Editor’s Note: This is the third of four Meridian articles by Richard Eyre on Faith Crisis in Families. The fourth article will be published later this month.
Recently, I have been writing to and speaking with several Church members who say they are having a Faith Crisis; and with parents whose children are losing their faith and leaving the Church. This article combines and condenses these discussions with several different people into one “person.”
“Jessica” is a mom, a wife, a therapist, and describes herself as “a faithful follower who finally examined her beliefs and found she didn’t really believe them.” Her new direction was triggered by a gay friend who she felt was offended and mistreated by the Church. Jessica says, in essence….“while I still love many things about the Church, I don’t feel that I can continue to affiliate with a culture that harms and endangers LGBTQ people and has a checkered history featuring polygamy and patriarchy.”
Jessica has been in a ward Relief Society presidency, and her husband Tom, a returned missionary, was the Elders Quorum President. They and their children have always been active in their ward.
My first conversation with Jessica was over dinner, and I simply tried to go through her grievances one by one and see if I could put a new slant on them. “You are not the first one to have these concerns,” I said. But so many have worked their way through them and come to understand that while the Restoration revealed so much about God’s plan, there is so much we don’t fully understand. Nor is it easy to empathize fully with the very different cultures in which the early Church existed.
I encouraged her to reflect on all the insights and eternal perspectives that the Restoration gives us and on the practical help that the Church provides in raising our families and serving each other.
But she wasn’t buying it, returning over and over again to the perceived injustices she saw and the imperfections and insensitivity she felt she had observed in the Church’s leadership. As we corresponded, I tried to suggest a more moderated course. Perhaps she could accept the fact that Bishops, and even Apostles and Prophets are human, as they were in the scriptures, and that the Lord has no choice but to work through imperfect mortals who, devoted and holy though they are, are not perfect and can make mistakes or state things in ways that can be offensive to some.
Her brittle response was that if they were so “human” why follow them? Surely God would not let them do things which hurt people…and if we all have the same access to God, then why are we allowing someone else to tell us what to do and what to believe? And by the way, she said, why was all our Church history so sanitized and whitewashed when I learned it as a kid?
We wrote back and forth several more times, and had another conversation where I tried to help her understand that people with good motives still sometimes make errors. I gave her Elder Uchtdorf’s advice to “doubt her doubts” at least as much as she was doubting the Church, but I began to feel as though my efforts to “help” were actually entrenching her more deeply in her decision to leave and that the best thing I could do was to tell her I loved her and that she, like me, could only get real answers from God and from the Spirit and that talking to God would be better for both of us than continuing to talk to each other.
Larry and Jane
Jessica’s parents, Larry and Jane, are devastated. They told me that Jessica had not even bothered to meet with them personally to discuss her feelings or her doubts or even to tell them that she was leaving the Church. She just emailed us, Jane said, just telling us that she and her husband had thought a lot about this and that their decision to leave was final and that they did not wish to talk about it or elaborate on it. We still love you, Jessica had said in the email, and we are certainly not trying to influence you or anyone negatively about the Church; we just are finding a new path. We still want to be part of the family, just not part of the Church.
Jessica had told her two siblings before she told her parents. “I just felt like they would understand better”, she said, “and judge us less and not try to talk us out of it like you probably are going to try to do even though we have now asked you not to”.
Jane and Larry’s first reaction was “How can you say we want to stay in the family but not in the Church? Don’t you know that our family IS the Church, that we have made covenants as a family and that when you leave the Church you are leaving our eternal family?” They told me that any interaction with Jessica since then was “surface and perfunctory.” We can’t talk about anything meaningful—we are doomed to a superficial, social relationship with our own daughter.
And what about the children, Larry said, our grandchildren! Don’t they realize that their decision will change their children’s whole trajectory and take away their greatest potential blessings, not to mention undermining their relationship with us!
Jane even admitted that at first, she felt that this was even worse news than if their daughter had died—where they would at least know she was in a better place, having lived a faithful life. As it was, she said, it almost felt like their daughter was dead, in that she now felt so far away from them.
I asked more about Jessica, how she was doing now, and what she was going to replace the Church with in her life, and they essentially said “nothing—she has nothing to replace it with” and that was the thing that was their greatest concern. As we talked further however, they mentioned what a good person their daughter was, how kind and empathetic she was, particularly to children and to those in need. She was active in her community and was helping with refugees from Ukraine.
I asked if they didn’t think they could build an ongoing “not-superficial” relationship with her around those values and the good character traits and good causes that she embraced—which doubtlessly came partially from what Jane and Larry had taught her over the course of her life.
But that kind of question seemed only to make Tom and Jane even more despondent. What about her covenants, they asked. What about the scriptures that say there is no mercy for those who have known the truth and willfully left it?
A Bailout Letter to Jessica That May Have Helped
I was discouraged, and a bit frustrated that my “reasoning” and advice seemed to have had no positive effect, either with Jessica or with her parents, and I felt that the best thing I could do was just to bail out and turn any future conversation toward other topics that would preserve our friendship and relationship. The email I sent to Jessica went something like this:
I feel like I have been trying to be too much of an advocate or argue-er or self-appointed “fixer” so let me just say something that might surprise you:
If I had three wishes for you—if I had a magic wand and could give you three gifts or bestow three things on you that I think are the most essential for a happy life both here and in the hereafter, none of those three wishes would be that you would be fully “active” in the Church.
My three wishes for you would be:
- That you develop and maintain a true and deep relationship with the Savior Jesus Christ.
- That you keep your children happy and secure, and your marriage and family strong and lasting.
- That you continue to be a person of good character and true values, and to serve others.
I signed my name and just before I pressed the send button, I couldn’t help adding one short PS.
PS, Jessica, IF you feel, now or ever, that the Church can, in balance, help you with one of all of these three wishes, then I hope you will consider returning. Maybe that return would be my fourth wish.
I got the most amicable and least defiant reply I had had from her. Maybe it was just to be friendly and consolatory from her side, but she said that short last note was the one that was making her think.
One More Point to Jane and Larry That May Have Added Perspective
In a subsequent short conversation with Larry and Jane, we talked about how we all believed that the Church, wonderful and beautiful as it is, and the very core of our lives, is essentially a temporary institution—existing here on earth and in mortality as the powerful and indispensable MEANS to the eternal END of our Exaltation as part of God’s family and the Kingdom of Heaven. We reminded each other of President Lee’s quote “The Church is the scaffolding with which we build Eternal Families,” and of President Nelson’s mantra, “Family Centered, Church Supported”. We even decided together that the Church was not the only scaffolding that can help us build our families, improve our marriages, and raise our kids—that we should look for support and help on those things from every good source we can find. We concluded that even though we all felt that the Church was the best scaffolding and provided more strength and insight than any other supporting mechanism could, there was other good scaffolding around. The Church was the best, but not the only. Jessica could, with their help and love, still raise good kids and have a happy family. We all knew together that day that it would be trivial and insular to think otherwise.
We concluded (or perhaps I concluded and they considered) that no right-thinking person should allow abandoning the temporary scaffolding of the Church to equate with or lead to abandoning the eternal skyscraper of the family. And what a mistake parents would make if they suggested or acted as though a child who had left the “mortality” institution of the Church, had also left the eternal and everlasting institution of their family. We also comforted each other with the reminder that life is long, and the next existence of millennium and spirit world is longer, and eternity is longest—chances for reconciliation and growth together will never end and can never end save in the absence of love.
For parents with children in faith crisis, the overwhelming question is “What should I do?” and with thought and prayer, we all realize that the overwhelming answer is “Love more!”
In the final article of this 4-part series, which will come later this month, I want to explore what a faith crisis really is, and really can be—whether it can often be turned into a “faith-exploration” that leaves a person better and more truly faithful than before; and how families—eternal families—can help in that process, and how parents can learn as well as teach as they share in the experience.
Richard Eyre is a New York Times #1 Bestselling Author whose latest book is on Grandparenting and who can be reached at Ey********************@gm***.com. He appreciates reader comments and questions.