Former LDS member Carrie Sheffield wrote an op-ed in USA Today provocatively entitled, “Why Mormons Flee Their Church.” I know op-ed writers don’t get to write their headlines, so I’ll assume Ms. Sheffield wasn’t responsible for this one, but sheesh. USA Today, rather than using “leave” or “depart” whipped out their “Thesaurus of Sensational Words” and went with “flee.” To flee is, “To run away, as from danger or pursuers,” or “To move swiftly.” Assuming this choice of words wasn’t meant as a comment on the swiftness with which Mormons leave the LDS Church, we’re left to conclude that those who leave are running away from “danger or pursuers.” To be fair, people who leave the Church are often pursued . . .by kindly women bearing cookies and men offering to fix some shelves or mow a lawn. Using the word “flee” evokes – purposefully, I imagine – a harried truth-seeker being pursued by bearded polygamists on horseback. And it really has nothing to do with the substance of Ms. Sheffield’s column. Pretty lame, USA Today.
Let’s turn our attention to Ms. Sheffield’s main points, the first of which is that there is a “growing reform movement within the Mormon community” that is providing much-need help in adapting “to the modern world.” Well, all of that turns on one’s opinion of the extent to which it is desirable for the LDS Church – or any other – to adapt to the modern world. While Ms. Sheffield takes for granted that such adaptation is desirable and even necessary, it should come as no great surprise that many Mormons would disagree.
Ms. Sheffield writes that Elder Marlin K. Jensen “acknowledged that members are defecting from the Church . . . ‘in droves’.” It’s worth noting that Elder Jensen didn’t use the phrase “in droves,” but rather responded “We are aware,” to a student who asked if Church leaders were aware that members are leaving “in droves.” This may seem a small distinction, but I think it’s worth noting that the phrase wasn’t his. What Mrs. Sheffield doesn’t mention is the Reuters article – linked in her article – that includes an interview in which Elder Jensen in which he argues that many other churches are experiencing higher rates of attrition, and that he thinks “We are at a time of challenge, but it isn’t apocalyptic.”
Ms. Sheffield then turns to her own decision to leave the Church, saying that she “experienced alienation from some immediate family and friends.” This isn’t hard to believe, and is most unfortunate. Mormons needs to do a much better job of loving and supporting those who leave. That said, there are many who do leave who are treated with compassion and love. Further, it should be noted that facing ostracism upon leaving is not a phenomenon exclusive to Mormons (or even religion; surely people who leave non-religious groups – unions, political parties – with strong social bonds face the same). Ms. Sheffield concludes by urging the Church to “return to its egalitarian roots” and cautioning that if it doesn’t, “the exodus of young people could impact generations to come.”
Although she doesn’t get into specifics, her vision seems to be at odds with current Church policy and doctrine, and so it’s understandable – while still regrettable – that she left. And she may be right that deviating from current policy would decrease rates of attrition. That said, the ultimate goal of Church leaders isn’t to decrease rates of attrition; if it were, we’d have a much different Church than we now have. The ultimate goal of Church leaders is to follow what they believe to be divine guidance, which in some cases impels the Church in directions that negatively impact its popularity and appeal. A Mormon Church that did otherwise wouldn’t be the Mormon Church.