An Inclusive Church

[Given by Chris Juchau at Ward Conferences in the Highland Utah South Stake in early 2015]

Brothers and Sisters, I would like to address my remarks today to a specific subset of the ward.  I would like to speak directly and frankly to those of you who, for any number of reasons, do not feel entirely comfortable at church.  If you attend an LDS church long enough, you can get stuck with the notion that there is an ideal model of what proper church members look like and that if you don’t fit that model closely enough, then you’re somehow left on the outside looking in.  You may feel uncomfortable with how you do or don’t fit in with other members of the Church.

Imagine I’m holding a picture right now showing you the “ideal” model of LDS members.  In that picture, you might imagine seeing a handsome father and a lovely mother surrounded by their lovely children.  Father looks like a kind, loving, confident, financially successful man who has all the answers.  Mother looks like a woman with perfect children who composes beautiful new primary songs and writes inspiring blog posts viewed by adoring thousands when she’s not helping her children learn to sew their own clothing or serving nourishing meals to her smiling, grateful family as if in a Betty Crocker commercial.  You look at her and just imagine that the world is a more beautiful place everywhere her feet so delicately tread.  Of course, Bobby and Suzie and the other children look like straight-A students who are probably student body officers at school and who sometimes spontaneously burst into songs filled with lovely harmonies just like the Von Trapp family kids—and probably do so while they’re helping each other with their chores or delivering soup to their elderly neighbors.  Quite a family!

On the other hand, let’s consider what kinds of people actually experience mortality.  Let me give you some examples of the kinds of people I’m talking about who don’t always feel like they fit in 100% at church.

One significant example comes from those who don’t have the family structure I just described—looking sharp or not.  Some who wish they had spouses do not.  Some who would like to bear children cannot.  Some have been through profound hardship and disappointment in marriage and not only struggle with the immense challenges of single parenting but feel conspicuous about it in a church where we talk so much about the ideal family.  In fact, just enduring church meetings can be a huge challenge because of our emphasis on strong families as the end goal.

Another example comes from those who feel unsure about their testimony.  They have doubts or questions they’re not comfortable mentioning to other church members.  They may be afraid they’ll be ostracized if they do.  They hold back from full participation in various aspects of the church because they feel unsettled or even skeptical and may feel like they’re surrounded by people who have never considered or shared their concerns.  Some struggle with church doctrine or church history or with church positions on important social issues—past or current.

Another important example comes from those with social anxieties.  After all, if you’re going to be the ideal member in this church, you have to be able to speak in church with poise and confidence and tell stories that leave the audience alternatingly laughing and weeping.  You also have to be able to read aloud when suddenly called upon as if you’re James Earl Jones or Morgan Freeman.  You also have to be prepared with articulate and thoughtful answers to share when put on the spot to answer a question in a class.  You couldn’t possibly be someone whose whole body experiences fight-or-flight anxiety, or even panic, at the very thought of public speaking.  And so you are careful to navigate the rocky waters of church attendance, so that, using skills both subtle and not so subtle, you avoid the spotlight—perhaps at all costs.

Some may feel like they don’t fit in at church because they struggle with worthiness.  They may feel inadequate.  They may feel conspicuous.  They may feel judged by others.  They may not only feel judged but may actually be judged by church members who lack empathy, humility, or knowledge.

Others may be plenty worthy for a temple recommend, but may feel like either LDS doctrine or LDS culture places so much emphasis on being perfect that they cannot escape feeling accused of unworthiness and are unnecessarily burdened by guilt.  They may feel dirty and guilty in the very buildings and among the very people who should be fostering their optimism and faith in the atonement. Some see attending church as an exercise in being inflicted with guilt for all the things they don’t do as well as the people in that picture apparently do.

Some seasoned parents and grandparents may feel uncomfortable at church because they don’t think they’ve succeeded at creating that lovely picture of their own families.  Perhaps finances have been a struggle that makes them feel inadequate.  Perhaps they don’t actually write their own music.  Perhaps teenage or young adult or full-grown adult children struggle with poor choices—or perhaps we wish they would struggle with poor choices when, instead, they seem to be embracing them.

There are other examples of people who in one way or another don’t feel like they fit in very well at church.  [Author note after the fact:  I wish I had mentioned gay or same-sex-attracted members specifically in this talk and expressed support for them also.]

  • Some may be new in the ward and just don’t feel like they’ve found friends yet.
  • Some may struggle with physical or mental illnesses that limit them in any variety of real ways—whether all of us appreciate their situation adequately or not.
  • Some youth may feel like their friends are at school or on sports teams or other places—but not so much in their home ward.
  • Some older people may feel like my own mother does who was recently released from being a primary teacher and now fears that she is unneeded and has been “put out to pasture.”

You may think of yet other circumstances in which people feel a little (or a lot) uncomfortable at church.

All around us are people who are struggling with any number of things.  Within the sound of my voice are probably a couple of people who are dealing, very privately, with significant personal problems.  They have been convincing themselves that they can handle their problem on their own.  They want to avoid sharing their problems with others, including family, friends, or bishops—yet they bear a heavy burden and things are really not getting better.  Such situations seldom get better until they are brought out of the darkness and into the light—with at least someone.

If any of these types of situations apply to you – then… what shall we do?  More to my point, what should you do?  I have four suggestions.

First, be open to the idea that many in the church are sensitive to and understanding of the challenges that you and others go through—and…  Be willing to let them know about your challenges and then accept the support they offer to lend.  Don’t try to take self-reliance too far.

Speaking for myself, I am familiar with struggles of testimony and doubts and questions and challenges to my faith. I have experienced feelings of unworthiness.  I have experienced strong social anxiety.  I have been a youth in a ward with no close friends.  I have been new in a ward and felt like I didn’t fit in.  I definitely don’t think attending church should be an exercise in getting discouraged with guilt over my shortcomings or my inability to do well literally everything that is expected of that father in the picture.

One thing I have never struggled with is being a single woman or a single mother or single father.  I cannot say to know first-hand what those challenges are like.  I imagine, though, that they can be massive and I appreciate that coming to church and hearing about celestial families all the time can be, for some, a difficult thing.

Many in the church do understand and many others are eager to learn.  Many wish to help share burdens out of genuine love.  Do not be afraid to let them even if that just means them listening.

Our church should be a welcome and comfortable place for all. We have, in fact, an obligation to make it comfortable for all regardless of other people’s backgrounds, circumstances, or apparent spirituality.   And we must repent of any judgmentalism or other behaviors that make it less comfortable for others.  We certainly must help lighten loads.

The Savior is our clear example.  He sought out the poor in spirit and those who were marginalized or completely disenfranchised by society or by religion or by cultural norms.  He ate with sinners, publicans, and others of questioned repute.  He welcomed those who were physically and mentally ill.  He spent loving time alike with Pharisees, outcasts from the Jewish religion, and non-believers.  He honored old and young, male and female, married, unmarried, and single parents. Of course, ultimately, he experienced all of the pains and sufferings endured by any and all who suffer in any way.  And He knows exactly how you and I feel.  Exactly.  Not all of the rest of us know exactly how you may feel about various things but we may know more than you imagine—and we probably know enough to appreciate in a meaningful way what you are going through.

Second, please be patient with those who remind you of the family in that picture—and forgiving of those who seem judgmental or hypocritical—for they, too, have struggles in spite of the best appearances, and, like all of us, they are trying and they are struggling with their own shortcomings and disappointments, trying to be happy and move forward.  Judging the judgmental and denying them the generosity of non-judgment that we want from them just harms us.

If you know someone is judging you, forgive them.  If you think someone might be judging you but don’t really no for certain, then give them the benefit of the doubt and decide that they are not.  If you think somebody just doesn’t know or hasn’t experienced enough to really “get it,” then be patient with them and non-critical of their ignorance-driven poor judgment.  If it looks like others are having more success than you, be happy for them.

Once about 25 years ago, I had an experience golfing with two friends.  None of us were great golfers.  On the first hole, which was a par 5 that crossed a little stream at the Spanish Oaks golf course, one of my friends (I’ll call him John) miraculously hit the three luckiest shots of his life in a row and eagled the hole, two under par.  The other friend (I’ll call him Mark) seemed not to notice, being caught up in his own struggles on that hole.  Some holes later, the roles were almost miraculously reversed and Mark, who had struggled on the first hole, came up with what is surely still the only eagle of his life.  Only this time, John, who did poorly on the second hole took obvious and sincere delight in Mark’s success and celebrated with him—to the point where Mark lamented aloud to us that he had not taken more joy in John’s earlier success.

It is a hard thing to do to share joy in other people’s successes when we feel like our own is not occurring, but we can remember that the first shall be last and the last shall be first; that he who sits in the lower rooms will be invited by the master to take a higher place; and that the Savior’s promise to the poor in spirit who come unto him is that they will receive the kingdom of heaven.  The meek will inherit the earth.  They who mourn will be comforted.  And they who hunger and thirst will be filled.  All healing for ourselves and all feelings of magnanimity and generosity toward others will ultimately come from our trusting in the Savior’s role and His Atonement.

Third, regardless of your circumstances, I beg of you to please nurture yourself spiritually.  As we all know, church members’ eyes and minds can glaze over so instantly at the mere mention of daily prayer and scripture reading.  Yet the impact to us of those two things is just huge!

If you’re a single parent, it may be legitimately difficult to find the time for personal prayer and scripture study and an occasional visit to the temple.  If you’re feeling discouraged, doubtful, or inadequate, you may have time but not feel very motivated to reach out to God.

But the reality is that God is real and He is our father and we need Him.  If we connect ourselves to him through communication—if we speak to him in our prayers—and listen to him through the scriptures and through personal revelation (something we probably receive more of than we recognize)—we will receive strength.  In fact, I think we’re strengthened so much spiritually that it also impacts us emotionally, mentally, physically, and socially.  You and I are completely foolish, indeed, when we underestimate the requisite nature and healing impact to our souls of daily communion with God.  I know that both first-hand and second-hand.  Whatever we may be struggling with, withdrawing from Him makes it worse.

Whatever you do, do not fail to protect a few precious moments in each day to connect with God—at home, in your car, your closet, or at the temple.

For those of you who even vaguely resemble the ideal family, you must recognize that you have been given much and that from you much is required.  Where you have neighbors who need your service in order to be able to attend the temple, provide it.

By the way, I will briefly add this:  I do not think or expect that God answers every prayer the way we want it answered.  But I do believe he responds to every prayer in the way that is best for us.  Sometimes when we feel we are getting no answer, the answer we are getting is an expression of confidence in our ability to choose and move forward with well-placed faith.  He wants us to consider and to ponder and pray, but He usually does not want us doing nothing while we wait for Him to tell us what to do.

Lastly, according to your circumstances, participate directly in the salvation of others.  You have heard in this conference and will hear more in the next hour about the work of salvation which includes missionary work, effective teaching, reactivation of less-active members, and temple and family history work.  We urge participation in these things for three very simple reasons:  it’s what the Lord wants us to do, it may very well bless the lives of those we serve, and it will surely bless our own lives.  Those are simple and good reasons why we ask you to participate in family history work and to have an active family mission plan, for example.  Doing those things will not solve all your problems, but they will bless and help protect you and your family.

Now we have to reconcile our invitation to participate in these things with two simple concepts:

  • One is that we should not run faster than we have strength—and some people have legitimately limiting circumstances.  Such people should strive to participate in ways that they can without feeling guilty about the ways that they can’t right now.  There is too much guilt among us. Motivating “godly sorry” is something to appreciate and even to nurture.  But discouraging guilt is something we need to combat by improving our understanding of our relationship with our Heavenly Father and by putting more trust in the effects of the Atonement.
  • Another is that where much is given, much is required and here in Highland, Utah much has been given to many.  Some of us need to be more accepting of that and, frankly, do more.

These are personal, individual matters.  We invite all to participate to the extent that you both can and should.  It will bless your life.

I express my love to you on behalf of the stake presidency and the entire stake council.  We desire our Father in Heaven’s sweetest blessings for you and your loved ones.  We want every member of our stake to feel welcome, to feel accepted and included and to know that they are loved.  We also know that your happiness is a personal matter and is largely, if not entirely, up to you.  We urge you to participate in those things which comprise living after the manner of happiness, which happiness can coexist with a wide variety of circumstances.

Our Father in Heaven does live and love us.  Jesus Christ is indeed our Savior.  And this is His church.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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