For families divided by Mormonism, 5 things to do – and not to do

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Happy thanksgiving!

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Happy thanksgiving!

A guest post by Mette Harrison

Mormons believe that “families are forever.” But what happens when a family is broken apart by Mormonism itself, when some leave and some stay and there seems to be no common ground to share about anything? How do we manage our relationships with those who no longer fit our worldview?

If you’re thinking about how to manage family events, especially those around the holidays, when dealing with family members in various states of Mormonism, this post is for you.

In my extended family of eleven children with their spouses (and ex-spouses) and children, step-children, grandchildren and on and on, it’s difficult to meet together in any practical way regardless of the time of year. We’re more than a hundred people now, and there is considerable diversity in how we all feel about the church. Some family members may be trying to get away from a church culture they see as abusive and controlling. On the other hand, those who remain part of the church are hurt by accusations of complicity and feel pain at the rejection of values and beliefs that were once held in common.

My youngest sister left about twenty years ago. She was very angry at our family, as many ex-Mormons are. My parents did most of the heavy lifting in the following years, of keeping track of her changing addresses and keeping at least minimal contact with birthday cards, phone calls, and later occasional short visits.

You’d think we’d have learned something from that experience, but maybe not. Even after this, there were many years of loud “discussions” during family events between the liberal and conservative/libertarian sides calling each other “stupid” or “gullible.”

Then my oldest sister left (both the church and the family) about ten years ago and we haven’t had a lot of family get-togethers since then. This is sad and not at all what “family is forever” is supposed to mean. It feels like a burden sometimes rather than a joy. I’m pretty sure that almost every large Mormon family has similar problems, though. How could they not, considering the statistical likelihood that one in three Mormons will leave?

Now in my own family, some of the lessons I’ve learned in talking to my sisters have come in handy as I have two daughters now who have left the Mormon church—one 21 years old, the other 16. They both left in the early years of the Young Women’s program. One simply didn’t believe in God, while the other was dealing with depression. Our tradition of Family Home Evening on Monday nights has continued, though we allow everyone to choose if they want to attend or not. To my surprise, both my daughters who have left the church like FHE. For them, it’s about family, not the church. It’s early days yet, but I hope we’re doing a good job as parents at modeling how to manage what seems an increasingly likely scenario for Mormons in our generation, since Millennials are leaving in particularly high numbers.

Here is a list of things I’ve found helpful to do and not do when dealing with family members who leave the church:

DO:

  1. Show love. This is not always easy or comfortable. And it’s difficult sometimes to tell when it’s appropriate to do something (birthdays? Christmas? grandchildren’s weddings?) and when it’s more appropriate to do nothing. (Hint: do what is asked of you rather than what you think other people should want.)
  2. Try to respect the wishes of the ex-Mormon family members. If they ask for no contact for a time, respect that they may need some space to process and deal with mental health issues that frequently come with leaving the church. Try contact again after a couple of years, but don’t be a pest.
  3. If there is to be a family event, make some ground rules about topics of conversation. It can be important to allow the ex-Mormon family member to have some control over this because they may feel overwhelmed in a room with all Mormons around.
  4. Meet one-on-one before big family gatherings to build trust so that at least one person can be relied on.
  5. Find commonalities that don’t relate to church. Bringing up the past can be very painful, but you’re genetically related, so there are bound to be some other safe topics you can talk about. (Hint: It’s likely not politics.)

DO NOT:

  1. Try to reactivate “lost” members by sending missionaries over, alerting the local ward about their address and past, or sending gifts that are church-related—anything that hints that you haven’t accepted their choice to leave.
  2. Make plans to have prayers or fasts as a family for the members who have left. Even if you don’t tell this information to family members, they are bound to find out.
  3. Do unsolicited “service projects” for the ex-Mormon family members. You may think this is a great way to show love, but it’s condescending and it’s pushy unless they ask to be helped. Even then, be careful about making it church-related.
  4. Make judgments about personality failings that may have led to their rejection of the church. Just because a family member is stubborn or outspoken doesn’t mean that this is what led to leaving the church. It’s never about one thing, I promise.
  5. Talk about putting the name of family members in the temple or about your deep feelings of loss regarding having an “empty chair” at the temple. Guilting people into coming back isn’t going to work. It will only poison your contact with them.

2016-Mette-Harrison-author-photoOther guest posts by Mette Harrison: