Zelophehad’s Daughters

A Hospital for Sinners

Posted by Lynnette

One of my all-time favorite movies is Ordinary People. In it, there’s a scene in which Conrad, a teenager who was hospitalized for several months after attempting suicide and is now trying to re-adjust to life, gets together with one of his friends from the hospital. He asks her, do you ever miss it? When she asks why, he responds, because no one ever hid anything there. It’s a line that’s very much resonated with me over the years.

I frequently hear the saying that churches are not supposed to be museums for saints, but rather hospitals for sinners—though in practice, they all too often fall short of this ideal. This is an especially challenging ideal, I suspect, for religious traditions which emphasize the connection between happiness/prosperity and righteousness. To admit to difficulties in such a context  is to potentially open yourself up to a judgmental examination of what you are doing wrong. And Mormonism fits all too well into this paradigm. We are good at many things, especially when it comes to temporal welfare, but I think we struggle when it comes to creating safe spaces where people talk honestly about their lives. And while I doubt that anyone would accuse us of building churches that look like museums, we do in fact call ourselves saints—and we do at times go to church and act like we are on display.

I’ve been in a lot of support groups over the years, related to various issues. Some were helpful, and some were not. The helpful ones, unsurprisingly, managed to create an environment where people felt safe to be vulnerable, to be honest. There’s something liberating, I’ve found, about  being in a place based on the explicit premise that something in your life is going wrong, that you need help. It also allows for a suspension of some social taboos, in terms of it being okay to ask people direct questions about what’s really going on in their lives. And at their best, such groups are a place where people will actually listen to what you say, without leaping to judgment or advice. There’s a lot of power in those kinds of communities. I’ve never done 12-step groups, but it doesn’t surprise me when people tell me that they’ve felt a spiritual strength there that can be hard to find in more traditional religious settings.

I hear this concern, that people feel like they have to be fake at church, quite often—it’s something I’ve raised myself more than once. And I wonder what we could do differently. In noting the dynamics of church discussion, I think one unfortunately reality is that it often only takes one person to shut down any genuine conversation—one person to whip out GA quotes or scriptures like a weapon, and thereby guarantee that no one else will admit to having any problems at all. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that just one person taking a risk and being honest can also make a real difference in the environment.

I’m not saying that the church should go overboard in buying into the therapeutic culture of America, and I’m certainly not advocating that it be a giant group therapy session. But I do wonder how it would feel to see church as a hospital for sinners, a place where you might show up battered and bruised, and that would be okay—even expected, because that’s part of the human condition. While I appreciate the optimistic view of human nature and potential found in LDS teachings, I think we we need to hold this in tension with the realities of living in a fallen world, one which affects us both internally and externally.

We usually equate going to church with righteousness. But what if we also saw it as a sign of spiritual sickness—or, perhaps more accurately, a recognition of spiritual sickness, a recognition of the reality that in the end, we can’t heal ourselves? What if that model, as opposed to, “here I am at church so I’d better do my best to appear virtuous,” were the premise of our religious community?

38 Responses to “A Hospital for Sinners”

  1. 1.

    Since I have intentionally made every effort to not portray myself as perfect at church for the past 16 years, I have a hard time remembering church where people do. There must have been some sort of feeling I had that there was a perfection image that I refused to be a party to creating in any ward I lived in.
    My parents raised me well and taught me that no one was perfect and no family was perfect. That it didn’t do anyone any favors to act like it and it didn’t do anyone any favors to assume it about anyone else.
    I think it is very possible to have a ward where people aren’t going around trying to appear virtuous. Smaller wards help. Then you get to know more real people, rather than just the outside reputation of people. Wards with a balance of different circumstances, not a split us vs. them, or a completely homogenous.

  2. 2.

    jks, your comment actually illustrates one of the dynamics that concerns me. I’m talking about one aspect of church that I personally find challenging, and haven’t totally figured out how to address. And to get a response from someone that they’ve never had that issue because they always make sure to do things the right way . . . well, it doesn’t exactly encourage anyone else to join the conversation and talk honestly about their own difficulties.

    That said, I do agree with your point that smaller wards can really help. The time when I felt most a part of the community, and felt the least pressure to hide certain aspects of myself, was actually when I was in a branch.

  3. 3.

    Oh, wow. Lynette, I would give just about anything to have a church experience like this… I can think of very few things I want more. What a beautiful post.

    I’m probably not old enough for this to mean anything, but I’ve never been in a ward where I felt like I could be honest about who I was. (jks, where do you live?) I’ve lived only in Texas and Utah my whole life, and while the BYU student wards are probably worse than anywhere else in the world for just being yourself, my Texas wards haven’t been that great either. And I wasn’t even remotely “rebellious” as a teenager, which is when I lived in them.

    This is honestly the feeling I get a lot from the church lately–more expectation than understanding, more judgment than compassion, more homogeneity than diversity. And that’s not what I associate with a church that’s centered on Christ.

    Sometimes it feels like we care more about the cultural behaviors we’ve built up than about our own doctrine, the words of our own Savior and how he told us to live. We get so caught up in ceremony, in all the teeny little details, that we forget the principles that really should define us–compassion, love, caring for each other… not judging others.

    (This is a really pessimistic comment, I know, and I apologize–I promise there are days when I feel less gloomy about the whole thing. But if I’m being honest, they are a lot fewer than they used to be.)

  4. 4.

    I grew up all sorts of places (England, Maryland, South America) and my family was kind of “perfect” until my older sister went a little rebellious. My mom said she had many people come and share their troubles (as I said, we hadn’t lived there long enough to know people’s history–this was during our short stint in Utah) so I learned that there was no such thing as a perfect Mormon family. Also, I read Goodbye I Love You as a teen and Carol Lynn Pearson said they seemed like the perfect Mormon family but that all fell apart.
    So, after being married a couple of years I felt confident enough to decide that I refuse to perpetuate the perfection thing. I happen to think I am awesome and my family is awesome, but we aren’t perfect.
    When I’d been married 3 or 4 years I was on a RS Q&A panel as the old married woman. They had one woman who’d been married a few months and one who’d been married a year or two. Questions were asked and we each answered them. So I got practice in giving answers that were practical and honest, rather than “We go to the temple every week, except not not after I got pregnant” (This from the girl who was 3 months pregnant and had been married 4 months.)
    So I am sorry to ruin the discussion you were trying to have Lynnette. The difficulties I have in my ward are rarely the difficulties people on the bloggernacle have about their wards. But I still need to discuss them and discuss my situation.
    Honestly, for a lot of reasons I encouraged my husband to look for a job outside of Utah. I am more comfortable in wards that are more like where I grew up. I realize that if I lived there, I might run into problems similar to this that I would need to deal with.
    But, I don’t. So my experience is that I never say anything positive about my husband if I can help it. I try to only say something good about my teenager if I am talking to people whose kids are younger.
    I am 40 now. I’ve worked hard to be who I am. I have worked at being less self-conscious. I am also a very open person.
    I also this week took my son’s class half a donut each for his birthday. When my new Korean (recently from Korea) friend’s son wanted donuts for his birthday too from the same bakery, I felt horrible like I had set some sort of impossible high standard. I carefully explained where she could find a closer bakery, and how I had done half donuts since the school discourages large desserts, plus the cost. Afterwards I agonized over whether I should tell her where to buy cookies that were cheaper. My son told me that the kid brought in whole donuts for his class. Obviously, I have an issue about not making someone have to keep up with my family, so I don’t want my family’s standard to be too high.
    Again, I’m sorry. Typing all of this just highlights for me that I need a place to talk about my issues, But there isn’t one. So I get on here and keep saying its not like that here whenever someone complains about the weakness they see in their neck of the woods.

  5. 5.

    Lynette, I love your premise.

    Sometimes I get glimpses of the woundedness of people in my congregation, one of the most recent examples being in a testimony meeting. Several people had lost loved ones in the past week, and they needed to grieve, which they did in a small way over the pulpit. It was so wonderful to have grief publicly acknowledged, since I have been intensely grieving the deaths of my grandparents in the past year.

    I appreciated seeing tears trail down someone else’s cheek because I recognized that emotional response. I often find myself crying at church for various reasons, mostly over a sense of being wounded in some way myself. Testimony meeting can be a powerful place for attempts at honesty, although sometimes it can be awkward, and I don’t think it’s the best place to truly address woundedness; it’s not intimate enough. But I am glad it’s there if it can serve a bit of that function.

    We are generally more tolerant of grief over death. Grief over a loss of faith or a transformation of faith is barely acknowledged at all, and that grief is real. We could definitely learn to treat people whose faith may be transforming much more kindly and not try to shut it down or automatically salve the wound with doctrinal knowledge or experience.

    I have had people reach out to me with compassionate conversations that seem especially meant for me and meant to help heal my wounds, and it has sometimes happened when I have skipped a meeting or class. It seems God looks out for his children in the halls, too.

  6. 6.

    Part of the problem as I see it – and no, I don’t have an answer for it – is the temple recommend interview. Growing up that was The Big Deal – sitting down with the bishop and basically proving that you were perfect and had it all together.

    I think since other churches don’t have this big measuring bar hanging over their heads it’s perhaps easier to be honest about who you are. But since our church leaders have made it clear they want every member to be active and temple worthy, anyone who is not, or who even seems to be not temple worthy is in a sub-class of sinners. The intensive care unit, as it were of this hospital for sinners.

    I just feel so much like the Church pushes an all or nothing standpoint – either you believe and you do everything right 100% or you’re not a good member. I am trying to work through some of these issues but am by no means there yet.

  7. 7.

    Lynnette, this is something I’ve thought about too. One thing that holds us back in church, I think, is just the amount of time we spend and the sorts of relationships we have with our ward members. In a therapy group, you generally are seeing people that you don’t see anywhere else–it’s a lot harder to be really raw with someone you might run into at the grocery store a week later. It helps to know that you can retreat from that place of vulnerability in a way that I don’t think you can in an LDS congregation. I don’t think this is a reason not to try for more intimate and honest conversations, but it may help explain why not as many of them happen as we might wish.

    I wrote about this once: http://bycommonconsent.com/2007/07/08/three-kinds-of-wards/

  8. 8.

    jks, I don’t think you ruined the conversation, and I’m sorry if my response to you came across that way. And I actually appreciate hearing a little more of what is hard for you at church. Looking at the kind of dynamics you’re describing—it sounds like there’s a lot of stress in your particular context about competition, and people feeling pressured to live up to other people’s standards, and how people might judge each other and/or get offended–I don’t think those questions aren’t all that different from what I’m talking about here in terms of how we can be a more authentic community.

  9. 9.

    Lynette, I have little experience of the type of support groups you mention but I wonder whether they can become slightly homogenous because of their focus upon a single issue. It can be easier to have empathy for those who struggle with challenges similar to your own. As such perhaps one the difficult but ultimately good features of a congregation is the diversity of our challenges. To borrow Kristine’s metaphor from her post, the maternity ward is mixed in with the cancer ward and the CHD ward etc. My own experience of trying to seek out that ward-as-hospital type experience is to use specific settings to practice a form of confession.

    Kristine, I enjoyed very much the post that you shared.

  10. 10.

    Kristine, I kind of agree, and I kind of don’t. I can see what you’re saying about needing a place to retreat. For many Mormons, the ward is your primary social network, and especially when that’s the case, I can see reasons for wariness. I’d also agree that one reason why therapy groups can be so powerful is that you don’t know the people in other contexts; that can definitely make a difference in terms of how easy it is to open up about stuff.

    On the other hand, in one of my degree programs, I was in a grad student support group. It wasn’t a huge school, and you were in fact prone to run into those people in other settings. This was especially true for me in that there was another theology student in the group, whom I also saw in class and at department events and so forth. And in that instance, I actually found it easier to interact with him in other contexts because of the group. It could have gone the other way and been awkward, and I can see that as a genuine potential problem, but I don’t think it always plays out that way.

    Still thinking this through—as I said, I actually wouldn’t want church to be too much like a therapy group. (Probably all of us have encountered ward members who are a little bit TMI and gone overboard on the sharing of personal life details.) But church as a place where you at least don’t feel overly pressured to act fake; I suspect that for many people, even that would be really something.

  11. 11.

    On the other hand, I’ve noticed that just one person taking a risk and being honest can also make a real difference in the environment.

    Very true.

    I think the breakthrough for me was the point at which I realized that I was a person who, though I was aware of my sins, really sort of hoped that God didn’t notice them; that for some reason he’d ignore them; that if I just was generally nice and competent I’d somehow be fine. It was only after I began to be totally honest with God about the things I was doing that were self-indulgent or unloving and about my frustrations and to seek God’s help with that that I began to be able to be honest about them with others. (Interesting that this is also an essential element in 12 step programs.) That, ultimately, in turn empowered me to be open and honest with my fellow church members about not only my foibles and sins, but also my struggles and points of confusion, and to do so without fearing judgment from others when it raised its ugly head.

    I certainly don’t go about broadcasting them willy-nilly, but when topics come up I am able to speak the truth about myself and if there is someone who is didactically judgmental it doesn’t faze me or unnerve me as it did before. And I think that it’s because I’ve already been honest with myself and God and I know we’re working on it. And, interestingly, because this process has taught me unequivocally, that what matters most to him is not my performance, but how much I love.

    I’m grateful for church women older than me who went through this process and modeled this for me before I was able to do it myself.

  12. 12.

    Aaron, that’s a good point–church isn’t focused on one particular issue the way that most support groups are. And that does pose challenges in both directions, I think–it makes it harder to explain your challenges when you know there are people there who will be utterly mystified by them–and it’s harder to be empathetic. Though as you say, that’s probably ultimately a good thing, because it’s very easy (at least for me) to just spend time with people who have similar problems, and you lose something if that’s all you hear.

    I’m wondering if I’m maybe going overboard a bit on the secular comparisons–I don’t want to lose track of the fact that church is (presumably ;) ) about our religious practices and our relationship to God. Of course, those are intertwined with other issues in our life, and our challenges play out in very different ways. But that would perhaps be a common starting point? It just occurred to me, actually, that this post arose not just from my observation that I appreciate the authenticity of certain secular contexts and miss that at church–but that I also get frustrated at times with those contexts, too, even when they’re very supportive, because organized religion is such an alien thing to many people that I still have to compartmentalize things–just in a different direction than I do at church. It would be amazing to have a setting which included the kind of genuine discussion of religious issues that you can find in good support groups for mental health issues. Though even as I write this, I’m worrying about the way I’m conflating religious issues and mental health ones, and possibly overly psychologizing religion. Hmm.

    Well, I’ve clearly hit the realm of just free associating. But I liked your thoughts on confession as a spiritual practice.

  13. 13.

    Lynette said: “I think we struggle when it comes to creating safe spaces where people talk honestly about their lives.”

    Yes, that is a problem. On the one hand, Mormons affirm honesty as a virtue. On the other hand, there is also strong cultural pressure within Mormonism to say nice things about the Church, nice things about LDS interpretations of scripture, nice things about LDS leaders, nice things about the ward, and so forth. If the choice is between saying nice things and being honest, nice things generally win out. Credibility suffers when simple honesty is so easily trumped by kindness or even by mere convenience.

    Which is not to say that being 100% honest 100% of the time is the solution to the problem. If honesty is a virtue, it is not the only virtue, and we all know people who use honesty as an excuse for criticizing, offending, or demeaning the people around them.

  14. 14.

    There is a woman in my Sunday School class who is a real treasure to me for those times when everybody else is giving the standard Sunday School answers. I don’t care what the topic is, she has a kind of contrarian view of it and refuses to take the expected position. I think that has probably caused her trouble in some classes, and probably derailed the perfect little discussions some teachers had planned, but I really appreciate having her in the class. When the discussion is becoming too hopelessly surreal (you know, everything in every Mormon’s life is perfect, and the sinners the lesson talks about must be those drug dealers and homosexuals and Democrats out in the big world, not us here in our little Zion), I can call on J. and she is certain to express the opinion that sometimes divorce is for the best, or that forgiveness can’t always be instantaneous and doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t be cautious about somebody’s past crimes, or that no, we (the Church) don’t have all the answers to all the questions yet. After I call on her, the discussion gets real again and we can talk about the difficulties *we* have instead of pretending that we’re all good all the time and that the world is all bad all the time. Every ward needs a J., and needs teachers and class members not afraid to listen to them.

  15. 15.

    Maurine,

    I realized that I was a person who, though I was aware of my sins, really sort of hoped that God didn’t notice them; that for some reason he’d ignore them; that if I just was generally nice and competent I’d somehow be fine.

    I relate more than I want to admit. Though I think my style is more a kind of hope that God notices them, but he’s very busy and forgets them after a few days. In any case, I like that connection you’re making between being honest with God, and honest with each other.

    Liz,

    We are generally more tolerant of grief over death. Grief over a loss of faith or a transformation of faith is barely acknowledged at all, and that grief is real.

    I’ve thought that about that, too, and I very much agree. In one of her books, though unfortunately I don’t have the reference handy, Chieko Okazaki critiqued the split between acceptable vs. unacceptable problems, the former being the ones that you can mention in church–and loss of faith, unfortunately, seems to generally fall into the latter. But notably, the Book of Mormon injunction to mourn with those that mourn doesn’t come with any caveats about how it doesn’t apply to certain situations.

    And I like that image of God also looking out for his children in the halls. Especially since if I’ve by some miracle actually made it to church, that’s usually where I am.

    Miri, I hear you. And I’m sorry that you have yet to find a ward where felt like you could be yourself. I think that feeling that way at least once in a while can make a huge difference in terms of whether you feel like there’s room for you in the church. For all the sturm-und-drang over general church policies and doctrines–and I’m definitely one who raises those issues–I think it’s worth remembering that in the end, so much of our experience of the church is mediated through local settings. There are things that make me crazy regardless, but it’s easier to live with the craziness, I think, if I feel some connection to the local community. So it makes perfect sense that you’d be frustrated not to have encountered that. (And no apologies necessary for being gloomy–we’re not so much into turning frowns upside down around here. We’d much rather just provoke confusion. ;) )

  16. 16.

    I wanted to respond to a few more things, but I have to leave now and go to my therapy group. :P

  17. 17.

    Actually I meant that I don’t feel the pressure to live up to some sort of perfection standard and I go around trying to make sure nobody else does either.
    Luckily, where I live it is pretty easy.
    My “troubles” in my ward seem to be rare in the bloggernacle complaints. If I were to write a list it would look like this:
    1. My ward doesn’t have many families with school age kids. (Advantages: No mommy wars. No perfect large families to compare ourselves to).
    2. My ward only has two young women. (Advantages: no one to be mean to my daughter). DIsadvantages my kids can’t make Mormon friends. Classes or activities can struggle. I have to make sure older boys don’t pay too much attention to my daughter.
    3. My ward doesn’t have many women near my age or close to my circumstance even though I am supposedly living the exact picture perfect mormon life. (Advantage: no feeling of competition) Disadvantages: its lonelier. Everyone I know just keeps moving away. It feels like I’m on the Titanic and it sinking so you can’t really blame them for jumping ship but it means I’m left behind. Hard to just keep saying goodbye, and the replacements are younger and younger. So I have lots of young friends, but I know they will probably all move on too.
    4. My ward has people with lots of challenges. (Advantage: no one brags at church. Comments are real.) Disadvantages, my children see examples of kids who don’t graduate from high school, it is a little sad to be in a ward where a majority of the youth were sexually molested, you have to wonder how much your ward cares about your teenagers because they are in too much pain about how their own kids didn’t turn out well and so why should the church help my kids more than theirs so as you look for ways for your children to make ties in the ward you don’t know how to make connections with the older crowd.
    Anyway, that is where I am coming from. So from my perspective I can’t help but say that I never go to church to brag about being virtuous. I go and I look around and try to talk to people who need someone to reach out to them. When I make a comment in class, I think about my sister who left the church years ago, and make a comment that I would feel comfortable making to her and including her.
    I guess I actually REALLY agree with your post, and I should have said I agree with you and I do my best to make church the place I think it should be. Where anyone who is trying to be a good person from my sister or is trying to follow God would feel comfortable from my sister to Pres. Monson.

  18. 18.

    I’m pleased to report that our high councilor mentioned his divorce, remarriage, and infertility in his talk on Sunday (AND quoted from a non-KJV Bible!) Like most of the other high councilors, he’s in his 30s. It may be a generational thing.

  19. 19.

    jks, I appreciate the sentiment, but I guess I remain suspicious that the best way to foster a climate in which people are comfortable expressing vulnerability is to “go around trying to make sure nobody” feels pressure to be perfect. That’s a very laudable goal. At the same time, I don’t know that you can force trust. I don’t know that you can “make sure” people are open, though we can do what we can to validate their concerns when they express them.

    Another difficult angle on this is that we’re not always the best barometers for how open our communities are. If people don’t feel comfortable sharing their concerns, it’s likely that they also don’t feel comfortable sharing that they don’t feel comfortable sharing their concerns.

  20. 20.

    Lynette, I certainly agree that it creates challenges for both types of group. Although I do think the diversity is good I believe there is a real place for those support groups which focus upon particular issues. In fact I suspect that the Addiction Recovery seminars are an attempt to create those types of spaces, even if I think it is misguided in its current iteration.

    I’m not sure you are psychologizing religion, but rather I think you are capturing something quite important to those with an urge to practice their religion in a reflexive and dialogic fashion. ‘Discussion groups’, for want of a better term, could potentially serve those types of function but they would also need to be sanctioned (in Mormonism at least) and organic; in that they transcend formal ward boundaries and are sustained by like minded co-religionists.

  21. 21.

    I was in a YSA branch that was formed right as I graduated from high school – and it was pretty extraordinary. It was formed in an area of the country where there were a lot of people on the records but not in the pews, and from the week it was formed to sixth months later it went from about 40 congregants to well over 300. A lot of people were coming back into full activity after some time away from the church, and, because it was a single’s ward, a lot wanted to change their lives to go on missions or get married in the temple. So, for example, there were people who were recovering from smoking (and occasionally smelled like it), single (never-been-married) moms and dads, a lot of new converts who were learning the ropes, and a general attitude of optimism and camaraderie that I have never experienced in a ward before or since. Maybe it was because so many people were coming back to church after a while away, but there was an attitude of “no judgment, we’re all in this together.” We dealt with some very serious life issues – I was called to be in the RS Presidency, and several women confided to me that they had been date raped, so we had a special series of talks on that, emphasizing that it wasn’t their fault and providing info on how women can protect themselves and how to get help from local professionals. As a member of the presidency I also learned that a member had been a victim of incest from her father. We did what we could to help that woman and her younger sisters find a way out of that situation.

    I give those last examples to emphasize that it wasn’t all just fun activities and typical YSA fare – we were dealing with serious real life problems as a branch. Still, church wasn’t like a group therapy session – people rarely talked openly about their private pain – but there was authentic love and support, and if someone had problems, there was an attitude of “how can I help?” People also spoke authentically to each other. It wasn’t a fashion show. It really was the best ward experience I’ve ever had, and one of the only times I’ve felt like I understood what was meant by a Zion community. I was young enough though – only 18 and 19 while I was there – that it took me a while to learn how unusual it was.

  22. 22.

    In our stake, at least, I have the sense that the addiction recovery groups are functioning across a very, very broad notion of “addiction”–that they are becoming just general support/confessional groups. I’m not sure whether to think that’s a good or a bad thing.

  23. 23.

    I was forced into giving up the act very early in my first marriage. I have learned that if you don’t care if you fit in, you can be honest! If you care about fitting in, honesty isn’t really possible, which means you and all of your “friends” are really usually acting and hiding from each other, in other words not real friends! I have a few friends from left those years, those who could accept that truth hurt less than fiction. They are the friends that really count.

  24. 24.

    KaralynZ, nice connection back to the orthopraxy question on my last post. I agree that it’s something that makes my model a bit more complicated, because the fact that we actually have a kind of worthiness test can put real pressure to keep up appearances. (On a tangent from that, I’m thinking of BYU, where I think the system is hugely problematic, in that too much honesty can lead not only to ecclesiastical discipline, but kicked you kicked out of school.) If you have sympathetic local leaders, it’s much easier to be honest about what you think and where you’re coming from than if you have ones who are working with, as you say, the all-or-nothing model.

    Something else I’ve been thinking about as I’ve read these comments is that while wards do vary, sometimes drastically, there can also be huge variation within the ward in terms of how people experience it. One person’s dream ward is another’s test of endurance. I can see this dynamic very clearly in my current ward, for example—there are people who just love it, really see it as The One True Ward. And for those who don’t have that experience or feel like they’re on the margins, it can be painful to hear the enthusiasm from the first group. It might be unusually amped up here, but I doubt this phenomenon is unique, and it’s probably worth keeping in mind when making generalizations about one’s ward.

    Kristine and Aaron, I’ve wondered about the church version of the 12-step program. I like the idea in a lot of ways, but I also find myself a little wary of it—at least partly because I’ve heard that when it’s run by more rigid Mormons, it can be a disaster. But there’s a broader question here that I’m noticing myself dancing around, which is the relationship between therapy and religion. How do you practice religion in a culture that’s dominated by therapeutic language (a language which has also infiltrated religious discourse), and psychologists have become the priests who hear confessions? Denominations with professional clergy generally have those clergy trained at least somewhat in counseling, which I think is a good thing (we can really throw our bishops to the wolves when we require them to magically become counselors even if they have no background or training). But I’ve read articles in pastoral psychology really grappling with the question of what religion can offer that psychology can’t. And if religion becomes too much like therapy, the answer probably is, nothing.

    At the same time, I’m not at all anti-therapy, which is something that has made a positive impact in my life. I think churches which tend toward more strict dogmatism could probably use a dose of it. But I would still like to see a difference between church and a therapy group, even if I think the former could copy some of the strengths of the latter.

  25. 25.

    Ardis, that’s great that you have such a person in your ward; I agree that even one person like that can make a real difference.

    anonforthisone, thanks for sharing your experience. I especially like your observation about people not necessarily sharing all the painful things they were dealing with, but there being a sense of authenticity and acceptance and support.

    I’ve thought a lot too about the questions Dave poses about honesty. As you note, people can easily use it as an excuse for cruelty (what’s your problem? I’m just being honest)–but the lack of it creates its own problems. I’m a well-trained Mormon woman, and it’s hard for me not to be nice. I like the ideal of speaking the truth in love, but it’s not the easiest thing to pull off.

    honey, I think the thing is that I do want to fit in, in terms of wanting to feel connected to the community–and I don’t necessarily see that as a problem to be overcome. Though I also agree that genuine friendships require honesty to stay alive, and it gets ridiculous to stay in friendships when everyone is just playing games. It’s a hard balance. I actually think I have some issues with over-sharing at times–at least, to the extent that I wake up the next day and think wow, I really said that at church? But I also don’t want church to be a place where I am always worried about censoring myself.

  26. 26.

    Lynette, I just wanted to offer some thoughts in response to the tension you observed between psychology and pastoral care. It occurs to me that religions must draw from psychological thinking and techniques but only as means of avoid harm. My concern with lay leaders is not whether they are able to resolve deep personal issue but that they are sensitive enough to avoid making them worse whilst simultaneously recognising their personal limits and the limits of religious solutions (such as prayer and fasting) in solving such issues. I think that the primary responsibility of pastoral care is to assist the member seeking help frame their experience in the broader narrative of faith and discipleship. This is not to say the Bishop provides that narrative but that they become a place where that narrative is discussed and formed.

    Kristine, my primary concern with the Addiction Recovery classes is that mix age groups and addictions. It seems so counter-productive to what a support group can offer.

  27. 27.

    Lynette; ah yes, thank you for bringing up the BYU issue. The 11th commandment is the most important there – (“Thou shalt not get caught.”) I was lucky enough to have 3 roommates my freshman year whom I adored and with whom I’ve still kept in touch. We are all struggling with or have left the church and the BYU orthopraxy-oriented culture did not help any of us in our confusion.

  28. 28.

    I am convinced that many people who are completely artificial at church are also completely unaware of it. There is a certain kind of compartmentalism that just comes naturally and hides incongruities from reaching our consciousness. So I suspect if I raised this as a problem many of the people in my ward would not agree that it is a problem.

    But for my part, I would love to strip off the veneer of false piety the covers so much of the discourse at church.

  29. 29.

    When I was a newlywed in California in a “newlyweds and nearly deads” ward, we rotated hosting activites with the other young couples. Both my husband and I were in impossibly intense courses – 8 hours if classes plus 6 hours of homework each night. We were lucky if we did our dishes once a week. When company came over, I’d hide the dirty dishes in the oven. Sometimes, it got so bad that they wouldn’t all fit in the oven – so I stuck them in the bathtub (under a white sheet, so no one would see them through our sheer bath curtain). Seriously.
    When it was our turn to host everyone for a conference session, One if the other wives cane over early. And she started crying in my kitchen. “How do you never have ANY dirty dishes????” she cried. “I have so many they won’t fit on the counters, and I have to hide them in the oven. But you never even have a used fork. I can’t do this. I suck a homemaking. I’m just can’t do it anymore. How do you do it?”
    Without a word, I opened my oven door, and we cried. And then I took her into the bathroom, and we cried some more. And when the other couples cane over, we all cried. Because we ALL had dirty dishes in our ovens. We were all serving appetizers and punch with three-day-old spaghetti molding under the broiler. We all agreed that what we were doing was batshit crazy – and that from then on, we’d skip making appetizers and spend 30 minutes helping each other do dishes before activities. And we did.
    Robert Heinlein said that “Man is not a rational creature. He is a rationalizing creature.” We’d all rationalized, sonehow, that people wouldnt enjoy themselves and we wouldnt have good friendships if the others saw our dirty dishes. It’s not that we were trying to show up each other with our mad housekeeping skills. Mostly, we all just wanted people to be comfortable, to enjoy themselves . We wanted to be polite. Until the Great Day of Open Ovens (yeah. We made it a holiday. Of awesomeness), every one of thought that hiding our dirty dishes was the right thing to do, and that letting others know they even existed was somehow inconsiderate. Like Jacob J pointed out, we compartmentalized, and we did it well.
    I’m sort of rambling now… I think I run into less false piety at church, and more misguided politeness – some combination of self-sacrifice that convinces people that sharing their personal struggles and pain would ruin the church experience for others – as if sharing would interfere with the Spirit, be self-indulgent, or class-jacking. I wish it weren’t so, but I think it ties to a larger issue – acknowledging as a culture that our pain has value and worth. Our rhetoric focuses so much on the virtues of overcoming trials, having faith, and happy endings – but not on learning, struggling, hurting, and making messes.

  30. 30.

    Ugh – typo bonanza. Apologies. My stubby fingers and iPhone keypad aren’t getting along right now.

  31. 31.

    Megdellin, I love that story. Thank you for sharing.

  32. 32.

    Amen, Petra! Great illustration, Megdellin! I particularly love that you all got past the keeping up appearances.

  33. 33.

    I really like Aaron R’s point in #26 about not making it worse, and recognizing that prayer and fasting can’t fix everything. I have seen personally how bishops and stake presidents can make psychological and emotional problems much worse, and a huge part of the problem is that they aren’t trained in recognizing those problems.

    One example: while I was at BYU I was dealing with severe depression and anxiety, but I didn’t know yet what it was. I kept going to my bishop trying to find out why I felt so horrible about myself, why it was such an unbelievable struggle for me to do things like go to class. I kept writing in my journal about how mediocre I was, and how if the Second Coming were to happen tomorrow I’d be lucky to “make terrestrial.” (My evidence for this was that I often prayed in bed because I was too lazy to get out and kneel down, that I didn’t go to the temple often enough and when I did I spent half the time thinking about a guy I was going to see afterward, and that I tried and tried but could never be diligent enough in my scripture study.) I honestly believed that these things were a sign of how unworthy I was, and when I went to my bishop, he told me that I needed to do one act of service and read my scriptures every day. (Kind of weird that his solution to not remembering to read my scriptures every day was to read my scriptures…)

    Don’t get me wrong, this was a bishop I absolutely adored–he was an amazing man and is still one of my favorite people in the world. But in the three years I was in his ward, I was in his office sometimes every single week, and usually at least once a month–and neither he nor I managed to notice that I was suffering from major depression.

  34. 34.

    Oh, the dishes in the oven! I’ve done that. Also turned the oven on on Saturday morning after a party once, forgetting that it was full of dishes. I couldn’t figure out what the smell was until I also started hearing the sound of dishes breaking from the heat…

    And, if that were the worst of it, it wouldn’t be so bad. Once I hosted a baby shower for a friend while I was having a miscarriage–it somehow seemed easier to just soldier on, disappear into the bathroom for a few minutes at a time when the cramps and bleeding got really bad, than to just tell someone what was going on and ask for help. #Mormonsarebatshitcrazysometimes

  35. 35.

    Megdellin, thank you for sharing the story. Recognizing that we struggle in similar ways sometimes is a healthy thing, I think.

  36. 36.

    Anonfornow – I think you just illustrated the issue much better than I did. Thank you for sharing. We are batshit crazy sometimes. That “easier” is such a slippery word: easier emotionally? easier logistically? just…. easier?

    Such guano.

    Miri – I had a similar experience in college, where my bishop was an institute teacher. Finally, I moved to a new ward, where the bishop was the director of the local health department, and he had me seeing a therapist within a week. It’s almost like Specialist’s Syndrome in the medical field: send someone with acute stomach pain to a GI, and they’ll look for ulcers. Send them to an allergist, and they’ll look for allergies. Send them to an oncologist, and they’ll look for cancer. Send them to a psychologist, and they’ll look for unresolved anxiety issues.

  37. 37.

    Send them to a bishop, and they’ll look for unworthiness…

  38. 38.

    There are certain accepted imperfections in my ward; say, your house is messy or you forget your scriptures in church. Others, like having a mental illness or cussing once in awhile, not so much. I’m not a very good faker, so there are people who probably are scared to death of me. It’s funny—AND insulting! And sometimes hurtful. But, sometimes, I validate someone else and help them relax. So it’s worth it to be who I am.

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