While I was a missionary, we were encouraged to participate in a local program with the goal of reactivating people who weren’t coming to church anymore. It was based on 3 Nephi 18:30 (in the Book of Mormon):

Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out from among you, but ye shall minister unto him and shall pray for him unto the Father, in my name; and if it so be that he repenteth and is baptized in my name, then shall ye receive him, and shall minister unto him of my flesh and blood.

There’s a lot to unpack in the surrounding verses, and there’s definitely not time to handle it all in this post. Instead, I want to focus on the attitude in which this verse was presented to me by local and area leadership.

No Empty Chairs

The concept of “No Empty Chairs” showed up pretty regularly when I was a missionary. Leadership would start meetings not by welcoming the people who came to church, but by commenting on how few people were in attendance. The message was clear: fill the chairs at all costs. We were constantly under pressure to bring as many people into the building on Sundays as we could, and we encouraged locals to do the same.

Then, when people showed up to church, it was clear they were only there because of the statistic. Of course, there were kind people who tried to be inviting, but overall, we didn’t have the resources to care about people once they showed up.

Similarly, we were encouraged to “love bomb”, or express inordinate amounts of love to people in hopes they would convert to the church. In theory, we were encouraged not to forget about the people we baptized. But it was clear our priority was to get new people to go to church. So when someone decided to get baptized, we largely stopped paying attention to them. When someone we had baptized stopped attending church meeting, it wasn’t our job to get them back anymore, so we focused on love bombing other “investigators”.

We figured out a formula that worked well, and we used it to get as many people baptized as we could. While it took them more words to say this, it went something like this (see Preach My Gospel, the guide Mormon missionaries use to govern their work):

  1. Find a person at a time of stress.
    • Ask people if they know someone who “could use a spiritual message”, especially if someone is going through a divorce, having financial problems, having challenges with their kids, trying to overcome addiction, etc.
    • Knock on doors and ask if they could use Jesus’ peace in their lives
    • Ask probing questions during interactions to see if you can hit a nerve
  2. Somehow incorporate scriptures into a dramatized speech about how converting to mormonism will solve their problems (bonus points for finding a way that our arrival was divine intervention and not the pre-planned occasion it was)
  3. Convince them that only mormonism will solve their problems by making sure they read scriptures and pray while they’re in an elevated emotional state
  4. Get them to make commitments as early as possible and without any trace of informed consent
  5. Baptize, rinse, and repeat (perhaps including sentimental moments and a nice message on the back of the mandatory photo with everyone in white baptismal smocks)

Even as a missionary, this struck me as weird and culty. It was the same approach I’d seen in documentaries about other cults, and it didn’t sit right. I figured, though, that God worked in mysterious ways and it couldn’t possibly be that bad.

People are Numbers

From the very first moments someone interacts with mormonism, they are a statistic. If this sounds harsh, ask any returned missionary the following question:

How many baptisms did you have?

They’ll know the answer. I had 20. I also know that was pretty close to the average among missionaries serving alongside me. Then, especially if the number is large, ask this:

What were their names? What were they like?

Some people will be able to answer this. I can name a few, and I remember several people fondly. But for the most part, I was just doing a job. Over time, moving from area to area love bombing and forgetting people messed up my attachment enough that — as a defense mechanism — I stopped caring. I met people, love bombed, got them baptized, and got the hell out of the picture. Tragically, this was a very common theme among missionaries.

As time went on during my mission, we were under a great deal of pressure to get baptism numbers up. For months and months, we wanted 100 monthly baptisms. That was the mission’s goal every month. We would nearly make it, then we were guilt-tripped for not working just a little bit harder to get a few more people baptized.

People were numbers. From the very beginning, mormonism does not care about the people or communities they interact with. So when the people and communities we interacted with needed help (usually less than a few dollars), we always got the same response: “There’s no welfare money left.”

How does this relate to shunning?

I know that all feels like a tangent. I just needed to make a few points:

  • Mormonism systematically does not care about people.
  • People are only worth the chair they fill on Sunday.
  • When someone isn’t improving statistics, they’re not worth the effort.

I mention this in a couple of sections of The Elemental Epistles (specifically, 3.5 The Other and 3.6 Acquaintanceships), but mormonism is hard-wired to prioritize the most productive people. Missionaries are discouraged from continuing to visit people who aren’t “progressing” (i.e., committing to specific actions and then keeping those commitments). Members are encouraged to visit and minister to “inactives” only in hopes that they come back to church.

But most of all, when you stop being useful to the Mormon church, they have no reason to keep caring about you. Especially if you are vocal about disliking the church, they have every incentive to keep you away from believing members.

Thus, you are informally shunned. Mormonism does a great job instilling a fear of “the adversary” in people, especially in the context of people who “had the truth and were deceived”. These people are painted as dangerous to one’s testimony and to be avoided at all costs.

Is Shunning Intentional?

I think there’s a solid case to be made for both sides. And I think there’s a spectrum that many Mormons fall on. It’s unfair to say my thoughts apply to every Mormon, so know that I write anecdotally about my personal experience and those of others I’ve spoken with.

Argument: Mormons Shun Accidentally

Many exmormons experience horrible reactions from their families. A lot of this can be attributed to the shock many Mormons feel because of serious long-term indoctrination (see The Elemental Epistles 3.3 The BITE Model). In some cases, people experience abuse and other mistreatment because Mormons are not given appropriate tools to deal with these situations.

In many ways, people engage in shunning behaviors because they do not know how to process the news that someone has left. It feels unfair to classify this as malicious or intentional, in part because I’ve been on both sides of it. I know the feeling of betrayal that can come from a close friend leaving the church, and I can only image what a parent might feel. While this doesn’t justify unkind behavior, and it certainly doesn’t invalidate the feelings of exmormons whose families are shunning them, having some empathy for folks who have been manipulated (often for decades) into prioritizing their religion above all else allows for a much more nuanced conversation.

That’s why, when I got dozens of hateful letters from family members and friends after letting them know I left, I was able to have some empathy. Empathy didn’t excuse what they wrote; I have made the choice to set firm boundaries with several people as a result of what they said or wrote to me. It made it possible for me to move on and prioritize kindness in my own life.

As a side note, I may eventually publish some of the letters, messages, and comments I received (giving people grace through by keeping them anonymous). I’m not in a place where I feel that’s wise, but it could happen in the near future.

Argument: Mormons Shun Intentionally

Shifting the perspective from individuals to systems, it is clear that Mormons do shun people intentionally. Rhetoric from church leadership discourages Mormons from interacting with people who have left for fear of losing a testimony. It pushes parents into a horrible decision (whether to support their church or their kid). It instills fear into friends that supporting a faith transition is siding with an enemy. It stresses that people should be a missionary and reconvert people rather than form and maintain meaningful relationships.

I experienced this myself: when people told me they left the church, I had no clue how to respond. I’m so grateful I was a bit of a nuanced Mormon before this started happening, because I absolutely would have become hateful and bitter toward people just because they didn’t belong to the Mormon church anymore.

Case Study: David Archuleta and Mormon Twitter

It’s been really exciting to see some folks who used to be prominent figures in the church step away. One of the most interesting has been David Archuleta. I can’t imagine going through a faith crisis and everything else so publicly, and it’s been really inspiring to see him really owning his decision and talking openly about it.

It’s especially interesting to watch the Mormon reaction in a public forum like Twitter/X (I moved to Mastodon, I’m not sure what Twitter goes by these days). I keep a Twitter account for the sole purpose of seeing conversations like these. I’m especially going to discuss recent reactions to Archuleta’s song “Hell Together”, which people have posted during the last month or so.

A Breakdown of Responses

There were a few comments that were overall very positive. This was really encouraging to see, but it’s not very interesting to share here. It is worth acknowledging, though.

There have been a lot of responses from folks who (based on their profiles) are faithful Mormons. I have split these comments into a few categories.

Fact Checkers

This was the most interesting group to me, since I’ve both been a “fact-checking Mormon” and encountered several since leaving. It’s incredible to me to see the sheer quantity of Mormons who, when anything remotely appears to challenge their beliefs, try to justify their beliefs by sharing loosely-interpreted statistics. It’s especially curious to me when those facts are either (a) based on doctrine the person does not believe or support anymore, (b) based on poorly-conducted research or incorrectly derived from unrelated scientific publication, or (c) presented out of context in a somewhat passive-aggressive way.

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Countenance Analyzers

I encountered a good deal of this myself. It was hilarious when people would tell me as soon as I told them I left (months after I had actually left) that my “countenance had darkened” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) but could not tell me when they first noticed. I found comments to Archuleta’s posts that had a very similar vibe.

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Callers to Repentance

This is the funniest category to me. I’m not sure what makes people think that calling someone to repentance after a grueling, traumatizing faith transition will get them to just drop everything and go back to their old belief system. It’s especially interesting to me that they have no interest in hearing anything about his experience; they just want him back. There’s an empty chair, and him going back would improve their statistics. They’d even be able to tell their friends about the celebrity who left the church and went back.

It’s also amazing to me that they accuse him of attacking the church or going after people’s beliefs. “You can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone”, goes the saying. I laugh at this when I think of the context of these comments. Archuleta posted a song online. Most of the people who saw it are probably his followers. He doesn’t send anti-Mormon missionaries to their doors. He doesn’t build giant chapels and temples in their neighborhoods. He isn’t hateful or violent toward the church (he’s much more tactful than I have been, that’s for sure). I really can’t wrap my mind around the idea that he’s attacking mormonism.

Subcategory: It’s About Them. Some folks mentioned how sad it made them to see Archuleta’s tweet. It feels so icky to me: I can’t imagine they know him personally or have any real stake in his life, yet they are so sad he’s not a member of their cult church anymore.

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Bonus: Conspiracy Theorists and Self Promoters

I’ll give an honorary mention to a handful of folks who (I can only assume) sincerely believe Archuleta’s faith transition is a publicity stunt, or they’re using it for their own clout. Mostly because I think it’s funny and stuff like this gets heavy sometimes.

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So. Does Mormonism Encourage Shunning?

I would argue that Mormons are encouraged to shun people who leave the faith. While it looks a bit different from traditional shunning (it’s much more subtle), people who leave mormonism encounter a spectrum from apathy to hate. While it may not be malicious at the individual level, this behavior seriously hurts people, and it’s one more detail that affirms my choice to leave.

However, because I’m not a Mormon anymore, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and perspective, perhaps on Mastodon – @mossbiscuits@mastodon.social.