Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Retreats offer a safe space to be both Mormon and real

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I’m in Pittsburgh this weekend to speak at the Allegheny Pilgrims retreat, a feminist-leaning annual gathering of Mormon women.

I’ve never been to this retreat, but I have a good idea that I will love it, just based on prior experiences with the groups from which it derived. I’ve spoken at similar women’s retreats in Indiana, Washington state, Colorado, and New England, and I’m aware of others in Utah, southern California, the Bay Area, and the southwest. There are probably still more I’m not aware of.

What’s fascinating to me is how successful they all seem to be. They’re warm and fun and hospitable to a wide range of women, from those who are very active in the Church to those who left a long time ago. Many different kinds of women regard the retreats as a “safe space,” an environment where they can simply be themselves. They’re successfully multigenerational—tonight there will be women as young as 18 and as old as 85. All ages, sharing with each other and learning from each other.

Which, ahem, is a pretty damn good model for a church.

I’ve said for a long time that I would love to see Latter-day Saints be more vulnerable with one another at church. We dress up and we teach doctrine and we explain to each other why it’s so important that we believe the way we do, but we’re fairly buttoned up as a people. (Is this because so many U.S. Mormons are descended from stiff-upper-lip northern Europeans? I have to wonder.)

People tend to be more real with each other in the hallway conversations between (or instead of) classes than we do in the classes themselves. A friend of mine calls this “Gossip Doctrine class” and attends it more faithfully than Gospel Doctrine class, because it’s in the hallway that people actually tell her what’s going on in their lives—the painful stuff they tend to airbrush out of the picture in their carefully curated comments during classes and meetings.

A few weeks ago I did something quite out of character for me—out of character because despite my complaints about the buttoned-up sensibility Mormons inhabit at church, I am not comfortable sharing my emotions with people I don’t know well. So it’s a testament to the loving and beautiful people in my urban Midwestern ward that I felt safe enough to get up in testimony meeting and completely, utterly, let down my guard.

I’ll spare you the details of what led up to that sob-imony, but suffice it to say that this spring has been a season of losses, and on that particular day I had experienced quite enough sorrow, thank you very much Lord. I needed to hear from my fellow Saints about what they believed, because in my own grief and numbness I was no longer able to feel what I believed. So I told them I was depending on their testimonies and that they needed to be the church for me, in order to sustain my own testimony until I was able to remember and inhabit it again. (This was after one of those protracted silences near the start of the meeting when it seemed that nobody else was going to bear a testimony, and I was having none of it. Chop, chop, people. I need you.)

And my ward came through with love and acceptance. Such kindness. I wish I could bottle that experience and distribute it to other people, because what I hear from some Latter-day Saints, especially women, is that their wards can be places of judgment, even shame. That there is pressure to present an image of perfect families and perfect testimonies. We tend to forget that, as the old adage says, the church is intended to be a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

Because I study religion and disaffiliation, I get asked sometimes what the Church can do to stem the tide of people leaving. And while there are many, many factors that contribute to disaffiliation—not least of which is that our little Church is swept up in what’s going on in American religion more generally, in which the fastest-growing religion is to not have a religion at all—I know something that would help. And that is the concept of church as a safe space.

Maybe my ward is good at creating safety because we are small and, frankly, struggling. We had 43 people in sacrament meeting last Sunday. That’s low even for us—it was a holiday weekend—but the truth is that most of our trend lines are heading down. If someone walks in the door who has a less than perfect testimony or who smells like cigarette smoke, I think our response would be Oh my gosh there is a breathing person, a new person, and did we mention they have a pulse? We are so excited!

Other Mormons—perhaps a majority given the data I’m seeing—don’t have that kind of experience in their wards. And that’s a shame. The fact that these unofficial women’s retreats keep spinning off other retreats that also fill up in the first week of registration tells me that people are hungry for Mormon spaces in which they’re permitted to keep it real.

 

 

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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