Beliefs General story Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Apostle urges Mormons to ‘rescue’ those who leave — but listen first

On Sunday our stake participated in a televised live regional conference with 120+ stakes in the eastern US (because apparently Ohio is “back east” for those who make these decisions in Utah).

As I listened I was examining quiet book dinosaurs and sharks with a chatty toddler, so I’m sure I missed quite a bit of what was said. I haven’t seen anything posted yet on the Church’s website, so I’m just going by my memory in writing this.

What I remember of Elder Oaks’s talk, however, has been in my mind ever since.

Two of the things he said were a breath of fresh air to me. The first was a frank assessment of what is obvious to most: the LDS Church is losing a lot of its young people. Too many.

Elder Oaks urged members to look around us and think of all the kids who used to be in our Primary classes but are now MIA from our youth programs.

That awareness certainly hit home. Our ward has a number of those children and teens. So while the “breath of fresh air” was not how I felt about young people leaving the fold, it’s very accurate for how I felt about hearing it candidly addressed. We need to talk about this in church, instead of pretending (as we so often do) that everything is fine.

The second thing was what to do about it. But before I discuss what he said, let me give a little background to the way other LDS leaders have dealt with this from the pulpit in the past.

It has become fashionable to employ the word rescue when referring to the need that LDS people feel to reactivate our “lost” brothers and sisters who have either left the Church or become less active in it.

In the 2016 General Conference talk “To the Rescue: We Can Do It,” Elder Marvyn B. Arnold of the Seventy identified four principles to assist church members with such efforts, including mandates not to delay or give up in saving our less-active loved ones.

What is missing from such counsel, however well-intentioned, is a directive to listen. In the dramatic stories of rescue told in Elder Arnold’s address and many others, drifting LDS Church members are portrayed as objects to be saved, not as thoughtful individuals to be heard first and foremost.

Frankly, these aggressive efforts at rescue seem less aimed at responding to the questions and needs of former Mormons than they are at forging them into the people that active Mormons think they should be—a people remade in current members’ own images.

In doing so such Latter-day Saints appear to be returning to the early (and regrettable) etymological history of the word “rescue,” which once meant to forcibly shake—or even to drive out or remove.

Forceful tactics, if not preceded by deep and empathic listening, risk driving away many of the very people the Church is intent on ushering back into the fold.

Which brings me to Elder Oaks’s comments yesterday, which also used the word “rescue.” Like Elder Arnold, he identified four things members should do when people they care about are having a faith transition (what is it about LDS general authorities and the number four?).

But unlike Elder Arnold’s talk, the magic word “listen” was in there. And it was a fairly prominent theme.

Love and listen, Elder Oaks said. As I recall, he didn’t bring up the usual LDS plan of action – “let’s swoop in and make it all better!” – until the very end. That certainly wasn’t what he led with. He led with listening and love, which was refreshing to hear.

I hope this message settles with members. As a people, Mormons just don’t listen terribly well, I’m afraid.

If you want folks to quickly mobilize to save your crops from a fire or provide delicious nightly meals after your extended hospitalization, we are totally your people. We will be there for you! If you want folks just to sit a spell and try to see your POV without trying to change you or shame you because you disagree, well . . . let’s just say we have a lot to learn about listening. Perhaps this is a start.


P.S. For a free guide to NVC (non-violent communication), a useful technique for empathic listening, download the PDF here. (Mormons will like it—it has four steps.)



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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  • What I have always noticed about hyper conservative Christianity is the assumption that other people “need” to listen, Not the conservatives. They already know everything they need to know.

    As a gay man, I have been listening to this nonsense my entire life, as they tell me how I…

    Was molested into it. No I wasn’t.

    How I’m confused about my gender. No, I’m not.

    How I need to get right with God. Been there, done that, didn’t care for the t-shirt.

    How I’m sick. Except that I was miraculously cured, as were millions like me, over night in 1973.

    And on and on and on and on and on.

  • Any religion, LDS or otherwise…who needs to be “rescued” here?

    Rescue the thinking people questioning dogma and superstition…or should we rescue believers in “resurrections”, prophets talking to angels, or using seer stones, voodoo priests summoning zombies?

    I mean who is really in such danger that they require rescue?

  • Sincere listening for active members can be very dangerous! The Internet is out there, and those who are transitioning out of the church are typically very well informed about problems the church would prefer stay under wraps. Problems such as Book of Mormon historicity, the Book of Abraham, Lamanite DNA and Joseph Smith’s many wives, some of whom were underage. Many in the church are unaware of these issues and learning about them can lead the well-intentioned member down the same rabbit hole in an attempt to get “answers” for these problems (which they assume must exist). My point is that I don’t think its an accident that church leaders have, in the past, omitted the counsel to listen.

  • Rescue “those who leave”? In the context used here, I view that word as a euphemism for terms such as repossess, reclaim, retrieve, recover, retake, reacquire, and/or regain “those who leave” . . . in order to rescue the LDS Church from a massive loss of tithing.

  • Any real conversation must proceed from a place of humility and openness to the other person’s perspective. In my experience the Church as an institution is unwilling to listen or converse. It is not willing to consider the validity of our point of view. How reasonable is it to request transparency with thithing? The removal of polygamy from D & C 132? The equal presence of women in all levels of leadership and in general conference? Temple vows that are equitable for men and women? A loving response to lgbtq members? I would have liked a voice while an active member, I would have felt validated had my concerns been heard. I was willing to consider their pleas for patience and historical context.

    Now I would like respect and to be left alone. This type of “rescue” mentality and treatment reinforces my understanding that I have left a fringe cult that cannot tolerate light, knowledge, difference, or change and survive. It must control and maintain with white knuckle intensity. I will never again worship a white male as God or as prophet. I will never again bow my head and say yes, or veil my face. I will never participate in another formal ceremony where my gender is denied a visible role, I will not teach my children infallibility of prophets or call “marrying” 14 year old servants anything but rape. This insistence to bring us back undermines my relationships with family who I fear will use their influence to convert my children. If you love us, let us go!

  • Re “Forceful tactics, if not preceded by deep and empathic listening, risk driving away many of the very people the Church is intent on ushering back into the fold.”:

    “If not preceded by”? As in “Deny free choice”, “Listen, don’t learn”, and “Forcing is fine”? Really?

    If you’re “intent on ushering back into the fold”,
    Then “deep and empathic listening” is glitter, not gold.

  • I don’t know if one can on one hand claim they are well informed and on the other hand say things like “some of whom were underage.” A well informed person would know that in an 19th century context, they were not underage. In a 20th or 21st century yes but one should not impose a standard at one period of time on another period of time when that standard did not exist. Those who are leaving are informed on some level but probably well informed as one might assume. A well informed person is aware of all sides of an issue and the strengths and weaknesses of each side..

  • I agree with you that El Oaks’ advice here is welcome and timely. We need to make more of an effort to maintain meaningful personal relationships with people who choose to leave the church. I may disagree with their conclusions about Joseph Smith, or gay marriage, or Church policy, or whatever, but they are still good, thoughtful people who are trying to find happiness just like me. I think El. Arnold’s advice from General Conference is good and helpful in some situations too. Different people need different responses.

  • “A well informed person would know that in an 19th century context, they were not underage.”

    Mmmm no. That is a actually a lazy apologetic response. It was not ok even in 1840 for a 38 year old to marry and bed a 14 year old. (Joseph Smith – Helen Mar Kimball) Census data from those times indicate average age of marriage was well above 14 years old. I did a simple prayer to Google and in seconds was answered with the link below from a scientific research website. No pondering necessary. Figures start in 1850 showing avg age of first marriages in females was 23.1 and for males 26.8. Try again.


  • Listening is not something most people (LDS or not) are especially good at. So, it is not a Mormon problem, it is just a problem. Local LDS leaders are constantly encouraged to listen and to counsel in their councils–to listen to each other in leadership meetings and discuss matters together from various points of view before making decisions. That takes time and patience which are in short supply, so most just are not very good at it. But this concept of counseling in councils is the starting point in the LDS culture to learn how to listen to others. If you can’t listen to somebody who mostly agrees with you, then how can you listen to somebody who doesn’t? And then there is the other side. Most of those in a “faith transition” don’t listen very well either and don’t usually share the real problem at first but offer up a menu of standard fare excuses, justifications, and criticisms we have all heard so many times before it makes it extra hard to really listen (a justification in response to a justification). That’s where the love part has to step in.

  • I like the idea that as members, we should listen. With that said, the problem with this mindset, is the Church looks outward toward those who have left and often gives incorrect reasons why they have left. What the brethren have not done is look inward and ask what can we as a Church do? Is there an institutional problem with US, that needs to be addressed? Until that happens, young people will leave the Church in droves.

  • Listen up all you Mormons!! Moroni is a myth and Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    Added details available at no charge.

  • As already pointed out by Danny, you’d better take a long look in the mirror before accusing others of not being well informed.

    Here’s another reference to check out if you want to really understand marriage ages: Take a look and you’ll see that the data indicates that average age of first marriage for females in 1830’s to 1840’s was above 20 y/o and clearly trending upward.

    If you want to play semantic games about “underage” then, yes, marrying a 14 y/o or 16 y/o was often not technically “illegal,” but it was far from commonplace. Moreover, if you’re forced to resort to defending your position by arguing the bare legality of something then it’s likely not a strong position.

    Finally, you argue that “one should not impose a standard at one period of time on another period of time when that standard did not exist.” Okay, then let’s take the case of Sarah Lawrence who became Joseph’s 22nd-ish wife when she was 17 and he was 37. At the time of the marriage, Sarah was living in Joseph’s house and Joseph was acting as her legal guardian as well as the manager of her deceased father’s estate (i.e., she would have been dependent on him for disbursements from the estate). Leaving aside her age, would you also argue that it was standard practice for men to marry their teenage legal wards in Joseph’s time? If so, I’d love to see evidence of it, since the moral conflict in these situations is obvious. And this doesn’t even address that fact that Joseph was also the prophet, mayor of Nauvoo, and commander of the Nauvoo Legion at the time of the marriage. Don’t believe me? Start your research with this article written by a faithful member (pages 181 through 187 covers the legal guardianship): And there are plenty of places to verify that Sarah Lawrence was a wife of Joseph. Try here, for starters (note that the website and the data on it are all compiled by a faithful LDS member):

  • “My point is that I don’t think its an accident that church leaders have, in the past, omitted the counsel to listen.”

    I think this is exactly what is going on. Oaks is treading a dangerous road if he’s really going to start encouraging members to listen. There’s just really no way for a faithful member to really “listen” without putting their own spiritual welfare in jeopardy. During my exit from the faith, I tried to discuss tough issues with my Stake President who claimed at the time that he was aware of the issues. However, he was still unable/unwilling to “listen” and wouldn’t come within 10 feet of the tougher issues because he knew there was no faithful way to discuss them…

  • Marrying or “sealing” young girls in order to build up his celestial family was questionable, but marrying other men’s wives while they were still married is nothing more than a reach of power and lust on JS’s part. Unbelievable!

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