THRIVE’s aim: Help Latter-day Saints when their ‘shelf breaks’ and they want out of the church

In-person gatherings are drawing hundreds of members and ex-members as they navigate their faith transitions.

(Courtesy of Spencer Simons, via THRIVE) Nearly 1,500 people attended a THRIVE event in November at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. The nonprofit group offers "growth, healing and community" for those questioning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

St. George • Person by person, family by family, rivulets of pain and doubt collected at this bend in the arc away from Mormonism, combining into a river of catharsis and healing.

Part therapy, part listening session, part sharing and comforting and ranting and rallying, a recent THRIVE weekend in St. George drew nearly 200 attendees seeking growth, wisdom and community as they transition away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“We can not only survive in this life without religion, we can thrive,” one of the event’s speakers, Seattle-based leadership coach Suzy Benson, told them. “We are rising strong together.

“Only when I left Mormonism did I find my real self,” said Benson, who joined a rock band, climbed mountains, raced motorcycles — and lost her marriage — after she left the faith. “So many pieces were missing.”

The 4-year-old nonprofit THRIVE has drawn capacity crowds since it resumed in-person gatherings in October, according to the group’s chief organizers and financial backers, Clint and Jeni Martin.

Like others who have left the Utah-based faith, the Orem couple’s own journey plunged them into a period of confusion and conflict with their extended community as they questioned what they had believed their entire lives.

“It’s like having your skeleton pulled out of your body,” Martin said. THRIVE provides a spectrum of perspectives from the ex-Mormon world, he added, rather than anything targeted or overly proscriptive.

The events offer support, therapeutic guidance and commonsense advice tailored to former Latter-day Saints as well as those on the edge and even active members. Topics range from sexuality and letting go of shame and guilt to building new community, improved parenting, self-esteem, suicide prevention and breaking free of repressive and self-defeating types of thinking.

The gatherings and the model behind them have their critics, who note the difficulty of building lasting community around people transitioning away from something.

Ryan McKnight, a partner at the Truth & Transparency Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to religious accountability, called the events “nothing more than a copy of these self-help conferences that have plagued our society for decades.”

“Go to a big ballroom full of people,” McKnight said, “who are cheering on some speaker who is telling them how good and smart they are for figuring out the Mormon church is a scam.”

But for attendees, the benefits of alternative perspectives on their own shifting worlds are real. Many at THRIVE come in solidarity with LGBTQ family members who have been shunned socially or had their identities devalued by church doctrine, forcing loved ones to choose between the bonds of family and adhering to tenets of faith.

THRIVE is likened to A.A.

(Courtesy of Spencer Simons, via THRIVE) A panoramic view of nearly 1,500 attendees at a THRIVE event in November at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. The nonprofit group offers "growth, healing and community" for those questioning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

THRIVE speakers come from professional and lay backgrounds, and often display raw emotion drawn from their experiences. According to popular “Mormon Stories” podcaster John Dehlin, one of the group’s founders, it “is about healing and growth after the church isn’t working for you anymore.”

Dehlin likens THRIVE’s model to that of Alcoholics Anonymous, in which those in recovery assist those who are struggling.

“It’s very positive. It’s very practical. It’s very tools-oriented,” said Dehlin, who was excommunicated from the church in 2015 for “apostasy.” “It’s about having a healthy marriage, how to raise healthy kids, how to get healthy yourself, how to build a new sense of morality or spirituality or identity or purpose or meaning, and to find friends.”

[Read more about John Dehlin’s growing influence and questions emerging from followers-turned-critics here, and about his compensation and his nonprofit’s finances here.]

(Annie Sorensen | Special to The Tribune) John Dehlin presents at a THRIVE conference in St. George, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022.

Martin met Dehlin on a cruise a few years back while in the thick of his family’s spiritual and social upheaval, he said, and found “the stuff that John shared was super helpful.” Martin is now a chief financial supporter for THRIVE events. He and Jeni serve alongside Dehlin and others on its board of directors.

Martin said THRIVE charges $25 admission solely to cover its costs and makes no profit. He plans to keep the sold-out events going as long as “people keep voting with their feet.” November’s Salt Lake City conference drew 1,500.

A recurring metaphor at THRIVE is the “broken shelf,” where nagging questions about church teachings or policies are left pending and put away on a mental shelf, until the accumulated weight becomes too great.

“Finally, your shelf breaks,” Martin said, “and your whole existence crumbles out from under you.”

Whether it collapses from church history, social discomfort or insights drawn from stressed family dynamics, he said, that is often when many start their shift and reach out to the group or others like it for help.

(Courtesy of Clint Martin) Clint and Jeni Martin, organizers of THRIVE.

Attendees and even some volunteers sought to keep their presence at THRIVE and struggles that brought them there confidential, fearing judgment or retaliation from lay church leaders or others in the community.

“My shelf broke two weeks ago, and my husband doesn’t even know I’m here,” another woman said. Dozens of others talked of divorce and deep family rifts precipitated by their crises of belief.

An 80-year-old man in a cowboy hat recounted taking an overdose of pills, crushed by what he called “a lifetime of terminal shame,” followed by a profound loss of meaning in his life as he struggled with resigning from the church.

He woke up at the hospital and later realized he had not adequately grieved all his losses, the man told fellow attendees.

Tears, reassurance and waves of supporting applause swelled up from audience members around him, gathered at tables in an otherwise nondescript St. George hotel ballroom.

“Every single one of you,” Benson later said, “was courageous in turning up today.”

A gray-haired woman who had left the church three years ago spoke of perpetually feeling insufficient in her attempts to live up to the faith’s principles while also striving not to outshine male Latter-day Saints around her.

She said she now wears a ring that says, “I am enough” — emblematic, several speakers said, of the need to let go of shame in a faith transition.

“We all have it. We’re all afraid of it,” Benson said. “And the more repressed it is, the more control it has over us.”

‘Victims of a cult’

A significant part of the THRIVE experience, organizers said, is seeing, hearing and communing with others who have traded the church for healthier, more fulfilled lives, explained in cultural terms former members understand.

Sam Young — an excommunicated former bishop who challenged church policies on probing, private “worthiness” interviews for youths — spoke playfully of buying new boxer shorts to replace his sacred garments in an act of protest.

The gesture, he said, was spurred by a now-discarded church policy barring children living with same-sex couples from baptism and labeling members of gay marriages “apostates.”

“There’s no way this is Jesus Christ,” Young remembered thinking.

“People outside the church don’t understand what that means,” said Young, who described framing the boxers and hanging them above the fireplace as a monument “to the importance of standing up for those on the margin.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Excommunicated Latter-day Saint Sam Young speaks at a Salt Lake City rally in 2018. He says THRIVE is nonjudgmental about where people find themselves in the evolution of their faith.

THRIVE, Young said, is nonjudgmental about where people find themselves in the evolution of their faith.

“We support whatever decision you make,” he told the audience. “I just marvel at your wisdom.”

The weekend also saw displays of a sense of betrayal over long-held religious beliefs that are now the source of doubt.

Sean Escobar, who went public in exposing a prominent church member who had sexually abused him as a young teen, blasted aspects of the faith and its leaders for what he said are their “mistruths.”

“We are all victims of a cult,” Escobar said.

Therapist Natasha Helfer, also a THRIVE board member, spoke of her own 2021 expulsion from the church in what she called a “sex-communication” prompted by her public opposition to the faith’s stances on masturbation, same-sex marriage and pornography. Her talk was devoted to sexual empowerment, self-knowledge and overcoming years of repressive messages about sexuality from church elders.

She urged attendees to understand, become comfortable with and “lean into erotic energy” in their lives as a crucial part of healing — drawing a standing ovation.

In interviews, Helfer and Dehlin said it was important for those seeking help in their faith transitions to reach out to those who understand them, sympathize with their angst, and identify with the intricacies of Mormon culture and thorny issues surrounding the church’s history and positions on women and LGBTQ members.

THRIVE doesn’t try to replace church community, Dehlin said, but instead urges attendees to replicate their own groups of like-minded supporters.

“If you could have three or four families that you’re really tight with,” he told his THRIVE audience, “you can really enjoy life and in some cases have a much better life experience than maybe what you had before.

“That’s all THRIVE is,” Dehlin said. “We just want you to find friends and support.”

Editor’s note • This article mentions suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.