Grow UP (and Down)!

You’re not as mentally grown up as you might think. In fact, you might be under the influence of developmental gravity and you don’t know it.

From the Audience: “Yep. It all started in third grade when I tried to jump out of the swing …”

Uh… maybe you can tell us another time. We are going to go a little deeper than that.

I’ve written on one subject more than any other: Stages of Faith (See part 1, 2, 3, and 4). These posts document my discovery of the subject and several readings.

Thomas Merton, Richard Rhor, Kathy Escobar, David Ostler, and Bruce Haffen are all authors that have addressed faith development from contemplative or pastoral perspectives. Thomas Wirthlin McConkie takes a different approach. In “Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis” he discusses faith within the context of the modern psychology of adult development.

It is a practical read, which I’ll be adding to my Leader Essentials list.

From the Audience: “I knew it! I knew that I shouldn’t have opened this. As soon as I read ‘faith crisis,’ I began to feel uncomfortable. Your posts often disturb me.”

That’s okay. Your perspective represents a particular stage of development. If you’d like to understand why, you’re welcome to stay. Or, you can come back when you’re ready.

As the above type of comment demonstrates, our stage of adult development is the ground we stand on, changing the way we see the world and others around us. It affects the types of questions we ask (or don’t ask). Our perception of morals changes as we develop. Our relationship to authority changes. Our interaction with faith changes. The way we find peace in life changes.

With that introduction, let’s get into the details.

Unless otherwise noted, the following block quotes and page numbers are from McConkie’s book.

Adult Development

As parents, we are eager for our kids to grow up and fascinated by their development. At some point in time “adulthood” is reached. At 18, we get to vote. 21, drink alcohol. At 25, auto insurance companies reduce our rates because our frontal lobe is finally developed and we stop running into things. But, it doesn’t stop there.

As it turns out, we adults are still doing the exact thing we did as children. At the end of childhood and adolescence we do not graduate, cap and gown, into a perfectly accurate, “adult” view of the world. How we perceive and make meaning of the world continue to develop throughout our lifespan. More than a simple endpoint in human development, adulthood is better understood as a house of countless mansions. There seems to be no limit to what we can become. (pg 7)

It is often in this “becoming” that our institutions struggle, or rather, we struggle within our institutions (church, political party, charity, employment). There is often very little latitude for individual change after we “arrive” at the same conclusion as others in our group. When we start asking different questions, tensions arise.

Center of Gravity

McConkie discusses center of gravity later in his book, but in this summary, I think it helps us understand why we and others may feel anxiety.

Moral boundaries define our group, including some and excluding others. Those who conform are included and bound together as a community. The LDS church has a broad and well defined moral structure, leveraging all six moral foundations; it binds us very well. Our morals interact with adult development to creates a strong center of gravity.

The concept of center of gravity is important because as humans we tend to grow up to the average stage of development in our surroundings. After reaching that average, however, further development becomes more effortful and challenging. The collective can facilitate, even accelerate our growth, but only up to the point where we reach its center of gravity. Beyond that, the culture will tend to discourage our development. It may even antagonize and punish further growth. (pg 86)

The current LDS church, like most conservative churches, is strongly aligned with early stages of development. Individuals will feel emotional strain and social rejection as their development begins to depart from the center of mass of the community.

How Do We Deal With Messiness?

It is natural for those inside of a church community to blame individuals for their spiritual struggles or faith exploration. You may here things like: “They must be sinning.” Or, “They aren’t praying or reading their scriptures.”

But, the source of the problem is much more complex.

More and more members are discovering information about our history that leaves them questioning previously held assumptions about the faith’s origins. Until recently, those who paid any attention to controversial writings surrounding Mormonism might have been viewed as deviant. But the number of affected members is growing too quickly to support the “bad apple” theory. Even mainstream members who don’t typically go looking for trouble are finding themselves wrestling with less domesticated narratives of Mormonism. (pg 13)

The LDS church is doing a much better job at replacing polished history and folklore with open and honest historical narratives. However, the exposed history requires us to engage directly with doubt, something that has been villainized in many sermons (Examples: 1, 2, 3, 4).

NOTE: For most discussions of faith and doubt, including this post, it is best to think of doubt as a question that lacks an answer that is meaningful to the asker. It is not helpful to think of doubt as purposeful attack or the result of laziness or sin. Doubt is generally a sincere and natural expression.

Real faith (as compared to blind faith) is only meaningful when paired with doubt. More knowledge and context can resolve some doubts, but often unknown remains unknowable and action is still required. In those cases, doubt may actually be the string that allows the kite of faith to fly.

Without doubt, we confuse our small faith with Transcendent Faith. The story we tell about experience comes to replace the actual experience. We mistake the map for the territory. We inadvertently make idols of the empty symbols of language and forget what we had set out to worship in the first place. (pg 18)

Our interaction with faith does—and must—change as we continue our development. But, where does adult development take us? What’s next? McConkie’s premise is that by knowing that there is a map, we can recognize the signposts along the way and be reassured that we are not lost.

From the Audience: “How long is this going to take? I’ve got things to do.”

Jump Ahead

I’m sorry for being long winded. If you already know where you stand and don’t want to delve into the characteristics of each stage, you may want to jump to the Conclusion.

Stages of Adult Development

The following is a summary table from McConkie’s book.

Causal Tier This stage is beyond our current scope.
Strategist IntegrateDevelopmental itself
Lifelong learning
Truth as one whole
Impatience with growth
Subtle Fundamentalism
Individualist Include Process-oriented
Richness in diversity
Robust faith
Trouble prioritizing
Exclusive inclusion
Poorly Understood
Achiever Choose Personal
Character development
Sense of deficiency
Expert Defend Personal authority
Dark Night
Diplomat Obey Higher purpose
Blind follower
Guilt & Shame

Diplomat Stage


  • Identifies with others who have similar outward appearances and who share the same cultural background.
  • Has thoroughly internalized cultural norms and rules.
  • Feels a strong responsibility to support the authority and hierarchy that hold rules in place.
  • Is motivated by a sense of duty and responsibility to the collective.
  • Because knowledge and truth are understood as inherited from the past, charts a course forward by strictly adhering to traditions. (pg 42)

Diplomat Relationship to Faith/Doubt

Doubt is an evil influence to be fought and overcome at all costs. (pg 42)

As a Diplomat we derive our identity from belonging to a group. And if we’re any good at being a member of our group, which we most certainly are, we’re clear on the specific role(s) we play and how to contribute to accomplishing the greater mission of the collective. (pg 46)

As a Diplomat you generally do what you’re told without undue struggle. It’s implied that if you wish to be a participating member of the group that membership comes with certain responsibilities not generally up for discussion. Consequently, as Diplomats we are keenly aware of interlopers and imposters. People who are not “true believers” look wrong, talk funny. We have a gut sense that these people don’t belong in our ranks. Worse, they may be a threat to the health of our group. (pg 47)

The Diplomat is adept at extending invitations for others to convert to her cause but can struggle when attempting to relate beyond her own group’s agenda. There is an unease that can come up around “nonmembers” here. (pg 50)

Expert Stage


  • Has a new and fragile sense of “subtle” identity. Can be defensive as a result.
  • Begins to think abstractly for the first time.
  • Tends to use rationality to protect their own beliefs rather than explore new perspectives.
  • Aligns with other experts and sources they deem trustworthy.
  • Develops and asserts their own expertise.
  • Is still close to the concrete world. (pg 56)

Expert Relationship to Faith/Doubt

As Experts we are now aware on a subtle level of competing truth claims. The tendency here is to identify with one side of the coin and dismiss the alternative. Our faith may be great beyond question at this stage. (pg 57)

This stage is when we start to learn more deeply and are developing the background to defend our position. As our knowledge grows, we try on new perspectives from respected leaders and scholars.

It is during this phase that most people encounter historical accounts that don’t match earlier faith stories. They start to ask hard questions and search for the answers, confident that they can be found.

McConkie warns of another characteristic that can develop.

There is a deeper vulnerability that can present at this stage. And one that we would do well to understand better as Latter-day Saints as this critical moment in our history. Because someone negotiating this new terrain is shifting from a concrete to a more subtle worldview, their relationship with the Divine also necessarily undergoes a dramatic transformation. People in this phase can feel a certain dryness in the spiritual practices that once fed them deeply. The can wonder if there really is a God who hears their prayers. … What was tangible and certain (concrete) can now feel vague and ungraspable (subtle). … As a result, they can come to feel that they are losing the faith that has sustained them up till now. (pg 64-65)

Achiever Stage

This is the first adult development stage that causes distress to orthodox church members and peers, because Achiever is where independent authority is starting to be expressed. Rather than looking to church leaders for answers, Achievers will be confident in their own knowledge and choose activities and beliefs that may be different from the norm.

Achiever Synopsis

  • Is proactive and achievement oriented.
  • Identifies with personal will much more than the will of the collective.
  • Can evaluate multiple points of view and choose based on rational thinking.
  • Is able to think critically about her own thinking.
  • Engages in “either/or” decision-making; values choice.
  • Is sensitive to interiors and can therefore start to have empathy for all people. (pg 72)

Achiever Relationship to Faith/Doubt

It is during this phase that a person may flip from defending “sure knowledge” that is faithful to the church position to defending “sure knowledge” that is counter to the church.

The achiever will identify with one pole or the other. The side not chosen is potentially experienced as an uncomfortable presence. As a result, the Achiever feels a drive to reduce the tension by eliminating one or the other. She must choose one which side of the argument she stands. (pg 73)

Faith Crisis for the Achiever

This is a common stage for faith crisis to take hold. Perhaps the most common in contemporary Mormon culture. Crisis can begin when eliminating doubts is no longer an effective strategy. The mind keeps dreaming up new questions. Uncomfortable as doubt can be, at this stage we tend to move deeper into this territory in spite of our fears. The cultural reinforcement of faith and negative reinforcement of doubt can drive the Achiever further away from the Church. (pg 73)

But, this time of intense stress requires support.

Achievers in faith crisis start to seek community that is more objective about facts. They need open and honest discussion about contradictions in the tradition. Over time, they come to make decisions about what elements of the tradition are critical to them and what aspects they can leave in the background. Those who don’t understand this process may dismiss it as “Buffet Mormonism,” but to the Achiever it becomes vital to be able to pick and choose. (pg 74)

A while ago I wrote a post presenting the concept of a Faith Crossing class. It is this phase of development that such a class is intended to support. There is no community (or space) in the church that allows people to work through this. So, where do we go? To the chagrin of church leaders, we go everywhere but the church. Endless demands to avoid social media and “negative voices” are like squeezing a balloon, the pressure will be released. The energy will either bulge where we did not intend or the balloon will pop.

There is real, desperate need at this stage that is not being met within the church. Consequently, it is not surprising that people leave. Why shouldn’t they?

Contributing to the challenge at this stage is the fact that people are encountering troubling topics earlier in life. Consequently, they may lack the depth of knowledge and judgement required to reconstruct a faithful foundation out of the chaos that a faith crisis brings.

There are risks with being stuck and any one stage. Getting stuck in Achiever stage means ongoing dualistic bitterness.

Individualist Stage

Individualist Synopsis

  • Begins to redefine her sense of self that was held up so strongly through the Achiever stage.
  • Is aware of contexts in the world and inner contexts of the self.
  • Loses the previously assumed sense of “objective” standards..
  • Realizes that different perspectives reveal different truths. Therefore, there is no end to discovery, no final say on what is real; revelation is truly ongoing.
  • Engages in “both/and” thinking patterns, i.e., values inclusion.
  • Can potentially feel empathy not just for all people but for all living beings, feeling connected to the entire planet. (pg 92)

Individualist Relationship with Faith/Doubt Polarity

This is the first stage of development where faith and doubt are understood to be complementary. Too much faith, and you understanding becomes static, our certainty unhealthy. Too much doubt, on the other hand, and we become cynical and stagnant. We realize that in order to live our lives to their fullest measure, we need to act in Faith and persistently move forward into the unknown, often with no guarantees. (pg 93)

The Individualist acts on internal authority over external authority. While LDS teachings support this perspective, calling for each person to gain a personal testimony of church teachings or leader directions, there is the presumption that the individual’s conclusion will align. The Individualist may think differently and will be okay with that.

Strategist Stage


  • Integrates body and mind.
  • Joins subtle polarities into deeply complementary opposites.
  • Has genuine appreciation for all people and seeks to integrate different perspectives in a way that works for all.
  • Is aware of development and meaning making.
  • Uses contexts and systems in highly sophisticated way. (pg 112)

Strategist Relationship with Faith/Doubt Polarity

Faith is at the heart of doubt and doubt the heart of true faith, like the yin in the yang. The strategist experiences both increasingly as one and the same movement. My deepest faith leads to an openness to new revelation, and my deepest doubt leads to the same. (pg 112)

Comparative Synopsis of Faith Stages

Keeping track of the several stages and how they interact can initially be difficult. McConkie does a great job of contrasting each phase with the others throughout the book. The following is an example of how he ties them all together.

As Diplomats we are God’s chosen people and there is nothing else to discuss. Everything is given. We just need to stick to the plan. As Experts we are assertive in our knowing, and we love to get in the last word. As Achievers we are ever on the hunt for new facts, utterly convinced that if we discover enough of the facts we will eventually know everything that is worth knowing. And our facts are very difficult to argue with. That’s why we call them facts. The Individualist laughs at the facts. It’s perspectives that create facts.

Start to discern the pattern of your perspective taking and you’ve entered the Strategist realm. Here we realize that there’s nothing we can really know absolutely, and yet we must press forward and make meaning, notwithstanding our human limitations. It is here that we also start to become aware of the whole trajectory of development and recognize that the way we construct the world is always growing into grander, more Divine ways of seeing. (pg 116)

Growing Down

In other faith stage books, individuals pass into different phases, never to return. McConkie presents an interesting perspective that rings true to me.

Without a proper foundation in one stage, the successive stages will simply not emerge. Additionally, the capacity to function at one stage does not mean that we’ve mastered all the capacities of previous stages. In fact, the more we develop, the more insights we gain into our previous stages of development and the further refinement they still require. It is as important to “grow down” as it is to grow up. And we’re never done growing. (pg 36)

This correlates to Richard Rohr’s observations that we must do the first half of life well, or we will not be able do the second half of life well.

The advantage of those on the further journey is that they can still remember and respect the first language and task. They have transcended but also included all that went before. In fact, if you cannot include and integrate the wisdom of the first half of life, I doubt if you have moved to the second.

Rohr (2011), Falling Upward, pg xvii

Is Diversity Needed?

Binding like-minded people together through sacred moral principles produces a different outcome than diversity. Jonathan Haidt indicates that “If our goal is to produce good behavior” uniformity of thought in the community is beneficial.

However, “it’s … important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.”
– Haidt, The Righteous Mind, pg 105

Ostensibly, the goal of the church is both to affect good behavior and to find truth. We also claim to be a place for all people. Unfortunately, the tendency of most institutions is toward homogeneity (sameness), it’s easier to manage and more comfortable. As cliché as “diversity training” might be, it is only through education that we expand our understanding.

We need developmental diversity in our churches, in culture, in civilization, and we need it in healthy forms. The study of development can help us recognize diverse expressions of human development and preserve a place for them as vital contributors in a healthy ecosystem. (pg 146)


I am advocating for a more explicit approach to development within our congregations. I wonder if we could make our developmentally informed values in Mormon culture more transparent, and in turn, honor and support a broader range of experience in our communities. I know so many members–Mormons teetering, Jack Mormons, post Mormons, Mormons of every shape and color–who feel disaffected on the grounds that they no longer fit in. They aren’t active because they don’t feel space where they can bring their doubts and sincere concerns. It’s my experience that we’re all impoverished when we drive these doubts into the wilderness. Yes, there’s a greater concentration of faith in our congregations when we do so, but it is a vulnerable faith. Our churches become antiseptic environments where living Faith, saving Faith cannot flourish. (pg 147)

Development shows us that establishing Zion isn’t simply a matter of converting others to our way of seeing so much as more deeply converting ourselves to seeing more of the Whole. (pg 150)


Faith stages, or rather, adult development is a foundational issue. Like personality type and moral foundation theory, it underlies the practical situations and symptoms we see on the face.

Questions of historical accuracy of our founding stories, differences in scriptural interpretations, social issues, and institutional harm may be the source material that instigates a faith crisis. But, these “troubling facts” are received differently by those are each faith stage.

  • Diplomats will largely ignore or avoid uncomfortable issues.
  • Experts feel empowered to delve into traditional apologetic information to support a faithful perspective.
  • Achievers may study both sides of the issue and align with the most compelling argument.
  • Individualists develop the autonomy to reconstruct their own faith, allowing for a broader perspective.
  • Strategists find value in the tension that doubt creates and honor the truth that others bring to the table.

Most of us have been nurtured in a church culture that was, institutionally and developmentally, in the Diplomat stage, with some support of Expert. However, the center of gravity of secular society has shifted dramatically over the last two decades. We have become more informed and more polarized—characteristic of Achiever. The church center of gravity necessarily lags social change, but it is shifting too.

There has been substantial progress by LDS church historians to be present authentic historical accounts. The resulting stories aren’t as pretty as those of decades past. You might say that the church is moving into the Achiever phase. But displacing folklore in the larger church will be a multi-generational task. It just takes time to disseminate new information and for members to take it up into their world view. In the meantime, there is growing tension as individuals confront facts that disagree with their Diplomat and Expert ideals.

Since the church is intended to be a community for all ages, it will interact with members at all stages. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the institution to accommodate those in the later faith stages. This is the problem I raise in my previous faith stage posts: How can we accommodate needs of Diplomat and Expert (stage 3) members as well as those in later stages? (My Faith Crossing post delves into the question of how best to support the transition or crisis period of Achiever/stage 4).

McConkie’s model of faith development may be an important road map to help us enlarge the tent of acceptable belief in our congregations and learn to support each phase. While I think intentional action would be helpful, the transition may also occur naturally.

Currently, most general and local authorities still deliver sermons focused on sure knowledge (I know) and right behavior (keep commandments and covenants). These perspectives reinforce the Diplomat stage, but strain later stages. Church Sunday school material is the same. However, there is a growing body of voices that allow for a grace-centered approach.

We do not need to change the doctrine of the Church in order to allow for more diversity and greater acceptance, the Christian doctrine is already there. A focus of love and grace are inherent in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Conference talks by Elder’s Uchtdorf and Holland are examples of this approach. I expect that we will see more voices at the general level in that direction, but we are also likely to continue to see some (Elder’s Oaks and Renland) that will promote “the right way.” The contract of these voices may be indicative of the polarity of an institutional Achiever. (Nevertheless, we should always see a variety of voices, it is the developmental center of gravity that we are concerned with here.)

Another indication of institutional development is the scholarship being applied in the Church history department (Joseph Smith Papers) and at the Maxwell Institute. This is being picked up by church members and independent organizations such as Faith Matters and LDS Perspectives. (Of course, Dialogue and Sunstone have been playing in this arena for decades.) More exposure to better thinking will, inevitably, lead to better and deeper theological discussions at the local level.

It is my hope that formal Church teachings and curriculum incorporate support for all stages of development in the near future so that more people can find fulfillment inside of the church. However, from a practical perspective, these types of changes usually begin with local leaders. Using the leeway they have, we are seeing creative solutions that accommodate a broader religious experience for marginalized members. Hopefully, these examples continue to grow.


Additional Resources

Beyond the books linked in this post and my Study Materials page, you might find the following podcasts interesting.

Listen, Learn, & Love – Episode 212: Daren Bush, LDS Bishop
This is an example of local leaders thinking outside of the cultural norm.

Listen, Learn, & Love – Episode 144: Jana Spangler, Active LDS, Expert on Faith Transitions
Jana adds her voice to this concept of faith stages in a Mormon context.

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