Trigger Warning: This section discusses emotional abuse and manipulation, including specific examples, as well as human trafficking

When I made the decision to leave the church, I felt I had been betrayed and lied to. For several weeks, I had lingering doubts about my decision. But as I have researched more, I have learned that what I experienced is very common among people who leave high-demand religions, and it bears many similarities with the experience of leaving an abusive or manipulative relationship.

For years, I refused to believe the church was manipulative. If God’s way of addressing His children bore similarities to manipulation, I thought, then manipulative people must be inspired by Satan and are just a close approximation of God.

While I was investigating my belief in the church, I was shocked at some of the manipulative comments I heard from church leaders. These comments were deeply troubling, and I realized much of my experience in the church on the whole was based on manipulation.

Think Celestial

It doesn’t take long to find manipulative language in General Conference addresses. Consider quotes from (at the time I write this) the most recent General Conference. From Russell Nelson:

Thus, if we unwisely choose to live telestial laws now, we are choosing to be resurrected with a telestial body. We are choosing not to live with our families forever.

Those who have participated in or watched an endowment ceremony might relate when I say this sounds much closer to Satan’s threat (something akin to “if these people do not live up to every covenant they make, they will be in my power”) than God’s comforting, patient language. It strikes fear into parents who believe they are sealed to their children forever. It uses threatening language, and I believe this manipulative statement alone is damning evidence that Nelson’s address does not match the tone or nature of God.

Consider a later paragraph in his address:

When you are confronted with a dilemma, think celestial! When tested by temptation, think celestial! When life or loved ones let you down, think celestial! When someone dies prematurely, think celestial. When someone lingers with a devastating illness, think celestial. When the pressures of life crowd in upon you, think celestial! As you recover from an accident or injury, as I am doing now, think celestial! As you focus on thinking celestial, expect to encounter opposition. Decades ago, a professional colleague criticized me for having “too much temple” in me, and more than one supervisor penalized me because of my faith. I am convinced, however, that thinking celestial enhanced my career.1

While they appear innocent, catchphrases like “think celestial” are common thought-stopping strategies. Consider this: if “think celestial” was your mantra, and you were confronted with something that made you doubt, would it be more appealing to “think celestial” or use your God-given gift of discernment to figure out the truth? This sentiment reminds me of language common among manipulative parents I’ve met, who will convince their child to do something by asking “What would Jesus do?”

Of course, mantras can be helpful. By itself, I don’t believe this quote is particularly damning. My wife and I often repeat to each other, “handle it now,” which keeps us from letting dishes or laundry build up. But I suggest that when someone else tells you what your mantra should be, it is worth scrutinizing their intentions.

He goes on:

As you think celestial, you will find yourself avoiding anything that robs you of your agency. Any addiction—be it gaming, gambling, debt, drugs, alcohol, anger, pornography, sex, or even food—offends God. Why? Because your obsession becomes your god. You look to it rather than to Him for solace. If you struggle with an addiction, seek the spiritual and professional help you need. Please do not let an obsession rob you of your freedom to follow God’s fabulous plan.

When I first heard this talk, this quote struck me as particularly icky. It uses something familiar to many church members (the concept of addiction) and expands its scope to include anything someone turns to rather than God for solace. While it is wise to seek help if something is controlling your life, this paragraph appears to be designed to tear down people who are struggling, rather than lifting them up. I cannot speak for Jesus, but the stories I’ve read throughout the scriptures do not indicate that he was offended by addicts. I can only imagine Jesus having more compassion and empathy than I could comprehend. Not to mention, addiction is globally categorized as a disorder that often requires treatment rather than something that can be prayed away.

It is impossible for me to know Nelson’s exact motive when he penned this paragraph. But I will suggest that I would only say something like this if I wanted my audience to feel guilty. In my experience, guilt and shame are great tools to keep people engaged in the church (see Epistle 3.4). Everyone I’ve ever met has “struggled” with something on this list during a hard time. Students play video games to relax after a long day of classes and work. People go into debt in emergencies or even to feed their families. Anger is a normal emotion and is healthy when expressed appropriately, and on a personal note, I cannot imagine a perfect, merciful God being offended that I bake a batch of cookies after a long day at work (even if the practice is not the healthiest).

Consider one final quote from this talk:

As you think celestial, you will view trials and opposition in a new light. When someone you love attacks truth, think celestial, and don’t question your testimony. The Apostle Paul prophesied that “in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils.”

Considering this quote in light of a thought-terminating catchphrase, I do not understand how this could possibly be God speaking through Nelson. I suggest that this line is carefully crafted to cast doubt on anyone who thinks differently or does not believe. The word “attacks” conjures warlike and violent imagery, and listeners are encouraged to see anyone expressing contrary or alternative ideas as the enemy. This is a painfully divisive way of speaking, in which not only are alternative opinions the enemy, but if you start to think differently, you are “giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils”.

I would encourage you to read the rest of Nelson’s talk. It is full of fallacy: rather than truly rebut any “anti-mormon” arguments or even mention them specifically, he shamelessly casts his opposition away with Ad Hominem. Because I oppose his ideas, I have been seduced by a devil and should not be trusted.

I would like to point out: I link primarily to church-produced resources, including General Conference talks. I propose that there are specific problems with the teachings of the church, and I argue against those problems. While I disagree with many of the points Nelson makes, I make no attempt to degrade him or use his character to negate his arguments.

Feeling Trapped

Trigger Warning: This section describes human trafficking.

I was recently (before I decided to leave the church) in the Denver airport on my way back from a work trip. The sign in the restroom made me honestly reflect on my experience in the church. While I cannot remember its exact wording, it went something like this: “If you feel you cannot leave, you may be a victim of human trafficking.”

This sparked some serious thought. I spent much of my summer working on processing my mission trauma. While I washed my in Denver, it hit me like a ton of bricks: Not once did I ever feel like I could leave my mission. And even if I felt like I could, the church had my passport in its possession, and it was made clear that if a missionary was sent home, he was to endure a humiliating phone call with his parents (see Epistle 1.2). While I don’t intend to directly accuse the church of human trafficking (I felt this document could benefit many more people than a settlement and NDA with Kirton-McConkie ever would), I got to thinking about how trapped I have felt in the church.

I made this list while I was contemplating whether or not I would stay in the church:

  • I never felt I could turn down a calling (they did come from God, after all)
  • I felt guilty that family health issues pulled me away from church meetings since I wasn’t doing enough for God
  • I didn’t feel like I could tell a leader they made a mistake or hurt someone
  • I was convinced I would fall into financial disrepair if I didn’t pay tithing
  • I advanced in priesthood offices and served a mission because “that’s what you do”
  • I bore a dishonest testimony for fear of disappointing God and those around me
  • I always wore conservative clothes and hairstyles out of fear of being immodest
  • I went to boring, unwelcoming activities as a teenager to keep people happy
  • I voted to sustain church leaders despite knowing nothing of their character
  • I attended the temple frequently, even though it was traumatizing and triggering, especially after I returned from my mission
  • I sat in worthiness interviews despite understanding my worth to God was great
  • I prayed and spoke in meetings despite being unprepared or uninterested
  • I never set boundaries, even when I was hurt or uncomfortable
  • I was unkind and judgmental to people who didn’t fit the church’s mold despite knowing Jesus taught that we should love everyone
  • I justified hateful, bigoted, and otherwise inappropriate actions under the guise that I had to sustain church leaders and doctrine

My list went on, but I feel this suffices. I never felt I could set boundaries within the church. I felt that God wanted me to give and give, often without any evidence that what I was giving was used to benefit people. I constantly felt trapped and would fall into a cycle:

  • I started to wonder if I was doing too much
  • I reassured myself it was God’s will
  • I felt guilty about doing less (or even wanting to do less)
  • I re-doubled my efforts and started doing more, and the cycle repeated

This might not be your experience, but if it is, know that these are all signs of being in an abusive and manipulative relationship. I reassured myself, thinking that abusive people are inspired by Satan, who can closely mimic God’s behavior, but it still didn’t sit right. Since leaving the church, I feel free to be who I want to be and do what I want to do. I believe I am living an honorable life and doing as much good as I can, and it has been so freeing to lose the fear and guilt that come with a relationship with the church.

Encouraging Manipulation

While I wish I could provide a solid, logical argument here, the church is clearly very careful not to publish or document the ways they encourage manipulative behavior. Thus, I speak anecdotally about a number of experiences that convince me the church encourages manipulation, especially from its leaders.

In Parents

Parents in the church hear that if their kids fall away from the church, they will spend eternity without them. So parents often require strict adherence to the church while kids are growing up. While I am grateful my parents now allow me to make my own decisions, it took months to gather the courage to tell them I’d left. I frequently hear and read about people who left the church and now have horrible relationships with their families who stay, and it breaks my heart to think a church (which supposedly encourages people to exercise free will) could encourage such tragic consequences.

Many who grew up in the church faced discipline if they refused to go to church or any other church activity. Kids are shamed or guilt-tripped for their unrighteousness if their friends aren’t all church members, or if they learn or talk about anything that contradicts the church. Many compare the experience of telling parents they’re out of the church to coming out as gay to religious parents.

In Missionaries

Missionaries are trained to be expert manipulators. It’s not uncommon to hear people mention “love-bombing” in the context of missionaries. Former missionaries will recognize the tactic: find someone who is struggling (i.e., going through a divorce, lost a job, homeless, new parent, etc.) and convince them you’re their friend. Regularly make it clear you love this person, even though you don’t really even know them. Convince other church members to join in supporting them. Pray with them and read reassuring scriptures. All the while, convince them that the way to solve their problem is joining the church. Eventually, of course, this love bomb goes away as missionaries leave or get busy converting someone else, and the person is left in the church.

In Leadership

I deeply regret that I served in several leadership roles on my mission. I am confident I received these roles in part because of my ability to manipulate, though I did not realize that was what I was doing. As I’ve talked with other missionaries, I’ve felt a similar sentiment. When I would help the mission president assign companionships, it was clear that missionaries who gained favor with the mission president were much more likely to serve as leaders. I am confident a major contributor to my “promotion” to an assistant role was the fact my mission president and I share a hometown and would occasionally reminisce about it together.

After my mission, when it was time to call new leaders when I was singles’ ward clerk, I was asked to print a summary of the highest-donating members in the ward. Further, I am confident I was called to the position of clerk because I did everything I could to convince the bishop I could fill that role. I prefer office work to other church responsibilities, so I frequently talked with the bishop about how my engineering degree was going and how much I enjoyed math. Leadership roles and callings are often assigned because “if we give them a nice calling, they’ll feel important and want to come back”. Leadership meetings were strategy sessions, and I always felt like we were playing a sick game of chess with people’s salvation.


While abuse and manipulation can be subjective, I have experienced the church as being extremely manipulative. I am appalled and ashamed that I not only was manipulated but was convinced I had to participate fully in manipulative behavior. If you are considering your own relationship with the church, I would encourage doing what I did: make a list of things you don’t feel like you have any choice about. You might surprise yourself.

  1. Nelson, R. M. (2023, October). Think Celestial! General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Salt Lake City, UT. ↩︎