83-84: Creating Spaces for Non-Traditional Latter-day Saints

This episode explores both the difficulties of creating more comfortable spaces for unorthodox Mormons in wards, stakes, and families, as well as the benefits. What are some of the tensions that arise in LDS communities when engaging those who hold less-literal beliefs or embody idiosyncratic approaches to spirituality, religion, and community norms? What are some positive ways the community or family can welcome and honor those persons? How might these Latter-day Saints assist in their own positive and joyful integration? What are the benefits of having persons from many points on the spectrum be fully integrated in a community?

In this two-part episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Meredith Lesueur, Ronda Callister, and Kevin Elkington share experiences and perspectives gained as non-normative Mormons who choose to remain engaged in their LDS wards even as they are recognized by many ward members as being somewhat non-traditional in their approaches? What reasons do they have for choosing to continue to serve, teach, and worship alongside others with whom they might strongly disagree?

Please listen and then share your own stories and experiences in the comments section below!

____

Articles/Essays mentioned in podcast:

“The Institutional Church and the Individual” by J. Bonner Ritchie (Sunstone, June 1999)

“Enduring to the End . . . in Joy” by Jim Sawyer (Sunstone, October 2002)

“For Better, For Worse, For Apostasy? How Faith Issues Affect Couple Relationships” by Ronda and Mike Callister, Page and Tom Kimball, Ruth Ogden and John Halstead (Sunstone, November 2006)

Comments

comments

25 comments for “83-84: Creating Spaces for Non-Traditional Latter-day Saints

  1. March 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    One thing I think I wish I’d suggested in the section about callings was  the idea to think of positions that you would feel comfortable doing, or skills you have that you think the ward could really benefit from and letting your ward know you would love to help in those areas. Maybe not asking for them specifically, but just saying you’d be comfortable serving in that way, or you want to the leadership to know of your particular skills in case there is a need. Seems like bishoprics, with all they have going on, would appreciate that information.

    • Anonymous
      March 23, 2012 at 9:29 am

      Interestingly, the 3 callings I have now are basically callings I asked for.

      – It turns out that in the temple you can fill out an application to be a veil worker or ordinance worker. They call up your Stake/Ward leadership and then give you the calling. 
      – I was talking to my EQP and was just telling him about how I wished the quorum was more of a fraternity/brotherhood and that I wished we did more service projects. Well, he started telling me that he didn’t like the fact that the EQ was a free moving service and that he didn’t feel like he could in good conscience ask someone to deal with arranging for the moves. I felt like I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t step up and volunteer. So I’m now the service coordinator. I call people for last minute service projects (people give us on average 1 day to get people together to help move) and plan larger service projects for the quorum. 
      – I was apparently too enthusiastic with sharing some cool family history stuff in the 6-week Sunday School class on family history. For example, I let people know about relative finder on facebook to see how you’re related to your facebook friends and other famous people. Turns out that was enough to get called as an instructor for the course. 

      Before I had these callings I was choir director (which calling I hated) and my whole church experience was far less than stellar. I think I just subconsciously assumed that I didn’t really have control over what I could do in the ward and just waited for leadership to give me a different calling (without knowing my skills or interests, as you mentioned, I’m not sure why I would have been called to something else)  At some point it finally clicked for me that I didn’t need to have a ‘calling’ to serve where needed and to try to help make the ward the type of loving, accepting, serving group I’d like it to be. 

      Basically, I guess I’m saying that if you volunteer for some callings or assignments that no one wants, then you can get away with asking for callings you do want. 

    • March 29, 2012 at 3:51 pm

      This isn’t necessarily a reply to your comment, but I just wanted to say that you did a great job! It was a lot of fun listening to you and I found all of your comments both insightful and entertaining. I hope they have you back as a guest on future episodes! I kept waiting for you to mention our game of ‘Scramble with Friends’ and went into a berzerker rage when you did not. I am making a joke! But I am sorry I suddenly stopped playing. I got super into it for awhile then one day I lost interest…but anyway, great job on the podcast!

  2. anon for today
    March 22, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Once again a wonderful panel and podcast!  About a year into my faith crisis, my two oldest and closest friends asked about the change they sensed in me. They could tell I was struggling with something and so I explained to them (circumspectly, so as not to undermine their own faith) my doubts about the church’s truth and exclusivity claims .  They expressed their unconditional love for me, but also felt that I should not have a temple recommend with my present doubts and that also my attention to blogs like FMH, and podcasts like this, Mormon Stories etc were akin to affiliation with groups whose teachings are contrary to those accepted by the church.  That response from my friends, along with the tenor of the RS, GD lessons in my ward, lead me to believe that if my fellow ward members knew how I really felt, they would not want me to have a space in their community.  I recognize that my feelings of insecurity signal some immaturity on my part, but it doesn’t make this process any less painful.  My fabulous husband and I team teach the 12-13 yr olds in SS.  He takes the lead so I only have to participate to the extent that I feel comfortable.  Sorry for this long ramble…my point is that I hope we will hear from this panel again for updates on how they are navigating this.  Particularly Kevin.  I am most anxious to hear if in his continuing bishopric experience, he will be able to be and feel authentic enough in this high profile calling that it doesn’t take a toll on his emotional/physical well  being.  Thank you to all those who participated in the podcast. 

    • Anonymous
      March 23, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      It is an interesting place that I find myself in right now, but it has been a pretty positive experience so far.  For my particular situation it helps that I know the Bishop very well (Varsity Scouting/neighbor/friend) and the other counselor is a very kind, loving person who genuinely cares as well.  I do worry sometimes that I will be backed into a corner and be expected to testify or teach something that I do not believe, because I just can’t do that.  So far I have been able to focus on things that I believe do matter – charity, love, service, etc.. 

  3. March 22, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    I appreciated the nitty-grittiness of this podcast.
    Very pragmatic, very down-to-Earth, and very heartfelt. It was nice to hear
    others experiences and to glean some new insights. Thanks, everybody!

     

    The kinds of issues you all raised are constantly nagging me. I
    especially wrestle with what I call “the community boundary problem.”
    Because at the ground level, the Church is, for me, a *community of
    practice*–a group of people who come together to help each other live life in
    a particular way. (Obviously, nobody else need see the Church like this–but
    it’s how I happen to right now.) And whenever there’s a community, there’s got
    to be boundaries. That’s just a sociological and psychological fact of life, I
    think. Boundaries create distinctions, distinctions create meaning, and meaning
    facilitates sanity and connectedness among people.

     

    That said, I wonder about Momonism’s community boundaries. What does it
    *require* to be a member of a Mormon community? Where is the *bottom line*? (Because
    if Mormonism is indeed a community of practice, then there’s got to be some
    bottom line somewhere—otherwise we’d be indistinguishable from Catholics or
    Secular Humanists or Buddhists or any other community of practice.) Like Dan
    suggests in the podcast (riffing off of Joanna Brook’s sentiments), maybe it’s
    just *wanting to belong*? I like the sound of that, but I don’t know if,
    pragmatically speaking, it’ll work well as the bottom line long-term. Because what
    happens when it’s no longer just 1-2 members in a ward but rather 20-50—or the
    majority (heaven forbid!)—that are non-literal members? What happens when more
    and more folks start tithing to humanitarian aid funds, or disregarding the
    Word of Wisdom, or midrashing the scriptures in every lesson? Well, I think
    that ward (as a sub-community) would be in trouble. Not because the people themselves
    aren’t kind or well-intentioned (they could be the most saintly folks in the
    world!), but because the plurality of ideas and practices is likely to weaken
    the once-strong distinctions between Mormonism and other communities of
    practice, resulting in less connectedness and sanity among the members.
    Obviously I can’t prove that this sort of trajectory is necessary, but it does
    seem reasonable to me.

     

    If we look at history and take Judaism for an example, the upshot of
    this would be that we’re likely to end up with something like Reconstructionist
    Mormonism, which would be a different (yet related) community of practice from
    Orthodox Mormonism. Granted, if this were to happen, it’d probably take a few
    hundred (or thousand?) more years to play out! And so I wonder: Am I just way
    out in left field here? Does anybody worry about this possible splintering?
    Anybody concerned that we non-literal folks may actually have some detrimental
    effects on the *quality* and *kind* of communities of practice that Mormonism has
    facilitated over the last 180 years? Does anybody *not* see the number of
    non-literal members growing like crazy over the next hundred years? Please, tell me! 

    • Mere
      March 22, 2012 at 9:59 pm

      Your concerns were exactly what led me to initiate this podcast. I think we are a ways away from this scenario, but really not that far off (as the transhumanism podcast and their exponential growth of ideas taught us) and so the conversation is definitely important. I think we can only do what we feel is right and let the consequences follow 🙂

      • March 24, 2012 at 12:42 am

        I agree, Mere. Sage advice. 🙂

        But I’d sure like to see this discussion fleshed out further someday. . . lots of stuff to consider! The wisest approach, I think, will pay careful attention to both living in the here-and-now *and* how that living may effect Church communities going forward. 

        Anyhow, thanks for initiating this podcast! I very much enjoyed it.

      • March 24, 2012 at 12:42 am

        I agree, Mere. Sage advice. 🙂

        But I’d sure like to see this discussion fleshed out further someday. . . lots of stuff to consider! The wisest approach, I think, will pay careful attention to both living in the here-and-now *and* how that living may effect Church communities going forward. 

        Anyhow, thanks for initiating this podcast! I very much enjoyed it.

      • March 25, 2012 at 3:28 am

        Mere, I think you’re right to suspect such possibilities may be much quicker to materialize than they were historically. Consider, for example, the political effects that information technology (particularly Twitter) has had recently in the middle east: http://socialcapital.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/twitter-facebook-and-youtubes-role-in-tunisia-uprising/

  4. March 22, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    My wife and I listened to both sessions this morning. I would recommend them heartily.

    This podcast was timely in the sense that since since her baptism and my-rebaptism our 12-month “probation” will be up at the end of next month, we had all but decided that although we would not remove ourselves, we would simply quit attending.
    But … the sheer volume of thoughts and prompts that were generated as we sat listening while playing around on our separate laptops was surprising to me.Toward the end of the second session, Dan and Kevin started talking about how and why Kevin accepted his calling into a bishopric, and then the ladies threw in their closing thoughts, by which time I was shaking my head in astonishment and glaring at Lietta who knew that what they were saying was hitting home.I may even have to listen a second time … But when it was done Lietta and I began a joking discussion that was in reality half-serious that perhaps in a mysterious moving way, the real Heavenly Parents have been calling both of us on a mission to a foreign land where I already know the language and Lietta is learning it…. but not to convert the souls there to any sort of corrected truth … but more to be compassionate, less selfish or better said self-oriented, setting judgment aside, all the while keeping the faith with this more comfortable culture to which we belong online… but not walking away from a car wreck of correlation, instead offering what we have learned by self-inoculation to those who genuinely may have a need in an environment where most of the rest will flee from them.If there is anything of spiritual value to this life into which I was born but left and have now returned… and into which Lietta voluntarily entered so that I could re-attach my torn cultural skin… perhaps we are asked rather to stand with reverence in the sacred space to 
    which we have been led so we can let those Heavenly Parents decide if and when we are not needed in some form that blesses us as well.  

    • Scott Holley
      March 22, 2012 at 8:01 pm

      Arthur – we need to have you and your wife give your story on a podcast.  

  5. March 22, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    This podcast was great. There are so many things I’d love to comment on, but I don’t have much time right now. I’ll just say that at tithing settlement, I decided to tell my bishop that I was very familiar with church history, particularly the problematic parts and that if anyone in the ward was struggling with things like that, that I’d be happy to talk with them. I told him that I was letting him know because depending on the issue, it might be easier for him to direct them to someone who has wrestled with those things. He thanked me. 

    Then when the Open Stories survey came out, I posted it to facebook. I had a couple people in my ward talk to me about it at church, just to say that it was surprising to them because they always assumed people left to sin or because of sin. These comments made me think that perhaps it would be good to let my bishop know about the study. I emailed him some quotes from Elder Jensen’s fireside (particularly the one mentioning that this is a period of apostasy rivaled only by Kirtland) and the survey. I told him that what I found particularly interesting was that bishops were among the last people to find out about a member’s faith crisis. I told him that I’d be happy to discuss it more with him if he was interested. He was and I set a time to meet with him, and I had my EQP join me (who is also a Mormon Stories fan). We basically tried to explain to the bishop how difficult the faith crisis is, and we also shared how hard our own trials of faith had been. I read some of the comments from the survey about how devastating it can be. I also mentioned “bishop roulette” and tried to explain why people don’t feel comfortable approaching their bishop. I mentioned that the bishop wears many hats in a ward, and while he may be the “father of the ward” and want to help serve everyone in the ward, at the same time he is the “common judge” of the ward. I said that when you’re struggling with your faith, why would you want to tell a judge about it who is capable of removing your recommend and therefore no longer allowing you to be present for family sealings, etc. The risk is too high and the potential benefit isn’t that high. As a result, it makes much more sense for people to attempt to work their way through it on their own rather than making the ordeal known. We talked about the importance of having someone to talk to during this time. At the end of the meeting, the bishop said to us that he thought that the more people with unorthodox views like us “came out of the closet” then the more people struggling would identify us as people with whom they could discuss their struggles. 

    This month’s fast and testimony meeting I got up to speak. I said that I hoped that some could benefit from it, and if not from what I said, hopefully everyone could through the spirit get something from it. I said that I’d had the opportunity to talk with many people about struggling with faith specifically about feeling that you don’t have faith or can’t really believe. I said that it’s my take that part of what Jesus was saying with the “grain of a mustard seed” was perhaps an indication that since we don’t see people moving mountains, perhaps that’s a clue as to how little faith everyone has in reality. I said that with the faith-hope-charity combo, Moroni, Nephi, and Paul were all pretty clear that charity was the most important. I mentioned that we read that faith is a gift, so if we’d like that gift, but don’t have it, we shouldn’t be too concerned. I mentioned section 46, and that it talks about gifts of the spirit and the first two it mentions are that 1- some are given to know by the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, and 2- some are able to believe on their words. So perhaps some of us have the gift to be able to continue together with the faith even without that same testimony through the Holy Ghost. I wrapped it up by talking about Joseph’s statement that the ‘grand fundamental principle of mormonism’ was friendship, and that in the same sermon Joseph said “what do I care if society is good as long as we are friends” and “if we all go to hell together, we’ll make of heaven of it and it will be great because we’re with our friends.” I ended saying that I hope we can all reach out to each other with that strong bond of friendship and let it bring us at one with each other and at one with God. 

    Well, it turns out that someone in the audience was a member who hadn’t come to church for a long time. They approached the bishop afterwards and told him that my comments had made them feel like there was hope for them and that they could actually belong to and be a part of the ward. I think that finally drove the point home for my bishop. He asked me after church if I would get lunch with him later to talk some more. At the lunch meeting I shared a bit more of my story and that right now my faith is very small to none. I have lots of hope, I’m constantly trying to be a charitable person and live as Christ taught, but I pretty much just have a desire to believe, not so much belief. I also let him know how much I wanted to help the ward grow. I see the great potential for good in the church and I want to help bring that about. In the end I think he got an idea of how much I really care about the church and the ward and that I just want to serve and help the church be a little better. He asked if I had any advice for how to best work with people who are disaffected or becoming that way. He also asked if I had any suggestions for how we might do things better in the ward. I unfortunately don’t have any hard-set plans or ideas, and I told him that. I just shared some of my thoughts. I sort of laid out what I saw as the array of possible approaches and what seemed to be the most likely outcomes of those various approaches. In the end I said that as the bishop with his mantle I’m sure he’d do well. I also said that I believed what Brigham said about if we just assume that our leaders are doing everything right we would “lessen the influence we could give to them,” and that I felt that part of my duty in sustaining my bishop was to give him whatever help and influence which seemed good and true to me. He said that if I had any other ideas to let him know. 

    I consider myself pretty lucky with how things have played out. My bishop views me as an asset for the ward because of my unorthodox approach. I have to attribute a good amount of this to luck and to the fact that I have a kind bishop. I do think it helped though that I initiated the conversation with him, and that he was able to see a positive effect immediately after my unorthodox ‘testimony.’ I think the future looks bright and that it’s up to each of us as members to help the ward become the best it can be.

    • Scott Holley
      March 22, 2012 at 8:03 pm

      Geoff this story literally made my day.  Thank you so much!!!

  6. Gillian
    March 22, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Loved the podcast. One thought I had in regards to the calling of “ward intellectual” and being there for people who are struggling.  Our previous bishop had what he called the mentorship program. He matched up people he was regularly meeting with who were struggling with problems either  testimony/addiction or other issues, with individuals in the ward who had either had those same issues and come out the other side positively, or who could be empathetic and helpful.  This program not only lightened the load of the bishop – but gave individuals with specific issues new supports that could help them see things in new perspectives. It was a great program. I like the idea of letting the bishopric and RS pres know about certain interests, skills and strengths that you can so that they may remember that when they encounter someone who is struggling and in pain, they may think of you .   I also loved the thought on contention vs contestation. Great thought.

    • Mere
      March 22, 2012 at 10:10 pm

      That’s so great about the mentorship program! I love it

  7. Scott Holley
    March 22, 2012 at 8:30 pm

    Love this podcast, and the participants.  I would have a hard time accepting the call of “ward intellectual” (part 2, minute 22) in good faith.  Is this calling designed to help individuals with faith crises to stay in the fold, or is it to help individuals with faith crises choose the path that is best for them?  Some may believe that those two callings aren’t in tension–that what is good for the goose…  It seems such people are taking an approach that is apologetic toward the institution’s claim on the individual, if not to all of the historical tenets of the church.  I tend to believe that the two callings are quite commonly in tension, and I could not in good conscious help an individual with a faith crisis stay in the fold over any other path (including spiritual/emotional/relationship health).  What to say when the Bishop asks you for your an accounting of your stewardship and you say “I have been really successful!  I helped three people resolve their concerns.  They have all left the church, and are much happier now”.  The Bishop would be understandably upset (although perhaps he got what he asked for?) 

    • March 22, 2012 at 9:58 pm

      I more or less volunteered to the bishop to talk with people having a crisis, esp over historical stuff. Since that time, I mentioned to him that I believe depending on the person and their circumstances it can be healthy for them to leave the church. After I said this, I shared a personal story. On my mission in Ukraine, there weren’t a lot of male members so frequently missionaries served in branch callings. I was the EQP in one branch and we had about 150 people on the roles but only ~30 came to church and only ~4 were men. So I spent most of my time in that area going through the list to remove people who had died/note when people had moved/invite people back. Well, one house (shack might be more appropriate, but issues of poverty and wealth are a different topic) a woman answered apparently her husband was the first branch president in that city. She told me about how her husband changed after joining the church at first there was some positive changes, but after getting the priesthood and being quickly made the leader of the church in that city the authority quickly went to his head. He started giving more orders at home, he didn’t want the branch to see his family making mistakes so he started increasing punishments for the most minor of offenses. At church the whole family had to act perfect, or they get physically punished at home. It was totally abusive. So she left him and took the kids. After being released, I don’t think he stayed around very long. I just told this woman how sorry I was and that as much as I was capable of giving an apology I was giving it. I told her how counter everything about that experience was to the gospel and even what the church teaches. I invited her back, telling her that things were different now, but that I totally understood if she didn’t think she could come back. As I thought about it that day as a missionary, I realized that there was no way that a loving God would deny her any blessings for avoiding the place that marked the beginning of an abusive relationship with her husband and was the cause of so much pain. 

      After I told my bishop that story, I mentioned that we seem very willing in the church to push loose ends to the Millenium during which time all these problems we see with the church will be dealt with. 
      A woman sealed to two husbands?, but whose wife will she be? -> Millenium
      A righteous woman can’t find a husband before she dies, according to Joseph this means she’s just an angel (that’s why he married Brigham’s aunt on the spot, so she wouldn’t be single after death.) What do we say now in the church? -> Millenium
      Is it really a stretch to say that people who have been harmed by the church or by a church leader and who leave the church as a result will get all the blessings anyway -> in the Millenium?

      He neither agreed nor disagreed. He just listened. So I think it is possible to try to do both. For my own selfish reasons (and I’ll acknowledge this), I want people in faith crises to stay in the church. I want more people like that in my ward! However, at the end of the day it is their decision and I will neither love them less nor esteem them less for leaving. I think if we talk about it this way, it’s hard to argue. I mean, you can also leverage the doctrine of agency and also some D&C 121:45-46. If we truly believe that section 121 tells us how to use the priesthood, then we must acknowledge that we must have our “bowels also be full of charity towards all men” when trying to serve those who have chosen to leave the church, and only through charity and without compulsion should we try to encourage them to join us again. In my mind, this absolutely leaves open the possibility for them to chose to leave and still not change the relationship dynamic. 

      • Scott Holley
        March 22, 2012 at 10:07 pm

        Geoff I am in awe of your tact and approach.  

    • Mere
      March 22, 2012 at 10:08 pm

      I’d have to say that any calling of ward intellectual would have to, per definition, reject any kind of reporting. You and your business background!! I never even considered the hierarchical structure of said calling. What if it was less of a calling and more of a designation?

  8. Reed Williams
    March 22, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    I am still on part 2 of the podcast, but I loved part 1. It felt very proactive to me, and the general feeling I got from it was that we can create our own space and really contribute to the ward like Geoff did. I think I am especially guilty about alienating myself insteasd of being alienated so this was good stuff for me to hear.

  9. Ciarran Burch
    March 22, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    Thanks Dan and company! Great podcast and it goes so nicely with the Boise Mormon Stories conference last week.  It’s wonderful to hear examples of real life community building.

  10. anonymous
    March 26, 2012 at 3:41 am

    great podcast.  I would like to know more about how you guys navigate in church callings.  i asked to be put in the primary because teaching Sunday School type classes became painful to me.  it’s easier for me to make comments in a class then it is to teach every sunday things that i don’t necessarily agree with.  i know i can’t stay in the primary forever though. would any of you non-literal believers feel comfortable teaching sunday school, elder’s quorum, or rs lessons?  if so, can you give advice on how to do so? 

    • March 30, 2012 at 2:12 am

      I really only enjoy classes when I’m teaching. I can frame the lesson in a metaphorical vein, what are the themes we take away from these scriptures, what is the benefit of believing in an afterlife vs what are the potential downfalls? how do we use this lesson to learn how to love more. Sometimes I’m too angsty inside to make a comment in an uncomfortable lesson (loved Ronda’s suggestions though) and so teaching puts me in a much happier place. 

  11. Greg Price
    April 6, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    Thanks Dan for this message and your efforts.  The panelist thoughts and insights were so very helpful for me.    As I listened, crying in Crown Burger, I was given the glimmer of hope that I needed to start over and to put my anger and distrust aside.  I really can still be apart of the church and help others find their way.  While it is true, I may never hold a temple recommend again, I can still enjoy the relationship and love of my ward members as I serve and reach out to them. 

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