What (Not) to Say When People Leave the Church

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I made the decision almost one year ago not to return to church. It’s been a challenge in many ways and amazing in many others. I’m much more at peace. I know myself better. I feel like I live my life now on my own terms. I miss people and some aspects of community, but I don’t miss church. Still, things happen that affect me because I’m in a mixed-faith marriage, and my husband still attends periodically. People say things and do things that end up in the middle of my life. I understand that navigating a loved one leaving the church can be really difficult because I’ve been on that side of the fence as well, and sometimes people just don’t know what to say and do. Here’s my suggestions for people who genuinely want to facilitate healthy relationships and be helpful.

1. Let’s get together!

Just invite me to spend time with you without preaching or conditions or reminding me how forlorn you are that you didn’t see me in relief society. (Just kidding. I didn’t attend before.) Talk to me about the things that are going on in your life that you are excited about whether that’s your family, work or church. Ask me about my life. Don’t feel like you have to censor your conversations. I’m not going to make anything awkward if you don’t, and I truly want to know how you are. I just love you and still want our relationship to be important.

2. You look happy!

These messages are some of the kindest things I’ve heard since I left. I have a dear friend that is VERY devout and active. She is also one of the most nonjudgmental people I’ve ever met. We were walking around the track one day and got to talking about everything that went down with my rift with the church, and I made the statement that, you know, I really haven’t changed all that much. I’m the same person. She turned to me and said, “You know, I see more light in you. You look happier.” I literally stopped in my tracks in stunned silence because I was so moved by that statement. She saw a LOT of my mess and knows just how much I struggled to make it all work. To have someone acknowledge that I was coming from a place of peace and that moving in the world that way was a visibly positive thing was a true gift that I will forever cherish.

3. Hi! You’re loved and missed.

Tell me hi when you see me. It can be super awkward to know how to approach people, so I sometimes just ignore you so I don’t have to figure it out. I’m not trying to be stuck up, it’s just easier to avoid it. Tell me that you love and miss me without guilt or shame. I was at the gas station a few months ago just minding my own business when someone opened their truck door behind me and called my name. When I turned around, a man that I know from church got my attention. He walked right up to me and just told me he hadn’t seen me in a long time and that he missed me and could he give me a hug? I have so much love and respect for this genuinely caring person. I don’t think he’s ever said anything to my husband except that he was glad to see him and that he missed seeing me. If this was everyone’s religion, I would probably want to be sitting on that bench.

4. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I understand why this was the right choice for you.

Understanding is such a valuable way to build a relationship. You don’t have to agree with someone’s experience to understand and validate it. Having someone say that they understand where I’m coming from and why I’ve made the decisions I have literally brings tears to my eyes. I can’t even put into words how much it means to me and how it keeps me going to know that people understand and respect my path. Not every environment is healthy for every person; let people walk away with grace and dignity when it’s not.

5. We’re worried about you!!

Just don’t with this. This is passive-aggressive and, in my experience, is about 90 percent more likely to come from someone who is nosy and meddling over someone that is genuinely concerned. If my decision to step outside your box to live a healthy life is threatening or uncomfortable, kindly work that out in your life and keep it out of mine. If you miss me, come see me. If you have questions and don’t understand, come ask, but stop with the platitudes. I don’t want them and, for God’s sake, I don’t want you to leave them with my husband. He has enough of his own anxiety about everything; he doesn’t need yours.

6. Where is your spouse?

This is, again, passive-aggressive. Y’all know what happened and where I went. My husband is acutely aware that he attends church without me. It saddens us both. You don’t need to remind him and pour salt in that wound. We are vulnerable in this area and people who truly love us will protect that vulnerable spot not poke at it. Help him feel valued and welcomed without making him feel pathetic and a project. Do not take the eternal family doctrines that make Mormonism so appealing to so many people and turn them into a weapon. That comes home with him, and we get to unpack that in the (dis)comfort of our own bedroom. Believe me, it’s suuuuuper fun. Do you want me and my dogmatic opinions in the middle of your marriage? Likewise.

There’s a dozen other things I could probably address from all the misguided things that people say about why people leave to how you’re sure my life would improve if I could just shove it all back in the box. But, these points will suffice today as the things that have both particularly helped me and been particularly harmful. While I can’t make anyone use them responsibly, I would hope that would be the goal. Be kind or be quiet.

P.S. I know I haven’t blogged in months. I’m so sorry. I’ve had a lot going on with work and family life, and this project takes a lot of mental energy that I haven’t had. Thanks for being here with me. I deeply appreciate every view and comment from my readers. ❤

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