Faith Crossing – Part Two

In part one I describe a tension between the church and those in faith crisis and post-deconstruction stages. Assuming that we want to retain these people, the question is:

How can the church, as an institution, help people through a faith crisis or reconstruction?

I have a few ideas.

Adult Development

The first issue to confront is the need for engaging a broader range of adult development and knowledge.

In spite of having only one Sunday School program, BYU religion classes do evidence this. So, there is some precedent for accommodating intellectually deep topics. But, it is understandably difficult to provide sophisticated instruction at the congregational level. Nevertheless, restoring the discretion of local leaders to use local members to implement special classes may help to address diverse needs.

Stake-sponsored Sunday “specialty” classes may a way to pool interested participants from the various wards. Such classes may not only address diversity of faith stages, but also facilitate cross-ward interactions.

From the Audience: “You can’t expect the church to do everything. People can study what they want at home.”

People could do everything at home. So, why come to church at all? One of the principle rolls of church is to provide community, shared experience. If the experience is meaningless or frustrating, there is no reason for people to participate (and, thus, may leave after sacrament meeting).

Leadership Training

Second issue. Local leaders could benefit from a functional grasp of faith stages. A bishop that is personally at stage 3 faith will not know how to deal with stage 4 and 5 members.

For several years I have expected the church to implement mandatory training for bishops and other church leaders. Hopefully, such a program will include pastoral skill lessons that cover personality types, faith stages, and emphasize individual spiritual development over institutional conformity.

What Next?

With church recognition and leader training, authoritative action can be taken to address the needs of struggling members.

From the Audience: “I know a stake president that organized a weekly class for struggling members. It has created a safe space for individuals to work through challenging issues.”

That is exactly what I am getting to. There are some innovative, informed, and confident ward and stake leaders that have moved to address this need, but they are rare. Most lay leaders are reluctant to act without cues from the general leadership or they are ignorant of the issues. That is why institutional recognition and leader training would be beneficial.

So, what might a Faith Crossing class or group look like?

From the Audience: “Faith Crossing. That’s a stupid name.”

Yeah, I know. There is probably a better name. Maybe “Bridge Builders,” referring to David Ostler’s book. How about “Doubters Anonymous”, or “Rebuilders”? Maybe we could name the class in homage to Levi Savage*, “Savage Lessons”.

I’ll leave the name open for discussion. Let’s get back on topic.

First Attempt

While serving as a Sunday school president, I offered to organize a Gospel Topics essays class. The ward leaders would not hear of it. These were not topics to be discussed at church.

In hind site, I understand their reaction. This type of response is expected when leaders are in stage 3 faith. For such leaders personal avoidance of tough issues is natural and they feel the need to protect the congregation.

After moving to a condo ward with mostly young married couples, I attempted to create a weekday group to discuss the Gospel Topics essays. This was intended to provide an opportunity for people to work through their unconventional thoughts and tensions outside of the Sunday structure.

Doctrine and Donuts was the group name.

The bishop gave approval. One topic per month was selected. Flyers were printed. Facebook group started. Announcements given in the adult classes. And, specific individuals invited. 

In order to create a democratic and friendly atmosphere, donuts were served and we used first names, no titles.

My logic was that younger members of our transient ward would have been exposed to the issues covered in the Gospel Topics essays. But, no more than three people showed up at any one meeting. After three monthly meetings, I sat alone (not including my wife).

End of experiment.

The Objective

The objective of a Faith Crossing group is for people to work through a faith crisis within an LDS church environment.

The program should:

  • Validate individual difficulties in order to reduce anxiety so that learning can take place.
  • Present Information that shows context and diversity of perspectives.
  • Build Community to share the struggle and model rebuilding.
  • Facilitate Spiritual Exploration as people learn to find peace in new ways.

From the Audience: “What? Find peace in new ways? Sounds like some new age thing.”

In the LDS environment we typically speak of “spiritual development” as conformity to particular practices rather than an individual experience of meaning-finding. In a faith deconstruction, people typically lose trust in institutional or external authority and must learn to trust their internal authority in determining their spiritual path.

In Kath Escobar’s “Faith Shift” she says:

When the place we used to go to for comfort is gone, we can feel lonely. Part of the journey has been learning to notice God’s movement in my life and in the world through songs, people, experiences, movies, art, bizarre interactions, random scriptures, and other creative ways that I hadn’t considered before. As I opened my heart, eyes, and ears to  fresh ways of noticing God, and remained curious about all kinds of possibilities, my soul felt more tended to and less abandoned. (pg 90)

As group members regain their spiritual footing, they may be able to again find sacred space in the LDS Church.

The First Rule

The class must honor the journey of the individual above all else.

Institutional priorities must subordinate to the individual; people first. Some may participate in the group, but not in any other aspect of the church. Some people may choose to leave the church anyway. Most will disagree with one or more traditional teachings. That’s the point.

There will be moments of anger, hurt, and criticism. That is part of the journey and the part of the mourning that must take place as people work through the deconstruction of old paradigms. It has to be okay to do so in a church setting in order to enable reconstruction within the church. If not, it reinforces the very division and distrust that people may be struggling with.

Class Structure

Since I have only made one attempt at creating a Faith Crossing (Doctrine and Donuts) group, my experience is wanting. Nevertheless, the following lessons might be useful.

  • Participants must self-select for the class. They may be invited, but should not be required as part of a “worthiness” or repentance project.
  • The course must be sanctioned and commissioned by stake leadership.
  • Subjects should be open to class preference.
  • Small group setting would be essential to facilitate safe interaction.
  • Maintain a casual and informal atmosphere. Make it comfortable.

Teacher Requirements

  • Male and female instructors are recommended.
  • At least one instructor should be approachable and caring. The other should be more scholarly. Both are needed.
  • Do not use a married couple for the instructors. This will allow participants to see diversity of thought and provide a confidentiality boundary for when a class member wants to speak to only one instructor.
  • Mature, knowledgeable, post-faith-crisis instructors are required in order to respect the emotional and foundational issues that will come up.
  • Instructors need to be affirming; they need to recognize that the issues brought up are important to that individual.
  • Instructors need to be assertive enough to avoid diversions and stand against doctrinal bullying.

Lesson Plan

Rebuilding requires not only learning more deeply about the context of troubling issues, but also learning more deeply about foundational Christian teachings. I am not speaking of devotional lessons, but good Biblical scholarship that recognizes the context and diversity of thought within scripture.

Lessons or discussions should use outside material to breach the correlated echo chamber. The intent is to show that a broader perspective can be accommodated within Mormon thought as well as the commonality of core Christians doctrines and challenges. Books like the following may give permission to class members to think differently:

Earlier I mentioned that the lesson outline must be loose and adaptive, however, a base lesson outline would be beneficial for planning and promotion; leaders, instructors, and participants need to know what they are getting into. Instructors can then draw from this pool of lesson material to address the needs of group participants.

The outline might include discussions on:

Gospel Topics Essays

Other Subjects

  • Stages of Faith – Allowing for Individual Faith and Diversity
  • Word of Wisdom – History and Practice
  • LGBTQ Inclusion – Scripture, Doctrine, and Love
  • The Temple – Ordinances, Recommend Questions, and Family
  • Modern Bible Translations and Commentaries – Approaching Scripture Intelligently
  • Meditation, Prayer, and Spiritual Practices
  • The Sacrament – A Covenant of Willingness
  • Distinguishing Doctrine, Practice, Tradition, and Policy

The point isn’t to get everyone to “buy in” to traditional perspectives, but to allow people to be open and honest with their thoughts. Additional perspectives and materials can then be introduced for people to consider as they rebuild their faith.

Conclusion

The whole concept of faith journey or faith transition is new to our LDS culture. Facilitating it under the name of the church would be a remarkable shift. Sermons from Elders Uchtdorf and Holland show hope in broadening the tent to be more inclusive and vulnerable.

The type of group that I have described may not be possible at this time in the church. There many not even be enough people in a stake that would be willing to participate, in spite of their need. Those that could benefit may no longer be practicing and may never discover the group.

Eventually, I would expect the culture of the church to shift to be more inclusive of diversity and less focused on doing or being right.

It is a hard, hard task to help someone work through a faith crisis. Hopefully, as we open ourselves up to the challenges of others, we will be come better at helping everyone find a place in the church.

This leads to the next issue.

It does no good to invite and retain people if they will just be marginalized. How can the church utilize post-faith-crisis members in a positive way? Maybe there is a part 3 to this series, “Using Stage 5 members in a Stage 3 church”??

Eugene

Additional Resources: Bridges: Ministering to Those Who Question

* Having made the journey previously, Levi Savage counseled against the late departure of the Willie handcart company. This conflicted with the romantic counsel from church leaders James Willie and Willard Richards.

From Savage’s journal:

“August 13, 1856, Wednesday, Florence, Nebraska Territory. Today we continued preparations for starting. Evening we held [a] meeting in camp. Brother Willie exhorted the Saints to go forward regardless of suffering even to death. After he had spoken, he gave me the opportunity of speaking.
“I then related to the Saints the hardships that we should have to endure. I said that we were liable to have to wade in snow up to our knees and shovel at night, lay ourselves in a thin blanket and lie on the frozen ground without a bed.”

Regarding the above evening, George Cunningham wrote that Savage “counseled the old, weak, and sickly to stop until another spring. The tears commenced to flow down his cheeks, and he prophesied that if such undertook the journey at that late season of the year, . . . their bones would strew the way.”

The sting of reason put Willie on the offensive. Levi Savage wrote: “Elder Willie then spoke again in reply to what I had said, evidently dissatisfied, and said that the God he served was a God that was able to save to the uttermost, . . . and he wanted no Job’s comforters with him.”

The above quotes are from: “The Price We Paid” by Andrew D. Olsen, Deseret Book, 2006, pg 80-81

Savage was demoted and marginalized for speaking from his knowledge and experience. Yet, he stuck with the handcart company as they crossed the plains under the most extreme and deadly circumstances.

4 thoughts on “Faith Crossing – Part Two”

  1. You’ve generated some well thought out suggestions. I hope it works out as you desire. I only had heartburn with one point: “The course must be sanctioned and commissioned by stake leadership.” Is this really likely? Necessary? I have doubts. Other than this, keep plugging away. It’s a lonely but necessary path you’re traveling.

    1. The intent of this class concept is two fold:
      1) provide a place for people to explore their faith, and
      2) facilitate rebuilding within a Mormon context.

      The latter is the tricky one. The group must have credibility with other church and family members while providing ample range for personal exploration. Those living in protective silence are often fearful of being marginalized if their doubts are exposed. A church sanctioned program may be easier for them to attend.

      In addition to the above, an artifact of lay clergy is that they often lack breadth of knowledge and experience with respect to the subjects to be covered. Deviations from the narrow views found in church publications or culture are likely to be seen as heretical.

      If there isn’t buy-in from church leaders, they are not likely to permit tough discussions to occur and may clamp down on perspectives that may be beneficial. For example, prophetic fallibility is accommodated by LDS doctrine. But, stage 3 idealists are likely to be offended by the practical implications.

      To your question: Is it likely that such a group would be commissioned by local leadership? At this point, in my area, I doubt it.

      I don’t mean this to be derogatory in any way of my leaders; they are good men, doing a job that a grumpy Mormon could not do. I just don’t think that the general church membership is prepared for these types of issues to be address openly in a church context. But, there are a range of scholars paving the way (as well as official church material).

  2. I certainly don’t have any definitive answers, but I have been engaged in some experimentation over this very issue for the last several years in my own ward, and I’m happy to share some of my own observations and experience here. My first response is that there is a denial problem, not just about faith reconstruction, but in the very recognition that instruction and study is even of any particular value. Several years ago, while serving in the bishopric, I waged a prolonged campaign to underscore that the biggest challenge facing our ward and our greatest shortcoming was in the quality of instruction. Over the course of a few months I argued that several things needed to be done in order to even begin to address the problem, and then I offered to take over and implement them as Sunday School President. Although I don’t have them on hand, I recall that these were the following conditions precedent that I recommended (some were institutional, others were more practical):

    (1) Sunday School should be elevated—in position, power, influence and budget—to the other organizations. The “non calling” or bell-ringer, substitute finder, and attendance roll manager should be done away with and reinvented.

    (2) A Sunday School Faculty should be established and prioritized. If instruction is our biggest problem at Church, other organizations should be “raided” for the right people—not a selection of who is left after the other presidencies are filled. Seek the right people and get them in the right spots. Teacher councils are fine, but more is likely needed. Instruction should be taken as seriously as anything else in the Church: trainings, evaluations, feedback, and support all have their place.

    (3) Sunday School should be run to serve the needs of those in attendance. Just out of “Teaching in the Savior’s Way,” the emphasis should be on people, not the lessons. As a result, the emphasis should no longer be on implementing a program, but in ministering to people. From Teaching in the Savior’s Way, “Christlike teachers are not committed to a particular style or method; they are committed to helping people build faith in Jesus Christ and become more like Him.” As a result, as Sunday School president I would be administering surveys to the ward in order to determine what is wanted and needed. No single thing has been more influential than collecting anonymized data and returning to Ward Council and to the Bishopric to show them the actual numbers. It is very difficult for a Bishop to then turn around, in the face of numbers and say, “this entire group I am now going to exclude from how we implement teaching in the ward.” Numbers are KEY.

    (4) With appropriate information and expressions of desires in the Ward, if we want to keep people attending in the second hour (this implementation happened before the reduced schedule, but the principle still applies), we have to feed them and give them what each of them need and want. That requires, just like the principle in Teaching in the Savior’s Way, that we meet individuals where they are at, not where we would like them to be. Options will be afforded, not by designation or assignment, but by self-selection. As a result, there would be a segregated Sunday School system with multiple options during second hour.

    (5) The Lowest Common Denominator approach to instruction in the Church ensures that we only offer milk. Many more mature members are yearning to be weaned. We have to offer meat. Elevated instruction must be offered in order to keep members engaged in a faithful venture. Otherwise, they will seek their gospel meat elsewhere. In today’s day and age, we can either provide the option ourselves or cede that entire territory to outside venues. As a result, I asked to offer a mid-week scripture supplemental course, Ward-sanctioned in the Church building. However, the condition would be that the scriptures would be approached in a more sophisticated way. That would mean addressing contemporary criticisms, inviting academic scholarship, and an openness to discussing scriptures from a multiplicity of perspectives.

    The experiment has pretty much played out. I took a couple of important, comprehensive surveys up front to confirm what I suspected. A solid 60% actually wanted a traditional, manual-based instruction lecture. However, there was a good 30% that wanted discussion and exploration of the scriptures. This provided me with the basis for a self-segregated Sunday School. The other thing the survey revealed is the exposure that the membership had to having read the scriptures in their entirety, traditional seminary or institute classes, and the number of times that members had already been through the lesson manuals for OT, NT, BoM and Church History (evidence of having heard the same thing over and over and over again). As a result, we now have three adult Sunday School Classes, they are not titled or announced with any designation, people just “know” which class is which. No one is asked to attend any particular class, they are free to explore each one and see where they are most comfortable. However, that requires teachers who are strong and confident enough to establish and maintain a tone, tenor and character of each class regardless of who attends on any given Sunday.

    One class is an Introduction to the scriptures, for those who may be approaching scripture for the very first time. Emphasis is on “learning” the stories, characters and events in the scriptures. The second class could be considered a “traditional” Come Follow Me. It is correlated, predictable, closely follows the manual. The third class is a discussion-oriented class. As a result, the emphasis is placed more on what the class members bring to the class, which is a code word for “honest engagement.” Class members feel comfortable to throw about doubts, questions, outside perspectives (books they have read, podcasts they have listened to, experiences they have had). As a result, it is not uncommon for someone in the class to read from their NRSV as opposed to the KJV if called upon to read, to make a comment about the conflicting history of positions the Church has taken with regard to universal priesthood ordination (i.e. blacks in the priesthood), or to ask a question about whether current missionary practices are exploitative.

    During the week, I have been teaching a “supplemental” scripture class that follows the Come Follow Me assignment for the week. The assumption is that the individual (home-centered and only church-supported) is already engaged in the Come Follow Me manual. As a result, what is offered on Wednesday is not out of the manual. It is intended for those who are seeking out additional information and other perspectives. We talk about historical context, the origination of the various scriptures, metaphorical and symbolic approaches to scripture stories (as opposed to literal history or character-driven approaches), and we spend a lot of time trying to draw out meaning, purpose and principles out of scripture rather than “truth.”

    The numbers split is about 60% that choose to attend the traditional class (skews over 50), 30% in the discussion class (skews under 40), and about ten people in the introductory class. In addition there is a group of hit-or-miss attendees that draws from a consistent group of about fifteen that will attend the mid-week class, with about ten in attendance in any given week.

    As many will immediately criticize, the effect is that there is a stratification and division that occurs in the ward. The division isn’t entirely, but tends to correlate to age and/or education. If most attendees are being honest, they probably look at members of the other class as either “too edgy” or “too close-minded.” However, from my perspective, that is simply the cost of addressing our members’ needs and attempting to meet them where they are at, and not where we would ideally like them to be.

    1. Ian, I love it!!

      Sunday School President was the best calling that I’ve have ever had. When I was called, we started having teacher training meetings before any official program was announced. We also introduced additional Sunday class options, at least as far as the conservative bishop would allow. We had a family therapist teach the Family and Marriage course and offered other correlated courses in succession (which didn’t leave many options and there are none now).

      In my current ward, I appealed repeatedly to the SS president and bishop counselor over four months to break up the one-ward, pass-the-mic class. The following is an expert from my final (and partially successful) plea. It echoes some of your thoughts.

      Bishop ___

      I hate to ambush you with an email and would be happy to discuss the following in person. I want church to be a good experience for me and others. And, as Bishop Wooley once told Brigham Young, “it is just as much my church as it is yours,” I’m trying to not sit silently and stew in my discontent. I know that others have the same frustrations, but are unwilling to speak up.

      Back in April, I raised some concerns regarding the whole-ward Sunday school class with President T and Bro. D. From the moment that I heard about the plans for a single ward-size “Come, Follow Me” class, I was disappointed. Having sat in many such church classes before, I knew what to expect.

      • Physically dispersed audience.
      • Low participation.
      • Comments from only a handful of the same people from week to week.
      • Shallow, general discussion echoing perspectives some of us have heard for decades.
      • Emphasis on orthopraxis and formulaic obedience.

      The principle points that I made to Pres T and Bro D are:

      • We don’t teach our kids in K-12 classrooms because this does not allow for direct education to the level of the students.
      • Similarly, we do not teach our young kids in large classes due to the lack of individual attention required to address their needs.

      We have primary and youth classes to address the unique needs of the students, but not adults. Why not? Do we stop learning when we reach adulthood? Just as with younger ages, adults occupy a spectrum of capability, interest, and knowledge. Why would we not want, small, intimate classes for adults that can address their needs as well?

      Smaller classes provide opportunities for building relationship. Large classes cannot. With a shorter church block and a high-turn-over ward, we need all the help we can get.

      One argument for combining the whole ward (similarly with High Priest and Elders quorums) is the potentiality for older members to share their wisdom with younger members. However, this is only possible if 1) the instructor knows the class members well enough to recognize the need for it and 2) there are opportunities to allow for participation. A large class allows for neither. (A third issue is whether an instructor has enough depth of knowledge to even recognize that there are different perspectives. Otherwise, they just plow on through.)

      Some wards have called instructors to specifically address the needs of beginning, intermediate, and advanced members. I know of at least one ward that has as many as 10 CFM classes. If multiple classes are offered, will some classes be larger? Yes, absolutely. People will self-select the type of instruction that is valuable for them. And, a reasonable guess can be made as to which class will be larger.

      I would hope that there is a desire to create a valuable experience for all members. Right now, Sunday school is extremely frustrating for me, so I typically don’t attend; it isn’t worth the anxiety. While I recognize that I may be an outlier, the number of people that leave or are staring at their phones, is indicative that it is not a valuable experience for most members.

      Following this appeal, the ward did conduct a survey and found that most people wanted smaller classes. Within three weeks additional instructors were called. Unfortunately, they didn’t address the need for tiered instruction levels.

      I nearly cried (with sadness and frustration) when I first read the 2019 CFM manual. The devotional outline was as shallow as ever, no cultural context, no references to modern biblical scholarship, no modern translations, and no nuanced treatment of the individual gospels. I can’t believe that it will be four years until we have a chance to rectify our corporate biblical ignorance. Similarly, the 2020 CFM covers the same tired and shallow subjects for the Book of Mormon that we have covered over my 50+ years. There is so much more.

      I love your mid-week class idea. A CFM class would be easier for local church leaders to swallow than a class focused on addressing discomfort. Yet, as you point out, a CFM class still provides a venue for deeper questions and discussion. I may have to pitch this idea in our ward. Unfortunately, we have few “mature” people in our ward that may have time and interest.

      Eugene

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.