25 Things NOT to Say to a Loved One When Leaving the Church

A plea to our former congregants to be tolerant and loving.

Note: This post, in a bit of jest, is modeled after a similar post from a licensed clinical social worker living in Utah making the rounds on social media (not insignificantly, this post was originally published on our favorite spiritually cancerous blog – the comments alone are a trip). Still, it’s worth wondering why this is such a one-way street, and in that way the suggestions below – taken largely from responses to this – are sincere.

Finding out that a loved one has decided to remain a Latter-day Saint when it’s obviously all poppycock can bring up a broad spectrum of emotions. Intense and often painful emotions can make it difficult to know what to say to your loved one about their choice to remain a part of the Church.

These conversations are particularly painful because our family and community identities, religious rituals, cultural traditions, and vision of eternity are tied to having shared spiritual beliefs and practices.

When former or “leave-taking” Latter-day Saints don’t know what to say, they may default to what they’ve been trained to do in progressive circles or subreddits not friendly to the Church. They start bickering, preaching, or bearing testimony (of sorts) of their newfound freedom from allegedly false and distorted dogma. This is an important and urgent witnessing opportunity, right? Wrong.

Why? Because whatever comments you make will be invariably tied into the feelings of frustration, resentment, or negativity you have towards the Church as an organization. It will most likely come across embittered, condescending, unloving, disrespectful and rejecting to the one on the receiving end. Ironically, in our effort to be understood, validated, and affirmed, we are likely to push others farther away.

Personal agency is a foundational principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As adults, we are able to fully exercise this agency, including the decision of whether to condone, accept, or validate the decisions of others. As former or inactive members, we should respect the personal agency of other adults, even if it is not what we would choose for them or for ourselves.

Here are 25* things to avoid saying to your loved one who continues their activity in the Church (even if you believe that church is false):

1. Why can’t you be happy for me?

Frankly? Because in my estimation, you’re making choices that will not only impact you in this life and the life to come but will create repercussions that will be felt by our family for generations. I’m not terribly thrilled about that.

Now, you have moral agency. That’s a critical part of the plan – a part of the plan for which I’m grateful. How you use that moral agency will provide you with opportunities to learn and grow and develop, and in that way this is good. But I’m also not naive about some of the pain or heartache ahead and I’m not excited about them (particularly those pains and heartaches that are avoidable).

I’m not happy for you, nor do I feel like this choice is in your best interest, and while I don’t anticipate telling you that on the regular, I’m also not going to lie about my feelings.

2. I don’t need this religion as a crutch.

Well, is that a fact.

Let’s be clear. There is no way that this – a comment essentially boiling down the entirety of my religious beliefs into little more than imaginary emotional support – is not condescending and insulting. Rather than a crutch, to me “this religion” is true and good and something I credit for each and every good thing in my life. Were I asked to, I’d like to think I’d sacrifice my life for “this religion.”

How I react to this kind of remark is on me, and it’s your prerogative to be condescending and insulting if you choose to be, but lets at least be honest about it. If you can’t control your vitriol for the Church, it is going to impact our continuing relationships, so keep your Marx-ian fortune cookie statements at home.

3. “Here in the CES Letter…”

Oh, glory be.

Based on why you left the Church, there’s a good chance I’ll be understanding. Life is difficult and we all have unique challenges. I don’t need to agree with someone in order to respect the journey they’ve taken.

But goodness, please don’t expect that level of respect if we ask about you to tell us more and you come back at us with CES Letter nonsense. While it’s been effective – for a number of different reasons – it’s hastily cobbled-together drivel, regurgitated from a century of anti-Mormon material and wrapped up in a completely B.S. narrative, and it’s been thoroughly addressed by actual experts in relevant fields (e.g. Michael Ash, Jim Bennett, and many others).

I don’t want to hurt your feelings as I stifle laughter when you bring up the CES letter unironically.

If you’re bothered by something, that’s fine. If it felt overwhelming, I get that! If you can’t reconcile your personal ideology with the gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by the Church, well, sure, that’s tough. But don’t lead with “CES Letter.” It’s rubbish and it will be treated as such. The only thing lamer you could tell me is you’ve been violated by being born into the Church without your consent.

4. “Did you know that…”

Maybe it’s the lack of evidence for pre-Columbian horses in the Americans. Maybe it’s the way that Church artwork depicted Joseph translating with his finger running line-by-line over the plates rather than with his face buried in his hat. Maybe it’s a modern policy adjustment. There’s likely something you’ve heard that bothers you.

Maybe I’ve heard it. Maybe I haven’t. (I probably have.) Either way, coming at the issue in this way demonstrates you’re not interested in engagement as much as you’re interested in lobbing mortars over the fence. If that’s what you’re bringing to the table, you can just sit right back down.

Now, this isn’t to say that I’m not willing to hear you out. I’d be happy to chat. And if you’d asked, for example, “How have you gotten past the things that bother you?” or “How did you reconcile your faith with [the lack of pre-Columbian horses, translation artwork, and modern policy changes]?” I’d see that you’re interested in a real discussion and jump in there with you.

But if you’re just looking to “enlighten” me in the same way that some woke millennial college students pester their Trump-voting uncle over Thanksgiving dinner, hard pass.

5. “I don’t do that anymore.”

I hate to break it to you, but being in a family means that it’s not about you. Unless you have serious moral objections to some kind of family event (read: more than just “I don’t believe that”), it behooves you to suck it up and be involved.

My nephew was just baptized into the Catholic Church as an infant. My wife’s brother left the Church years ago and married a nice Catholic gal and their first child is not quite a year old, so it was time for his baptism. Rather than passing on a copy of the Book of Mormon with Mormon’s letter on infant baptism dog-eared, you know what we did? We went! Our kids didn’t quite understand the ups and downs of the mass that took place as part of the baptismal service, but we were there for it because, in a family, that’s what you do.

No one is expecting you to play the part of an active member or endorse things you don’t believe in, but it might not be terrible to attend Christmas services with the family when you’re home for the holidays or come to your sister’s baptism or help out at the church welfare farm. In fact, it would likely go a long way in demonstrating there is still mutual respect even if you don’t see yourself as “Mormon” anymore.

Now that you have an idea of what is not helpful to say to loved ones, here are 25* things to say instead:

  1. I respect your choice to believe and stay.
  2. The extent of your sadness about my choice feels a bit weird, but I understand it’s because the church and my covenants are real to you even if they aren’t to me.
  3. I won’t let my anger about what I believe to be lies affect our relationship, though I understand if our relationship evolves or changes.
  4. I won’t take your continued belief and support of the doctrines of the Church as a personal affront to me and my choices.
  5. I won’t try to convince you or others to leave the church with me.
  6. I won’t encourage you or others to break covenants or violate standards.
  7. I won’t attempt to undermine the way you choose to raise your children or the things you teach them about choices I make.
  8. I won’t frame your beliefs (or Church leaders) as hateful or bigoted or perverted in our conversations together; I won’t accuse you of hatred, bigotry, or perversion.
  9. I won’t send you anti-Mormon material or leave it surreptitiously in your home.
  10. I won’t protest at family gatherings when religious observances – like prayers at mealtime – are followed.
  11. I’ll conform to the standards and expectations you have of anyone who visits your home in areas like dress, language, relationships, drug use, or other behaviors.
  12. I won’t mock our shared ancestors who frequently gave everything they had – sometimes even their own lives – to live out their beliefs.
  13. I won’t deface the scriptures, and I won’t encourage or congratulate others who do.
  14. I won’t caricature the honest and good-faith attempts of members of my former community to reach out to and befriend me.
  15. I won’t mock or ridicule you to other family members or friends who have also decided to leave.
  16. I’ll refrain from using derogatory or mocking language with you. I’ll refer to you as a Latter-day Saint, and I’ll refer to the founder of the Church as Joseph Smith.
  17. I recognize that family gatherings don’t need to be about a defense of my choice to leave the Church.
  18. I realize that even though I may have grown up in the church, served a mission, or spent time in different leadership capacities, there are probably things I don’t know or understand the same way as you do.
  19. I’d be happy to come to the church farm with you because I know the church is full of slackers and if you’re gonna be stuck out there all day long, I want to be there next to you.**
  20. I love you and I want you to be happy.***
  21. I’d love to read the gospel topic essays so that we can talk more.***

The most important things you, as nonbelievers, can do to support loved ones who remain active in the Church is are to learn from them and to love them.

*We may not get to 25 right away, and we may exceed that as time goes on. For consistency sake, we kept that target

**So this one may not be universally applicable.

***Some of Dr. Hanks’ list is perfectly acceptable, and it’s been replicated here.

Supplemental Reading:

You can follow Danny on Twitter @backfromthat. Also, check out his fabulous blog.

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