Faith transitions are brutal – for everyone involved.
Those who are facing information or experiences that no longer resonate with their religious upbringing or conversion find themselves in painful situations where they feel confusion, pain, tremendous loss, doubts, having to redefine much of their personal, spiritual and relational identities, and are often facing less than ideal responses from their loved ones and church communities.
Those who love their faith and believe in its principles and doctrines are usually at a loss as to how loved ones could leave or stop believing the things they themselves find inspiring, hopeful and sacred – feeling deeply grieved, uncertain as to the future, and unsure as to how to relate to loved ones that may now seem foreign, angry and threatening to the status quo.
I have worked enough with people on both sides of this issue to know that this is a sensitive topic, that language chosen often hurts in unintended ways, that each situation is unique, and that it can often be tragically difficult for divides caused by faith differences to be bridged.
Here I am offering some basic guidelines to prioritize relationship health in times of faith transitions:
Respect and discuss other’s spiritual trajectories as you would want yours respected and discussed.
Allow that “spirituality” may have many different meanings and paths – and though it is normal to grieve when loved ones choose paths different than our own, remember that it is everyone’s right to have their own spiritual journey.
Having children/loved ones make personal decisions about their spirituality is not a reflection on you. You are not a failure/success as a parent/spouse/friend just because those around you make personal choices about their spirituality that differ from your own.
Decisions about spiritual paths are not “rebellious” or “a period of wandering.” They are legitimate and personal decisions.
Avoid provocative language (i.e. being deceived by Satan, justifying sin, faith is weak, lost their testimony, reject the gospel, etc.. as well as, being brainwashed, part of a cult, can't think for yourself, superstitious, not based in reality, etc.). The terms we use to discuss these issues are often laced with negativity and halt what could otherwise be productive conversations.
There is a difference between “rejecting gospel principles” and changing spiritual paths. Many religious principles are fairly universal and include values and morals that most peoples and cultures believe in (i.e. charity, honesty, service, being a good citizen, the “golden rule,” etc.).
Look for common values – what do we still very much share and have in common (i.e. integrity, service, what it means to be a contributing member of society, health, etc…)? It is so easy to notice the differences when we usually have so much more in common than we remember at times like these.
Although it is normal to want someone to return to your faith community, do not expect it. And do not focus your relational process on whether or not they will return. Your loved one does not want you to be a missionary to them – just like you don’t want them to try and talk you into believing differently. They want you to be a friend, lover or parent – depending on what role you play.
On the same side of that coin, do not expect someone to leave their faith community because you have. Do not focus your relational process on whether or not they leave with you. Your loved one does not want you to be a "missionary" either - trying to convince them how their perspective is wrong.
Remember that well differentiated systems allow for noncompliance at the same time that they allow for connection and compassion. Becoming better at differentiation is a skill we all need to improve upon. We can focus on love, charity and acceptance as the principles that will help the most.
Ultimately, it is my strong belief that faith journeys should not be a reason or justification as to why family relationships are damaged or severed. I would hope that theological and secular positions could be held in ways that make room for others’ beliefs.
To quote the New Living Translation of Colossians 3:14:
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.
Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST has been in practice as a mental health professional for over 20 years, primarily working with issues of relational health, faith transitions and journeys, and sexuality. She writes a blog called "The Mormon Therapist," and hosts the podcasts "Mormon Mental Health," and "Mormon Sex Info." She also produces "Sex Talk with Natasha."