Dear Church Leader,
Allow me to introduce myself: I’m a millennial, part-time-work-at-home mom of 3 young kids, married in the temple to a returned missionary. Based on the outpouring of messages and firesides directed at my age-group and marital status, I see that I’m in the target demographic for discussions about church activity, faith, doubt and questioning.
As one who lives in the constant company of questions and uncertainty regarding matters of faith, divinity, and salvation, I want to thank you for the recent attempts you’ve made in addressing remarks to those of us who experience doubt. I appreciate your positive intentions in showing concern for me, and my eternal welfare. Like many of my peers, including my single friends, I search, ponder, pray, and struggle on a daily basis. I seek wisdom, wishing for it to be liberally given, without upbraiding.
I’m not sure how many “doubters” you might have consulted in the formation of your talk, so perhaps hearing from one of us might be helpful for how you frame your remarks in the future.
There have been doubters and dissenters since the early days of the Church. I grew up hearing stories about the foolish members who left the church over inconsequential things like milk strippings and misspelled names. Each time, the person was characterized as misguided or rebellious. As a teen, I giggled over their silliness.
I don’t giggle anymore, because now the stories seem like they’re being told about “foolish” members like me. The way you have characterized people like me in your remarks is hurting my family. It’s creating divisions that break my heart and break up my most cherished relationships.
The associated pain I feel with doubting and asking questions is real. The internal wrestle over my identity, core morals, and beliefs is excruciating and exhausting. Sometimes in a moment of trust and vulnerability, I might reach out to a loved one or leader for support or advice, hoping that they can take a moment to see my struggle and mourn with me.
Too often I have been rebuffed, usually with a line from your talk used as a weapon against me: “You’re just whacking at moles. You’re straining at a gnat. You’re picking at the same scab. You’re chipping off the paint. Stay in the boat! Paddy-cake taffy-puller. It’s only a name. It’s only milk. Research is not the answer.”
I realize you may not have had any idea of the damage these types of metaphors can do to my relationships, but nothing good has ever come to me, or the people around me, as a result of words like this. These responses make me feel diminished, not comforted or motivated, as you might intend. When your remarks model an attitude of dismissal or defensiveness, it trickles down to my own ward and family. When leaders and friends show that they’re not interested in truly listening to me or empathizing with me, but instead minimize or reject my concerns with a metaphorical quip, embarrassment and pain drive my questions deeper into secret and shame.
These weaponized one-liners permeate the talks and lessons at church on Sunday, as people like me are often disparaged, shamed, or made the object of a cautionary tale. When I sit in classes and listen to people repeat the same mischaracterizations of folks like me that they’ve heard used by church leaders, I inwardly cry, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician here?” When comments like this are made in public church settings, those who doubt in secret may become even more afraid to articulate their questions because of the associated stigma. It turns our suffering inward because it seems as though no one would be able to receive our vulnerability without judgment. It’s anguishing.
My doubts and questions are mine, they are not an attack on anyone else, yet so often people like me are characterized as a threat to others, an evil to be shunned. These judgmental and inconsiderate attitudes are doing real damage to some of my most important relationships by discouraging me from sharing ideas or feelings with others. When my friends’ views of me are tainted by their judgments of me (according to these metaphors) rather than by the actual thoughts or intent of my heart, loving connections are severed.
But I don’t want this to continue. There is a better way. When considering the language you might use the next time you address individuals who doubt, question, or otherwise don’t always fit in with the mainstream beliefs of the Church, or when talking about us to our friends and family members, here are some examples of responses that perpetuate harm to emotionally vulnerable people in the throes of searching and questioning. These devices will alienate the people you actually hope to help, and should be avoided:
Dismissal: “Just don’t focus on that. Keep a broader perspective.”
Minimization: “It’s not that big of a deal. It doesn’t happen very often.”
Exception: “That bishop was just one bad apple.”
Mischaracterization: “You’re misguided and foolish. Oh, you’re one of those women.”
Invalidation: “I don’t see your concern as that big of a concern.”
Unsolicited advice: “What you need to do to get over this issue is _________.”
Redirecting: “Just keep praying and reading your scriptures and it will work out.”
Gaslighting: “You must have misunderstood; it couldn’t have happened the way you describe.”
Rejection:“Your beliefs don’t match mine; we can’t be friends anymore.”
Judgment: “What sins have you committed to lead you down this path?”
On my difficult days of questioning and doubting, what I need from my family and church leaders is charity and empathy. Here are some ways I want people to show charity to me:
Recognition: “I can see that this is troubling for you. I’m here to listen and understand.”
Validation: “This must be really difficult. Thank you for sharing with me. I honor your trust in telling me.”
Understanding: “It’s not what I’ve ever experienced, so please tell me more so I can understand how you feel.”
Trust: “Even though this feels really awful right now, I know you have a good heart and a clear mind. I believe in your strength and I will support you.”
Open-Mindedness: “You can tell me anything and I will listen without judgment or give advice unless you ask for it.”
Love: “I love you.” (And mean it)
Belonging: “You are welcome here, no matter what. You always have a place with us, and you can bring your questions and uncertainty.”
These statements show true empathy. When you model this type of loving language for my family and local ward members to hear and follow, it helps keep our relationships strong, no matter what challenges in belief we may undergo. When others show that they are willing to help me bear my burdens, I no longer have to shroud them in secrecy and shame.
People will always continue to question, even leave the church, and rhetoric like “whack a mole” and “stay in the ship” won’t change that. Shifting away from using a dismissive or blaming style of language would help everyone. Modeling the language of empathy at all levels will trickle down in the best ways. Our relationships would stay stronger. Our love would be more poignant and trusting. Our families would be more peaceful.
This recent quote by Elder Soares gives a model of the type of language that will help families and relationships stay strong. We need more of this:
“It is hard to understand all the reasons why some people take another path. The best we can do in these circumstances is just to love and embrace them, pray for their well-being, and seek for the Lord’s help to know what to do and say. Sincerely rejoice with them in their successes; be their friends and look for the good in them. We should never give up on them but preserve our relationships. Never reject or misjudge them. Just love them!”
When I look to leaders of the Church for help and healing balm, I’m hoping to see a reflection of the Savior who said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
I need that type of peace and rest modeled from my leaders to my family and friends. Please help me keep my family strong. Please share the kinds of words that help us sustain our relationships, no matter what we believe or doubt.