Sisters Speak: Loving and Conversing Openly With Those Who Have Left the Church

The Sisters Speak question in the upcoming Exponent II magazine comes from an anonymous reader. She writes:

I have an older brother who stopped going to Church soon after graduating from high school. There wasn’t a big discussion or fight; in fact, no one in our family has really talked to him about it as far as I know. Whenever I try, I feel all embarrassed and tend to put my foot in my mouth.

For instance, when my younger brother was going on a mission, I wanted my older brother to know that I was glad that I didn’t have to lose two years with him like I was with the younger brother. But I’m afraid it came out more like, “I’m so glad you couldn’t, WAIT, didn’t, I mean… didn’t feel the need to go on a mission.” He laughed uncomfortably and I felt my face go bright red. So much for a chance to have an honest discussion; I just sounded like a judgmental jerk.

Other times, when I try to open a door to a possible discussion by saying things like, “You know, I really struggle with the way the Church treats women,” I don’t get the feeling he wants to talk further, but maybe I’m approaching it wrong.

I just want him to know that I love him and that I don’t care if he’s found that the Church isn’t for him.”

We’d love to hear your insights on this topic.

  • What’s the best way to interact with and show love towards those who have left?
  • Should we avoid mentioning the Church? And if we do mention it, is there a way to do so without making the other person feel awkward?
  • What experiences have you had speaking openly with loved ones who are no longer practicing Mormonism?
  • If you are non-practicing, what is your advice?

(Note: We may email you and ask for your permission to publish your comment in the magazine.)

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. My personal fear would be unknowingly treating that family member as my token ‘jack mormon’ friend.
    For example, when I was pregnant all anybody wanted to talk with me about was their experiences being pregnant. They figured I’d be interested since I was pregnant. It was bearable because it was temporary, and I figured that women aren’t given much space to work through their feelings and memories of pregnancy. I could stand to lend a listening ear to people who seemed to need it for a few months out of my life.
    However if you replace “pregnant” in my example with “no longer believing” then it becomes tiresome. Many LDS people have some doubts and want someone safe to talk about their doubts with, and it’s easy to assume that those who have left the church altogether would be interested in a conversation about doubt. And unlike pregnancy, leaving the church isn’t always a temporary state. It would be very tiresome to suddenly find yourself as ‘the person everyone talks to about their church related doubts.’
    So, I guess my advice would boil down to, let your friend pick the topic of conversation. If he wants to talk to you about the church, he will. If not, oh well.

  2. My experience with family members:

    The best way to interact with and show love is the same as with any other person: simply to enjoy them. Think about it. How do you feel when you are in the company of someone who values your strengths, enjoys your quirks and humor and loves having you around? Be that kind of sibling.

    With my siblings who left, mentioning the church was awkward during their early stages of departure: the time when they were still sorting through their reasons for leaving and feeling like they had to explain them or were dealing with my parent’s strong sense of dismay. That will ease over time as the parents learn to let go of the anxiety and as they have more and more experiences with your honest, unflagging enjoyment of them as a brother or sister. In the meantime, don’t let yourself fret over it. Your sense of awkwardness only heightens theirs. Mention the church when it’s pertinent to the conversation and don’t when it’s not. And make sure, always, that you don’t have an ulterior agenda, motive, unspoken message or secret hope lingering under the surface of your conversation. Those are always obvious and disconcerting.

    It’s been about 25 years since my siblings who left started leaving. Those have been 25 years of loving, laughter, discussion, problem sorting, sorrowing together and flying to each other’s rescue during crises. Some I am closer to than others but that is not due to the nature of their church estrangement. I can tell that because I have the same range of closeness in relationships with my siblings who are actively involved in church. (I have lots of siblings.)

    So, enjoy them. Revel in what you love about them. It’s a blessing for you both.

  3. As someone who has left the church I would say one of the best things you can do is not treat the person differently. I think you should talk about church stuff around them, especially if that’s something you often talk about. With my own family, I would feel odd if they didn’t, like they had to censor themselves around me, I don’t want that. We don’t get into theological discussions, because they know how I feel and no one wants to feel on the defense, but they often mention people in their ward, ward activites, etc. I’m glad they do because it makes me feel that they are still comfortable around me and don’t feel the need to censor part of their lives.

  4. My sister is no longer active in the church. I don’t treat her any differently now than I did when she was active. If she asks what I’ve been doing and I just came back from a church activity I have no problem mentioning it. It’s no secret to her that I’m a Mormon and it’s no secret that she no longer wants to be affiliated with the church.

    Treating the person just like you would anyone else is really the best thing to do. Don’t force awkward conversations about the church. Let things happen naturally and always show your love for that person.

  5. I’m a mom of an inactive daughter. She’s 32 and has been out of the church since she was 15. I was always very upset and annoyed with her and “How can you treat me like this – blah, blah blah”. And as a result our relationship deteriorated pretty fast even though she was constantly in my prayers – but to no avail. Then I decided to back off, see her as Heavenly Father sees her, and wow, what a difference. We’re as close as ever. She understands my concern for her and her lifestyle which I don’t accept and she’s okay with that. We invite her to important family functions such as baptisms, etc, and she only too happy to come. Her siblings also treat her with great respect and don’t hesitate to talk openly about the church. I think because of our improved attitudes, I feel she has softened a great deal, even though she has no desire whatsoever to come back to church – and that’s okay for me, because I love her dearly.

  6. About this – Other times, when I try to open a door to a possible discussion by saying things like, “You know, I really struggle with the way the Church treats women,” I don’t get the feeling he wants to talk further, but maybe I’m approaching it wrong.

    It may be that he doesn’t have any big doubts or doctrinal issues with the church, he just doesn’t feel the need to attend. My brother would rather be water boarded than sit still for three hours. The organized religion idea just never really took with him. He does believe in Christ and has told me that he knows he has been prompted at times by the Holy Ghost. He just came to the conclusion that going to church isn’t really his thing so he doesn’t go. There’s not a lot of angst. We do have a non-member dad who has similar ideas so there isn’t the same kind of family or social pressure.

    As for talking to your brother, I think I would just ask him a direct question about why he became uninvolved in the church. Then regardless of his response, you just get back to having your normal brother-sister relationship.

  7. I’m fairly inactive (I go to church about once a month and most consider that inactive) but have never decided to formally leave the church. I’ve had many family members ask about my inactivity. I don’t mind them asking but I don’t like it when I can tell they have an agenda. Meaning, it’s their intention to ask and then try to change my mind. If someone is truly asking for the sake of curiosity or simply wanting to know me better, then I don’t mind at all. In fact, I enjoy talking about it because I want them to hear about my views from me, not from someone else.

  8. I completely agree with the sentiments of those like ssj — it’s ok to talk and ask about church stuff, but it’s REALLY easy to detect any agenda if possible. It’s not fun to be seen as a “project,” as a means to an end.

    For me, I don’t have problems with talking about the church, and I appreciate the opportunity (since I don’t get to do so a lot offline)…but I know that other people who have left the church resent feeling as if the only point of conversation they have with certain people is the church. So members have to be able to gauge the personalities of the inactive or former member.

  9. I’m a recent convert with no family members in the church. I’m the opposite of y’all apparently: I can’t talk about the church or they’ll eat me alive with distortions, lies, and garbage they picked up instead of being scholarly and doing the actual research.

    Having said that, I don’t need anybody to approve MY lifestyle, and I’m a member. Why is it our job to approve or disapprove of anyone else’s lifestyle? Beliefs? Activities? Isn’t that just putting ourselves where Heavenly Father belongs?

    There’s a woman in my ward who is slipping in and out of membership. She’s doing some dangerous things, in my opinion, but it’s not my job to say that she’s bad, or wrong, or anything else. My approach? “What’s up with you dodging church and lying about your nights?” I believe that the only discussion is a DISCUSSION. After and beyond that, my job is to be there if she wants a friend, to continue to reach out to her, and to pray for her. If she pushes me away or says no, that’s not on or about me. That’s her problem to work out with Heavenly Father.

    I love how we pull together as sisters and brothers, but sometimes it can be oppressive. Nobody is trying to ruin my life by doing their own thing…they’re simply working our for themselves where they want to be on the other side. And maybe, just MAYBE, the Spirit World will be the place of real, root-level conversion for those folks.

    I’m not belittling anyone’s pain at the “loss” of a loved one. I do understand intellectually that it’s very painful. But I don’t get it in my heart or gut because it’s not my world of upbringing. I just don’t understand the hoopla when we all know about Agency and The Atonement. Anyone who’d like to explain this to me…wow, I would SO welcome that!!! I’ll never know or understand all I need to, even if I live a thousand years.

  10. My brother no longer attends church, but I honestly don’t fully know why. I’ve never heard it from him, and from everyone else it seems like speculation (offended by some idiots when he was in high school). I never wanted to seem like I disapproved of him and his choices, so it rarely comes up when I see him. I get the impression that he’s not entirely sure or comfortable himself with what he believes, but I will continue to focus my efforts on accepting him outside his membership. After all, I wasn’t always active either, and I wouldn’t have wanted to defend myself to my family at the time, so I won’t ask that of him. But I will try to be an example of anything I DO believe and continue to pray that he finds the path that’s right for him and that brings him more joy. I don’t think he’s happier by not going to church, but I can’t say that going will make him happy either.

    I think it’s just best to learn to see people as more than active/inactive or member/non member. It may seem strange, but I don’t think those things are going to matter in the (very) long run. And it’s probably easier to see family for what they are beyond those titles because we know them. The challenge is if we can see everyone else for what they truly are.

  11. Everyone has their own path. I really feel for the first sibling of mine who left the church because of the guilt and weight — it was so hard on my mom, and that pain reflected back. There was anger for a long time in any conversation we had about church. Some of it well-placed, some of it displaced. Flash forward 15 years and we have a family all over the faith spectrum . . . and it’s just fine. I suppose I’d offer this thought: our job is to love, not bear testimony, not guilt back into activity. That may not always be easy advice to apply, but I don’t know any other way to keep a relationship strong and provide room for healing and growth (for everyone).

  12. These are all such wonderful responses! Thank you, everyone. I’m sure some of you will be getting emails from me requesting your permission to quote you.

  13. I married a Peter Preisthood in the temple… fast forward 10 years and he’s left the church and I’m still very active. It’s a tricky road but I can honestly say the thing thing that hurt him the most is when people STOPPED talking to him normally. Be honest. Ask if you can talk about missions, baptisms, ask them what their new beliefs on the religious topics are (not looking for a fight but with genuine interest.) Don’t treat them like “the Black Sheep”. and DONT TRY TO REACTIVATE THEM!! Just genuinely love them… simple in theory- harder in practice.

    Thanks for the topic though!

  14. I stopped attending church over 20 years ago. My family continued to embrace me as part of the family, and I’m involved in important events–I helped my clothe my mother for burial earlier this year, for instance, though I wasn’t supposed to touch her temple garments (which I tried not to do but we soon realized that it’s very hard to dress a five-day old corpse, and we all acknowledged that I sort of just had to if we were going to get the job done).

    All in all my family has been pretty great, in part I think because my extended family has been LDS for so long that at least one or two (or six or twelve) people go “inactive” or “apostate” every generation.

    But one that drives me nuts are extended conversations about the church that I really can’t participate in and don’t care about. Example: Sunday dinner after meetings, all about what the lessons were that day, who said what, who has what new calling, etc, for the entirety of the meal. I get that people want to talk about their day–but good grief, can’t the conversation progress to something else at some point? Books, movies, pets? Plans for new landscaping in backyard? How great the potatoes are? Something I can be involved in? Please?

    Another example: a recent temple dedication. I’m glad it was beautiful, that Monson attended, that all sorts of people shook hands with all sorts of others…. For ten minutes, I’m genuinely glad. After 15 minutes, I’m no longer able to ask questions to show my genuine interest in this event that matters so much to my family. After 20 minutes, I want to leave the room, which is sort of hard if you’re at a restaurant.

    Less benign example: extended discussion of the evil of the gay agenda, which I support and find anything but evil. Many comments from family member about the church’s strategy in countering said evil agenda–which I listened to, recorded later, and shared. (Seriously: I love my family, but if they dispense politically useful info, I’m going to use it for my own purposes.) Eventual inability on my part to listen to conversation any more. My departure from room to use bathroom. My staying in bathroom for a good long while, walking outside, hoping that when I returned, conversation had moved in. It hadn’t. Unhappy, disapproving looks from my mother.

    My family has claimed that they censor their speech around me. If they do, I hate to imagine what conversations would be like if they didn’t censor themselves. I can’t imagine that they censor themselves to the degree I have, not discussing much, for instance, my involvement in my best friend’s gay wedding, because I knew it would upset them (which I frankly now regret) , or just forcing myself not to roll my eyes when they say certain things about how wonderful this or that leader or doctrine is.

    In other words, what I’m saying is: in some instances, DON’T treat me exactly the same. Remember that there are ways in which I am NOT part of your community–by choice. Unless you would enjoy listening to an extended conversation about the glories of an institution that made you miserable, or about the evils of a cause you are dedicated to advancing, don’t ask someone else to do it.

  15. Hi EM,
    I love your perspective as a parent with child who has left. May I use your quote in my Sisters Speak column? (Sorry, I would email you this privately, but my email to you isn’t getting through.) Please email me at carolinekline1atgmaildotcom

    Name Withheld,
    Thank you for this wonderful comment, I would love to quote you as well (anonymously, of course, if you prefer). Please email me at the email address I gave to EM.

  16. I left five years ago. My initial conversations with my family about my disaffection were extremely painful, because they were prepared to say or do anything to keep me in the church. It wasn’t a dialogue so much as a lecture.

    I don’t mind discussing my disaffection with people who are still active, but it depends on the context. If I see the ward gossip at the grocery store and she asks why she hasn’t seen me at church, that’s not a conversation I want to have. Guilting or goading should be avoided, unless you actually like making people feel awkward and uncomfortable.

    On the other hand, I had a cousin approach me respectfully and ask my reasons. She just wanted to know what had happened, and I knew she wasn’t trying to reconvert me, so I felt comfortable talking to her about it.

    The church is not a taboo subject to me at all. I understand that the church is a part of my family’s life, and I’m fine with them talking about it. What I’m not ok with is efforts to reconvert or reactivate me, because that shows a real lack of respect for me and the decisions I’ve made.

    Keep in mind that because apostates have such a bad rap, I’m very careful with what I say around active Mormons. I try my best not to offend my Mormon family and friends. Perhaps your inactive or apostate friends don’t wish to discuss these things because they know it will be difficult for you. In asking why a person leaves, you may hear things you’d rather not. My mom doesn’t like to hear about what I think about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, which I why I don’t discuss things like that with her.

    I have no problem discussing my reasons for leaving Mormonism with people who I know are going to be respectful of me. What I take issue with is when somebody is trying to guilt trip me, put me on the spot, or thinks that they’re going to clear up whatever issues I may have. That’s insulting and disrespectful. If your intent is to have a real conversation, to ask questions because you are genuinely interested in this person and what’s going on with them, or to let them know that no matter what, you care about them and want to be a part of their life, by all means, go ahead.

    And by the way Carolynn, I wouldn’t start a discussion with, “What’s up with you dodging church and lying about your nights?” You’ve just accused your friend of “dodging” and “lying.” If you want to start off by putting her on defense, go ahead, but I doubt you’ll get far with that approach. Just be her friend, regardless of whether or not she goes to church. That’s what she needs.

  17. I have a friend who left the church several years ago after being an active member for some time. I really appreciated that he could talk with me about his disinterest of the church. He’s now become an atheist because of his life experiences. Since I am so very active at church he likes to run his ideas by me which I find quite interesting. We have wonderful discussions and I know that he feels valued even though he has decided to take a different path from mine. I never shy away from my LDS perspective and our conversations are always respectful. Just being a friend has been the best thing to happen to our relationship.

  18. As someone who is less active, I totally agree with the previous comments.

    I have observed that people are less active for many reasons, and I appreciate it when people do not make assumptions about why I am less active.

    When in doubt about how to treat a less active loved one, I find that the Golden Rule is a good guide. For example, would you want someone to reveal your contact information, your life story, and your problems to a church leader or missionary you have never met? If not, don’t do it to your family member or friend, even if you are motivated by the best of intentions. Remember that you can always ask someone how they would like to be treated.

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