Believers and non-believers. The faithful and the doubters. Religious conservatives and religious liberals. TBMs and NOMs. These are ways we describe the differences in our faith and activity in our religious tradition. These variations are not unique to Mormonism. The patterns of faith development have been documented across all religions and cultures. How does an institutional church serve and support both groups? How does it care for the ninety and nine, without neglecting the one? Can it go after the one without neglecting the ninety and nine?
For starters, how do you know if you are 99 or a 1?
In most organized religions, the larger group will be the most faithful, loyal, and active-in-practice. These are the people who lead a productive and often religious life, although not necessarily a personalized spiritual life. The majority of faithful LDS (and of all organized religions) may live their whole lives without really straying too far from the 99 and find great value and happiness. Most people within the 99, whether they have ever strayed or not, view the journey of the one as being dangerous and best to be avoided as a rule.
To be a 1 is most simply to become separated (physically, emotionally, OR spiritually) from the flock enough for a reunion to be a non-trivial effort. Sometimes weakness, immaturity, or rebellion might actually be a reason for straying, but it’s certainly not always the case. Even the word straying is slightly misleading, as sometimes the separation from the flock is not so clearly a choice. Often while the 1 is astray, they feel like the 99 are, well.. sheep. The 99 might be willing to accept that comparison given certain biblical parables, but another aspect of the perspective of the 1 is that the shepherd is not Jesus, as we often think, but only church leaders.
Of course, that is actually true for most Christian churches. It is a common belief that Jesus has entrusted (or called) a number of human beings with the responsibility to “feed His sheep”. When it comes to LDS, although we do have a lay ministry, which means that technically I could be called to be the bishop of my ward (or shepherd of my flock) next week… we are still more like a mega-flock which is made of smaller flocks. The mega-flock is shepherded by General Authorities, and the local shepherds are mostly just extensions of the shepherding philosophies of those above them.
For a shepherd, a successful rescue of the 1 is mostly limited to a complete return to the flock. Reconciliation to the ideas they struggled with is directly connoted with repentance, which also assumes that the separation from the flock is always either a result of poor judgment or else a lack of proper commitment (i.e. the truth has always been there and no one has to be surprised.) Some shepherds prefer to perpetuate that idea, as it helps to dissuade the 99 from wandering too far and hopefully avoiding the thorny paths. Warnings about wandering are constantly given.
“First, in the Church, we don’t criticize; we don’t discipline members for what they think. But if they teach things that are going to lead people astray and to unhappiness, then we sound the alert. We don’t discipline them for their attitudes or their tendencies. We warn people if they go on that path: there are snares there, so stay away from them. It’s just that simple.” – Boyd K. Packer, from his PBS Helen Whitney interview
The Journey Can Be a Part of Growth
Yet, some 1’s find that the journey astray becomes an integral part of their spiritual lives. This idea can sometimes be unfathomable to some of the 99. After all, wickedness never was happiness, and the condition of separation from the flock in and of itself is often directly associated with some degree of wickedness. Of course, separation is usually not happiness, but its not always related to wickedness. There are pitfalls, yes, but a major reason for the severity of those pitfalls is that there is very little support for the 1, unless/until they return to the 99. LDS leaders receive thousands of letters from 1’s and their families which illustrate vividly the pain that is out there, and perhaps that is why there seems to be little acknowledgment of any positive value in the journey itself.
“We encourage people to get all the education they can. We’re not afraid of it. […] But if you get hung up and involved and intellectually lose your way — and some do leave — they’re questioning everything. But their questions don’t have a productive insight. The mind is the source of inspiration, but if you get wandering too far the inspiration will stop. And that’s a bad place to be in life — to be without guidance and help, to be without a conscience, in other words.” – Boyd K. Packer, from his PBS Helen Whitney interview
To be “without a conscience” is not a fair characterization, though. There are many 1’s who experience this separation as a result of following their conscience. However, to be “without guidance and help” is all too often the case, but… are the shepherds without any responsibility?
Should the Shepherd Stay or Should He Go?
It is never simple, though. If the shepherd leaves the 99, what happens to them? I think the focus on the 99 leads many 1’s to feel abandoned or rejected, and sometimes even to judge the shepherds as being too corporate in their treatment of the flock. I think this statement from Elder Packer in a 1993 talk to the correlation committee demonstrates the reasoning.
“Those who are hurting think they are not understood. They are looking for a champion, an advocate, someone with office and influence from whom they can receive comfort. They ask us to speak about their troubles in general conference, to put something in the curriculum, or to provide a special program to support them in their problems or with their activism.
When members are hurting, it is so easy to convince ourselves that we are justified, even duty bound, to use the influence of our appointment or our calling to somehow represent them. We then become their advocates — sympathize with their complaints against the Church, and perhaps even soften the commandments to comfort them. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way.
[…] If we are not very careful, we will think we are giving comfort to those few who are justified and actually we will be giving license to the many who are not.“
The gist of that statement is that the church is essentially made for the 99. In ironic consolation, it does at least acknowledge that the 1 is sometimes justified, but what will the shepherd do for them? The oft-overlooked intention comes later in that talk:
“The comfort they need is better, for the most part, administered individually.”
Here he places the task of going after the 1 at the feet of local shepherds. It makes sense that they know their flock more intimately, and would be better qualified to help. Why then are there so many 1’s who still feel like there is no shepherd looking for them? The shepherds call out for them to come home, but not many go out to meet them where they are. What if the declaration that those who stray are without guidance and help has become self-fulfilling prophecy?