You Are Not Alone

Leaving your religion can feel like a lonely solo journey. When I decided to halt my activity in the Mormon church I felt Chuck from Castaway, stranded on my own island. Living in a small town in Utah didn’t help my feelings of isolation. I joined a couple of Facebook groups full of people who were going or had gone through a similar transition. Many of them were confused, but most were angry. And that anger can be exhibited itself in ways that can feel combative or hostile to those who still believe.

Reading accounts of former Mormons who came out to spouses and family helped give me the courage to do the same. Telling Kim was stressful, but our marriage was strong. We’ve gone through tough times together and emerged with a stronger love for each other. I told her, “Well get through this.”

She listened while I did most of the talking that evening. I told her how I felt. I told her my research had brought me to a place where I could no longer accept the truth claims of the only religion I’ve ever known. Kim told me she wasn’t surprised, but I know that didn’t make it any easier to hear in such clear terms. I could no longer go through the weekly charade. I could no longer donate my time and money to an organization in which I no longer believed.

Kim remained calm, at least on the surface. What did this mean for our marriage? What would it mean for our children? Our future? We’d have to figure that out.

I spoke with a good friend a few days later. We’d served a mission together in Germany, and he told me that he no longer believed in the Mormon church. But he continued to attend each week to keep the peace with his spouse. I told him of my plans to tell my parents, and he advised against it. “You will only hurt them”, he told me. I heard his counsel, and then went home and wrote my father a letter.

I should have listened to my friend.

I’m not going to go into many details here, but my decision to leave the church has adversely affected all but a couple of relationships with my siblings and parents. I was the first of the kids to leave Utah, the last to have children and the first to leave the church. Three strikes and I was out. Families are the most important unit on earth, according to Mormon teachings. The family can be together after death, but only if every person does his or her part here on earth. By rejecting Mormonism, I was rejecting not only their church but the family unit that was supposed to last an eternity.

I knew the risks going in and have accepted the outcome of my decision to be open about my faith crisis. Some friends and family have told me to go about my business in private. Just walk away from the church and keep my mouth shut. It’s nobody’s business. Nobody cares.

But they are wrong in at least one regard: people do care. I’m not alone.

In the last 18 months, I’ve received dozens of emails and texts from people who have questions about the LDS church. Most of them still attend church each week but have nowhere to turn and nobody with which to discuss their concerns. Most are scared to share their concerns with their spouse. Some have told their spouse, but go through the motions for everyone else, as a way to keep the peace.

I’ve felt overwhelmed at times. People I care about deeply are asking for my advice on how to proceed through a field full of landmines and I have little guidance to impart. Kim’s side of the family has been wonderful, loving, and accepting. But my decision to leave the church has utterly torched relationships on my side of the family. “I’m batting .500 with family.” sounds reasonable in baseball terms, but provides little solace when dealing with those you love.

Yet I enjoy hearing from others with doubts similar to mine. These doubts come from people I admire. They are smart, thoughtful individuals who have been faithful members. But then they came across the church essay on polygamy. Or the one about blacks and priesthood. Suddenly their world is turned upside down.

Whatever the reason for their doubts, there are few avenues for sharing these doubts within a safe environment inside the church. Some who have taken their questions to bishops or stake presidents have left without their temple recommends or church callings. There’s just little room for doubt in a church that claims to be the one and only true church on earth. You’re either all in or you’re out. Critical thinking is seen as a sign of weakness in a world where faith and obedience are paramount.

If you are one of these people who have doubts or questions, know that you are not alone. If you could discern the thoughts of those sitting next to you in church, you’d realize that a number of them are going through a faith crisis in silence. Only you know when the time is right to share your thoughts with your spouse and your family. I’ve stumbled through that process, making mistakes along the way. But I decided that going through the motions was doing more harm than good.

If you would like someone to talk to, I’m happy to listen. Just know that I’m a better listener than advice giver. I’ve been asked many times what resources I studied, or what websites and podcasts helped me the most when searching for answers, and I’m hesitant to share everything I’ve studied over the years. I don’t believe that would be helpful and I don’t pretend that my route is the only route to take. Your research may confirm your beliefs, and that’s just fine. As President J. Reuben Clark said:

If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation.
If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.

I will mention one influential (and less controversial) resource because it affected me immensely: John Dehlin’s interview with Brent Metcalfe on the Mormon Stories Podcast. Brent worked as security at the church office building in Salt Lake City in the early 80s, and became an expert on the Book of Abraham and church history. His story is fascinating and touching and ultimately sad.

You are not alone. Keep searching for answers. Make connections with those in the same boat, and be willing to change course based on what you learn.

What Mormon Women Get

I was listening to Mormon Stories Podcast yesterday and got to the end of the first episode that covered the latest General Conference. Jamie Handis Handy talks about her role as a woman in the church, and knocks it out of the park.

I’m glad that my two daughters won’t grow up in a church that sees them as second class citizens.

Preparing to Serve a Mormon Mission

Over the past 6 months, I’ve watched as our oldest daughter went back and forth about which high school to attend. She eventually decided to attend a smaller school that most of her friends will be attending. We discussed the different approaches to academics, orchestra, and other after-school activities, but her decision was primarily influenced by friends. Had most of them decided to attend another school, I have no doubt that’s where she would be.

In the mid-80s, I came to a decision to serve a mission in much the same manner as my daughter selected a school. I didn’t feel a lot of pressure from my parents to serve. They made it clear that it was my decision. I did feel peer pressure from my friends and had heard all the lessons in church about how serving a mission prepares young men for life. Nearly all the girls I dated in high school were Mormon, and if I felt any pressure to serve a mission it came from them. None of them admitted they wouldn’t marry a man who didn’t serve a mission, but it was implied. Or at least that’s how I took it.

As a graduation gift, I wanted braces and had them put on about 6 months before I turned 19-years old. I knew that I would not be able to enter the Mission Training Center (MTC) in Provo until my braces were off, or about 5 months after I turned 19. This allowed me to do two things: attend a quarter of school at Weber State College and further contemplate serving a mission. During this time I attended a Missionary Prep Class. I hit it off well with the instructor who was the father of a girl I’d been friends with for many years. During this time I also read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover.

Taking these preparation courses was a turning point in my decision to serve because I took them with several close friends. I couldn’t imagine hanging around Weber State College for two years while my friends were serving missions around the world. My first friend to be called on a mission was John Minnoch, who was serving in Portugal during this time. The couple of letters he wrote me were filled with positive experiences. Two more friends, Darin Bosworth and Daniel Ulrich, were also planning to enter the MTC around the same time I would be there. That we’d all be teaching the gospel at the same time was compelling.

I had taken four years of German in high school and figured that might play into where I’d be called to serve, so it wasn’t a surprise that I was called to Frankfurt, Germany. Darin was called to Brazil and I was thrilled to hear that Daniel and I were called to the same mission. It felt like God had a hand in the process. Any doubts about leaving home for two years were abated when I knew Daniel and I would be in Germany together.

About 3 months after my calling arrived, I was headed to the MTC.

The MTC is an odd place. I had heard so many different rumors about it that I was genuinely intrigued to experience it for myself. I was placed in a District of 10 men (Elders) and 4 women (Sisters) who would be serving in Germany or Austria. We spent at least 12 hours a day together studying, singing, playing basketball and cleaning toilets. It didn’t take long until I loved each of them. I missed my family, but I had joined another family of young men and young women who were there for the same reasons I was. They had the same insecurities, fears, and self-doubt I had.

I loved the MTC. I really loved it, even though I struggled to learn German. I was overconfident in my ability to learn another language and quickly fell to the bottom of our district in terms of language proficiency. But my struggles didn’t dampen my enthusiasm to be a missionary. I figured once I got to Germany, I’d pick up the language in a flash. As you will see in my next post, I was mistaken.

Although I loved the MTC, I had a few experiences that challenged my perception of the church. I assumed that I’d been called to serve in Germany because that’s where God wanted me to be and that my personality and way of teaching would mesh well with those I met, taught and eventually brought into the church through baptism. From the time I stepped into the MTC until the day I returned home, it was pounded into my head that I was called to “increase the number of convert baptisms.” I wasn’t called to make friends, tour the country, attend the temple or even render service. Everything I was taught was centered on the goal of convincing others be baptized a Mormon. In this regard, my personality or individual traits were not important. At times I wasn’t sure if I was part of a church or a military because obedience superseded everything. Rules such as what color of tie I could wear felt arbitrary, but I found out that wearing the wrong tie could get me kicked out of class.

Another part of my MTC experience is more difficult to discuss and might come as a surprise to those who are not familiar with the church’s obsession with chastity.

At least once, and sometimes twice a week, each member of our district was asked to step into the hallway to be interviewed by one of two instructors. One instructor focused on teaching German and the other spent most of his time teaching us how to teach the six discussions that cover the core doctrine of the church. Each time I was called out of class to be interviewed, I was asked a set of questions ranging from how I was getting along with my companions to the growth of my testimony. I was also asked if I had a problem with masturbation.

I didn’t think much about this last question the first few times it was asked. Missionaries must pass at least two worthiness interviews before entering the MTC. Both my bishop and stake president had already asked me if I was engaged in any sexual behavior with my girlfriend or myself. Since I passed both pre-MTC interviews, I didn’t understand why I was continually asked about masturbation at these weekly interviews by men just a few years older than myself. I began to wonder why my church was so obsessed with my sexual activity. And why they didn’t trust the answers I gave them? I have no idea if other missionaries in my district were asked similar questions. It’s not something I felt comfortable discussing with them at the time.

One last experience I want to share is about testimony. While at the MTC, each missionary is expected to have a firm testimony of God, Christ, Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I was also expected to believe that the Mormon church is the only true church on earth, meaning the only church that is directed by God himself and therefore able to perform required ordinances in his name such as baptism and confirmation. I was raised in the Mormon church and knew little about other Christian religions let alone other world religions such as Islam, Buddhism or Judaism. I was taught at home and in church that other religions could have a fraction of truth to them and that they consisted mostly of honest believers, but they didn’t contain a fullness of the gospel like my church did. I believed that I had something most others did not, and my job was to take that message to Germany and help others understand the error of their ways.

Maybe every other week our district would assemble, often outside on the grass, and bear testimony to each other. Many tears were shed as my fellow missionaries knew that God was at the head of our church, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the Book of Mormon was true. Those were the core beliefs, and each of us was expected to witness of their truthfulness. No doubting allowed. I sat through these testimony sessions wondering if something was wrong with me because I couldn’t say I knew for certain these events were true. Unlike Joseph Smith, no angels had descended upon my bedroom at night. Neither god nor Christ had ever whispered in my ear that these doctrines were true. Some Mormon doctrines sounded realistic while others, such as Joseph digging up plates of gold, sounded more suspect. Why would god take the plates back and not leave them here for us to examine? Why was I being asked to believe the extraordinary claims of another man? It was all so confusing. Like my struggles learning German, I assumed that once I got to Germany, my testimony would flourish as I witnessed miracle after miracle. I believed I was on God’s errand. I was part of his army. Surely he would provide me with the same conviction and assurance he provided the rest of my district, wouldn’t he?

A week before I flew to Germany, each missionary in my district stood up and said they knew this and that doctrine to be true, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I sat on the grass, contemplating what I should say. Did I know anything for certain? Was I less of a person because I had doubts? Why did everyone else seem so confident in their beliefs while I had questions? When it was my time, I stood and said I hoped that one day I could say I know what they know to be true, but that I couldn’t say that today. I sat down in silence, wondering if I’d been too honest. Nobody quite knew what to say to me that evening, although most tried to offer their support, telling me I’d eventually be able to say “I know”. But I felt I had been true to myself that evening.

I flew to Germany having learned a lot about myself. Although I struggled to learn German, I was confident in my ability to teach others. I never once considered leaving the MTC to return home. I made a number of close friends I still keep in contact with today. When I think back to my time at the MTC, it brings a smile to my face because the good experiences far outweighed the bad.

I’ll cover the time I spent in Germany over the next post or two.

**I’m sharing my recollection of my mission mostly for myself but also for my children. I want them to know about this time of my life, and this allows them to learn a little more about their father. Each missionary experience is unique, and I don’t claim to speak for any other missionary, including those I served with.

Feeling Truth

Two nights ago, I sat in a small auditorium waiting for my daughter to perform in her end-of-the-school year dance program. I don’t know much about dance. If the dancer’s movements are in sync with the music I’m satisfied.

My daughter’s group finally strolled onto the stage and began their routine. As they began dancing I noticed a smile grow across the face of my daughter. She was in her element, beaming ear-to-ear. As the rest of the girls stood back, Anna came to the front of the stage and performed while the spotlight shined on her face. She twirled, spun and floated across the stage and then faded back in with the rest of her group.

I felt a surge of pride inside my chest. But it was more than just pride. I felt immense joy watching my daughter do something she loves. Although I didn’t understand every technique or action she performed, I was moved to tears as the routine ended.

I’ve thought about this experience for a couple of days now and compare it the feelings I had when I was active in a church where I was told that feelings can confirm the truth of anything. Have questions about the Book of Mormon? Pray and ask god and he’ll tell you it’s true through a feeling. The same goes for any question I might have. Or so I was taught.

I spent two years in Germany as a missionary challenging people to join my church because they felt “good” when we visited their homes. I manipulated their feelings for my own benefit. Any feeling an investigator had, I attributed to the spirit confirming the truth of our message.

While in Germany, I studied many aspects of the church that I hadn’t been taught before. The story of god commanding Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, disturbed me. What kind of god would do that? I discovered that early Mormon prophets practiced polygamy, several taking as many as 50 wives, some as young as 14-years old. I wrote my grandfather and asked him to help me understand. I prayed that I might understand the reasons behind these actions that seemed cruel and immoral to me. But I never received an answer. If anything, pondering my concerns only made me more depressed and confused. There’s little patience inside a church that claims to be the only true church on the face of the earth.

What does all this have to do with watching my daughter dance?

Well, I no longer believe that feelings confirm truth. The good feelings I had while attending church or the temple were no different than those I had while watching my daughter dance. I feel good listening to my spouse play the piano or while skiing down the mountain with my son at my side. Good music, a play or even a good movie can bring feelings of joy. But those feelings don’t mean what I’m doing or hearing is true anymore than having a good feeling while reading the Book of Mormon means it’s true.

Today, I don’t dismiss my feelings, but I’m aware of what they represent and what they don’t. I no longer attempt to justify the behavior of early Mormon prophets or worry about why a god would command a father to kill his son or why this same god would flood the earth, killing every man, woman and child.

With a wonderful spouse and five kids, I appreciate opportunities to share in their passions and feel of their love and warm spirit. I’m thrilled when they are willing to share their talents with me.

Maybe the “truth” lies in those small moments.

Dealing with Doubt

Few topics give me pause to write about more than religion.

I don’t find it difficult to write about my own thoughts and experiences regarding my beliefs, but I’ve found that people close to me either misinterpret my writing or I offend someone.  In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if I possess the skill to pull it off, but here it goes anyway.

A few weeks ago I read the New York Times article about Hans Mattsson who was called to serve as an area authority for the Mormon church in Sweden. Members began asking him about historical facts that conflicted with what they had been taught in church. When Mattsson went to church leaders in Salt Lake City for answers, he wasn’t satisfied with their response and later decided to go public with his frustration.

As links to this article circulated on Facebook, I watched at the reactions that ranged from shock to dismay to mild disappointment.  I read the articles a couple of times and thought, “Yep, I can relate to that.” I can only imagine the pressure Mattsson must feel as a leader responsible for a large number of church members. His beliefs in the church are expected to be rock solid. Is there any room for doubt in a leader?

As a young missionary entering the Mission Training Center in Provo, Utah, I had a lot of questions myself. I studied the scriptures for many hours during my 8 week stay in Provo. By the time I arrived in Germany I was prepared to teach Germans about my beliefs. It would be a few months before my language skills would catch up to the doctrine I had memorized, and I was able to deliver my message to those handful of Germans kind enough to listen. As a side note, I found most Germans to be incredibly friendly and open once I earned their trust. There just weren’t many who wanted to listen to a 20-year old tell them their church didn’t have all the truth. 

I had ample opportunity to deliver my message (called discussions) that began with our belief in a God and Jesus Christ which hopefully softened up my audience enough before I dropped the Joseph Smith story bomb on them. All those head nods and hey-you-aren’t-so-strange looks I got while talking about Christ often turned to stares of you-expect-me-to-believe-that!? when I told them about Joseph Smith digging up plates of gold on a hillside.

Most pieces of the Mormon doctrinal puzzle fit within a framework I could comprehend. A few points of doctrine became clear to me the more I studied. But there were two topics I struggled with to the point that I eventually pulled out a pen and paper and wrote a letter to my grandfather asking for his take on the matter. I was close to my grandfather, and we often discussed the early history of the church. He seemed to devour books written by  church leaders and would share what he learned with me. I valued his opinion as much as anyone’s because he once told me that he’d gained both a spiritual and intellectual testimony of the church.

To a 20-year old young man, gaining an intellectual testimony meant that all the doctrinal pieces fit together. He had solved the puzzle while mine was still a work in progress. But knowing that each piece fit somewhere was comforting.

I wish I could tell you those two pieces found a home, but that’s not the case. I still pull them out and examine them from time to time. I’m resigned to the fact that one or both pieces may never fit my puzzle. Occasionally, I’ll bring up one of these topics with Kim because I know she won’t mistake my doubt for something it’s not. 

There remains an expectation that I’ll figure it out or keep my mouth shut in some circles. My doubt has often been misinterpreted as various larger issues concerning my activity in the church. I tend to let these assumptions roll right on by because a person’s beliefs are his or her own.

So Mattsson’s story gives me hope that maybe we are at the point where people can feel safe expressing their doubts without being judged. With so much information available on the internet it’s wise for the church to support their members who are searching for answers instead of attempting to hide or hush it.

My children are getting to the age where they have questions about doctrine or the history of the church. With the answer often being a Google search away, my goal is to keep an open dialog with them so that I’m part of the discussion.

It’s OK to admit that I don’t have all the answers. Not every piece has found a home. My beliefs continue to change as I learn more about the church and myself. I haven’t always respected people with beliefs at odds with my own. But I’m improving as I focus on searching for common ground instead of highlighting the differences.

My grandfather eventually responded to my letter, the tone of which was, “Hey, everyone has to figure this out on their own.”

That answer means more to me today than it did when I first read it back in my tiny apartment in Fulda.