When faced with the term “faith crisis,” it is difficult to know where to begin in telling my story of a Mormon journey I am still very much on. I believe faith journeys are highly personal processes; processes that are continually evolving, and albeit individual, processes that happen in the context of the systems we belong to. I often wonder where my faith journey begins and ends since it is so interwoven with those of my clients and children. As a daughter of Mormon converts, and a mental health practitioner who has worked primarily with an LDS clientele over the past 20 years, it seems like most of my spiritual travel has been deeply influenced by the stories and narratives surrounding me. I am aware that I would probably be on a very different spiritual and religious path if it had not been for my work directly with Mormons.
I grew up in a home where my parents were intellectual in their endeavors and also had spiritual inclinations to search for answers and meaning specifically to the purpose of life. Like many converts report, the initial relationship with Mormon teachings very much satisfied these desires. Young missionaries teaching beautifully simplistic concepts that spoke to love, inclusion, family, and a personal relationship with God were both spiritually and intellectually satisfying. These answers resonated deeply and offered peace, comfort and security; especially since both of my parents had lost one of their own parents in their childhood. Not to mention the great community that came along with the doctrine. A community that adopts its converts into family-style organized systems where everyone has a role, ready-made friends and activities that organize your own family’s day-today life. Coming from small extended families that were not able to offer much support either due to distance or dysfunction, this was also appealing and helpful to my parents as they were attempting to launch and successfully structure their own family system.
As the journey continued however, the narrative did not remain simple. There were many cultural factors involved in being LDS that we did not understand and made it difficult to assimilate. There were historical issues, such as Joseph Smith having reinstated polygamy as a religious doctrine that still affects the Mormon idea of the afterlife (even if it was not something currently practiced), that we did not know about going into the religion. This particular issue was what led my mother to question her entire involvement with Mormonism. She also rejected the strong emphasis on behavioral compliance being tied to worthiness, and therefore guilt. She had abandoned her Catholic upbringing mainly due to the paralyzing guilt and fear she felt when she “sinned” and seeing how that was creating a wedge to a connection she very much wanted with God. Although my father was a believer until his recent death, and both of my brothers have served missions, my family had an unorthodox experience with Mormonism in regards to “living” the way most Mormons are expected to organize their lives around the religion. Coffee and sometimes wine were staples in our home, levels of activity ebbed and flowed throughout the years, doctrinal teachings were up for discussion and agreement, it did not matter if we dated/married other Mormons, ratings of movies were not the way media was controlled in our house (rather content – many PG-13 movies would not be allowed and some rated R were), and we definitely drank Coke products.
As a military family who moved around often, I was never raised in a predominantly Mormon area. So even though we were maybe not a “typical” Mormon family, I still very much identified as LDS. Out of all the members of my family, I was and remain the most active in the traditional route Mormonism has to offer. However, as I decided to attend Brigham Young University, it became starkly clear to me the many ways I did not fit in. I didn’t have the ideal family approach as a background to my Mormonism, I had not attended seminary so I was behind in knowing the many historical and doctrinal aspects of Mormonism I felt I should have known by that point of my life, I did not follow certain rules others thought I should follow, I had had sexual experiences that made me “unworthy,” etc. At this particular developmental time of my life, any not “fitting in” was going to be processed through the lens of “there’s something wrong with me” instead of questioning the church. This affected my sense of self-esteem as well as choices I made that would have an impact on my dating patterns, career decisions and more.
Fast-forward many years… and looking at the vast experience I’ve had working with Mormons and their families… I can see how I went into my own profession with many biases that affected my work. I I am so grateful that there was something in my training and maybe even my personality, that was able to pause long enough to be able to listen and truly hear the voices and experiences that did not match my own predetermined “truths.” I had to very early on start grappling with the fact that “answers” that helped me make sense of my life or uplift me when I was down… did not necessarily work for the people I was working with. And, in fact, could actually be harmful. Gay clients where my church was discriminatory and even abusive were not comforted by the types of things I as a cisgender, straight woman might find comforting. Women with feminist awakenings now questioning their entire life choices pressured by strong gender stereotypes were not comforted by the fact that they had an LDS, career woman in front of them who had somehow managed to not listen to the advice of having babies right after marriage. Members with deep sexual shame due to behaviors that are actually normative and appropriate within the realm of human experience triggered my own sexual shame. Members struggling to understand suffering and loss within the context of a church rhetoric that strongly supports equational dynamics (i.e. if you just do this… you are promised that…) were not comforted by the ways I had solved this dilemma for myself. And so many more complexities. I had to step back enough from my own belief of “my way” being “the one and only true way” that had settled into my psyche many years past, in order to make room for the possibility of there being many ways – including agnostic and atheist ways.
As I became a mental health professional and started working with LDS members, I saw a typical distrust of mental health professionals who did not share the same faith background. And yet, people were often complaining that therapy sessions with Mormon therapists felt more like a meeting with the bishop where simplistic forms of advice would be offered: “pray, fast, read your scriptures and all will be well”. Although tapping into one’s spiritual resources can help, I have worked with too many couples, families and individuals to know that life is not this simple.
So I have come to embrace this wonderful word of “nuance.” A word that makes room for room. I recognize that I am in a constant evolution of what that word can mean… which much learning and growth to come. I find beauty in the beliefs and rituals my religion has to offer while also understanding that they are limited by various factors, specifically the people who interpret them, live them and are affected by them. I find health in the communities we offer while also understanding the harrowing damages of patriarchy and obedience-centered adherence offered to imperfect leaders. I find enlightenment in the potential of deity and deeper doctrine while also equally acknowledging that their existence for many is not viable. And that if I am not willing to see the nonexistence of deity as much of a possibility as the existence of, then I am limiting myself, my work and my clients.
In the end, my testimony has squarely landed on the concept of love and the importance of relationships, both mixed with the profound invitation to contemplate eternal progression. These seem like universal truths that would apply to every single case I have seen, including my own life. They are inclusive of common human experiences we can all relate to: vulnerability, adaptation to change being a constant, tensions between individual needs/desires and relational needs/desires, fear, joy, trauma, and learning. It is with this background that I offer myself wholeheartedly into this project. A project I believe to be profoundly important… not because of my involvement in it. But important because of the countless stories I have been honored to witness in the confines of a small room we call “therapy” where people have shared the profound pain and joy that comes with the challenges and gifts of what we call “faith crisis.”