Why Do Some People Leave the Church?

As with most sacrament meeting talks, it is always nerve-racking leading up to the talk.  This particular subject is very close to my heart and so I really wanted to do it justice.  I can say that I felt very happy with how it turned out, but ultimately there are always things I wish I would and wouldn’t have said.  I made edits to the talk below, but it is basically in line with the talk I gave on the 28th of December, 2014.  

It is always difficult to transition into a new ward.  We all want to be accepted and fit in.  It is interesting to me how much the ward we live in impacts how we view the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Our wards are in some ways like the lifeboats that represent the great Lifeboat that has been spoken of in recent conference talks.  In a 2001 Conference Talk, President Monson uses a lifeboat as an analogy for the work of the church in rescuing those who have left the church. In 2011, Elder Quentin Cook describes the Atonement as the lifeboat for all mankind.  In the most recent conference Elder Ballard pleaded with us to “Stay on the Boat”. 

For many of us, the Gospel of Jesus Christ stands as a beacon of hope through the difficulties of life, and is the lifeboat we all cling to as we journey through stormy waters. The message of the gospel, the fruits of living the gospel, and the joy that comes from relationships made strong in the gospel are clear and obvious in my life, as I am sure it is to many of you.  So why then do so many of us contemplate, or even jump out of the lifeboat amid the tumultuousness of life?  I want to speak to you today about the reasons why people leave the church.  It is easy to assume from a distance that the reason people jump is because they love sinning, or have chosen “the world” over “Zion”. I hope to help everyone at least consider this often is not the case.

All of my life I have been surrounded by family and friends, including myself, who were either critical non-Mormons, or Mormons who had left the faith for periods of their life, or even permanently. From my experience, I believe there are 3 primary reasons that motivate someone to jump out of the boat, but before I go into those three things, keep in mind that logically there is really only one reason for someone to contemplate, or to jump out. They have to believe that being out of the boat is better than being in the boat.  I want you all to think about that for a minute as we go through these things.

The three reasons are Guilt that becomes Shame, Doubt, and Feeling as though they don’t fit in.

  Guilt That Becomes Shame


One of the most valuable parts of the modern church is its ability to motivate all of us to live our lives toward a common ideal. It is unique in almost all the world.  To many of us, the ideals we have created within the church are so precious and important.  However, to many of those who are thinking of leaving the lifeboat, or who have already jumped, they see those ideals as impossible to accomplish. In some ways I have to agree with them.  It is impossible to accomplish and I often feel the guilt of failure in my life.

Guilt is an emotion that researchers have shown is valuable to mankind. It is a corrective emotion that helps us know when to change behavior.  However, for many guilt gives way to shame.  Shame, any researcher will tell you, serves absolutely no valuable purpose to humans.  Shame is when we take our guilt and equate it to define our very character.  So instead of “I did something bad, but I am a good person”, shame leads us to believe that  “I did something bad therefore I am a bad person.”

Consider the young man or young woman who doesn’t go on a mission, or returns early from their mission, whether it had anything to do with sin or not? How do we treat them?  How do they view themselves?  I think too often their “mistake” becomes an identity that we attach to them and soon they attach to themselves.  How about the divorced mother or father?  Have their mistakes truly made them unacceptable in the lifeboat of the Gospel?  Do we make them uncomfortable in the lifeboat by being unaware of the guilt they might feel and adding to the process of it becoming shame?  I home taught a single mother in my last ward who had decided to quit coming, not because she didn’t believe, but because she didn’t feel she lived the ideal.  That just cannot happen brothers and sisters.

 “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:” Romans 3:23-24

For those of you feeling shame or feel you don’t belong, it just is not true. It is through the grace found in Christ that we are free, not because of living the ideal…we all fail in the ideal. One of my friends who recently returned to church spoke a few weeks ago about this, and in his talk he wrote a letter to his past self that was contemplating leaving the church over this shame. This is what he said:

I know that you are having a hard time carrying around constant guilt due to your mortal weaknesses. It must be hard to understand the reason why you feel this way since you’re doing the best you can to follow the Lord’s teachings. You don’t understand why everyone around you appears to be so happy, yet you’re always burdened with guilt and regret even though from an outside perspective you appear to be doing all the right things which you believe should be bringing you the happiness that you seek. I know this is frustrating for you- but don’t worry, there is hope. The Savior knew that you would have weaknesses, at times you would fall to temptation and that you would make mistakes and wrong decisions on a daily basis. That’s the entire purpose of the atonement. You are doing the best you can, and that’s all the Lord asks of you. There is no need for you to continue to self-inflict this punishment upon yourself. The Lord has already paid the price for this, so in a sense you’re choosing to pay the price yourself instead of allowing the atonement to work in your life as intended. Instead of constantly focusing on all of your shortcomings and weaknesses, try focusing on the Lord’s unspeakable love for you and learn to truly understand the power of His infinite atonement. Once you do, you’ll be so filled with love and gratitude for the Savior that there will be no time to focus on your shortcomings. Also turn your focus to service and helping others. Focusing only on yourself and your weaknesses is selfish; focusing on other people’s needs is selfless. It’s difficult to feel sadness when you’re actively serving and involved in the Lord’s work. You’ll be amazed how quickly your weakness turn into strengths in the process.

I feel as though we have become so focused on the ideals, and the standards in our interactions, and in what we teach each other that we forget the real purpose of the lifeboat, which is hope in Christ’s atonement. Parents, Youth leaders, and friends, let us increase our focus on the savior and the hope of the atonement and let that power of hope lead us to living the ideals. We teach a too high ratio of ideal talk to Christ talk.  Let’s flip the script and make the talk of hope and Christ fill our chapels, homes, and conversations.

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.” Pope Francis


“There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt.  Doubt separates people.  it is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations.  It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.”  Buddha

Shortly after returning home from my mission I began to seriously doubt my testimony and beliefs in the church. I had made some mistakes, and was spending a lot of time questioning things I had been taught.  I eventually disengaged from the church for a while. Doubting and questioning things that matter so much to you is one of the most awful feelings I have felt.  I was blessed with two things that ultimately brought me back.

  • The first, was friends and family who loved me and never judged or ostracized me. They always encouraged me, and our relationships remained strong even though they disagreed with some of my choices and feelings.
  • The second, was a mission president, who was open minded, and welcomed my questioning personality. He had answers to my questions, or pointed me in the right direction at times, but I never felt my questions were unwelcome with him, even though I was constantly questioning everything.

Since returning to the church my faith and knowledge is different, but in most ways it is stronger than it ever was before.

“Inquiry is the birthplace of testimony.  Some might feel embarrassed or unworthy because they have searching questions regarding the gospel, but they needn’t feel that way.  Asking questions isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a precursor of growth…” President Uchtdorf

To those of you with doubts, or who aren’t sure you have a testimony. I know it is hard to be in the lifeboat with so many people who just seem so sure they know everything is the truth.  I know it is hard when you feel like either God has abandoned you because you don’t know, or there is something wrong with you. As someone who has felt that way I just want you to know that some certainty will come, and some will not.  However, there are actions that can bring peace and help you on your journey to find your faith.

  • Give the people who do “know with certainty” the same patience you are asking for and try not to judge them for being so confident in their testimony. I used to feel the frustration in people who seemed so sure and I didn’t, but now I am so thankful for those who have that kind of faith in my life and the life of my children. 
  • Find people who you can be around and have discussions in an honest but faith seeking way.  Avoid spending all of your time on the internet and among those who wish to crush any faith you might have left.
  • Commit to helping other people and do your best to LIVE the gospel, not to just know it, and you will feel the goodness of it, and with that combination of conversation and living you will find that spirit of love and peace the Holy Ghost brings.

To those who don’t struggle with doubt or questioning. Please don’t be afraid of those who have questions, or see things differently.  Especially don’t pretend they are crazy or condemn them for their feelings and questions, with the information age upon us you will inevitably be in circumstances where you will need to be loving and patient with someone who is doubting. Most of all we need to be the safe place for people to ask questions, our Sunday school classes, our organizational meetings, and mostly our homes need to be sanctuary for testimonies to be born. And for many they cannot be born without questioning.  You don’t need to have all the answers, since they don’t all exist right now, but we do need to be loving and considerate of those who are seeking them all the same.

 Not Fitting In


At the time my mother married my father he was not a member of the church.  In her small town and congregation she was told by many that she was no longer welcome in the church.  So she left, seemingly never to return. This may seem silly to you, but even now,  it is all too common for us to tell people to leave for all kinds of reasons that would make the Savior weep.  Yes, we may not say it so straightforward as was said to my mother, but we say it in our actions, in our gossip, and in our comments about those who are different. Some of the most vile and hateful things I have ever read have been members of the church against other members of the church arguing about differing political ideas.  Even worse are families that alienate their gay loved ones, or shun families who choose to embrace their gay loved ones.  All these people harshly telling each other they don’t belong in the church.  If we are indulging in this behavior of condemning each other and encouraging people to jump out of the lifeboat of Christ then we are not in harmony with Jesus Christ and need to repent.

“For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” 3 Nephi 11:29

Christ said, “If you love me, feed my sheep,” it is impossible to feed the lost sheep who are thinking of, or who have left the fold, if they do not feel welcome in the fold. The only people we can control in setting that comfort level is ourselves.  All of our efforts in trying to keep the commandments are wasted if the people around us who need us the most are not brought back to the fold with charity, and why would they want to come back to place they are not wanted?

To those of you who don’t feel you fit in, and to all of us who seem to fit in so easily, I want to conclude my remarks with a scripture and the conclusion of my mother’s story. 

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do; for that which ye have seen me do even that shall ye do;” 3 Nephi 27:21

A few years after my mother’s terrible experience we moved to Vernal, and eventually to a new ward.  In this ward were some of the best people I have ever known.  Those loving welcoming people embraced my mother, they  showered our family with love and acceptance, I still feel as though I have 10 different loving parents from that ward in my life. Eventually my mother, who has always been the best person I know, came back to the lifeboat.  She has become the tool to bring many lost sheep back to the fold, eventually my father was baptized and many in his family, her mother came back and she was there for me when I was lost on my journey.  The people who are the best at helping those who are thinking of leaving the lifeboat, or who have left, are those who have been in their shoes.  This is just one essential reason why we should be finding ways to lift the shame of those who feel they cannot live up to the ideals, have patience and love to the questions and feelings of those who doubt, and most of all never indulge in any behavior that would shun another Child of God and cause them to see the lifeboat as a source of pain, instead of the great salve and bringer of hope that Christ is.

I know that Christ lives and that the atonement can change us.  I have experienced it.  I have experienced the love and compassion of friends and family who helped me when things were their most dark.  I have been the helping hand to friends who have been at their darkest moments.  The joy that I have felt to come to share the light of the gospel together is indescribable. One of our most cherished beliefs is that of our relationships with each other in the afterlife.  A reunion with those we love the most.  Sometimes the centerpiece of that idea, love, gets put on the back burner to all of our duties, and ideals we are trying to live up to.  I hope that we can move it to the forefront on our journey.  The love of God and of our Neighbor will lead us to live the ideals and bring so many more people with us.  Then our joy shall be great as we rejoice together in the hope of Christ’s gospel.