Going ExPat

I hope anyone who reads this can do it with an open, nonjudgmental eye.  Like Tirzah has felt in her recent posts, I’m a little nervous to be writing this out since I’m afraid others will react with pity, condemnation, disapproval, fear, or other manifestations of guilt-inducing negativityI became part of ZD because I needed a place to write my truth since I felt so completely paralyzed to do so in my “real world” life and I knew others felt just like meSo…when you comment, please just give me a little kindness if you can.  The only way to ever have a real discussion in this world is with kindness.  Plus, this is a straight-faced fact finding mission as well as a confession-post, so I really would like to hear what you know.

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I decided to accept a position to work for a couple years over in Europe.   It’s a testament to how tormented I’ve been these past few years about my church attendance since the first, numero uno, number one “pro” about moving there was, “Won’t have to go to church in a ward…or ever…if I want.”

Now, you can say all you like about the idea that I never had to go to church here, when we’ve lived in the states.  There are those who I know could just waltz right in here and say something like, “You have a choice.  You have your agency.”

But, the thing is, not really.  We were already established in our current ward as “golden members” by the time my husband and I really started feeling the need to push back a little…then a little more.  But, it felt impossible.  We live in a small town.  Our bosses and a few coworkers are in our ward.  My family calls us every Sunday and the first question is always, “How was such and such a calling today at church?”  No one, of course, would have ever meant anything maliciously, but we are both people who want to be liked.  We are both people who grew up as “pleaser” kids–the kind that would clean the kitchen for our mothers unbidden, just because we knew it made her happy.  We were the kind that never needed any other discipline than the threat of the phrase, “I’m disappointed in you.”

So we have kept going every week…but schedule our flights on Sundays.  And we keep going every week…but keep getting sore throats!  And we keep going every week… but, “Oh shoot!  The alarm didn’t go off!”  And we keep going every week…only to first hour…only to the last two hours…only till we have to leave early because we left that pot boiling…

Please don’t condemn us, or call us cowards.  We are just two people who have been trapped between our deep need to never disappoint and our deep need to finally reclaim a sense of spiritual autonomy.  I think we are actually two people just straining against our childhood personalities, wanting to experience a Mormon rumspringa–an era where we can really hash out where we’ve arrived spiritually at the end of our twenties, and do it without the expectations of others dictating where we go, when, with whom, to say what, and how, and why…  And do it without other people commenting on our choice every week with pitying, sad-eyed renditions of, “You will be sad…You will be sooooo sad…”–the self-fulfilling prophecy police.

We both have been pleasers for so long, our hearts and minds are screaming for a moment when we can feel like we made the decision to come to church–not because we felt like we “should” or because people expected us to but because we felt like it was good and right and what we wanted to do.

We just want to be allowed to figure out the truth by ourselves, because we already know how hard it is for our personalities to fight against the weight of the expectations of others.

SO…back to the beginning.  We decided to go to Europe and I was elated because I foresaw a promised land!  A place where I could go far away, where my mom wouldn’t ask me about church every week, where I could choose to seek out a congregation if and when I was ready, where I could choose to really find my spiritual center for the first time in my life, where I could actually feel like I was making my very own decisions about my soul…  And, when and if I did return, it would be in a branch, not in the heavily Utah-culture dominated wards of the United States.  There, I wouldn’t be a native speaker and I could just focus on loving my fellow members instead of trying to wade through wounding gender theologies and cultural pressures and …and…all that stuff.

I brought up these feelings to my husband and he was not as hopeful as I was.  He pointed out that, if and when we did seek out that branch, he would most likely be immediately conscripted into church-service-servitude for the entire time we were there.  He didn’t have the language barrier protection I had.  He would be the priesthood holder.  He would never have a night to himself again…  He would automatically become the “alpha member”…or at least one of three…by virtue of his tie and nothing else.  And therefore, to him, moving to Europe would, in many ways, be the opposite opportunity for him as it was for me.

For me, American wards were where I felt second-class, paralyzed, tortured, and belittled as I was simultaneously unable to break free because of my concern for my family’s approval and my entire, one-big-family local ward’s assumption of my Molly Mormonness.  Europe meant something more personal, more flexible, and more accepting.

For my husband, American wards were where he felt better able to escape his doubts by becoming non-descript–a chameleon.  He found freedom in the thought that, if he honestly couldn’t pull his tired heart up enough to go to another uncomfortable lesson, his small responsibilities could be covered by any number of other men in the ward.  Europe meant being pushed into a spotlight, being forced into a leadership role that he would find painful, being expected even more than before to be the stereotypically meek-macho patriarch.

So, I bring it to you, bloggernacle.  What is it like on the other side of the EU border?

Will our foreign travels be a place where we can feel free to ask questions, give ourselves thinking space and time if we need it, and participate in a congregation where we can just focus on loving our other members rather than endless doctrinal hand-waving, uber-politicized lessons, or weekly barrages of gender-theology pain?


Will our European branch be a place where Utah-culture stereotypes are even more entrenched and expected, where men and women are over-taxed by missionary work expectations and administrative commitments because there is no way to share the burden, and where we will feel even more pressure to bite our tongues, smile, and put on the face of the “golden member” once again?

Or both?


  1. I have no answer for you, but I hereby nominate “self-fulfilling prophecy police” as a phrase worthy of sharing the spotlight with “chicken patriarchy.”

  2. i think outside of utah you’re either active or not, it’s not a cultural choice. and in europe, your husband is correct, you’re either not active or you’re super involved. but maybe that would be a good thing in a foreign mission experience kind of way that you can’t have in the jello corridor? sometimes being needed and serving is a great solution to one’s own angst.

  3. My only overseas experience was as a missionary so obviously would have been quite different from what you’re about to enter. I can remember a few Americans in the branches in the various cities where I served — they were always good sources for knowing where to buy peanut butter — but I don’t recall a single one of the wards, or the new stake, having an American in a leadership role. I can visualize the presidencies/bishoprics in four of my six cities and know they were local. I’m not sure your husband’s fears are realistic, at least in France.

  4. Just set boundaries where you want them at the beginning. Tell the bishop you’re not comfortable focusing on a calling. Living in Leipzig for three years has shown me that you don’t have to be super active or nonactive. Whatever! There are so many more levels. And if it’s a branch where they’ve had other Americans come and go, most of them will basically ignore you.

  5. I lived in the EU for a few years. I think it totally depends on the ward/branch you have, how many other expats there are (and how thrilled they are, or not, to be overseas) and I think, like Anita said, you can say you’re not comfortable with a calling.

  6. It really does depend on where you are. I have found that even in our super involved in everyone’s business faith, in Europe religion tends to be a more private matter than it is here (in our politics, entertainment, hand me down jokes, etc.). Europe has had a longer and more complicated relationship with religion and they tend to butt out.

    And ditto to several comments above. You can always be honest with leadership if asked to serve in callings and tell them that you’re going through a lot (move, personal growth, whatever) and a leadership would do more harm than good. I told that to our bishopric here when we moved in, and you’ll have far better reasons!

  7. Church in Europe is different. In a good way. It varies from ward to ward, country to country, but I found a lot of the problematic ‘culture’ aspects extremely watered down, or even non-existent. It’s actually a very good place to take a sabbatical, or if you’re looking to dip a toe in now and then. And again, so long as he makes it clear to the leadership, your husband can keep as low a profile as he needs – they’re very used to Americans coming and going.

  8. I think I know how you feel. I’ve been hiding my disbelief from my family with a mean, sexist priest in the local parish. My mom accepts that I can’t go to church where the priest says things like “lay people should just sit in the pew and shut up,” so I haven’t had to explain that I don’t go to church because I don’t feel like I have to, because I don’t really believe anymore. Plus, if my mom called everyone every Sunday she’d never get off the phone – I have 9 siblings – so she doesn’t check up on me either.

  9. When I started reading I thought the OP was a joke, a wind up, a laugh.

    Surely it’s ridiculous to think that the church would be uniformly different in the EU, or that the church is uniform enough across the US to have something to compare with usefully.

    There are a shade under five hundred million people living in the European Union, in twenty seven different countries, speaking 23 official languages and over 150 dialects and sub-languages. Population density ranges between 16 people per square km to 1261 per square km and GDP for the member states varies between 64,000 euros per head right down to 11,000.

    Church in Europe is different

    Too right, wouldn’t you expect some variety among half a billion people with totally different cultural backgrounds…

    Not to mention that America is a pretty varied place itself, more than fifty states and three hundred million people should allow for some differences.

    How are you defining “American Ward”.

    Also, what’s this about European Branches and American Wards? There are more than 2,000 branches in the US, that’s about four times as many as there are in Europe. Although, to be fair, the proportion of wards to branches in the US is higher.

    Can you be even a teeny bit more precise? Are you moving to Northern Europe, that would help. If we knew you were moving to Denmark that would be better. If you let us know the region, that you were coming to Hovedstaden we might be more able to help. If you told us the city, that you were coming to Copenhagen we could perhaps give you some advice and if we knew the town, if you said you were moving into Naestved we could probably paint you a picture.

    But a continent shift?

    Would it strike you as even a little odd, or unreasonable, if I said I was moving to the US from Europe, what things should I expect to be different to how the church is where I live?

  10. Hagoth, did you just skip over the prelude to the post, where Apame asked for an open, nonjudgmental eye, and a bit of kindness? This is a really honest post, asking genuine questions. Responses like yours are exactly why people end up not doing that. You could have made your point a lot more gently. If you want to comment on ZD, you need to watch your tone.

  11. I have no useful info to contribute, but I can so relate to the idea of going somewhere where you don’t feel the same kinds of pressures to go to church. Kiskilili and I were in Germany a few summers ago, and it was quite a distance to the nearest ward, and we mostly ended up not going. Though we did go to some cool Lutheran and Catholic services. Often we spent Sundays hanging out at gorgeous buildings, developing our German reading skills by reading our scriptures in German. It was really nice.

  12. Well, where are you going in Europe would be my first question…

    We have been in England for several years. That’s my only experience of serving in the church. In our ward, there is a lot of “small group, same people keep getting called cuz there’s not a lot of choice.”

    If you look on lds.org you can locate the church meetinghouses where you are. If you would rather be less active, you can always choose a home further away 🙂 LOL.

    I love my ward – it is, as someone else wrote here,full of all kinds of different people, and it’s a loving place with kind kind members.

    Wishing you luck as you make your big move!

  13. It really depends where in Europe you are going, I think you might like many of the Europe wards. But branches… Little branches can be whatever. It depends so much on the members there. And if it really is a little branch, i.e. having only few priesthood holders, it’s more than likely that your husband will get some calling. He might not be the alpha member, but hey, if there’s only couple of men with priesthood, his service is needed. Of course in little branches the distances are usually quite big, and people there don’t want to have meetings just for meetings sake, so even if you/your husband will receive a calling that doesn’t mean that he/you wouldn’t ever have a night off.
    Just be yourselves. If it feels like you don’t fit in you are just the crazy Americans and that will explain everything.

  14. Hagoth, every one of the 15 or so wards I’ve been a part of in the United States is uniform in the cultural sense, such as the OP referring to ‘Utah culture-dominated’.

  15. If you are basing your church experience on UT units, I think it quite unfair to judge the rest of us based on them. Like others have said, any time you move to a new ward, you have the opportunity to redefine yourself to some extent.

    I do think, however, that you will miss a HUGE cultural experience if you do not go to Church. A common religion allows such a bridge, and especially for someone without the language, I think you will quickly find that your new exotic life with no socialization will be very dull, if not depressing. Getting to know members in local units has always been a highlight in my experiences, especially internationally. That will be a major loss for you.

    Also, altering your religious practice in conjunction with a move has a number of pitfalls. You will be living a very different life, one that is something of a dream. To drop your religion at the same time, or making any major life decision, is a bad idea, IMO. The decisions you make and experiences you have are not based on your “real” life. You may convince yourself, for example, that your church family adds nothing to your life when, in fact, they don’t know you and cannot communicate with you. I don’t think I am explaining this very well, but just be wary.

    Also, speaking as someone who has had several siblings break from the Church only at the point when they moved away, it communicates to your family a degree of cowardice and/or laziness. If your choices are based on convictions, you should be able to make them in full view of your family. When you do it elsewhere, hide it, or keep it secret, it comes across as you either dropping religion for convenience or deliberately cutting your family out of that conversation. It feels like a betrayal. That might not be right, but that is how it feels.

    I also have a little bit of a problem with ex-pats who arrive expecting that they will be hailed as a savior of the poor foreign unit. Maybe your husband’s feeling is based on better information than we have, but please understand how it comes across as incredible arrogance.

    But, have a great time! I hope you enjoy your adventure.

  16. As an American living in Europe who has seen many other Americans pass through over the years, I think Michelle’s assessment is spot on:

    if it’s a branch where they’ve had other Americans come and go, most of them will basically ignore you.

    This will hold especially true if you take the “semester abroad” approach to your stay in Europe and spend most of your weekends travelling.

    Many expats arrive meaning well but out of touch with the lives of the average member of the church in their new home. I can still remember a lesson by our emergency preparedness specialist a while back on food storage. She had all kinds of handy tips about where to store a year’s supply, grow a garden, etc. but they all assumed you lived in a house. With space in European cities commanding a premium, however, most members are apartment dwellers. When she got a lot of questions about how all this was supposed to work without a garage and a backyard, she got upset that we weren’t practicing the principles.

    Another family didn’t like the standard once-a-week-on-Thursday-evening seminary at the church because it was so far for them to travel. So they created an early morning seminary of their own for the Mormon kids who lived in the neighborhood around the American international school. An invitation was extended for all to attend, but with their enclave located on the periphery of the city with no other members within miles, it solved one transportation problem by creating another.

    Anyway, I’m sure the leadership of most wards/branches would be glad to have a couple of net contributors join their ranks, but there’s no need to expect that anyone will look to you to set them straight and show them how it’s done back home.

    That said, you will probably have as many meaningful opportunities to serve as you can handle since wards tend to be smaller. But because the leadership is also spread thin, you will likely have all the breathing room you want as well.

  17. Apame, it sounds like your European adventure will be a lot of fun. But there is no such thing as a ward or church (or any other community, secular or religious) that transcends culture. In your discomfort with the Utah culture or Mormon culture or American culture that you find reflected in the US wards you are familiar with, it seems like you hold a hope of finding a culture-less ward that would provide you with an unmediated religious community, one that will allow you to avoid this cultural anxiety. I don’t think you will ever find that.

    What you will get in European wards or branches is a different culture, a cultural alloy composed of Mormon culture (it is still an LDS congregation) and the host culture (in which it is embedded and which it must engage at some level). I suspect you will find that mix more welcoming than you think. True, you will be regarded as an adult rather than a backpacking grad student or a proselyting missionary. And being an adult means being asked to carry some responsibilities that don’t get foisted on students and missionaries. But that’s not as bad as it sounds. You can’t be a grad student forever (although some try mightily).

    I say this as one who has had three post-mission expat experiences. I hope yours is as rich as mine were. Participating in the local LDS congregation is likely to be a positive part of that experience. Don’t miss out on that.

  18. It depends.

    I don’t speak Spanish, but attending a branch while living in Monterrey, Mexico was probably the best church experience I’ve ever had. It was during a time that my faith was really fragile and it gave me the opportunity to just focus on the spirit and worship through song and meditation rather than being distracted by all of the crazy things often said at church.

    My husband and I lived 20 miles outside of Prague for a few months and chose not to make the 3 hour round trip journey to church while we were there. We spent most weekends traveling and, after enduring the craziness of Prop 8 back home, it was a welcome break. By the end, I did feel the lack of some sort of Sunday worship, though.

    My best friend lives in a ward in southern England and I think the pressures to conform and live up to some imaginary gold standard is even stronger there than it is anywhere in the Jello Belt. It’s really bizarre.

    It is nice to have to opportunity to try something different, especially when your current church situation is not meeting your needs for connection with the divine. Best of luck to you.

  19. Oh my goodness, you are going to be living in France!!!! That should be the numero uno thing! What a wonderful opportunity.

    I was living in Germany when I joined the church. Later, we lived in South America, and we are planning on living in Asia.

    I do think that it is wonderful to see the church thriving and adapting in other cultures, and I did find the church to be more free of many cultural limitations.

    It isn’t clear what you are going to be doing during this time, and that is an important consideration. Many trailing spouses have issues with boredom and loneliness. Although of course it worked out well for Julia Child.

    A lot of church members find that the church provides a ready-made network of people to help them transition.

    Not sure how long your commitment there is–of course people are going to understand that you are going to be doing a lot of weekend travel at least in the begining.

    When we moved to Brasil, I didn’t speak the language well enough to do much at church, but RS was having a stake cultural night, and our ward was doing a Japanese fan dance. I could dance. That was how I could serve.

    Other people have reported that locals turned to them as experts in How Things Should Be Done. So I can kinda understand your husbands fears. We never had that, but we were never coming from Utah. Our local leaders seemed very confident and we were wiling to learn from them and serve however we could.

  20. Ah. A few hours later I’m surprised myself by how stringent my comment sounds.

    I regret that, in part because it means that the brusque approach of the OP to the people of the continent of my birth is now rendered sacrosanct, despite how inappropriate it is. All because of the way I went about pointing it out.

    Lynette, you’re right. I apologise for allowing myself to get offended. I should know better. I also apologise for complaining about it before counting to ten.

    Apame. I apologise, I communicated my hurt in an inappropriate way, and publicly too.

  21. Not knowing where you’re going I’ll assume it’ could be my ward.

    If you happen to visit we’d love to have you. There is a shortage of priesthood so we’d love your husband to participate but we’d recognise that you were away from your home and might be travelling often.

    Generally our bishopric try to get callings to those who move in within a week or so. We’ve found that engaging with the ward leads to better and longer lasting friendships and helps people feel engaged with the community rather than feeling like long term visitors.

  22. @15

    I’m really not in a position to comment on wards in the US. I’ve not spent enough time attending them. But the singles ward I attended in NYC was miles away from a family ward I attended in Duluth MN which prompted my comment about how there must surely be some variety.

    I suppose I’ve always assumed that the bubble only covers UT, northern AZ and southern ID.

    Could this be a learning experience for me too? I suppose it already is.

  23. Apame, I’ve never lived abroad, so I just wanted to comment on something else, and I hope this is not too personal.

    I totally get where you are coming from, on the whole, it’s easier to just drop off the face of the earth than deal with telling my family, friends, coworkers, everyone I know that I just simply don’t believe any more. No one wants to deal with the heart ache, the face and eyes saying, but what about our forever family? It’s hard and heartbreaking.


    At some point you need to do it for you. You need to own these feelings of doubt, or anger, or ambivalence, or whatever it is towards the wards you’ve attended and the church. It’s so good for your soul to be true to yourself.

    I agree that a ward can be a good way to give you guys some built in friends and support in a new place. Maybe you could go, but be yourselves, too. Don’t feel obligated to volunteer for everything, only go when you feel like it, try other churches and religions, too. Travel a lot on the weekends! But I would also suggest using this as a time to really ask yourself how you feel about the church (Utah culture removed), and then act on those feelings with conviction. And even being brave enough to tell your parents the truth about how you feel. An ocean between you (and more expensive long distance calls) might even make that easier.

    I know “coming out” to my mom was incredibly hard, but has changed our relationship in ways I never imagined. I feel like a grown up with her now, like an equal. She doesn’t agree with me, but knowing that I am being my true self if a beautiful thing.

    Good luck on the adventure! I hope you keep us updated!

  24. I would hope you don’t count on totally different views of people who strugle with their beliefs just because an ocean is between them. I had many doubts over the years and just really tried to be honest with everyone. The ones that gave me attitude and judgement were not the people I chose to continue trying to be close with. I ended up really understanding what it meant to not care what people thought about me. It really came down to one person telling me … We are all working out our own salvation… that really gave me the courage to do it without feeling the judgemental glances and understand that my Heavenly Father knows me and will decide my judgement. I wish the best for you and hope you find the peace you need.

  25. “it comes across as incredible arrogance.”

    It doesn’t, actually, only as the kind of truth we generally don’t acknowledge. When we moved into a German branch, my dad was called into the branch presidency before the end of Sunday School the first day. My brother, who has lived abroad more recently, has been more or less instantly called to heavy-duty leadership callings. It happens, and saying so seems less arrogant than the usual pretense that “I’m so humble, i just hope I can work in the nursery…”

    The church would work better if we could be honest about organizational dynamics as just that–the realities of any large organization.

  26. Wow! I’m kind of overwhelmed at the response here. So, a few things.

    1. We will be moving to a little city in northern Germany–there is a very, very small American (or any English-speaking) presence and no past precedent of American Mormons moving in and out a lot. We’d kind of be a new idea.

    2. It is a branch. A very small branch. I have done my homework.

    3. Yeah…Hagoth…your first comment there was really harsh. I’m sorry if I offended you. If it makes you feel better, I grew up in the military and so I’ve lived in 15 family wards and 8 singles wards throughout the entire US my whole life…and in my experience, there was a definite Utah-culturey-uniformity. With varying degrees, of course, but always there. However, I have also spent time in neighborhood wards in London and Tokyo and I noticed a very distinct non-Utahy-culture feel there. So…that’s where I was coming from… Personal experience. That’s really the only way to come at this question isn’t it…since there’s not a handy “Utah-culturey” quotient that we can numerically compare. I can really appreciate your noticing a difference between your NC family ward and your NY singles ward– I, too, noticed a difference between my Boston singles ward and my family’s rural New Mexico family branch…but there was still, what I would call, an “American ward Utah-culturey” undercurrent.

    Also, I totally realize that Europe is a wonderfully diverse place and that there are branches and wards and cities and towns and all sorts of variables that complicate things. I just figured that perhaps it would be a simpler set of questions to split things up into “North America English-Speaking Utahish Land” and…to put it more simply “Other”? I really appreciate everyone’s comments about their variety of experiences though–it’s what I expected and what I had hoped to be able to read about.

    4. Regarding my “coming out” to my family. Actually, both my parents, all of my siblings, and most of my aunts and uncles are fully aware that I have some major cuts and bruises I’m trying to figure out and work through. It’s come to weeping and hurt feelings and then hugging…but still tender, cautious feelings…etc. etc. The issue I’m mainly having to deal with now is that, even though they know these things, they have continued to very obviously pretend that I never said them (example: the weekly phone calls with perky-toned questions about Sunday School lessons). It’s their way of being hopeful…but I don’t think they realize how painful and torturous it has been for me and my husband.

    5. I am very hopeful of making really good friends in a branch–I love that networking part of my religion and I really appreciate it. And I’m incredibly excited at the idea that I could go to church where I’m at a major language disadvantage and, just like Breena’s experience in Monterey, Mexico, be able to only focus on the people rather than potentially hurtful comments/talks/etc.

    6. I will not stand for anyone accusing my husband of being arrogant. If you got that impression, it was only because I must not have given you enough information. Don’t jump to conclusions. You can ridicule me or pity me or shake your finger at me, but no one here has the right to insult my husband. I…really…honestly…nothing makes me more angry than hearing anyone belittle him (which I plan on making an entire post in and of itself). (end of emotional fiery-eyes comment)

    7. So, in that vein, I’m sorry if my characterization of him seemed arrogant. I really appreciate Kristine’s follow up about that and I can assure you that my husband is only speaking from his own expat experiences in Germany. Also, he doesn’t like the idea of Americans being “the saviors of the ward” anymore than you do. He hates it. He hates the idea that he is assumed to be “in charge” of people–especially when people assume he’s “in charge” of me and our family. His fear is just that he will feel expected to step into those “benevolent leader” shoes way earlier and at a way higher level than he has ever wanted to be–through no other merit than the fact that he will be one of 3 men in the branch, because he’s seen it happen a lot. He has an aversion to patriarchy and an intensely kind and only-wanting-to-help, can’t-say-no heart, that’s all.

  27. My name is Zillah and I too am a people-pleaser. That confessed, your post really resonated with me on a number of levels. All I can add is that, as you know and as my long-suffering therapist constantly reminds me, it’s impossible to please everyone–in the US, in Europe, online. You have to set boundaries yourself, and stick to them. That said, while geographical distance obviously doesn’t dissolve all feelings of obligation to family/friends and you’ll feel the pressure of different responsibilities in Germany, distance can really, really help you set boundaries and carve out a space where you feel like you can, in a sense, start over. It’s not a perfect solution–nothing is–but it’s also not a cowardly one. Sticking to whatever relationship to the Church, yourself, family, culture, etc. once you get back to the US is a different story, but that’s a battle to be fought when the time comes.

    I found your husband’s comment/fears to be a really striking insight into the types of constraints and pressures that men feel in the church. We talk so much about all the specific roles that women have to feel, but so little about the church’s definition of masculinity, and how it makes men feel. While I haven’t talked to your husband since high school (I just realized how long ago that was-yikes), the last motivation I would ever ascribe to him is arrogance or a feeling of superiority over anyone for any reason. I keep wondering when Church leadership will realize that all these patterns and guidelines and roles that are so rigidly set and enforced culturally and/or institutionally are (among other things) driving people away–not pagan-worshiping, man-hating, socialist caricatures–but real, intelligent, caring, devoted, thoughtful individuals whom the Church should want to keep.

  28. When we moved into a German branch, my dad was called into the branch presidency before the end of Sunday School the first day.

    Not bad. I think I went about 9 months before I got a calling of any kind.

  29. No experience in Europe to talk about here, but I’ve definitely observed the dynamic your husband dreads: when my family lived in Asia, my parents were instantly called to far more weighty positions than they ever would have gotten in the States–district Primary president in my mom’s case and Young Men’s president in my dad’s; also, during the year I spent in Asia on my own I moved from fluff callings at BYU (Relief Society greeter, anyone?) to actual work–branch pianist, youth Sunday School teacher, piano teacher, English teacher, and unofficial Relief Society translator, all at the same time. So: it is definitely possible that if you go to church you’ll be asked to shoulder a much bigger burden.

    On the other hand, I found that in my tiny branch in Indonesia shouldering a bigger burden didn’t mean acting like a golden member, or ignoring any of my doubts and questions; it just meant service, service, and more service, and as a result I was too busy loving and serving others to worry too much about doctrine. I look back at that year and wish I could find my way back to a place of such uncomplicated love and work.

    This may be different if your calling is priesthood leadership rather than Sunday School teacher, but I’m not so sure it is: I know my parents certainly didn’t bite their tongues or act out stereotypes as they served in leadership positions in India. I think you may find that a branch in which the members are stretched and overburdened by administrative concerns is exactly the branch that will give you the theological space you need.

  30. Or actually, let me share one of my father’s favorite mission stories. His mission president in South America converted to the church in his 20s because his girlfriend was a member and her branch, all women, desperately needed a male convert to bless and pass the sacrament. After much pressure from his girlfriend, he duly got baptized and was instantly made branch president. He served the branch faithfully, but meanwhile spent Sunday afternoons in his branch president’s office smoking and watching soccer. The branch needed him so badly that nobody dared complain.

    (The district president finally caught him at it and chewed him out, at which he indignantly pointed out that he had only joined the church to do these poor women a favor, and had given up tons of time and energy to help them, and how he had to give up soccer and smoking too? In the heartwarming end to the story, he eventually converted for real and, years later, became my dad’s mission president.)

    Now, I’m not saying that Germany will be like this, or even that anywhere is like that anymore. But still: sometimes the neediest branches are the best branches for the unorthodox.

  31. Many expats arrive meaning well but out of touch with the lives of the average member of the church in their new home.


    I grew up in the military and so I’ve lived in 15 family wards and 8 singles wards throughout the entire US my whole life…

    Me too. I’ll have to note that going to church “on the economy” if you know what I mean, is a lot different than going to church in the bubble of military wards and branches.

  32. “I know my parents certainly didn’t bite their tongues or act out stereotypes as they served in leadership positions in India”

    It’s kind of hilarious to try to imagine either of them biting their tongues 🙂

  33. I don’t have any overseas LDS experience, but I appreciate your struggle and your desire to be true to yourself and to hold your religion to a high standard. Your bravery will serve you well in whatever decisions you make on your journey. Godspeed.

  34. Apame,

    I really appreciate your comment. I’m sorry I reacted the way I did.

    I think the church is ultimately about people. If there are people you can relate to, individually and as a couple, in your new unit then serve them and let them serve you in the way that LDS people do and I’m sure you’ll have a ball.

    I understand that ZD is largely a family group and I think that when you feel part of a something it’s much easier to lose track of what you end up doing for each other and how much you serve one another.

    Also, Germany is full, jam-packed with historic sites, if it gets to be too much just wander off to look at the Maginot line or the Atlantic Wall, or claim to be doing that and instead hunker down with Ben and Jerry’s and a classic movie…

  35. I found that in my tiny branch in Indonesia shouldering a bigger burden didn’t mean acting like a golden member, or ignoring any of my doubts and questions; it just meant service, service, and more service, and as a result I was too busy loving and serving others to worry too much about doctrine. I look back at that year and wish I could find my way back to a place of such uncomplicated love and work.

    I had a similar experience in a very small branch in Nashville. We all held several callings each, and spent more time loving and serving than caring about wearing pants, having beards, or who shouted amen in the middle of talks. I love that branch and am sad to hear that it’s been growing since I’ve moved away.

  36. I was too busy loving and serving others to worry too much about doctrine.

    Yes!! This was our experience in Brasil as well.

  37. Petra: I totally get the whole serve serve serve thing. However, one of the things my husband and I both want to escape is the obligation aspect of church–we want the freedom to choose to come or not and having so many people dependent on us in some way would only create the same “trapped” feeling we feel now I think…

  38. Apame, I understand what you are saying, but in that little branch, that was probably the only time I didn’t feel “trapped”. It really was a love motivation, and not an obligation motivation.

    None of that to say that you’ll find this just because you’re moving to Germany!

  39. I strongly prefer church not in the Mormon corridor and I strongly prefer small wards. It just feels different to me to do something because I am needed vs. not being needed or even doing something because I am the chosen one.

  40. I agree with Dave #18. I lived for a year in Switzerland as a nanny and found the branch to be very similar to US branches. I also have a similar problem to your husband in that I play the piano. While I love sharing this talent and I love playing the piano, having them come to rely on you when you are having a crisis of faith seems to make everything much, much harder. It hurts your soul a little because you know you should be helping people.

  41. One of the reasons that I like traveling/working in China is that outside of Beijing and Shanghai and a handful of other large cities there is no church at all. Obviously, that’s not a really beneficial experience to relate to moving to Germany where the church at least exists, but at the very least I understand where you are coming from. Given that my current calling is very time-consuming + cranky kid at church + church is located 1/2 hour drive away into suburbia + all we want to do right now is finish our dissertations, I know that we would all love to escape it all as well.

    That said, after I’ve been absent from church in China for two or three months I do always find it refreshing and comforting to come back.

    [and as an aside, I’m pretty sure that you are my wife’s former college roommate….at least I think so]

  42. Kent: I’m pretty sure we know each other, too! (Which is kind of weirding me out–let’s be honest. I feel like my superhero mask has been taken away a little bit, but it’s cool because you guys are the best non-judgey people around and I really appreciate it…)

    And I can totally get how being away from church in China for a few months would actually make coming back to church feel nice. It’s sort of like my friend Kristine told me: that actually, consciously taking a short break made her have more positive feelings toward the church than negative in the end.

    I hope for the same thing.

    Also, your child is the most adorable thing ever created–occasional Sunday crankiness included.

    P.S. Since you know of my husband, though I don’t think you’ve ever met him, I’ll let you know that his dissertation writing has produced much of the same anxieties you and your (freaking awesome, best roommate ever) wife are going through.

  43. Go to church there and strive to be of service to the ward/branch and also seek out and ask for them to help serve you.

    It will be the best decision you made and you and they will be much better for it.

  44. I’m a 4-year expat in Eastern Europe about to embark on another expat–either in Europe or Asia. In our area, LDS English speakers are assigned to an international branch. My experience has been that many members treat their expat years as a spring break from church service. For example, they accept callings, but don’t bother to find substitutes for their Sunday classes when they go out of town.

    My church experience here is at its best when it stays simple–our sacrament meetings focus on the basics, our branch activities are rare, but low-pressure and enjoyable when they do happen, and people are happiest when they don’t try to replicate the US church culture. I have found that this back-to-basics experience has helped my testimony grow.

    What I’ve learned is that many of the stumbling blocks I experienced when I was younger had more to do with how the church organization was run than the gospel itself. I’ve learned that many times, the US church makes it harder than it needs to be.

    Perhaps scaling back your activity in Germany will help clarify your feelings about your membership. But maybe participating in the church in a different, less culturally intrusive setting might help you find see what is true and what are barnacles. I know my expat experience has given me a lot of clarity about my religious thoughts and feelings.

    My only advice would be not to make assumptions about your church experience before you even arrive. My suspicion is that most of the locals will see you for exactly what you are–short term visitors to their country–and will welcome what you can contribute but won’t hold it against you if you take the spring break approach.

    Good luck.

  45. We just spent our first Sunday at church south of the river in London in a small ward with few priesthood leaders. I was called to be the ward accompanist from the pulpit (we were late because it took awhile to coordinate transportation and find the meetinghouse)–the bishop said, “We don’t have anybody right now to play the piano–do you play?” During Sunday School the young, overworked bishop met with us and called us to be the gospel doctrine teachers, and my husband to be the defacto Sunday School president. It will be OK. We planned to be active, and it isn’t that much more work to do those jobs–we both prefer to teach by discussion.

    I can tell already I’ll love the ward, which is native Londoner (both black and white), West Indian, African of different varieties, and people from random other areas of the UK. The adult population is overwhelmingly female, and there is a small youth and primary. Relief Society discussion was lively, with everyone misunderstanding each other’s accents. There are characters, needy people, stalwarts, singles, families, and the good will is palpable. I don’t think we’re supposed to be saviours from Utah, which we have no intention of being anyway–they just need people to teach who will be there weekly and have some familiarity with the scriptures. We will probably not get a lot of chance to talk during the class, as everybody has their own opinions and experiences to describe. I think it will be fun.

    I do feel myself letting all my nuances and reservations about my position vis-a-vis the church fly out the window, at least while I’m at Sunday meetings. I’ll be “active”. For me, it will be worth it.

  46. Apame,

    I have decided that you and your husband need to move to Colorado and hang out with me and my husband. We couldn’t be more in sync in this subject. And oddly, I find myself incredibly protective of my husband as well when it comes to criticisms. He has spent much of his LDS life misunderstood and I can’t stand the “pre-judgements” he gets from other members simply for being a rather cynical person with a heart the size of the universe.

  47. I don’t know if anyone, or the OP in particular, will see this, since this is an older post, but I wanted to comment anyway. I relate SO much to the sentiments here. My sister and I were always pleasers, too, and though I have always had a testimony, I have also always had some issues with certain things in the church (views on women, emphasis on motherhood, feeling like a second class citizen as a single, the church starting to micromanage more, etc.).

    I have been doing exactly what you described–I find myself coming only to Sacrament meeting, but sitting outside and listening while I play on my iPad, finding one reason or another to accidently sleep in, or get ready a little too late or something similiar. I just feel overwhelmed, and have needed to take a step back.

    I have also felt a lot lately that I resent having to change my natural inclinations in reaction to others, to filter it through the Mormon Filter–how am I “supposed to” think about this subject? If I have my own opinions that are not what the Church espouses (Prop 8, anyone?) do I have to feel guilty? So many situations arise in which I just get tired of being The Mormon Girl, rather than Zara, the person, who has a brain and a conscience.

    I’m getting closer to a milestone birthday, and I realized the other day that I need a rumspringa. And I actually used that word in my head. I need to know who I am. I need to know how much of this is belief, how much is conditioning, and how much I can live with.

    I think to myself that if I have to be Molly Mormon or accept polygamy or never enjoy a crude joke to be in the Celestial Kingdom, then I might not be a good fit. Sometimes I feel like I’m more Generic Mormon than I am me, and I hate that feeling. I hate that I feel like I can never mess up in the slightest because “people are watching.” And I hate that I feel like the Church has taught me to fear things and repress things unnecessarily–I feel like it’s stunted my emotional growth a bit, and old habits are hard to break.

    Anyway, I just wanted to tell you, Apame, that I can relate to the feelings you’ve expressed.


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