Latter-day Saint Faith Crisis

Supporting a Friend in Crisis

If you know a member in faith crisis, you may have struggled to know how to help them. They may be in your Relief Society or priesthood quorum or in a youth class you teach. Maybe you're in ward or stake leadership and you feel a duty to reach out to them. They may even be your own child or spouse. In any of these cases it can be difficult to know what to do. You're trying to balance opposing concerns: respecting their decisions and inviting them to make different ones; sharing your testimony and making sure they know that you love them regardless; maintaining a genuine relationship and fulfilling your desire to be a missionary to them.

This is not an impossible situation. However, you should not expect to control the outcome. There is no certain course of action that will give your friend or family member a testimony. Their journey belongs to them alone. It is your responsibility to celebrate their successes and hope for their happiness whether or not they remain involved with the church.

Following is some practical advice for supporting and building your relationship with them. Note that it's not focused on ordinances or commitment patterns, but on loving actions that will bring you and them closer. Honest conversations arise naturally from close relationships. If they're confident in your respect and love they'll feel comfortable talking to you about their spiritual journey and you'll feel comfortable inviting them to Christ.

  1. Listen, think, and validate. Being a good listener is essential to a respectful relationship. When someone speaks to you about their spiritual journey they are choosing to be vulnerable with you. It's a show of trust—and this trust is easily revoked. As you listen to your friend, your focus should be on what they're saying, not on what you're going to say next. Try to understand them and sense how they are feeling. Don't respond negatively or interrupt them. When they finish speaking, take a moment to think about what they've said. If you'd like, summarize it back to them (i.e. "So if I understand correctly, what you're saying is..."). Then your first focus should be to validate them. You don't have to agree with them or believe that their decisions are right but you can express empathy by saying things like "I can understand why you're upset about that" or "That must have been really difficult." Be genuine and don't follow up with a "but."
  2. Respect their perspective. Even when you enter a conversation with every intention of listening and showing compassion, your desire to defend the church can get in the way, leading you to contradict or cast doubt on what the other person says. You will need to make a conscious effort to avoid this. Such a tendency may come from a place of loyalty and respect for the gospel but it will harm rather than help the relationship. Your friend cannot be argued or persuaded back to the church. They don't need intellectual or philosophical debate; what they need is for you to "mourn with those that mourn...and comfort those that stand in need of comfort" (Mosiah 18:9). Trust that they already know what you believe, then be a witness by your actions of God's pure love for them. This isn't to say you should never bear testimony to them but be careful not to come across condescending or judgmental. In a vulnerable or emotional moment the best thing you can do is listen, not testify.
  3. Be flexible; there are different ways to Mormon. Some church members fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one "right" way to be part of the church. These members, intentionally or not, are prone to say things in talks, conversations, and church lessons that exclude anyone who believes or practices differently than they do. They have fallen short of President Thomas S. Monson's instruction to "Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved" (General Conference, Oct. 2008). In the process of faith transition many people find themselves adopting a very different approach to religious belief and practice. Be careful not to speak or act in a way that would embarrass or exclude them because of these changes.
  4. Make compassionate adjustments. Your friend may decide they're uncomfortable participating in certain ordinances, lessons, or activities in the church. Strive to accommodate them in these decisions. Rather than blessing their new baby in sacrament meeting, they may prefer to have a small, unofficial prayer ceremony at home. Rather than attend a temple night with the ward, they may find a friendly phone call or dinner more helpful. If a Sunday lesson strays into territory they find hurtful, they may choose to leave and go home early. Whether you hold a leadership position or not you can help make space for these kinds of decisions. An attitude of understanding and flexibility will go a long way toward making them feel comfortable around you and accepted within the ward or branch.
  5. Advocate for them. The very existence of faith crisis makes some members feel threatened. They may respond to the knowledge that a member is in crisis with unnecessary defensiveness or negativity. When you hear someone spreading a rumor or saying something unkind about your friend, step in to defend them. They may be labelled as faithless, apostate, deceived, or lost in mists of darkness. These labels aren't helpful; they create a feeling of opposition that can make your friend feel rejected and isolated. Instead of pity and disregard, speak of them with respect and appreciation. Demonstrate by your words and actions that "regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church" (General Conference, Oct. 2013). Make efforts to show your friend that you trust them, you think of them as an equal, and you don't think they're evil or ignorant.
  6. Celebrate their progression. Sometimes we speak of people as "successes" or "failures" based on the results of our missionary efforts toward them. Christlike charity invites us to look deeper. If your friend leaves the church it doesn't mean that they, you, or your efforts to serve them have failed. Each decision they make is part of a spiritual journey that's sacred in its own way. Whatever the fears and concerns you may have about them, search for the successes in their life and celebrate them. If they find God in another church, share their joy. If they commit to a charitable endeavor, show your support. If they remain fully active in the church, always welcome them with a smile even if their beliefs and practices change. Have the courage to look outside yourself and appreciate spiritual growth no matter what it looks like.
  7. Read the book Bridges by David B. Ostler. This book gives a comprehensive overview of faith crisis and how to support those who encounter it. It's received high praise both from members who have left the church and from those who have chosen to stay. There is no better book for members who want to support and love their friends in faith transition.