When your Mormon faith is too small

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McConkie Book Cover_FINALcIn this job I receive plenty of heartwrenching emails from Mormons having faith crises. These are people for whom the LDS Church is no longer providing answers or comfort (or even basic acceptance, as seen in last month’s devastating policy changes on same-sex families).

They have often been through significant pain. They know what they are kicking against, but they’re not sure what is next in their journey. They have no map. I rarely know what to tell them except to express comfort and recommend fine books like Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon and The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl and Fiona Givens.

Now I have a third to offer, one of my favorite Mormon books this year. In Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis, Thomas Wirthlin McConkie, an expert in developmental psychology and the founder of MormonStages.com, says faith transitions actually follow a fairly reliable pattern.

Some of the pain of faith transitions is inevitable; after all, growth pangs accompany most kinds of change. That’s just a fact of life.

However, it can be comforting to know that what we’re going through isn’t unusual and certainly isn’t dangerous. Asking questions and having doubts doesn’t mean we are falling into apostasy — we’ve “simply driven off the edge of our current map.”

Or, as they say in Jaws, we’re gonna need a bigger boat.

In a later post, I’ll offer an interview with the author, but here I wanted to outline the basic premise of the book and the five stages of Mormon faith development. I’m kind of fascinated by them.

Diplomat: This foundational stage focuses on belonging and obeying the norms of the group. The blessings of this mindset are an emphasis on community and a deep sense of belonging. There’s a strong sense of tradition. The shadow sides of the Diplomat can be judgmentalism and blind obedience to authority. The letter of the law can win out over the spirit of the law. At this stage, if people begin to experience doubts, they often blame themselves and feel ashamed.

What’s crucial to remember here is that the “Diplomat anchors healthy growth at the later stages.” I was surprised and heartened by this. Some people claim that obedience is always bad, a hallmark of immaturity. Here, McConkie says that the study of development instead shows that “qualities that arise at the Diplomat stage are foundational and essential for flourishing in adult life.” They inform all the other stages.

(It occurs to me that when Mormons say that obedience is the first law of the gospel, it would be healthier for us to interpret first as meaning “an initial building block” rather than as “most important.”)

Expert: At this stage, individuals begin to search for other kinds of authority beyond the collective, thinking more abstractly and engaging with their own ideas. They will often put their trust in authorities whose opinions align with the ones they already hold.

Experts differ from Diplomats in that they want proof and strong reasoning in order to defend their ideas about religion. It’s not enough for them to be told “just follow the prophet and everything will be OK,” which the Diplomat is generally fine with. But a challenge of the Expert stage is that people can dig their heels in and marginalize any choices but their own. Experts are sometimes dogmatic and judgmental of people who disagree. And if they begin to experience a faith crisis, they can plunge into despair and perfectionism—if they can’t achieve perfect certainty, they may believe it’s their fault, so they double down and intensify their scripture study, fasting, etc., even as they feel less and less worthy.

Achiever: At this stage, people have become self-aware enough that they can be critical of their own thinking and at least a little more sensitive to the views of people who don’t agree. Not everything is black and white anymore; for every fact there is another potentially contrary fact. The Achiever attempts to weigh them all.

One of the great benefits of the Achiever is an emphasis on hard work and goal-setting – and we can do this while balancing our individual needs with the community’s, becoming “powerful team players.” But the Achiever is prone to burnout and identifying too strongly with what she does rather than who she is. (Boy, do I hear this.) There can be a competitive and even judgmental attitude to what other people have or have not accomplished.

Thomas Wirthlin McConkie

Thomas Wirthlin McConkie

Individualist: Most Mormon adults –- indeed, most people generally — probably fall in the Expert/Achiever range at this point in time. In the Individualist stage, which is a little rarer, people value “both/and” thinking rather than “either/or” thinking. The objective standards of success that are so important at the Achiever stage become less meaningful than what’s going on internally and the journey itself.

Individualists are very aware that what they “know” is conditioned by their culture, time period, and environment. They contribute by being out-of-the-box thinkers, willing to come up with new ways of doing things or even questioning why the heck they need to be done at all. Individualists tend to speak their truth with transparency, which makes some people uncomfortable. And because they value the way that personal experiences and backgrounds shape human beliefs, they seek mightily to bring unheard voices to the table.

More than people at any previous stage, Individualists have the capacity to be compassionate about the Church changing its mind about something. The Church, like any individual, is on a journey; and the Church, like the individual, is allowed to outgrow earlier views that have become too constricting. An Individualist’s faith won’t likely be shaken by anything that comes out of the process of continuing revelation.

On the other hand, this stage has drawbacks like any other. Individualists can become too inclusive of multiple perspectives and prone to relativism. They can also become impatient with power structures that are slow to develop and change.

Strategist: At this stage — even more rare than the last — the term “faith crisis” doesn’t exactly apply. A crisis is just an opportunity to change and grow, to be reborn with new eyes. At this stage we see that there’s no end to growth and become acutely aware of all we do not know. We follow Joseph Smith’s lead in drawing from every source of wisdom we can find as we search for new truths to integrate into Mormon belief.

The dangers of the Strategist stage are pride and a desire to see the people around us grow faster than they are likely able to do yet.

One caveat: In my interview with McConkie he emphasized that we never leave behind the earlier stages. We refine and express them throughout our lives. Furthermore, later stages are not necessarily healthier or more functional than earlier ones. It all depends on what we do with them.

I’ll post the interview tomorrow or next week, but in the meantime, consider checking out the book at MormonStages.com.

  • Lyndsey

    I think the two things that have been most comforting during my current faith crisis has been this book and your idea of a sabbatical.

  • B_D

    As President Hinckley said in April 2003, “Each of us has to face the matter—either the Church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the Church and kingdom of God, or it is nothing.”

    After a near lifetime of membership and complete faithfulness, my spouse and I concluded unambiguously that the LDS church is a fraud. There was no middle ground, it was all made up.

    Our “faith crisis” led us to a new, much happier, much more peaceful life together, and for that we have no regrets.

    If a “sabbatical” helps anyone here reach peace, go for it.

  • A Happy Hubby

    I think I have too many books to read, but you just pushed me over my tipping point to order this book and put it on my list to read over the Christmas break.

    Looking forward to the interview. I have listened to several of his other interviews and enjoyed them.

  • E L Frederick

    As a formerly excommunicated member (I’ve returned); I can tell you that first thing that any bishop worth his salt is going to tell someone with a serious issue, is that they need to change their environment. If you are an alcoholic, you need to leave your drinking buddies behind and find new companionship that won’t drag your back down to the barstool.

    This is the same advice that is being given to those who have parents who are living against the admonitions of Paul in Romans 1. In order to free yourself from those who would hold you down, you must leave them behind and walk with the savior. You cannnot serve both God and mammon.

    You can be upset with the church all you want, but they are following well establish biblical principles that have been laid out since the time of Christ.

  • Nathan

    Your recommended readings are great suggestions, if not “musts.” I love the Givens’ “The Crucible of Doubt”, and wish it was common reading for those going through a faith crisis’, for their leaders trying to help, and for everyone else!

    I hear leaders frequently say, “Just read your scriptures and pray, and everything will be okay,” and unfortunately it just isn’t. At best, those struggling fumble along for months or years. More likely they just fall out of church activity and the strength that can come from fellowship during worship.

    I deeply appreciate your work here!

  • Joseph

    I think sometimes within the LDS church we feel a person’s faith crisis is due to sinful behavior or lack of doing the appropriate gospel teachings we have been taught. But I have come to understand that each of us must have a spiritual channel of communication with our Savior Jesus Christ if we are to weather the crises in life that come to all of us. If we only look for answers within society, faithful friends, media sources or even within LDS leaders, these all may not be sufficient without a relationship with divinity.

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    When one is having a crisis of faith, one is struck by the realization that one has been pretending to know things one doesn’t know. Drr. Peter Boghossian.


  • Heidi

    The two podcasts I have heard with Thomas McConkie have been insightful and compassionate. Thank you for this outline of his book.

  • Scott

    Thomas MCconkie’s perspective on the faith journey is both tangible and aspirational. In my opinion this is one of the best tools available for guiding one through the process of developing a belief system based on trust. This needs to be applied to more than just faith though. I’m Anxious to read: Navigating a relationship crisis, a science crisis, a business crisis, a career crisis etc.

  • Alan

    B_D. Would you agree that a big part of your happiness comes from you and your spouse being on the same page religiously? For believers and nonbelievers that seems like the key element. Just curious.

  • Lindsay

    Hope you don’t mind if I reply to your question. I left the church this past year, and though I initially worried that it might destroy my marriage, it has actually made it stronger than ever. I guess it would be inaccurate to say that leaving the church is what has made my marriage stronger, but rather, going through this experience together, and choosing to stay married, choosing to support each other, and trying to understand each other in a deeper context than we’ve ever been pushed to do before…that’s what has strengthened us more than we ever thought possible. I’m agnostic, my husband is a faithful mormon, and our hope is that with time our differences will only continue to pull us closer to our most important common goal of deep, devoted love for each other.

  • We’re thinking along very similar lines, Scott. My hope is that people from their diverse areas of passion will see this book as a blueprint to apply anywhere their heart takes them. Development as it pertains to relationships is a wide-open field. In fact, my colleague at Pacific Integral, Terri O’Fallon, is working on just that research. The role of career changes in our lives as our development shifts. How we wish to raise a family…the list is endless. As you pointed out, a crisis amounts to the breaking down of old meaning. And that meaning gets mulched like so many autumn leaves, giving rise to new growth after the thaw.

  • The real problem, in my mind, is the “all or nothing” mentality. Either the LDS Church is true, or Mormonism – and to some even Christianity – isn’t true. Yet Mormonism is any Christian faith that uses the Book of Mormon and the are 50+ Mormon churches. It should be to no surprise to anyone that the one with the most money has the most people. But having the most people doesn’t make it the most correct. If you are having a crisis of faith, don’t give up – look for another Mormon church that fits your needs. The LDS version is great for conformists but not the best for those that don’t fit in or cannot receive the ordinances due to the doctrines of men, mingled with scripture, in LDS policies. Everyone is welcome at in the Fellowship, even members of the LDS version of our faith. Come and see,


  • Absolutely, Nathan. Jana and I actually touched briefly on this topic in our interview, which she’ll post soon. To me, the intriguing question is what kinds of spiritual “nutrition” do adults require at different times in their lives? Clearly, certain practices that once nourished us won’t always continue to do so. So how will we respond? How will we transition our diets from milk to meat, to put it in Paul’s words? This is the subject I’m exploring and writing about at the moment.

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  • Brian85

    Having not studied the book in depth, the synopsis here seems interesting in how this theory parallels that of others, especially Fowler’s faith development theory. It would be interesting to see the studies behind it. Currently researching faith development in higher education, I found that research in this area has only started to gain traction over the last few years, and is still extremely limited among the LDS community. I’m looking forward to reading this book and seeing if it might lead to new insights in the field.

  • There are significant parallels with Fowler’s work, Brian. I work with Loevinger’s stages (extended by Cook-Greuter and O’Fallon) which describe ego development. To my knowledge there hasn’t been any significant research on how ego development and faith development parallel one another. I’d love to discuss this with you and learn more about what you’re doing. Feel free to contact me at mormonstages.com. Glad to meet another researcher in this area!

  • Joseph M

    “But a challenge of the Expert stage is that people can dig their heels in and marginalize any choices but their own. Experts are sometimes dogmatic and judgmental of people who disagree.”

    “Individualists can … become impatient with power structures that are slow to develop and change. ”

    “The dangers of the Strategist stage are pride and a desire to see the people around us grow faster than they are likely able to do yet.”

    These statements, to me , encapsulate the major issue with protests as a way to try and influence church policy as it tends to trigger and exacerbate the worst parts of the Expert, and feels like a direct attack to the Diplomat, both of whom react negatively in a way the prompts those on the other side (Experts, Individuals, and Strategists) to get frustrated. At 15 million members, and one of our areas of fastest growth being Africa, some things are gong to take a lot of persuasion and long suffering to deal with .

  • laverl09

    Jana, I like the title you chose for this article. It can be interpreted in at least two ways: (1) my faith “institution” or (2) my personal faith.
    My experience with doubt has been that of seeing things two narrowly. When I can broaden my view, I can better see the point of view of others. As in the Vinn Diagram, the larger the two two circles become, the more area of commonality the two circles have..
    And I love Edwin Markham’s poem:
    “He drew a circle that shut me out–
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout,
    But love and I had the will to win–
    We drew a circle that took him in”
    My wife who is a convert of 40 years has a saying I also like:
    “People fall out of the Church for the same reason they fall out of bed–
    they don’t get in far enough.

  • Elder Anderson

    “Vinn Diagram, the larger the two two circles become, the more area of commonality the two circles have”

    This bothers the mathematician in me. It’s spelled Venn diagram, and the intersection area is unrelated to circle size. For that matter, intersection area is unimportant, since the diagrams are only used to illustrate set relations.

  • The reason some are having difficulty with the Mormon roadmap is because it leads to a different gospel, a different Jesus, and ultimately to destruction:

  • Larry

    “This is the same advice that is being given to those who have parents who are living against the admonitions of Paul in Romans 1. …”

    Put in more honest terms you are telling children to renounce, demean and insult their parents in favor of your faith. If there is a conflict between basic human decency and the faith, the faith is to be considered paramount here.

    It is exactly that kind of callous, bigoted “advice” which drives many away from your church. Keep it up. we can forgo the pretense that nasty behavior in service of Christian faith is anything resembling “love”.

    The whole, “its the Bible, not me” line is really weak nonsense. Out of all the religions and sects out there, you chose the one which interpreted the scripture in such a bigoted fashion. Those were the “biblical principles” you felt appealed best to you. Don’t blame God for your bad behavior, own it.