asking them to read the scriptures more. It is important to realize that for some people and for some severe fairness issues, increased engagement in the Church or Church materials may stir up painful feelings, and may have the opposite effect as intended. To use an extreme and exaggerated example to demonstrate this point: sometimes a suggestion like this is like suggesting to an abused woman that she needs to spend more time with the abuser to see more of his/her positive qualities. In the instance where increased engagement in the Church and Church materials does stir up painful feelings, leaders may need to recognize that creating some distance between them and the Church for a short period of time helps them to decompress and work through their emotions. This may even mean releasing them from their calling for a short time. In moments such as these, the person that experienced the fairness issue(s) probably needs more emotional nourishment (i.e., love, consideration, and support) than spiritual nourishment.
Of course, guiding members to repentance, providing them with opportunities to draw nearer to the prophets and apostles, and re-energizing their scripture study may all be a part of a member’s re-engaging with the Church. But this advice may do more harm than good if they are the first thing a leader or member asks of a disengaging member.
What To Do:
In what follows, I suggest a variety of things that leaders can do to help a member that is dealing with a fairness-related issue. From my personal experience, learning from fellow members, and learning from topical experts, I have learned two main things a Church leader should do to help those working through fairness issues. First, a Church leader needs to personally minister to the member. Second, a Church leader needs to help create an environment around that member that will allow the member to effectively work through their issues within the Church as opposed to outside the Church. The recommendations that follow do not represent everything a leader can do or even what they need to do, but hopefully they provide some helpful guidance.
Personal Ministry. When a Church leader is ministering to a member that has experienced a fairness issue, it is important that the Church leader do two things: first, listen to the member; and second, refrain from judgment and even further, ensure that the member understands that the leader will not think less of them for the issues they are going through and the feelings that they are having.
Over and over again, organizational research has shown that when people are able to ask questions, express their emotions, and provide suggestions during unfair situations (e.g., layoffs), they respond much more positively to those situations than those who do not have the ability to express their voice. Thus, perhaps the most important thing leaders can do with someone who is experiencing a fairness issue is allow them to express their thoughts and feelings. This can be one-on-one with the leader, in a safe church setting, or the leader can identify an individual or mentor that can be a friend and sounding board to that person. The key here is listening and understanding, not talking or preaching.
One way a Church leader can demonstrate that he or she is not going to be judgmental or think less of them is to be aware and convey that there are stages of faith, and that struggling with one’s faith (possibly as a result of fairness issues) does not necessarily mean a step backwards in their spiritual journey. When Bruce C. Hafen was President of Ricks College, he gave a great talk on this topic, called On Dealing with Uncertainty. Also, LDS.org recently posted a news report on the topic. This message gives the member the perception that they are still “on track,” and may even be heading towards greater spiritual growth. Coming across this information for myself was like a life preserver at a time when I was struggling to keep my head above water.
Create the Proper Environment. I mentioned previously that working through fairness issues was a very lonely process, partly because I didn’t think I could open up with my issues in a church setting. While I understand expressing doubt and questioning can detract to the spirit, being able to express doubts and question within a spiritual setting and while surrounded by people that might be willing to reach out in love can be incredibly healing for that individual. There are a few suggestions I have for how Church leaders can create the healthiest environment for the healthy expression of doubt and questioning.
First, Church leaders can organize additional meetings (e.g., additional Sunday school class, special relief society class for a smaller subset of sisters, fireside/bishopric chat outside of regular church hours) that are conducive to the expression of doubt and questioning. My experience is that people that are working through fairness issues are less alone than they think they are. In any congregation, there are likely many that are working through their own issues behind closed doors. Seeing and relating to others that are working through fairness issues helps them to see that they are not alone. Further, being able to discuss and work through fairness issues with others grappling with fairness issues immediately creates a safe, friendly, and hopefully non-judgmental environment.
Second, Church leaders should seek to promote mindfulness within the congregation. One of the reasons why members are reluctant to share their fairness issues within a church setting is the fear of members’ mindless reactions. A mindless reaction involves being oblivious or closed to ideas or philosophies that differ from one’s own. It is a “white or black” way of thinking that suggests, “My way of thinking is right, and your way of thinking is wrong,” without giving the ideas or philosophies of others deeper thought. For example, if I member of the church were to state that they were uncomfortable with the Church’s policies dealing with same-sex relationships, a mindless reaction might be an immediate suggestion that the member “get on board” with the brethren. A more mindful response might be to ask why they feel that way, as a mindful response is one that is open to new information and to different points of view. It includes observing one’s inner thoughts and feelings without rushing to judgment about whether the ideas or philosophies shared are good or bad. A main difference between the two responses is that a mindless reaction is unaccepting of the member’s plight, whereas the mindful response seeks to understand the member’s plight. Unfortunately, when we hear ideas that differ from our own (think of a member that does not agree with the Church’s policies related to same-sex relationships), our natural reaction is to be mindless, and this is scientifically backed. Research has found that when we hear ideas that differ from our own (think political or religious philosophies), our natural response is to literally shut our brains down. This is a response that we use to protect ourselves. But, I believe it could be argued that such a response is not Christ-like. I believe in a Christ that succors or runs to others in their infirmities, not in a Christ that shuts down when alternative ideas are being presented. When someone is dealing with a fairness issue, being around mindful people makes them feel as though they are not alone in the emotional and spiritual difficulties they are dealing with.
Third, Church leaders should seek to promote multiculturalism within the congregation. Individuals with multicultural mindsets seek to see and understand where people with alternative ideas are coming from, recognizing that all ways of behaving are legitimate, although not always preferable. Multiculturalism includes an awareness that one’s assumptions about the world is based upon their past experiences, and that other people have different assumptions about the world because they have had different past experiences. When someone possesses a multicultural mindset, they (1) seek to investigate unfamiliar behavior or thinking prior to judging the encounter negatively or positively, (2) understand that equality does not mean sameness and difference does not mean deviance, (3) anticipate complexity and have a tolerance for ambiguity, (4) are aware of and resist stereotyping, (5) are inclined to empathize, and (6) accept themselves and others for who they are. I am not sure how many people you know that possess these qualities, but if you do, I imagine that they are some of the people you look up to the most, and they would be of great support to someone dealing with a fairness issue.
I believe that these “what to do” points can be summed up in one word: charity. In order to help someone work through a fairness issue one must suffer long, not be puffed up (think your way of thinking is better than others’ way of thinking), be kind, and seek not one’s own ideas and philosophies, among other things (see Moroni 7:45). The scriptures say that if we do not possess these qualities, we are nothing (Moroni 7:56). But, I believe that if we possess these qualities, when we encounter a friend, family member, or fellow member experiencing a fairness issue, we will (1) seek to listen, (2) recognize that they may actually be stepping forward in their spiritual development, (3) not rush to judgment (be mindful), and (4) be accepting of other’s points of view, recognizing that difference does not mean deviance.
The primary idea behind these suggestions is not to “cater to” or “spoil” members of the Church who may be disengaging. Rather, the primary ideas behind these suggestions are to: (1) lovingly succor, and (2) create a healthy context where they can appropriately and effectively work through their emotions and issues.
While we aren’t losing a third of our Church leadership to apostasy (thankfully) as we did in Kirtland, current statistics suggest that we lose 1/3rd of all U.S. members born into the Church. In both Kirtland and in today’s Church, fairness issues appear to be a primary cause of members disengaging from the Church. It is important to recognize that while one’s fairness issues may seem trivial (e.g., we may be inclined to mock a man for leaving the Church over cream strippings), fairness issues should not be taken lightly because they result in strong emotional reactions that lead to decreases in trust and feelings of not belonging and/or identifying with the Church. If leaders in the Church can correctly identify the root cause of those disengaging from the Church, often being a fairness issue, they will be better prepared to respond in the most appropriate manner to treat that root cause.
From my experience working through my own fairness issues, I have learned that there are better ways of helping members work through their issues than others. And unfortunately, it is common for leaders and members to respond in well-intended but unproductive ways. Thus, I have provided recommendations for how leaders can (1) minister to such members, and (2) create an environment where such members can work through their fairness issues in an effective way. Such recommendations include listening to them, recognizing that fairness issues may actually be a situation that spurs further spiritual progression, possibly organizing an additional meeting for members dealing with fairness issues, and promoting mindfulness and multiculturalism. I believe such actions, if taken, will allow Church leaders and Church members to demonstrate what disengaging members need to experience most: charity.
Being Loved: the feeling that another person properly recognizes and amply sympathizes with one’s buried distress.
Alain De Botton
Ryan Gottfredson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and the Assistant Director of the Center for Leadership at the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University-Fullerton. His topical expertise is in leadership development, performance management, and organizational topics that include employee engagement, psychological safety, trust, and fairness. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior and Human Resources from Indiana University, and a BA from Brigham Young University. Additionally, he is a former Gallup workplace analytics consultant, where he designed research efforts and engaged in data analytics to generate business solutions for dozens of organizations across various industries. He has published over 15 articles in various journals including Journal of Organizational Behavior, Journal of Management, Business Horizons, and Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. He is currently serving as an Elder’s Quorum instructor.