Exit stories are the tales told when someone leaves the church. The internet is full of these stories, and in many, there is drama in the family as a result of the person’s decision to leave. Often the person attributes at least some of that family drama to the church itself as an organization. Yet, it is also true that there have been people who have left the church without family drama or disagreeable behaviors. So, is the church environment complicit in fostering “bad” behaviors or is it the families themselves who are prone to these behaviors? Or both?
First, let’s differentiate between “bad” or ineffective behaviors that are commonly described and good or acceptable behaviors:
Bad behaviors or responses:
- Encouraging faithful spouses to leave apostate spouses, even when there has been no infidelity or abuse.
- Controlling behaviors. Threats, ultimatums, and coercive actions to try to force someone back into the church.
- Being manipulative or intrusive. This could include “love bombing” or trying to smother someone back into the church. This can also entail crossing personal boundaries, going behind someone’s back, conspiring with local leaders, etc.
- Emotional outbursts. Tears and tantrums designed to cast the person leaving as someone who is victimizing the parent, spouse, relative or friend through their departure from the church.
- Assuming that the departing person has committed a grave sin or simply wants to live a lifestyle free from the restrictive standards.
- Judgmental comments and other rejecting behaviors; making it clear that love is conditional on one’s being Mormon.
Good behaviors or responses:
- Listening with an open mind.
- Loving unconditionally, regardless of level of belief. Making it clear that the person is loved as much as before.
- Sharing one’s own personal doubts that demonstrate acceptance of the person’s struggle and empathy.
Clearly, it’s easy for someone leaving the church to see these “bad behaviors” as being another flaw of the organization they have chosen to leave. Given that there is so much variety in experience, it seems that there are three things at play: the family’s traits, the departing individual’s traits, and to a lesser extent, the organizational culture.
Clearly, some of the drama can occur because of how the departing person handles it. Even absent “bad behaviors” on their part (e.g. yelling, blaming, etc.) there is still some inherent tension whenever someone leaves:
- Rejection. When someone leaves the church, they are rejecting something that those family members still embrace. The reaction is the same whenever you choose to leave an organization or you change your views – you now have one less thing in common, and that’s got to have some impact. If you like Mac computers, but your spouse is into PCs, that is an area of contention that will result in two separate laptops in your household.
- Family traits. Family members often share common traits when it comes to dealing with conflict and even how they view their religion. IOW, when a person who is leaving the church sees their family’s way of being church members, they may recognize that those are the same behaviors they had as church members and now find those traits irritating. Criticizing your family is often criticizing yourself.
- Definition of “bad behaviors.” Some departing individuals may be too sensitive or have too high expectations for the reception their announcement will receive. It’s probably best for both sides to cut each other more slack. For example, some of the above “bad behaviors” clearly have some good intentions behind them. They are just ineffective and can be offensive or lacking in empathy. But perhaps they are the best way some people know how to respond.
So, what behaviors can be traced to the church as an organization?
- Leader counsel. There is mixed counsel from leaders when it comes to how to address family members of different faith levels. Most recent counsel is geared toward inclusion (E. Wirthlin and E. Cook‘s recent talks are good examples of this), but some counsel seems a bit more conditional, focusing on not encouraging sin through acceptance of behavior outside the standards (E. Oaks‘ recent GC talk). Given that the counsel is mixed, I personally see this as further evidence that parents and family members hear what they want to hear and behave the way they are predisposed to behave, feeling justified based on reinforcement from leaders, even though different leaders have approached this issue different ways.
- Culture. Do members typically reject those who have left the church, or do they seek to understand and continue to love them even though they no longer share a faith? My experience has been very low drama and accepting, both in my own family and in the wards I have been in. Perhaps that is not typical of other wards or areas of the church as evidenced by these stories. What are your experiences?
- Eternal Family Doctrine. This just ups the ante. We do view our family units as eternal, so actions of family members have some sort of significance on each other. Because there is lack of clarity what exactly will happen after this life, family members often fear the worst and “freak out” when someone leaves the church. Personally, I think this one is just fear overcoming one’s better judgment.
Why does the organization often get blamed for things that are family traits?
- Too close to home. It’s a little easier to blame the church (one more step removed from yourself than your family is). After all, you have chosen to leave the church, but even if you wanted to, you can’t really leave your family.
- Bigger target. Organizations are easy scapegoats because they are larger than what we can control; whether it’s your company, the government, or a retail chain, it’s easy to personify an organization and imbue it with the personality traits of a few of its representatives, employees or members. Especially if you decide that you dislike that organization.
- Defensiveness. When family members come out in defense of the church, those who have rejected the church may feel that the family member has chosen the church over them.
So, what do you think? What bad behaviors have you seen from the faithful when someone leaves the church? Is that typical or not? Does the church foster good or bad behaviors with regard to apostate family members? Are individuals more accountable for those behaviors or is the church? Discuss.