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.
There is great wisdom in this man’s writing. I have children in the midst of these fairness issues. I salute the Church for a brave attempt to be more transparent in the essays on their website. As a community of people we have a long way to go. I recently gave a lesson on blacks and the priesthood in my wards hp group. I felt qualified to do so since I have an adopted black daughter. About mid lesson I heard the tired refrain, “this was a policy and not doctrine”. This screams of unfairness and lack of transparency. Startling false doctrinal justification for our extremely racist position was taught from the pulpit for over 100 years. Joseph Smith was enlightened, having ordained black men to the priesthood. The problem was with us, the racist members. Our incredible Mormon culture is in a gridlock of sorts. We are not capable of being vulnerable. We have to be surrounded with certainty to feel comfortable. I fear we have a long way to go.
I’m listening to the podcast of this episode right now.
Dr Gottfredson relates how his elders quorum is mostly older men and the younger men feel overshadowed. His solution is to separate the class by age sometimes.
This made me chuckle.
That’s exactly what they did do till a few years ago! Then they finally took a page out of the womens’ organization— RS sisters of all ages have always met together, and we gain from one another, it works so well. Older ladies share wisdom and love to the younger ones. I LOVED my 2 older visiting teachers when I was a young mom. They encouraged me in a way a peer couldn’t have.
Then, outside of Sundays, in our ward, we have several different groups that meet for activities: a young moms and tots group, a craft group (usually older ladies), a walking group, a girls night group (all ages come!).
What EQ doesn’t often have is an Activites Committee—that’s what they need. A golf group, a fishing group, a book group, etc.
Take a lesson from the sisters! 😊
It is great for inclusion and for inviting non member friends to come do something together.
I do totally agree about the leadership qualities discussed by Dr Gottfredson—we need more development of that in the church for ALL members.
In my ward and stake, we are trying to focus on love, share, invite, and also be inclusive and inviting of LGBT and faith journey (everyone should be on one, in a sense). We are not perfect of course, but we are aiming for that. There is culture to change in the church, but I see a lot of people embracing those changes—lots of reason for hope. So many good people who want to include others.
We are in the heart of Utah, fwiw. Davis County.
Excellent! I think these work for parents of teens and young adults as well. Many have serious questions and need a safe space to talk about it. If a parent or church leader doesn’t listen and goes straight to fear and preaching those children will shut down and doubt themselves for their struggles. I think listening and ask more questions to show you are trying to better understand their child’s fears or discomforts allows them to feel safe to talk. Expressing love and confidence in your child that they will work through those issues in time and that you have also had struggles along the way you worked through gives them hope. They will keep coming back to talk.
The art of just listening first without judging is not always easy but I too believe Christ would listen and love first. Leaders would do well to become better at this. I know many sisters who went in to leaders for help only to come out feeling judged, not believed,dismissed and even lectured. By good men by the way! They forgot these were the women in the ward who were deeply faithful and needed to consider what they had to say as legitimate hurts or concerns. I ended up comforting them by just listening. I didn’t talk bad about the leader because I knew they were good men but I also knew these women had real cause for their doubts those men had never dealt with. Some of those women were able to hang in and understand that leaders are not perfect but it definitely shook their confidence in being able to trust those leaders when they really needed them. That is a shame. I know one of those leaders later came to one of those women and apologized when he realized his mistake and asked her what he could have done better. He wanted to know what he should do for other women like her in the future. It gave her the opportunity to teach that leader the charity she needed by not only giving him charity but sharing what she really needed but did not get. She told them to listen first. The good women who come into them for help placed a lot of trust in them to even come and they needed to show more respect for that trust and trust them back that they wanted to remain faithful and some issues weighing heavy on them were things these men had never faced so they needed to not judge at that time. They needed a good leader to listen, love the, acknowledge their issues as legitimate for them and be willing to walk with them through it. Not lecture them on faithfulness and send them away feeling scolded. Thanks for honest and helpful information.
As a former member, I found this analysis very compelling. I also think that if the suggestions you make are implemented that they would go far to stem the flow of apostasy. I would encourage you to present it yourself to the exmormon subreddit community to get feedback there. I had a few specific thoughts:
1. As you are almost certainly aware, according to Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), fairness is one of 6 moral “instincts”. Those who leave almost always consider their path the moral high-ground. I have, for instance, analyzed the (in)famous CES Letter based on MFT and found that it is appealing to many of these core moral “emotions”. I think other moral instincts probably deserve examination when analyzing the current loss of LDS membership. You hit on some of them in your article.
2. While you certainly didn’t discount its influence in your analysis, I want to emphasize that the manner in which alternative models of LDS truth-claims fit the data is remarkable. Various catalytic events (i.e., fairness issues) may cause a person to investigate alternative models, but people ultimately leave / resign because the fit of these models with the data is so remarkable. Alternative models explain all kinds of problems with LDS truth-claims, but many members never bother (or are afraid) to seriously examine the alternatives until they feel some significant emotional instability in their membership.
3. Many fairness issues are baked in to the theology and can’t easily be addressed. For instance, consider all the ways in which women are subordinate to men in the LDS temple. Ultimately, updates to the the theology would also be helpful to address some of these issues, but it seems that a few decades must always pass before octogenarian leadership catch up to present cultural norms.
4. According to psychologists of religion, most people live their religion almost entirely because of socialization and not based on any analytic analysis of the likelihood of its truth-claims. Hence, addressing the flow of apostasy as you’ve suggested will likely yield substantial results, even if LDS truth-claims are difficult to defend analytically.
I recently resumed attending church after several decades away and am struck by the current duplicity in church literature. On the one hand the lesson manuals still teach a whitewashed version of church history and an assurance that the current church leaders can be trusted implicitly, thus setting members up for a faith crisis if they investigate these claims. On the other hand we hear the assurance that questions (a euphemism for doubts) are welcome, and the new church essays admit to diverse mistakes in history, teachings, and leadership. It feels the same as a politician telling contradictory things to different audiences according to what will appeal to them. It’s no wonder that trust and fairness are central issues.
Thank you for your efforts and in writing this.
I do think your DON’T DO and DO lists are very good. I would caution leaders that adopt them that some individuals will still leave. So don’t assume these are panaceas. But I do feel that if leaders would follow your recommendations that many more of those that decide to leave the church would be on better terms.
I know of a person that lives close to me that asked the Stake President about creating some meetings where some “meat” could be discussed as dear families have been leaving in his stake because they are shut down when they bring up honest questions at church. The Stake President asked above and SLC wrote back telling them they were not authorized to do any such meeting and the standard curriculum and set of meetings was sufficient. I suspect they are worried that it will just “feed the fire” similar to how many go to LDS apologist sites and find more troubling issues beyond the question they were honestly looking for help to resolve and stay faithful.
And as far as your claim that the core reason people leave is fairness, I do think this is a significant issue for many. Some do just “want to sin”. I have a sibling that just never really believed much of the church’s truth claims and wanted to do what the world does. But I do think the last decade there is a quickly growing issue that is not the standard, “they are lazy / want to sin”. I don’t think you had bishops, stake presidents, RS Presidents, EQ Presidents leaving as entire families just so they could have a glass of wine with dinner.
I can say that you captured me and some of my progression in that as I studied church history (even recent events) that the top leaders of the church were more interested in ensuring the church looks good than truth (or even telling the truth). I have no issues with my local leaders, even though some have been put in jail, handled sex abuse cases badly, etc. But I seem to be able to forgive them rather easily (in most cases) as I see them as ordinary people making mistakes. So all the steps you mention that a local leader might do would possibly slow down my exit from the church, but wouldn’t prevent it in the end as my issues are with the top leaders. The biggest violation of my trust in my life has been with the top church leaders. It feels to me it is bigger than adding up all the other violations of trust I have suffered. It is harder than my parents passing away – and I had a great relationship with both of my parents.
I appreciate this thoughtful essay. I think you nailed it when you said that charity is crucial. When I have attempted to discuss people who’ve left with some individuals, these individuals always responded that the questioning member had some kind of “secret sin,” and was using perceived conflicts with church issues as the “scapegoat” to cover it up. To me it felt like they were being judgmental and self-righteous, even if they were correct.
In response to the growing number of people leaving the Church, Elder Jensen requested a survey be conducted of former members to determine the specific reasons why they were leaving. The survey was conducted in 2011 and ~3,000 former members responded. They were asked questions about their background (age, experience in the Church, income levels, education, etc.), and what the specific reasons were for losing their faith. The results of the survey were compiled in 2012 and reviewed by Elder Jensen, other members of the 1st Quorum of the Seventy and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, prior to the results being made available to the public in 2014.
The results of the survey are interesting because they highlight a stark contrast between what members of the Church assume are the reasons people leave and who they think are the types of people leaving. Suffice it to say, most of the people who took the survey had served missions, were very active, well educated, had good incomes, and 92% stated they did not leave because they were offended or wanted to “sin.” Rather, the vast majority responded they left due to historical information they had discovered and confirmed that contradicted the truth claims of the Church.
• 4,000 people surveyed, 3,086 respondents
• 58% were male, 42% were female
• 31% were from Utah, 60% were from non-Utah USA, 9% from outside the U.S.
• 73% of the men and 17% of the women had served missions
• 59% of the men and 42% of the women had served in leadership positions
• 356 had served in bishoprics, 20 in stake presidencies, 5 in mission presidencies, 1 in the Seventy
• 74% left because they stopped believing in the Church’s doctrine/theology
• 70% lost their faith thru research and study of Church history
• 70% lost faith in Joseph Smith
• 65% lost faith in the Book of Mormon (“BOM”)
• 50% lost confidence in the general authorities
• 60% had college, masters or doctorate degrees
• Only 4% said they were offended by someone
• Only 4% said they wanted to engage in behaviors considered sinful by the Church
Major Issues Cited in the Survey for Losing Faith:
• 59% of Respondents – Book of Abraham (“BOA”) translation errors
• 59% of Respondents – Joseph’s Polygamy/Polyandry
• 55% of Respondents – Blacks and the Priesthood
• 45% of Respondents – DNA/Archaeological Evidence Against the BOM
• 43% of Respondents – Masonic origins of the Temple Endowment
• 42% of Respondents – Multiple Conflicting Versions of the First Vision
• 42% of Respondents – Anachronisms in the BOM
• 40% of Respondents – Women and the Priesthood
• 40% of Respondents – Authenticity of Priesthood Restoration
• 38% of Respondents – Church positions on Science (age of the earth, evolution, Kolob, etc.)
• 36% of Respondents – Joseph’s use of a Peep Stone to Translate the BOM
• 35% of Respondents – Changes to the Temple Ceremonies
• 33% of Respondents – Credibility of the BOM Witnesses
• 31% of Respondents – Blood Atonement Doctrine
• 29% of Respondents – Joseph’s Treasure Digging Past and Practices
• 28% of Respondents – The Mountain Meadows Massacre
• 27% of Respondents – Brigham Young’s “Adam-God” Theory
• 27% of Respondents – Kinderhook Plates
• 21% of Respondents – Mark Hoffman Scandal
• 20% of Respondents – Similarities between the BOM and books like “View of the Hebrews” and “The Late War”
You can click here and watch a 25-minute video of the survey results being presented and discussed at a conference at Utah Valley University:
Full Survey (pdf):
Podcasts Discussing the Survey:
It’s interesting that most of the things you list that people had a problem with show incomplete understanding of the facts, or are not church doctrine, or are not official church positions, or are things about which the church has simply not taken an official position. These people are apostatizing from teachings that are not even true.
A demographic survey was also conducted in September 2017 of former members of the church. Approximatley 3,000 former members volunteered information on the age, race, incomes and other information. Results with charts are found here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSda74nQMthKCBUiAnzlAxTOkqcSnTUMmFgh_Zgj_YGvWEc_zQ/viewanalytics
None of your 1,2,3 steps includes actually getting the leadership to “tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues”
If you’re looking for a solution address the root cause not the symptoms. Your instructions only address the resulting symptoms not the root cause.
Thank you for your comment, and I think I understand what you are trying to articulate. If we were talking solely about fairness issues that deal with controversial or historical issues, then I think you are right to think that the recommendations in the article aren’t getting at what some might consider to be the root of those issues. But, for the purposes of the article, I left the door open for more fairness issues than just those dealing with controversial or historical issues. Also, the article is written to local leaders, and they may not be in a position to deal address the root causes, if the root causes are at a higher level than them. But, those local leaders can create an environment that supports members as they work through their issues.
While you used the story of the “cream strippings” to illustrate how fairness issues may seem trivial, you should probably note that the “cream strippings” story was first told about 16 years after the fact and was likely made up. There is a compelling analysis in Dialogue if you are interested. This only underscores the real reason that people are leaving: more and more people are discovering that things taught in church as history are just made up. The new Saints volume is trying to address this and is more accurate than past attempts, but still leaves out several key events.
I feel the item about leaders not telling the truth about history and other things is also very relevant to some people. We have unfortunately been taught a simplistic version of church history and Bible study, and once people learn more in this areas, they are confused and even shocked.
I do not believe the leaders are intentionally lying or misleading us. But I do believe members need to hear more accurate and realistically complex explanations about things. Many these things just aren’t black and white or as simple as we are told in Sunday school.
I feel that with the Internet always available now, we no longer have the luxury of simplistic and even naïve explanations from official sources.
When I have delved into these things, I have always eventually found good explanations. However, usually I have also discovered that while the church and gospel are still true, they are not as simple as I dad thought they were.
I am confident the church leaders are aware of this problem and will be addressing it more. The gospel topics essays are a good start, in my opinion.
I also think that faith is a key component. In the end, people have to decide whether to trust what the Spirit has told them is true. We will never have full answers to many of our questions in this life. So faith is required, along with study and reason.
Dear Brother Gottfredson,
Thank you for writing this article! I moved to Arkansas two years ago and my eyes have been opened to so many “fairness” issues that I was frankly ignorant about. Several of us now serve on a committee to help address these issues and begin rebuilding trust between those who have been marginalized and the leaders (local and general). The hardest part of the process has not been in reaching out to those on the fringes, but it has actually been helping the leaders recognize the “fairness” issues even exist and their role in perpetuating or helping to solve the issues. The last General Conference (October 2020), where President Nelson called on all of us to “root out racism”, was an answer to our prayers. I plan to share your article with our committee. I can tell you after listening to numerous members stories several key themes have presented themselves:
* those who bring these “fairness issues” up to leaders do not do so to change the doctrines of the church- they have very strong testimonies, they are only concerned someone else will also be hurt by what has been done or said AND they wonder how they fit into God’s plan
* they are often very hesitant to bring these concerns to their leaders attention because they don’t want to 1) be labeled as a complainer; 2) they fear retaliation; or 3) they fear they will be excommunicated. What has happened to these members in the past that has caused these to be their fears? What needs to change in our church culture so bringing up concerns is not looked down upon? Concerns lead to questions which can lead to revelation.
* they are not looking to punish those who have been unfair to them. They just want to move forward and be treated like everyone else, not like an unwanted sibling in God’s home.
There is so much more that we have learned over the last year as we have stepped towards these individuals and just listened to them and created a safe place for them. All of us have been changed in this process.
Thanks for your efforts in this work!
Please correct your list of early leaders who left the church. Frederick G. Williams never left. He was away helping Saints with cholera (he was a skilled physician) when the quorum of the twelve excommunicated him because they feared he wasn’t loyal to Joseph (who was in Liberty Jail). When he returned to Nauvoo and found out, he was absolutely heartbroken. When Joseph got out of Liberty Jail he tried to have Frederick reinstated, but the body of the church wouldn’t sustain it. These facts are in church history documents. One year later, he was rebaptized. He gave everything for the church, and his family was the only one of that first presidency to go west and stay in the church. He is an amazing example of staying faithful, even when you are misjudged and wrongly accused. I don’t harbor bad feelings for the twelve who excommunicated him. Those were tumultuous times, and there was no standard or manual to guide how things should be handled. He had a son-in-law who left, so maybe they thought he was also guilty by that association. But he never wavered in his devotion to Joseph. He died before Joseph, and his family said it was of a broken heart. So please, take his name off the list.
In the past there have been priesthood members who have not honoured their priesthood callings and who have made terrible comments. When these have pointed out they are ignored, buried or whatever. An individual is often not believed because the priesthood holder holds a position.
There are some members who deliberately and I mean deliberately go out to cause harm. The gossip starts and more harm is done. The ” victim” is not believed and because they react to what is happening they then become the trouble maker.
There are narcissistic individuals of both genders in the church who are very clever and because they act as though they are SAINTS their ” victim” is not believed.
When people in positions actually start listening and I mean listening and taking what is told to them seriously then hopefully things will improve.
The gossips cause terrible harm and it comes from both genders.
Not everyone is nice in this world. Just because people attend church doesn’t mean to say that there are no wolves in sheep’s clothing.
In my 53 years in the church I still remain gobsmacked at some of things that happen.
I have become withdrawn to try and protect myself … I no longer act myself because ” who do I trust”
Our Bishop is an amazing humble honourable man and I am grateful that he is there. It’s an impossible task to deal with sometimes awful things that go on.
The one thing I try hard to do is protect my testimony. I was asked …its amazing you still come to church…why do you…my reply…because I know its true. I have often said…I can stand alone in the midst of my own testimony. HOWEVER I am far from happy what with what has gone on for many years. How individuals gang up against you. How you are not believed and how noone can say anything for fear of offending but its ok fir others to offend me because of the way they have treated me.
I live in the REAL world and I speak the truth. I don’t lie and I don’t accuse anyone of saying or doing anything that they haven’t. Its sad how the truth cannot be accepted on too many highly important occasions.
The mental health of each individual is so important. It’s vital that the wolves in sheep’s clothing that are amongst us are rooted out.
I cannot apologise for anything that I have said here simply because it needs to be dealt with. Too many members feel they have to simply get on with it because they won’t be believed or told to harden up etc etc.
Why do some go inactive….I have been plain in my speaking because I can’t be anything else and in the hope that I will be taken seriously. Narcism exists, bullies exist and those intent in causing harm exist as do gossips.
A smile can hide a dagger.
No…I am not exaggerating at all.
I know the church is true and I love my Saviour.
I leave this with you in the hope that SOMEHOW solutions can be found to minimise the effect that these wolves cause.
When i joined the church, a member of the 70’s spoke to the new members. He said “remember that you joined the church because of the gospel, not the members… Do not judge the church by the actions of some members…” this never sat well with me. The most horric events in my life have been committed by “good members”. The inaction of leaders i reported the actions of individuals caused great strife for me. There’s so much more… I do love the gospel, ive found that i can’t embrace a religion where members excuse horrible and illegal actions of other members.