Today’s opening session of General Conference featured a lovely talk by Pres. Dieter Uchtdorf, addressing (albeit obliquely) a growing problem in Mormondom. Despite the statistics of Mormon growth—it was announced today that the LDS Church has passed the 15 million mark in membership—many people are also leaving.
Pres. Uchtdorf’s address did not immediately attend to the question of why some people are leaving the Church. In fact, the first part of the talk struck me as fairly standard Mormon triumphalism: Unlike other religions, ours is still growing! We have the authority to baptize in Jesus’ name! Our people do so much good in the world!
Frankly, I started to tune out at that point. I was thinking about some of the people who write to me with their questions and doubts about the Church, and how unpersuasive such back-slapping insularity can sound to anyone who has one foot out the door.
What those people need is pastoring, not propaganda.
Then came the perfect question:
“If the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?”
And from there, I was riveted. Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk was compassionate and nonjudgmental, avoiding the standard blame-the-doubter default position that has too often characterized the LDS Church’s relationship to those who leave.
“Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended, or lazy, or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations. Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question of whether they should separate themselves from the Church. In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly that it was restored by a young man that had questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth.”
This sympathetic and pastoral approach also conceded that people who have questions about Mormon history often have valid reasons for asking them:
“Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history, along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events, there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.”
And the talk went on to allow—a rare admission in Mormonism—that LDS leaders have sometimes made mistakes, plain and simple.
“And to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would only be perfect if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But he works through us, his imperfect children. And imperfect people make mistakes.”
I think that Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk was a balm to the soul and a step in the right direction. It was wise and timely, given some high-profile defections this year and the theological and historical questions that precipitated those departures. Just getting the Church to acknowledge the pain of this issue in the forum of General Conference is significant.
I also hope as these discussions continue that the Church will unveil what it as an institution plans to do about the problem. Although Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk emphasized the valid issues that people may have for leaving, he placed the burden of returning on the people themselves. They should not feel, he said, that they can’t fit in, or that the Church is filled with hypocrites, or that they cannot live up to the Church’s standards.
And that is true, to a point. But the Church must also commence conversations and programs that make it clear that the burden of reconciliation does not rest solely with “those who have separated themselves” from it. That burden also rests with the Church as the body of Christ, a body that cannot do without its hands and feet.