This week current W&T bloggers discussed the merits of “middle way mormonism,” triggered by seeing friends and associates, again and again, “biting the dust.” A few of us wanted to blog about what we feel are the dynamics at play and create a series of posts that are in conversation with each other. Happy Hubby’s post earlier today introduced the topic.
Before I jump in I wanted to define “middle way mormonism.” By chance last night a friend sent me this “faith crisis survey” that was done back in 2011, I really liked how they defined it:
Middle Way Mormonism defined, I think, is something people reach only if they had been in a believer stage previously defined by more black and white thinking based on certainty. I know people who grew up with nuanced beliefs and I don’t think they are as susceptible to “biting the dust” as many who go through what I like to call a “certainty crisis.” One of my friends who grew up with nuanced beliefs is in the family of a GA, so it exists in a variety of forms.
My story starts back when I lived in Virginia in 2011 and started reading Modern Mormon Men and realizing some posts were able to verbalize some issues I’d had for a while. I started experiencing cognitive dissonance for a lot of reasons, for one an answer to prayer that conflicted w prophets’ teachings on the role of women. Another is researching historical issues and learning about Joseph translating with a seer stone (and many other things) and being told I was reading anti-mormon lies. Researching issues led me to discover social issues, starting with feminism, that answered a lot of questions about where I was at as I was rebuilding my world view (a lot of things fell apart for me out in Virginia).
So I’d say I’ve been through about 7 years of deconstruction and reconstruction of my faith. The rock bottom is when I allowed myself to question everything, “what if none of this is true” and my answer was that either way I think what matters most in this life is how we treat others. That was my first step to reconstruction. Another thing I think I had going for me is (have you heard Gina Colvin say she always has been and always will be a “God girl”?) that I’ve had spiritual experiences about the existence and love Jesus has for me that I will always be a “Jesus girl.” Even if I leave Mormonism I will always be seeking Jesus. So in that sense I emerged from my crisis a Christian first and Mormon second. I have a full belief that many people access and participate in the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a variety of churches and ways — and that Mormonism is a place just as credible as anywhere else to do so.
As I was “spiritually wandering,” as I was trying to reconstruct my faith and find a way forward, I think I was lucky that in Rexburg I had become friends with a handful of Mormon historians. As I read their work and spent time among the community I think I found a group of people who knew everything I was just finding out and they were making things work for them. Reading a lot of their work helped, as did things like the Maxwell Institute and Dialogue Podcasts, esp this one. It helped me even more to take history classes on campus at BYUI about how historians think and understand things in their context and train my brain to think that way. Also, I increasingly cared about issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation in the church the more that I learned about them. I came to hope that the church would begin to make changes in these areas.
So with that context behind me I’d like to present my thesis: if you are staying in the church and your main reason is to help change it, I don’t think you will make it very long.
Over and over I’ve seen people try to stay to improve it from the inside and eventually they will burn out, lose patience, and leave. If you would like to stay in the Church with nuanced belief here are some things that have worked for me the last few years (that may or may not work for you, tbh):
- I continue to have a strong testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: faith, repentance, baptism, forgiveness, grace, and mercy. Grace to the millionth degree
- I ensure that my spiritual bucket being filled is not dependent on Sunday meetings. I regularly seek out podcasts, expanded religious studies (including conferences and book talks, etc.), hikes in nature, community service, etc.
- The main thing at church holding spiritual significance for me is partaking of the sacrament as I find it an important aspect of the Gospel of Jesus Christ I’m primarily converted to. Making and keeping covenants remains a significant aspect of my spiritual life. Connected to this is my attendance every week focuses on the challenge of loving my neighbors.
- I also believe all man-made organizations to be systemically imperfect and broken. The US Government? Academia? All churches? Yep. I’m reminded that after the November policy was released three years ago I laid in bed heartbroken trying to figure out if and how I could ever walk into a church building again. I was listening to Hamilton and the lyrics, “The constitution’s a mess / so it needs amendments / it’s full of contradictions / so is independence” hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve been able to walk through the doors of church ever since then.
- I also believe that our participation in all of these institutions means we’re complicit in the oppression of others. Should I leave the United States and give up my citizenship because of the terrible abuses of the past *and* present? Should I not participate in higher education that is inherently built to advantage those of privilege? Should I stop watching all NFL and college football because they profit off the physical and fiscal exploitation of mostly black bodies? Should I stop eating Nestle chocolate because they use child slaves in their production? These are questions all of us need to answer and tbh I answer ‘yes’ on the last two, but it’s nearly impossible to remove ourselves from all complicity.
- I used to be where many certain, apologists are and I used to have little patience for them until I came to forgive and love my former self. They are still frustrating but I used to be them, so give your past self and others grace.
- Have a community or network of like minded people to vent to in real life.
- My family relationships are stronger with me in the church. This is just one of many reasons why I stay.
- Ultimately I would love for my big mouth to be a part of change in the church. But we’re talking about a glacier and it’s a long game. Lower your expectations. Good, now lower them again.
When I think of all of the ties that leave me tethered to the church I realize I have quite a few: the testimony of my ancestors, my heritage, that this is my first and natural language of faith, my marriage, my family, that I access the Gospel here, the radical and expansive theology we started with, the testimonies of black Saints, that I would like to be a part of change, etc. The list goes on.
To be honest it doesn’t have a lot to do with belief because depending on the day my belief swings anywhere from “shall the youth of Zion falter” to “agnostic choosing to believe.” I still find that my reconstructed faith is worth participating in, it brings me value, and it brings me hope. I’ve just started a lifetime of study to learn more about Mormonism and its strengths and weaknesses, its beauty and its scars. I hope to see some of you along for the ride.
I feel like 2 kind of makes staying harder. I’ve read a bit of biblical criticism, LDS history, Christian theology, religious memoirs, and so on, and there are so many lovely ideas that I find there but I find it hard to bring them into church–it feels like either nobody wants to talk about them or nobody has the language to do so. My mom struggled with the same thing recently and she just abandoned all expectations of having those conversations at church. I’m not sure how to do that.
That said, I can see the value in 4 as well. I recently attended Meeting with the Quakers in my area and was struck, at least in conversation with one person after the meeting, that whatever parts of dogmatic Mormonism I’m frustrated with, I’m going to encounter dogmas and doctrines that I disagree with just about wherever I go. I’m not sure if that makes staying easier yet, because it also sort of serves to point out how difficult it is to find anywhere else to go: I partially hesitate to jump ship because I doubt I’ll find a place where I can be a Book of Mormon loving, biblical-criticism reading, Joseph Smith cosmology-loving Christian.
These two pearls of wisdom are key and can be universally applied to nearly every aspect of life:
“I also believe all man-made organizations to be systemically imperfect and broken.“
“Lower your expectations. Good, now lower them again.”
Thanks for the excellent post!
Abu Casey, I see what you mean about wanting to bring insights to your sunday meetings. That does make it hard and I’ve walked my own line trying to determine what is the right time to speak up and when. But for the most part filling my spiritual bucket is a me thing and I find participating every week with my ward more of a time where I practice the commandment to love your neighbor. That brings me stretching and growth 🙂 So you can say I’ve lowered my expectations of sharing things at church but I try to also listen to when I feel prompted to share. I’ve had a good example in my friend in my ward who grew up with nuanced belief – although she has different dynamics of not being so publicly . . . uhhhh liberal? I set myself apart fairly well by wearing pants. So we all navigate how to earn and spend our social capital in our own ways.
Yeah. I’m having a hard time figuring out whether there’s a way (for me) to make attending church a spiritual bucket filling activity.
If you can figure that out more power to you. It really helped me to eliminate the expectation of it so that I wouldn’t have any hard feelings when it didn’t happen. Sometimes I do feel spiritually fed at church and then those moments count as bonus for me.
I recently got called as gospel doctrine teacher and things have gotten a lot better as far as that spiritual bucket–partly because the scriptures are so radical (in a good way) and I spend a lot of time studying them in preparation for the lesson, and in part because I have a lot of control over where the discussion goes. The other GD teacher is pretty good too. The one downside to 2-hour church is that I won’t get to sit in her class anymore. The rest of church almost always sucks. EQ is particularly bad, especially with all the older men who take over the too-large class.
Unfortunately, I have no “real life” community to vent to. I have plenty of friends online, many of them old friends I went to school with or from prior wards, but the only vent-worthy friends locally moved out of the ward a while back and immediately left the church. This ward (and the prior bishop) had a lot to do with that decision. Other acquaintances from nearby stakes who could have played that role have also left the church within the past couple of years, including a couple who have participated in the bloggernacle.
A few small things kept me around prior to this recent calling–including not wanting to harm my family dynamics (both with my wife and with my parents), and a recent discovery of a family of ancestors who played a major (if largely forgotten) role in the early church. I’m ashamed to even admit the latter–it seems like such a shallow reason to stay–but reading up on that family history really did make a difference.
church, as an institution, is to me the “Waters of Mormon” where structure exists to actually help each of us bear one another’s burdens. If you go to no church at all, who is going to know your burdens, how will even the most willing person know to help you? Conversely, if you are a helping kind of person, how are you going to know who needs help? Everyone does; but some need your particular help.
The structure of church is intended (IMO) to prioritize and discover needs and the fulfillers of needs. it isn’t even about learning about Jesus that much; his ministry lasted three years and his message clear and simple: Broken heart and a contrite spirit / Faith, hope and charity / Two great commandments. There, done; Gospel.
Expecting “The Church” to do things is to miss the mark in my opinion. There is no such thing as “Church”. There are people. some people help, some do not; where the church is predominant so will be parasites that bleed the members of the church. Wolves in Primary clothing. Take a ward roster and go sell vitamins door to door. See you on Sunday!
Entire wards can exist without a single person having an actual testimony of God or Jesus; when you walk into such a place it is rather weird. If you tell your story from the pulpit, and your words are forceful because you’ve heard his voice and felt his spirit, you make people very uncomfortable and yet that is exactly the thing to do.
I don’t go to church often; my wife in particular has been the victim of several kinds of mean behaviors by the sisters in Relief Society. It is a very different world than men’s priesthood meetings where most of the time men keep their mouths shut and lessons bland. And yet, she is quick to charity, real service even to the women that have been the most cruel to her.
When we face God or Jesus, what will matter is what we chose to do; not what others did to us although I suppose that will be taken into account and certainly sets the stage on which you perform the play of your life.
I suspect you’re right that staying to effect change has a short life expectancy. Of course “expectancy” is not the same as individual cases.
I find the lowered expectations idea useful. When asked the why? or how? question (by everyone from social network “friends” I’ve never met, to current bishops, to GAs who think they know me) I have a two-part answer:
1. I am culturally, ethnically, Mormon to the nth degree. (“Mormon” used intentionally.)
2.The hymnal is familiar, the Sacrament ‘counts’ as Eucharistic, and I want a community.
#2 is my version of low expectations.
I like the chart up top. It’s tough to be a “less-literal believer” in a church that views anything less then fully literal belief as a form of heresy. That’s why it is so common for “less-literal believers” to eventually migrate out of the Church. Who wants to stay when so many things in manuals and talks and statements by local and general leaders signal that you’re not wanted?
“Certainty crisis.” Better name than faith crisis. Honest faith trumps false certainty. But again, most of the time it seems that view is not welcome in the Church.
While the Gospel Topics Essays seemed initially like a step forward, the whole tenor of the new leadership team of Pres. Nelson and Pres. Oaks runs in the opposite direction. The problem (of making Middle-Wayers of all stripes feel unwelcome) will get worse before it gets better. It may never get better.
Thank you for the 9 tips you provided here; I forwarded this to a friend who asked how to stay. My response was basically to lower expectations but this is much more comprehensive. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I suspect there are more middle wayers than we realize but there is no forum for them in the church.
Therebare some facebook groups where LDS people discuss biblical criticism (and a bit of theology). Search FB groups with the moniker “Mormons Talk” and you’ll find them.
Still formulating a response, but a hug and a high five in the meantime. This speaks to me profoundly.
I don’t go to a church anymore, too much mental and physical abuse. God is with me all the time. he knows my burdens and I don’t even have to tell him, he loves me unconditionally, and supplies me with everything I need. If other people need help or someone to talk to God leads them to me. At 68 years of age I am content and happy. Amen
No church or institutions for me .
The chart above is simplistic. Most newly-traumatized believers retreat back into reliance on feelings and ignore logic or facts. This works for awhile and can last for years. Until something traumatizes them again. People are not as traumatized by things they grow up always knowing. Part of the trauma is being deceived with a correlated, sugar-coated and honey-baked gospel and finding out. I like the general idea of the chart, that there is a complex, painful process with branch points and different outcomes.
Some of the nine suggestions seem to imply (to me anyway) that you live in a Mormon ghetto where the outside world is distant. This isolation can be geographic like at BYUI or it can be social isolation even when living far from the western US strong holds. For example, your first suggestion is laughable if you live in the South and are surrounded by many genuine Christian churches who do about 10 or 20 times better than we do in teaching these basics and worshiping Christ. This is the fundamental reason why my wife left the LDS faith, to step into a Christ -entered community flooded with this light and truth in ways hard to describe, let alone convince mainstream Mormon faithful exists. Her spiritual bucket is enlarged and filled to over flowing at church and at small group meetings. Opportunities for genuine service abound, not running on Mormon hamster wheels.
For me the problem with Protestants and Catholics is my disbelief in the trinity, scripture infallibility, infant baptism, no pre-existence, lack of oneness (reflexive disunity), lack of leadership, loss of membership, not reaching most youth, etc.
We are sort of unique in claiming to be the only true and living church with which God is pleased. (Mormon superiority complex). Other churches constantly talk about the brokenness of the world and of their churches. It is not uncommon for people to change churches and some congregations cease to exist. Suggestions 4 and 5 become sort of axiomatic and expected; not radical, dangerous and threatening ideas.
Mormons are quite tribal and form close communities- as long as you comply and don’t try to rock the boat or agitate for any change. Some wards can become vicious when dealing with perceived “enemies” to the point of hitting children and spreading obviously untrue gossip and trying to save children from wayward parents by splitting up marriages and families. The tales I could tell….. You mileage may vary. At least we are not treating apostates like we did with Oliver Cowdery et. al. – organizing Danite mobs trying to kill them and chasing them out of their homes.
The LDS church is not going to change. The top leaders know all about all of this and do not hide information from themselves like they do from the faithful. They are not willing to make any fundamental changes, only superficial administrative adjustments that can be spun to the faithful as building on past success. We are seeing retrenchment in some areas. The LDS church is satisfied with 16 million members actually only being 4 or 5 million, and tolerant of that number dwindling by up to half each generation. Until a God who doesn’t care as much about anyone else miraculously bails us out and exonerates all of our wrong-headed practices in the end.
A constant hammering of a black and white dicotomy slants the middle way downward as a slower path out. Notice how many middle way blogs gradually depopulate with far more people leaving than returning to orthodoxy. I have lost most expectations except to stumble along as best as I can in the path (rut?) in which I find myself, grateful it is not any worse than it is.
I don’t think everyone needs to stay, especially if their mental and emotional health is hurting. I certainly believe no one returns to orthodoxy and most end up leaving. I do think the commenters in Happy Hubby’s post hit the nail on the head: everyone’s middle way mormonism is different than everyone else’s. I don’t think my list of what’s worked for me should universally apply to many others, navigating this space is so deeply personal. And I wish everyone the best of luck in finding what works for them.
Thank you for this! Really. I have been struggling with my “faith crisis” since the leadership reaction to the MTC Abuse tapes and… I am still struggling with this. Because I’m realizing how often these men of God do not act or speak like it. Your words reflect exactly how I’ve been feeling. Added to it is the whole “Oh, btw, the priesthood ban on blacks wasn’t revelation” and LGBTQ … pain. Conference used to be a great weekend and the last two have been so, so hard to get through. I honestly have a hard, hard time listening to President Nelson and many of the leaders. My church attendance slipped because I struggle to find a place for me, being an always single 40 year-old with no kids and a feminist. I find it hard to sit through Sunday School and RS. Especially when we talk about how guilty Bathsheba was for David’s sin (SERIOUSLY) and Solomon’s wives for his worshiping of strange gods. Back in March I did have a huge faith crisis, where I honestly thought the Church wasn’t true. And I’ve realized the LDS Church isn’t “true.” I believe the gospel is true and, as my kind bishop pointed out to me, the church is changing and will change, so I’m holding on to my testimony of the gospel and the people I hold dear who still stay strong despite their experiences.
You words are what I needed to read tonight, Kristine. Thank you. Thank you very much.
I grew up in Rexburg, so I very much understand it’s unique culture and struggling within it. Good luck.
Thank you for this. This post illustrates nearly perfectly my own journey over the past ten years and how and why I am still trying to carve out space. It gives me hope to know I am not alone.
Love the post, and I think it is excellent advice!
As Mormonism continues its transition toward conservative Christianity, I find it harder and harder to stay. By keeping my membership, aren’t I a passive participant in the persecution of the LGBTQ+ community?
I feel like there aren’t just 2 paths. I feel like there is a range of non-literal approaches to belief. I know lots of people who lost their literal belief about JS or the priesthood, but were able to preserve their literal belief to JC and the father-god. I lost my literal belief in EVERYTHING. All I have left is something that feels like love and connection that some call the divine.
As I lost my literal belief, I might have been able to stay if my family stayed, but my feminist-based questioning made them feel safe to examine church history, and now they’re all done too. Even so, if I’d tried to stay it would have been really hard because I’ve looked around at all the toxic forces in the world and asked “where did this come from?” And more often than not, I’ve concluded that it came from religion. If you think about it, given how much power religions have over people, they have virtually no chance of remaining uncorrupted.
I’m glad that the chart above includes the “secular participant” category, even if that seems to be unpopular and typically viewed as a temporary stop on the way out. For me, Christianity and theism fell apart more quickly and thoroughly than Mormonism. I couldn’t help continuing to analyze lower layers of my assumptions in an attempt to find the point at which I’d discover something solid. In the end, I found no such foundation. I concluded that I might as well continue to identify as “Mormon” and work at taking things on my own terms, even if that might feel a little deceptive at times. Even after some years of this, I can’t be certain that it’s not a temporary step toward some other state. But it’s the most comfortable position I’ve found so far.
Most in the “middle way” seem to either be trapped by family or holding on to some sort of belief (or at least “choosing” to believe). I wish there were a more legitimate way to hold on to the community, service opportunities, heritage, and so on, even in the absence of belief.
I really liked your 9 tips. Very practical.
Thank you! Thank you! I so much appreciate you posting this. I won’t go into my story, but yours has helped me have hope that I can find that “middle way”. I really want to stay in the Church. I am trying so hard to sort everything out in my head. There’s so much anger to weed through. Your tips have really helped. I agree, I also focus on being a Christian first. I find that listening to encouraging and uplifting people like Max Lucado, helps me so much. At Church and in General Conference I just feel like I am being told that I am not good enough and I need to try harder. I’m also finding it helps me to take a less demanding calling at Church, and am spending more time volunteering in my community. I need space and time away from Mormons. Again, thank you for this post and the links you provided us. The report on the survey really helped me. I was surprised at some of the results.
Kristine, I like the practicality of your nine points, but have to say, #2 is especially nice. I don’t see how one could navigate the Middle Way without spiritual nourishment, whether from podcasts, hikes, or something else. Fantastic post.
Those of us that wish we could resign from the Trumpian US government are envious of exmos that aren’t compelled to pay tithing nor keep the commandments once they quit.
Kristine, wonderful post.
This is a huge issue. I have gone through a total and complete deconstruction of all things Mormonism, and a rebuilding of a stronger faith in Jesus. Surprisingly, this came through a self-guided intense study of the New Testament and especially the writings of Paul when I was a gospel doctrine teacher… I started questioning our doctrines compared to NT Christianity. I imagined a debate between Elder Oaks (types like him) and Paul or Peter on what the doctrine of Christ is. What’s required for eternal life etc… anyway… I then went down a lot of rabbit holes related to Church history. I hit the point you described in that as best I could tell it was not true.
I’m in my early 40s with kids, a TBM spouse, and it would have been catastrophic to my marriage and family to be open about my beliefs. To this day, I cant be totally open about where my faith is (even within my family). I have a somewhat high profile calling, I make a conscious effort to only teach or bear witness of what I actually believe. No references to “our dear Prophet” etc. I feel like I’m living a lie while writing huge checks to the LDS Church.
I at one point resolved myself to trying to be the change I want to see in the Church. I agree it only goes so far though. I have developed a hatred for Sundays, the unnecessary meetings, the bureaucracy, the living a double life 9 hours…
If you aren’t yet married or have kids participating in the Church, thank God that this faith crises hit you now and not after you are in much deeper.
To be clear, I think people will certainly have a less complicated life if you never have a faith crises, but if you are going to have one, have one young.
That’s tough, Greggggg. I wish you the best.
I’m going to push back against this a bit. As a young’n going through a faith crisis, there are yet more tricky issues to navigate, such as whether to try and get a temple recommend and/or marry in the temple in the first place.
Perhaps a #10 on the list of how to be middle way could also be:
10. Learn about other faiths and people of other faiths and the crises and dialogues they are struggling with on literal vs metaphorical belief. Although issues may be different based on doctrines and social stances by other organized religions…the journey to find “truth” is very similar for us as they are to what others are doing. This helps because you start to see these painful and traumatic events are not uniquely caused by mormonism, but are part of a human experience.
For me, that helps put some things in perspective. It also gives me some examples of how others deal with it. We aren’t so different from other religions as we often try to convince ourselves we are.
Heber: “Learn about other faiths and people of other faiths and the crises and dialogues they are struggling with on literal vs metaphorical belief.” Now you’re just stealing from my future posts. I just got back from Rachel Held Evans’ and Sarah Bessey’s Evolving Faith conference last weekend in NC.
Thank you – I really liked this but regarding #9 – I don’t see a way to lower my expectations. My tipping point is LGBTQ issues. I think we are all aware of the pain and damage done to vulnerable peole who are cast aside by the harmful teachings and policies of the church. If I read of another suicide I just might crack in pieces.
Wow, thank you for this post. I am a Mormon sexual abuse survivor with my foot out the door because of the church’s response to sexual abuse in the church (among other things–recent General Conference re: gays and women gave me the final push), but I can’t leave altogether because I’m married to a wonderful devout man and our marriage won’t survive me getting my name removed. I’m trying to find a way to stay in and worship on *my* terms for the sake of the marriage, but I don’t want the brethren to have any control over me whatsoever–I am still trying to navigate that landmine. I want my name removed, but husband is attached to the sealing ordinance, which means nothing to me because church leaders to me are all “amen to the priesthood of those men” and I only look to Christ as my leader now. Your post gives me so much hope that one day there will be more of a place in Mormonism for people like me–people striving to worship together, keep our families with differing levels of belief attending church together, while at the same time honoring those different beliefs. Too bad the brethren in charge don’t see it that way.
I have never heard this term before.
I was a young apologist, mainly because I was young and pursuing a young woman whose family was Christian and this experience exposed me to the real world of Anti-Mormonism. I spent time and money researching books and arguments against and for the Church, history, et. al.
I soon had a crisis of faith and came to actually leave the Church and embrace evangelical Christianity.
Through my studies, I increased and became a Calvinist and an apologist, you guessed it – an anti-mormon apostate.
I then had to deal with life and focused on just getting myself straightened out. Ended up coming back to the Church and becoming a seasoned apologist. Engaged in the online conversations, getting banned and blocked on various social media platforms, and the like.
Frustrated, I abandoned all of that to focus on my studies as I was going back to school for a retraining program. It was during this time that I felt the inspiration and revelation that God was preparing me for something far greater.
This was about seven years ago. I have been on a personal journey of being more spiritual, mindful, and leaving behind creeds, doctrines, and all religiousity. I am more of a Buddhist Latter-day Saint who is done with the whole illusion and ritual behind religion.
On your closing statement about “choosing to believe,” I’m not sure belief is a choice. That being said, it is possible to believe there is benefit in believing, even while not actually believing the truth claims themselves.