An Unexpected Journey
August 21, 2021
“WHERE WILL YOU GO?”
First, this is a story about my own growth as a human - breathing in and out enough times to evolve and become aware. Second, it is a story about how that natural change as a person interacted with my religious life. I’ll speak in as general terms as I can, in the hope that readers at all stages of breathing in and out and becoming aware can follow it.
I’ve heard the term “faith crisis” used to describe what happens to people who leave the church. I would not call my journey a crisis. I think I just grew up.
I did not plan this, I did not seek it, and I didn’t live in a way to “invite” it into my life in the way church members may use the term. On the inside, people who leave are often represented as somehow not living up to the standards set by the church, somehow failing in their duty, or somehow sinful for falling away. That’s simply not true, but it is used to dismiss people and label them as “unworthy” so that we don’t have to think about what their genuine concerns may be.
Here is a condensed version of my thoughts and feelings with regards to my experiences of church over the past 8 or more years. I definitely have to credit serving as a missionary with awakening a desire in me to live a more sincerely compassionate life and opening my mind. If any of this seems judgemental, please realize that I was part of it, too, and that’s what I could no longer accept.
FOCUS. I felt that we were facing inwards like cattle and kicking out.
DIVISION. Church v. other churches. Church v. the world. Church v. change. The division of “faithful” and “inactive” members. Members. They are “in”. Others are referred to as non-members. My own family was split into “members” and “non-members” which I came to realize was unhelpful and nonsensical.
GENUINE CONNECTION. While there were two or three experiences a year where I felt that discussions at church were open, sincere, and connected interactions, heartfelt discussions always went “back to the manual”, back to the script, making genuine, sustained vulnerability a real struggle to come by.
PROGRAMME. If we felt uninspired in meetings, we were at fault. Not the manuals, not the pre-approved topics, not the mode of delivery, not the often out-of-touch messages. The people were to fit in with the programme, that was clear.
THE MOLD. The type of family that we were all supposed to aspire to seemed comically over-simplified the more I observed of life and love. I saw genuinely amazing people who felt like failures for not living up to something that was called God’s standard for family. Division of families into faithful and not faithful church goers caused pain. Another of the many side-effects is that the church has droves of incredible single people feeling less-than simply for not being married with children, as though that is the only valid life choice they can make that can please themselves or deity. I’m aware that conservative societies tend to favour and push marriage and family, that the church is not alone in that. I observed this obsession with marriage play out in the church on three different continents. What I didn’t see was that people who followed this path were overwhelmingly happy and godly. It frustrated me to see single people feel so bad for no good reason and seeing others in terrible marriages they felt powerless to escape. None of it seemed healthy.
SHAME. While Dieter Uchtdorf (a high church official) may have given an impassioned talk about not using manipulation to get people to do what you want them to do, the church is built on a lot of the tactics he denounced. In one breath, a sincere leader would warn against manipulation; with the next, another, equally sincere leader would use manipulative language towards the members - creating fear about losing blessings, losing their faith, losing their families, losing their eternities - seemingly without noticing the contradiction. It’s baked into the system.
CHOICE. Though freedom to choose was a key principle we talked about regularly in church from a young age, the sanctity of choice seemed to erode over time in the way it was framed and talked about. It morphed into “the freedom to do what leaders say is right” rather than the freedom to follow your conscience and work out your life yourself (which were supposedly scriptural principles). What church leaders say has been placed above what your own heart, your own needs, or your own common sense might suggest is right for you and your family.
Fear of what will happen - to you or your loved ones - has become part of getting people to choose what leaders want for them rather than what they know is right for themselves.
The population of this planet is endlessly varied. That variation is treated as wrong. You’d have to believe that God created diversity only so that he could then hate it and ask us to conform to one idea. I found that astonishing once I allowed myself to think of it. Making that diversity of thought, need, desire, expression and so on wrong means church members only have one choice if they want to stay in the “in group” of the church: they must choose to conform.
INFORMATION CONTROL. This was a subtle drift, as I felt that the church placed more and more emphasis on church sources of information as opposed to any and all other sources - a cause for concern for me. Huge concern. Again, I don’t remember it being so controlling in earlier years. It felt like an intentional shift and it was a red flag.
CHURCH ESSAYS. The church quietly published essays that admitted to many problematic issues in church history that we were never in any manual or lesson I ever had. More than that, we were told outright lies in direct contradiction of what they admitted in the essays.
NO STRINGS ATTACHED GOODNESS. I felt a strong need within myself to be good for goodness’ sake. I wanted to give from my heart, not because my good standing in the group would be affected if I didn’t. I tried to explain this to my bishop on one of my last Sundays. I couldn’t see a way to become good for the sake of goodness and not for reward while remaining in the system.
ROOM TO GROW. In the end, as I grew older I saw that I had to choose either to live a life of compulsion or to live a life of choice. Church life felt like training wheels that were being tightened in place. It also began to feel like preparation for further learning rather than an end in itself. Would I accept that I was feeling that way or ignore it and double down?
TWO ROADS DIVERGED IN A WOOD
And so a fork appeared in the road ahead. Members of the church would likely say that at the crossroads the correct choice is simply to allow faith to win and to find ways to make peace with all the things I’ve written about - and, let me tell you, what I’ve written is just the basics.
The thing is, though, I actually believed in freedom to choose. That lesson proved stronger than the lesson to be afraid. I walked out of church one Sunday knowing I wasn’t going back the following week.
To my mind, fear lost that day and faith won, not the other way around.
I left with a simple idea: If I put all my beliefs down and strip away all the expectations of people and the supposed expectations of deity, and I eventually find what I left behind to be good and right after consideration, I can just pick it all up again! There is grace enough for that.
There is grace enough for that.
I found that I didn’t miss running around being righteous. It appeared more shallow on the outside than it had even appeared on the inside.
I found that my connection to something higher than myself did not suffer. After a period of fearfulness and uncertainty, I discovered that beyond that I could still feel like myself - connected, full, whole, unruffled. That was not connected to church attendance and adherence.
I connected way better than before to people in my life outside of the church.
I could let my desire to accept and love others as they are flourish, instead of having to filter it through the church lens.
I talked with my mother about my faith journey and got nothing but love, acceptance, and support from her. Her story with the church is her own to tell. She’s a remarkable person, a true gem.
I found that there weren’t people in the church with whom I could talk about this. Perhaps there are those who would rather guess what’s going on with me, or attempt to divine “by the spirit” what is going on. One person asked me directly.
After many, many months I finally felt brave enough to really look at the church organization, to read unbiased materials, and to think about it with an objectivity I couldn’t have had when I was physically participating. I will not describe the sickness and betrayal I felt.
I realized that my siblings across the pond were going through a similar transition. We had never talked about our faith “crises” to one another, but here we were coming to the same conclusions. This was an amazing discovery, as it meant that I was not alone.
I started to think about church friends who had come and gone and whether they had ever experienced similar things. I realised that I had never asked.
I accepted that though I had started with the intention of perhaps going back if I wanted, that was never going to be an option ever again.
Wholesale upheaval aside, I was doing well in my life. I was still me, but felt more free to grow, live, and love. There was no longer a box.
NOW WHAT? PART ONE: Church Considerations
To my church friends and acquaintances, please accept my thanks for the role you have played in my life and the joy and goodness we’ve managed to have together. Thank you for the music and the friendships. None of this changes any of that. I am able to hold both my church self and my current self in my hands with respect and dignity. I’m grateful for much of what we’ve shared, and will remain grateful always.
I have no issue with church members and wish every single one of you if you’re reading this really well. I expect nothing from you except for you to be you. I’m sure that if I walked in at the chapel doors, I’d feel quite as at home as before. It’s part of my life.
I know how this works and that you may feel the need to avoid me. You must do as you see fit.
If you want to remain my friend, great. I’m glad!!!
Yes, you can still be my friend and invite me to your life events, if you want. Yes, I am able to hold conversations with people that aren’t about church at all. No, I don’t judge you for staying or being in the church.
I do not take this lightly. This is what I (thought I) knew and loved for a long time. It is also what bound me to a community of people I still love.
As I’ve said, I didn’t start out with the intention to leave the church or religion! I’m glad that in allowing myself to grow I got myself out; I can see now that that’s a good thing. We make changes only when we’re really ready for them. My process was over the course of many years, and now we are here.
Though I am aware that according to the church I am still a member, still on the records, and still under the “authority” of church leaders, I do not consider myself a member of the church.
I’m aware that local church leaders may feel responsible for me, may believe they have jurisdiction over my life, and may attempt to exercise authority in some way or another. I wish they wouldn’t, but they might. I haven’t heard one word from any of my church leaders since I walked away for good over 2 years ago.
What bound me to my commitments in church was my sincerity, faith and trust. What eventually severed that connection for good was not my walking away, but my realization and acceptance that not only was the church not working for me, it was also covering up the truth about its history and its current behaviour.
The church survives because the people on the ground level are often genuinely kind and caring, and they are the face of the church. The church acts as a corporation, and hides behind the good faith of people to cover lies, half-truths, covers ups, and corruption. The same could be said for many other christian organisations, I suppose.
I don’t lay blame on members for what isn’t their fault. People give their lives, their time, their biggest life decisions, their money, their efforts, and their children to the church. They do so in faith and hope. The least they deserve is honesty.
I grew up in a community of (mostly) fabulous people. Then I left for my own reasons. I now know I can’t return in good conscience. I’m grateful that this means I feel free to continue to follow my heart and live my life on my own terms, according to the dictates of my own conscience.
NOW WHAT? PART TWO: The business of Life
I’m genuinely not sure anyone is interested in how I currently view life or even if anyone has read this far down.
After a life devoted to beliefs that chose me as a child, and which I chose as a teenager, I now choose to have no specific set of beliefs.
Shared belief is what allows us to function together on a practical level as diverse humans across the world, and that’s a marvellous thing. When those beliefs become too narrow and prescriptive, division rather than cohesion is the result, perhaps because there’s no space to hold with grace the diversity of life in such a narrow framework.
In short, I would rather live in a spirit of oneness than a spirit of separation. If pushed I might go so far as to say I believe in the oneness of everyone and everything. And that life is the dancer and I am the dance.
At least I have the hope that a choice to lean into oneness as an ideal will perhaps allow me to do more good than harm by the time I go the way of all the earth.
Life and death appear to me to be akin. Both are certifiably sure, equally terrible and glorious. I neither pretend to understand nor seek to overthrow either. It is what it is.
I looked at the ocean not long ago and said, “I’m content that the waves crash and don’t need them to be crashing for me.”
And I felt that it was good.