As an on and off (mostly off) participant in Mormon and ex-Mormon spaces (sorry — this post will be a victory for Satan because I will still be using the term Mormon), I’ve always found it interesting to think about why some people stay and some people leave Mormonism. In particular, I’ve spent a lot of time in the liminal space where many really want the church to work out (even as their conventional understandings and beliefs fall to the wayside), but where, nevertheless, many do not find the path sustainable. So, I wanted to throw my hat into Wheat & Tares series on Middle Way Mormonism — along with Happy Hubby’s personal essay on the Middle Way as well as Kristine’s personal history and hypotheses on what makes the Middle Way more likely to work.

I think that exmormons and so-called traditional believing or true believing Mormons (“TBMs”) are easier to understand, because in general, TBMs and exmormons tend to be aligned with their picture of what Mormonism claims to be. In other words, it’s not that exmormons see what the church is supposed to be differently than traditional believers — the difference is just that traditional believers accept the church is what it claims to be, while exmormons don’t.

Tension already arises here. What does the church claim to be, exactly? What is Mormonism? To the stereotypical exmormon and TBM, the truth claims of Mormonism are black and white — you’re either all in or you’re all out. It’s either the one true church or it’s a fraud.

But even when you think in these stark terms, chances are, any two Mormons won’t necessarily agree on everything. So, instead, we have a gloss of concepts that we think are likely the core fundamentals. For the most part, there’s not much problem with the uncertainty because, as mentioned before, traditional believers and exmormons typically agree on the working definition.

But the group in between them — called various names but which I’ll refer to as “Middle Way Mormonism” — challenges the working definitions, challenges the very dichotomy that traditional Mormons and exMos adhere to. And so, I wanted to write a few things I’ve observed about Middle Way Mormonism, because it allows us to “problematize” Mormonism, therefore giving all of us — whether believing, nonbelieving, or somewhere in between — the opportunity to think more critically about what we want our relationship to Mormonism to be.

At the core, Middle Way Mormonism is exactly what the name implies: if we had to put “traditional belief” on one end of a line, and “full out apostasy” on the other end, then middle way would be…somewhere in the middle. This means that we often cannot pin down beliefs that all Middle Way Mormons will have. Someone who looks “nuanced” on one point may look outright apostate on another, or like a traditional believer on yet another. (As an aside, this means that when talking about particular people, they themselves may not identify as Middle Way, and outside observers may not agree on who is Middle Way, based on an evaluation of one belief or another.)

But for now, I’ll try to set a working definition that Middle Way Mormons are those who know enough about Mormonism to be aware of issues, concerns, and pain points within history, doctrine or theology (and unable to dismiss them), but who also feel called to persist in some way, shape, or fashion with Mormonism (rather than abandoning it.)

First, let me know if you would disagree with this definition. (After reading Happy Hubby and Kristine, I think my definition harmonizes with their posts.) I think that there are many ways people can get to this point, and different ways have different odds for continued church involvement. For example, one slight disagreement I’d have with Kristine’s model is that it implies that becoming a less literal believer only happens after a catalyst “traumatizes” a “true believer.” Yet I have met several folks who grew up reading Sunstone and Dialogue and so their belief was already informed by the warts and messiness of history and theology — they didn’t have a “traumatized believer” stage because there was no surprise. This, I think, is the fundamental argument behind “inoculation” concepts within church apologetics.

…yet, I’d have to put these members as being a minority. The reality I’ve seen is that many members only find out the darker aspects of the church later in life — as the model in Kristine’s post illustrates. It contradicts the narrative they may have heard growing up — it may feel like a profound betrayal. This is for many the source of faith transition (in the positive sense) or faith crisis (in the negative), and it seems to me that most folks don’t maintain a middle way position. As others have commented at several times, it seems like the Middle Way might be just a waystation on the way out of the church for most.

However…what intrigues me is that there clearly are still some people who seem to make the Middle Way work long term.

What are their secrets? What differentiates those who make staying work from those who are likelier to leave? I have a few hypotheses based on observation.

You need a sense of spiritual independence

In my observations, the people I know who have made the Middle Way work have generally had profound experiences that buoy them in God (or in some sort of anchoring to something higher to themselves), regardless of what the institution or what local leaders do.

This buoy serves several purposes. As mentioned, it provides a sense of independence. In my experience, people who stay based on other reasons (such as trying to maintain family relationships, or trying to effect change within the church) are more likely to burn out because their sense of satisfaction within the church is dependent on what other people do and how they respond. Since Middle Way Mormons often experience criticism from both sides (from exmormons who think they are undertaking unreasonable mental gymnastics to avoid dealing with the reality of the church to traditional believers who think they are on the path to apostasy for their cafeteria approach), relying on others is a lonely path.

But additionally, this buoy provides a source for renewable energy. People with this sort of independence are OK not because the church says so or because other commenters and ward members approve, but because they have their own confirmation.

This spiritual independence also allows successful Middle Way Mormons to undercut the traditional boundaries and truth claims about the church. If one is beholden to an all-or-nothing model of the church, then rejecting “all” automatically leads one to “nothing.” Middle Way Mormons need not adopt that model.

And yet, obviously, having spiritual independence need not tie one to Mormonism. You can obviously be spiritually independent outside of the church (although, it would seem to me that many people are not, seeing that many do seem to reject spirituality completely after disaffecting from Mormonism. As an exmormon atheist, I can’t blame others for that.)

You need to be called to Mormonism

“Calling” is one of the words that Mormons use differently than many other Christian denominations or religious traditions, so let me break out what I mean. While many Mormons are aware of “callings” as being something assigned to you from leadership (that don’t necessarily match with your own thoughts, feelings, talents, or strength), I am thinking of a very different sense of calling. There is another definition of the word in which calling is something given by God, and discerned by an individual through an essentially personal rather than institutional process.

The thing about this second type of calling is that one takes personal ownership of this calling because one is sustained by one’s own personal discernment process.

This sort of discernment process may include spiritual promptings and experiences with explicit promptings to remain engaged with the church, or may more indirectly highlight the value within Mormon teachings (even if that value is often hidden underneath tradition and bureaucracy.) I know many people who remain engaged because they smell the “scent” of God (or perceive the “fiery core” from Mormonism’s beginnings that now have calcified as cold, institutional igneous rock) within the teachings, even if they fully concede that many in the church do not follow this “scent” as much as they could

I also know many (usually disaffected) people who might claim that the only way someone can stay in the church when they know the negative elements of history and theology is if they are staying for family, friends, or career. This sort of perspective may ultimately describe why several people find themselves wanting to continue to engage, but it ignores that people may still find find great value in Mormonism even amidst the messiness. And, in my observations, people without a sense of calling who are only staying for the previously mentioned alternative reasons often find the middle way to be unsustainable.

Keep in mind, however, that not all will feel called to Mormonism. Some people may have a calling, but not all callings point one to continue to engage within Mormonism. In my experience, to be called to Mormonism is not something people voluntarily choose (and so, callings can actually be surprising or contrary to one’s own wishes). What one can choose to do is practice to become open and aware to discernment (which may not be the same mindset as either the critical skepticism of the nonbeliever nor the institutional loyalty of the traditional believer.)

But is Middle Way Mormonism even for everyone?

You’ll note from my previous sections that I have put a lot of hedges on my hypotheses. This is because ultimately, I would agree with my co-bloggers that the Middle Way is a narrow path.

But even more importantly, I want to note that it’s not necessarily for everyone. I don’t want to say anyone should leave or stay in the church, because I think the answer may legitimately be different for different people.

In particular, you may be spiritually independent, but that certainly may not make you beholden to Mormon spirituality if you don’t feel called to it.
You can be called elsewhere, or you may not discern a calling at all (yet?) 

The sense of independence requires an ability to separate oneself from what is probably a more common or more easily understood need or desire to be accepted and understood by the group. That is, it doesn’t necessarily bother the successful Middle Way Mormon that their path isn’t validated by others around them. But, this sort of independence raises additional questions — what is the value of continued engagement with a community if you are functionally independent of that community? Is it worth persisting with a community of people who are not like-minded when one could instead find communities of people who are?

So, in this way, paradoxically, the same traits that might make one best able to persist in the Middle Way may also at the very least raise the question of if the Middle Way is a desirable way for you. And that is not a question anyone can answer for you, except for you.