After seven years away, I’m hungry to come back to Mormonism. But how?

Before I dive into this week’s query, I want to offer a big thank you to the American Public Media show On Being hosted by the marvelous Krista Tippet who invited me on last week to share my Mormon story. If you don’t know this wonderful program, please check it out. And, now, onto our question:

Dear AMG,

I lost my faith when I was 20 years old, home on summer vacation from BYU. I quit going to church, broke my parents’ hearts, traveled a bit, transferred to another university, married a non-member, and tried to fill the Mormonism-shaped hole in my life, which wasn’t particularly large until recently.

In the past year or so, I’ve developed a desire to return to church, to don a dress every Sunday and maybe even have a calling. I miss my community. I miss my people. This is sort of baffling to me, seeing as how I was “less active” (at BYU, no less!) for a long time before losing my faith, mostly because I found church depressing and boring. It sounds funny, but I have a much greater love and appreciation for the Mormon tradition now that I’m something of an outsider than I ever did while I was in it.

I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be an adult Mormon. I don’t know how to start in a new ward, especially since I have no inclination to apologize for or be ashamed of the past seven years of my life. I’m married to a non-member and childless– not exactly a great way to fit in. I don’t know if going back is possible. I don’t even really have any religious beliefs, beyond a vague belief in “something more” and an appreciation for the Christ-story. All I know is that I’d really like to come home.

Am I crazy? Is going back possible? How?

Sincerely,

Outside Looking In


I remember it like it was yesterday. A springtime Sunday morning. Walking the dog. Pushing two small kids in a double-jogger around the block. Steeling myself to go back to church for the first time in six or seven years. My heart pounding out of my chest with terror. Absolute terror.

And just as my unorthodox-Mormon-feminist luck would have it, three months after that first Sunday back, the Church went all in on the Proposition 8 campaign in my home state of California. So I took another few months off. To shake my fist at God—okay, I’m not much of a fist-shaker, really. Just a crier. So that’s what I did until the vote was over. And then I went back. Again.

So, I’ve walked the road you are on, sister outsider. I know what it means to be away and choose to go back. It can be daunting because you know you will never be the kind of Mormon you were as an 18 year-old BYU student. Then again, it can be freeing to come back on your own terms, as an adult, because (as you say) you missed your people. No answers. No excuses. Just because that’s where your heart is leading.

And that’s how you’ve got to walk back into this tradition: as an adult who knows her heart and is willing to see where the next steps on her spiritual journey will take her. Be shameless. Don’t let anyone—including yourself—make you feel like you don’t deserve to belong. Use all that you’ve learned on the outside to build friendships one day at a time. Recognize Mormon cultural eccentricities for what they are—every faith community has some. Lower your expectations of yourself and others. And set your boundaries. Try not to get pulled into old patterns of trying to please others by explaining too much, or volunteering too much, or agreeing too quickly, or pressuring yourself to believe it all. Take it slow. Give your heart and soul the privacy they need as you sort out how to make Mormonism work for you, if it can, once again. And try to find parallel Mormon communities that can help nurture your sense of identity belonging even if and when your local ward can’t. Of course, feministmormonhousewives.com is a great on-line community. Mormonstories.org has podcasts, on-line networks, and regional support groups that also might help

One of my great teachers was the late Laguna Pueblo poet, feminist, and scholar Paula Gunn Allen. Paula was a riot—half down-to-earth homegirl, half head-in-the-sky mystic. In the traditions of her tribe are many stories about Yellow Woman, an unconventional soul who is always running away or being lured away from her people, but whose adventures and wanderings end up bringing nourishing things home to the community. A similar story is told in the Caldecott-winning children’s book The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses.

Sister Outsider, in every community, there are women (and men) who have wild horses at heart. And oftentimes those wild horses lead us home. Come sit by me next Sunday. I’m usually late. I sit in the back row. I’m not the Mormon I was at 18. Neither are you. Let’s give our tradition the best gift we can: the stories of imperfect women who claim home in all its imperfection.

Send your query to askmormongirl@gmail.com, or follow askmormongirl on Twitter.

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32 Comments

Filed under coming back, faith transition

32 responses to “After seven years away, I’m hungry to come back to Mormonism. But how?

  1. What about her own beliefs and feelings (ie testimony) about Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon, and Joseph Smith? I would think that, no matter how strong the desire to come back to Mormon “fellowship,” it will never stick unless she comes to know for herself whether Jesus is her savior, if the Book of Mormon is scripture, and if Joseph Smith really was telling the truth or not. It’s just too hard, there’s too much opposition (internal and external—like w/ Prop 8), to be a social Mormon. If the basic personal religious observance goes, so will the desire to attend church and be “Mormon.” But I agree that attending sunday services is a good place to start. Just don’t forget it’s more than visiting teachers and ward halloween parties.

    • Stacey

      Could not have been said better. It’s as simple as gaining a testimony

    • Lars

      People attend churches for a variety of reasons. Some were raised in a certain sect. Some go for the people and some go for the belief. It’s best to go because you believe in whatever church you’re attending. I agree that having an undesputable testimony is the best foundation. That you know this is right for you. Whether being gay is right or wrong, Jesus never told anyone to judge. If believers are supposed to be the light of the world, I would say it’s right to love the gay people as God’s creation. If anything is going to make changes in any person’s life, it’s love not condemnation. Thanks.

    • Mike

      I agree. She needs to be reading the Book of Mormon and do what she can to have a testimony of Christ and the Book of Mormon and the calling of Joseph Smith. Brooks needs to advise this person to see her local bishop instead of giving her personal advice. It’s the bishop’s responsibility to counsel in these matters.

  2. Geoff S

    First a brief note to Joanna; I’m glad that you have this forum. Your responses are always thoughtful and well-reasoned. You’re able to balance traditional church doctrine vs the realities of living in today’s world.

    To the letter writer:
    If your heart is calling you back to Mormonism then I’d encourage you to give it a go: slowly, and without shame or guilt for past actions.
    But I’d also suggest that you consider what it is that you’re missing. Is it community? Is it church? Is it sabbatical? These things are available in other places besides the Mormon church.
    When I started missing Mormonism I found another denomination. I was mostly missing community; unfortunately nobody does community like the Mormons so I haven’t had the almost universal positive experience with this church’s community that I had with Mormonism. The upside for me is that I don’t need to shut my ears during church service.

    You have a much bigger advantage in going back than I did 15 years ago. The church continues to mainstream and be more accepting of alternative viewpoints. It’s much easier to be a “cafe

  3. Geoff S

    *oops
    “cafeteria” Mormon. So it could definitely be worth it to give it a try.

  4. Tawnya

    If you feel the urge to go back, go for it! I spent a few years as completely inactive and then started going back and ended up getting endowed at age 30. I’m now 36 and last year I finally met someone I want to share my life (and the next) with and got married. He’s a non-member and also the most Christlike man I know. My ward has been really accepting of me and him and I was recently called to be Young Women’s President. I’ve never even had more than a committee type calling before. I’m overwhelmed, but have decided to just do the best I can do and make no apologies for the person I am and who I’ve been and try to follow Christ’s example as best I can as I serve the teenage girls in my care. So, if you want to go back, go back. And be honest with people around you. Members can learn a lot from those who’ve left and come back. The church needs more folks with different life experiences!

  5. Tricia

    This letter and answer is just what I needed to read today. It supports and affirms what I’m doing. I too left at 20 and I’m in the process (just five months) of returning after 37 yrs! I never imagined I would want to return, let alone do it. I met a wonderful man, who is now my husband of 2 months and he’s Mormon and would not marry me unless I returned. However, I returned because of personal revelation about all this. I’m touched by how much church feels like home and am slowly working to develop an adult testimony. However, I struggle doctrinally quite a bit. I have found support and help through reading this column, joining the Mormon Democrats page on Facebook, and continue to explore without apology. I developed a list of social justice scriptures to affirm what I know to be true and as a way to contribute to the conversation of fellow progressive Mormons. My husband who is very literal about the church struggles with my approach fearing that we won’t be together in the hereafter if I don’t believe everything as being 100% true and revealed. I do too at times, wishing I could just blindly believe. However, I prayed about this and got a very clear answer — you have a brain, use it!

    Regarding repentance: I do feel badly about some of the decisions I made during my time away, which were not good for me or for others, but I have learned so much from these experiences that I never would have known of the world and other people had I not taken my journey exactly as I did. It would be hard for me to apologize in the way the church would ask. Another church I participated in deeply would say that everything of your past is part of your future ministry. I know I have a great deal to offer the church because I took this detour. I will always be a girl who loves wild horses and I’m trusting that Heavenly Father will help me find ways to express that with love and kindness.

    I do agree with the other replies that it’s important to have interest beyond community. I have started with what I know to be true and am letting the rest unfold. I may never have the “complete” testimony that others have but I will keep that private unless I know I’m among other friends who can accept that my beliefs are not dangerous or “bad”.

    • Robert F. Bentley

      I agree with your answer – you have a brain, use it! (no offense of course)

      Your new husband has his shortcomings, too. I feel the Lord would like you (all of us) to really examine what is “true and revealed”, as you say. No one would have joined the Church if they hadn’t done just that! :)

  6. Chris Gordon

    I hope you decide to come back. I hope you don’t get discouraged when and if it’s challenging. I hope that your ward welcomes you with open arms and is just glad to have you (ours would be). I hope that you can be as patient with people who haven’t struggled with faith in quite the same way you have as you would hope they would be with you.

    I hope that you can push through the awkwardness and uncertainty and take them as signs that you’re doing right and being strengthened in your resolve (regardless of what you end up being resolved to be, to feel, to do). I hope the collective “we” of more active, more orthodox Church members don’t let you down too much. I know the Savior won’t. In the end, your return should be about finding a closer relationship with Him. Let it be about Him.

    Best of luck.

    • so well said, I didn’t even know when people were not being accepting of me. I was so determined to succeed that I didn’t know people were seriously wondering what to do with me. This is so well said!

  7. There is really nothing I haven’t experienced in conjunction with the Churcb of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have been allowed to progress at my own pace. I have had the luxury of working so many things through that were so difficult for me to understand. I did not grow up LDS….so I have been an “odd bird” for all of my time in the church. There is one thing that I have in common with all of my brothers and sisters. I love Jesus Christ. I am happy when I can study His life, when I can imagine what He would do. He is the reason I do everything. Community is very important and I believe that is what the Savior wants for all of us…a sense of community. A place in the choir for everyone. And I truly accept all of His children…I have a harder time when people purposely stick their finger in the church’s eye. I do know that if He is our purpose then we will all find our answers, acceptance, and realize how needed we are. It is a brilliance of the Lord to put us in wards where we are with all kinds of people and not just people we chose….what a great way to serve, to learn about all kinds of people and be accepting.

  8. Hard-Won Dry Run
    24 October 2011

    Here’s a plan for your first time going back.
    Pick a chapel where two or three wards meet.
    This maximizes chaos and minimizes flack.
    You simply go into the foyer and have a seat.
    There you can watch the toddlers running,
    The Primary girls sharing stories and gossip,
    The young men bettering each other’s cunning
    And parents doing their best to worship.
    When you’ve had enough, as you please
    Get up and leave. No harm, no foul.
    Most chapels are built with entries
    On both sides in the back. When you prowl,
    And people are filing in, you join the tide
    To collect a program. Then continue
    Across the chapel and out the other side.
    The flyer will have information about the who
    And what of ward events. You now know
    About potlucks and campouts, activities
    That let you mingle on your status quo
    Without violating your own proclivities.
    This poem was made by a guy
    Who hasn’t attended in years,
    Is once-burned, twice-shy
    And understands your fears.

  9. dukex

    Please, please, please come back. My wife and I are the only Liberal Democrats in the church and we have a big job ahead trying to help the Fox News Mormons learn how to love and not to be decisive. As for Members like Mitt Romney and Glen Beck… Guys, You’re not helping….

    • dukex

      Oop’s… (Meant to say divisive, not decisive)

      • I am really, really conservative….mostly because I have a huge problem with abortion. However it isn’t just liberal democratic Mormons who are loving and inclusive. I am cute as a button, I love all people and I tend to vote to the right of where you are. Your comment made me feel left out of your life…..I need you to be inclusive too.

    • Amy H. Jensen

      Dukex,
      Your note hit a button with me — I feel that a Liberal Democrat is a more natural fit for the Church than the Repubs! but the members don’t know that yet! They’ve got to stop watching Fox! And we Liberals will have to hide our light under a bushel and only gradually let it out, a beam at a time!
      Aimless8

  10. C’mon, Dukex. You can’t claim that you are the only liberal democrats in the Church. Yes, it’s generally a politically conservative Church. But the idea that you are the only enlightened liberal democrats in the Church makes you come across as big-time poser. Real liberals don’t think that way about themselves.

  11. I’m new here. Just learned about your blog from a link a non-LDS acquaintance shared with me on Facebook that took me to your interview with krista Tippet. Very good interview. You did a fabulous job explaining things. I’m very impressed, Joanna, with your ability to express yourself. I’ve got the plenty of thoughts and passion, but lack the vocabulary (have never enjoyed reading much, which I’m paying for now as an adult) and experience of smoothly articulating myself verbally. Ironically, I am a BYU graduate in Elementary Education and have taught for 18 years….preschool to prison. Knew/know the value of reading….is just not one of my hobbies of choice. Life is just sooooooo interesting!!!

  12. dukex

    @blodgettlaw: You’re right, I know I’m not the only Liberal. There are several in our ward. It just sometimes feels like it. Here’s just one example: After Sacrament meeting one Sunday my Wife and I were asked to jump in and substitute for the 7-8 year old Primary class. We gladly did so. The lesson was on prayer and for us not having had time to prepare we started by asking the kids if they had Family Prayer. Each child shared a bit of their families routine. When we asked one little boy about his Family Prayer he said, “Each night my family prays that Obama will die”. We were a bit dumbfounded to say the least…

    Many times as I shuffle in the the Elders Quorum meeting room I can here people spouting the Fox News negative talking points. I have been slowly challenging it when I hear it…

    • Please explain to me what a liberal Mormon is. Does it mean you are for Abortion, gay marriage and government in all of your lives? Or does it mean that you share Harry Reid’s idea which is to let people have the opportunity to have complete agency and decide everything for themselves. Which means yes on gay marriage – you simply decide who to marry – Yes on abortion – and you abhor it – and yes to every social program which may or may not make people dependent – but you make a living. I am not sure where this stands. I am very much against the labels that all of you throw around. Liberal? Conservative? Mormons are Mormons….our temple recommend interviews are the same for each of us…our covenants are the same, our Prophet is the same.
      And seriously, a child said their parents prayed for Obama to die. No one does that who is taking their covenants to heart. That is what you want to use against people of your own faith? If that is indeed true then report it to the Bishop, (there are 2 secret service agents in my ward, they would take care of that right away) this is not the correct forum unless your purpose is embarrass and demean. Which I believe is exactly what you are doing. In order to make yourselves right you bring out the most extreme thing you could come up with. I am not an elected official in my community but I have an appointment with some importance. Think anyone in my state is doing anything for those of us who are about to go broke? Not Democrats or Republicans. I call both offices and get no help. The only place I have to go for help is the Savior. I am nearing 60 and my husband is 60…our life savings are gone, we are in huge debt, and we should be hopeless. We should walk away from everything…but we refuse to give up. We will see a miracle. But it will not matter what the government does….because I see no leaders coming. None. Do you? So our country is deep in denial. We have no one to lead us out of this morass. No one.
      Liberal? Conservative? How about this…..Covenant people….the end.

    • Ryan

      I’m mostly just giving you a hard time. My curent ward is a very diverse group. In fact, most of the wards I have attended in my life have been so. I realize that Mormons have earned the sterotype of being white, western, and conservative. But it is dishonest to suggest that hasn’t changed as the Church continues to grow. And, even among the white and western crowd, I am surprised again and again at how many lean left politically. We need to accept that “Mormons” can’t be lumped into one group anymore because that is the reality.

  13. Tricia

    I’m saddened that this conversation has taken a turn towards political parties in a rather contentious way. When I returned to the church, I was fearful that the church would not allow for diversity in political beliefs, and therefore, would not have a place for me. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find many like minded members who have strong testimonies and strong beliefs in social justice, and as a result identify as Democrats. I think it’s important to not judge all Democrats as being pro abortion or pro anything that is contrary to the gospel. I don’t assume that all Republicans are pro tax cuts for the rich, which would also be, in my opinion from reading scriptures, contrary to the gospel. If anyone is interested in learning more about Mormon Democrats, there is a great book written by Clinton Joe Anderson, a conservative member of our church, called How Can You Be A Democrat and a Mormon? He does a wonderful job of breaking down the issues and discussing doctrine. I hope we can all remember that Jesus wanted us to love one another as he loved us….no matter our current standing in the church, or political parties, or anything else. Namaste (translated means: the divine in me sees the divine in you).

  14. Lindsay

    The MPR unedited interview cut out on me. I wanted to know what you meant by an elusive comment about your life before you were born. I have heard that Mormons believe in reincarnation presumably so they can have more time to get good enough to live in Eternity and be Peers of God. If Jesus is both your Savior and your Brother–is He the eldest Peer? In your interviews you are definitely honest and articulate–to a point. But you make statements such as that candidly speaking, you acknowledge that there ARE theological differences with main-line Protestant Christians, and although I’ve heard two interviews by now, neither interviewer picked up on those points and asked you to explain. I have so many questions. How is being a Peer of God different than Satan wanting to be equal with God–and look where that got him. (And us!) What do you mean by eternal marriage?

    • Robert F. Bentley

      Hi Lindsay! Has anyone responded to you yet…? I haven’t watched the MPR interview but I’d like to see if I can answer some of your questions… even though I should probably study or go to bed. :)

      “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ…” (Romans 8:16-17, KJV Bible)

      I am literally a spirit child of a loving Heavenly Father (we all are). I existed as a spirit before birth, and will continue as a spirit after I die. Someday I will be resurrected (but not reincarnated) and if I keep Jesus’ commandments I will become a joint-heir with Him in heaven.
      Satan does not want me or anyone to succeed. He carefully tries to bring me down with thoughts that I am not good enough, or that what I am doing is not good enough. Satan did indeed want to be equal with God, but what he wanted is different from what Jesus Christ offers me – eternal life with Him if I repent and keep His commandments.

      Does that answer some of your questions?

  15. kris

    hi guys and gals; i’m a “different” LDS guy; not much to say at this moment, but i wanted to say “thanks,” bookmark this page, and register, or do whatever “admin” stuff that needs to be done (i am not big on….no, actually, i generally dislike/detest “formalities,” hence one of the ways i am a different LDS: meetings and rituals are a struggle for me), prior to my becoming part of this blog community.
    Thanks……… from “Lonely Stranger”
    p.s. Joanna: I enjoyed your interview/discussion on Being (Krista Tippett); what great missionary work you are doing, as the fact of the matter is: most prospective members also are “different LDS types” in waiting….. Thank you.

  16. smilingldsgirl

    I love Joanna’s response. I think if anything you may deal with a few people who are little over-eager to welcome you and please you. As with integrating to any group there are always going to be extreme responses on both sides. Just try to ignore the comments either praising you for returning or criticizing your fall. Be confident in your life choices and be glad for the person you have become. I think with this attitude the church could only add to the happiness and quality of your life.

  17. terrylinden

    I didn’t see anyone, including Joanna, address the original post’s mention of a non-LDS spouse. If I married someone who was of one religion–or none at all–and then they (we need a new pronoun) told me that they wanted to return to the LDS church, I truly don’t know what I’d do. Joanna?

  18. Sister Outsider

    Thank you so much, Joanna. I appreciate it.

    P.S. My family always sat (and still sits) in the back row. It’s definitely where I feel most comfortable. = )

  19. LMA

    I’d like to offer one piece of what I think might be very practical advice for this situation; get in touch with the missionaries assigned to your ward. Let them feel your heart and your desire to return, even despite your doubts about doctrine. If they are anything like other elders I’ve known, they will happily run interference for you and try to assist your reacclimation.

  20. Twister

    Joanna –
    While I’m very glad that you reached out to this inactive sister, I have to ask, you “cried” when the First Presidency said that the Church would support Proposition 8? And then you purposely stayed away for a few more months? Why? We either follow the Lord’s prophet or we don’t. Or put more simply, the prophet is either the Lord’s servant or he isn’t. There’s no in-between.

    You are MY sister and I’m very glad you returned to activity, but I don’t understand LDS members like you. Why is there a (growing) fringe of members who think it is acceptable to criticize the prophet and the other apostles? Do I think I’m guaranteed exaltation? Hardly. I have many weaknesses and seriously wonder whether I will put myself in the position to qualify for the Lord’s mercy (offered to all but will I accept it or will I be stupid and ignore the wonderful gift of exaltation?) but I don’t try to excuse those weaknesses; I know the prophet is EXACTLY who he claims to be and know full well that it is MY behavior that has to change to meet the Lord’s standards as delivered through His servants. I wish you and I both happiness and firm testimonies in the years to come.

    Cheers – Dan

  21. Kris Larabee

    I was raised in the church and raised my children in the church. As my children got older they began to rebel. A couple of them became addicted to drugs, one became pregnant at age seventeen, and one was a weekend partyer who got drunk every weekend. Out of five children we had only one who married in the temple and has chosen to live the faith she was brought up in. As I struggled with my failure as a mormon mother, I became very depressed. I was constantly disappointed in my kids, and if I am honest, very embarrassed by them. I would pray constantly that someone in our ward or at their school would touch their hearts and help them turn around. The exact opposite of that happened. People in our ward would not let their kids hang out with my kids. I even had a Young Men’s president tell me that my son hung out with the wrong kind of kids, and they would prefer he not come to the Young Men activites. The sad thing about that was that the wrong kind of kid that my son hung out with was also a boy in our ward who had a drug addicted mother, and a schizophrenic father. This young boy needed the love and support of the ward even more than my own son did, and the ward shunned him completely. My fight to reconcile my love for my children in spite of their weaknesses, and the feeling that church members (even some in my own immediate family) gave me that because of those weaknesses we were not worthy of love and understanding, lead to a complete break down. I had to take a leave of absence from work. I asked to be released from my calling in the Relief Society Presidency, turned in my books, and didn’t return to church for five years.
    During those years, I focused on the good things my children did. We got our son into drug rehab. Our pregnant daughter had a beautiful, amazing little girl. She and her very young boyfriend have gotten married, and though they are not active in the church, they have a very strong marriage, and a loving home for their little girl. Our oldest daughter has been married twice, and is in the middle of her second divorce. But she has given us three beautiful grandchildren, and is a wonderful mother. Our daughter who married in the temple is happy and doing very well with two precious little kids. Our weekend partyer, is still just that, but he has a good job, supports himself, and is a kind and loving person. They are all wonderful people who are striving to do their best in their own way.
    As for my husband and I, we have returned to full activity in the church. It is who we are, and what we truly believe. We hold callings, and are so grateful for the opportunity to serve. I never lost my testimony. I just lost my faith for a while. And I learned that people are just people. None of us is perfect, and we all make mistakes, that is how we learn. But the Gospel is perfect, and amazing. It brings me a peace and comfort that I have never found any where else.

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