Last week Jeff Spector over at Mormon Matters wrote about an interesting phenomenon. In “Hedging Your Bets: Refusing to Leave the Church” Mr. Spector talked about inactive Mormons and the negative reactions from some of them when they are visited by their Home Teachers. Mr. Spector wrote:
“I have been yelled at, cursed at, threatened with the police, etc. just for showing up at a member’s door and asking about them. And yet, most do not want their name removed from the Church rolls.
“Either, they have family concerns, are just too lazy to write the letter, or don’t care enough to do anything about their Church membership other than request no contact from the Church….
“So, it has always intrigued me as to why these folks seem unable to completely divorce themselves from the Church. Even though they want no contact.”
Many of the comments left in response to Mr. Spector’s blog center on whether people who have requested no contact from the Church should be left alone. But I’m more interested in the original question. Why don’t people who want nothing to do with the LDS Church have their names removed from membership?
LDS leaders have been fond of saying that people might “leave the Church, but they cannot leave the Church alone” (e.g., Neal A. Maxwell, “‘Becometh As a Child’,” Ensign, May 1996). This is usually applied to vocal ex-Mormon critics, but the saying has equal relevancy for Latter-day Saints who drift into inactivity. It carries with it an implication that these people know the Church is true, and they just can’t shake the conviction. Happily, I didn’t see this kind of rhetoric at Mormon Matters.
I think Mr. Spector’s short list of reasons is a good one, though it’s certainly not exhaustive. The last two suggestions are really just one: being too lazy to write a resignation letter has its root in not caring about Church membership at all. Why bother to write a letter and endure the possible fallout (i.e., efforts to convince the person to change his or her mind) if there is no real reason to go to the trouble?
Family concerns are another matter. One commenter at Mormon Matters wrote,
“I think a lot of people don’t want to take hope away from their family! It could devastate parents or a sibling to think they won’t make it into the celestial kingdom with them.”
Another commenter told this story:
“My parents provided my brother’s contact information to the Church’s Lost Sheep program when they called asking his whereabouts. He’s been inactive for 15 years at least.
“My brother was livid. He wanted no contact at all with the Church and told my parents never to do that again.
“Yet I doubt he would bother with forms and letters to avoid the possibility of contact entirely. His name’s mere presence on the rolls performs some minimal comforting function for my parents, who think his testimony is just weak, or that he is going through a phase.”
According to the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions, the removal of a person’s name from Church membership “cancels the effects of baptism and confirmation, withdraws the priesthood held by a male member, and revokes temple blessings” (Book 1, page 129, 1999 edition), while mere Church inactivity does not carry with it these consequences. For some inactive Mormons, then, remaining on the Church role is done out of consideration for their LDS loved ones.
Another possible reason for people remaining on the Church membership list was suggested by Mr. Spector’s article title: Hedging Your Bets. People who don’t know what to believe sometimes look at church membership or completed ordinances as a sort of fire insurance. This isn’t unique to Mormonism; people from many faith backgrounds have told me they’ve been baptized, said a prayer, or given money to a church “just in case.” They are hedging their bets.
For Mormons, though, there is another level of insecurity that might enter into a person’s reasons for remaining a Church member, even if it is in name only. According to one of the commenters at Mormon Matters,
“Also of note is the relatively recent church policy of only one re-baptism per person. If you request name removal, are re-baptized, and then are excommunicated for any reason, or request name-removal again, you cannot get re-baptized in mortality. You’ll have to hope someone does it in the temple for you.”
Add to that another LDS Church policy which states, “First Presidency approval is required to perform temple ordinances for deceased persons who…had their names removed from Church membership records” (Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1, page 75, 1999 edition), and it’s easy to see why some people may be hesitant to “divorce themselves completely” from the LDS Church.
I’m thinking that Mormon Coffee readers may have some interesting insight into the question posed by Jeff Spector: Why don’t people who want nothing to do with the LDS Church have their names removed from membership?
What has been your experience, and what do you think?