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.