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Mormons in crisis find online refuge

Published July 19, 2009 3:29 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mormons struggling with doubt or disaffection can find themselves with a difficult choice: Stay in the church or abandon the faith?

Now, they can go online for advice from a community of Mormons who at some point have suffered a personal crisis of faith, teetered on the edge of quitting and then found a way to remain active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"You are not alone," an introduction page at http://StayLDS.com" Target="_BLANK">StayLDS.com reads. "We are here to listen and offer advice. We openly discuss problems in history, doctrine, practices and culture. We also openly discuss solutions that have helped people in the community reconcile themselves, and find a new, personal path of active faith within our rich LDS tradition."

The Web site is not sanctioned or endorsed by the Mormon Church, nor is it staffed by experts in religion, psychology or communications. Instead it's run by and used by Latter-day Saints trying to provide comfort and support for the disillusioned.

"We're not on a crusade to change the church, we're not a reform movement and we're not a splinter group," said Brian Johnston, a 40-year-old accountant from Atlanta and a site administrator. "The main thing is to try and help find a way to integrate back into the church peacefully."

The StayLDS comment board shows some common threads among those who find themselves with wavering faith.

For many the study of church history uncovers a clash between the factual record and the polished stories told in Sunday School. Others disagree with church leaders over social issues -- past and present -- including racism, feminism and gay marriage.

Still others question the origins of Mormon scriptures and those who have prayed for the kind of palpable religious spark on which to build a testimony, only to feel nothing. And for some, the crisis is not their own, rather a spouse, sibling or child slipping away from the faith practiced by several generations of their family.

Like many other faith traditions, Mormonism has high expectations for faithfulness and belief. Inquiry and doubt can be met with fear or anger from relatives and friends.

"It's not like leaving your book club, because you can find another book club" said Johnston, whose wife is not currently a practicing Mormon. "It's like leaving your culture. Beyond that, it has all these cosmic, metaphysical consequences because Mormonism teaches that our families are eternal."

Turning to a local church leader may not always help, Johnston and other administrators say. Not all church bishops -- who are lay people -- have the skills to help congregants navigate the Biblical-sized questions beyond suggesting prayer, fasting and scripture reading. Internet searches can provide some resources, but often are anti-LDS in tone.

"There are a lot of sites out there, but they also seem to have this assumption that now that the cat's out of the bag, you are going to leave," said Angela Clayton, 41, Fortune 500 business executive from Phoenix whose journey has led her from Mormonism to atheism and back.

"There needs to be a place for diversity of thought, a place where people with doubts about the foundational church stories can talk about them freely, with a positive church spin," said Clayton, who moderates the site's comments section.

Having a thoughtful, safe and faithful place to explore thoughts is critical, site founder John Dehlin, of Logan, Utah said. "It means everything, it means isolation or not. That's why I believe so strongly that StayLDS has to exist," he said. "People need to able to find the right pathway to health."

Statistics show that since its debut in October 2008, StayLDS has received about 9,000 monthly visits by an average of 2,500 different people. About 300 people log on daily and some 4,400 posts have been recorded, Dehlin said. A regular cast of over a dozen individuals contribute to the conversation.

"Not a huge site, but growing and it's clearly meeting a need," Dehlin said, who also has launched a series of blogs, podcasts and Web sites devoted to similar discussions.

The experience ultimately led Dehlin to what he calls the "middle way of Mormonism," a place in which he could let go of bitterness and disappointment to reconcile with the culture, beliefs and practices of the church he still loved.

To help others get there, StayLDS offers a discussion board, along with essays, podcasts, and links to other resources, including books, Web sites and blogs. The site is heavily moderated so that the discussion keeps an anti-Mormon perspectives at a minimum, said Clayton, who adds that feedback suggests the site's goals are resonating with visitors.

Among the strategies offered for finding middle ground: accepting imperfection from the church, it's members and leaders; staying focused on people not doctrine; supplementing spiritual needs with outside sources from other traditions; treat orthodox Mormons with respect; choose the parts of church life that work for you and ignore the rest; let go of the idea that the church is either "all true" or "all false."

Clayton said moderating site comments has become a faith promoting-experience.

"It's a different kind of faith. It's not necessarily what people would consider traditional LDS," she said. "But I've just been really impressed with what others have gone through and I think over time, you find, there's a lot of holiness in these people."