What Should You Do When Someone You Love Leaves the Church?

Loved One Leaves Mormon Church feet walking away

It can feel like the air has been completely squeezed out of you; like your world has turned upside down and fallen apart all at the same time. When the shock of it subsides, the pain of it still resonates long after. It can be hard to cope when someone we love decides to leave The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After seeing some of my friends and family leave the Church, I have learned a few things about what we should do.

Don’t Let Anger Get the Best of You

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After the shock is gone, many who experience a loved one leaving the Church begin to feel angry. You may feel angry towards God, towards the loved one, or even towards yourself. You might feel justified in your anger, but being angry can create rifts and schisms in your relationships.

Anger is a secondary emotion. That means that when you’re angry, your anger is really a mask for another deeper, primary emotion you’re feeling. healthypsych.com says:

Typically, one of the primary emotions, like fear or sadness, can be found underneath the anger.  Fear includes things like anxiety and worry, and sadness comes from the experience of loss, disappointment or discouragement. Feeling fear and sadness is quite uncomfortable for most people; it makes you feel vulnerable and oftentimes not in control. […] In contrast to fear and sadness, anger can provide a surge of energy and make you feel more in charge, rather than feeling vulnerable or helpless.  Essentially, anger can be a means of creating a sense of control and power in the face of vulnerability and uncertainty.

It is very easy to become angry with someone who leaves the Church. Losing a loved one from the Church often feels like everything is falling apart and this can make you feel extremely vulnerable, making you feel like you’ve lost all control. If you find yourself feeling angry towards a loved one who left the Church, don’t let that anger make you do anything to harm your relationship. Seek professional counseling or help if necessary. Always remember that it’s better to form bridges than walls when it comes to your relationship with someone who left the Church. Try to pinpoint the root of your anger so that you can resolve the primary emotion you are feeling.

Avoid Shame Loved one Leaves Mormon Church Shame

A few months ago, I wrote about how shaming others is always unhealthy and never leads to sincere repentance.

Now, think of it from your loved one’s point of view: Imagine that you have lived several years—perhaps your whole life—amongst a very unique religious group (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example). Now, imagine that you one day decided to leave that group for reasons you felt were justified. Although you felt the members of the Church were misled, you had initially had no hard feelings towards them. You felt anxious about telling your friends and family about your decision to leave the Church, but you hoped they would still be your friends. But after leaving the Church your friends and family began calling you things like an apostate, a sinner, and other vicious names. Instead of trying to understand how you felt, they treated you as lesser—as someone who had lost their way. Instead of feeling their love you felt shame.

Would that not be difficult to swallow? Would that not make you feel more enmity towards the Church and its members? Would that not leave you with a bitter taste? Any chance of you returning to the Church in the future must now overcome that added bitterness you felt when you left.

Remember, we should treat all with kindness, love, and respect. Never should we bully, belittle, or shame someone who decides to leave the Church. Your loved one’s decision to leave the Church doesn’t make him/her any less precious in the eyes of a loving Heavenly Father.

Don’t Try to Shove the Gospel Down Their Throat Related image

You might feel tempted to share inspirational church talks, scriptures, or anything having to do with the Church with a loved one who has left the Church. You might feel like their problem was not enough exposure to the Church, and if you can just get them to read that one talk that helped you feel the spirit you could fix things and help your loved one come back.

Be careful: bombarding your loved one with church talks, scriptures, or the Tabernacle Choir will likely push your loved one further away. Your loved one may feel like you only care about them so long as they’re a member of the Church. Chances are someone who leaves the Church won’t respond well to an influx of gospel-related messages.

The Gospel is not—nor ever was—meant to be forced upon someone. When Christ walked the earth His call was always an invitation, such as the one given in Mathew 11:

28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Remember, it was Satan’s plan to take away our agency, but agency was so important to God that he rejected Satan’s plan. Letting others make decisions that we know will make them suffer and be unhappy is difficult, but we, like Heavenly Father, need to respect the agency of others.

You cannot control another’s beliefs or behaviors: you can only invite them to share the joy you feel in Christ and His restored gospel. Instead of trying to reconvert your loved one, your number one goal should be to strengthen relationships. Strong relationships are more likely to garner the feelings of mutual respect needed for the open communication where spiritual conversation thrives.

Don’t Let Gospel Conversations Turn Into a Heated Debate
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Have you ever left a heated debate or argument feeling like joining the other side? If you ever find yourself arguing with someone who left the Church and your temper is rising, STOP. Arguing about it will not convince them that the gospel is true, and it will actually most likely keep them from having an open mind about the gospel.

Silly debates like these never turn out well. A debate about the Church is more likely an attempt to defend your own pride than an attempt to defend the Church. In 3 Nephi 11:29, Christ proclaims:

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.

Contention drives away the spirit, and how can your loved one be convinced the Church is true if he/she can’t feel the spirit?

But this doesn’t mean that the gospel should be a taboo subject either. On the contrary: the gospel is a very big part of your life, so you should find ways to share things with your loved one in a respectful way. If you keep something taboo that is as important to you as your faith, your relationship with your loved one will likely suffer. Find safe, non-threatening ways to talk about the gospel with your loved one. Try to create a relationship wherein you feel comfortable inviting your loved one to milestone Church events like temple sealings, baby blessings, and baptisms.

At times you may feel the need to defend your faith. When correction is needed, make sure it is succinct and non-aggressive. Follow the promptings of the spirit to know what you should say and how you should say it. But I have found that most often the truth of the Restored Gospel has a solemn way of eventually defending itself.  

Recognize That Changes Will Be Made In Your Loved One’s Life Leaving the Mormon Church Loved ones making changes

When someone decides to leave the Church, they leave behind a core belief—a core part of themselves. This doesn’t mean that they’re a completely different person, but you can’t change something as core as your religious beliefs without making a few other changes.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adhere to a somewhat unique set of policies, commandments, and guidelines. When people leave the Church they no longer feel obligated to adhere to the unique lifestyle associated with worthy church participation.

Expect your loved one to begin to experiment with things that before seemed off limits. Such examples may include drinking alcohol and/or coffee, getting tattoos, swearing, etc.

It is important to remember that your loved one has constructed a new moral code. We are sure to be disappointed if we continue to place our unique standards onto their new lifestyles. Instead of focusing on how your loved one fails to meet your standards, see the good that he/she does. Be aware that changes will be made. Seek to build a relationship with your loved one that allows you to speak openly and respectfully with each other.

Accept the Possibility That Your Loved One May Never Return Loved one Leaves Mormon Church the prodigal son

This can be the hardest pill to swallow because the Church is centered on eternal relationships. You might find yourself saying, “but we were supposed to be an eternal family. How could that happen if my son never comes back?”

But think of it this way: can you build an eternal relationship with someone if you can’t first learn to build a good relationship with him/her in this life? I don’t think we fully realize all the aspects of God’s great plan. We can seldom see His grand designs in each person’s individual journey. 

I think we often hope that our loved one, like the prodigal son, will eventually find his way back and that everything will be good again. That doesn’t always happen.

The reality is that the person you love who left the Church may never be a prodigal son—he/she may never return to the Church. While we should never lose hope, we sometimes place all of our happiness on that hope and we suffer immensely until it is realized. 

In the case of a loved one leaving the Church, hope is great but love is better (see 1 Corinthians 13:13).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is meant not only to show us we can always return to the loving open arms of Heavenly Father but to show us how to love those who make poor choices. Look at the example of the Prodigal Son’s father: He did not shame his son when his son left home and squandered his money; he did not hunt his son down; he never tried to force his son to make any decisions. He just loved. Like Christ, his hands were stretched out still (see 2 Nephi 19:12), waiting for the son he loved so much to return to his loving arms.

If our loved ones leave the Church, let us love them regardless; if they make wrong decisions, let us love them regardless; if they never return, let us love them regardless. For the true mark of Saints belonging to Christ’s Restored Church is their capacity to love.

For Further Reading:

Derek Lange is an intern at ThirdHour.org. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor's in English. Derek grew up in Tehachapi California. He is passionate about football, basketball, water-sports, and reading. He now lives in Provo Utah with his wife Mary and their two children, Edith and Benny.