Do Mormons “Shun” Former Members of the Church?

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.


21 Responses to “Do Mormons “Shun” Former Members of the Church?”

  1. 1 Tony Brigmon July 4, 2012 at 8:21 am

    This is the best and most accurate explanation (based on my over 45 years of observation as a member) that I’ve ever read of how it really is in the life and times of LDS members and their interactions with former members.

    And Rob’s concluding words, “Our hope always is that what is broken can be healed” is not only my heartfelt sentiment, but that of most members I know. Thank you, Rob. Love the gift you have for telling it like it is.

  2. 2 Vance Roper July 4, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Great article. You do a great job explaining it all. Thank you,

  3. 3 Rebecca Brand July 4, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    I look forward to reading your posts! Thank you so much for taking the time and making the effort to help us all understand ourselves a little better. I also love the wry humor inserted in each post! 🙂

  4. 4 Johanna van Zijl July 9, 2012 at 4:10 am

    What a difference this article has made in my life. It is great reading. I am greatful. THANK YOU

    Johanna – The Netherlands

  5. 5 Ron Burr November 5, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    I resigned from the church after being inactive for 40+ years (I am 64). The church has not been a part of my life since my late teens. I married outside the church and raised my children outside of organized religion also. My beloved parents, both believers and holders of many callings always respected and loved me regardless of my participation in the church or lack thereof. My Dad and I farmer together for many years. My folks loved my Catholic wife as a daughter and my children could not have asked for better grandparents. I was truly blessed in that respect. That being said, I believe I may have experienced shunning for the first time today. Or maybe not. Hard to tell, as the individual is not a close friend but knows me from our time at Ricks and since. My life is so full with family and friends that not having the LDS church or any church for that matter, in my life means less than nothing to me.

    • 6 Helen March 12, 2018 at 3:17 am

      Nothing unusual; even the Jehovah’s witnesses act the same way. In fact I should say that they are more severe with people who no longer desire to remain in the cult. They can even shun (treat you like if you are dead) those who are still JWs but inactive. They misapply the scriptures where it says that you should stop associating those who go against Christ’s teachings.

  6. 7 Trekking February 17, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Thanks for your well-written comment.

  7. 8 Kristina Milan December 26, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    I think I just experienced shunning from two missionaries living next door. I was baptized 20 years ago and simply stopped going to the church about five months later. I was never excommunicated. The missionaries had been very friendly until I mentioned the above. Suddenly it was a “well I didn’t realize you were a member, thank you for sharing that and we have to go”. I never even knew that Mormons had been accused of shunning till just now and I believe that I was just shunned. Funny thing is that I wanted them to know because I thought maybe I could go back but thank you ladies you just made it very clear that is not where I want to be. God bless and good luck.

    • 9 R.S. "Rob" Ghio December 26, 2014 at 4:02 pm

      Very sorry to hear that happened. It shouldn’t have. Part of a missionary’s responsibility is to work with less-active members, so why anyone would do that is utterly beyond me. Unfortunately, neither missionaries nor members are perfect, and so mistakes get made. Please do not let that experience be the determining factor as to whether you would consider coming back. For most of us, there would be no greater joy than assisting someone with that journey. If I can ever be of help by answering a question or hearing you out, please do not hesitate to email me.

  8. 10 Observer February 21, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    …Christ’s example of how the father treated the returning Prodigal Son explains clearly the attitude we should try to show to those who have had encountered spiritual difficulties in their lives…..’I want mercy, not sacrifice’…

  9. 11 Eddy March 27, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    I would not put Mormons in the same category as Christian. You are Mormon, not Christian. Christianity is based on the Bible alone. With the addition of the Book of Mormon, you are now Mormon, not Christian. Just because you accept Jesus into your overall doctrine doesn’t make you Christ followers. Christians believe that the fulfillment of truth came through Christs ministry, death and resurrection. Why not call yourselves, Smithains or you believe in Smithianity? No, I am not a Mormon hater. I just see it more cut and dry. Christians don’t agree with the Book of Mormon.

    • 12 R.S. "Rob" Ghio April 26, 2016 at 7:51 pm

      Well, we don’t call ourselves that because we don’t believe salvation comes through Joseph Smith. Your comment demonstrates that you know nothing about our faith other than that we have something called the Book of Mormon. If you would like to know more, please keep reading.

  10. 13 Mike August 6, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    I am curious why you refer to the “teachings of the church” why would that be important when we have the teachings of Christ. Christ spent his time with the troubled, spiritually malnourished. He would never refer to us as the “elephant in the room”. It seems that a church that requires so much of its members in the way of activities and serving (cleaning the chapel) that they don’t have any time left for their non-member friends may be a little mis-guided.
    I have the highest respect for my neighbors. I still stay in touch with my Elders quorum president despite being a non believer. This article seeks to excuse behavior un-becoming of a Christian.

  11. 14 66343 Solaray December 30, 2016 at 11:58 am

    Mormons shun people because that’s what cults do. It has nothing to do with being too busy….Utah has the highest rate of suicide; I wonder why?

  12. 16 Rebecca Brand January 1, 2017 at 11:39 pm

    I love reading your posts, Rob. Thank you for taking the time to research and post uplifting, funny, informational and inspiring posts. God bless you!

  13. 17 bwv549 July 7, 2017 at 9:35 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful analysis.

    > 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

    Shunning has been explicitly encouraged at least twice in general conference (Carlos Asay 1981 “Opposition to the Work of God”, Ballard 1999 “Beware of False Prophets and False Teachers”), is taught in the current NT institute lesson manual (see 2 John 1:7-10) and is implied by the temple recommend question “Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”

    Links to sources and more complete analysis here:

  14. 18 Stephen July 10, 2017 at 11:41 am

    … you accept that the final judgement for an individual is Christ’s? John 5:22-23.

  15. 19 Sheryll December 15, 2018 at 3:02 pm

    Depends — if shunning is deterred to change behavior then I would agree — the problem it make shunners more hateful – and less Christians —
    It buts distance and the the love leaves for the shunned then – it’s hate – they have – so really it no good – which is why it is should not be done —

  1. 1 Excommunication | Bell Book Candle Trackback on September 2, 2012 at 10:16 am
  2. 2 The Shunning Key by bwv549 - Mormon Bandwagon Trackback on July 27, 2017 at 9:03 pm

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