Gaslighting, whether done intentionally or not, is abusive. It is any behavior that sends a message to another person that might cause them to question reality.
After last April’s Saturday sessions of general conference, my bishop messaged those of us on the ward council. He asked us for ideas about how we as a ward could meet Sister Bonnie Osarson’s call in her talk, “Young Women in the Work.” In her talk, Sister Oscarson implores us to ensure that young women in the church feel “valued, have opportunities to serve, and feel that [they have] something of worth to contribute to the work.” As someone who cares deeply about the experience of everyone in the church, but especially those who are marginalized like the young women, I quickly messaged back with at least a half dozen suggestions. I was dismayed the following ward council when almost the entire ward council was spent discussing another issue. When I raised this topic near the end of the meeting, the bishop responded to me as though he hadn’t sent us all that message the previous Saturday. It was as if I were speaking another language: to every point I made about how we might include the young women more in the “work,” he acted as though I was being irrational for bringing up the topic. He reacted to my suggestions as though what I was saying didn’t make sense. These ideas were nearly identical to what I wrote in response to his message just a week before, many of which came from Neylan McBaine’s book, Women at Church.
I later spoke to my bishop in a one-on-one meeting about how he treated me. He initially apologized but then immediately rationalized his behavior as a miscommunication. He said he was focused on another issue that was important to him that day, and that because of time he didn’t want to talk about the young women at that meeting. And yet, despite attending many ward councils since then, the topic of giving the young women meaningful roles in the work of the church was never on a ward council agenda or raised by the bishop again.
Although I think my bishop tries to be an ally to women and other marginalized members of the church, he contributed to my marginalization that day. I share this experience not to criticize him, but because it’s important to point out how even well-meaning church leaders can unwittingly harm those they are charged to serve.
I have been experiencing a belief crisis in the LDS Church for years. I have experienced intense internal conflict trying to reconcile what my core values are with what the Mormon Church requires its members to believe to be in full fellowship. I have been deeply disturbed by the harm done to the LGBTQ community because of discriminatory Church doctrines, policies, and practices. I am appalled that the Church refuses to apologize for the blatant racist practice of denying black women from participating in temple ordinances and not allowing black men to be ordained to the priesthood nor to receive their temple ordinances for well over a hundred years.
I have been the recipient of repeated public shaming, ridicule, and overt hostility by church leaders and ward members as I have used my voice to “speak up and speak out,” as President Nelson has implored women in the Church to do. I have felt the effects of the systematic oppression of girls and women in the Church. I have been reported to the stake president for holding my daughter during her baby blessing at church. I have been “reigned in” by my stake president (his words) for teaching nuanced, faith-promoting gospel doctrine lessons, and for having a testimony of Heavenly Mother and having the audacity to say so over the pulpit.
As a result of this cumulative ecclesiastical/spiritual trauma, I have felt unsafe in my faith community and unable to feel peace or receive spiritual nourishment at church for years.
And yet for years I have stayed because despite all of the above, I love the Church and its people. It is my heritage on both sides of my family, and I want to pass on the good parts of Mormonism to my daughters. And I don’t want to lose the community I have invested over 40 years of my life in.
I have spoken to my bishop repeatedly over the years about my struggles with belief in the institutional Church because of how it harms marginalized people, and about the harm I have experienced in the Church. His pattern of responding to my pain has been on the whole invalidating and crazy-making. Every time I have expressed these things to my bishop, he initially says he understands while simultaneously counseling me unequivocally to stay. He says things like, “I’ve lived long enough to know that these things change. Just be patient.” Most hurtful of all, he spends most of his time responding to me by defending the very people who have harmed and silenced me.
After recognizing the damaging effects that staying in a religion that repeatedly harms me has had on me, I recently met with my bishop to let him know that I cannot continue to stay, and that my family and I are looking for a new faith community. His response was alarming: he equated my leaving the church to leaving the country we live in (the U.S.) because of the current political climate neither of us agree with, saying, “You just don’t do that.” He implied that staying in the Church was a matter of morality and referred to it as though it was a matter of life or death. I assured him that I was not planning to end my life. I explained, “I am simply seeking out a new faith community where I can use my God-given talents and skills and freely serve God’s children.”
It was devastating to be treated like I was crazy for doing what I feel is best for me and for my family, and for wanting to help people in ways that I simply cannot in the LDS Church.
Pro-tip: Listen to women’s suggestions about how to improve the church community and take their pain seriously by validating them. Don’t defend abusers or church practices that are dehumanizing. When church members tell you that attending church no longer works for them, demonstrate unconditional love by supporting their agency to choose.
“If any man have ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:23)
[Photo via Kat Jayne on Pexels]