Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

A year off from Mormonism

SabbaticalThis time fifteen years ago, I was getting ready for something new: a year-long sabbatical from Mormonism.

I had been an active Mormon for seven years, most recently with a calling in the Relief Society presidency, and I was exhausted. I felt spiritually empty, and more prone to focus on the things that bothered me about my church than the many other reasons I had joined it in the first place.

I decided to take a leaf from the pages of the Bible (and from academia) and declare a sabbatical year.

Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the fruit thereof;

But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord: thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard. (Lev. 25:3-4)

So I told the Relief Society president that I wanted to be released for a year. I told a couple of ward members that I would be back the following September. (I did not have the guts to talk about it in advance with my bishop, which I regret.)

And then I just stopped going to church.

What struck me most about those first few months was how much more time I suddenly had. Church activity had become, for me, a quarter-time job: about four hours on Sundays and half a dozen scattered throughout the week when I was running errands, helping members, organizing or bringing meals, or planning lessons.

I did little in my first few weeks of vacationland-nothingness. I would go to a Protestant church for an hour on Sundays with my husband and daughter, and then home for a relaxing (what a concept!) Sabbath day. I was in a women’s Bible study group on Tuesday nights. But other than those two things, I avoided organized religion entirely and instead just started to read and think harder about what I believed.

As the year went on I was conscious of it not just being a holiday, but a true sabbatical for intentional spiritual rest. So I read books on Sabbath (this one being the best), books on the Bible and the Book of Mormon, books on history. I tried different and fresh ways to pray, and began to feel more connected to God. I worked to be a better friend to the people around me, a value I’d too often neglected, ironically enough, when I was busy doing “the Lord’s work” at church.

And at the end of the year, I went back to church a saner and more spiritually healthy person, ready to put my shoulder to the wheel.

Over the years a number of people have asked me why I took a sabbatical and whether I’d recommend it for others.

The first part of that question is easier to answer than the second: I did it because I felt utterly fatigued, because church had become such a draining obligation that I forgot why I had ever wanted to be Mormon in the first place.

I took a sabbatical because I knew that if I didn’t, the alternative was probably to leave Mormonism for good. While I was away I began, once again, to be able to focus on what was lovely and right about my religion – things that had become impossible to see when I was struggling to keep my head above water.

As for whether other people should consider a sabbatical, I would say that if doing so would not drive a wedge in the family, and if they approach it with up-front honesty about their plans, they might find it a restoring and live-giving spiritual practice.

Part of that rejuvenation is simple rest. In the Hebrew Bible, the idea of the sabbatical year was one of release, of allowing things to lie fallow and trusting that God would provide nourishment no matter what. In Mormonism, we don’t have a very good tradition of allowing much of anything to lie fallow (metaphorically speaking). We are relentless about goals and self-improvement. Have you ever noticed, for example, that even the language we use to describe people who leave the straight and narrow is that they “go inactive,” as though they set out for that destination with an entirely purposeful itinerary?

Our eternal progression is all onwards and upwards . . . until for some people it’s not, and their crisis is severe enough that they worry they have to leave the Church forever because of the despair they’re feeling right now.

A sabbatical is a middle ground, a chance for the exhausted or the doubting to step back and regain some much-needed perspective. It’s a leave-taking, yes, but it’s not necessarily forever. When I came back to church, I had a renewed love of my ward and a better understanding of the gospel. I was also ready to help others again. Soon enough, I was called as Gospel Doctrine teacher, and a couple of years later I was ready to go to the temple – a step I would not have been ready to take without my year-long respite.

Would I do it again? Absolutely, if I ever need to. But now that I’m in my mid-40s, I’m just more comfortable in my own skin than I used to be. I rarely experience that core despair I felt at 30 in the church, as a bone-weary alien in a community so filled with the happy and the unquestioning.

But my comfort now comes in part from knowing that if I ever need it, the possibility of another sabbatical is out there, like food storage, patiently waiting to help me in my time of need.

 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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