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.
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 are rich and divers. So, there is some precedent for accommodating intellectually deep topics. But, it is understandably difficult to provide sophisticated instruction at the congregational level. Nevertheless, encouraging of local leaders to implement special classes may help to address diverse needs.
Stake-sponsored Sunday “specialty” classes may be 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, many leave after sacrament meeting).
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.
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.
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, we met in the kitchen. Served donuts. 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 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 within 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 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.
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.
- 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.
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:
- Crucible of Doubt
- Falling Upward
- Faith Shift
- Velvet Elvis
- Women at Church
- Next Mormons
- Bridges – Ministering To Those Who Question
- The Uncontrolling Love of God
- Voice(s) of Hope
- Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis
- … and so forth.
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:
- Race and the Priesthood
- Book of Mormon Translation
- First Vision Accounts
- Joseph Smith’s Teachings about Priesthood, Temple, and Women
- Plural Marriage in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Mother in Heaven
- Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints
- Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham
- Are Mormons Christian?
- Becoming Like God
- Book of Mormon and DNA Studies
- 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.
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 may 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 become 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”??
Additional Resources: Bridges: Ministering to Those Who Question
* Having made the journey across the planes 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.