In recent days, I have read a number of articles about how the members of the LDS Church treat former members of the Church. Each of these articles asserted, without any source or explanation, that it is a common practice for Mormons to “shun” former members, casting them out of social circles, refusing to do business with them, and giving them dirty looks at Chinese buffets. I suspect that the use of the word “shunning” is intended to support the underlying assumption that Mormonism is a cult, and if one of our members decides to leave, we try to make their departure as painful as possible. This assumption reflects a complete misunderstanding of both the administration and culture of the Church.
Let’s start with the boring administrative stuff: How does a person go about becoming a “former Mormon?” As with many Christian churches, there basically are two ways. (There is a rumored third path to excommunication: Growing facial hair and drinking Dr. Pepper. Doesn’t work. I tried.)
The first is that a person can simply write a letter to Church headquarters requesting that his or her name be removed from the records of the Church. This is a pretty rare occurrence. In my experience, even people who haven’t been associated with the Church for years and who express some pretty bitter feelings typically are indignant if anyone suggests that they be removed from Church records. For whatever reason, they want to keep at least one toe on Mormon soil.
The second way you can leave the Church is through excommunication. There is a process by which members who have engaged in serious misconduct—think in terms of adultery, child abuse or other crimes, or advocating opposition to the Church regarding core doctrines—may be subject to disciplinary action. These are done through confidential “disciplinary councils” (if you talk to an old-timer like me, you might hear the term “Church court,” though that phrase is no longer used). The disciplinary council is made up of Priesthood leadership, and there are established procedures to protect the interests of the person who may be subject to discipline. The council may take action ranging from doing nothing to excommunication.
No matter how I explain a disciplinary council, it sounds ominous, but it really isn’t intended to be. Excommunication is rare, and is reserved for circumstances where misconduct is so severe or of such a public nature that less severe action would be inappropriate. The purpose of excommunication isn’t to drive a permanent wedge between the individual and the Church, but rather to help begin a process of repentance that can bring that person back into full fellowship. Obviously, it is highly unusual for a person excommunicated from the Church to come back, but I’m happy to say that I’ve seen it.
So what happens once a person is excommunicated from the Church? Not much, actually. There was a time in the Church that excommunications were announced to the other adults of the Church, but that doesn’t happen anymore. You probably will never know that a person has been excommunicated unless you were personally aware of the underlying circumstances, or if the person volunteers that information. Typically, the person stops coming to Church, or attends at a different ward (congregation), and you are left wondering whatever happened to so-and-so. We aren’t told to stop associating with that person or stop doing business with them. We don’t airbrush them out of photographs or refuse to speak their name in public. Instead, excommunication results in something more along the line of a confused, “Has anyone seen Larry?”
That said, there may be some basis for people feeling like they are being shunned, and that requires a bit of explaining. First, you have to understand that Mormons are not a closed community, but they certainly are a close community. For many members, most of their social interactions are related to Church activities. Primarily, that results from how busy Mormons are in the Church. Each of us usually has a “calling” or responsibility in the Church. Some have several. A typical week for a member who isn’t in a position of authority might look something like this:
Sunday: Three hours of Church, with maybe a meeting before or directly afterwards. Often another discussion group in the evening.
Monday: “Family Home Evening,” which means a family night during which members don’t engage in much activity outside the home;
Tuesday or Wednesday: Youth meetings at the Church, and planning meetings for other auxiliary organizations in the Church.
Saturday morning: Back to the Church to clean it for Sunday.
That would be a light week for most members. We usually are much busier.
What that means is that a person who leaves the Church may find that friends don’t have time for him, don’t call as often as they used to, or otherwise appear to be shutting the former member out of their lives. But the truth often is less dramatic: When the common denominator of the Church is removed, a decrease in social activity with Church members is predictable.
A second issue is that not everyone who leaves the Church can leave it alone. If a former member becomes bitter and spends his or her time attacking the Church in person or through social networking (a very common scenario), current members of the Church are unlikely to want to invite such people to participate in their bowling league. The negativity just gets old. To put those situations at the feet of the members of the Church as “shunning” isn’t quite fair.
A third problem is simply the awkwardness of the situation. Although critics of the Church would like to sell the idea that people are leaving the Church in droves, it actually is pretty unusual when someone you know is excommunicated, and I suspect that most Church members, me included, have no idea how to deal with it. Talking about it is uncomfortable for everyone, and not talking about it amounts to ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room. Mormons are like everyone else, and we avoid discomfort when we can. That’s not shunning. That’s just normal social clumsiness.
A fourth possibility is that there is, at some level, some degree of shunning. That would be absolutely unacceptable and contrary to the teachings of the Church. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen. Individual Church members may feel hurt, angry or betrayed by the circumstances of a friend being excommunicated, and I don’t doubt at all that some people react badly and treat former members shabbily. As I’ve said before, Mormons aren’t perfect, and you can expect that some will behave better under some circumstances than others. But that’s a far cry from the Church collectively shunning a former member.
The problem with using the term “shunning” when it comes to former Mormons is that it masks an important reality, which is that Mormons react pretty much like everyone else when someone we know leaves an association that we believe is valuable to them and us. Some of us handle it well, some of us handle it poorly. We preach a gospel of love, but like all Christians, we sometimes struggle to live up to our own standards.
Membership in the LDS Church is very much like a family relationship, and when somebody leaves the family, it is awkward, difficult, and sometimes messy. But also like a family, our hope always is that what is broken can be healed.