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February 26, 2015
The Real Issue
My Friend Split When the Ward Split
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


Last month, my ward was dissolved and its members were reassigned to two different units. One of my closest friends was assigned to a different unit than I was, and I’ve since heard from a third person that my friend has used the ward reassignment to stop attending church.

I have talked with my friend several times since the ward split, and her decision to stop attending church has not come up.

Should I approach her about it? What should I say?


I think you should approach your friend. Deciding to not attend church anymore is a big change for a person who has been attending regularly. And if your friend has made that deliberate change, it indicates that she is experiencing some kind of problem or difficulty — be it doctrinal, social, familial, financial, medical, political — that she expects to alleviate by not attending anymore.

As her friend, it is perfectly natural for you to ask her about it. You are close, you met at church and you have both been active members for years. I bet she is expecting you to ask.

In fact, your friend will probably be surprised if you stay silent. Reaching out in friendship to less active or struggling members is what active members do. If you know about her exit but don’t approach her about it, you will communicate that you (a) don’t care that she no longer attends, (b) are not interested in her reasons for not attending and (c) are indifferent about active participation in the Church.

From your question, none of those is true. And you don’t want your friend to get a false impression on this topic.

But this is not only an issue of you thinking your friend ought to be active in the Church for religious reasons. This is an issue of your friend giving up something that for years has been important to her and central to her life. It is a major change, and asking her about it is appropriate friend oversight.

There are two main ways you could approach your friend.

First, you could be direct. “Sylvia,” you might say, “Heather told me that you decided not to come to church anymore. This seems like a big change for you. What’s going on?” If she gives a dry or sarcastic reply, and you are not sure if she is joking, you should ask: “Syl, I can’t tell if you’re joking.”

The advantage to this approach is that it is direct: You are not trying to winkle information out of her or hint or imply anything. You are flat-out asking her what has happened. It shows respect for her and for your relationship that you will ask her a direct, if sensitive, question.

The disadvantage is that you might be wrong. Your information is second-hand, and no matter how much you trust the person who told you, that person could be mistaken. Maybe your friend was sick or had car trouble. She might feel irritated that instead of inquiring after her well-being, her friends assumed she had left the Church altogether.

The second approach is less direct, but perhaps easier to execute. Simply ask your friend about her new ward. If you ask, “How’s the new ward?” and she says, “Fine,” without elaboration, you will need to be more specific.

Do her daughters like their new Primary teachers? Are there many other Young Men in her son’s quorum? Does she like the Gospel Doctrine class? Does Doretta still make seven thousand comments in Relief Society every week? Is there a book club?

You don’t need to interrogate her — just ask the questions you would normally ask. You are both in new wards and it would be strange not to discuss the experience. If you usually talk about church topics, it will be odd if you suddenly start avoiding them.

The more difficult question is what to do if your friend confirms that she has decided not to attend church anymore. I have four suggestions.

One, listen. You want to understand your friend’s situation, so concentrate on her story. Give her the floor, and don’t interrupt or talk about yourself. Ask questions to encourage or advance her story. And if you don’t understand what she means, ask her. But don’t contradict her, tell her she’s wrong or rebut her assertions. She will not want to talk to you if you become defensive, critical or confrontational.

Two, express empathy. Your initial response should express empathy for her concerns or situation: “That sounds hard,” or “I didn’t realize you were going through that.” Resist the impulse to rush in with refutations or exhortations, even if you think her reasons are foolish, selfish or misinformed.

Be sincere and take her concerns seriously. Avoid glibness or sarcasm. Try to see the situation from her perspective. Think of how you would like someone to respond to you if you were in her position.

You should express empathy even if she won’t tell you why she has decided not to attend church anymore. If she won’t talk about it, or if she cites “doctrinal issues” and refuses to elaborate, don’t let the subject drop without telling her that you are concerned and available to listen or talk any time.

Three, respond to her concerns as best you can. This is your friend, and you will have to use your best judgment to decide what to say. Much will depend on what she tells you about her reasons.

You should remember, however, that there are times for boldness and times for subtlety. And that if you have no idea what to say, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I’m going to think about this,” and to ponder a further response.

Your response may include offers of help. She may need actual, tangible assistance. If you were in the same ward, you might offer, for example, to sit with her during Sunday meetings. As you are in a different ward, you might contact her Relief Society president to explain the situation. However, you should be careful not to break her confidence.

Finally, be a loyal friend and a loyal Church member. Even if you have no intention of letting your friendship lapse whether or not your friend attends church regularly, you are confronting what could be a double disincentive to a continued friendship: different ward assignments and your friend’s decision not to be active in the Church. Both of these things tend to cause friendship drift, and you will have to fight that drift with conscientious effort.

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