By D. Jeff Burton
This column collects some emails I exchanged with “Bishop Thomas,” who is responsible for a large ward outside Utah. (Names and some details have been changed to protect identities.) I’ve communicated with “Borderland” bishops in the past but this is the first time one has agreed to share his story.
Bishop Thomas: Last night I finished your book, which I downloaded after listening to your interview on the Mormon Matters podcast.1 I’m approaching my third year as a bishop, and thanks to you, Sunstone, Mormon Stories, and others, I have been able to learn more about the faith crisis trend so many members of the Church are experiencing right now.
To tell you the truth, I fit the description of a Borderlander though I’ve never thought of myself as such—or even as a “faithful doubter.” I have experienced pretty much everything you have mentioned in your book (without putting a name to it) but even with my doubts and my rejections of some Church tenets, I’ve never had a problem fitting in. A few years ago, just before I got called as a bishop, I came across Mormon Stories and Sunstone. It was kind of a miraculous occurrence, and I have no doubt that the Lord was preparing me for this calling.
Right after I became the bishop, I sat down with the outgoing bishop to review the ward’s issues. We started with the smaller problems, such as janitorial service and Sunday School attendance. But after about an hour, he said, “Now let’s talk about the most difficult problem in the ward. It’s about some of our brethren.” When he said that, I prepared myself for the worst. Had they committed adultery? Fraud? What horrible things?
Then he said, “Several of our best brethren have lost faith in the Church and have serious doubts about its history and teachings.” One of these brethren had previously served as a bishop.
I was still waiting to hear the “big problems,” so I asked, “That’s it? Is there anything else we need to know about these brothers?”
“No. That’s all,” he said. “The stake president knows about their problems and we don’t know what to do to help them. But we need to keep an eye on these brethren.”
I wanted to yell, “Wow, no problem! I know exactly what to do with them!”
I soon met with them individually and asked about their belief issues and what they struggled with. Some of these brethren had come across many of the issues Borderlanders face by way of the Internet or books they had read.
So I started a “Sustaining Your Faith” class for these brethren. We met once a month for several months with no one else in the ward really realizing it (I think). During the first few classes, I listened to all their struggles, questions, and doubts, and I realized that they were genuine and sincere. These were good, well-educated men who wanted to understand these controversial issues but didn’t feel they had anyone they could turn to for help.
Meeting with these brethren made me realize that the Lord is aware of the issues you have been talking about for over thirty years, and I believe he is moving his work in the direction you envisioned. I look forward to the day when we’ll start having leadership training meetings that focus on how to approach these issues without being judgmental. I was inspired when John Dehlin talked about how his stake president’s love helped him return to full church activity.
Jeff: You might be the ideal “successful Borderlander.” Would you be willing to let me use some of your thoughts in the Borderlands column? I’m sure your story and approaches would offer some hope to those who are struggling. I’ve attached a questionnaire I often use. You don’t need to go into great detail, but knowing your history will help me to formulate other questions and help us all to understand you better.
Bishop Thomas: Sure. You can use my story but let’s keep my identity a secret. The last thing I want is for someone to remove me from my calling and cut short my chances to help other people in my ward who may be going through a faith crisis.
Just to start, I’m 57 years old and hold a bachelor’s and master’s degree in special education. I’m the CEO of an educational company specializing in providing linguistic training. I’m married to a great woman I met in college. We have three grown sons.
1. How would you describe your upbringing in the Church?
My parents were both members, and my father served as a branch president. However, they were both very liberal, so, for example, they didn’t require any of their children to be baptized at age eight. Their approach was to let us decide on our own when we wanted to join the Church and how we wanted to participate. For this reason, I didn’t become fully involved in the Church until my early teens. After serving a mission, I attended college where I served in a large ward as a counselor in the bishopric. It was during this time that I began questioning some of the things the Church was doing. This was the point at which I became a Borderlander.
2. What issues, events, actions or concerns caused you to move into the “Borderlands”?
Some of the issues I struggled with included the differing versions of the First Vision, polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, women not being allowed to serve in bishoprics, and a few other Church policies.
My current issue is wondering why we are directed to have PEC meetings with only male leaders? If we’re discussing the welfare of the ward, why isn’t the Relief Society president always involved? Can we really address our ward members’ issues without her perspective? I love President’s Packer’s statement about how if we don’t involve the sisters, we lose great power in the priesthood (or something like that).
3. Why do you stay in the “Borderlands”?
While I do not believe in or agree with every teaching and policy in the Church, I do realize that the Church has answers to my most important questions. Most importantly, the Church provides me with endless opportunities to serve others in an efficient manner. Its family-oriented teachings and values are priceless to me. I really feel I can serve the Lord more and do more for him through this church than through any other. (I have visited and studied many churches throughout my life.)
4. What group (of the three-stage model) do you consider yourself mostly in now?
Probably the same as you—Group 2—because I can relate to everything I’ve heard you say or write.
5. How has this situation affected you emotionally, spiritually, and/or physically?
I haven’t felt any negative effects at all. My wife knows about my doubts but she also knows about my love for the Lord and the Church. I support and love our leaders. To me, they are among the finest people on earth, doing their best to follow the Lord’s example of blessing those in need. I made up my mind many years ago that though I believe our modern prophets were and are called of God, they will still make mistakes and even show bias. I also believe that God calls others of his children to represent and serve him in other churches. God works through many leaders, but he can only have one person at a time running his main ship.
6. How have you coped with the issues, events, concerns and/or status changes you’ve experienced?
They’ve never really bothered me. Church leaders are human beings with weaknesses, so I’m willing to bear with the fact that they occasionally teach their opinions rather than the Lord’s mind. I believe that the atonement covers the mistakes his servants make, both in and out of the Church. If the Lord already paid the full price for those mistakes, then why should I make a big deal out of it? He is the one choosing his leaders, so I leave it to him to deal with them and the results of their actions and teachings.
7. How well do you cope?
I’m very happy as a member of the Church. I regularly attend the temple and have always enjoyed attending my church meetings. I love the opportunities the Church provides to make new friends from all over the world. It’s a great social network.
8a. How open and honest are you with others about your Borderland status?
I abide by what President Kimball once said: that some truths are best left unsaid. At this time, I can’t be open about all my disagreements because it would create unnecessary conflict with members who aren’t ready to face these issues. And the last thing I want is for someone to sacrifice all the goodness the Church brings into our lives over some controversial issues.
8b. If you have kept your Borderlander status a secret, please explain why you feel a need to do that.
I do it to keep peace with friends and family. No price is too high for peace within the home and among friends. I choose to put aside the difficult facts—without denying them—and to focus on those many other facts that promote love and peace.
8c. What would it take for you to be open about your Borderland status?
I’ll open up the day the Church stops viewing struggles with our history and policies as a faith issue. There is no need to panic or try to rescue someone from having questions and doubts. A Borderlander should not be viewed as a “faith problem” who needs to be fixed through a program designed to reinforce his or her testimony.
9. How has your Borderlands experience impacted your spouse, children, parents, and friends?
So far, there have been no negative effects. The gospel is an integral part of our family life. We participate in spiritual activities such as daily family prayers, scripture study, family home evening, and attending church meetings and the temple. I believe this has blessed our family over the years.
10. How have various people responded to you and your experiences?
The ward members seem to be enjoying the changes I’m making, though they probably don’t know that many of these changes come from suggestions made by people like you and John Dehlin and the people he has interviewed.
Jeff: Thanks for letting us get to know you better. Can you describe any of the changes you’ve made as a bishop that relate to the Borderland theme?
Bishop Thomas: I once heard an interviewee on Mormon Stories say that change must be made at the local level. He said that bishops especially should take the initiative to focus sacrament meetings on Jesus rather than the tenets of the Restoration (like the First Vision or the Word of Wisdom). So I’ve based all our sacrament themes throughout the year on Jesus, though I’ve made the themes general enough so that other Christians and non-members could feel comfortable with them. For example, some of the themes have been “Worshiping Christ through Music,” “Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and “Hearing the Voice of Jesus in Your Daily Life.”
Here’s one specific experience: I had an interview with a brilliant young man attending [a prestigious university]. I asked him some questions and he began opening up. One thing he said was that he couldn’t understand why members would always say that they knew the Church was true. He would often ask, “What is it that is true to you?” He wanted to understand how “knowing the Church is true” translated into their daily actions and activities.
I told him that the way I look at it, the Church can be “true” to whoever wants or needs that “testimony.” I also told him I believe that other churches are as true to their members as our church is to us. As I said earlier, I believe that God works through other churches as well to bless the lives of his children. I told him that Mormonism is not meant for everybody, but that we who have embraced this religion have a duty to serve Christ through the Church the best we can. As I said these things, this young man kept smiling, saying, “That is exactly what I think, too.”
Jeff: Wow! I know things like this must happen behind closed doors in many a bishop’s office, but we rarely get to hear about them.
Bishop Thomas: What I want to know is, how many people in my ward are struggling with these issues and suffering unnecessarily because they don’t know what to do or who to talk to?
Jeff: I imagine there are many others. And as the word spreads that you’re an understanding and helpful bishop on these issues, more will come out of the closet.
Bishop Thomas: I hold a testimony/speech class to train ward members on how to give talks and bear their testimonies better. I teach them to avoid sharing their testimonies on things that others may not understand or even believe. I’ve also tried to teach them to follow our modern-day prophets’ style of closing a talk. Rather than saying “I know the Church is true,” or “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet,” I teach them the “prayer pattern” I’ve noticed Church leaders using in general conference. They often end their talks by saying something like, “I pray that we may have the courage to follow Jesus Christ by . . .” or “It is my prayer that we all recommit ourselves to follow Christ.”
I also challenged our ward members to read the New Testament more regularly. I quoted President Hinckley saying that if he were a bishop or stake president, he would encourage his members to read the New Testament. A few months later, a sister told me that for years she had focused on reading the Book of Mormon only, but since she started reading the New Testament, her love for Christ has increased.
I truly believe that the gospel found in the New Testament is the gospel of the Good News. It is our job, as leaders, to make sure that we present this Good News as such to our members. It is the Good News for everybody: faithful, unfaithful, doubters, believers, straight, or gay. We need to learn to enjoy our mortal journey the best we can—together as friends, brothers, and sisters, with all our weaknesses and strengths.
Jeff: Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! I hope that other bishops are inspired to serve as you do.
A final thought before closing this column: Are there any stake presidents out there who are ready to come out of the Borderlands closet?
1. In my first column (this is Column 51), I introduced the “borderland member” as one who may have an unusual but LDS-compatible outlook on life, a distinctive way of thinking about faith, belief and testimony, a different view of LDS history, some open questions about a particular aspect of the Church, reduced or modified activity, or feelings of not meeting Group 1 acceptability criteria. My book, For Those Who Wonder, and all of the Borderland columns are available for free download at: www.forthosewhowonder.com. Two recent podcasts I participated in can be accessed at: http://exploringsainthood.org/031-jeff-burton/ and http://mormonmatters.org/2013/10/21/199-untangling-faith-belief-and-the-expectation-to-know/.