Stepping Out of the Big Tent: The Possibility of Leaving Mormonism

I’ve been reading with interest the lively conversation taking place right now at Wheat and Tares about why people leave the church. This is of course a topic that has been extensively discussed over the years, and this thread has lots of classic elements, including a thoughtful original post that brings up a wide variety of factors, and people in the comments speculating about the extent to which those who end up leaving were ever truly converted. I’ve been reading these sorts of discussions for a long time now, but they’ve become interesting to me in a new way this past year, for reasons that are probably obvious to anyone familiar with my current religious situation.

I actually have yet to decide whether to leave, and if so, what exactly that would look like. But as I blogged about earlier this year, after a lifetime of being determined to stay, I’m currently wavering. I’ve read many, many exit narratives over the years, and I’ve been reflecting on where I relate to the things people often say about their journey out, and where I don’t. I didn’t really have a faith crisis, at least not a discrete one; I suppose I might say with some accuracy that most of my time in the church involved some level of faith crisis. I didn’t take a principled stand and walk away. Instead, I kind of drifted. And then I fell in love with a different religious tradition. I’m not the only person I’ve met who’s had that experience, certainly, but at least from what I’ve seen, it’s somewhat less common than the narrative in which people finally break with the church because of factors that have grown intolerable (as opposed to having found something different that they like better). Though I realize that in some situations those might be two sides of the same coin; in fact, that’s probably true at least to some extent for me.

I’m not going to lie, though; there are ways in which leaving feels like a bit of a betrayal. I cared (and still do care) a lot about Big Tent Mormonism, about the possibility of an LDS community that has room for a range of people, and at least during my better periods with the church, I held on to the hope that I could contribute something to that, even if only something small. As a progressive Mormon who regularly struggled with feelings of isolation and being an outsider, I knew how much it could mean to feel welcome and wanted by the community when I had the good fortune of finding myself in places where that happened. And honestly, it was hard to watch people leave—even when I could see that it was clearly the right decision for them, it still felt like a loss for the community, and I worried that the steady exodus of less orthodox Mormons would ultimately mean a narrower experience for those who were fighting to stay, eventually creating a spiral downward in which more people ended up leaving. As I’m now in a position of contemplating leaving myself, those concerns still weigh on me.

But in the end, this may well be the path I follow. Given my own experience, I can understand it if people have negative feelings about such a decision, and I want to make room for that. At the same time, it means a lot to me when people are able to see the positive things, too. Possibly the response I got that touched me the most when I started talking about the possibility of converting away came from an old, dear friend who is deeply committed to the church. In essence, she said that the LDS church had brought her so much happiness, and that if I had found another community that was doing that for me, she was just thrilled and excited. I’ve thought a lot about that—especially a few months ago when I read an article by a member of the church who was JUST SO HAPPY to be LDS that she absolutely had to write about all the terrible failings of those who leave and thereby RUIN THEIR HAPPINESS. That sort of happiness feels suspect to me. My observation is when you’re genuinely at peace with your decisions, it often leads to a certain generosity, a willingness to acknowledge that other people might find different decisions to be right for them.

It’s also been unsettling to realize how little I see for me in Mormonism. It finally dawned on me that even if it’s all true, there aren’t a lot of reasons for someone in my situation to stick around. The celestial kingdom has long been of no interest to me; I can’t even say how far away I’d like to stay from a heaven in which polygamy might be an expectation, patriarchy is thoroughly baked in, getting through the door requires secret temple ordinances, and everyone is straight. Even when I was an active member of the church, I never saw myself on the celestial track. A lot of church members express the concern they’re not going to the celestial kingdom because they’re not good enough, and I certainly struggled with those sorts of feelings as well. But even more fundamentally, it wasn’t something I wanted.

One of the things I actually appreciate about LDS teachings, though, is the expansive view of salvation, that most everyone ends up okay. I always figured if I landed in the terrestrial kingdom, that would be great. But you don’t have to be Mormon for that. Which raises the question: why continue to participate in a church that regularly feels like it’s sucking the spiritual life right out of you if you could go somewhere else and feel nourished and welcome, and the eternal outcome would be the same either way? This doesn’t really represent my thought process about leaving, I should note, as I decided several decades ago that I simply couldn’t make life decisions based on my hopes and fears about the world to come, that I needed to focus on this life—which in my case, was a healthy move. So this isn’t actually about eternal calculations. Still, it’s striking to me, looking at the situation right now, how little reason there is for me to go back. I haven’t been to LDS church in probably about a year now. And I am somewhat surprised by the fact that I don’t miss it. Not even a little.

Whatever I go from here, though, I figure it’s going to take some time to sort out my relationship to Mormonism. I’m dealing with some anger right now, about things that messed me up in the church that I didn’t really notice were messing me up until I got more distance, and I think I might need to have some time of rage. Ultimately, though, my hope is to get a place where I’m generally at peace with the ways in which my LDS background has shaped who I am, and both to hold on to the things about it that I value, and to more assertively separate myself from the parts that have been harmful. I really don’t know what comes next. A year ago, I would not have predicted this, so I’m not about to guess about the future. All I can say right now is this: for all the ways in which things have shifted, my faith in God has remained, and even expanded. And that’s worth a lot.

15 comments / Add your comment below

  1. The thing I want to pass to you, and maybe you’ll find it helpful, is an old episode of the Mormon Expression podcast that John Larsen used to run. This one’s called “What to do if you decide to leave the Church”, but I think it’ll apply even if you don’t formally quit or anything.

    Content starts twelve minutes in.

  2. “In essence, she said that the LDS church had brought her so much happiness, and that if I had found another community that was doing that for me, she was just thrilled and excited.” I need to remember this way of thinking about other peoples choices, religious and otherwise. This is a great perspective.

  3. I love your posts because they are so thoughtful and eloquent. I don’t have any answers. My own journey out of Mormonism (at 31) was fraught with sadness, anger, hurt, and fear. I still experience feelings of sadness (for all the lost time) and my anxiety is a lot higher.

    But, while I am grateful for the good things Mormonism gave me, in the end I knew I had to leave. Taking that leap was hard and is still hard at times. But I have experienced so much growth and wonder since I did it.

    So whatever you choose, I hope you also find the healing and hope you are seeking.

  4. I’ve been out several years now. I get it. It’s ok to leave, or to stay. Please do whatever feels right for you.

    Don’t worry about leaving being a “betrayal” to those who stay. Your well-being matters.

    It’s ok to be angry. It’s fine to mourn. Go ahead and celebrate the new faith tradition you love. (I’m envious…)

    I care about you a great deal. Any God worth worshipping will understand your journey. My heart is with you. Let me know if you want to talk.

  5. I was struck, too, by how little (not at all) I missed church when I stopped attending. In fact, it was a surprising relief to a weight i didn’t even know i carried.

    I think the only thing that really matters is that you are making the choice that feels right for you and brings you joy, whatever that is. It’s hard to press back on a lifetime of conditioning to “lose yourself” but I love what you say about not making choices for eternity but for here and now.

    At any rate, I always appreciate your sharing this journey with us. You have a way of talking about your process so openly, it is a pleasure to feel like we are traveling a little bit with you!

  6. Lynette, haven’t you already left? I have been reading your pots for some time now, and that is how it really appears that you really are LDS only in name. I am not criticizing that at all. But the only people that can work this out is you and God. I will not try to advise you one way or the other. I fear that what ever I would try to say would be wrong or would come out wrong. I do believe that knowing whether the church is really “the one true and living church” is the most important issue that you are facing. And that information is something that only God can reveal to you. The only bit of advice I can give you is to trust God. If He tells you that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is His church and that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet called by Him, then trust Him that there is nothing in the Celestial Kingdom for you to worry about but there is a happiness and yeas a glory that you cannot fathom from this mortal perspective. Trust Him that He will never require you to do something that will cause you to be unhappy. Trust Him that the thing He wants most is your eternal happiness. That you are indeed His Daughter. But whatever path that you do choose, I hope it works out well for you.


  7. You described your transition like this:
    “I didn’t take a principled stand and walk away. Instead, I kind of drifted. And then I fell in love with a different religious tradition. I’m not the only person I’ve met who’s had that experience, certainly, but at least from what I’ve seen, it’s somewhat less common than the narrative in which people finally break with the church because of factors that have grown intolerable (as opposed to having found something different that they like better).”

    This is really interesting! I wonder if it shows, at least in part, why some disaffected members are so angry and bitter, and some aren’t. In my experience, those who leave Mormonism because they found something they feel is better aren’t so bitter, because they have another support group- their new faith community. It’s the people who stay until “factors have grown intolerable” and leave because of the problems that end up really angry. They end up leaving with nothing but anger and loss. I’m definitely in the intolerable factors camp, and if I had left for something else, my experience would have been very different, I think.

  8. I’m not on board with Glenn’s overly narrow view of Mormonism, but I can get on board with his last line. I do hope things work out for you, Lynnette, and I hope you find a happy and comfortable place wherever you end up landing.

  9. Hi, Ziff: Could you clarify what you mean by by my “overly narrow view of Mormonism?”


  10. Glenn, I think it’s pretty clear from all of your comments that you wouldn’t consider anyone to be Mormon who doesn’t agree with your views like prophetic infallibility. You waltzed in here and asked Lynnette whether she hadn’t already been LDS in name only. I think that makes it pretty clear that you have an overly narrow view of Mormonism.

    But really, this thread isn’t about this issue, so can we please drop it?

  11. Ransom, thanks for the recommendation. I’m going to confess to something heretical: I don’t ever listen to podcasts. But someday I may come around, so I do collect ideas of things that sound worthwhile, and I’ll add that to the list.

    AuntM, yes, it really is a great perspective, and one that I too could stand to have more often.

    JL, thanks. I’m glad your decision has brought good things into your life, even if it was hard. And I really appreciate the wishes for hope and healing.

    Suzy, thanks so much for the kind words. I care a lot about you, too. Somehow I’d missed that you were out, too! It’s been kind of surreal to watch the exodus over the years, you know? Please take care. Someday we are definitely going to have to talk!

    Jason K, I’ve really appreciated your quiet kindness as I’ve followed this journey.

    Enna, yes, that is part of the challenge for me—is it okay to make a decision based on what brings me happiness? It really goes against the grain in a lot of ways. But it’s been lovely to feel like people like you have been traveling along with me as I’ve written endlessly about trying to make sense of it all.

    Glenn, I’m a bit confused by your comment. I’d certainly say that this year I’ve been more distant from the LDS church than I’ve ever been, so if that’s what you’re talking about, I suppose that makes some sense. But if you’ve been reading my posts for more than just this year, it feels more than a little unfair for you to accuse me of being LDS “in name only.” I don’t know that I can overstate the extent to which Mormonism has influenced my life, and deciding whether to walk away from it is actually a very big decision for me. Your comment feels quite trivializing of that, kind of along the lines of, “you were never a real Mormon anyway.” I’ll add that I’ve been reading your comments for some time now, and I’ve sometimes wondered whether it’s ever concerned you that your approach might be contributing to the sort of judgmental, rigid culture that leads to a lot of people deciding to leave. I have to admit that that’s the context in which I’m hearing what you have to say—though to be fair, I realize I could be misinterpreting you. In any case, for what it’s worth, it’s precisely because I’ve slowly developed more hope that God cares about human happiness that I’ve felt more open to exploring a different path. And I do genuinely appreciate the good wishes.

    BrainsThoughtMirror, that is very interesting! I’ve been surprised, honestly, by how relatively mellow I’ve felt about the whole thing. I mean yes, it’s a big decision, and I’ve spent a lot of time mulling it over. But given my history of extreme religious angst, it’s been surprisingly peaceful thus far. And I do suspect that being enticed away by something else is a rather different experience than would be solely feeling driven away by intolerable factors.

    Ziff, thanks so much, and also for being the kind of person who patiently listens as I talk nonstop about religious questions whenever we get together.

  12. Lynette, I am not trying to trivialize your circumstances. I am trying to understand and am asking honest questions. I pointed out what to me are the core issues concerning a decision on whether to leave the church or not, i.e. is the church actually what it claims to be.
    I am not intimating that you never were really a Mormon to begin with. My comment was based upon your own comments showing an increasing distance from the church.
    I have been acquainted with a lot of people throughout my time who stayed with the church because that was the bottom line for them, the belief that the LDS Church is the restoration of the ancient church that Jesus organized. One such family was a convert that had been attending a small local church and he told me that he would actually rather attend his former church, That was where many of his neighbors and friends attended and he was comfortable going there, but he believed that the LDS church is what it claims to be and thus attended a branch thirty-five miles from his home with people that he mostly did not know and had little in common with, except the common beliefs.
    I also have known (and know) people that are LDS really in name only. What I mean is that they attend church because it is their culture and it would be emotionally traumatic to tear themselves away from that, yet they no longer believe that the LDS church is the restoration of the church that Jesus Christ organized.
    When I asked if you had already left, maybe I should have clarified that was what I meant, i.e. that you are culturally and emotionally attached to the church but no longer believe that it is the one true church.
    If I have offended you by either of my posts, I apologize. I am not criticizing your thoughts or trials. As I noted before, the issue really is between you and Go. I again hope that you can find the answer that will bring you peace and happiness in your life.


  13. Thanks for clarifying, Glenn, and I apologize for assuming the worst about your intent. My relationship to the LDS church has been very complicated over the years, but my participation involved more than a feeling of cultural connection. I don’t accept the one true church paradigm, and haven’t for quite a while (even during the days when I was more active), but that doesn’t mean I didn’t value the ways in which I felt the church connected me to God. I see more options than being either a cultural Mormon who stays for essentially non-religious reasons, or being someone who accepts all the truth claims of the church, because I never quite fit into either camp. In any case, best wishes to you as well.


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