Monday, February 6, 2012

My experience as the father of a non-believer

Recently there have been a number of news stories (and subsequent blog posts) about those who are leaving the LDS church. In the normal course of departure stories is sometimes an account of the negative reception the exiting member receives from family, friends and fellow congregants.

I have written before about the fact that some of my children have chosen to leave the church. (Actually “leaving the church” suggests action on their part: in truth they have simply stopped participating and do not self-identify as church members, but as far as I know, they have taken no official action with regard to their membership.)

In this post, I wanted to explore my feelings as the family member who stayed. My intent is to record behavior, not to justify it.

My children who left the church did so in their teen years, each about the same age. I have other extended family members who have left as adults, and my experience with them was quite different than with my children. My plan here is to tell my story, not my children’s; they can tell their own when and where they see fit.

When faced with my first child who began to walk away from the church, I felt like I was drowning in the ocean. I was that victim of a sunken ocean liner and had neither a life raft nor a life preserver. I became completely disoriented in the cold, relentless, churning sea as I realized that my child was slipping away.

Some of my feelings were engendered by my own testimony: I had a firm testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and the need for its saving ordinances. I had faith in Jesus Christ; I believed the restoration story; and I earnestly sought the blessings of an eternal family for myself and for my children. My departing child threw that in my face: he – by his actions and his apathy – made clear that what was important to me was not important to him. I feared for him, and for myself.

Secondarily, I felt blame. Surely his choice to walk away was related to something I had done wrong. After all, we had family home evening, family prayer, scripture study; he went to seminary and Sunday meetings (until he stopped). No Success Can Compensate For Failure In The Home. I had obviously failed in the home. I had screwed up the most important role I would ever fill.

Finally, I also felt embarrassment. I must point out that this was completely self-induced. No one ever said anything to me at church that would have led me to believe that someone judged me or my wife for my son’s decisions. In fact, they were sympathetic to us and loving toward him always. (I suppose it’s possible that someone spoke behind my back, but if they did, I don’t know anything about it.)

In this storm of feelings, I am certain that I sent crazy messages to my son. I am well aware that I tried to control his behavior long after he had made his choice. That desire for control is perhaps my greatest human weakness. It is my instinctive response when faced with anxiety or uncertainty, and it has taken me years to recognize it and to improve. I never ever stopped loving my son, but I did stop liking him for a while. And in that period, it might have been hard for him to know of my love.

At the point when I finally let go, he stopped attending church all together. And he became increasingly difficult to live with. He was approaching the end of his high school years, and I concluded that it was all part of his adolescent rebellion, and perhaps one day he would return. My sense was that he was no more comfortable with us than I was with him. He did not like our rules for the house, let alone what he saw as our slavish attachment to church values which he rejected.

I am sympathetic to those who leave the church and feel they are treated poorly by active church members in and out of their family. It shouldn’t be that way. We ought to love one another more, regardless of where we are on the continuum of testimony. But I also understand the panic that parents in particular feel when a child walks away from what the parent feels is really the very best thing for him.

I’ve had more than one child walk away. Each of them went through a period of time where they felt discomfort as they walked away regardless of how I responded. (For instance, I was much better with #3 than with #1 – much more supportive and kind.) It sometimes took years for them to realize that I really did still love them despite their choice to go a different way, regardless of what I said or did.

I cannot explain this completely. Perhaps one day I’ll get enough courage to invite one of them to write about their experience. I don’t know if they felt some guilt (imposed by a lifetime of standards and practices) as they left, or if they felt the discomfort of the Light of Christ or the Holy Ghost warning them not to walk away, or if they simply felt the anger of teenage anger and applied it to this choice among others.

In time, we have found common ground. My home is a place each of my kids likes to return to. My dinner table is a place where they are welcome, and they (now) know it. There are certain things we do not discuss, sometimes by unspoken agreement, and I’m willing to live with that. One of my sons says that his mother and I are “enough church” for him. I’m ok with that, because that’s where he is in his life. Those Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi remind me repeatedly of the attitude of my own Heavenly parents, and it is one I try to adopt in my family, as well: my arms are "outstretched still.”


  1. Paul: Thank you for your willingness to share such deep and personal thoughts and experiences. I sit here somberly wondering how I would handle such an experience - praying that I will never have to, and realizing what a mess of things I could make of things if it ever does happen. Keep the faith!

  2. I wrote this one to try to articulate my feelings as I went though the process (and what I understood of my sons' reactions).

    There's another story to tell (and I'll write about it another time) about the power of the atonement to heal all of us involved. My relationship with my boys today is remarkably positive and healthy, much to their credit.

  3. "He did not like our rules for the house, let alone what he saw as our slavish attachment to church values which he rejected."

    Proof to me that leaving the LDS Church is simply childish rebellion where they never grow up. All this talk of leaving because of questions they have about its "history" or such is a smokescreen and an excuse. They want to be of the World and live by the World's rules.

  4. Anonymous,

    I would hate to think that you would use the decision of a rebellious adolescent to form your opinion of all who make the choice to leave. That seems rather rash. Even the one son to whom this statement applies would say that it's more complex than you make it out to be.

    I think for some young people, they fall "out" of the church because they were never "in" it far enough. Others I have known have agonized over the choice to leave, knowing that they are walking away from family and friends, and from something that once gave them comfort but for whatever reason no longer does.

    I'm sure there are some who do leave for the reason you cite. But their desire to live by the world's rules instead of the church's must have something to do with whether they accept the church's rules as valid or not.

    If I did not have a testmony of the gospel and of the church, it would be hard for me to live by some of our rules, too.

  5. Although I have never had a child leave the Church (mine are still young enough that they just do - mostly - what we tell them to do, although my 4 year old cries when we go to Church) I have watched two brothers stop attending Church, one of whom was my oldest brother who served a faithful mission, and then decided to stop being involved with the Church afterwards. He passed away last year from cancer, and it has been a really hard thing for me.

    I agree that the reasons are complex. My brothers did not leave the Church for the same reasons, even though they were raised by the same parents. And myself and my other two siblings are still faithful, temple-attending, gospel-sharing members - and we were raised by the same parents as our two brothers. Proof that it cannot be all the parents' fault - we are given agency.

    Something that helped me through the hard times after my brother passed away was something a sister in our relief society shared. She said, "Eventually, ever person will perfectly understand the gopsel in a way that he/she knows exactly what he/she is accepting or rejecting." I feel like that has to be true. God wouldn't be a just God if he punished people for not accepting the gospel when those people didn't really understand what it was about.

    And it's impossible for us to ever know if a person perfectly understands what they are accepting or rejecting. There are so many factors, and they have their own perspectives.

    I do know the heartache that comes from watching someone reject the blessings of the gospel. With my brother I keep thinking about what I could have done or said that would have convinced him to participate fully in the Church. I still pray for him. I don't know what else I can do now.

  6. Becca, thanks for responding to my post. I'm sorry about your brother.

    I like what your friend in Relief Society told you.

    My stake president used to remind me (when I in a position to have monthly interviews with him during those turbulent years with my sons) that eternity is a long time and we do not know the Lord's timetable. I took great comfort in that reassurance.

  7. Thank you for this, Paul. Sometimes we rush to judge and stereotype - largely because we can't figure it out otherwise. We aren't they, and the not knowing drives us nuts.

    I also love the words of your Stake President. I believe eternity is a long, long time - and I believe the final judgment will occur for each individual only when that individual has reached the point where s/he no longer is capable of growth. I also believe that "end" is FAR further into the future than we realize.

    God bless you and yours in your journeys. I personally have faith in this particular aspect of that for which I hope but lack evidence - that God's love, grace and patience are broad and powerful enough to shock us in the end, drop us to our knees and weep in awe and admiration and real worship, especially when it comes to the salvation and exaltation of His children.

  8. Thanks for reading, and for the comment, PapaD.

    "We aren't they, and the not knowing drives us nuts."

    Yes. That was especially true for me in my most controlling period, when I wanted to dictate all the outcomes.

  9. Thank you so much, Paul for this post.
    I like your analogy "drowning in the ocean" because I so recognize that feeling. In fact I am still there in the middle of that vast ocean trying hard not to drown in my tears and unsettling feelings of watching a child leaving the church.

  10. Anon, thanks for reading.

    When I feel like I'm in the ocean drowning, I remember that the Savior could calm the storm.

    The doctrine of agency has been a challenge for me to understand, and unfortunately the master's class isn't all that much fun. But I have found places of comfort. I hope you do, too.