St. George • Person by person, family by family, streams of pain and doubt have gathered at this bend in the arc away from Mormonism, combining into a river of catharsis and healing.
Part therapy, part listening session, part sharing and comforting, declamation and rallying, a recent THRIVE weekend in St. George drew nearly 200 attendees seeking growth, wisdom and community as they’re moving away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We can not only survive in this life without religion, we can also thrive,” one of the event’s speakers, Seattle-based leadership coach Suzy Benson, told them. “We are riding strong together.
“It wasn’t until I left Mormonism that I found my true self,” said Benson, who joined a rock band, climbed mountains, rode a motorcycle – and lost his marriage – after leaving the faith. “So many pieces were missing.”
The 4-year-old nonprofit THRIVE has drawn crowds since resuming in-person rallies in October, according to the group’s main organizers and funders, Clint and Jeni Martin.
Like others who left the Utah-based faith, the Orem couple’s own journey plunged them into a time of confusion and conflict with their wider community as they questioned what they had believed all their lives. .
“It’s like having your skeleton removed from your body,” Martin said. THRIVE offers a range of perspectives from the ex-Mormon world, he added, rather than anything focused or overly constricting.
The events offer support, therapeutic counseling, and common sense advice tailored to Latter-day Saint elders as well as those on the edge and even active members. Topics range from sexuality and letting go of shame and guilt to building a new community, improving parenting, self-esteem, suicide prevention and release from repressive and self-destructive types of thoughts.
The gatherings and the model behind them have their detractors, who note the difficulty of building a lasting community around people who are walking away from something.
Ryan McKnight, a partner at the Truth & Transparency Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to religious accountability, called the events “nothing more than a copy of those self-help conferences that have plagued our society for decades.” .
“Go to a big ballroom full of people,” McKnight said, “who are cheering on a speaker who tells them how good and smart they are to figure out that the Mormon Church is a scam.”
But for participants, the benefits of alternative perspectives on their own changing worlds are real. Many at THRIVE stand in solidarity with LGBTQ family members who have been socially shunned or whose identities have been devalued by church doctrine, forcing loved ones to choose between family ties and adherence to principles. faith.
THRIVE is equated to AA
THRIVE speakers come from professional and lay backgrounds and often display raw emotion drawn from their experiences. According to popular “Mormon Stories” podcaster John Dehlin, one of the group’s founders, it’s “about healing and growing after church isn’t working for you anymore.”
Dehlin compares THRIVE’s model to that of Alcoholics Anonymous, in which people in recovery help those who are struggling.
“It’s very positive. It’s very useful. It’s very tool-driven,” said Dehlin, who was excommunicated from the church in 2015 for “apostasy.” “It’s about having a healthy marriage, how to raise healthy children, how to become healthy yourself, how to build a new sense of morality or spirituality or identity or purpose or meaning, and find friends.”
Martin met Dehlin on a cruise a few years ago when he was in the midst of his family’s spiritual and social upheaval, he said, and found “the things John shared were super helpful. “. Martin is now one of the main financial supporters of THRIVE events. He and Jeni sit alongside Dehlin and other members of its board.
Martin said THRIVE charges $25 for admission just to cover its costs and makes no profit. He plans to keep events sold out as long as “people continue to vote with their feet.” The November conference in Salt Lake City drew 1,500 people.
A recurring metaphor at THRIVE is “the broken shelf,” where nagging questions about church teachings or policies are left hanging and tucked away on a mental shelf, until the accumulated weight becomes too much.
“Finally, your shelf breaks,” Martin said, “and your whole existence crumbles beneath you.”
Whether it’s falling apart because of church history, social discomfort or insights drawn from stressed family dynamics, he said, that’s often when many begin their shift and ask for help from the group or others like him.
Participants and even some volunteers have sought to keep their presence at THRIVE and the struggles that brought them there confidential, fearing judgment or retaliation from lay church leaders or other community members.
“My shelf broke two weeks ago, and my husband doesn’t even know I’m here,” said another woman. Dozens of others spoke of divorce and deep family splits precipitated by their crises of belief.
An 80-year-old man in a cowboy hat said he took an overdose of pills, crushed by what he called ‘a life of terminal shame’, followed by a profound loss of meaning in his life as he struggled to resign from the church.
He woke up in hospital and later realized he hadn’t mourned all his losses enough, the man told fellow attendees.
Tears, reassurance and waves of supportive applause swelled from members of the public around him, gathered at tables in an otherwise nondescript ballroom at the St. George’s Hotel.
“Each of you,” Benson later said, “were brave in showing up today.”
A gray-haired woman who left the church three years ago says she constantly felt inadequate in her attempts to live up to the tenets of the faith while striving not to upstage male Latter-day Saints who surrounded him.
She said she now wears a ring that says “I am enough” – emblematic, several speakers said, of the need to let go of shame in a transition of faith.
“We all have it. We’re all scared of it,” Benson said. “And the more he is suppressed, the more control he has over us.”
“Victims of a cult”
An important part of the THRIVE experience, organizers said, is seeing, hearing and fellowshipping with others who have traded church for a healthier, more fulfilled life, explained in cultural terms that former members understand.
Sam Young – an excommunicated former bishop who challenged church policies on private ‘dignity’ talks for young people – spoke playfully about buying new boxer shorts to replace his holy vestments in an act of protest.
The move, he said, was spurred by a now-discontinued church policy barring children living with same-sex couples from being baptized and labeling members of same-sex marriages “apostates.”
“There’s no way it was Jesus Christ,” Young recalled.
“People outside the church don’t understand what it means,” said Young, who described the framing of the boxers and their hanging over the fireplace as a monument “to the importance of defend those who are on the margins”.
THRIVE, Young said, does not make judgments about where people are in the evolution of their faith.
“We support whatever decision you make,” he told the audience. “I’m just amazed by your wisdom.”
The weekend also saw manifestations of a sense of betrayal over long-held religious beliefs that are now the source of doubt.
Sean Escobar, who went public with the whistleblowing of a prominent church member who sexually assaulted him as a young teenager, lambasted aspects of the faith and its leaders for what he called “false truths”.
“We are all victims of a cult,” Escobar said.
Therapist Natasha Helfer, also a THRIVE board member, spoke about her own expulsion from the church in 2021 in what she called a “sex communication” prompted by her public opposition to faith positions on masturbation, gay marriage and pornography. His speech was about sexual empowerment, self-knowledge and overcoming years of repressive messages about sexuality from church elders.
She urged attendees to understand, feel comfortable and “lean into the erotic energy” in their lives as a crucial part of healing – to a standing ovation.
In interviews, Helfer and Dehlin said it’s important for those seeking help with their religious transitions to reach out to those who understand them, sympathize with their angst, and identify with the intricacies of Mormon culture. and thorny issues surrounding the church’s history and positions on women and LGBTQ members.
THRIVE is not trying to replace the church community, Dehlin said, but rather invites participants to replicate their own groups of like-minded supporters.
“If you could have three or four families that you’re really close with,” he told his THRIVE audience, “you can really enjoy life and in some cases have a much better life experience than what you may have had before.
“That’s all THRIVE is,” Dehlin said. “We just want you to find friends and support.”
Editor’s Note • This article is about suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour assistance at 1-800-273-8255.