Elder M. Russell Ballard gave a talk in October 2016 General Conference entitled “To Whom Shall We Go?” where he said the following:
Some disciples struggle to understand a specific Church policy or teaching. Others find concerns in our history or in the imperfections of some members and leaders, past and present. Still others find it difficult to live a religion that requires so much. Finally, some have become “weary in well-doing.” For these and other reasons, some Church members vacillate in their faith, wondering if perhaps they should follow those who “went back, and walked no more” with Jesus.
If any one of you is faltering in your faith, I ask you the same question that Peter asked: “To whom shall [you] go?” If you choose to become inactive or to leave the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where will you go? What will you do? The decision to “walk no more” with Church members and the Lord’s chosen leaders will have a long-term impact that cannot always be seen right now.
Elder Ballard is a very sincere believer in the LDS church. To him, it is absolutely everything. He has been a General Authority for 36 years, and an apostle for 31 years. He is convinced it’s the only path to true joy and happiness, and for him it has worked perfectly. For many members, the church is exactly what they need. They should stay in the church because for them, it works. But for many others, it can begin to break down, or even completely fall apart. Faith transitions seem to be a real challenge facing the church, as we see the issue addressed more and more at General Conference. Unfortunately, Elder Ballard’s talk shows a lack of understanding as to why people leave. Many people leave because they no longer believe the LDS church is the true church, for various reasons. Some may look at church origins and realize they have the fingerprints of man, and not God, all over them. Others decide the church doesn’t treat LGBT or female members the way Jesus would. To Elder Ballard, it seems so sad for someone to walk away from Jesus Christ’s church. To those who leave, they’re not leaving Jesus behind because Jesus isn’t leading the LDS church. Unfortunately for Elder Ballard and most orthodox-believing Mormons, it’s really hard for them to understand how leaving the church can be the right option for some.
So where do people go when they leave the church? Some find new churches or communities that are more in line with their beliefs. Some relish the extra time they have to spend with their families. Personally, I look forward to Sunday as my favorite day of the week, because I’ve reclaimed it and I get to decide what I will do. I try to make it a point to spend as much of it as possible with my family, so that it’s a family day. Sometimes I will visit a local church that preaches a message that speaks to me and uplifts me. I have enjoyed going to a local Presbyterian church, a United Methodist church, a Unitarian-Universalist church, and a Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) church. All of these churches teach messages that resonate with me more than what I had been hearing in LDS church. Sometimes I don’t go to any church, and I just enjoy an extra day to recharge my batteries. Some former Mormons feel so burned by organized religion that they have no need to ever find another church.
I have found that leaving has made me more empathetic to people around me. My mind is more open to learning from different perspectives, because I no longer think I have all the answers. The open discussions I’ve had with others about philosophy, theology and opinions on life have touched me many times. I don’t feel like I could have had these same discussions as a believing Mormon, because those ideas would have felt threatening to the answers I “knew” to be true.
I will never again believe any church has the one way back to God, the only true plan of happiness. The world is full of happy people, both Mormon and non-Mormon. I see both religious and non-religious people all around me who are raising kind, responsible children. I wish the LDS church could validate that there are many paths back to God (or even to just living a good, moral life), and that the LDS path is simply one of them. I wish they could appreciate how hard leaving is. People generally don’t leave because they’re “weary in well-doing,” as Elder Ballard puts it. That would imply they got sick of being good, and they left because they wanted to break the commandments, or to quit serving people. I have interacted with many former Mormons in person and online, and I have yet to meet someone who fits that description. Most former Mormons have spent a lot of time thinking about their beliefs, studying the issues, formulating their conclusions, and then doing what they feel is right. Until the general authorities learn to understand why people leave, they will continue to give talks like Elder Ballard’s that show they just don’t get it.