A Person Who Stays

Like most kids born into the church, I was baptized at the age of eight. I turned 42 earlier this year. (Tangential sign that you are getting at least middle-aged: I actually had to stop and check the year and subtract to verify my current age. But yes, it’s 42.) That means I have a solid 34 years of membership in the LDS church. I was by no means consistently active for all those years. My first foray out of Mormonism happened about thirty seconds after I finished my last class at BYU, and was no longer required to have an ecclesiastical endorsement. That time around, I left for a good year and a half. But looking back, “left” is a very strong word for what I did. I mean, I quit going to church every week (though I’d still drop by for special occasions). But I still did stuff like praying and reading my scriptures, and even (such are the contradictions of life) attending an Institute class for a while. And given that I was living in Provo, with five Mormon roommates, I was still pretty immersed in the whole thing. In a stroke of good fortune, I got to take a night class on Mormon literature from Eugene England, who had found refuge at UVU at that point, and I loved it. It was an environment where there was room for real questions; I found there a constructive and supportive space to begin the process of seriously wrestling with my Mormon heritage and what it meant to me. Given my continuing attachment to the LDS tradition, I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised when I eventually decided to come back to church.

I moved to the Midwest shortly thereafter to start grad school, determined to be a committed, churchgoing Latter-day Saint. And it was actually easy at first, because it turned out that being LDS outside of Utah, where I’d been raised, was ever so much more fun than it had been in the Mormon Corridor, and I loved my small branch in a way I’d never loved any of my BYU wards or even the Orem ward where I grew up. But then life got more complicated, as it does. In this particular instance, I was given a calling that I genuinely could not do, but somehow I couldn’t just say that and ask to be released, because hey! I’d recommitted myself to the faith! And they’d even told me, explicitly, that the calling was inspired. My inelegant solution: go inactive and avoid the mess, because going to church and not doing my calling just made me feel terribly guilty. And thus I continued with what would become a decades-long pattern of time in the church followed by time out of the church, with periodic moments of thinking yes, I am really going to make this work and be a faithful, active Mormon! followed by a gradual slide back into inactivity. Often the slide out was triggered by guilt of some kind, though in one ward I got labeled as a “Person of Concern” and I just couldn’t deal with being in that role and unable to get out of it no matter what I did. (I really need to blog sometime about the issue of ward roles, and how you can be a totally different person in different wards.) And then sometimes it was just that I was caught up in other things, and actually showing up every week at church moved down my list of priorities. Also periodically the church would do something crazy, like Prop 8, and I’d be like okay, I think I’ll keep my distance for a while. In my last ward in California, I taught Relief Society, which was fun and fulfilling and made me feel like my voice was heard and appreciated. But even then church was psychologically hard enough—at that point, my major issue was the classic “church is a constant reminder of what a failure I am for not being married with children” problem—that I cut a deal with my sympathetic bishop in which I agreed to come exactly once a month, on the weeks I taught RS.

That’s all a long-winded way of saying that I can’t make any claim to be a lifelong active Mormon, because that would be a huge lie. Rather, I was a revolving-door Mormon who didn’t feel totally at peace inside or outside the tradition, and thus kept going back through the door, and I’d started to think that maybe I was going to be a revolving-door Mormon for the rest of my life, and though that wasn’t the standard church narrative it was maybe okay.

But in all this time, I never really thought about leaving. I mean, sure I gave lip service to the possibility and joked about jumping ship for a more progressive faith, and of course talked constantly about all the ways the church was making me crazy. And I studied religion academically and learned tons about other traditions, and occasionally went church-hopping to see my fellow divinity students preach or just for a change of pace. But at some deep level, I never seriously contemplated leaving. Because for all its flaws and dysfunctions, Mormonism was like my family, and I couldn’t imagine life without it. It was too deeply entwined with my identity and worldview and beliefs, as well as my relationships with God and others and myself. Over the years I watched as more and more friends and even family members decided to break away, whether because of feminist reasons or faith crises sparked by church history or even just general exhaustion and burnout. And I had so many questions and doubts and flat-out objections to certain aspects of the church, and it made so much sense to me why people left, and I didn’t think any less of them for it. But for me somehow that just wasn’t a live option.

I can point to a number of factors keeping me in the tradition, including genuine spiritual experiences which deeply rooted me in it. I don’t want to downplay the reality of those. But in reflecting on all of this, I’m struck by another element at play: my self-identification as a Person Who Stays, even when things are tumultuous and hard and incredibly messy. For all my erratic behavior when it came to actually showing up regularly at church, I felt some basic commitment to Mormonism that I didn’t want to abandon; it was important to me to see myself as a person who took faith commitments seriously. I struggled to explain my situation to Protestant friends who wanted to know why I didn’t just find a new church, and commiserated with Catholics who were sticking it out even when their tradition wanted to make them tear their hair out. I said again and again, to myself and others, I can’t just walk away from this, it’s too central to who I am. Plus in some basic (albeit highly unorthodox) way, I actually do believe it—maybe not every single doctrine, and definitely not all that patriarchy stuff—but I’ve encountered God there, and that’s huge.

And so throughout the years I survived things like the September Six and Prop 8 and most recently the Nov 5 Policy. In recent years I was in a Bay Area ward that I loved, one which made me feel welcome and valued, and that helped, too, more than I can say. I really have come to think that there is nothing like a good local community to serve as a kind of buffer from the regular storms emanating from Salt Lake. But even after I moved to a ward in the Midwest where the leadership barely registered my existence (though some other good souls in the ward went out of their way to welcome me) and on top of that I got depressed and all the usual factors came up and I quit going to church, I figured that was just another journey through the revolving door into temporary inactivity, and I’d eventually be back. Because in the end, that was who I was.

So when I dropped by my local Episcopal congregation the last Sunday before Lent this year, it was totally along the familiar lines of “progressive Mormon with high church envy visits the Episcopalians.” I had zero interest in converting; I just wanted some good music and nice liturgy and spiritual nourishment. I would never in a million years have predicted that I would find myself getting more and more drawn into the religious practices of that community, and how many questions that would raise for me about where I belong and where I want to be and what matters to me, and on a more basic level, the very nature of my religious commitments. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve only been going to Episcopal church for less than two months (even if lately twice a week, because I started going to Wednesday services too, just because I enjoy the worship so much), and I’m not about to make a major life decision like conversion without a heck of a lot more thought and prayer and reflection. But literally for the first time in my life, I have to admit that leaving is a real possibility. I can’t tell you how strange it is to write those words—I never thought I would be in this place. Never. I think part of what happened is that I really did believe the “to whom shall we go?” narrative, in which no matter how hard the church was, there wasn’t anything else like it. And now I’m like, oh wow, actually there might be somewhere else to go. That changes everything. Whether I end up making that jump or not, the experience has completely upended my theological worldview.

The funny thing is, as I was telling my older sister the other night as we compared notes about our respective faith journeys, I don’t think that my basic beliefs have changed much. I don’t go to Episcopal church and just accept everything they say. I haven’t entirely sorted out my views on the Nicene Creed, for example, and I’m still way too Mormon to go along with things like ex nihilo creation. But as I told another friend the other day, when I was going to Mormon church I most definitely did not agree with everything I heard there, either, so as far as finding a church whose teachings match my beliefs, it’s kind of a wash. And as I’ve said before, I’m finding that right now I have a hard time caring a whole lot about the elusive ideal of doctrinal purity, because I’m so excited to be participating in a community that is welcoming and is re-connecting me—in ways I really can’t deny—to the divine.

And yet in some sense, maybe I will always be a Person Who Stays, because no matter what church I’m a part of, I’m always going to be Mormon, too. (Though I am laughing as I write these words, because at times in my life I was totally the person who rolled my eyes when people said wishy-washy things like that, which I saw as a poor substitute for genuine religious commitment.) No matter how often I go to Episcopal services, I suspect that the LDS tradition will remain a significant part of my history and identity and how I see the world, and I don’t feel any particular need to exorcise those element of my life narrative. Even socially, I love the Mormon intellectual/blogging/feminist community so much—it’s been such an important part of my life—that I can’t imagine not being involved in it in some way. I’m actually finding myself thinking of President Hinckley’s invitation to those of other faiths to come and add to the truths and the good that they’ve already found. Because I feel like I’m doing that, though probably not in a way that President Hinckley would have endorsed—I’ve found truth and goodness in Mormonism, and now I’m adding to it elsewhere. And in the end, and I know this is a complicated issue because Christian faith isn’t ultimately a private matter—or at least, I don’t think it should be; I think it needs to be enacted in community in some way—but what matters the most to me is that I am a Person Who Stays in terms of my personal relationship with God. Which has been at times a rocky relationship, I will freely confess, but it’s an absolutely core part of my life. And if my Episcopal experience is strengthening that relationship, which it unquestionably is, I think for now I can focus on that, and simply take things as they come when it comes to questions about what to do next.

5 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Thank you for sharing this moment with us, your readers!

    I’m excited and heartened to read it, though I ought to disclose my personal bias: I’m a “stayer” who did end up leaving. So it feels good to me to see you take some steps that were important to me, even if you almost-surely won’t end up in the same place I did. I guess I’m saying, I see what a big deal it is.

    Looking over my RSS feeds, I’ll take this moment to note that this is the only Mormon blog I still read. I was excited to find and read your blog back when I was in the church, and I’ve continued to enjoy it after I left. That’s got to be saying something.

    Anyway, yeah. It sounds like you’re on a good path, and I don’t mean that just in the out-is-good sense. You’re learning and growing, and that’s wonderful wherever you take it. I have confidence in your ability to assess your own spiritual needs and respond to them appropriately. Carry on, carry on!

  2. I really like this, Lynnette. I particularly love your point about how sure, you aren’t on board with all the parts of what the Episcopalians teach, but then, you were never on board with all the parts of what the Mormons teach either, so who cares? I think you’re spot on with calling the idea of doctrinal purity “elusive.” Maybe Mormon conformity does a good job of hiding this, but it seems likely that most people who attend church find at least some of the stuff they hear there to be not in accord with how they see things.

  3. I think part of what happened is that I really did believe the “to whom shall we go?” narrative, in which no matter how hard the church was, there wasn’t anything else like it. And now I’m like,oh wow, actually there might be somewhere else to go.”
    phew what a realization, eh? i don’t think i buy “to whom shall we go?” either. currently i’m too much of a universalist with a preference for Christ-based salvation . . . i wish more people who left wandered into other beautiful faith communities like you have.

    and i love your analysis of “a person who stays.” that’s the narrative I’ve built for myself as well, but I love that it’s expanded for you and that you can be both. regardless of which pew you (or I) sit in or not, you will always be my fellow sister in the gospel.

  4. Ransom, thank you for being excited for me! And for acknowledging that this is a big deal. Also, that makes me happy that you’ve found value in ZD even after leaving the church. (I’m quite fond of this blog myself, but I may be a wee bit biased.)

    Ziff, I completely agree. I don’t think I’ve met a single Latter-day Saint in my entire life, even of the most conservative and orthodox variety, who 100 percent swallowed everything they heard at church. If you pushed it, I imagine that a lot of people would say that they accept the core doctrines of the Restoration, just not all the freewheeling speculation that sometimes happens during testimony meeting. But I also suspect, though I could be overstating the case, that everyone defines “core doctrines” a little bit differently.

    Also, my recent experiences have made me think a lot about this fascinating class I took on conversion back when I was in grad school. One of the things that most struck me is that while churches may feud about doctrine and promote themselves as being the institution with the most correct beliefs in an attempt to win over converts, researchers have found that when people do convert, it’s almost always grounded in their experience with the community (and with God as mediated through that community)—a purely intellectual conversion based on a quest for correct doctrine is a rare thing.

    Kristine A., yes, it’s quite the realization! And I do feel quite lucky to have landed where I have; my impression is that the journey out of the church is much more fraught for many if not most people who take it.

    regardless of which pew you (or I) sit in or not, you will always be my fellow sister in the gospel.

    Thank you for saying that; it means a lot to me that my fellow Latter-day Saints have on the whole been gracious and supportive, and have also expressed the desire to maintain the connections we’ve built up over the years. I value those connections so much.


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