Over at Religion News Service, Jana Reiss recently reported that historical issues do not rank high on lists of why people leave the church. Rather, it’s a loss of confidence in church leadership that affects people heavily. As Reiss put it, “It’s a trust gap.” She concludes it’s a matter of churchmembers not hearing about difficult historical issues from the church first (“What else aren’t they telling me?!”), but I think there’s more to it.
Lately I’ve been listening to some accounts by disaffected church members who had the opportunity to speak with general authorities and church historians about their concerns. The stories are similar. A believing member discovers a host of disturbing church history facts (two avenues cited were The CES Letter and FairMormon, funny enough). The member feels devastated and embarrassed that they never knew (or always understood the details to be anti-Mormon lies). They feel betrayed. They feel a heavy responsibility for all the false information they taught people on their missions. The member confides in a trusted spiritual leader, and that church leader admits ignorance on the difficult issues. As a last-ditch effort (usually after testimonies are shattered), church historians are called in to save the day.
In that pattern, I see TWO reasons why a member may lose trust in church leadership. First is the why-didn’t-you-tell-me feelings of betrayal that Jana Reiss identified, inevitably leading to the question, “What else aren’t they telling me?” The second opportunity for loss of trust is when a member finally goes to a church leader for help, and the leader admits ignorance of the difficult issues. This can lead a member to a different question, “If church leaders don’t even know the testimony-challenging history of the institution they represent, what else don’t they know?”
In a recent meeting of a disaffected member, a general authority, and a church historian, the general authority said to the disaffected member:
The reason why I brought you here is because I’m not as smart as [this church historian] is, okay? I don’t have to be as smart as he is. I don’t have time to be as smart as he is, unless I want to make it a full-time job, okay? I can’t do that. I have a million other things to worry about. What I hope that we can at least start today,… is to understand that there are smart people… [He] has tried to put perspective to some of the stuff today. Is there stuff that maybe will be unanswered? The answer is yes. But it’s not as bad as people have led you to believe.
It’s the same impulse that drove the creation of the gospel topics essays: try to get a faith-promoting perspective out there to combat some very uncomfortable history. But the gospel topics essays weren’t written by general authorities. As Shannon reported yesterday, “All of the individual essays were written by outside scholars who were contracted and paid…” The essays serve the same purpose as church historians (and all other well-meaning Mormon scholars) in encounters with questioning and disaffected members. One scholar described it as providing “intellectual and devotional frameworks in which others can reconcile faith and knowledge.” Put simply, presenting historical facts and apologetic theories. But apologetic theories can only work for those who haven’t lost faith, who haven’t lost trust.
So, what can church leaders themselves do to bolster trust?
They’ve already taken a few steps. Authorizing the gospel topics essays and allowing changes in church curriculum will prevent a significant chunk of the why-didn’t-you-tell-me feelings of betrayal in future generations. But, as many authors have pointed out (most recently Kevin Barney, Jana Reiss, and Peggy Fletcher Stack), there is still much room for improvement on the transparency front.
What about the ignorance factor? Should we expect church leaders to know about shelf-breaking aspects of church history? Glenn Ostlund, podcaster at Infants on Thrones, argued it’s unfair to do so:
I don’t think that it’s reasonable to expect that a general authority is going to take the time (that people in a faith crisis have taken) to study out all the issues and really try to understand them front and backwards just because there’s people out there that are doing this and need their support with it. You know, it would be nice if they did that, and it would be nice if in the course of doing that they were able to find some kind of an answer that was actually satisfactory to people going through a faith crisis, but they’re not going through a faith crisis. They accept this stuff. They believe this stuff, why would they go in? For them it’s simple, and they don’t understand why it’s not simple for us. They don’t understand. “Why are you filling your head with all this stuff? It’s just making things harder for you.” I mean, you’ve heard those kinds of arguments, right? That’s sincere. We need to accept that…
To be honest, I struggle with giving up an expectation that church leaders should know about difficult aspects of church history. I recognize that for many members, it really is simple. Either the church is true or it’s not, and if it’s true then details don’t matter. However,… I know what it’s like to approach a bishop with a serious concern and have him say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” It’s incredibly disheartening and makes you think twice about going to him again.
Elder Oaks once said that people can leave the church when “feelings are sufficiently negative” about either (1) Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon or (2) current leadership. Loss of trust and negative feelings go hand in hand.
Question: What factors do you see contributing to the “trust gap”, and are there any good solutions?
 Infants on Thrones podcast “Why Can’t We Be Friends – Part 3” [53:58]
 Infants on Thrones podcast “Why Can’t We Be Friends – Part 1” [34:57]
 Mormon Stories audio of “The Boise Rescue” [7:48]