Latter-day Saint Faith Crisis

Why Faith Crisis Happens

Church members misunderstand the reasons why others doubt or leave the church. This disconnect creates unnecessary loneliness and offense.

In an October 2013 General Conference address, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said this:

Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations.

Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church.

In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church [...] but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves.

In that spirit we will dispel some of the myths surrounding faith crisis in the Church and then discuss some of the actual reasons why members experience it.


Church members, sometimes led by Church leaders and other times of their own accord, have invented several cultural archetypes (categories) of people who doubt or leave the Church. These archetypes are at best oversimplified and at worst condescending and mean-spirited. They cause fear and shame among those in crisis and make it impossible to minister to them effectively.

Here are a few (but certainly not all) of those archetypes:

  1. The forgot to pray: This archetype assumes that the person in crisis is having doubts because they neglected spiritual habits like prayer, scripture study, church attendance, or tithepaying. This is a myth. In fact, many members in crisis are praying, studying, and attending to other spiritual habits more fervently than ever before in an attempt to quell their own doubts and fears.
  2. The sinner: Assumes that the person is in crisis because of a pornography addiction, Word of Wisdom violations, disloyalty in their marriage, or any number of other transgressions. This is a myth. Although an abiding sense of "Mormon guilt" may be part of some faith crises, this is not a consequence of sin; it is a symptom of low self-worth. There is no evidence that members in crisis struggle with the commandments any more or less than active, committed members.
  3. The wayward child: This is a vague archetype characterized not by the person in crisis but by their parent(s). Latter-day Saint parents often measure their own success by how many of their children are active in the Church or serving in leadership roles. They also tend to measure their children by this standard, reducing them to a single, featureless aspect of their spiritual lives. This is a myth. In our opinion, a parent's success is measured by their respect and love for their children, not by anyone's church attendance or lack thereof. A child is far more than their weekly attendance at sacrament meeting. A self-pitying statement like "two of my children are no longer active" ignores the larger aspects of what may be two richly fulfilling lives: families of their own, successful careers, charity and service, or spiritual growth in a different faith.
  4. The deceived by Satan: Assumes that the person in crisis has been tricked or drawn away by Satanic influence. This is a myth. People who leave the Church are often led by the very values their parents and teachers worked to instill in them: integrity, honesty, compassion, personal revelation. Sometimes they feel the Church has deceived them by hiding or glossing over pieces of Church history or doctrine. Saying that they've been "deceived by Satan" does nothing to help us sympathize with them or understand their concerns; rather, it pits us against them and makes us afraid to listen to them in a loving way.
  5. The anti-Mormon literature: Assumes that the person in crisis was influenced or deceived by material that seeks to destroy the faith of members. This is a myth. Although many members encounter material of this kind, their first reaction is usually to distrust it. Most members go to great lengths to verify the truth before they allow it to affect their faith. However, not every fact or account that casts the Church in a negative light is false. The Church is not immune from scandals, poor decisions, prejudicial thinking, and other imperfections. Even official Church publications, such as the Gospel Topics essays or the Joseph Smith Papers, have been known to trigger a faith crisis. It is incorrect to assume that a faith crisis is always founded on false or derogatory information.
  6. The liberal sympathizer: Assumes that the person is in crisis because of political beliefs that conflict with popular interpretations of Church doctrine. This is a myth. The Church has repeatedly stated that it is politically neutral and has allied itself at one time or another with the positions of various political parties. Its doctrine is neither overwhelmingly conservative nor liberal. Those who think otherwise are most often projecting their own politics onto the Church. Members of every political persuasion tend to feel that their politics and their core religious beliefs are tightly intertwined, occasionally in conflict but most often in harmony.
  7. The took it personal: This archetype assumes that the person in crisis has been personally offended by the actions of a peer or leader in their congregation and has chosen to bear a grudge against them by distancing themselves from the Church. This is a myth. Personal offenses are a weekly occurrence for some members, but annoyance at one's peers is almost never the only (or most urgent) cause of a faith crisis. Some people do not feel safe around members that have harassed, threatened, or attacked them. Some people feel it would challenge their integrity to sustain a Church leader who has proven himself untrustworthy. Some people are reluctant to expose their children to ideas that might damage their self-worth—for example, many gay members and former members report having endured serious trauma as a result of homophobic rhetoric they heard at church. While members may or may not see these as sufficient reasons for avoiding the Church, it's important to recognize that these concerns are far more profound than just "choosing to be offended."


True stories of faith crisis tend to be complex, painful, unique, and deeply personal. The experience of doubting or leaving the Church is often compared to mourning the death of a loved one. Rarely if ever is the choice to leave made in a sudden moment of anger or despair; it often comes after months, even years, of honest inquiry and soul-searching.

Though no faith journey can be reduced to a single, easily digestible narrative, there are experiences that many members in crisis have in common. Here are a few:

  1. Heavenly silence. As described in this poignant video on the Church's website, members in crisis have often found that the heavens are, for unknown reasons, closed to them. Habits of prayer and spiritual practice which used to bring warmth and peace now feel empty, cold, and forced. A dedicated member may continue to attend church and practice daily devotions for several months or years under such conditions but many eventually run out of steam.
  2. Self-blame. Often accompanying a period of heavenly silence is an urge to find fault with oneself. The Church teaches that worthiness is a prerequisite for spiritual guidance and comfort; some people take that to mean that if they aren't feeling spiritually fulfilled it's because they're unworthy or sinful. Any member, even the most faithful and disciplined Latter-day Saint, may be susceptible to this form of self-blame. The smallest flaws and mistakes are seen as evidence of one's own worthlessness and evil nature. Over time this can lead to self-isolation, anxiety, or depression.
  3. Feelings of betrayal. The Church has made efforts in recent years to speak openly and factually about its past, including such difficult topics as polygamy, the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's mysticism, the ban on Black people receiving the priesthood, and so on. However, much remains to be done before the general membership of the Church is aware of these and able to understand them in a faithful way. Many members past and present have been surprised and dismayed to find that these issues are not, in fact, the inventions of anti-Mormon hysterics. They may feel deceived by teachers and leaders who have responded to them with false or dismissive statements. They may feel the Church has broken their trust, even irreparably so. And once that trust has been lost an entire lifetime of gospel teachings comes into question.
  4. Isolation and rejection. The Church teaches that it is a sin to speak out against its leaders and warns its members against reading anything that is critical of it. Some members translate this into a fear of dissent and nonconformity rooted so deep that they reflexively ignore, avoid, or attack anyone who expresses differences or doubts. Unfortunately, members commonly observe this behavior in the people they ought to be able to trust the most: their quorum and relief society peers, their Church leaders, even their own spouses. Members with concerns or questions often find themselves completely and suddenly alone, unable to find acceptance in any of the places they're used to looking. And members whose culture, gender identity, or sexuality is different from the Latter-day Saint norm often find themselves marginalized or shamed for things they cannot change. This creates distance between these members and the Church whether they desire it or not.
  5. Broken promises. In the final chapter of the Book of Mormon the prophet Moroni promises that anyone who asks God if the Book is true will receive an affirmative answer. This is one of the Church's most popular passages of scripture and members often testify of their own positive experiences with it. However, some members do not have that experience. Some pray faithfully for years but receive no assurance, even if they feel the presence of God in other areas of their lives. Others feel that God has told them the Book of Mormon is false. And this is far from the only promise members may struggle with; other scriptures promise blessings of peace, physical health, or prosperity that many members do not feel they've received, despite their deep and heartfelt dedication. Church leaders over the years have made bold promises over the pulpit, some of which seem to contradict each other. And members are encouraged to make covenants at each stage of their spiritual progression, understood to be "contracts" of mutual commitment between themselves and God, which in some members' experience ask too much and give too little in return. Any or all of these can cause a member to feel that a promise has been broken, resulting in a crisis of confidence in the church and in God.
  6. Challenges to integrity. The Church often teaches an all-or-nothing approach to doctrine: either the Church is true in its entirety, from the grandest vision to the briefest sermon, or it is all an impressively complex scam. This perspective does not work for a significant portion of the Church—almost all members occasionally discover an issue or concern they aren't able to fully resolve. While most active members can quietly negotiate or ignore their differences with the Church, others struggle to do so. Some may feel that they can't be part of the Church and still support their LGBTQ+ family members and friends, whose identities and relationships the Church condemns; others find that a disagreement with Church doctrine or policy puts them at odds with Church leadership; some experience a loss or sudden change that permanently alters their outlook on life; still others discover a contradiction or mistake in Church history and can't escape the feeling that it invalidates all of the Church's teachings. Some may see these as small or misguided concerns, but the members in question are struggling with nothing less than their own integrity: their desire to be an honest, whole, and genuine person. We cannot expect anyone to take this struggle lightly or be unchanged by it.
  7. Questions of compassion. Although the Church teaches that opportunities to accept the gospel will be available to everyone in the next life, it still bothers many members to be taught that the "one true Church" is a gift restricted to a tiny minority of God's children in this life. Additionally, members may be aware of the spiritual awakenings and experiences of people in other faiths and struggle to accept the idea that Latter-day Saint experiences are somehow different or superior. For people who truly believe that "all are alike unto God," the Church's doctrines of exclusivity can lead to serious doubts. These arise from a kind and charitable heart but are often treated as idle philosophy or contrarianism. If we profess a belief in "the worth of souls" but refuse to discuss what this means beyond missionary work and Church-sponsored charity funds it shouldn't surprise us when others are troubled by it.

Contrary to what some may believe, the vast majority of members in faith crisis or faith transition do not wish to destroy the Church. Their questions are genuine and immensely important. They are concerned for their own souls to an extent many active members have never experienced. They are not enemies or impostors. They are the same people they have always been and they need love and support now more than ever.

Many of them are in pain. Some suffer in silence because they would rather suffer alone than make their peers uncomfortable. Others build social and emotional walls between themselves and the Church, preparing for a separation they assume is unavoidable. Very few are in this position by choice, and many want desperately to go back to the way things were. None are fully prepared for what lies ahead: the experiences they will have, the ways that they will change.

Not all of this turmoil is avoidable—doubting the very foundation of one's life is inevitably a difficult experience—but the rejection, isolation, and condemnation they so often receive at the hands of Church members is avoidable. They may make us uncomfortable or raise questions we feel an urge to avoid, but we have a responsibility to overcome this discomfort and show them the respect and compassion they deserve. We should want for them what we would want for ourselves: to find peace and happiness again.

For more on this topic, see Offering Support.