If not for a lost wallet, Adam Smart might still be on his mission.
Instead, the 19-year-old returned home to Meridian, Idaho, after a little more than three weeks in Ventura, Calif. — feeling beaten, broken and so very tired.
Smart’s support of same-sex marriage had set him on a collision course with his mission president and altered his plans for the next two years.
The clash between presider and proselytizer was not a case of good versus evil, but rather a conflict of religious authority versus individual conscience. It involved two well-meaning souls, each with his own way of understanding the mind and will of God.
The debate was not only about the place of LGBTQ members in the here and hereafter. Questions also arose about what it means to sustain church leaders, what constitutes doctrine, and what the faith requires of its members — issues that touch many in the more than 16 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
And inconsistency among officials — Smart’s views of LGBTQ rights had been OK with his Idaho lay leaders who had interviewed him before he left for his mission — can be tough for members to navigate.
Can Latter-day Saints who support same-sex marriage privately among family and friends — or publicly by posting entries on Facebook, marching in pride parades or belonging to gay-friendly organizations such as Affirmation or Mormons Building Bridges — do so without the threat of losing their church membership or temple privileges?
“Members are free to have their own views on matters of policy,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote in a statement. “To qualify for a temple recommend, members must affirm that their personal beliefs and actions are consistent with the church’s teachings, practices and doctrines. In a temple recommend interview, members may counsel with their leaders about whether they are living in accordance with church standards. This is consistent with the previous statements of church leaders.”
“We have individual members in the church with a variety of different opinions, beliefs and positions on these issues and other issues,” Christofferson said. “ ... In our view, it doesn't really become a problem unless someone is out attacking the church and its leaders — if that’s a deliberate and persistent effort and trying to get others to follow them, trying to draw others away, trying to pull people, if you will, out of the church or away from its teachings and doctrines.”
The apostle went on to say that top Latter-day Saint authorities “do recognize the need for constant training” of the faith’s 30,000-plus lay bishops to prevent local leaders from imposing inappropriate sanctions on members, Christofferson said, and are committed to that so there’s greater “sensitivity.”
So what happened in Smart’s case?
Without commenting on this particular episode, Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Utah State University, said, “There isn’t one single standard for establishing worthiness. It is in the hands of that person sitting across the desk who is administering the question.”
Though they’ve been advised to stick with the queries as spelled out in the temple recommend procedure, some bishops, stake presidents and mission presidents, Mason said, “are going to go off script.”
Prelude to a call
It was not a given that Smart would serve a mission.
During his sophomore year in high school, the church adopted its so-called exclusion policy, deeming same-sex member couples “apostates” and generally barring their children from religious rites.
It “rocked my world,” Smart recalled.
The earnest teen debated LGBTQ issues with his Latter-day Saint seminary teachers and with friends but didn’t reveal the depth of his concerns to family members — “I almost left the church myself, but it was a silent struggle” — who were facing their own issues with Mormonism.
Within the next few years, his parents stopped attending weekly services and none of his three younger siblings was a believer.
Smart, feeling the tug of belief and social connections, managed to rebuild his faith through subsequent high school years and his first year of college at USU.
“Until then, religion had been a family thing,” he recalls. “After that, it was my own thing.”
On the looming question of whether to serve a mission, his parents told him that whatever he decided would be fine with them.
Before leaving for college in Logan in the summer of 2018, Smart’s mom, Sunny Ernst Smart, told him his dad, who stepped away from the church after the 2015 policy, would not be able to ordain him an elder. A few months later, she revealed to her kids her own sexual orientation.
Still, the young man felt not only good about serving a mission but also that it was the logical next step in his life.
Just as Smart sent in his missionary application in April, the church announced a reversal of its LGBTQ policy, the one that had caused him so much angst and pushed his father out of the fold.
Wording on the change “was distributed to members worldwide through church communication channels, including on [the church’s] Newsroom [website],” Hawkins, the church spokesman, said. “It has already been implemented by church leaders worldwide.”
Eight months later, the updated policy has yet to be included in Handbook 1, which outlines rules for the faith’s lay clergy — spurring some questions about why it is taking so long — but Hawkins said it will be there “in the near future."
Smart got his assignment to the California Ventura Spanish-speaking Mission in June.
To qualify, Smart had to get a temple recommend from his Meridian bishop and stake president, who presides over a regional cluster of congregations.
Both leaders knew about Smart’s family and discussed with the prospective missionary the church’s stance on LGBTQ matters — that it is OK to be attracted to the same sex but not to act on those feelings.
The future evangelist disagreed with the church’s position on gay marriage but promised to keep his own views quiet during his mission.
According to Smart, Stake President Gary Ashby said that the young man’s position was acceptable and issued him a temple recommend. The young man got the message over and over that he was “good to go.”
So, in early September, Smart was off to learn a new language at the Missionary Training Center in Provo.
While in the church’s flagship MTC, Smart enjoyed gaining new skills and new friends, among his “district” of missionaries.
One night, some of the others were making jokes about gays, and Smart gently called them out, saying that his mother was gay and to please stop.
That turned the whole conversation, he recalls, and several later apologized to him and even asked his advice on how to be more sensitive.
Everything was happening right on schedule — until he lost his wallet Oct. 21 on the way to catch his flight for California. Among other items, it contained Smart’s ticket to the temple: his recommend.
At Smart’s first meeting with his mission president, David Nakken, the leader learned about the new arrival’s parents and siblings. When pressed, Smart also acknowledged that he was in favor of same-sex marriage but reiterated that he would not share his views while a missionary.
A few weeks later, Nakken interviewed him for a new recommend and seemed to have that conversation in mind when the missionary answered a simple “yes” and “no” to some of the questions. The president was particularly concerned, the missionary reported, about whether Smart could fully “sustain” the church’s top leaders, since they oppose same-sex marriage.
In a later phone call to Smart’s family, Nakken said “to sustain is to agree.”
That’s not how he understands the term, said Mason, the USU historian.
“To me, it means to lend support to someone, to give the benefit of the doubt to leaders, to wish for their success,” he said. “Sustaining cannot mean agreeing all the time since leaders themselves have admitted to arguing among themselves.”
According to current church leaders, Mason said, same-sex marriage “is not part of God’s plan.”
One of the prerogatives of the governing First Presidency is “to establish and define doctrines of the church at any given moment,” he said. “But doctrines can and do change over time.”
Sustaining, he added, is “a public act, which is distinct from conscience which is personal.”
Smart’s willingness to toe the church’s line as a missionary, while privately holding a different perspective, Mason said, “is a generous act, the epitome of sustaining.”
Nakken also stopped on the recommend question about whether Smart “support[ed] or promote[d] any teachings, practices or doctrine contrary to those of [the church].”
In the end, the mission president expressed love for Smart but said he wasn’t comfortable giving him a recommend. The issue then became: Can you stay on a mission without a temple recommend?
After their talk, Smart went into a restroom and sobbed.
“I felt horrible for my beliefs, horrible that I wasn’t considered temple-worthy. Just like crap,” he wrote in his journal that night.
The next evening, Nakken called and said he had reached out to a Seventy in Salt Lake City and that this higher church authority agreed with the mission president. He came away with the feeling that it would be, he told Smart, “pretty difficult to serve a mission without a temple recommend.”
Smart was “in shock.”
That night, the young missionary read his patriarchal blessing, which spelled out promises for his life, and felt comforted.
“It hit me that Jesus knows that when I left on my mission, I was planning on two years, and me possibly leaving in a little while was not what I was planning,” Smart recalls thinking. “I won’t be discounted for this [his private views], no matter what happens. My heart was — and is — in this work.”
A conference call followed with Nakken and Ashby, the stake president. Ashby, who did not return messages for this story, then seemed to agree with the mission president — unlike in his earlier interview with Smart.
“I felt like I was in a corner and they were beating me over the head with a bat, over and over,” Smart said. “I felt I was not a good person for holding these beliefs.”
They told the missionary his support of same-sex marriage would affect him in “bigger ways,” he said. “It made me think: Will this impact my salvation? Will I not be able to be sealed [for eternity in a temple] to my future family?”
Ashby suggested they give it a week, and all pray about it for those seven days.
“I felt like I had a week to change my beliefs,” Smart said. “I had fought so hard to be where I was comfortable and happy in the church and on my mission, and now I was being told that wasn’t good enough.”
He said he felt intense pressure to revise his thinking on LGBTQ issues, yet he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“That would alter my beliefs about God and Christ entirely,” he said. “A loving God isn’t one that sets up people against the blessings of family.”
Within a few days, Nakken had a change of heart himself. The mission president called Smart to say he was sorry, that he now had approval to give the missionary a recommend without requiring him to abandon his perspective on LGBTQ issues.
He urged Smart to stay.
For the young missionary, though, it came too late. By now, he felt battered and exhausted.
“Emotionally and spiritually, I had been stretched like a rubber band to a breaking point,” he said. “I couldn’t do the healing I needed to do on my mission.”
He had sought divine counsel about leaving, he said, and got an “overwhelming feeling of peace and love that going home was the right thing to do. It felt like something lifted off my shoulders.”
When he told Nakken his decision, Smart said, the president encouraged him to stay.
“I love this good young man,” Nakken told The Salt Lake Tribune. “During his time in the mission, I spent many hours with him seeking to understand and counsel with him.
“Details of those conversations are held in sacred confidence,” he wrote in an email. “But I can say (and I hope he would agree) that every effort was made to help him, and to find a way for him to serve as a missionary and hold a temple recommend.”
In the end, it was “Elder Smart’s choice” to return home, Nakken wrote. “I want the very best for him and hope he is able to find joy in his life and in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The missionary’s mom, Sunny Smart, feels sad about the outcome for her son — and for the church.
“The kid with an inactive family and gay mom got there against all odds because he had asked himself the hard questions and came out the other side confident in his choice,” she wrote in an email. “What a loss for those who would be blessed by a young person with the ability to hear and respond to difficult questions without discomfort.”
As for the young man, he is working in Kanab this month but plans to return to USU in January and to continue in the faith. He worries, however, about all his friends on missions who support same-sex marriage (nearly half of Mormon millennials in the U.S. agree that it should be legal in all states, according to research by writer Jana Riess).
Could they face the same judgment as Smart?
It is not an unreasonable concern, Mason said.
“For a church that is so insistent on uniformity and conformity,” he said, “the way leadership is applied and practiced is widely divergent based on personalities and circumstances.”
Does unworthiness amount to “ideas you have in your head? Words that come out of your mouth?” Mason asked. “Or is it behaviors?”
For his part, Smart loved his mission but can’t look at his missionary name tag without feeling “a little sick.”
Despite the ordeal, he remains a believer.
“I have a lot of faith in God and Jesus Christ and their love for me,” the former missionary said. “I believe in the church and the Book of Mormon. I can lean on that until I can get my testimony stronger.”
And, for the record, he has a temple recommend.