A quick prologue: I've been pretty down the past couple of days because of some personal circumstances (which I may blog about later). Even though I have some truly amazing friends and family who love me and support me, I'm feeling really alone--mostly because I have some decisions confronting me that I alone can make. Fortunately, I haven't relied on my old stand-by method of retreating into myself. I've reached out, and that's made a huge difference because I've opened myself up to feeling the love and support so freely given by these fantastic people in my life, who I appreciate so much. So, this post may be a bit sharp in a few places.
The subject of fellowship is one that I've given a lot of thought to for a very long time, even since I was a kid. Deep, meaningful human connections are really important to me. It's a big part of what kept me so involved in the church for so long. The church used to be my whole world--the first place I'd turn to find friendships and connections with other people. I've had to mourn the loss of the church playing that role in my life.
Fellowship is a slippery thing. It's a somewhat archaic term. (For instance, the church was disfellowshipping people long before anyone was ever de-friended on Facebook). Fellowship means vastly different things to different people. It's something most Mormons love to talk about. It's something most Mormons have no clue how to do with real humanity. As with many things Mormon, fellowshipping is viewed as a duty, a project, a program, a box to check, a statistic to report.
In most quarters of the church where the Intermountain West (Utah-Idaho-Arizona) Mormon Culture Mentality prevails, a sense of fellowship is directly correlated with the degree of social compliance among the membership. New members, "re-activated" members or members who have just moved in to an area hear a statement something like this: "We will add your distinctiveness to our own." The message then becomes, "Your culture will adapt to service ours." Not long after that, anyone who values independent thought and inquiry begins to see a stronger message: "Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply." Of course, these exact words aren't used, but the standard Mormon version of "fellowship" is social assimilation. The assumption is that fellowshipping is successful only when a person is fully integrated socially and culturally, fully engages in groupthink and gives service to the collective. Resistance is futile, because resistance earns you several possible labels: inactive, heretic, apostate, prideful, ungrateful, unworthy.
Gordon Hinckley said that three things were important for new members of the church (although it seems this would apply to all members): 1) a friend, 2) a responsibility, and 3) nurturing by the good word of God. (By the way, the over-use of initials in general authorities' names bugs me, so you'll have to mourn the loss of the "B.") In the corporate culture of the church, this usually gets turned into a New Member Training Program. I believe the intentions of members are good. But this approach in practice is like putting some meat and bones into a blender to make chicken nuggets. (Which, despite Jamie Oliver's chicken nugget "experiment," doesn't really bother me that much. But people aren't chicken nuggets. Please refrain from the Soylent Green references). The rub here is that most people in the church have become conditioned to like (or at least tolerate) the way we fellowship and are fellowshipped even though the process and the results seem a bit off.
The reality is that human beings thrive best when they can contribute and participate in a way that has meaning for them, rather than being told the correct way to contribute and participate based on a model that even Ward and June Cleaver would see as restrictive. Fellowshipping shouldn't be designed to convince people of the superiority of the white shirt as the "uniform of the priesthood" (and by all means, please click here for utter ridiculousness regarding white shirts), the evils of multiple ear piercings or the wearing of flip-flops to church, and other such nonsense. The great symbol of the early saints, the beehive, is no longer about industry. It's about creating drones that busily service the hive, sting anyone who threatens to question the unwritten order of things and find happiness in being the same as the drone next to them. (I wonder what the Scandinavian saints of the 19th century would think of the Borg we have become.) Harsh? Yes. But the real harshness is what is felt by the honest in heart who were sought out only to discover that Lovely Deseret imposes harsh limits on the degree of honest inquiry and personal expression among its people.
The church has spent decades of time and millions of dollars on fostering a brand. The programs inside the church and the public relations efforts focused on those outside the church have served well to imprint that brand on the psyches of practically everyone. Some people like the brand. It works for them. That's wonderful for them. But I don't feel truly fellowshipped. The church as an institution and a disheartening number of its members cannot and will not fully accept me for who I am, what I think and what I don't believe. I don't fit within the narrow demographic the church's brand targets and sets apart as the noble and great, the elect, the chosen people. Fellowshipping as the church practices it just isn't going to work with me. I can't comply. Having been assimilated once, I'm not really crazy about that happening to me again.
It's sad and frustrating that maintaining the purity of the brand has become the focus rather than the worth of souls. I'm sure that most members and leaders of the church don't see it that way, but it's the reality for so, so many of us who once saw the church as our home. It seems the soul of the church is being sucked out as though it were being kissed by a dementor from Azkaban. I'm going to work on my Patronus.