The Church as a Wounded Parent: How the Handbook Update Passes on the Pain

By Michael Farnworth

Michael Farnworth, Ed.D., retired from Ricks College after 31 years of teaching family psychology. He is married to Cindi Halliday, and father to Brad, Camie, and Jeff. He is grandpa to Joel, Alex, Owen, and Imogen.



Or, right-click here to download the audio file: The Church as a Wounded Parent: How the Handbook Update Passes on the Pain



When I first heard about the November 2015 update to Handbook 1, I was confused. This new policy to hold a mandatory disciplinary council for people in same-sex marriages (on charges of apostasy), and to bar children of same-sex couples from saving ordinances seemed to go against what I thought was the Church’s core mission: inviting all to come unto Christ.

What reason could the Church have for separating itself from members who are actively seeking to be a part of it?

I believe that, rather than being a conscious, deliberate act, this abandonment is a manifestation of the age-old cycle of abuse, which attached itself to Mormonism in its early history and now perpetuates itself through the Church—without its leaders (or even its members) being aware of it.

To see how this could be so, let’s look at how the abuse cycle perpetuates itself in families.

It would seem that someone who was abused as a child would know what it is like to be on the receiving end of family violence and trauma and thus do everything necessary to avoid abusing his or her own children. But it is well known that people who are abused as children actually have an overwhelming tendency to become abusers themselves—not because they are bad people with evil designs, but because they have never healed from the psychological wounds they received as children.

Children instinctively know that if they are abandoned, they will die, so they put great effort into maintaining the parent-child connection. Inevitably, though, children will do something their parents don’t like, and how the parents react is all-important. If the parent responds with disapproval, anger, threats, or physical or emotional violence, the children will start to remake themselves, deforming their personality in order to come into compliance with their parents’ wishes. It’s a survival tactic.1

Thus, most children grow up with deformed personalities. They have lost touch with their inner selves. They don’t know how to act from an authentic place; they are always looking to someone else for approval; they unconsciously connect their self-worth with their adherence to outside standards.

When these children become parents, they will encounter the same thing their parents encountered: children who have their own ideas, who aren’t always convenient, who sometimes jam the works. Then these new parents will do the same thing their parents did: prod their kids into line, unconsciously teach them that their worth is based on their adherence to the rules, mold their children to look outside themselves for approval rather than to act from their center—passing on their own childhood wound without ever knowing it.

The frightening thing about this cycle is how ubiquitous it is. Even if you grew up in a stable household with attentive parents, if you dig deep enough, you’re almost certain to find evidences of the abuse cycle, not because your parents were evil, but, rather, immature. They were suffering from emotional wounds of their own and unconsciously passed them down to you. Just as you deformed your personality to suit their wishes, so did they deform theirs to gain their own parents’ approval, and thus survive.

It may seem hypersensitive to identify this kind of behavior as abusive; after all, it’s a normal part of our culture. But it nonetheless cuts us off from our sacred center, from the child of God we are. It makes us forget our divinity and replace it with a series of hoops we believe we must jump through in order to prove ourselves worthy of love.

Of course, there is also the more recognizable abuse where people inflict physical, sexual, and emotional harm on each other in order to maintain power. But this kind of abuse is born of the same cycle: psychological wounds being unconsciously handed down.

To understand how Mormonism was inducted into this cycle, let’s look at its metaphorical “family history.” We’ll start with England—Mormonism’s “grandparents.” England had a child, the United States, who rebelled. England tried to keep the American colonies in line through threat and abuse, but the U.S. managed to separate from England. Though U.S. citizens today celebrate that separation, it was actually a horrible experience that left deep, unhealed wounds.

Then the U.S. had a child that didn’t fit in, the Mormon Church, who took up practices such as polygamy and communal living that the U.S. was unwilling to tolerate. After years of abuse, the Church tried to separate itself from the U.S., just as the U.S. had separated itself from England, but the U.S. followed the Church and threatened to eradicate it if it didn’t fall into line.

Facing certain demise, the Church renounced some of its tenets and behaviors and became the all-American religion it is today. It started as America’s black sheep child and became its hero child.

This may seem like a happy ending, but it isn’t. Though the Church enjoys more power today than it ever has, deep wounds remain: the pain of being rejected by a parent, the pain of a parent’s abuse, the pain of trying to separate from the family, the pain of a parent threatening death if you don’t return and obey. To conform to the wishes of its national parent, Mormonism underwent a deep and traumatic deformation of its personality.

And we live in the environment created by those wounds, the cycle of abuse manifesting itself through many interactions Mormons have with the Church. It can be difficult to see how this cycle plays out, but consider some elements that abusive families usually have in common.

  • Family members understand that they are never to talk about the family’s problems, especially problems that make the parents look bad. Being loyal to the family under all circumstances is paramount.
  • Family members are given little information about what the parents are doing or thinking as a means of “protecting” them.
  • Family members are not supposed to feel—and certainly never speak about—emotions such as pain, anger, or a sense of abandonment. To do so will threaten their place in the family.
  • Family members are not supposed to trust themselves. The parents are the only ones who have the power and knowledge to make correct decisions. Obedience to them always comes first.

In LDS Church culture, one’s worth is based on how well one fits into the structure and how many obedience boxes one can check. Though, for many members, this obedience is partially rooted in love for the Church, it is also rooted in fear, mainly the fear of being abandoned by the Church since it has set itself up as the intermediary between God and us. This is why it can be so hard for orthodox members to question the Church. On a subconscious level, that direction leads to eventual abandonment and death.

To continue the family history analogy, the LDS Church has children whose actions it will not tolerate: entering into same-sex marriages and raising children in that relationship. Having never recovered from the wounds it received at the hands of the United States, the Church is blindly passing those wounds on, threatening these disobedient children (and their children) with abandonment and (spiritual) death. Though it may look as if LDS Church leaders are being callous and vindictive, in fact, they are simply unconsciously participating in one more revolution of the abuse cycle. They are trying to protect the institutional Church by invoking the age-old explanations for abuse: “It’s for your own good,” and “We know what is best for you.” All parents and leaders are guilty of doing the same thing at one time or another.


It would seem that the best way to alleviate the pain caused by this new policy would be to take it off the books, but that would not address the root cause. The fact is, the Church needs to heal. Otherwise, the abuse cycle will continue to perpetuate itself despite our best efforts.

But healing from childhood wounds is no easy task. As we’ve seen, it is often difficult to perceive that we have these wounds in the first place since they are so much a part of our historical being. Anyone who wants to take the path to healing and awakening needs to be ready for a long, difficult, but ultimately liberating journey.

First, we must confront our fear of abandonment and not being loved for who we really are—the deepest terror we have. Though we try to cover it over by gaining power—financially, ecclesiastically, interpersonally, politically, socially—we feel this primal fear rise up immediately when our power is threatened, retriggering the cycle of abuse in order to protect our wound—and passing it on.

We must also investigate our personality to see where we have deformed ourselves, to see what sources actually motivate our actions. This will often lead you to places you’ve spent your entire life trying to avoid. Indeed, it will bring you into the presence of your shadow energy: the aspects of yourself that you know are unacceptable to the powers that be—the tendencies that got you in trouble, the desires and curiosities that you had to push underground in order to become acceptable.

But you do not encounter your shadow energy in order to defeat or be overcome by it, but to explore and integrate it. This energy is an essential part of you, and you must find a way to acknowledge and work with it. For a compelling tutorial on shadow energy and how to integrate it, watch The Babadook. Toward the beginning, the monster sends the protagonist a message in a pop-up book that says, “I’ll wager with you, I’ll make you a bet. The more you deny, the stronger I get.” I don’t want to spoil the ending, but when you watch it, please note the paradoxical way the protagonist ends up dealing with the monster.


You can probably already see how difficult this journey is on a personal level. Now think of how it would work on an institutional level. How can we, as a body of leaders and followers, overcome our fear of being abandoned by American culture when we try so hard to be loyal patriots? We reveal these unconscious fears when we recount the Haun’s Mill massacre, the expulsion from Nauvoo, or other stories of persecution. These events and how we perceive them are real, they affect us; we invest all kinds of energy and resources into making sure we never get into that kind of position again. However, these persecution complex memories also compel us to unconsciously perpetuate the abuse cycle, excising the members we are afraid will thrust us back into a powerless situation. This fear must be encountered. Covering it over with our current financial and cultural successes as a church doesn’t protect the Church’s members, it protects the abuse cycle and offenders.

How do we start to understand how we have deformed ourselves as a people in order to meet outside expectations? How do we identify the lower-level moral reasoning and fear that motivated our change? How do we find where we have abandoned our spiritual center in order to be acceptable to the larger culture? Likely much of the LDS Church’s shadow energy originates not just from persecution, but also from events in the lives of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other Church leaders. When shadow energy builds up, tragic events erupt such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The LDS Church’s shadow energy continues to be apparent in its second-class treatment of females, its fears of sexuality, its financial secrecy, the deadening force of the correlation program, the one-size-fits-all mentality, and, most recently, the policy changes regarding same-sex couples and their families.

The Church has undergone many behavior modifications in order to survive in America but for the wrong reasons. For example, Paul Reeve has argued in Religion of a Different Color that one of the reasons early Church leaders banned people with African ancestry from holding the priesthood was because the Mormon people’s “whiteness” was being seriously contested at the time—the ban was a public relations move aimed at survival. It was not until discriminating against blacks became anathema in the United States—the government threatening to punish the Church—that the Church finally reversed its position—again, to be acceptable.

The question that will finally arise will be, “Will the Church, which followed along with the rest of American culture in its shaming of homosexuals, also eventually follow American culture to an acceptance of them? Will this shift be an unwilling one, Mormonism once again deforming itself to appease a larger force? Or will it make the shift willingly, drawing from a conscious, compassionate source rather than an unconscious fearful one?”

The answer to that question may lie largely in the hands of LDS Church leaders. Even though as each of us heals, a small part of the Church also heals, that is not enough to turn the tide toward conscious living.

It will be painful to encounter and integrate the unacceptable energies and patterns of our institutional past and present. We’ll need to give up our own pride and grandiose defense mechanisms even if Church leaders choose not to do so. As a Church, we need to follow Christ’s invitation to let our socially constructed nature die. Our pride and defense mechanisms may seem to keep our wound safe and shadow energy at bay, but at what cost? Our truth can only emerge when we lay our socially constructed selves down—and our ego will fight us every step of the way.

This journey is especially daunting because it allows none of us to take the moral high ground. We are all wounded; every one of us has shadow energy; every one of us has participated (however unconsciously) in the abuse cycle. All of us must reject the defensive power we have built up to cover our wounds. We must become vulnerable. We must be willing to see ourselves in the aspects of Mormonism we despise most, because we are there.

In other words, we must become one, first within ourselves (making room for and integrating our own shadow energy) and then with the community of Saints, mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that stand in need of comfort, because—quite literally—their wounds are our wounds, and their sins our sins. But that can only happen as we enter higher levels of consciousness, and that journey can only begin when we awaken to our own shadow and free ourselves from the cycle of abuse. This is why we have no basis on which to judge each other or withhold our fellowship and compassion. Love them all and let God sort them out.

No one is going to come out of this journey unscathed. Indeed, the only way to emerge at all—instead of falling back into unconscious participation in the abuse cycle—is to emerge with our wounds visible (perhaps this is why the resurrected Christ chose to keep his). This is terrifying enough on a personal level; imagine it on an institutional level. What would it look like for us as a Church to put aside the power we have built up over the years and encounter our collective wounding? What would it look like for the Church to begin finding and acknowledging the deformities we put into place so long ago to protect ourselves? What would it look like for the Church to acknowledge and engage with its own historical shadow energy? Most importantly, what would each of us have to do in order to support that journey? What kind of personal transformation would each of us have to go through?

Though the journey looks arduous and frightening, think: What would it be like if we as a Church were able to extract ourselves from the unconscious cycle of abuse that was perpetrated upon us so long ago? We would become a healthy, radically transformed—even prophetic—church, a potent force for awakening the rest of God’s children from the cycle of abuse and into their own divinity.

When we live unconsciously, we always inflict unintentional harm, both on ourselves and others. And when we are in positions of power and authority, that harm can increase exponentially. We can only release our shadow energy by ceasing to fight it and by creating a space for it to be acknowledged and integrated, instead of passing it on to others. All shadow energy asks is that we consciously make a place for it to exist. If we don’t do so, we will pay a heavy toll for our denial. To riff on the couplet from The Babadook: “I’ll make us a wager. I’ll make us a bet. By denying our sinning, the stronger it gets.”


In his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus J. Borg writes that there were two competing codes in the New Testament. The first, which Borg labels as the code of compassion and forgiveness, was championed by Jesus; the second was the performance and purity code, championed by the Pharisees. We can see Christ’s compassion and forgiveness code at work in his actions: he spent time with sinners, social outcasts, and the marginalized rather than with those in the religious and political establishment. He forgave and invited others to do the same until seventy times seven. He saved his harshest words for the most strident religious factions of his day. Time and again, he took those who excelled in the performance and purity code to task, accusing them of overlooking the weightier matters of life.

As much as we want to deny it, institutional Mormonism is under much the same condemnation.

One of the scriptures we quote most often is Matthew 5:48: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” and it has created more shadow energy in us than any other scripture. The Church and its members want so much to be perfect (motivated out of fear of abandonment?) that we become dishonest, not only with those around us but with ourselves and our God. We hide behind public relations campaigns, separating ourselves from the sinners and fraternizing with the acceptable and powerful. Ever polishing the outside of the cup, but ignoring the inside. There is much more ego satisfaction and worldly praise attached to pretending perfection than to engaging in non-judgmental compassion and forgiveness. Focusing on a lesser-known scripture will do us much more good: “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

We as Church members seem to obsess over the first scripture while ignoring the second.

The Church teaches that it is God’s vehicle for delivering saving ordinances to the world. God has stated that he is no respecter of persons, so to refuse those ordinances because of our biases, no matter how deeply held, is be deeply in slumber. It is tempting to follow suit when Church leaders imply through policies and doctrines that a masculine God discriminates against his creations on the basis of gender, ethnic origins, skin color, economic status, or sexual orientation, but we must shake ourselves awake.

To freely engage in the journey of awakening and healing without compulsory means is the best path. To do so means we will have to be willing to suffer our own historical shadow pain and wounds of persecution instead of passing them on to others. Trust life to continue extending the invitation to us as individuals and as a church to become more conscious as we embark on the difficult work of reawakening our true natures.

One comment

  1. Dennis Lythgoe says:

    This is an enormously helpful article! Kudos to the author for sharing deeply felt and sensible advice using our religious and revolutionary history. He is an important thinker in a church that badly needs more thinkers like him!

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