Divorcing the Church: A Plea to My Brothers and Sisters Ready to Bolt…

Divorcing the Church:  A Plea to My Brothers and Sisters Ready to Bolt…

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members have had a bad weekend. These past few days have brought to the fore divisions over core interpretations of Christian community. People have taken to social media, email, and Sunday School to declare support or dismay, to report personal divine revelation both for and against the policy. They have ranted. They have wept. They have taken their concerns to God. How does it all work? How do our Heavenly Parents feel when their children fight over how to be good? I have no idea. Fortunately, as is the case with all eternal relationships–and as my Uncle Dillon would say–’the first million years are the worst.'” – Melissa Inouye 

“Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters.” -Rumi 

“What reason do people who are outraged still have to stay in the Church, Jacob?” I was asked that during an interview with Gina Colvin yesterday – a question very much on many people’s minds right now. As I hear stories about otherwise happy members rattled enough to consider leaving, I’ve been thinking about this question a lot.

In any of our most important, intimate relationships, there comes a moment when we wonder why we ever decided to commit – when the pain or disappointment or tension becomes so great, it’s hard to remember why we got into the relationship in the first place…

At that point in a marriage, more and more people are deciding it’s best to just walk away.  After all, if you’re feeling awful…why would you be crazy enough to stay?

That’s pretty much how some people are feeling about the Church right now:  “Wow – I’m really hurt.  And angry…maybe it’s time to step away for good?”  

The appeal of divorce is that it seems to offer an immediate relief from the heartache.  Isn’t that the way people talk afterwards?  “I’m happier than I’ve ever been…what a relief![1]

Obviously, there are situations where divorce is the only sensible move, for what feels like basic self-preservation or sanity or survival.

And maybe that’s how you’re feeling right now about a Church you used to love:  “Is this even right for me anymore?”

For you or anyone else moving towards stepping away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, unconditional support is probably what you want – something like,  “whatever feels best to you…I’m behind you!”

If that’s your decision, there will be plenty of people – myself included – willing to love you all the same.

But for today, at least, my feeling is more like:  Please Don’t Go…Not Now!

There is so much you can still add…so much that would be missed – in both directions.

Above all, if you step away now, you may never know what could have happened next – from this moment on.  What might have emerged out of this very tension and passing through this discomfort?

In mindfulness practice, part of the intention is to sit and be present (as best we can) with whatever is arising.  Against our natural impulses to push or turn away from difficult emotions, the experiment is to make space for everything – including things that hurt – witnessing the storm without added judgment or attempts to control or “fix” things or make anything go away.

What if we were able to do that in this painful Mormon moment?  Making space for whatever is here – and holding it collectively in the body of Christ…and yes, together?

I’m not saying this, mind you, as some grand “answer” to the current difficulties and tensions in Mormondom (to those who demand to know how this applies to the Brethren?!)…The goal is not to insist on “fixing” everything, but instead to explore different ways we might work with the reality of things as they are – right now.

My own experience is that this kind of space-making allows the discomfort and tension of the moment to become something else – in an organic, unfolding over time:  new insight, new discoveries and new experiences all arising from the ground of that very discomfort.

None of this (or much less of this) is available, however, when we push away from whatever hurts – especially if we make that push a permanent one.[2]

In doing so, we potentially pull the plug on direct forms of personal, empirical inquiry as to what exactly is causing the pain.  The knot that might have unraveled?  The puzzle that might have been solved?  The sources of pain desperate to be explored more deeply? All much harder to do so if we wall ourselves off from intimate contact with the grounds out of which this tension is arising.[3]

Of course, this may all sound like lunacy to those who feel like they’ve been stewing in this tension for years:  You’re suggesting I “live in this tension” some more?

Exactly.  But in a new way – a different way.

Two people in conflict, one of my mindfulness teachers pointed out, are almost always on the verge of learning something profound about themselves: Could that be true of us as a people right now?

The Christian writer John Backman writes about the “practice of community” as having tremendous worth precisely for the way “we are confronted with worldviews and frames of reference that we never could have imagined ourselves” – opening up “still further to the possibilities of truth and the value of ‘I could be wrong.’”

He goes on to describe how even after spending decades studying and exploring his faith, the people of his own Episcopal parish “introduced me to approaches that never would have crossed my mind.” After giving several examples, he says, “some of these encounters upset my theological applecart from time to time, and I did not feel a need to accept any of the approaches wholesale.  Ultimately, though, they have led me to a richer, more complex understanding of my faith – and a respect for an even broader range of opinions” (see more from John here)[4]

What uncomfortable truths about ourselves might we be close to learning together in the Church? What beautiful new possibilities might emerge for us all?

When the “the moment of disillusionment” arrives and “you think love is gone” in a romantic relationship, experts in psychology speak about this not as a crisis – but as potentially a “crucial point in an evolution,” the opening of an “awesome possibility.”[5]

In that very moment – one in which you see this imperfect human being by your side (who is not fulfilling every need) – this very moment could actually turn into the moment you get to start loving your partner for real – not because you’re driven to, but because you choose to be there. [6]

In a similar way, what if this becomes a tremendous opportunity for the membership of the Church to begin practicing even greater love?  As John Gustav-Wrathall eloquently writes of this latest Handbook change, “If this policy be of God, God will help us through this. And if this policy be not of God, God will help us through this, as he always does. In any event there is nothing in this policy that requires us to love one iota less. In fact, maybe a little bit more.”

Isn’t that pretty much what Christ Himself teaches?  That if we love when it’s easy, it’s not that big of a deal.  But if we choose to love when it’s hard or confusing or baffling, now that is something (Luke 6:32) – especially if it’s the Lord Himself we’re trying to fix our gaze upon.

And when it comes to this relationship – our relationship with Him – Jesus didn’t mince words, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me….He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:37, 39).

Maybe that’s how this feels to you – considering going to one more Elders Quorum or Relief Society meeting or the next Primary Program. Where’s “my life” in that?

Or maybe you’ve even already gone ahead and signed those divorce papers?  If so, I hope you’ll still consider my heart’s offering today as applicable to whatever degree in your own circumstance (accompanied by a bit of background music in this shameless serenade…this one’s for you, my Ex-Mo Brother, Mark!)[7]

For those still trying to make a decision, all I’m suggesting here is another option – another potential place to stand. As Pema Chodrin puts it, “stay with that broken heart.”

As Graham Spedding writes, “This so saddens me…. but there is such a knee jerk reaction happening. Slow down, lovely people. Take a deep breath and wait for a minute. The Gospel is still there and there are so many things flying around that haven’t been confirmed yet…Oh, this makes my heart ache to see so much hurt and sadness happening..#prayingformoreunderstanding ”

Whatever our feeling or questions or confusion, maybe we could at least agree that thoughtful, good-hearted people disagree on almost everything in this world – including recent actions by Mormon leadership (see 10 key, thoughtfully-held disagreements here).

In such a moment of woundedness, if we still choose to hold on and trust something Higher than our present feelings…that could be our Finest Hour, perhaps.

If we instead remove ourselves from what challenges us, while the present discomfort may abate, so also does our direct contact with this challenging data about ourselves. Like a drug that suppresses symptoms, clues and signals to deeper problems may be removed – leaving us potentially stymied in moving towards deeper healing and wholeness.

If you’re convinced that wholeness and healing lies outside of Mormonism, no one will stand in your way.  To our utmost, we will seek to respect and love you – without conditions.

In this moment, however, I can’t resist underscoring how much this path may preclude other potentially beautiful possibilities. Instead of allowing ourselves to experience the messy unfolding of this moment, this Divorce potentially short-circuits whatever that very moment might have been perfectly positioned to teach us – bypassing whatever insight that tension might be pointing us towards, including the possibility of a collective Phoenix arising from the ashes to regain a newness of life beyond your wildest dreams.

Isn’t that the story most happy couples end up telling? “I’m glad we stuck it out through that hard time…” Indeed, research confirms that these couples end up being some of the happiest later on – especially those who have to go through some rough rides together.[8]

In that make-or-break moment, sometimes it’s just a memory of how things used to be that keeps them going – or a hope of what may still come.

And what about you?  Alongside whatever else you are feeling right now about the Church, is there anything in your memory that you once felt or experienced that was Sweet and Divine?

And what about the possibilities of miracles looking forward – surprises and unfoldings you can’t even anticipate right now. Are you open to that?

There is SO MUCH more to learn together, and so much more good to come  – I’m convinced. There are bigger, more productive conversations to have about gay rights – and other creative ways to make extra space in the Mormon conversation (shout-out to Tom McConkie and his new book!).  The Restoration has not ended – and there’s so much more we have to figure out to make Zion a reality!

If this sounds like a brazen attempt to try and give your heart a reason to stay, that’s because it is.

Make no mistake – you will be sorely missed if you leave. And so if there’s still a place for you, I just don’t want you to miss it.

If there isn’t, or you can’t seem to find it right now, you will be loved all the same by me and many, many other members.  I can promise you that.

For my wife and I, our experience has been finding solace not in turning away – but turning towards the restored gospel with new eyes, as the Corn Flakes commercial used to say, “tasting it again for the very first time.”

After my own dark nights of the soul, I’ve concluded that no matter what has happened, the best news of the gospel is that this can be a brilliant, fresh new moment….no matter what, and for all of us.


[1] And of course, to walk away from a relationship that had become so filled with tension, resistance and reactivity…who wouldn’t feel relief?  No wonder then, that following a separation, individuals often conclude that doing so had solved the fundamental problem. If relief is felt in walking away from that individual (or institution), then surely they are the primary source of one’s pain and the reason for the prior tension?  Parties to the separation typically go to great lengths to make this very point – one that I’m raising a question about here.

[2] Of course, we admittedly all push away and avoid what hurts at times – which is not a problem.  What becomes problematic is when this becomes our main or only way of interacting with difficult situations, persons or emotions – in other words, when the avoidance becomes chronic.  Click here to watch a quick video of several mindfulness teachers talking about our tendency to push away.

[3]  Granted those who step away from the Church obviously continue on with other moments and other insights – with many speaking about a newness of life outside of the Church.  Without disputing any of that, I’m simply pointing out perhaps an obvious point:  that choosing those other moments, by default, is to remove yourself from whatever learning, growth and knowledge that may have emerged from direct, intimate engagement the conflict itself.

[4] I highly recommend John’s book here or on Amazon:  Backman, J. (2013). Why Can’t We Talk?  Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart. Skylight Paths Publishing: Woodstock, Vermont.  (p. 55-56)

[5] Gary Zukav, Soul Stories, (Free Press, 2000) and Robert A. Johnson, We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love (New York:  HarperOne, 1985), 107-108.

[6]As Scott Peck writes, “real love often occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking, when we act lovingly despite the fact that we don’t feel loving. It is when a couple falls out of love [that] they may begin to really love.” Italics mine. M. Scott Peck,  The Road Less Travelled (Touchstone, 1988), 88, 119.  For more in the context of romance, check out:  “Once Upon a Time… He Wasn’t Feeling It Anymore. What’s Killing Romance in America – And What to Do About It.” Download it here for free or find it on Amazon for a couple of bucks.

[7] None of the foregoing, by the way, should be taken to mean that someone like Mark cannot or doesn’t have integrity to follow his best judgment of what is right based on his experiences.  Too often, we members can insinuate as much – and Mark has shown me otherwise.  Within similar circumstances, he and I may reach different conclusions on what the ‘path of integrity’ is – but even in those differences, we can honor and trust each others’ courage, integrity and sense of what is best.

And if you just can’t find a place in the Church, there are, of course, other ways we can practice this together still.  Mark and I have a long-running conversation and new experiment exploring what an enjoyable Mormon/Former Mormon relationship looks like (see here and here).  Among other things, this includes giving each other space for conviction, passion and the (occasional) attempt to persuade…  (:

[8] “More than 94% of married individuals—both men and women—who said that their marriage at some point was in trouble said they were glad they were still together….Long-term unhappiness in marriage is uncommon….those couples who hung on weren’t miserable. About two out of three unhappily married adults who avoided divorce ended up happily married to the same spouse five years later. And the unhappiest individuals improved the most; more than three-quarters of the unhappiest individuals who avoided divorce said they were now happy. Excerpts from chapter summarizing the research”  http://www.divorce.usu.edu/files/uploads/lesson2.pdf

9 responses

  1. It’s important to remember that if we joined a church because it already agrees with us, then we are not growing. If we recognize the need that we have to change into what the Lord wants us to become, then we have real commitment. Staying true to your faith was never meant to be easy. It was meant to be tried and to push your comfort zones and test you though situations that make you wonder if it is right to continue. That’s part of the growth and cleansing process. Thanks for the post, Jacob.

  2. “In that very moment – one in which you see this imperfect human being by your side (who is not fulfilling every need) – this very moment could actually turn into the moment you get to start loving your partner for real – not because you’re driven to, but because you choose to be there.”

    Can you share your thoughts on how this advice might change if the roles and feelings were reversed and a Stake President was deciding whether to excommunicate an otherwise temple worthy recently married same sex couple?

    • I think you’re question is a fabulous one, Scott – and I would welcome this CHALLENGE for both situations…including in active members’ and leaders’ relationships with the gay community.

      What exactly that “love” looks like and plays out to be, of course, is reflective of larger differences in narrative. On that level, “love” is definitely not simply “love” – but can mean and end up being very different things…

    • Same-sex sealing automatically revokes any temple worthiness that couple may have had, so there is no “otherwise temple worthy” or exception. No advice or words of comfort can change that. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, same-sex marriage is a violation of baptismal covenants, and is a grievous sin against the temple and the sealing covenant. That’s why same-sex marriage is apostasy (and always has been, so I’m not sure why there’s such a surprise about it being written and clarified).

      This stake president has more than likely been sealed in the temple himself and understands the gravity and eternal nature of the sealing covenant that can only be made between man and woman. It is unkind and deceitful to claim that you can be in total contradiction to the temple standards and still be worthy to attend and worship there.

      Does this mean there can’t be love in the meeting or in the final decision? No. I’ve been through several Church disciplinary meetings myself, and have felt nothing but love through every one of them.

      For all involved, I’d say to keep emotional and mental well-being in mind. Personal safety comes above religious affiliation – or should, anyway.

  3. This post would certainly resonate with abusers who afterward plead with those they’ve abused, “But I love you! Just stay!”

    Many of us have weathered these types of storms for years, holding out for the type of hope you mention here. Growth and understanding should come from the church. The burden is always on the members to continually accept the harmful boundaries set by the church. “Deal with it” is basically what you are saying here, and it’s what the church expects as well.

    Those who harm, those who abuse–they do not get to tell the abused how they should feel or act.

    • For those who hurt to the point of feeling abused – they need to do whatever they need to feel safe again. No question.

      Like two children with conflicting stories about “Dad” – it seems two individuals can grow up in the “same” Church and travel dramatically different trajectories (reaching dramatically different stories). My feeling is that space needs to be made for both experiences – real, legitimate, compassionate space….enough so, certainly, for both to feel respected. And who knows, maybe even enough space for both to start listening to each other.

      High expectation for a family feud…and certainly not for everyone. But for some of us, there is hunger to have a *real* conversation – real love, real respect – across that divide you highlight, Jack.

      Thanks for the comment…I certainly won’t tell you ‘how you should feel or act.’ Appreciation for at least hearing out my thoughts.

      Would love to have your ideas on Third Space if you have any interest.

  4. Ted Meissner From a Slate article: “…members in same-sex relationships would be considered “apostates” and their children would be barred from religious life. This exclusion includes baptism, which in the Mormon faith is required for salvation…” Is that an accurate statement? It seems the church has left them, not the other way around, no? Please forgive my ignorance on this topic, I’d only just heard about it last night, and am an outsider to the religion.

    So if people stay who disagree with this view, is there any option for it to change in the future? Can they influence, or is it set in stone?

    Thank you for your well written article, Jacob, in sharing that perspective of openness.

  5. I appreciate the perspective of being present with emotional pain and anger. My own experience is that both are real and important, but that neither is a good indicator of what to do next. [Bracket a longer discussion about physical pain.] With respect to emotional pain and anger, mindful attention seems like a good prescription, not necessarily forever, but for now. One I try to follow.
    However, pain and anger do not exhaust the range of experience. For example, in the last Mormon Sacrament Meeting I attended, I experienced an unexpected, uninvited, first time ever, active disinterest in taking the bread and water. That needs attention.

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