Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The 158 Who Left

The study I embarked on focused on a very specific and different group of Latter-Day Saints.  It is not about those who have become less active through apathy.  It is not about those who never really had a testimony of the church.   It is not about those who have sinned and been unwilling to repent of their sins.  It is not about those looking for an excuse to leave and get out of the hard work of being considered an active Latter Day Saint.   Rather, this study is about a group of Latter-Day Saints who have intentionally chosen to leave the church because they decided that the church was not what it claims to be.   

My research is composed of an analysis of the stories of 158 people who have left the church.   Their stories relate the path they followed from faithful member of the church through their doubts and struggles up until their ultimate rejection of the church.  Some of their stories can be found on various blogs and other sites on the Internet.  Some of the stories are personal stories of people that I know.  I have reviewed each story and pulled out of each story the reasons that were listed as contributing to their decision to leave the church.   No one left over a single issue. In all cases, many issues combined to finally push them over the edge. 

I did not solicit these stories, but most of them are out in the public arena for anyone to read.   These stories are not in response to a survey, nor were they answering specific questions of an interviewer.   These stories are from people who for a wide variety of reasons felt the need to share their stories in a public arena.

I have included here a short table of findings regarding some characteristics of the people whose stories I reviewed: 

Total Number of Stories
Mentioned being born in the Church
Considered themselves to have had strong Testimonies
Felt that their testimonies could be stronger
Mentioned Serving a Full-time Mission
Mentioned Attending BYU
Mentioned being married in the Temple
Mentioned doing extensive research on Church Doctrine/History
Mentioned turning to the internet for research
Mentioned either holding a recommend or a calling requiring an active recommend or being married in the Temple

Please note, that since these stories are just people sharing their own experiences without being asked and without an interviewer, each of them shared what they thought was important to bring up.  For example, many (over 100) felt that it was important to point out that they were born in the Church.   But it is very well possible that those who did not mention being born in the church were also born in the Church as well.   So, all of these numbers are probably low.

As I just mentioned, an overwhelming number of these people were born in the church.  Of the 158 people in this study, over 100 of them had been born in the church.   Interestingly enough, 65% mentioned feeling like they had a strong testimony while the others described their testimonies as ones that could be stronger.  No one mentioned having a weak testimony.  Every one of them held a temple recommend at one point during their time in the church. 

As the data shows, a strong percentage of the 158 sharing their stories considered themselves to be strong members of the church, who had served full-time missions, attended BYU and were married in the Temple.  

The next table lists callings held by the people in these stories.  Many of the people mentioned some of the callings they had held in their stories.  However, a significant portion of the stories made no mention of callings, so the numbers here are greatly understated as to provide an actual reflection of the callings held by all 158. 

Stake President
Member of Stake Presidency
High Council
Stake YM or YW Presidencies
Stake Auxiliary Leader (RS, Primary President and Counselors)
Members of Bishopric
Relief Society Presidencies
High Priest Group Leadership
Elders Quorum Presidency
YM, YW, Primary Presidencies

The fact that the list of callings these people held includes Bishops, Relief Society Presidents, Stake Presidents, Elder’s Quorum Presidents, High Councilors and other leadership positions attests to the fact that many of these people were stalwart members of the church who sacrificed much of their time on behalf of the church. They are people who were willing and desirous of committing all of their time, talent, and energy to the building up of the Church and clearly demonstrated it by their actions and service.      

Reading their stories you can feel their devotion to the church.   They followed as best as they could the counsels of the prophets and other general authorities.  They also held family home evenings, they prayed regularly, and they attended the temple regularly. They studied the scriptures, and did their home teaching or visiting teaching.  But ultimately, every one of them all lost their faith.  The forces that combined to turn these people from their strong testimonies, their stalwart devotion and years of commitment to the church must indeed have been very powerful. 

Lest we think that this is an isolated incident, let me submit this for your consideration.  While Church membership continues to grow, that rate of growth has slowed tremendously.   In the 1980s, church membership growth averaged 5.2% per year.   In the 1990s, Church growth averaged 3.7% per year.  Since the year 2000, Church growth has averaged 2.5% per year and has not been above 3% once.  

In 2010, Church membership announced at the April 2011 General Conference was at 14,131,467

In 2011, Church membership announced at the April 2012 General Conference was at 14,4,441,346  an increase of 309,879 people on Church membership rolls.   That’s a growth of 2.2%

It has been mentioned by leaders of the Church that we are in the greatest period of apostasy since the days of Kirtland.  Thousands have requested that their names be removed from the records of the Church.   There is a proliferation of message boards with thousands of members discussing the things they are learning about the Church but either are too afraid to ask, or have no forum to discuss.   Have you noticed how many talks by the brethren are focused on bringing people back to church and/or keeping the testimonies of members strong in the face of questions?

So what are the issues that could be so strong and powerful as to lead these people to take the painful step of leaving the church?  Many of them were afraid that their choice would jeopardize their marriages.  Many of them were afraid that their choice would significantly strain their family relationships.  Many of them were afraid that they would lose most of their friends over this decision.    They all feared eternal consequences if they were wrong.   Many of them were so afraid of the consequences of their decision that they kept it secret for a long time, in some cases even years.  They continued to magnify callings and act as stalwarts even though inwardly they were full of doubt or had already lost their testimony. 

What is it that in spite of all the original strength of their testimonies and then the fears they faced once they were losing their testimonies that still drove them to leave the church? 

The path that each person followed who shared their story is unique.   The reasons that each of them gave for leaving the church are just as unique as their stories.   However, there are several elements that I found were shared by significant majority of these 158.  

There is one theme that I saw repeatedly.   As these one-time stalwarts faced questions, they were hesitant to ask members of the church or leaders out of fear as to how they would be perceived by them.   Those that did ask questions were left unsatisfied by those to whom they addressed their questions.   Frequently, the local church leaders or other stalwart friends not only did not have answers to their questions, but in many cases either had never heard of the issue or never thought about it. IN many cases, the few in whom they did confide, laced their answers with judgements on the character and worthiness of the person asking the question.

Another common theme was that every one of these people felt that “truth should withstand scrutiny.”  That phrase was used by many of the 158.   As they delved into their questions, they felt that there would be an answer that not only vindicated the Church, but would strengthen their testimonies.  Many of them went through a period of being ardent and pro-active defenders of the Church as opposed to someone just going about their business magnifying their callings and caring for their families.  

No one left over a single issue.   It was large number of issues both doctrinal (such as the Book of Abraham) and social (how members shun those with questions) that ultimately led them to a point where they felt decided to leave.

As I read each story, I made note of each issue that I saw that I felt led them further away from the church.   The following table shows every item that was mentioned by at least 20% of the people whose stories I analyzed.

Felt that Church description of history or positions on doctrine has been changed and sanitized. “Whitewashed” is a word often used here.  This was directly connected to a feeling by many of them of being betrayed or lied to. 
The effects of the pressure to be perfect in the Church
Felt that family, fellow ward members, LDS friends and other members ostracized them, shunned them, or became harshly critical of them for raising the issues they were asking about
Unable to get an answer to prayer confirming truth of LDS Church or BOM or Joseph Smith, especially related to period of their own “quest for truth”.  
Rejection of Intellectualism: Faith v. Reason. Criticized for asking questions.  
Issues relating to the role of the woman
Polygamy & Joseph's marriages to other married women
Blacks and the Priesthood
Problems with Bishops
Encouraged by local leaders to ignore doubts
Superiority Complex of members of the Church
Book of Abraham
Church leaders appear to not be inspired
Problems related to Joseph Smith
Problems related to the Book of Mormon
Correlation between Temple Ceremony and Masonry

We must keep in mind that I only counted the issue if it was raised by the individual in the story that they shared.   Issues not mentioned in their stories may still be have been problems for them.  However, since they did not mention it in their stories I did not count it.  Taking that into account, I think it would be safe to say that the statistics for each of these items is on the low side.    

Also, it should be noted that no one left for a single reason.  It was a multitude of these reasons that pushed them over the edge.   In fact, in fact there was an average of at least nine different issues for every story that contributed to their decision to reject the church.  

Interestingly enough, the top five answers listed have nothing to do directly with the doctrines of the church.  This was a surprise to me.  If these non-doctrinal issues could be dealt with more effectively at the local level, I feel that there would be fewer strong members deciding to leave the church.  I think the Church is starting to recognize that very fact.  I get the impression that there have been more talks from the pulpit entreating members of the Church to be more loving towards their fellow members of the Church.  There has been more discussion of testimonies.  The Church has encouraged more openness and understanding of those who question as evidenced by the recent introduction of new teaching outlines and guidelines for the Young Men and Young Women that are to be used in 2013.    

Another significant area of problems mentioned in this survey had to do with Bishops.   Bishops played a significant role in almost every experience.   The power that the Bishops have to influence the individual members should not be underestimated.  Almost one out of every three stories mentioned having problems with their Bishop.  This does not take into account the stories of physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their Bishop or other church leader (Surprisingly high at 3%).   Additionally, another 14% mentioned having great difficulty removing their names from the records of the church.  In some cases they had to threaten the Bishop or the Church itself with litigation before they were able to have their name successfully removed from the records of the church.  That experience only hardened their feelings against the Church.   It should be noted that these bad experiences with Bishops is the exception to the rule.   Yes, the number of problems experienced with Bishops was disturbingly high.   The occurrence of bad experience with Bishops is awful given the sacred role they have.  However, it must be noted that most of these individuals respected their Bishops.  Most of these 158 people acknowledged their Bishops as good and honest men serving faithfully and sincerely in their callings.  

Probably the most disturbing aspect of this study for me was the disastrous impact to the faith of those who rejected the church. One of the reasons that I selected many of these stories to analyze is because they included a discussion of where they stood now as far as their own personal religious belief.    

Over one third (35%) of these people now pursue what I would call a “New Age” type of belief.   These people still believe in some kind of a supreme power ruling the universe, but are not associated with any kind of Christian religion. They no longer accept Christ as divine, though they do not deny his existence or nor his goodness.   Another 18% are unsure about their religious beliefs considering themselves to be agnostic.   A surprising 13% of the people in the study are now atheists. There are 2% who have turned to Judaism and 1% who have chosen to follow one of the eastern religions.  That is a surprising total of 69% who have completely rejected Christianity after deciding to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Of the approximately one-third (30%) remaining in the study who did not reject Christianity upon leaving the church, about 16% remain Christian but do not affiliate themselves with a specific denomination.   There are 7% of those in the study who have chosen to remain active members of the LDS church even though they no longer believe in its doctrine or history.   These people are afraid to lose friends and family and do so to maintain harmony at home preferring to lie about their beliefs than losing their loved ones here.  Another 5% have become Born-again Christians.   2% have become Episcopalians and another 1% have become Baptists.

However, in spite of the fact that their most of these people’s faith in Christ as divine had been destroyed.  In spite of the fact that their whole cultural make up had been discarded along with their cosmological beliefs…they all described themselves as happier for having left the Church and glad that they made the choice that they did.  Some completely dissociated themselves with the Church.  Others remained “cultural Mormons.” Participating occasionally especially since so many friend and family members were LDS.  

I found a lot of similarities in the paths they followed. Almost every single person had a personal experience or ran into a piece of information that started them on their own “quest for truth” as they describe it.   They all believed that the Church doctrine, history, and culture would be vindicated.   Each of them was motivated by a sense of integrity.  In fact, the issue of personal integrity was huge for each of them.      

They felt that the truth should withstand scrutiny.  A phrase mentioned by many of them.   Every one of them went through an agonizing process.  During their struggle they spent time defending the church to others and to themselves.   

 Something started them down the path.   What started their journey varies, but most of them can be placed into five general categories. 

      1)      They were praying to receive answers validating the Church position on whatever issue they were studying and none was received. IN fact,  the more they prayed the more they learned of even more issues that ultimately them away.  The more they prayed, the more uneasy they felt with the Church.

2)      They went to college and what they learned there started to instill doubt

3)      Their first visit to the temple made them very uncomfortable    

4)      A personal tragedy motivated them on their quest for truth.  

5)      They somehow came across information they had never heard of before, especially on the internet.   

So whatever the starting point was, they all asked questions.   There was a period of time that many of them kept their concerns quiet.  Many of them were afraid of the reactions of family and fellow members.  When they finally did come out with their questions, their fears were confirmed.   Many of them turned to their local church leaders for help or to respected LDS friends.   The church leaders encouraged them to keep praying, or told them to place their doubts on a shelf.  A frequent response was to read the Book of Mormon.   This was unsatisfactory for them since all of them were already doing that or had done it multiple times.   It disturbed many of them that those leaders did not have direct answers.     They did not get the burning in the bosom. They asked the tough questions.   They felt that they did not get answers.   As their doubts grew with the absence of answers, it became more difficult for them to hide those doubts.   In many cases their questions and doubts led to them being ostracized by members as well as family members who were members. Some were attacked angrily by family members.   Divorce was not uncommon.  Members no longer associated with them.   Many experienced deep depression, many contemplated suicide. 

They were accused by some members of seeking an easy path, but as can be seen by their experiences, there was nothing easy about the path they trod.  It would have been easier to just pretend that they still believed and all of their family relationships would have remained intact.  They could have pretended to believe and their friendship with members would have remained intact.   And yet, their personal integrity did not allow them to pretend to believe, to pretend that they did not have questions, to pretend that they were still stalwart. After a period of suffering alone, many of them came out, started asking questions and saw their worlds crumble.

We must remember that in rejecting LDS doctrine and choosing to leave the church, they were not just giving up a once a week kind of religion.   As all of us who are active LDS know, Mormonism is more than just a religion.  It is a culture, a way of life.   Leaving the church would completely change one’s life and not to be done lightly.  

They did not leave the church because it was the easy thing to do as many people have speculated.   They had shown that they were anxious and engaged members of the Church doing their best to live up to all of what is expected of us as Latter Day Saints.   Other members speculate that people leave the church because they were unwilling to live up to the standards of the church.  Not so with this group.   They lived those standards joyfully while members of the church. In most cases they still live those same standards.   Some of these people even thanked their church experiences for helping to teach them good morals and acquire strong self-discipline.

Some think they were running away from their guilt.  If anything, they ran headlong into guilt.   As they embarked into their questions, many of them were engulfed in deep guilt for even questioning in the first place.  Some were accused by family and friends of being led by Satan.    They were hurt spiritually, psychologically, socially, economically and in every way imaginable. Yet oddly enough, after all that pain of going through the process of leaving the Church.  They all state that they are happier now.   They all state that they were glad they left.  They all made the comment that their consciences were more at peace since they were now living with greater personal integrity. They all felt like they had made the right choice.    

So there you go.  An overview of the 158 devout members who ended up leaving the Church.   I think we all can learn from it.  Let me be clear about one thing.  I am not a professional sociologist or statistician.   I am in no way attempting to extend what I have learned here and make statements about the rest of the Church based on the experiences of these 158.   What I have learned is limited to them.
This is also not an effort by me to “steady the ark.”  While it is an attempt to raise awareness to something that is happening far more often than we as active members of the Church might believe, I write this more for myself than for anyone else.  This research is rather a personal attempt to be better prepared to help those along this path who might ever come into my sphere of influence.  I failed in the past.  I vowed to be better prepared and better aware in the future.  
In my next few posts, I will examine a few of the issues raised in greater detail.    

~ Bruce Fey

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