David Ostler is the author of “Bridges: Ministering to Those Who Question.” This book is designed for LDS Leaders to better understand a faith crisis, and how to help members in their wards and stakes to better empathize and maintain members who struggle with issues of faith. David has interviewed several hundred people to better understand their perspective and shares that knowledge with all of us.
David: When I started studying faith crisis, disaffiliation, my own background is in evidence-based medicine. So, you know, it’s like, what does the data say? It’s the first question we ask. So I spent time trying to understand what we knew about the problem, what people had written, what studies had been done, what data had been collected. Like most problems, we all have impressions about a particular area, but when we go in and study it systematically, sometimes we find those impressions are not entirely accurate. For my own life, that’s been the case often. But certainly with this topic, I found it to be the case. So I wanted to, as I learned about this for myself, and then ultimately, as I wrote the book, to make sure that I had the best information that can be brought on it, and where it wasn’t available to see what I could do to create more information there. So with regards to Leading Saints, and Kurt Francom, we were able to, using the leaders that subscribe to his newsletter, to be able to survey them and understand what local leaders thought about faith crisis, issues of faith, how they were responding and the like. So that’s been kind of a fun thing for me to get to know Kurt and that community a little better.
Sometimes very active people quit coming to church. What are the causes of that? David Ostler tells us what people do that ostracize active members.
GT: I think one of the things that I like about your book, I’m trying to say this as diplomatically as possible. It just feels like you “get it.” I know there are a lot of people that have really good, well-meaning hearts, and they want to talk about this idea of disaffection. But they do it in a way where [it’s not effective.] It feels like I’ve got to be careful. I have to censor myself because I might offend that person. It just feels like you are open. There’s an openness that you frankly don’t see at church. I mean, for one thing, I’ve expressed before. In fact, I actually interviewed Kurt [Francom] on my podcast a few months ago, and I expressed some frustration. I don’t consider myself in a faith crisis, but I also can’t speak up at church. It’s not safe. It’s almost just better to go sit in the hall and do your own personal study, because everybody’s all concerned about everybody’s testimony. For me, and like I said, I don’t consider myself in a faith crisis, but I felt the frustration of the people that you talked about in your book. Can you talk about how…? I mean, is there anything we can do? I feel as Joe member, I can’t talk to my bishop. I just feel like he’ll look at me cross-eyed, and I’ll never get a calling again. Can you address that issue?
David: I think what you’re talking about is probably a little bit more common than we think. I think that we all want to go to church and look polished, and at our best and the like. We know that we want to be faithful. We know that we want to express confidence in the institutional church and in our own belief, and so sometimes it takes a lot of courage. It can be very vulnerable for us to express any sort of concern we have that might go against that completely faithful narrative. So it’s sometimes very daunting to either raise our hand and say, “Well, I’ve got a concern here,” or to ask a question, “Well, what about this?” And I think sometimes, just because of the nature of our culture, that can be somewhat risky for people.
What I found when I started kind of going down this road, maybe it’s because of my career background, or maybe because of some my own personal experiences, I just wanted to listen to what people were saying. I just wanted to kind of understand from their perspective, how they felt attached to the church, if they were in crisis, what triggered their crisis, how they felt about it, what their concerns were. I just kind of went down that road without care about my preconceptions, or whether they would say things that would make me uncomfortable, or that I might disagree with personally. So, I really wanted to just truly understand, and I asked a lot of questions. I wanted to know. I asked, “Why do you feel that way?” I’d say some things and they’d help me see how, what I was saying wasn’t either on target or wasn’t helpful or showed that I didn’t understand. I had some good friends that would help me see my blind spots on that. So, I’m grateful that you felt like that voice came through in the book.
Can you share your experiences talking to leaders about faith crisis? Have your attempts succeeded or failed? Have you read the book?
I’m reading the book but am still in the very beginning. I like what I read so far and I agree with your perception that he seems to understand. David is willing to have the hard conversations without worrying about how it will make him feel but with the goal of understanding and that is huge.
Early in my faith crisis I spoke with my bishop and also my stake president. I knew both men well and I was serving as EQP at the time. I won’t go into details but neither interaction went well. Neither man sought to understand but instead sought to preach and tell me what I was doing wrong and what I needed to do going forward. I had some truly horrible interactions following those initial ones.
Ultimately, I don’t blame those interactions for my current state of non-attendance. That was a personal decision to step away, but certainly those leaders did not help me want to stay. I do wonder if someone like David Ostler had been my stake president if I would still be attending. I doubt it but I do wonder.
I recently let one of the leaders know that my husband and I would not be able to teach anymore and the reaction to that was absolute shock as we have been 100 percent in for the last five years that we have been in this ward…. news travelled quickly to the bishop and counselors and one of them approached us at a ward bbq over the weekend…. and I have to say it was a very amazing experience….. he said he totally understood and that our last bishop had been in a faith crisis right before he became our bishop… this guy was willing to go through the mud with him and said he is willing to do it with us… and in the end he won’t persuade us to stay but that he wanted us to know that there are many ways of looking at things in religion and that it isn’t just black and white…. we have more meetings with him scheduled and I don’t know what the future holds for our activity…. but I do know that we need more people like this guy. It was incredibly healing and validating that someone in a bishopric even knew of some of the issues and was doing exactly what the book says- loving, not judging, and seeing if he could help in a non preaching way.
I had a similar experience as DoubtingTom. When I began to be besieged with doubts and was wondering whether I was crazy and if these things could be I told two people – my Bishop and a friend in the ward (Both with Ivy league PhD degrees and seemingly deep knowledge of the gospel). At the time I was in a full blown crisis watching the world I knew crumble and was desperate for any lifeline, guidance or help. Both wouldn’t allow me to even say what was troubling me or discuss what was giving me doubts. Both told me they knew everything there is to know about the history, they are not troubled and “know” it is all true. That was it, end of discussion with them. I tried to remain active in Church while working through these questions alone, but the Bishop didn’t speak to me again (actively avoided me in some cases) and I haven’t spoken with my friend again either. It has been nearly a year since my family and I (2 primary aged children and an infant) have stopped going to Church. Despite years of callings, full activity and service, no one has visited or called me.
Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.
It would never occur to me to speak to any of my leaders about my issues with the church. They seem like good, well-meaning people generally, but in my experience, there are two big reasons why we ostracize those with faith crises (which, by the way, every single Mormon has; they’re just not vocal about it or it’s not that big a deal to them):
1. The emphasis on being in lockstep with leadership and the TBM church generally. If we express doubts, many people at church hear that not as “hey, I’m struggling, I’d love to have an honest conversation with someone” but rather “hey, I don’t believe everything I’ve been told, so I’m being disobedient”. The culture of obedience and the emphasis on virtue signaling makes it almost impossible to have an honest conversation about anything remotely considered to be a faith crisis.
2. The fear that your “doubts” may infect other members, including leaders to whom you may be speaking. In my experience, only an incredibly insecure and unconfident person would start preaching at/browbeating someone who is expressing doubts. Most people in this church have faith that is incredibly fragile. Instead of trying to strengthen their own faith, they try to bolster their belief by putting down others who have legitimate questions and who are legitimately struggling. In a faith community, the cardinal sin is to express doubts about that which everyone else supposedly has no doubts about, thus ensuring that the doubter is ostracized rather than loved and nurtured. And thus ensuring that people decide either to suffer in silence or just leave. It’s absolutely insane (and directly contrary to the teachings of Christ) that a community of believers in Christ would tolerate, even valorize that dynamic, but it’s quite common, sadly. That’s because we are generally much more fearful than faithful.
Haven’t read the book yet, but two quick observations for why the Church really isn’t doing the right things yet to address the problem:
1. Individuals experiencing it call is a “faith crisis,” and the word crisis signifies a serious problem or issue. In LDS talks and the suddenly popular pseudo-interviews or panels featuring LDS leaders, they talk coyly about “doubts” as a fairly manageable problem. Different vocabulary, different perception (minor problem versus serious problem). And just about very BYU devotional or YA broadcast spends some time talking about “doubts” now. They see the problem but think it’s a minor problem.
2. Individuals describe the nature of the problem as issues with LDS history, doctrine, or practice. They try to grapple with what they have learned or experienced. LDS speakers seem convinced “doubts” are a personal problem of the individual — they haven’t prayed or repented or read their scripture or paid their tithing like they are supposed to. They see the problem but think it’s an individual’s problem, not an institutional problem.
I agree with Dave B, a faith crisis isn’t some sort of doubt that just needs to get squared away or shelved. A faith crisis is when your religious system is completely upended and you can’t figure out what’s true, false, real, or fake.
There’s also a two part issue regarding the emotions that come with the crisis.
1) In trying to pick up the pieces and find what’s true and not true, dealing with the sickness caused by cognitive dissonance that needs to be addressed.
2) Dealing with the anger that stems from not being told the truth and people downplaying the severity of the “new information” that you’ve come across.
As someone that has had a faith crisis but was able to navigate it and still be a member, I can tell you that it is not due to sin, personal testimony, or not being we versed in the scriptures.
Many of those who are the angriest are those who were TBMs. That’s what makes the anger so intense.
Rick B, thanks for these interviews.
My wife and I are out now, and we have no plans to come back – no matter what the church does, because we no longer believe its truth claims. We’re still enmeshed in the LDS community, however, because of family and friends. One issue we still have with the active LDS is their perception of our motives since we left. An active LDS on Twitter, (@hijodeputtis) identified the problem when interacting with his daughter who has since left the church:
“There is no accepted, legitimate reason to leave the church. None. Even when those who leave explain their good reasons (as they see it), we as a people reject the explanations. It simply cannot be seen as good. To fill that void, our culture has imposed a narrative onto those who leave. We generally have a menu of four reasons why people leave the church. We discount what the people leaving say, and instead, apply one of these reasons
1) They were offended
2) They wanted to sin
3) They were lazy and didn’t want to do all the things Good Mormons do
4) They’re good people but were deceived by the Devil (alternatively they were blinded by their own pride.”
Nope, nope, nope, & nope.
The problem is that in order to maintain relationships, both my wife and I hold our tongues about what we now know. So we don’t necessarily help dispel the false notions. If Ostler’s book may help LDS better understand the motives of the disaffected, that’s a good thing.
I understand completely. In the next week or two when I post the end of my interview with David, I tell a story of meeting someone at Sunstone who left the Church after the Nov 2015 Exclusion Policy was announced. I said to him, and I will say this to you: If you are in a better place now because you have left the Church, I am happy for you. But I still miss you and wish you could have stayed. I support you in your journey.
I also heard this golden nugget from Kurt Francom, who was interviewed on the Q More podcast recently. “Our job is not to save people. Our job is to love them.”
Thanks Rick, looking forward to the remaining interviews.
In theory bishops and local leaders should be able to minister to people who are grappling with historical, doctrinal, or other issues. But their hands are tied. They can direct people to church-approved resources that don’t actually discuss the root of the problems. Or if they know about more nuanced resources by scholars, they could direct them there. But what is actually produced by the church that effectively navigates the contradictions and moral incongruities between church claims and gospel truths?
Local leaders are put in an impossible and unfair position where they have to address these issues with members that church leadership itself refuses to address.
I have had issues with women’s roles and the church for years. I have had kind leaders who were sympathetic for the most part, but they couldn’t really help me. A large part of why they can’t help me is because there are no resources from the church that address these issues. There are no easy answers. And when I pray about these concerns, some answers I receive contradict church claims. So what am I to do? I can be true to the revelations I’ve received and continue as a person with a minority viewpoint at church who knows she can’t openly speak about these truths or concerns. This is what I have been doing, but it is a sad and lonely road.
Recently I have considered not attending church anymore. It’s not because I don’t love the gospel or because people are mean to me, but I feel there is a lack of integrity with church leadership. For example, you cannot claim that you love women and believe in their full divine potential when you will not discuss what that divine potential even looks like.
In the short-term we can make our wards more open to nuanced discussion, love, and inclusion. In the long-term, the church leadership needs to seriously address its incongruities and fallibilities.
I would never call my transition out of the LDS church a crisis. It was one of the most magical and beautiful periods of my life. I praise God for it. I dont know what any faithful member would do with that, but it really doesnt matter to me now anyway.
“Local leaders are put in an impossible and unfair position where they have to address these issues with members that church leadership itself refuses to address.”
This just bares repeating.
The challenge, which Mary alluded to, is that bishops are expected to be both (1) pastoral counselors and (2) judges in Israel. When a ward member has a faith crisis, these roles are incompatible.
(They’re also incompatible in many other situations, such as member with a pr0n viewing habit. Does he lend a sympathic ear? Does he impose discipline? He can’t do both.)
Andy, thanks for your description of what it feels like to go through a faith crisis. Would you mind sharing what got you through it?
The Other Clark: “The challenge, which Mary alluded to, is that bishops are expected to be both (1) pastoral counselors and (2) judges in Israel. When a ward member has a faith crisis, these roles are incompatible.”
This is a similar conundrum which the President of the Church finds himself in. He is both High Priest and Prophet. Anciently, these were two very different roles. Priests stood in for the people before God. Prophets stood in for God before the people.
In reality, the president of the church no longer serves any priestly role at all. There is no one representing the people at the throne of God in the LDS church.
Except Christ, of course, who represents all of us, regardless of denomination. But I find it interesting that Mormonism has retained the prophetic role, while abandoning the priestly role. Christ is good enough an intermediary for the people, but implied in the LDS structure is that he is not a good enough intermediary for God. We apparently need mortal men to play God for us. Some of them seem to take great delight in this role.
JC– Your comment reminds me of the general conference talk “which way do you face.” As the talk–and you–point out, in the Church, prophets represent God to the people.
Interestingly, in earlier generations (Lorenzo Snow, for instance) senior apostles served as presidents of the Salt Lake Temple, with sole access to the Holy of Holies. I don’t know if this is still done today, but if there were a priestly role, President of the SL temple seems like a good choice.
I heard David on a couple of podcasts and attended a presentation where he discussed his book. Then I read it.
I believe David to be very sincere, candid, and truthful. I think the principles in his book, if applied by local leaders and members, will be very helpful for both the member and the “questioner”. It presents a lot of helpful ideas for the believer to help make a connection, gain understanding, and bridge gaps.
As a questioner, I would not recommend the book to those in the throes of their questioning. It is often couched in terms of “of course, this is what is true, but the questioner isn’t there, so do such and such”. While I certainly can’t fault David for being true to his beliefs, I wanted to throw in the towel several times while reading it. We get enough of that from friends, family, and other members. As I said, David could not have been more honest and transparent, but it leaves the doubter no quarter.
On the leadership question: We have an adult gay son. In one ward he lived in, the bishop told my wife that our support of our son (allowing him to live in the basement with his partner) was putting her membership in jeopardy and she would have to choose. She did and hasn’t been back in three years.
I a new ward, the bishop extended a call in the primary presidency to my wife – but needed to know her feelings on same-sex marriage. We all expressed support. The call was rescinded and we were told we could not get temple recommends.
Word got back to the stake president and he came by. It was a wonderfully rich pastoral visit. At the end, he said we could have temple recommends in spite of our convictions.
We both declined. I said I didn’t want him to leave with the notion that LGBT issues were why I have stopped attending (truth claims, history, etc.).
Once there is truly a place in church for someone with a less than “I know with every fiber of my being”, people like me will find another way to meet our spiritual and community needs.