Going to church after a faith transition can be somewhat of a traumatic experience for some. It can trigger anxiety, depression, and other downward emotional spirals that are not ideal for a person already dealing with the repercussions of realigning belief systems.
If this is sounding like you or someone you know, please don’t hesitate to seek out professional assistance if you need it. There’s no shame in that, and it’s really easy to find a therapist at BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services who is not only okay with a faith transition, but actively supports it.
How Often Do You Need To Go?
This heavily depends on your bishop; however, the actual instruction to BYU YSA Bishops (as of November 2017) is that they are to advise people to fulfill the following requirements:
- Show up to more than half the Sunday services per month (i.e. you need to go at least twice a month in a month with four Sundays).
- The bishop needs to be familiar with you enough that he knows you’re attending each week.
- YOU MUST GO TO SACRAMENT IN ORDER TO MAINTAIN ECCLESIASTICAL ENDORSEMENT. None of this matters if you’re not going to sacrament meeting.
Keep in mind that regardless of this instruction, some bishops take it upon themselves to stress areas they have not been explicitly told to enforce. While the attendance record for Sunday School and Priesthood or Relief Society are intended only for statistical analysis, a bishop may use it as a valid metric for church attendance despite being explicitly told to use Sacrament Meeting for that purpose.
For example, one of my friends was seeing her bishop for drinking when under stress. Her first bishop said that it was fine as long as she was improving. She then moved apartment complexes, and her new bishop kicked her out of BYU altogether. The variation between bishops is unpredictable and unrelenting.
So make sure you use these rules as a base guideline, then adjust as you get to know the ward/bishop and what his expectations are.
One of the primary goals in attending church at all is to be noticed by the bishop enough that he recognizes your attendance, but is not intimate enough to feel comfortable starting up conversation with you.
The way I have accomplished this is by showing up to church about 4-5 minutes late. This brings a lot of attention to yourself by basically announcing, “I’m here! I am going to church today!” This is a great strategy because no one can interact with you during this show of faith, and by the time the meeting ends everyone will have forgotten you even walked in late. The only thing they will be able to remember (hopefully) is that you have walked in late and remember your face, but don’t even necessarily remember your name. Then, if anyone starts to hint that they don’t recognize you, just act offended that they wouldn’t remember you and move along.
Another strategy I’ve tried that’s made church attendance more bearable is just to set ridiculous goals for sacrament meeting. For example, I have a high score of 6 pieces of sacrament bread eaten at once. I also just recently crossed double-shotting the sacrament water off my bucket list. Just some ridiculous things like that to make the time pass more quickly and take my mind off the current situation.
What To Say If The Bishop Asks Where You’ve Been:
It can be really stressful if the Bishop pulls you in and wants to know why your attendance has lessened in the recent or not so recent past. In my experience, the one barrier you have to implement that is near bulletproof is psychological well-being. Just by saying something along the lines of:
“Sorry I haven’t come to church recently. I’ve been going through a period of self-discovery and depression. My therapist recommended I start to cut things out of my life that are adding to my stress, then slowly add them back in. Church attendance has given me social anxiety in the past, and now that I’m working through it more quickly, I’m working to start adding it back into my life. I understand that I am required to go, but I just needed some time to get my life back on track without even the smallest sources of anxiety. I promise you though that I am working to start attending more frequently, but can you help support me by allowing me to do so at a reasonable pace?”
Most often, bishops really are good people just trying to do their best to help you to their understanding. Their goals may not always align with yours; however, if you phrase your predicament as an opportunity for them to help you, nine times out of ten they will gladly give you both the space and time to reintegrate church into your life. They also have no way of checking that you have a psychologist or checking what your psychologist may have said. They just have to trust that you are telling the truth. As long as you feel comfortable and have a smile to disarm any suspicion of dishonesty, they won’t question a person’s search for mental, physical, and spiritual stability.
You can also try the “my boyfriend/girlfriend is in another ward and I attend with her/him”, but from what I understand that usually results in being asked to attend at least both wards’ sacrament meetings consistently. Of course, the bishop won’t know your attendance in other wards so even if your significant other is made up or real, they will only be able to enforce you showing up consistently to your current ward. I prefer the psychological stability defense because it leaves a possibility open for rocky attendance moving forward rather than immediately moving into perfect Sunday attendance.
Good luck in navigating your bishop and ward! Each one is different so do your best to feel out what you can or cannot get away with in your specific situation!