I don’t follow general conference too closely anymore, but I do hear about talks that refer to or are addressed to former members in some way.1

Most of what is said does not bother me directly,2 but I do know that my LDS family and friends also hear these messages. Experience has taught me that most members just aren’t tuned in to how former members are represented—members are focused on how the talks apply to them and how they can improve their lives. And when former members are discussed, I understand that leadership intend no harm and are simply focused on helping members stay on the path they view as essential to happiness in this life and the next.

Still, when former members are occasionally referred to or addressed by general authorities, it’s usually not in a very flattering light, and I wonder what kind of subconcious effect that has over time on how my member friends and family view me and other former members? And even if we interpret their words in the most generous light, they still do not represent my feelings or thoughts very well.

So, in the spirit of representing my own feelings and position and perhaps furthering dialog, I offer up these responses to a few points made in general conference that seem directed at or especially relevant to former members.3

Elder Rasband

We know that Alma also agonized about those whom he had led away from the truth. But Alma himself could not heal and restore all those he had led away. He could not himself ensure that they would be given a fair opportunity to learn the doctrine of Christ and to be blessed by living its joyful principles. He could not bring back those who may have died still blinded by his false teaching.

Alma the younger can be viewed as a representation of a former member (raised in the Church but then left and taught against it).

I don’t have any desire to lead people away from truth. I believe truth can withstand scrutiny so I welcome correction and hope everyone finds all the truth they possibly can wherever they can. And, unlike Alma the younger, my conscience is clean, and if I am mistaken then it is an honest mistake.

Elder Andersen

And when someone sets their defining memories aside and is lost or confused, we turn them toward the Savior as we share our faith and memories with them, helping them rediscover those precious spiritual moments they once treasured

I do not feel that I have set aside my defining memories, and I don’t feel lost or confused.4

I still appreciate the spiritual moments I had, even if I interpret their meaning differently now. I also treasure the spiritual moments I continue to have and would love to build more.5

Douglas D. Holmes

With ever-increasing secular forces pulling at us, we need the strength that comes from loving relationships.

Whether something is “secular” or not has little bearing on its goodness, I think. There is much in secular society that is good and much that is bad (just like there is much good and bad in religious societies).

Regardless, life is difficult in many ways, so we all need loving relationships.

Elder Eyring

I know from experience that Satan and his servants try to make us feel that we must not pray.

[Former members sometimes get lumped into the servant of Satan category.]

I hope you continue to pray if you feel it is efficacious or brings you peace. I find peace in various meditative practices and quiet reflection. The world is an amazing place, people are amazing, and figuring out how best to navigate life is challenging, so we all need prayer, meditation, and/or reflection time.

Elder McCune

There will be times when family members and close friends will face challenges. The voices of the world, and maybe their own desires, might cause them to question truth.

This seems like an unfair characterization of former members or members with doubts—it implies that our decisions were driven by a desire to sin or be worldly. Most of those I am familiar with left because they became familiar with troubling truth-claim issues they saw no good reconciliations for and/or out of a sense of moral duty.

My desire is to live a good life. I feel like that has encouraged and does encourage me to embrace truth. And, since truth can withstand scrutiny, I’m happy to discuss the issues and am open to correction.

If our true desire is to rescue those we love, we ourselves must stay firmly with Christ by embracing His Church and the fulness of His gospel.

Rescue implies I am in danger or am lost. I would prefer to be your friend and family member, rather than someone to be “rescued”. If you cannot help but view me as someone in need of rescue, I would just ask you if would like me to view you in that manner, too (i.e., someone who needs rescuing), or would you rather I view you as someone who is doing the best they can and will likely be fine by any measure because they are simply trying to be as good a person they know how?

Can we be spiritual equals or peers?

The adversary would entice some to leave the joy of the gospel by separating Christ’s teachings from His Church.

I feel to embrace all the truth and goodness I can find in the accounts of Jesus’s life and teachings. I am not currently persuaded that Satan or any other supernatural entity exists (which is exactly what Satan would want, of course, but that loop, once constructed, cannot be escaped), so I do not believe he is enticing me to separate Christ’s teachings from the LDS Church. I hope all organizations and people embrace all the truth and goodness they can find from Christ’s example and teachings.

Elder Renlund

Yet even new hearts may be “prone to wander, … prone to leave the God [we] love.” To fight this tendency, we need to reflect every day on the gifts we have received and on what they entailed.

I often feel gratitude in my heart for all the service and sacrifices made on my and my children’s behalf, and I feel to embrace goodness, not wander from it.

Elder Nelson

Yet most people do not embrace these truths—either because they do not know where to look for them or because they are listening to those who do not have the whole truth or because they have rejected truth in favor of worldly pursuits.

I feel to embrace all the truth and goodness that I can find. And, I hope that my life transcends baser “worldly pursuits” in at least some ways. OTOH, I view myself as a citizen of the world and human on planet earth. While I live here, I hope I can engage in wordly pursuits that are good, fulfilling, and that make the world a better place.

And if my acceptance of truth is partial, this is not for lack of honest introspection or earnest seeking.

The adversary is clever. For millennia he has been making good look evil and evil look good. His messages tend to be loud, bold, and boastful.

Deciding what is good or what is evil in some cases can be difficult. Most of the extreme cases are easy. Here’s how I currently think about right and wrong, good and evil: Claim: Morality is an emergent principle. I am open to finding better ways to think about good and evil. Finally, being fooled or misguided without even realizing we have been fooled or misguided is a danger we all face, at least in theory, I think.

We simply cannot rely upon information we bump into on social media. With billions of words online and in a marketing-saturated world constantly infiltrated by noisy, nefarious efforts of the adversary, where can we go to hear Him?

I think our confidence in a source should be proportional to its demonstrated predictive power and track record in conveying truths that we can verify to some degree. As mentioned above, I am not yet persuaded that a supernatural being has infiltrated our social networks, but we can probably all agree that many human generated forces are seeking to distract us or gain our attention.6 We should be careful about the sources we trust, and this is admittedly a difficult task in the modern era (but was it any easier in other eras, or just different?)

Elder Oaks

In conclusion, I share the conviction that has come to me from many letters and by reviewing many requests to return to the Church after name removal or apostasy. Many of our members do not fully understand this plan of salvation, which answers most questions about the doctrine and inspired policies of the restored Church.

I feel like I understand the LDS plan of salvation with some clarity (given that I studied it one way or another for almost 40 years). I believe an answer can be generated for every question (because we are dealing with something like an underdetermined system), but I am not convinced that good answers (i.e., fully consistent internally and externally and of higher probability than alternatives) exist for many of the toughest questions.

Elder Cook

We also declare our heartfelt desire to be reunited with those who have been struggling with their testimonies, been less active, or had their names removed from Church records.

I think “reunited” is an unfortunate choice of words since it suggests that those who have left the LDS faith are “lost”, “fallen”, or “dead” in some way (else why a “reunion”? We don’t usually talk of reunion for those we live with and share lives with, right?). I’m happy to commune with anyone who would like to.

We desire to feast with you “upon the words of Christ” at the Lord’s table, to learn the things we all should do.

Again, I am happy to feast upon the words of Christ (or other great moral figures) with you at any time. We may have some differences of opinion on what it is we all should do, but I definitely think we all should try and live lives of goodness and truth. If what Elder Cook means is that he wants to meet with us in a controlled setting where only a single, pre-approved interpretation of Christ’s words and their meaning will be tolerated, then that sounds less inviting to me. My neighbor went to Church for about a year during the time when he was adopting a different worldview—his perspectives on what was most Christ-like were not warmly welcomed.

We need you!

I am here. What do you need? Must I be a member to help?

The Church needs you!

Why? I view the world (or its people) as my Church. I am here. Must I be a member to help?

The Lord needs you!

If Matthew 25: 31-46 is any indication, I feel comfortable classifying myself as a person who already does the Lord’s work. Also, I don’t think those who have joined other Christian faiths (like Leland’s family) would appreciate the implication that they are not currently serving the Lord.

Our heartfelt prayer is that you will join with us in worshipping the Savior of the world.

As you know, worship comes from the root “worthy”. I try to honor and reverence all this is worthy, so maybe I am already worshipping properly?

We know that some of you may have received offense, unkindness, or other conduct that is not Christlike. We also know that some have had challenges to their faith that may not be fully appreciated, understood, or resolved. Some of our most stalwart and faithful members have suffered a challenge to their faith for a season. I love the true account of W. W. Phelps, who had forsaken the Church and testified against the Prophet Joseph Smith in a Missouri court. After repenting, he wrote to Joseph, “I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me.” Joseph did forgive him, put him back to work, and lovingly wrote, “Friends at first are friends again at last.”

I did not ever take offense and I was happy with the actions of most members towards me (plenty Christlike). But some people have been deeply harmed by the action or inaction of leaders and/or institutional practices. Elder Cook’s words do not constitute an apology, even if they represent an acknowledgement.

The story Cook then tells of W.W. Phelps and Joseph Smith suggests it is the people who left the Church in need of repentance. I question that assumption. I know the story is more complex (with Phelps actively antagonistic towards Joseph, and I’m not a fan of Phelps’s action during that time), but at least on the surface and the way it is told here, the story seems to imply that a person cannot be true friends unless or until they are members of the Church again. I believe true friendship can and ought to transcend religious affiliation.

Brothers and sisters, regardless of your situation, please know that the Church and its members will welcome you back!

Thank you. These are kind gestures. I am certain that my body would be welcomed back, but I do not believe that my heart and voice are actually welcome in the LDS faith—the LDS Church tends to revoke membership (previously “excommunicate”) people who think like me and speak openly. This kind of welcome also seems to apply to most LGBT individuals, whose bodies are welcomed but souls are not if they desire to enjoy the same kinds of intimacy heterosexual couples are encouraged to responsibly engage in.

… I assure you that revelatory guidance can be received by each of us as we humbly labor in the Lord’s vineyard.

I have a different view of the meaning of spiritual experiences.

Elder Gimenez

It is said that “to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” (This statement has been attributed to Thomas Aquinas but is most likely a loose paraphrase of things he taught.) However, we have limited understanding of the things that happen here on earth, and often we do not have answers to the question of why.”

I think having confidence in things in proportion to their track record is good. I think hoping for things is good. I have faith in and hope for many things. I am unconvinced that religious faith, which I define and discuss here, is a virtue. Gimenez’s statement would position us between two extremes, and I think both extremes he presents are at least potentially dangerous.

Elder Uchtdorf

[Elder Uchtdorf explicitly addressed non-members in his talk, generally]

We are His beloved children. Even those who reject Him. Even those who, like a headstrong, unruly child, become angry with God and His Church, pack their bags, and storm out the door proclaiming that they’re running away and never coming back.

Especially in its broader context, we can easily interpret this statement as applying to anyone, including a member. Still, the imagery used probably has the unintended consequence of painting those who have left the Church in a particular light, as if their departure was “like a headstrong, unruly child…[who] pack their bags, and storm out the door proclaiming that they’re running away and never coming back.”

My experience discovering alternative models of LDS truth-claims that were compelling to me seems antithetical, at least in spirit, to Elder Uchtdorf’s description. To use the same metaphor as Elder Uchtdorf, I was trying my best to sustain the home of my parents and ancestors and would have gladly stayed there forever (it was my intention). In attempting to fortify our religious foundation against what I viewed as assaults from outsiders who had not taken the time to understand our theology or scripture, I came across additional data and models which suggested to me that the integrity of the LDS foundation upon which we had been building was questionable and prone to collapse. And, it seemed to me, that it was in such a state that people living in the house were being hurt by splintering floorboards and sinkholes caused by the unsound foundation.

In the midst of trying to decide personally about how to deal with these foundational issues, I tried my best to carefully and reasonably raise these concerns in our family, but my efforts were not well received by most. I had expected that given the importance of the LDS foundation to our metaphorical home that we would all gather together and spend some time cross-checking and discussing the issues with the foundation. It seemed reasonable to me that we would even go outside and look at it carefully from different angles. Maybe even call in foundation experts from different companies. And then we’d all compare notes and carefully discuss the issues so we could determine the seriousness of the issue and what we should all do about it. Maybe these concerns were overblown, but maybe they were not? If ever there was a time to come together as a family, this was it!

Instead, I was made to feel that I had the problem because I was focusing on and raising awareness of these serious foundational issues.7

So, discussions of the foundation never really happened, and not long after raising these concerns we found ourselves outside the house—in part because we think the foundation is unsound and we cannot build on it anymore and in part because questioning the foundation really isn’t allowed inside the house. But we’re actually still on the same land, trying our best to build new foundations that might work. The land still seems good (very rich soil) and—most important of all—we do not want to leave our family. But the arrangement with some inside the house and others outside it is noticeably awkward.

The members in our family talk with us through the window, but they won’t come outside for a discussion to see what we mean about the foundation. And as we struggle with laying new foundations, I am sure that those in the house question our decisions. “Why have you changed the way you are building your foundation?” Unfortunately, without detailed reference to the failing aspects of the original foundation—which those in the house do not want to hear about—we never have a chance to really discuss this.8

Of course we are still curious about what is going on in the house (after all, we lived there for almost our entire lives and many of our loved ones still live inside it). On the one hand, we are hopeful that everyone is living well and not getting hurt inside. On the other hand, we cannot help but hope that those in the house will notice the foundational problems so we can at least discuss them or they can give us some partial validation that we are not insane for questioning the foundation’s reliability and leaving what might otherwise be considered a beautiful home to live in.

In any case, however sound or unsound the foundation ultimately turns out to be, I did not leave like a headstrong, unruly child, slamming the door behind me. I defended our home and foundation for 2 decades. I meticulously analyzed many sections of the foundation, and I was in the best position of anyone in our family to do that from a scholarly perspective. If I could have seen a way to genuinely salvage it, I would have stayed to make it work. And even though I knew we were leaving to face the elements without a new home to live in (we’d have to start building all over), I left as calmly, as graciously, and as purposefully as I knew how.9

  1. I did not watch or listen to conference, but someone online posted a few quotes directed at or relevant to former members. That commentary was pretty incendiary, and I mostly ignored it. I do go back and try to understand each quote in its greater context before commenting on it (what was the focus of the speaker? is this really applicable to a former member?, etc) 

  2. I’m not particularly concerned what LDS leadership thinks of me, and I suspect we would get along fine together in real life. 

  3. A few disclaimers:

    • I do not claim to speak for former members as a group, but perhaps in speaking for myself they can be better understood, too.
    • Please do not feel obligated to read my response—I’m just happy to know the representation is accessible.
    • Just because I have commented on one portion of a talk does not mean I cannot or do not appreciate other redeeming or uplifting aspects of a talk. There is plenty of good to appreciate in these talks, as you know.

  4. In theory, anyone can be so lost and confused that they don’t even realize they are lost and confused. That applies generally, though, no more to former members than members. 

  5. I still live a vibrant spiritual life even if that does not look so similar to an LDS lifestyle, per se. Also, I would love to continue building spiritual memories with all of my family today and in the future, assuming they are equally enthusiastic. 

  6. For instance, an astro-turfing campaign appears to have recently sprung up to end the quarantine

  7. To extend the metaphor, it seems clear that the foundation company itself runs an effective advertising campaign characterizing those who question their foundation. If a foundation seems bad, they would argue, the flaw is in those making the assessment, not the foundation itself. Those who question the foundation are characterized as:

    1. Prideful: what makes them think they know more about the foundation than the foundation company?
    2. Lazy: they never really took the time to understand how foundations work in the first place.
    3. Just wanted to leave the house (sin): they didn’t really care about the integrity of the foundation, they were just looking for an excuse to leave.

    I can acknowledge that people who choose to remain do so courageously and sincerely; is it possible that those who question the foundation and decide they need to leave do so from a place of sincerity and strength of character? 

  8. It seems like conversations about foundations go like something this:

    • [From inside] “Why aren’t you building your foundation out there like the foundation of this house?”
    • [From outside] “Well, the old foundation has serious problems. If we build it the same, I expect we’ll have similar problems.”
    • [From inside] “Well, we will just have to agree to disagree on the soundness of our foundation. We believe it is sound. We love living in this home and feel good about the foundation. Every day we pray that you will come back inside. It’s not safe out there.”
    • [From outside] “Maybe the foundation is sound, but if you’ll come outside we can walk you around and show you in detail all the things we think constitute major problems. You’d be in a much better position to know if the foundation is truly sound after that, right? And regardless of your decision about staying after that, you would then have a basis for understanding why we are building our foundations differently.”
    • [From inside] “No thank you. The foundation company says that looking at the so-called flaws in the foundation is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Others have left the home before, and their homes are not nearly as nice as ours. Also, some of us have lived in other homes before this, and we think this one is better. Plus, we’re doing a lot of remodeling inside, so we don’t have the time or energy to dig around in the foundation with you. And, we’ve lived here for so long, if we did find out the foundation was unsafe we’d have to start all over again—doesn’t that sound terrible! Does looking at so-called foundation flaws make you happy? Seems like a lot of negativity.”

  9. For instance, my resignation email goes through the formalities of asking to have my records removed, and I then conclude:

    I acknowledge all the good that the church and its teachings have brought into my life. I am grateful for the service that has been rendered to me and my family, and I’m grateful for the opportunities my membership in the church has afforded me, the friends I have made within it, and the spiritual nourishment it has provided.

    This kind of approach can hardly be characterized as headstrong and unruly, right?