Making Space for Myself as an Uncorrelated Mormon–Part 1: Going with Nixon to China

(My introductory post on making space can be found here.)

In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China, thereby reopening official diplomatic ties that had been ruptured by the Communist revolution of 1949. During the ensuing quarter century, the Cold War had created between the two countries a suspicious and unsurpassable barrier that American politicians would not approach. Doing so would paint them as pink, soft on Communism, too weak to protect American interests, and therefore vulnerable to domestic political attacks. Nixon’s rabid anti-Communist rhetoric, anti-Communist policies, and tacit approval of McCarthy’s communist witch hunts proved his bona fides. He was, in Mormon-speak, anti-Communist with every fiber of his being, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Thus it was said that only Nixon could have gone to China–he had, according to Wikipedia, “an unassailable reputation among his supporters for representing and defending their values to take actions that would draw their criticism and even opposition if taken by someone without those credentials.” In other words, he was able to step outside the orthodoxy because everyone knew whose team he was on.

Nixon’s bare-knuckled domestic politics were, in many instances, despicable, as Watergate subsequently highlighted. But the important lesson to be learned from his China diplomacy is that, to depart from a team’s orthodoxy in some areas, requires that we demonstrate our commitment to the team in other areas.

In church, demonstrating that we’re on the team, that we desire the success and well-being of our local congregation and the Church as a whole is, in my opinion, the key to creating a safe space for ourselves. It may not be enough, but it is the sine qua non of survival as an uncorrelated Mormon–we cannot succeed without it. Now, I do not mean to imply that we must do it, like Nixon, by supporting repugnant doctrines or policies. Rather, I suggest that we borrow from the British Parliament the idea of the loyal opposition, where, according to Merriam-Webster, the opposition is “constructive, responsible, and bounded by loyalty to fundamental interests and principles.” We create space to oppose because we’ve established our loyalty.

Now, I’m not going to talk here about the “opposition” part of “loyal opposition”. Most of us can easily identify the issues we oppose–they are why you’re reading this blog instead of Meridian Magazine. Instead, I’m going to focus on how to demonstrate the “loyal” part in ways that I believe are accessible to everyone. One of these ways is, in my opinion, more valuable than any other, and illustrates my underlying philosophy of how to be loyal. And that is:

  • Learn the names of everyone in the ward, especially the less powerful people. Everyone knows the names of the bishopric, the Elders’ Quorum president, the Relief Society president. Learn the names of the children, the new members, the visitors, the single people, the old people, and (I hate to include them in the list of less powerful) the women. And don’t just learn last names–first names are more personal and typically require more effort and therefore more interest to learn. People love to hear the sound of their own names. Learn them, remember them, say them. I believe this is the simplest and most powerful way to show that you are committed to the team. If you need to, use mnemonic devices or other memory tricks. For example, he bore his testimony about the missionary being chased by the rabid dog, the dog was mean, his name is Brother Green. Well, you get the idea. And don’t be afraid to cheat. Sometimes during sacrament meeting I log on to and review the names of the people I’ve met, especially the children. When parents hear you saying hello to their children by name, they know that you care about the lives of all the members.

You see, my underlying philosophy is that what best demonstrates loyalty to the team is doing those things that are not required or expected. Magnifying your calling is good, but reaching out informally is even better. What’s more, it doesn’t require a lot of work, a lot of time, or orthodox beliefs.

So here are other ideas I have for informal outreach:

  • Arrive early and greet people as they come in.
  • Look for new people at church and sit by them. Introduce them to other members in the ward.
  • Offer rides to those without transportation.
  • Have potlucks at your house. Invite people from your classes, your organization, those you home or visit teach, or new members (the missionaries can help you with this).
  • Help with moves, lifting heavy things or packing or unpacking the boxes (go against type, women!)
  • Make meals for those who are sick, out of work, or with a new baby (go against type, men!)
  • Start an explicitly non-church book club that includes some people you’ve met at church.
  • And my favorite: bring watermelon in the summertime and feed it to people as they leave church. It’s cheap, easy, and fun. We’ve done this in two wards and met all sorts of people we wouldn’t have otherwise. The kids in one ward started calling me Brother Watermelon, which is fine by me–I’ve been called much worse.

I realize these activities can be hard for introverts. As a sometime introvert myself, I see value in stretching and moving out of my comfort zone, but I also recognize the need for less exhausting activities as well. So, for introverts:

  • Send thank you notes to speakers or teachers you really enjoy. I have been more successful with this after ordering some stamps and nice impressionist painting cards and keeping them on my desk at work.
  • Remember personal things (e.g., mentions of children, work, or interests) from talks or lessons, and ask follow-up questions later on.
  • Invite people you like for a one-on-one lunch or walk, where you won’t be overwhelmed by a big group.
  • Friend people you like on Facebook. Try to instant message them on occasion.
  • Reach out to someone else who is introverted. Keep them company in the pews or in class. Doing so may help you forget our own discomfort.

You may have noticed that none of these things requires a temple recommend. They do not require permission, they do not necessitate having a certain calling, they do not rely on orthodox beliefs. They do demonstrate your commitment to the community, and they often lead you to like-minded friends who can shelter you when other parts of the Church are making you crazy. They only require your initiative. Importantly, they give you your own power within the church because you can simply decide to do them. I find that this power energizes me to build up my faith community while building my own refuge within it.

Those are some of my ideas. What are yours?

And, tune in next time for Mormon Open Mic.


  1. This is what I try to do. I feel that if I stay and I want to change things this is the only way. I really do believe in religious community and I feel that this helps the whole ward. But it is exhausting for me. I am very much a book worm and I like to stay home and read books, but I also look at it as a place for personal growth.

  2. Mike,

    It’s interesting that your post (deliberately, I presume) focuses entirely on the friendship, community, and fellowship aspects of the church experience…without actually touching anything religious (beyond the general ‘love your neighbor’ principle).

    Your original post talked about still believing in the Atonement, in Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon (on some level at least) – a core of common beliefs that you’d potentially be able to talk to “Correlated” members about even if you differed on other current doctrines, policies, or cultural traditions. Do you see building on common beliefs and having *religious* interactions in the ward community as an important element of fitting in as an ‘uncorrelated’ member, in addition to being a good friend and neighbor? Will you be addressing that in later posts, by chance?

    The reason I bring this up is that I believe a lot of active members DO emphasize “correct belief” as much or more as “correct behavior” (even though it may sometimes seem to be the opposite). Without providing any indication that you share ANY of the same beliefs, you (and other ‘uncorrelated’ members) will still be judged by standard LDS as being part of Them rather than Us, no matter how much effort you spend learning names or providing service and friendship.

    The post contains excellent suggestions, but are all things a friendly atheist in an LDS community could also do. Which is great, but we all know there are limits to how closely an atheist would be accepted into LDS circles no matter how friendly or compassionate they are. Without any kind of shared beliefs — whether in God, prayer, scriptures (etc) — the level of acceptance or perceived “loyalty to the team” just won’t be the same.

    If the goal here is to find ways to show “commitment to the community” then I think we can’t discount that LDS communities are still *religions* first and foremost. Many members (myself included) don’t go to church to ‘make friends’, we go seeking spiritual enlightenment with friendships and neighborly interactions being a potential fringe benefit at best. I believe demonstrating commitment and loyalty to the “team” won’t be possible without finding common religious / spiritual ground for discussion and interaction in addition to associating with others in Christ-like ways.

    Sharing watermelon is great, but I suspect finding something religious to talk about (even if you have to stretch a bit) will prove to be an essential part of the process.

  3. KMB,

    I disagree. Making friends and being neighborly is much more than a fringe benefit. I would say they are the crux of the gospel. How we bear one another’s burdens and have charity if we don’t even know each other?? We are commanded to be one. We do thuis by getting to know one another and becoming a true community. I think mike has some great ideas on hiw to do this.

  4. “Commitment to the community” = building Zion. There are as many templates for that as there are individuals, but this is one of the most useful templates for it that I have read in a very long time. I feel the need to convert from my hermit ways and do more of this. I feel like it would please the Lord.

  5. KMB, thank you for the really thoughtful comment. I would say that I think you and I are generally in agreement. I agree that religion and church should offer more than community and friendship, and that belief, especially within the LDS Church, is important not only for acceptance within the community, but also to spiritual growth and nourishment.

    I would make a couple of clarifications. First, I don’t think my strategy is for everyone. There are people I know and love for whom the Church creates more pain and difficulty than benefit. I would hope that those folks would take a step away, and disengage in whatever ways feel most healthy. I think they should be trying to create space for themselves, but that for them that space may best be created by staying away.

    Second, for those like me, for whom the benefits are potentially greater than the challenges, but who are trying to make their situation more positive, there are numerous approaches to try. I started with this one–proving loyalty to the community through connection and service–both because it represents a very low bar for belief, and thus may be useful to a wider spectrum of people, but also because I think that without it you are always going to be in trouble, swimming against the tide of acceptance.

    But you are right, I do plan to talk about, dare I say it, building upon common beliefs (Missionary Guide, anyone?) with other members. I also think there are ways to introduce heterodox beliefs in perhaps safer ways, but if I mention them here you may not read my subsequent posts, so I’ll leave you hanging.

    Having said that, I would agree with Heathermommy that I wouldn’t use the term “fringe benefit” for those relationships. As I grow older and less conventional, the relationships and connections have taken on a more prominent role relative to beliefs, even though I maintain many core beliefs and still sense their importance to my faith and my faith community.

  6. Oh, just saw your comment MDearest. Thanks. I would add, that as someone who scored smack dab in the middle of introvert and extrovert on the Myers-Briggs, these things I’ve suggested have been terrific fun–I’ve managed to enjoy them despite my introverted tendencies. I hope God is pleased, but I have found them to be immensely satisfying for myself. And perhaps that would be the best guide to their use. Try some things that stretch you, that put you out of your comfort zone, but only persist in the ones that are fun.

  7. I really like your ideas, Mike. Particularly the idea of feeding people watermelon after church. I never would have come up with that one. I can second many of your others, though. I feel like I’ve had some success getting to know people in my wards and having them accept me to a large degree even when they know I’m an oddball Mormon.

    Also, I can’t locate the original comment, but I’m reminded of something that Kristine of BCC said once, something about how if you wear the right clothes to church that show that you’re a member of the group, you can get away with saying stuff like “Jesus was a feminist.” Kind of a tangent from your main point about getting to know people and serving as a way to evidence membership in the group, but related to your more general point.

  8. Great post, Mike. Thanks! Excited for this series you’re planning!

    In case you or anyone is interested in an oldie but goodie, many years ago, Armand Mauss published a thoughtful piece/guide to those who might want to embrace the “calling” of being an alternate voice within church and ward (and hoping for a decent amount of influence). A couple of the things he lists as ideas match what you’ve shared here (his much less detailed), as well as playing a bit in the area of ideas/teachings that KMB is calling for (and which you plan to discuss later). So, in case you or others are interested, here’s a link to that Mauss essay, “Alternate Voices: The Calling and Its Implications” (Sunstone, April 1990):

  9. I make sure that the folks in my ward know I am on their team by showing up at activities and events, volunteering for service projects, and knowing and serving the people in my ward.

    In addition, I actively participate by finding ways to introduce topics in ways that help people think more deeply about their faith rather than undermine it. For example, when the Thomas Marsh story was told in Sunday School recently, rather than just pointing out that the story was untrue (which I did,) I also talked about the current faith crisis in the Church and the need to understand that these are rarely simple events (as the lesson implied) and the best thing we can do is not dismiss these folks who are struggling but love and support them while they wrestle with complex issues.

    On more than one occasion I have been approached by center-post members with questions like, “why are there so many, different versions of the First Vision?” I try to find ways to respond that encourage their faith (Joseph had an experience unlike anything anyone in his time and place had ever had, and it took time and context to process) rather than the opposite (he was making it all up and modified it over time to strengthen his position.)

    Of course, this is easy to do when I am still ambivalent on the topic myself, or when either answer is reasonable. For the other sorts of questions, I find that “I’m not sure” seems to be adequate. I also regularly warn people who want to read what I have been reading (say, the latest Brigham Young biography,) that they need to be sure that they want to know, because you can’t unread these things.

  10. My one concern about the watermelon is that it will stain my kids’ church clothes!!! 🙂

  11. That was wonderful. I really admire people when they offer constructive ways to come at problems rather than just complaining that things aren’t the way they wish.
    Simple ideas that anyone can do. I hope this is the first of a series.

  12. Thanks, Dan. Really enjoyed the article. I have been thinking about these approaches more as a matter of survival, so it is interesting and empowering to actually think of them as a calling. Come to think of it, I get the sense from listening to your Mormon Matters podcasts (I’m a big fan!) that they are a calling for you, and I would guess that having that “calling” has helped not only other uncorrelated Mormons find space at church, but yourself as well.

    Bill, I really like your approach to raising complex issues gently. I’m not good at this yet; mostly I just don’t comment (although being in Primary I have less opportunity now). I am beginning early-morning seminary in a few weeks and have been thinking about how to do this with the kids. I think that honesty and transparency are really important, and that if they can’t get that in seminary they will be unprepared for later faith challenges (because I don’t think they’re getting it in church). I have been thinking about how to raise issues of BofM translation, Joseph’s polygamy, etc., as preventive measures. If you have further suggestions I’m all ears.

    Heathermommy, I hear you. I wear a goofy apron, but the kids eat at their own risk. Maybe this is an example of why associating with uncorrelated Mormons is considered dangerous by some–we corrupt you not only spiritually but temporally as well–leaving you stained by the watermelon and sins of this generation.

    Teresa, thanks. I am hoping that this will be a multi-part series. I have several more ideas. We’ll see how I do on the follow through, but hearing your interest is a good motivator.

    Stephen, I’m not familiar with that story and am having trouble with the link. Maybe I’ll try later when not on my iPad. But I think you can’t go wrong with: when in doubt, bring food.

  13. Loved your ideas, Mike. Learning names is hard for me because our ward has a lot of turnover and I am burned out on meeting people and then saying good bye a year or two later. But I need to try harder on this.

    The only thing I’d add is that I try to be someone who signs up for everything, like bringing cookies & cleaning the building, etc. Or, at least to try and sign up more than I really feel like signing up for.

  14. I help out often with restacking chairs, moves, ward-sponsored painting and yard work; you know, “priesthood” things. It feels both mildly subversive and appreciated. Win-win.


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