Questions surround podcaster John Dehlin and the quest to build an ex-LDS community

“Mormon Stories” host has legions of fans but also some prominent critics who point to financial issues, his treatment of women and his combative style.

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

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As more and more Latter-day Saints extricate themselves from the Mormon cocoon that bred, raised, nurtured, taught and embraced them — and a church they now believe has betrayed, stifled or harmed them — countless digital and in-person communities have sprung up to welcome these displaced souls.

Similarly themed Facebook groups, websites, blogs, email lists, podcasts, hashtags, meetups, cyber wards and online videographers using YouTube and TikTok now reach vast audiences worldwide.

Many of them offer alternate and, some say, vital lifesaving perspectives to what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught from childhood, along with safe spaces to help active, questioning and former members navigate what therapists call “faith transitions.”

Popular and prolific Holladay-based podcaster John Dehlin has emerged in recent years as an influential yet polarizing presence at the center of this loose-knit movement.

The 52-year-old psychologist was an early pioneer in using the internet for Mormon-related content and describes his life’s mission as promoting “healing, growth and community for those experiencing a religious transition.”

After nearly 17 years as an outspoken online dissector of Latter-day Saint orthodoxy — and seven years after his high-profile excommunication from the church for “apostasy” — the former Microsoft executive and his co-producers and collaborators at his “Mormon Stories” nonprofit connect with tens of thousands of people daily.

And as the nonprofit expands its reach on newer social media platforms, appealing to younger people, those audiences are mushrooming and, some say, shifting in tone.

“Everything’s gone viral,” Dehlin extolled to his viewers recently after a series of segments on recent remarks by church leader Brad Wilcox exploded online. “TikTok, Reddit, Twitter — it’s all lit up.”

Now — while the podcaster is helping to bring in-person gatherings to former Latter-day Saints through a nonprofit called THRIVE — he is drawing questions over the suitability of his sharp-elbowed style.

“I personally do not follow John Dehlin or THRIVE,” said Ane Axford, a former Latter-day Saint and therapist living in New York. “It is not a community that is entirely inclusive of everyone that leaves Mormonism.”

Jacob Newman, who is gay, said former believers “create communities that thrive on disbelief, ignoring that there are LGBTQ+ Mormons who choose to stay.”

Such communities, Newman said, replicate “the exact same type of toxic behaviors that many of us tried to leave behind in Mormonism: No accountability for leadership, toxic obsession and fixation on an ‘identity’ as an ex-Mormon (as opposed to a believing Latter-day Saint).”

From some past employees and associates, Dehlin also faces open criticism over his organization’s finances, his treatment of women and his perceived role as a dogged antagonist to Utah’s dominant faith.

[Read more about John Dehlin’s compensation and his nonprofit’s finances here.]

The question also becomes: Can an engaged online audience be transformed into a successful in-person community? And, even if Dehlin were absent, is it possible to build a community on a shared negative, even traumatic experience?

‘Open discussion’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Dehlin speaks to supporters with his wife, Margi, by his side after his disciplinary council at the North Logan LDS Stake Center in North Logan in 2015. He later was excommunicated.

Dehlin launched the inaugural “Mormon Stories” podcast in 2005, reflecting his own brewing personal doubts about the faith, and ran it intermittently until 2010. He then founded the Open Stories Foundation and relaunched the podcast while based in Logan as he began work on a doctorate in psychology at Utah State University, with the mission of creating “online and in-person environments that allow for authentic self-expression and the open discussion of Mormonism.”

His 2015 excommunication, Dehlin said, was likely prompted by a TED Talk he gave in late 2013 titled “The ally within.” In it, he recounted overcoming his conservative Latter-day Saint upbringing in Texas and deep-seated homophobic attitudes to become an LGBTQ advocate.

His bishop later blamed his exile on “public support of social issues,” Dehlin said, “and he named, specifically, same-sex marriage and ordination of women.”

The foundation’s podcasts have evolved considerably since then, while retaining one key formula: interviews with well-known Latter-day Saint figures across a spectrum of Mormon culture, often keying off new developments in the faith’s tenets and programming or statements by its top leaders, while highlighting Mormonism’s controversies over history, doctrine, culture, race, women and LGBTQ teachings.

The five regular podcasts — “Mormon Stories,” “Mormon Matters,” “A Thoughtful Faith,” “Mormon Mental Health,” and “Mormon Transitions” — drew a total of 6.6 million downloads and YouTube and Facebook views in 2018, according to the latest available reports at openstoriesfoundation.org. “Mormon Stories,” the marquee show, amassed nearly 5.8 million views and downloads alone and reached a milestone of 1,000 episodes that same year.

Today, the “Mormon Stories” podcast community on Facebook boasts 16,800 members, while its YouTube account has more than 54,000 followers. With the recent addition of a younger and more social media-savvy co-host, Carah Burrell, and a concerted push onto the video-focused social media channel TikTok, Dehlin said, “Mormon Stories” has a following approaching 122,000.

A significant share of Dehlin’s audience growth, he said, is drawn from torrents of Latter-day Saints now falling away from the faith, which he insists is seeing massive waves of attrition in its worldwide membership.

Church spokesperson Eric Hawkins disputes that assertion.

The Utah-based faith “continues to grow not just in number, but in indicators of member engagement such as temple work, family history efforts and the tithes and offerings contributed,” Hawkins wrote in an email. “Those who leave often do so in a more public way through social media, but the percentage of members who resign their membership remains very small (less than two-tenths of 1%) and has not increased in recent years.”

Leaders don’t want “to see anyone leave the church,” he said, “which exists to bring people closer to Jesus Christ as they live by the restored teachings, covenants and ordinances of the gospel.”

Mormonism’s ‘Voldemort’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Dehlin and his wife, Margi, on the red carpet for the premiere of "Believer," a documentary about Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds trying to reconcile his Latter-day Saint beliefs with his support for LGBTQ community in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.

To many of his devotees, Dehlin is a godsend.

He is revered as a savior of sorts by some. One compared him recently to Jesus, saying both critiqued the religious authorities of their day. His writings, public speeches and what he says are nearly 1,700 hours of podcasting over the years elicit adulation, gratitude and an ardent core of followers and donors among those departing Mormonism.

“You all have changed my life and gave me what I needed in a time when it felt like there were no answers or help,” a follower named Hailey said in a testimonial featured on one of Dehlin’s websites. “As my husband and I have transitioned ... out of the LDS Church, the wisdom shared from these podcasts have driven vital conversation and helped us maintain our dignity and grace throughout the process with our family and friends.”

Many devout Latter-day Saints blame Dehlin for drawing people away from the church with his critiques, and more than a few, he acknowledges, see him as “evil.”

He has taken to calling himself Mormonism’s “Voldemort,” a reference to the “he-who-must-not-be-named” archvillain in the “Harry Potter” books. Some right-wing #DezNat church defenders have leveled threats against him.

It might surprise some that Dehlin views his hundreds of hours of podcasts as helping church leaders, nudging them in the direction of positive change. He says his own Mormonism “will never wash off.”

“I’m technically ex-Mormon, because they kicked me out, right?” he said. “But I don’t think of myself that way. I actually think of myself as a consultant to the church. They need help. And I’m helping them. They’re changing.

“Ultimately, I still do love the church,” Dehlin said, “like an abusive father.”

Prominent former members acknowledge the benefits and understanding he’s brought to Latter-day Saints, mixed-faith couples, LGBTQ individuals and their families, and those in conflict with the church

Some, though, have issues with Dehlin.

“People are raw emotionally and lost in a lot of ways, with their worldview flipped upside down,” said Ethan Gregory Dodge, co-founder of the Truth & Transparency Foundation (formerly MormonLeaks). “He comes across as someone who has all the answers and then starts asking for money. People will give John money out of gratitude, but eventually fall out of love with him.”

His “business model thrives on drama,” Dodge said. “The more drama he can drum up, the more podcast downloads and YouTube hits he will get.”

Many former believers will state that Dehlin has done so much good “he doesn’t deserve any criticism,” Dodge added. “But that’s exactly the same tactic the LDS Church applies to general authorities.”

What about women?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kate Kelly speaks in 2014 about her excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Dehlin’s interactions with women through the years have brought out some of the toughest criticism against him.

Kate Kelly, a feminist and founder of Ordain Women, which supports women entering the all-male Latter-day Saint priesthood, has given public voice to long-simmering concerns from more than a dozen women who say they’ve been demeaned in their personal and professional dealings with Dehlin.

Kelly, who was excommunicated for “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the church” a year before Dehlin, recently posted a letter-turned-petition, saying the podcaster “takes advantage of vulnerable people in crisis, who are in legitimate need of help and community.”

“John has used our talents, time, movements and reputation to bolster his brand and enrich himself,” Kelly wrote in the online post. “When women come forward with critiques of his behavior or allegations of wrongdoing, he retaliates by lashing out at them and attempting to publicly discredit them.

“...Many of us have worked with him in the past, and want to make clear that we no longer do and don’t encourage any other women to do so,” Kelly stated. “It’s not safe. We refuse to be used as a mask for abuse.”

Those who need therapy, she added, “should seek out a professional who is actually licensed by the state to provide those services.”

(Dehlin has a doctorate in psychology but is not a licensed therapist.)

Kelly’s one-page statement was signed by more than a dozen ex-Mormon feminists, including two of his former employees at the Open Stories Foundation.

“Any woman who challenged him as a woman, he would come unglued,” said a person who worked with Dehlin but asked not be named for fear of reprisal, “while if a guy podcaster or employee asked the same question, he would be more open and listening.”

Though Dehlin calls the allegations against him “false” and “completely baseless,” he said he “was and am heartbroken that [these women] had bad experiences with me and the OSF. I absolutely take responsibility for my role in the differences and conflicts we had.”

Today, he feels “very committed to listening to and learning from each interaction I have with staff, board members, volunteers, interviewees and listeners,” he said, “and I hope that I am improving every day as a colleague and as a manager.”

Natasha Helfer — a therapist who was ousted from the church last year after repeatedly opposing its doctrines, policies and leaders on sexuality issues — describes Dehlin as part of what is “kind of a systematic issue.”

“What’s interesting about this is that I could say something about every single company or agency or nonprofit or for-profit organization in this country that has patriarchal issues,” said Helfer, who serves with Dehlin on the THRIVE board and is a former member of the Open Stories Foundation board. “Does John somehow magically not fit into that? Probably not.

“What I have seen John do over the years is be open to that feedback and critique and try to learn from it,” she added. “And he’s done more work than I’ve seen a lot of CEOs or leaders, especially in our church, be willing to do.”

Dehlin said he has “worked hard to try and do better in those areas. But I think it’s triggering for a white, straight, heterosexual, cisgender male to now be prominent in this space.”

‘First entry point’

(Courtesy photo) Sex therapist Natasha Helfer.

By most accounts, Dehlin’s “Mormon Stories” podcasts have helped many former Latter-day Saints who have lost their faith in the 16.6 million-member church, but some say that is not enough for long-term involvement.

Latter-day Saint writer-researcher Jana Riess, author of “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church,” has had a longtime interest in the sentiments of young Mormon adults and now is looking specifically at former believers. “Mormon Stories” podcasts have come up often in her interviews.

“For many, it is the first entry point into the ex-Mormon world,” Riess said, but that need “goes away after the first year or two and then [they] tend to cycle out of those communities.”

That model is distinctly different from creating an organized, supportive and enduring community for former church members, which Ryan McKnight, Dodge’s partner at the Las Vegas-based Truth & Transparency Foundation, calls “a tall order.”

That is “all fine and dandy when you are first processing your way through leaving the faith, but in short order it becomes boring and redundant,” McKnight said. “I don’t see that as a setup for long-term success, and I think the ethics of it are nebulous at best.”

Dehlin appeals to a certain kind of former Latter-day Saint, those who had fairly literal beliefs and then feel betrayed, said Dan Wotherspoon, an independent podcaster who moderated the “Mormon Matters” podcast.

“In John’s work, he mostly emphasizes the negative effects of Mormon orthodoxy and how to overcome them,” said Wotherspoon, whose podcast is “Latter-day Faith.” “But Mormonism, and religion in general, is about so much more than its belief system.”

Plus, some former Latter-day Saints bring all the same aspects that appalled them while in the church, said Mette Ivie Harrison, a Utah novelist, poet and blogger — including adulation of leaders, male-dominated conversations and self-righteousness.

“There’s nothing wrong with throwing off old shackles and deciding to reconfigure your life based on new information, but ex-Mormon get-togethers resemble anti-testimony meetings,” Harrison wrote in a 2020 commentary, “people sitting around and bearing witness to the pain of Mormonism in ways that seem very similar to the old testimonies I’d hear on fast Sunday about how wonderful Mormonism was.”

When Latter-day Saints leave such an intense faith community, there is an urge to “find some alternative version of the ‘right’ way to live, while also now seeing Mormonism as the ‘wrong’ way to live,” said Axford, the former Latter-day Saint and New York-based therapist. Part of the motivation is a desire “for psychological safety with all the unknowns of life.”

Cults of personality, patriarchy and judgmentalism “can and do exist in ex-Mormon communities and individuals, as these people are still human,” Axford said, “and are also likely more susceptible to these things since they’ve been heavily imprinted from Mormon experience.”

It is healthy and important for ex-Mormons “to speak with and engage with others to validate [their] experience and really understand it,” Axford said. But simply being a former member is “not a long-term useful community or primary identity to focus on.”

For many questioning Latter-day Saints, however, the experience is more raw and immediate. Hundreds of attendees have flocked to recent THRIVE events since it resumed face-to-face gatherings in October — with up to 1,000 expected at its women-only event in Salt Lake City in April — testament, co-organizer Clint Martin said, to the deep need for community in post-Mormonism.

“When the people stop showing up and they don’t come anymore,” Martin said, “that’s when [wife] Jeni and I are going to stop.”