After my shelf slammed to the ground and I no longer believed in the church, I immediately thought about my family. Though leaving the church is a step by step process, sharing the news with your family can be the most difficult and daunting. Most of my family is still in the church, and my parents spent countless hours teaching me the gospel, taking me to ward activities, and reading scriptures. While losing my religion was terrifying and scary, losing my parents and siblings was unthinkable.
For a few days, I entertained the idea of never telling them. Initially I imagined it would be easy—I was no longer living at home, I was married, and it seemed like it would be hard for them to prove I stopped attending. Whenever the topic surfaced, I could share something generic about my calling or a talk I heard during sacrament meeting.
This fantasy disappeared pretty rapidly, as I pictured putting on garments whenever I was slated to see family members. I imagined how much I would have to conceal—lying about Sunday activities, avoiding posting anything with coffee or drinks with friends.
It wasn’t just my family either, I would have to lie to everyone I knew in my social circle, because so many of them were also connected to my family through various church friendships. In the church, everyone is connected through BYU, a past ward, a cousin or an aunt.
If you’re like me, you’re probably tempted to do the same. Being honest with family is important, but sometimes lying may seem like the only way to keep the peace and maintain your relationship with your family and social circle.
My question for you: how long can you keep up the charade?
If you have kids, will you fake the blessing of a child? Will you pretend your eight year old had baptism? Pretending you’re still Mormon means when you meet someone and want to move in with them, you’ll have to keep this from your family. Putting on an act for a few months is one thing, but committing yourself to a lifetime of fake callings, missions, baptisms, and tithing is completely unrealistic.
It also helped me to read stories of people leaving the Mormon church, and to see how they navigated the experience of the faith crisis and sharing the news with their family and friends.
Apart from being difficult, it’s not fair to you and it’s not fair to those you love. True, unconditional love means you accept others even when you disagree with them. You deserve to be loved and known completely by those in your circle. If someone you know will treat you poorly because you are no longer a member of the church, I say good riddance. It will likely be painful in the short term, but in the long term, you will feel more peace with them out of your life.
Once you decide to share with your family and friends you are out of the church, tell them as gently as possible. When I shared the news with my family, I quickly realized they needed a lot of time and space to process. There were tears, and there were also concerns. My parents were worried I would go off the deep end and make wildly bad decisions. I think my mom pictured me shooting heroin under a bridge. To members of the church, the only way you make good decisions is with the guidance of the gospel and the spirit.
When you share you’re leaving the church, be prepared for pushback. While there are countless good reasons to join the church, there are no good reasons to leave. On my mission we celebrated baptisms after a three week investigation—look, a miracle!
When I left, no amount of soul searching, reading and thought was sufficient. I just needed to pray harder. I just needed to attend the temple more often. No amount of history about Joseph Smith or lack of feeling the spirit will ever amount to a strong enough reason to exit the church.
Instead of being impatient with my family, I suspended my frustration and listened to concerns. I’ve grown to accept I will always be a bit of a disappointment to certain people in my circle. To them, I am a star that could’ve burned brighter. And even if I am a really excellent mother, and I have great success in my career, and I am a loving wife—it will all be overcast in a shadow.
That may sound dark, but guess what? It is worth it to me. The intense happiness and personal autonomy I experience outside the church is boundless. I know I am not living the life others dreamed for me. I am living the life I dream for me. Their disappointment is predictable, but not ultimately disheartening.
While your explanations fall on deaf ears and will always be met with a faithful rebuttal, stick to your guns. Ultimately, it is your life. Focus on your relationship with them over your attendance at church. Practice repeating, “even though I am no longer a member, I love you very much and am grateful to have you in my life.”
You may find yourself worried about a particular family member or friend. Most people have a member in their life who lives and breathes Mormonism. You may anticipate a strong emotional reaction, one that might leave you reeling and emotionally distraught. Whenever I have difficult news in life to share, I almost always choose to send a letter. This is one of many ways you can share bad/sad news.
I know it’s old fashioned, but hear me out. Texts are impersonal, so much so that breaking up with someone over text is unanimously known as cowardly. Texting often leads to paragraphs long messaging, full of frustration and rage. It’s too easy to read a message, and react immediately while responding within minutes. If you choose a phone call, the same general principles apply. You’re sharing big, potentially upsetting news, and they are reacting to it in the moment. Emotions will be like a knee jerk reaction, this never ends well.
Writing a letter will provide you with the opportunity to share what you have to say without being interrupted. You can say exactly what you need and want to say, and if you need to erase words or replace a paragraph or two, you will have the space to reword. If you disagree with a letter, you can’t interrupt or protest, all there is to do is read.
Letters also allow the reader to process the information more slowly. Text means there’s an empty box hovering beneath your message, just waiting for a response. When you send a letter, they will have to finish reading the entire thing, then decide what to do with the information. Maybe they respond with a text or call eventually, but there is more built in time to digest and consider a response.
Your family will be surprised and even shocked initially, but time heals most wounds. There will be pushback and sincere admonishments. You will have to stand your ground. A few years after leaving, my mom asked if I planned on blessing our new baby. The hope you will return will likely never dissipate completely, and that’s okay.
Mormons ultimately believe believing in the church is the best choice for everyone, especially for their family. I try to interpret invitations to attend church and requests to pray and love instead of a sign they reject my life choices. After a few weeks, months, or maybe years, they will see you are still a good person with a good heart, and that living outside the church doesn't mean you are fundamentally changed or bad.
If your family decides to cut you out of their lives, it will be tremendously hard. But living for everyone but yourself is tiring. Don’t stay in the church just to keep the peace and don’t lie about your faith to keep your relationships. After giving so much of your life to the church, give yourself permission to live for yourself.