How Reconversion Narratives Can Help Us Teach Our Students

Eric D'Evegnée and Sarah D'Evegnée

Eric d'Evegnée and Sarah d'Evegnée, "How Reconversion Narratives Can Help Teach Our Students," Religious Educator 24, no. 1 (2023): 102–121.

Eric d'Evegnée ( teaches twentieth-century American literature and criticism at BYU–Idaho.

Sarah d'Evegnée ( teaches composition and literature at BYU–Idaho and is the project manager for

photo of a womanMany of our students are in desparate need of someone they can trust who can also emphathize with their lack of certainty. Our vulnerable students need more than quick answers to their difficult questions. Photo by Anik Roy,

As two English professors, we regard stories as our daily bread. Our love of the complexity of stories and storytellers led us to explore the pattern in the book Faith Is Not Blind[1] and apply it to the everyday lives of people who used it. This pattern of finding “simplicity beyond complexity”[2] takes a metacognitive approach to understanding the development and the nurturing of lifelong faith. In our work at, we’ve interviewed over one hundred people about how their faith has been challenged and how they have responded in ways that preserved their faith. The stories are diverse, thoughtful, and inspiring. But more than that, studying them has taught us that the way we frame our spiritual stories is just as significant as the stories themselves. Often what interviewees learned about how they learn was more important than any specific answers to their questions. In other words, the metacognitive process (by which we learn about how we think and how we learn) was equally significant in itself. Our analysis of these stories began to change the way we taught our students and the way we framed our questions in the classroom. We started to focus more on helping our students discover how they learn and how they talk about what they learn, especially as it pertains to their faith.

Spurred on by the rhetorical patterns in the narratives of those who choose to remain active in the Church despite challenges to their faith (and in light of the stories of deconversion that have become more popular on social media), we wondered if we could find stories about people who had chosen to return to their faith after a period of absence. These reconversion narratives have rarely been studied because the assumption is that they are almost unheard of. However, as we searched for these stories, we were surprised not only by their number but also by what we learned from their language. In our analysis of them,[3] we saw instructive rhetorical patterns that illuminated how these people saw their world, their faith, and themselves during their struggles with what is often termed “deconversion.” We realized that our students could benefit both cognitively and spiritually from being aware of these patterns.

As parents, leaders, and teachers, being aware of our students’ concerns simply isn’t enough. We need practical tools and teaching methods that will directly address their specific concerns about uncertainty, trust, and feeling heard. Our rhetorical study of reconversion narratives deals directly with these anxieties. As those who share the honor and responsibility of having a CES classroom stewardship, we feel a personal urgency to share our research and conclusions about how Latter-day Saints develop sustainable faith in the face of uncertainty. In this article we share the results of our analysis, followed by some practical and pedagogical solutions for our perplexed pupils. We have identified the actions and attitudes of teachers and leaders that are most helpful in restoring lost trust and in giving young people options beyond simply leaving the Church. We have also outlined specific pedagogical suggestions at the end of each section. In essence, this study can help teachers and leaders better understand how to mentor those who are feeling “out of the way” (Hebrews 5:2).

Unique Insights from Studying Reconversion Narratives

One of the first and most detailed analyses of deconversion narratives is John Barbour’s Versions of Deconversion, which analyzed these accounts throughout history starting with Augustine’s deconversion from Manichaeism and was the first to define what constitutes a deconversion narrative: (1) intellectual doubt, (2) moral criticism, (3) emotional suffering, and (4) disaffiliation from the community.[4] Later, in a reappraisal of Barbour’s criteria, religious scholar Heinz Streib and colleagues added a fifth criterion for deconversion: loss of “specific religious experience.”[5]

While deconversion has been such a significant issue in America over the last two decades with the rise of the “nones”[6] (those who choose not to affiliate with any organized religion), we found very little in the academic literature about reconversion. Perhaps this lack of critical attention stems from the fact that reconversion is hard to define. In an entry in The Oxford Handbook of Conversion, Streib has defined deconversion as “disaffiliation without re-affiliation”[7] and elsewhere has identified six trajectories that follow deconversion.[8] None of Streib’s trajectories include reconversion to one’s former religion, owing to the fact that Streib sees reconversion as failed deconversion rather than something of its own kind. While Barbour does include what we call “reconversion narratives” in his seminal work on deconversion narratives, his analysis is limited to one chapter examining reconversion as a kind of deconversion.

The narratives in our collection contain most of the five criteria set forth by Barbour and Streib but also introduce a sixth: reconciliation and reaffiliation. These are the stories of people who have disaffiliated from the Church, lived differently, and then come back. Their stories about having lost something only to rediscover it anew are a unique reflection of the religious mobility of the early twenty-first century and the complexities that many face in nurturing a sustainable faith. Their stories have much to teach us and our students.

Observation 1: Language and the Choice to Believe

The language in our sample of reconversion narratives reveals perceptions about faith, belief, Church culture, and the possibilities available to those who have questions that challenge their faith. Often the language used by our narrators revealed more about their relationship with faith and with the Church than they realized. It showed blind spots in their perceptions, especially how they saw the world in only certain fixed ways. When their language for describing times of uncertainty was limited, their perception became limited as well. This often seemed to lead them to perceive limited choices.

An especially potent example of the connection between language and perception comes from one of our Faith Is Not Blind podcast episodes. Janae, a former student of ours, thoughtfully observes: “The pattern that I had seen was that you believe, then you have doubts, then you leave the Church. I didn’t hear the stories of people where it was ‘I have my beliefs. I have my doubts. I choose to stay.’ I know it’s happened, but it’s not a story that’s told.”[9] In her experience, she was “allowed” to make only one of two choices, predetermined by whether she was a “believer” or a “doubter.” If she was a believer she could remain in the Church, but if she was a doubter her only choice was to leave. While that conclusion was untrue, it felt true to her. It was the only perception available to her until she was able to learn more about the way she learns and how she could broaden her perspective to include more choices.

As teachers, becoming aware of the complex relationship between language and perception is key to offering effective guidance, such as teaching our students how to deal with uncertainty in their religious belief in healthy ways, counter the idea that the only choice when experiencing doubt is to leave the Church, and encourage those who have left Church fellowship to see that returning with renewed hope is a definite possibility.

Limiting, black-and-white language is especially prevalent in the beginning portions of the narratives. For example, describing herself before leaving the Church, one narrator says, “I was referred to as perfect.”[10] Just imagine the pressure she must have felt trying not only to be perfect but also to have others refer to her as being perfect. Notice that it wasn’t that she perceived herself as perfect; rather, she was conscious of how others perceived her and used language to label her. Another narrator recalls, “My testimony was always on high or off.”[11] This description is interesting because it does not acknowledge any middle ground in the way a testimony could be described.

In our analysis we paid attention not just to what the narrators talk about but also to the way they talk about it and the specific vocabulary used. As in the preceding examples, many of the narrators tended to describe their Church experiences using absolute terms like always and never. They also seemed especially conscious that they needed to be perfect in how they did certain things like paying tithing or participating in home evening. Notice how their language reflects their self-perception and previous worldview. One narrator says, “We went to Church every week, never missed.”[12] Another says, “I always paid my tithing. . . . I always did those things.”[13] Others echo similar sentiments: “I was always a tithing payer”;[14] “We would always have family home evening”;[15] “I never struggled with my faith before.”[16] This type of stark categorization indicates the difficulty of someone believing that he or she could ever be “good enough” if not “always” living up to perceived standards of perfection. It’s also important to remember that this is the language people used before eventually leaving the Church, in many cases because they felt that was their only choice since they were weak in the faith, imperfect, or otherwise struggling.

Pedagogical Suggestions

Like these narrators, many of our students assume they must think, believe, and speak in binary terms. They tend to think that if they aren’t 100 percent perfect and certain about their faith commitments they are inevitably failures and should quit their religion. They also tend to have binary perspectives such as these: “Either I believe or I don’t”; “Either I am perfect or I am completely unworthy.” This dichotomous thinking applies to how students feel about themselves, their teachers, their parents, and almost every area of their lives.

Here are three suggestions that can help you teach your students to think and speak with more nuance about their faith, their relationships, and themselves (specific questions you might consider using in your classroom are in italics):

  • Help students identify how black-and-white language can limit their willingness and desire to grow. Did you ever feel like you had to be the “perfect missionary” or “perfect young woman/man?” How does language like this make you feel? How could this kind of language limit your desire and your potential for growth? How did so-and-so in this scriptural account allow for ambiguity? How was so-and-so in this scriptural or historical story imperfect yet still successful?
  • Talk to your students about the potential dangers of dichotomous thinking. When is black-and-white thinking dangerous? When is it beneficial? What is a story in the scriptures where answers weren’t all right or all wrong? What is an example of a story where answers were absolute?
  • Help your students recognize that growth is a process, whether with their testimonies or with their more temporal development. Ask your students how they feel when they are expected to be perfect. How do you feel when you believe you have to have a perfect testimony? How is it helpful to realize that you don’t have to be perfect? Why is it important to understand that spiritual and emotional growth are developmental processes rather than things we achieve all at once?

Observation 2: Perception, Possibility, and Permission

As our narrators describe how they began their reconversion process and started to increase their faith in God, there is a dramatic shift in the way they talk about not only themselves but also their potential for change. The language employed by many of them shows a close link between what they perceive as a possibility and what they will allow themselves to believe about both themselves and their faith. It is almost as if the language itself creates possibilities in the gap between where they are and where they want to be.

Often the narrators seem to perceive an invisible wall between what they can and cannot do because of their decision to leave the Church. Even though in many cases no one has ever told them they couldn’t come back, that perceived limitation is very real for them. Use of the repeated words can’t and couldn’t illustrates how powerful these narrators’ perceptions were. These perceptions were either empowering or limiting depending on what these people felt they could or couldn’t do. As modal auxiliary verbs, can and can’t are conditionally linked to the verb or action that follows them, a syntactic relationship with rhetorical implications. For example, Robyn Burkinshaw refers to “people who were always there to make sure that I didn’t go so far over the side that I couldn’t be brought back.”[17] Here being brought back is linked to the modal verb couldn’t in what is termed “epistemic modality.” That is, the language indicates how the act of coming back is perceived to be largely theoretical rather than something real or factual. In other words, coming back will become a fact or a reality only when it is given the ability to happen or when it is allowed to happen. This type of language also shows that people often felt they needed to see the possibility for change before they would actually change. In another example, Janice Esplin Oviatt admits, “It had been a dream of mine to be sealed in the house of the Lord. However, I did not think that was possible anymore.”[18] When one thinks spiritual progression isn’t possible, the reality tends to match this thought process.

Blended with the need to perceive different outcomes for the future as actual possibilities are feelings of alienation and banishment. In our study, some who left the Church experienced these feeling to a significant degree—so much so that they felt like they required a kind of permission to be allowed back into the Church. The alignment between one’s spiritual state and the actions of other people often plays a critical role in one’s decision to leave, but it is equally significant in one’s decision to return. Our collection of return narratives is replete with stories of others reaching out and accompanying the narrators on their spiritual journeys, for better or worse. Either result in these narrators’ lives can be instructive, reminding us on one hand to draw strength from the positive influences on our faith journeys and, on the other, to fortify against the corrosive effects of negative influences on our faith.

It seems that regardless of the intensity of feeling that contributes to people leaving the Church, some kind of perceived approval of their inherent worth is needed for them to return, either from a leader, family member, or God. In many cases a shift in self-perception leading to reconversion is precipitated by a positive feeling coming from an external source, including the Spirit or God.

However, in our study feelings of guilt often complicated reconversion. Apparent guilt and shame over leaving the Church often led people to feel they needed either direct or implied permission from someone else before they could return. Many believed they had to be, in their words, “worthy” or “good enough” to receive this permission. Interestingly, in talking about why she waited several years to return to Church activity, Letisha says, “Perhaps I didn’t feel worthy.”[19] The perception among many other people was that even coming back to church required some measurable sense of “goodness.” Joe Tippets describes how “important people in my life would never think I was good unless/until I returned to the Church” and adds, “You have to be a Mormon to be good.”[20] The apparent catch-22 is heartbreaking, especially if one becomes entrenched in the worldview that goodness comes from activity in the Church yet believes that such activity is not a possibility. Misty Sutton says, “It was over . . . and there was nothing I could about it. I had to accept my reality,” but then she repeats the telling phrase “I wasn’t good enough” twice and refers to being “good enough” a third time.[21] It’s clear that she needed something or someone to help her close this gap between what she felt she was “good enough” to do and what she felt she could give herself permission to do. The perception among others as well is that even to come back to church there has to be some measurable sense of “goodness.” Despite worrying that others might not think they were “good” unless they returned to church, these people also somewhat ironically seemed to perceive that their own goodness was connected to how they felt about the Church.

Pedagogical Suggestions

Our own students often don’t perceive possible outcomes, especially if those outcomes are different from ones they have seen before. They might feel they are not “allowed” to have a testimony or to trust their leaders unless certain specific criteria are met. The suggestions that follow can help young people see the possible outcomes beyond what their limited perceptions have allowed for in the past:

  • Encourage your students to recognize how they sometimes might falsely categorize and judge themselves and their testimonies. Help them recognize when they might not see possibilities for growth because of preconceived notions about what faith is “supposed” to look like. Why is it so important for us not to limit our potential? What needs to happen in your life for you to feel that personal growth is possible? How can you ask God or others for help if you feel that you’re not allowed to progress because of something you did?
  • Ask your students to share an experience when their perspective didn’t allow them to see what was possible for them. Have them share with each other what they were able to do to increase the possibilities they were able to see. What has caused your view about your spiritual potential to be limited in the past? What helped you enlarge your view so you could see possibilities that you had been previously unable to see?

Observation 3: Metonymy and Alienation

Similar to how superlative language can subconsciously set difficult expectations or limit possibilities, the phrase “the Church” in these narratives both invokes a shared experience and lacks any specific definition. “The Church” is a metonymy, which is simply a word or phrase that uses something closely related to an object to signify the whole of the object itself. When we refer to the executive branch of the US government as the “White House” or a painting as a “Van Gogh,” we’re using metonymy. Most often we use metonymy as a kind of shorthand to refer to things easily and quickly. But like metaphor, metonymy is a figure of speech that plays a role in how we think. In most cases (like calling a painting a “Van Gogh”) the effect of a metonymy is innocuous; in other cases the linguistic shortcut can become a conceptual shortcut. The metonymy “the Church” compresses a complex assortment of ideas, actions, experiences, friendships, judgments, memories, policies, and much more into one small compact term that tends to obscure the writer’s focus and create ambiguity.

In the 110 pages of return narratives we collected, the phrase “the Church” is used 257 times. For contrast, the word God is used 188 times, Father 82 times, faith 151 times, Spirit 123 times, and Christ 68 times. Often “the Church” is shorthand for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unsurprisingly, these return narratives employ many expressions that are common in the everyday parlance of members of the restored gospel, such as “raised in the Church”[22] or “growing up in the Church.”[23] In this form, the use of the metonymy is more about efficiency in writing—that is, getting as much meaning as possible from the fewest words. However, analyzing its use in these narratives spotlights the significance of this seemingly simple literary device.

When we compress our spiritual lives into a linguistic form that involves each of the aspects of membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are bound to encounter something in the global institution that can irritate, annoy, frustrate, disappoint, betray, and upset us. But the phrase “the Church” in these narratives makes it harder to accurately diagnose the source of the trouble. Additionally, it is easier to demonize an institution rather than deal constructively with a wide variety of individuals who may have weaknesses, flaws, or blind spots. Rather than analyze specific issues or relationships in a way that presents specific choices about how to respond with frustration, anger, or forgiveness, it becomes easy to simply blame “the Church” in a general way without finding any sense of resolution or understanding.

Adding to a sense of alienation from “the Church” and an abstract sense of banishment from the community, the narratives consistently refer to spatial distance in describing one’s disaffiliation and reaffiliation. These conceptual metaphors convey a clear sense of distance between the narrator and the people and religion left behind, giving us insight into the person’s inner experience. Such metaphors tend to emphasize the part of the comparison that the person wants to highlight. In most of these narratives, the distance metaphors emphasize the action of leaving and creating physical distance, rather than the path taken to leave the Church or the destination at the end of that path.

The most common expression in such metaphors is “left the Church”[24] and its derivatives, such as “away from the Church,”[25] “distanced herself [from the Church],”[26] “faded away,”[27] “get away for a little bit,”[28] “fell away,”[29] “my faith journey,”[30] and “as if wandering lost in the dark.”[31] The most stark example of focusing on the departure part of the distance metaphor came from Christiane Woerner, who writes, “I left the Church for over a decade.”[32] She means, of course, that she didn’t attend or affiliate with the Church of Jesus Christ for over a decade. However, the focus of the imagery on the leaving and the addition of time highlights the image of a decade-long leave-taking. Coupled with that sense of distance is that metonymous conceptual shortcut “the Church,” which can unintentionally make it easier to dismiss the diversity and complexity of faith and religion and can possibly heighten the sense that there are insurmountable obstacles to rejoining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The distance metaphor is so central to many of the narratives that rejoining or attending church again uses the same distance metaphor but now emphasizes return. This dual use of the metaphor is most vividly exemplified by Tami Havey, who wrote to her father in a vulnerable moment, “Is anyone too far gone to come back?”[33] The metaphor helps her describe both her experience of disaffiliation and her desire to reaffiliate. There are many examples of the distance metaphor being used to describe the experience of coming back to the Church of Jesus Christ, such as “brought me back,”[34] “journey back,”[35] “go back to church,”[36] “returning to the Church,”[37] “return to the Church,”[38] and “come back to church.”[39] One writer used the distance metaphor in describing how God helped her on her journey back to the restored Gospel. She said that “he kept reaching.” It was that “reaching, and reaching, and reaching”[40] that helped her return from where she had been.

Pedagogical Suggestions

  • Define the words metaphor and metonymy for your students and ask them to share a definition of the words with another student using their own words. Talk about how we use the phrase “the Church” to mean different things. Are there times when we use the phrase “the Church” when we aren’t actually talking about the Church as an organization, but may be talking about cultural practices or specific members of the Church? Could you share some specific examples? How could this possibly be dangerous or limiting to our worldview?
  • Help your students be aware that the primary emotion of people starting to question their faith in our religion is a sense of distance from the group. Help them see that making others feel included helps to minimize the intensity of the guilt and alienation. Have you ever felt a sense of alienation from other Church members? What has helped you feel more included? How can you help those who don’t feel included at church to feel more welcome and loved?

Observation 4: Reconciling External and Internal Religious Practices and Experiences

Ultimately people can find a sense of reconciliation in returning to the Church, but these narratives show that such reconciliation must be internal. What is once described as an external worship practice becomes a private one. The narratives begin with some kind of misalignment between a person’s private religious feelings and public religious practices or beliefs regarding church attendance, fulfilling callings, service projects, and so on. At the end of the narratives, a deeper private relationship with Christ and Heavenly Father precedes a reconciliation with the organized religion.

In these narratives, the writers reach a point where their public practices and private experiences are misaligned, which results in their feeling forced to mold their experience to a set of practices that no longer give them the spirituality they expect. This phenomenon may be best characterized by Abby Olson’s comment: “I continued to go through the motions of activity long after they had ceased to bring me the joy and peace I had known in the gospel most of my life.”[41] As reflected here, there’s a hollowness and a distance between the practices of the faith and the feeling of spirituality that the person expects to receive from it. There are lots of different reasons people give for why these feelings arise in the first place: doctrinal issues, problems with Church history, being unjustly treated by leaders, feeling there was no place for their sexual orientation, and so on. What often made these narrators feel like they needed to stop attending church was their perception of how Church policy or practices made them feel unwelcome, frustrated, or personally attacked. Often these external negative feelings were mitigated or even healed because of internal experiences with God that allowed them to connect or to reconnect with him.

In some of the narratives, God isn’t mentioned in any part of the deconversion process. However, in almost every narrative, the reconversion process focuses on a new or rekindled relationship with God. These intense feelings of unconditional love seemed to offer our narrators permission to believe they could change, that they could rewrite their story. The doors of faith previously perceived as being shut or even locked suddenly seemed to burst open to offer a sense of welcome and of belonging that hadn’t been felt before. Joe Tippetts remembers hearing this message from God: “I am God. I am real, and I love you.”[42] Again, a sense of shame and guilt can be eclipsed by a sense of surprise that God could still love them, almost as if they felt their doubts and questions made it so they didn’t deserve love anymore. Of her reconversion, Tina Phillips says, “I have this incredible relationship with the Lord.” And then she adds, “The Lord loves me.”[43]

Pedagogical Suggestions

  • Have a discussion with your students about the difference between internal and external manifestations of faith. Help them see the importance of both in their lives. What is an external manifestation of one’s faith? What is an internal manifestation of faith? Why do we need to make sure that our internal faith matches the external manifestations of that faith? How have you been able to nurture your internal faith?
  • Help your students recognize the importance of having a relationship with God. Encourage them to develop this relationship as their first spiritual priority. Why is a personal relationship with God the most important aspect of a sustainable testimony? What have you done to develop your personal relationship with God? What experiences have you had that have helped you to feel God’s love for you as an individual? If you haven’t had specific experiences, what could you do to have an experience like this?

Four Key Takeaways

Through our analysis of reconversion narratives, we have discovered and synthesized four main principles that can profitably inform the way we teach and talk about the development of faith.

Takeaway Number One

Understanding the language we use to talk about faith journeys can help us teach our students to create a more sustainable faith. Resisting the inclination to talk about our faith in binary terms can encourage young people to use language more deliberately and to develop a more nuanced and mature faith.

We can enhance our testimonies simply by increasing our awareness of the language we use and the implications of that language. As Julia Galeff, an expert on rational decision-making, observed, “If you see the world in binary black-and-white terms, then what happens when you encounter evidence against one of your beliefs? The stakes are high: you have to find a way to dismiss the evidence, because if you can’t, your entire belief system is in jeopardy.”[44] The wonderful news about studying rhetorical patterns, especially those employed by a specific group of people, is that it helps us to use language more deliberately and to understand some of the implications behind our rhetorical choices. We can begin to refine our own thought process and language use to express ourselves with more nuance, accuracy, and hope. Rather than lumping our religious experiences into overly simplistic categories or expecting there to be only one way to live a life of faith, we can start to recognize and express a whole beautiful spectrum of possibilities for what our experiences may look like. These expanded rhetorical choices can then help us transform a limited perception of choices into a more expansive and realistic one.

This takeaway serves a dual purpose: First, through becoming aware of how language that is limited can sometimes create feelings of alienation and unworthiness, we can promote language that places value on effort rather than on “perfection.” Second, we can praise and encourage our students and other young people who aren’t certain about their faith and who struggle against a false standard of perfectionism. We can help them see how their efforts, albeit imperfect, can be a vehicle toward obtaining deeper faith. We can also heighten their awareness of how their language affects their perceptions about faith, and we can help them understand and accept that faith is a work in progress for all of us.

Furthermore, we can teach our students to see more options for the way they describe, label, and see themselves and the Church. We can encourage parents, families, and leaders to be more sensitive and loving, especially when those they love have questions and doubts or make choices that don’t seem to line up with their perceptions of how a believer behaves. As was clear from our analysis of reconversion narratives, once the possibility for a return to faith is perceived, restored hope and faith leading to reconversion can happen.

Takeaway Number Two

The narrators in the reconversion narratives required not only a religious and spiritual shift but also a cognitive one. Because of this cognitive connection and overlap, it is critical that we teach our students how to think about thinking. A metacognitive approach will help our students in all the perspective shifts they are experiencing as they mature.

The way to help our students with crises of faith would be somewhat different if there were not also a widespread cognitive crisis happening in the broader culture.[45] In these narratives we couldn’t find a smoking gun of faith erosion. For one person, Joseph Smith’s polygamy caused the rift with the Church; for others it was the multiple accounts of the First Vision, the race-based priesthood ban, or LGBTQ+ policies. It never seemed to simply be one particular piece of straw that broke the narrators’ faith, but rather their response to a new and startling piece of information. The specific information itself seemed less important than the accompanying shock to their worldview. The way that a surprising or objectionable discovery eroded their ability to trust their previous beliefs was as significant as the discovery itself. Therefore, if we can show and model to our students how to cope with expectation failure and uncertainty, we are offering them a whole set of skills that can eventually lead to cognitive self-sufficiency. While we cannot always know what specific piece of information or policy might derail them in the future, we can help them develop trust in their way of knowing religious truth so it can withstand the wrestle of new challenges.

One way to help our students when they encounter unsettling information is to teach them to ask expansive rather than reductive questions. Often the first question in a student’s arsenal is, “What does this mean?” This question is likely to invite binary thinking or reductive assumptions about the Church and one’s faith. This response encourages simplistic thinking and rash judgments about meaning, even with positive information. It also reduces the ability to see possibilities and recognize the development and progression of one’s faith. A much more effective question would be, “What could this mean?” Metacognitively, this type of question helps students to see possibilities and to create evidence-based conclusions, thus promoting nuanced understanding, research, and in-depth conversations. The question “What could this mean?” also assumes that possibilities must be sifted through rather than quickly assigned to a negative or positive category. Of course, the phrasing of a question doesn’t solve all thinking problems, but reinforcing the utility of expansive questions helps students understand the complex processes that should underlie their judgments.

Another way to help students expand their own thought process is to have multiple conversations about faith rather than just one or two. In the safe spaces provided by our classrooms, we can and should ask questions, think out loud, and reason together without judgment and without the need for immediate certainty. Sometimes our need to help students feel sure about the subject matter can lead us to give answers that create a short-term certainty while sacrificing long-term understanding. But as we train our students to understand how they think, we are preparing them to ask better questions and then find their own responses to those questions. We are also training them to be more comfortable with the ambiguity that comes when we cannot find immediate answers to our questions.

Takeaway Number Three

Students need mentors who can accompany them with compassion through their faith journeys. These mentors should share with their students how their own faith has developed into an informed faith.

The language we use in our own stories about our faith helps us mentor our students in their cognitive and spiritual development. Sharing with them our own experiences of receiving or working toward receiving answers or guidance regarding religious questions follows Peter’s injunction to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15).

The most effective examples of mentors in the reconversion narratives come from those who see their role akin to that of a musical accompanist supporting and being in rhythm with a performer. In an essay published online in Aeon magazine, Nicholaos Jones, a philosophy professor from the University of Alabama Huntsville, presents this metaphor:

In music, the accompaniment is the musical part that supports the melody or main themes of a musical performance, as when an organist or guitarist accompanies a choir, or a drummer and bass player accompany a lead singer. In a dramatic film, the accompaniment is the part that supports the dramatic action, as when a musical soundtrack accompanies dialogue between actors. These examples indicate that accompanying another involves lending support to the other in ways that amplify or strengthen their efforts. Like solidarity, accompaniment involves one uniting with another. But unlike solidarity, which typically aims to correct some injustice or satisfy some need, accompaniment aims to acknowledge and engage with the efforts of another—not for the sake of helping the other achieve some goal that’s impossible to achieve on one’s own, but for the sake of enriching, and making manifest the value of, the other’s efforts.[46]

Just as an accompanist doesn’t take over the performance when the melody falters or the performer stumbles, the way we use language in our stories and in our lessons can allow our seeking students to feel our support even as they learn for themselves how to nurture their own faith. Rather than framing concerns and doubts as theological paper tigers, we can help students to see these concerns and complexities as natural and inherent vehicles to greater faith.

In these narratives mentors who “accompanied” most effectively first made sure that others felt like they belonged. As noted earlier, many who are struggling with doubts also feel a pronounced sense of distance from the Church and its members. Often this sense of alienation is quiet and comes from questions and experiences that students feel they cannot share. Doing all we can to make sure people feel like they belong, and that our friendship isn’t conditional on their own beliefs or struggles, will help lessen the anxiety they experience.

Takeaway Number Four

The most important determining factor in staying with the restored gospel or returning to it is a personal relationship with God.

Besides trusting the mentors in their lives, young people should also learn to trust themselves and their ability to create a dialogic relationship with the divine. We identified two obstacles in the reconversion narratives that are instructive as teacher-mentors consider how to best talk about faith with their students. The first is that we tend to talk about faith as being synonymous with knowledge, when it may be more constructive to compare faith with trust. Talking about faith solely as knowledge treats faith like a concept we learn at school, like an algebraic formula, whereas emphasizing faith as a form of trust allows for faith to be the result of a relationship. Along this line, the British rabbi Jonathan Sacks said that “faith is a marriage. Marriage is an act of faith.”[47] We strengthen our faith not by merely studying more but by strengthening our relationship with God: by spending time with, listening to, and talking with him. Furthering this connection between faith and a relationship, Rabbi Sacks writes:

[Faith] is the bond of love in the face of the radical indeterminacy of the future. Faith is what happens when God reaches out His hand to us and we respond in love and trust. It does not mean—any more than a marriage does—that there will be no shocks in store, no crises, no tragedies. It does, however, mean that we will not desert one another. We will have our domestic disagreements, but God will always be there for us. We will always be there with Him.[48]


In his landmark study of deconversion narratives, John Barbour asserted that reconversion narratives are an “analysis of apostasy from the perspective of faith and reinterpretation of faith from apostasy.”[49] But whereas Barbour lacked data to fully evaluate reconversion accounts and draw specific conclusions about that process, our analysis of data gleaned from a good number of Latter-day Saint reconversion narratives sheds vital light on the inverted relationship between deconversion and reconversion. These findings can help us as mentors reach out to those whose questions haven’t yet become crises and to those who are already feeling like there isn’t a place for them or their worries in the household of faith.

The rhetorical patterns we saw in our collection of reconversion narratives inspired us to delineate specific takeaways that can help teachers as well as parents and Church leaders to understand, empathize with, and teach students, especially when they lack certainty and trust. Many of our students are in desperate need of someone they can trust who can also empathize with their lack of certainty. Our vulnerable students need more than quick answers to their difficult questions. Rather, we must teach them how to think in a way that goes beyond simple questions and answers. Creating a classroom in which we teach metacognitive skills will help students to feel heard, and it will also teach them to think about thinking. In this way we will help them to not only find their own answers but also cope constructively with ambiguity in a way that will preserve and nourish their faith. Instead of giving students an answer key to any religious doubts they might face, we can give them the key to finding their own answers. This type of pedagogy has the promise of providing our students with a new way of thinking about uncertainty and dealing with it constructively, offering a fresh perspective and pattern that can bring both teachers and students closer to God.


[1] Bruce C. Hafen and Marie K. Hafen, Faith Is Not Blind (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2018).

[2] Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. See Faith Is Not Blind, chap. 2.

[3] These firsthand accounts and our analysis of them are available in the “Return Narratives Collection” on the Faith Is Not Blind website,

[4] John D. Barbour, Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1994).

[5] Heinz Streib et al., Deconversion: Qualitative and Quantitative Results from Cross-Cultural Research in Germany and the United States of America (Gottingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2009), 22.

[6] Michael Lipka, “A Closer Look at America’s Rapidly Growing Religious ‘Nones,’” Pew Research Center, July 27, 2020,

[7] Streib, “Deconversion,” in The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion, ed. Lewis Ray Rambo and Charles E. Farhadian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 271.

[8] Streib et al., Deconversion, 27.

[9] Janae, podcast interview, Faith Is Not Blind,

[10] Janice Esplin Oviatt, “Buried Deep Inside,” blog post, LDS Women Project, December 9, 2019,

[11] Tami Havey, quoted in Alexandra Mortenson, “How a Flood Miraculously Brought an Anti-Mormon Back to the Church She Had Hated,” LDS Living, November 17, 2017,

[12] Havey, quoted in Mortenson, “Back to the Church.”

[13] Raquel Cook, “People like Us Do Things like That,” blog post, LDS Women Project, February 20, 2014.

[14] Tina Richerson, “Playing from Her Heart,” interview, LDS Women Project, May 9, 2013.

[15] Peka Holmes, “In the Lord’s Time,” interview, LDS Women Project, August 7, 2013.

[16] Anonymous, “Christ Lives,” blog post, LDS Women Project, December 26, 2019.

[17] Robyn Burkinshaw, “On My Road to Damascus,” interview, LDS Women Project, December 15, 2019.

[18] Oviatt, “Buried Deep Inside.”

[19] Letisha, interview, “Return Narratives Collection.”

[20] Joe Tippetts, “Seven Years Away from Mormonism and Why I’m Returning,” Medium (blog), July 22, 2019,

[21] Misty Sutton, “Why I Left the Church Is Also Why I’m Going Back,” LDS Living, August 5, 2017,

[22] Burkinshaw, “My Road to Damascus.”

[23] Anonymous, “So We Can Be Together,” blog post, LDS Women Project, December 12, 2019.

[24] Anonymous, “So We Can Be Together”; Abby Olson, “My Hope Is Greater than My Fear,” blog post, LDS Women Project, December 6, 2019; Kathleen Flake, “Bearing the Weight,” Sunstone, October 1989, 33–37,; Rachel Mary Bodily, “Charity Is the Key,” blog post, LDS Women Project, November 19, 2019; Cook, “People like Us”; and Tippetts, “Seven Years.”

[25] Bodily, “Charity Is the Key”; and Cook, “People like Us.”

[26] Burkinshaw, “My Road to Damascus.”

[27] Flake, “Bearing the Weight.”

[28] Pam Shorr, “When You’re Ready,” blog post, LDS Women Project, August 20, 2013.

[29] Holmes, “In the Lord’s Time”; Tina Phillips, “Return Narratives Collection”; and Sutton, “Why I Left the Church.”

[30] Richerson, “Playing from Her Heart”; Leo Winegar, “How an Atheist Came Back to the Church and Found Peace Despite Doubt,” LDS Living, January 21, 2019,; and Tippetts, “Seven Years.”

[31] Rosanne Hersee, “Return Narratives Collection.”

[32] Christiane Woerner, “I Felt the Lord’s Love for Me,” blog post, LDS Women Project, November 22, 2019.

[33] Havey, quoted in Mortenson, “Back to the Church.”

[34] Anonymous, “So We Can Be Together.”

[35] Olson, “My Hope Is Greater.”

[36] Shorr, “When You’re Ready”; and Tippetts, “Seven Years.”

[37] Shorr, “When You’re Ready.”

[38] Richerson, “Playing from Her Heart”; and Tippetts, “Seven Years.”

[39] Richerson, “Playing from Her Heart.”

[40] Burkinshaw, “My Road to Damascus.”

[41] Olson, “My Hope Is Greater.”

[42] Tippetts, “Seven Years.”

[43] Phillips, “Return Narratives Collection.”

[44] Julia Galeff, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t (New York: Portfolio, 2021), 140.

[45] Lee Rainie and Andrew Perrin, “Key Findings about Americans’ Declining Trust in Government and Each Other,” Pew Research Center, May 30, 2020,; John Gramlich, “Young Americans Are Less Trusting of Other People—and Key Institutions—than Their Elders,” Pew Research Center, May 30, 2020,; and Cary Funk, “Key Findings about Americans’ Confidence in Science and Their Views on Scientists’ Role in Society,” Pew Research Center, May 25, 2021,

[46] Nicholaos Jones, “At Times of Suffering, the Greatest Gift is Accompaniment by Another,”Aeon,

[47] Jonathan Sacks, Celebrating Life: Finding Happiness in Unexpected Places (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2004), 100.

[48] Sacks, Celebrating Life, 101.

[49] Barbour, Versions of Deconversion, 168.