Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Inactivity and Coming Back To Church: My Uncensored Look

"When you feel the heat, look into my eyes
"It's where my demons hide, it's where my demons hide.
"Don't get too close, it's dark inside
"It's where my demons hide, it's where my demons hide."
- Demon, by the Imagine Dragons

I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would become less-active. I was always really diligent about going to Church and I really loved the sense of community I always felt. But my life didn't go quite how I anticipated and I am now returning to activity after several years of being less-active and having many family and friends who have been less active. Being on the receiving end of reactivation efforts has shown me just how misunderstood being less-active is and how little understood reactivation is by most members of the Church. Thus the reason for this post. As the title implies, I'm not going to hold back a lot here, so you've been warned now that you might be offended by some of the views in this post.

Less Active Myths:

People go less active because of mainly petty offenses.

I think this is a convenient idea for active members. One bad apple doesn't spoil the whole bunch and less-actives need to just develop a tougher skin and more faith. Some people do get caught up in petty things, others develop serious doubts about doctrine. But here's the thing, a lot of people stop feeling safe at church and that's why they stop going. They're trying to avoid further trauma. Why do people stop feeling safe at church? There are a lot of scenarios. Some committed a serious sin and were met with a lot of shaming from members as they tried to put their lives right. Judgemental words and deeds, or serious trauma at the hands of one or more Church members are often the root. (This can be a big problem for men who have been victims of sexual trauma inflicted by other men, especially when the abuser was a Church member. They often don't feel safe in priesthood meetings and simply stop coming to avoid the panic it brings . It's a bigger problem than you think.) Local leaders who overstep their bounds and use their authority in ways that ends up being humiliating is another one. Feeling forced into Church by parents is another thing that pushes many young people out of Church. Some people become overwhelmed with family and financial or other issues and feel unable to shoulder the burdens of church too. 

If my kids are having trouble with Church, I should force them to go and it will be worth it in the end.

I have met so many less-active adults who felt forced into church activity by parents. They associate the Church with having their agency taken away. Forcing people to do what's right is Satan's plan; that is what we fought against in the War in Heaven. If your children are questioning the Church or struggling, follow the example of our Heavenly Parents (who do have all the answers) and continue to love your children, live your life the way you choose and teach (but not ram-down-the-throat) correct principles and then let them choose. This may seem scary, but there's a better chance that they will return and become more dedicated if they are allowed to find their own testimony and choose for themselves.

People don't come back to church because they get distracted by worldly pursuits.

Sometimes this is true. For me, my assigned ward felt so scary that the idea of going to church sometimes gave me panic attacks. I felt so threatened by the shame and embarrassment I had experienced at church that though I wanted very much to return to full activity, I couldn't do it. I felt extremely vulnerable at church. To understand the vulnerability/shame dynamic, I really can't recommend enough watching Brene Brown's TED talks "The Power of Vulnerability" and "Listening to Shame". This vulnerability/shame dynamic is what many less-actives are dealing with when thinking about coming back to church.

Why Did I Go Less-Active? 

There were a lot of things that added up, some big, some little. Mostly I felt like many of the people in the ward, including the leadership, had made a judgement about my family's situation when they really knew nothing about what was really going on. It felt like many of the people in the ward felt that seeing my family and my in-laws at Church for a few hours told them everything they needed to know. I felt that it was my in-laws' ward and the first loyalty of the leadership was to them- right or wrong. So I didn't feel like there was a place for us. For my husband, these issues were compounded by several other issues that go back into his childhood.

Why Did I Come Back?

It was a convergence of factors. I was feeling more ready to and a new bishop had been called who was willing to listen to us and has so far been helpful with aiding us in addressing the problems were facing and doing what he can to help us make the changes that we want to see happen in our life. What we felt from previous leadership was more of an emphasis on how great we had it, which was not helpful. How things going as we move forward remains to be seen. I still have a lot of mistrust of Church leadership.

What Helps?

Sincerity

If you are want someone to come back to church, the first thing you must do is be sincere in your love for them. Let me blunt here: less-actives couldn't possibly care less about the ward records showing perfect attendance. We're not interested in being another notch on the ecclesiastical bed post, and truthfully, that is how most fellowship efforts feel. We want to feel safe at church, and unless that happens, we won't come back. Many members have a terrible problem confusing numbers with Christlike love. Love and fellowship can not be quantified by numbers on an attendance sheet or reports to a mission president. If you're interested in helping someone back to church, you have to love them and be a true friend whether they come or not. And be forewarned, many less-actives are very suspicious and have a pretty high BS-meter. We can tell if you're faking interest in us for the sake of numbers. But seriously, get to know us! We can be pretty awesome people!

Patience

It won't happen overnight. It doesn't happen in 20 minutes like a seminary video. It may take years. But if it takes years, isn't that worth it? Take the counsel of Proverbs 17:17: "A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." 

Don't be surprised

The need for this is vastly underestimated. You must be able to say "You can't surprise me", and it has to be true. Most who are less active are dealing with boatloads of baggage. Molestation, incest, rape, teen pregnancy, abortion, same-sex attraction, addiction, family dysfunction, questions about doctrine/supposed doctrine are all issues that contribute to becoming less active and for many people, and those issues have to be resolved if they are going to feel safe in coming back to church. They can't be swept under the rug. If someone tells a church leader or member they are struggling with one (or more) of these types of issues, the single worst thing that can be done is to sweep it under the rug or shame the person by telling them how bad a sin is and to simply stop.

This is something I wish every bishop understood: If people come to you and tell you they are having a problem, that is a really, really good thing. How good? So good that you should keep confetti in your desk for such occasions. Whenever someone tells you of their own free will that they are experiencing a serious problem or confesses a serious sin, you should shout "Hallelujah!" because these are the people who are experiencing a mighty change of heart. These are the people who want to make something great of their lives. The folks whose entire life and identity is wrapped up in being a by-the-letter Latter Day Saint who never talk about their problems? These are the ones you should be afraid of. In my experience, these people are often the ones who have serious dysfunction/transgression in their life and are trying to hide it like Bernie Madoff by being so "perfect" that they remain above suspicion.

Christ descended below all things. He took on all the ugliness of the world. He never hid from anything. If we want to be Christlike, we have to be willing to face the demons and help those who are struggling to fight them. (BTW, if you find someone who wants help with doctrinal issues, I can't recommend enough checking out the LDS Apologetics site www.fairlds.org.)

A note on treats...

Everyone loves treats, especially me! This can be a great way to show someone that you are thinking of them. But I do recommend asking about a person's diet before sending treats their way. One time a lady from our ward gave us green beans from her garden and that totally rocked!!!! We love getting fresh fruits and vegetables. Besides that, many people have food allergies and sensitivities or special dietary needs for health problems such as diabetes or heart disease. If you really want to rock someone's world, find out what they like and if they have any dietary restrictions.

What Doesn't Help?

Asking us why we are not coming to church

Sometimes it's necessary for a bishop or other leader to enquire about why a member isn't coming, but seriously folks, don't ask this is casual conversation. (See the above on "Don't be surprised".)

Telling us how great the ward is

In my personal experience, I hear this on a lot. Maybe it's just my ward. (This past fast Sunday there seemed to be a lot of testimonies dedicated to to how great a ward we have, along with the usual list of health problems and shout outs to family. Props to the two teens involved with special needs seminary who gave simple, short testimonies about the love of God and how they had seen it with the kids they were helping.) When I keep hearing this over and over again, I feel like people are trying to sell me on the ward. On the other hand, me having been inactive may make them feel insecure as if I've been judging the ward by not coming, so I realize it goes both ways. Just focus on being a good friend. Sometimes, a few really great people make more difference than a whole ward.

Overstepping your bounds

If you are in a leadership position such as a bishop, please be careful not to jump to conclusions or overstep the boundaries of your calling. One particularly humiliating incident for us happened when a bishop decided he needed to help my mother-in-law with a decision concerning us that was hers to make and no one else's. It was so painful that it was the nail in the coffin for us being involved with the ward. A very dearly loved family member of mine went inactive in junior high after the bishop of her ward accused her of using drugs (she wasn't). The bishop was absolutely certain about it though because his mother had claimed that she had seen the girl exit the bathroom with her friends and the girl's pupils were dilated. (Note, neither of these people were trained substance abuse professionals.) Though her parents believed her, no one else did because she was already struggling with church. The bishop demanded that she be sent away and she was. This did exactly nothing to help her with church activity and everything to drive her further away. (Though I'm sure it made the bishop's mother feel very important.)

This is also important with temple workers. I live within a couple of blocks of one of the busiest temples in the world (work for the dead-wise) and my husband and I went frequently after we were first married. We had so many humiliating experiences where we were criticized and belittled by temple workers that we stopped coming. A lot of people will hate reading this, but going to the temple often felt like stepping into a country club where we were in the way of an elite group's social gathering. It seemed the workers would have preferred to keep doing work for the dead and socializing with each other rather than having us there. I plan to get my recommend back some day soon, but there are certain temples I will never attend again because the experiences were too painful.

After living in close proximity to a temple and getting to know many temple workers, I really get the feeling that many temple workers are not there because they want to help others have an uplifting temple experience. Some are lonely and want a social experience, they want to feel needed, they want to feel important/authoritative, they need something to fill their time with, they like the social prestige the position gives or they are hoping that a lot of temple attendance will fix problems they are having in their life. I can say from personal experience that a few people become temple workers or very frequent attendees because they have serious sins they are trying to cover up. Not what anyone wants to hear, but this has been my experience. 

Honking at us as you drive by

I think this might be more localized to where I'm living, but it drives us crazy (no pun intended.) We get a lot of people honking at us as we are out for our family walk. It doesn't make us feel loved or accepted, it's actually quite startling and annoying. If you're out driving and you want to say hi to someone less active, stop and pull over and have a real conversation. Once the Relief Society President did this and it was actually quite nice. 

Asking about my father-in-law's health

Wow. I can't believe how many times we got this question before we went less active. People would see us in the foyer and the first thing they would ask is "How's your dad doing?" Rarely were we asked how we were doing. Now, this is probably because he never leaves the house except for doctor's appointments and most people in the ward have met him only a few times if at all and I'm told my mother-in-law doesn't talk about what's going on very much, so it's probably quite the mystery. But there is a much more polite alternative: Go over and visit him yourself. He rarely gets visitors apart from the home teachers. It's my understanding that the ward members are supposed to be the first ones to visit the sick and afflicted. Thankfully, since I have started going to church again, I have gotten few queries about my father-in-law's health. Another thing that happened after we had our first baby was that older women in the ward would come over and talk baby talk to our son and completely ignore us. It made us feel like we really didn't matter and our baby was just there for the older women's entertainment. It would have been nice to actually have people ask us how we were doing and be interested in getting to know us.

So there it is. My experience with inactivity and returning to church. I know everyone else has something different. But this is a subject we don't really talk about much as church members. Hopefully, we can start opening a dialogue.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I am glad my wife shared this with me. I went on a mission where a lot of the work we, as missionaries, did was to try to reactivate the Less active members. We as missionaries were not that successful, and I have always been curious as to reasons people go inactive, and how to overcome it. I really do appreciate what you have said. I hope to use some things I have learned here whenever I feel the spirit telling me to help someone come back. I also Hope that other people will share their thoughts on this subject to. I am sure conversations like this could be of great benefit to everyone.

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