I don’t remember exactly what comment in seminary made me start crying. Maybe it was “You know, less-active members just didn’t search hard enough for answers,” or the consensus that they’d all been deceived. Maybe it was the comparison of former members to people in the mists of darkness (see 1 Nephi 8:23–24) or the implication that there was no hope for them unless they speedily returned to church.
One of these comments was the breaking point, and I burst into tears. I didn’t leave class; I just sat at my desk and cried.
I was 15 years old. My dad had left the Church 13 years before.
I wish I could say that one seminary class was the only time I heard comments like that, but discussions about less-active members seemed to be everywhere. Most of them weren’t flattering. Many people didn’t know that my dad stopped going to church a long time ago—they were careless, not cruel. But their comments were still deeply hurtful.
Some people were kind and inclusive, but I think we can be more thoughtful and sensitive in how we discuss those who are not active in the Church. To help us all consider how we speak about a topic that could be painful for some, here are a few questions to ask yourself about how you discuss disaffected members, along with some tips on how to be more sensitive.
I love and respect my dad. He’s one of the most honest, hardworking, and intelligent men I’ve ever met. To hear people speak negatively about less-active members is especially painful because my dad has good principles, morals, and values.
Tip: Remember that there are good people everywhere, whether they’re active or less-active members of the Church or not members at all. It can be easy to use us/them language and moralize the decision of others to stop believing or participating, but remember, we don’t know all the circumstances surrounding their choice to become less active.
Generalized comments assume that everyone sees the world exactly as we do, that everyone’s experiences have shaped their perspectives in the very same way, and that everyone comes from similar backgrounds. We need to remember that each one of us has a unique journey in mortality.
Tip: Keep an eye out for innocent but exclusionary questions. For example, in Young Women classes, we were often asked to share stories about how our lives were affected because our fathers held the priesthood. It only takes a little rewording to make a world of difference and include everyone. Perhaps it would have been better to ask something like, “How has your life been affected by the power of the priesthood?”
My dad’s been out of the Church for two decades now, and it’s not looking like it’ll change anytime soon. I still love and respect my dad. And while there are difficulties, I’m pretty content with how my family runs.
Tip: Having less-active loved ones is not nearly as uncommon as it used to be, and people have come a long way in their responses to all sorts of families and circumstances. We can be understanding and offer heartfelt responses that won’t minimize the person’s current experience.
When my seminary class discussed anything that had to do with the hereafter, from spirit prison to sealed couples being sorted into their degrees of glory together, my stomach started to do somersaults. I won’t lie—I do worry about where my family will fit in after death. I try to trust in the knowledge that God is good and that my dad is good, but right now, there’s a gap in our family’s eternal future. We simply don’t know what will happen.
Tip: Show empathy for others. Families with less-active members aren’t the only people who deal with this, but it can be emotionally taxing, especially in Church settings. When I share my concerns, I’m not looking for answers—I’m just looking for empathy, for someone to agree that this is hard sometimes.
I eventually realized that I could soften a negative discussion by piping up and saying, “Oh, I disagree. My dad is less active, and …” Almost immediately, people’s comments became kinder, and many even backtracked on their previous insensitive statements.
Tip: A good rule of thumb in Church discussions is to assume that no matter what you’re discussing, someone in your group has experienced it, is experiencing it, or will experience it—or they have a loved one who is going through it. Once people knew about my family situation, they were much gentler. They knew that, to me, this wasn’t just a conversation about less-active or disaffected members—this was about my father.
All of this boils down to what we already know and what we are taught: be empathetic and loving. Elder W. Craig Zwick, an emeritus General Authority Seventy, said: “The willingness to see through each other’s eyes will transform ‘corrupt communication’ into ‘minister[ing] grace.’ … It may not change or solve the problem, but the more important possibility may be whether ministering grace could change us.”1
Mortality means we all end up in unique circumstances. And whatever those circumstances are, we can always be accepting and kind to all. My family is a part of my unique mortal journey, and I love them as they are. But I do have hope that Heavenly Father will help everything work out for our eternal family in the end.