After presiding in the Freetown Sierra Leone Mission in West Africa, he was assigned a special assignment in his stake as a service missionary to minister to 1,000 single adults, 80% of whom were no longer attending. Through this service, he discovered a large problem. He spent those 18 months listening to those young single adults who had left the church to understand their concerns. As part of this ministering, he set up an online survey. He then broadened the survey to include those outside the stake, finally resulting in 500 responses. That study prompted more questions and more listening. He also set up a study to ask local leaders some of the same questions he asked those less active single adults to see how the perspective varied. The results of those many months of ministering and listening and empathizing, as well as the results of those studies are summarized in this valuable book. Indented quotes in this review are Ostler’s words quoted from the book.
While these statistics are sobering, more important than these trends are the brother, daughter, spouse, or friend who no longer believes. They aren’t a statistic—they are people we know and love. Whenever even one person leaves the Church, while respecting their choice, we rightly mourn. We are sad that those who leave don’t see the meaning we do in the gospel’s teachings. We are sad that they couldn’t trust Church leaders, that they felt unwelcome, that their questions were not heard—that they feel the Church somehow failed them. We are devastated.
He next gives shares a couple stories to show us the personal nature of this. This is Mike’s story. It’s very similar to mine with a little different outcome.
Mike is thirty-five and was raised in a caring Latter-day Saint home with wonderful parents. In his words, “I grew up in the Church in a very loving home. Mormonism was a huge and defining part of our family. My parents are so amazing. To say I grew up active in my youth is kind of an understatement.” He recalls a night when he was fourteen years old and reading the Book of Mormon as a part of a seminary assignment: “I just felt so pumped and good about it and turned to my brother and said, ‘You need to read this, it is amazing.’ It was the first time that I felt God in the Book of Mormon.” He served a mission to a foreign country and described the experience “as the best thing he has ever done in his life.”
He felt that he was a successful missionary in terms of doing the work, following the rules, and feeling close to God. His leaders must have thought he was a trustworthy and faithful missionary since he was called to serve as a leader and was the assistant to the mission president for the last seven months of his mission. He married in the temple within a year of returning home, and together, he and his wife founded their family in the gospel. He completed his education, established his career, served in Church callings, and appeared to have the typical and ideal Latter-day Saint family—temple marriage, four kids, successful career, and full activity in their ward.
About two years ago, Mike’s brother told him that he no longer believed in the Church. Mike loved and trusted his brother, knew that he was a good person, and wanted to better understand his concerns. For about a year, Mike researched his brother’s concerns, starting with issues about Church history. Even with all his previous gospel study, Mike had never heard that Joseph Smith had introduced and practiced polygamy and polyandry, that he used a seer stone when translating the Book of Mormon, and that modern-day translations and analyses of the papyri used to create the Book of Abraham do not correspond with the text of Joseph Smith’s translation of them. Mike studied Church-produced materials, including the Gospel Topic Essays and other materials from Church scholars, and he learned how others had dealt with these often-unknown historical events. Throughout his research, he avoided reading blogs and articles by former Latter-day Saints. Speaking of this period of struggle, Mike said, “I had never read so much, prayed so much, and fasted so much.”
Prior to this time, he had been a dedicated member who defended, served, and sacrificed for the Church. During his crisis of faith, he began to feel that everything he stood for might be wrong. He described this period as a time of terrible loneliness, when what he was learning was reshaping everything he believed in—his entire foundation of faith. He felt he couldn’t talk to anyone about his struggles, which was agonizing. He would sometimes muster the courage to talk to someone, but when he finally broached the subject with them, he would get shut down. He felt alone and isolated and sometimes angry, in part because so many of the things that he had held dear now seemed dead—he was going through a grieving process. When he described his anger during this period, he mentioned his anger with himself—he felt that he had given all his moral authority to his Church leaders. He was angry with an entrenched Church culture that didn’t seem to listen to people who were different.
Mike remains a spiritual person and believes the Church has a lot to offer, but everything has changed for him. He believes God and Christ are real—a belief he says is beautiful and comforting—but acknowledges that he may be wrong. He no longer believes that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true church or that he can tacitly trust general Church leaders without reservation or suspicion. He does, however, still believe that the Church is a good place to learn about God. He still attends church meetings on Sundays and keeps the commandments, but he misses the connection he once had with Church members because of their shared doctrine and belief. Though he attends church Though he attends church weekly, Mike doesn’t feel he can fully express his feelings to his ward members and friends. He recently taught a lesson in Elders Quorum about ministering to those who go through a faith crisis. He didn’t raise any controversial issues but was authentic about some of his feelings. He felt that his lesson was not well-received and that he would likely not be asked to teach again.
Despite these feelings of loneliness and not belonging, Mike is trying to figure out how he fits into his ward community and trying to connect to people through love and service. Three weeks before my interview with him, Mike started reading the Book of Mormon again. He feels direction in it but doesn’t believe in it the way he did prior to his faith transition. During our one-hour conversation, he told me, “It feels so good to be able to tell someone your story and have them just listen. For some people, if you can share your story and walk away from that conversation knowing the person loves you, it can be lifesaving. Because it can be a very dark place sometimes.” I left the conversation in tears.
Because we are taught the importance of daily personal spiritual activities— like praying and scripture study—to insulate us from spiritual challenges, we may be conditioned to rationalize Mike’s experience away. We are prone to assume that his loss of traditional faith is due to him not reading his scriptures regularly, not saying his personal prayers, or that maybe there was some secret sin that caused him to lose the Spirit. Without attempting to understand him, we might just view and label him as a tare that is a part of the latter-day separation (Matt. 13).
One of the interesting parts of this book is to see the data of the survey given to those in faith crisis compared to the data from survey of local leaders.
Local leaders answered the question “How important do you think it is to address faith crisis in these settings?” Church generally: 98% answered very important or important. In my stake: 97%. In my ward: 98%.
Taken from the data of those in faith crisis, the question was asked “The Church as a whole provides adequate information for leaders to help people who are in faith crisis.” Less than 1% answered Strongly Agree or Agree.
Brother Ostler almost apologizes for sharing the information he found.
It can feel like a ton of bricks crashing down just reading about all the reasons that persons may struggle with faith. I have studied, prayed, and even fasted to know how frank I should be in helping readers understand the challenges some face. I have chosen to be direct, and I realize this approach may trigger questions or even spark doubt for those who might be learning about various issues for the first time. But I see no way of understanding the reasons someone would stop believing without talking about these issues directly.
Elder Snow said something very similar in a recent podcast interview. He said the brethren struggled with publishing the Gospel Topics Essays, because they knew it would cause some to lose their testimony. But they knew it was the right thing to do, despite that possibility.
It’s a common assumption that the person who went into faith crisis, there’s something wrong with them. They stopped doing the things that help us retain a testimony: obeying the commandments, reading scripture, praying. One of the most important things Ostler hopes to do with this book is to make those assumptions come crashing down. In the study, he asked about about individuals’ religious practices at the time of their faith crisis.
- 86% believed wholeheartedly in the teachings of the Church.
- 98% held a temple recommend.
- 98% were keeping all the commandments.
- 64% were reading their scriptures daily.28
- 82% were having meaningful personal prayer.
- 99% attended church weekly.
- 79% of those who were endowed attended the temple regularly.
This data jibes with what General Authority Emeritus Marlin K. Jensen allegedly said on this: that we are losing our “best and brightest”.
Local leaders have a different perspective. In their poll they answered agreed or strongly agreed 90% that they perceived they left due to being offended and 85% that they didn’t want to keep the commandments.
In the Faith Crisis Member Survey, one commenter said, Change the narrative on why people leave. We often are not offended by the local people or want to sin. Many times, we are looking for any reason to stay. When people doubt or find legitimate, worrisome facts about the history or doctrinal practices, they need love and reassurance and a safe place to ask questions.
He implores all church leaders and members who want to empathize to study Church History. He acknowledges it will likely have an effect on everyone. He brings out the metaphor Patrick Mason comparing our testimony to a grocery cart, calling it a truth cart. Most of us have overfilled the truth cart. And as we progress through life, study church history and other material, and gain life experience, we remove some things out of the truth cart that have been identified as naive or misunderstood. Brother Ostler even acknowledges that he himself has removed items from his personal truth cart.
As a young adult, I thought I knew all the answers, but now I know that I didn’t even know all the questions. Some of the things that I knew then, I still believe, and some I have completely discarded. For example, many of us perhaps once believed (or still believe) that the Earth was created 6,000 to 13,000 years ago, that Noah’s Flood covered every inch of the planet, or that the Book of Mormon documented the sole ancestors of every indigenous person on both American continents. For some, new discoveries and scientific consensus have led them to no longer believe those as they once did and understand them in new light to perhaps give us appreciation for the Creation we experience around us and lessons on the need to follow Christ and God’s prophets. Even if we no longer accept some things as literally true or in the same way as we once believed, we are able to view them in light of what we still believe. Personally, my list of doctrinal beliefs is not as long as it used to be, but my foundation is simpler, more durable, and more meaningful.
Faith crisis issues aren’t the only reason people leave. Some members come to a view that disagrees with the church on various social issues: LGBT+ issues, unequal gender roles, political conservatism, cultural and international issues. Sometimes they’re intertwined. Sometimes faith crisis is triggered by a disconnect on one of these social issues. Or vice versa. Many times, after faith crisis where the understanding of revelation is understood not as a 100% fallible thing, these questions become more immediate.
Showing how to help with this, Brother Ostler quoted Elder D. Todd Christofferson it’s OK for members to support gay marriage, as long as the person is not attacking the church in a “deliberate and persistent effort and trying to get others to follow them, trying to draw others away, trying to pull people, if you will, out of the Church or away from its teaching and doctrines.”
Dark night of the soul
Ostler described a “dark night of the soul” process where many described a heartbreaking process that usually started with some innocuous question but then turned into one stitch unraveling the whole sweater, one question brought up another prompting a voracious study until weeks or months or years have gone by, where the result is oftentimes a complete deconstruction of many key elements of one’s testimony.
As someone who has been through this process, I am skeptical that someone else that hadn’t gone through could truly relate. But Brother Ostler has somehow been convinced through his data and many personal interviews of many of the same insights into this process that I have. The main one being that it’s very unlikely that this process will be reversed and come back to a standard, traditional, literal testimony.
Some may be tempted to disagree with what I’ve said here and view a faith crisis as a simple challenge that can easily be related to. But as I have talked with people who are in a faith crisis or have been through one, I see their challenges as unique. Before I asked questions and truly listened, however, I didn’t understand these experiences or feelings and I had little understanding of how to minister to these individuals. In our ministering efforts and efforts to understand those who are struggling with their faith, we should never expect them to return to a stage-three faith—rather, we should walk with them through the dark night, potentially helping them and ourselves develop a new, stronger, and more mature faith, one that reconciles the crisis with its causes.
He describes attributes that those who have passed through this “dark night of the soul” have in common.
- Take personal responsibility for their spiritual development, using leaders as valuable reference points along the way.
- Have quiet humility regarding things that once appeared certain.
- Understand historical problems and accept the humanness of leaders.
- Can have faith in ambiguity and hold nuanced beliefs.
- Are comfortable with doubt and not knowing everything.
- Have hope in beliefs they once held as absolute truths.
- Find meaning and spirituality in diverse sources, including nature, music, stories, and thinkers outside of the traditional Church canon.
- Identify with spiritual or behavioral thinkers outside of the Latter-day Saint tradition.
- Read scriptures, ignoring historicity, with a focus on personal meaning.
- Value relationships with others regardless of whether they hold the same beliefs.
And adds this powerful statement: “I know Church members who believe this way without having experienced a dark night, but I know of no members who still believe after a faith crisis who don’t exhibit most or all of these characteristics.”
Per the bolded above, he doesn’t go into detail about what some of these nuanced beliefs are, but as someone who has interacted with many in this space, I believe they are usually things like:
- Belief in the LDS Church as a good and meaningful church and maybe even the most true church but not usually as God’s one, exclusively true church.
- Belief that our scriptures are inspired and meaningful but lacking a belief in historicity of some scripture such as the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham
- Belief that prophets have likely been wrong at times in church history, such as related to polygamy or the priesthood ban
- Belief in God and Jesus Christ and afterlife, but maybe not aligning with all of the many and specific details on these doctrines
- The Earth is very old, the human race has been around for 100,000+ years, and the Genesis creation story should be taken metaphorically
So, at this point, it seems pretty hopeless. It seems a certain number of faithful members are going to randomly go through this process and then the only outcome is that they lose their testimony and leave. No. There’s hope.
In what I think is the best insight in the entire book, Brother Ostler identifies three criteria that determine whether a person passing through faith crisis can stay and enjoy their church experience or will eventually transition out of the church. He lists these and then spends a chapter on each, which I think is the best part of the book.
- Trust. Even with the limitations of Church members and leaders, I have confidence that the Church and its leaders will help me find spiritual purpose and guidance. I trust leaders and other members to help me as I make choices for my own spiritual growth.
- Belonging. My ward accepts my authentic self and supports me as I develop my own spirituality and relationship to God. I feel like I belong and feel love, acceptance, and support—even with my differences.
- Meaning and relevance. I feel spiritually lifted when I think of Church doctrines and participate in the Church. I feel my most important questions are addressed and answered. I feel closer to my Heavenly Parents and find meaning and direction in the teachings and doctrines of the Church.
There are difficult issues in the history of the Church that we are often tempted to avoid, considering them either unimportant or too dangerous to discuss. When these issues are discovered, members sometimes lose trust in the Church’s leaders because they feel the Church has hidden or manipulated parts of its history.
Going back to the story of Mike:
Mike, whose experience was briefly discussed in the previous chapter, says that as a youth, missionary, and adult Church leader, he never learned that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy. One night, prompted by his brother, he Googled, found authoritative sources, and learned what he hadn’t been taught in seminary. He didn’t have to go to a library; he didn’t have to talk to a historian; it was right there instantly at his fingertips. Somehow, we failed him when at age thirty-four he learned about it for the first time and with no faith-based framework for understanding it. He felt Church leaders had hid the information because they knew it would potentially undermine the message of the Restoration. Then, when he learned about Joseph translating through seer stones, he concluded that there was a pattern of covering up our history. In a day with less trust, he lost confidence that the Church would teach the truth. He questioned what else might be different than he was taught.
In a comment from the Faith Crisis Member Survey, one woman wrote, “Trust—I have a very hard time trusting the Church because of the many times I was lied to about Church history.” This statement can be hard to hear, but I have heard it again and again.
Brother Ostler does go through some very valiant attempts the Church has made in recent years. The Gospel Topics Essays, the dramatized history volume Saints, the Joseph Smith Papers.
Leaders surely know that these essays and other materials can come with difficult tradeoffs. On the one hand, they don’t want to create distrust in the Church by exposing people to these challenging topics, but they also want this information to be available, both to provide transparency and to provide a faithful perspective and interpretation of its history, with all its limitations, for those concerned about our past.
But despite all this, the people in faith crisis polled, felt like these efforts were not enough. Only 7% of those in faith crisis answered strongly agree or agree to the question “I trust Church leaders.”
In addition to being more open about Church history, Brother Ostler lists these suggestions on how church leaders can become more trusted.
- Listen, listen, and listen. Then listen some more—don’t rebut, testify, or try to explain away their concerns.
- Ask questions so you can really understand their concerns.
- Don’t assume their concerns are a result of sin, laziness, or some other fault—just accept that their concerns are real to them.
- Don’t label them with negative terms, such as “doubters,” “nonbeliever,” and certainly not “apostate.”
- Don’t tell them how they should feel.
- Keep their concerns in confidence. Don’t disclose what they share with you to church leaders or other members without their permission.
- Take steps to address their concerns. For example, if they are concerned about the role of women in the Church, then speak up and work to find appropriate ways for greater involvement and participation by women in your ward and stake.
- Be their voice and advocate on their behalf.
One very interesting aspect of the book is that it contains no apologetics (the field of study where LDS scholars defend truth claims against critical arguments). There are no references to FairMormon. There is no specific attempt to reconcile issues like polygamy or Book of Mormon historicity. Brother Ostler seems to be implying that apologetics does not take a prominent role in the process of helping those in the dark night of the soul to help them trust, feel like they belong, or find meaning. Most everything I’ve read from faithful perspective on this topic is that it is assumed there is some piece of information, some apologetic argument, or some experience with the Holy Ghost that will restore the person to their original testimony. It’s very interesting that Ostler is not including this as an important strategic piece in bringing these people back.
Here’s my theory. Let’s take two people. Jake is a faithful member who heard something about the Book of Abraham translation not matching the papyrus Joseph possessed. He goes online and reads the FairMormon apologetic argument of why that is so. He’s satisfied. He doesn’t look any deeper. Sally is also a faithful member who heard something about the Book of Abraham translation. She did the same thing and read the FairMormon argument. But the answer didn’t satisfy completely and the question lingered. That prompted her to explore more about church history. She read LDS scholar Richard Bushman’s book “Rough Stone Rolling”. Information from that troubled her deeply about polygamy. Exploring more into polygamy, she all of a sudden learned something troubling about Book of Mormon historicity. Fast forward and Sally has spent a year in the dark night of the soul reading dozens of books from scholars and has permanently shifted her testimony into something that looks like my bullet points above.
I don’t know why the FairMormon article worked for Jake, and he didn’t pursue things any further. Or why Sally kept studying and eventually changed her testimony permanently. The study suggests it has nothing to do with keeping the commandments, desire to follow God, laziness, or rebelliousness. But at the point where Sally is, a year in, and with a new paradigm, I think there is almost 0% chance the FairMormon apologetics arguments will appeal to her. They did appeal for Jake, and so that means there is definitely an important role for FairMormon and for the Church to provide apologetic information. But for Sally, that ship has passed. At this point, trust, belonging, and finding meaning within a new church paradigm is what is now critical.
Despite the difficulty of refitting one’s nuanced testimony into the ward setting, many of those in faith crisis expressed a desire to stay in the church, if they could be accepted. 89% answered strongly agree or agree to the question “I want to belong the the Church community if I can be who I am.” But sadly only 9% answered strongly agree or agree to the question “I can be authentic with my ward about the major issues in my life.”
There you have it. Do we want these people to stay? If so, we need to help them feel comfortable to be authentic. But what if by their being authentic they say things that will cause faith crisis in other people?? That’s the Catch 22 situation the Church is dealing with.
A few more items of input from those in the faith crisis study on the concept of belonging:
I disagree with some Church beliefs and policies. I feel if I speak up, I would be attacked and disregarded. Leaders [see] questions as unacceptable criticism. [There is an] unspoken rule that you must agree There is no space for different interpretations of the theology; there is no space for real Church history; there is no space for my questions;
Related to belonging, Br. Ostler gives some very good insight into how we can allow for those with non-traditional viewpoints to be more careful in a Sunday classroom setting, related to the concept of policing. Policing is when someone makes a non-traditional comment in class, and someone pipes up to tell them they are wrong. Those in faith crisis report that is particularly difficult part about church and why they eventually stop coming. Instead of doing this, teachers and class members can be trained to respond in a better way.
We can find ways to affirm the comments given in class that we think might be policed. If we are teachers, we can vocally affirm a comment as soon as it’s given. We can say, “I’m glad you brought that up. I can see how one could feel that.” Or, “That is a really interesting idea. I am going to think about it. Thank you for sharing.” Or, “I have never thought about it like that. I’m so glad we can look at things with different perspectives.” If we are students, we can simply turn and look at the person who is speaking and show our interest through a nod.
Another successful way that appears to be piloting in various areas is to have a special Sunday School class at the ward level or a special institute class at the stake level where the gospel topics essays are studied or faith crisis issues are addressed with compassion and validation.
The third important area if we want to retain those passing through the dark night of the soul is related to finding meaning. I talk about this quite often in my writings. With deep study of church history, usually comes a paradigm shift, ie a nuanced testimony of those bullet items listed earlier. With that paradigm shift, some of the traditional “value propositions” of living the LDS life no longer are as relevant. So new meaning must be discovered to make up for that.
Back to Ostler’s faith crisis study: 90% answered strongly agree to “Prior to my faith crisis, Church doctrines were spiritually meaningful to me”. Yet only 20% answered that to: “The Church addresses the spiritual issues that are most important to me.”
Much of our church talks and lessons are centered around proving our church is true or that scripture and church history events literally and actually happened. These messages are not as spiritually enriching for those in faith crisis.
I’ve been through entire meetings where the only mention of the Savior was the “in Jesus name, Amen” at the end of prayers. We have way too much “follow the prophet,” ”pay your tithing,” “go to the temple,” and a host of other peripheral distractions, and not anywhere close to enough talk about Jesus Christ, Savior and Redeemer, and the core values he taught. He’s an afterthought in this church, no matter how much we want to crow about our name!
The following are items that many LDS find are very meaningful
- Some people emphasize eternal families
- Personal relationship with Jesus Christ and feeling his love and support
- Exaltation and becoming like God
- The gift of the Holy Ghost that gives them answers to questions in their lives
- Being a disciple of Jesus Christ in terms of following his example and attempting to live the most Christ like life possible
- Being part of the true church and bringing as many as possible to it, missionary work
- Bringing to pass Zion, a heaven on Earth
- Participating in family history and temple work
- Feeling part of a worship community where I can serve and be served
- Following Jesus Christ in righting the injustices in the world and defending the marginalized in society
- Being inspired to be a better person each week
- Making and renewing covenants
Some of these lose their meaning somewhat through a faith crisis. For many of these, the meaning is just as strong and sometimes even more meaningful after a faith crisis. We might be able to tweak our worship services just a little so that those with traditional testimonies and those with the nuanced testimonies defined earlier can both derive deep meaning.
We teach in black and white terms at Church. We’ve been trained to think it’s all true or it’s all a fraud. Those that have been through faith crisis are saying it’s not like that for us. It might not be “all true”, but it also is not “all fraud”. There is a middle ground where meaning can be found, if the Church can back off those black and white messages and make space for those in a more nuanced position.
How to Minister
This is a must read section for those who want to minister to those who have undergone a faith crisis. Here Brother Ostler reports on BYU professor Eric Huntsman’s great BYU devotional where he taught us how to be like Jesus in ministering to the marginalized in society. He goes through some Brene Brown material on empathy. Thich Naht Han on deep listening. We need to show unconditional love and respect. Stop trying to fix things. Don’t tell them something’s wrong with them. Avoid preaching. Validate.
In the conclusion, Ostler writes “this book isn’t about happily ever afters”. That’s a tough but honest acknowledgement. It reminded me of when Elder Holland told the story of the gay son that was ministered to by a faithful LDS mother. After years of prayer and ministering, she came to a peaceful spot over her son.
But with the grace of God, her own tenacity, and the help of scores of Church leaders, friends, family members, and professionals, this importuning mother has seen her son come home to the promised land. Sadly we acknowledge that such a blessing does not, or at least has not yet, come to all parents who anguish over a wide variety of their children’s circumstances, but here there was hope. And, I must say, this son’s sexual orientation did not somehow miraculously change—no one assumed it would. But little by little, his heart changed.
This was in 2015 and was one of the first times an apostle acknowledged that the road for a gay LDS might not be what we previously thought, ie pray and fast and overcome the sexual orientation to become straight and live the more traditional LDS life. There is an idea that we don’t have perfect answers for LDS LGBT. But at least we’re not telling them they’re wrong for who they are and how they need to fix it. We’re in the Listen, Learn, and Love phase.
I hope Brother Ostler’s book will prompt a similar paradigm shift on the faith crisis issue. The old answers aren’t working. We need something new. What is it? Brother Ostler has some ideas. I have some ideas. But none seem perfect yet.
But let’s spend a decade or two in the Listen, Learn, and Love phase, and I bet we figure it out.