I sent the following email on an almost-whim to my awesome stake president, who I’ve been blessed via spiritual confirmation to know is called of God and loves the members of my stake dearly. At the time I had that spiritual confirmation, I had no idea why I was having it. Now I do.
Dear President ______,
My name is Pepper S______, I’m a member of the ______ Ward. I’m concerned about recent events and the atmosphere among faithful church members surrounding matters of doubt and questions of faith. I wanted to ask your help, voice my perspective and to propose an idea that I think might help.
As someone who has recently fought through a major crisis of faith concerning our teachings about women in the church, but has remained determined to stay active and faithful to my covenants, I know both sides of the fence: I know how it feels to be an upstanding member unable to understand the minds of those who doubt and choose to leave the church, and I know what it’s like to live the nightmare of wondering if everything I’ve ever been taught is a lie, being called apostate, lazy, sinner, and worse by people who act and think just like I used to.
Faith crisis is something we discuss very little in the church. Those who go looking for help through traditional channels come up only with counsel to “not choose to be offended” or “don’t allow yourself to be tempted,” when a lot of times what triggers a crisis of faith is earnest research into verifiable historical facts that conflict with what we’ve previously understood or been taught. There’s little support for that. I’m blessed with an amazing bishop and relief society president who withheld judgement long enough to listen to my concerns and offer their own encouragement for my situation, but not all questioners are so lucky. Instead, their leaders take their temple recommends away and assume that they must be doing something wrong if they’ve allowed doubt into their testimonies.
Counsel from church leadership in various communications from Public Relations have discouraged activism saying that, instead, we should seek counsel from our local leadership. But like I just pointed out, that’s not always a safe alternative for someone vulnerable who’s earnestly, sincerely seeking for answers and trying desperately to find a way to stay active in the church.
For this reason, many, many people won’t even bring it up with their leaders. Instead, we turn to the internet for support – currently there’s a lively community of blogs and commenters online lovingly referred to as “the Bloggernacle” where these issues can be discussed openly and usually anonymously. On these blogs, I found exactly the support I needed to keep coming to church, keep working on my testimony, and start reaching out to support others as well. The problem is, the Bloggernacle is a mixed bag. There are a lot of angry, hurt people there who’ve given up trying to stay active and instead do and say things that hurt the church. There are many people there who start out with good intentions and end up bitter, hopeless, or militant. These people still have a lot of influence just like the ones who’ve survived their faith crises and come out better and stronger for it. Like I said, it’s a mixed bag. But it’s all we’ve got, we can’t go anywhere else to talk about our questions and get the help we need.
One blogger in particular who most helped me keep my testimony is actually in the process of being excommunicated [note: this was before I found out his situation had been de-escalated], along with several other vocal members of the Bloggernacle, which is a source of grief and pain for many members of our “fringe” community. I don’t agree 100% with his ideas but I can easily identify with them and worry how this action will affect the way we are treated by our own local leadership and ward family members.
I’ve been pondering this and I think that if members like me knew they had somewhere safe to go where they could talk to people like them – both people in the midst of faith crises and those who’ve already overcome them – they wouldn’t need to sort through the questionable content of blogs and online communities to find their answers. I remember when I first realized my testimony was in trouble, the thing I prayed and fasted for most was a role model. Just a role model. I didn’t know how to be a good Mormon woman anymore now that I had the questions I did. I wanted a faithful woman who had gone through what I was going through who I could ask my questions and go to for support. I never found one, not really. Just other scared, conflicted people online giving it their best shot and often being disciplined for it. But at one point I had an impression from the Spirit that eventually, as I mature in my own faith and get my footing back, I’ll have the opportunity to be that person for others.
So it’s out of that desire and the desire for myself – knowing that a faith crisis is never a one-time event, it’s probably something I’ll struggle with periodically for the rest of my life – that I write you to ask for help. I know the Bloggernacle isn’t a healthy place to be seeking answers, but I don’t know where else to go. My own family members are either inactive or extremely judgmental of my struggles. I know I’m not the only one in our stake experiencing this.
So I’ve had an idea that comes entirely from a place of knowing my own situation and no one else’s, not yours or that of our stake members, so I just want to run it past you in case you liked the idea too. Something that would help me immensely was some kind of support group I could meet with face-to-face where I could safely, openly voice my fears and my struggles and get advice from other more seasoned members. In my mind, this would be a designated sunday school class or a periodic fireside-type meeting similar to Genesis groups that were formed to support culturally diverse church members, presided over by local authority, with the goal of giving doubting members a safe place to meet and an extra boost of spirituality for their struggling testimonies to keep them close to the Lord and the church during their faith crises.
I know something like this could potentially be a logistical nightmare, and that there’s no precedent for it in the church (that I can find). I lack the leadership experience to even imagine how we would even advertise such a thing or keep the discussions uplifting. But I think that it would help with member retention in this age of blogs and internet discussion when it’s so easy for people to give up on the Church even though there’s so much more good inside the church than there is outside of it. And I know for sure it would help me immensely.
Again, this is just one possible solution. I’m willing to do anything at all to help support any endeavor aimed at members like me. At the very least, I hope that my experience can help you better understand members like me who want nothing more than to do the right thing and draw closer to the Savior through our continued membership in the church.
Thank you for listening!
… and guess what! He emailed me back within a couple hours to say he liked the idea, would give it serious thought, and offered to meet with me to discuss it further. My husband’s first response (in his best Admiral Ackbar voice):
but I’m more optimistic. We’ll see if it comes to anything!