Saturday, November 21, 2015

Meet the Exmos

This post is addressed primarily to my Mormon friends. I want to tell you all about some really cool people that you may not know much about: the Exmormons, a.k.a. the Exmos.
(A photo of our Colorado Exmormon Superfriends family gathering in Denver in September,
pixelated to protect those Superfriends who aren't ready for their secret identity to be exposed.)
Some of you might recoil at the word "exmormon." So if that just gave you the heebie-jeebies, then this may not be the post for you. But then again, in that case I especially hope you'll read this, so please hang with me.

Because if "exmormon" carries for you a very negative connotation, maybe synonymous with "Anti-Mormon" or "Apostate" or "Anti-Christ", then my hope here is to show you there is a difference, as well as simply to give a shout out to my peeps, who don't get enough love and respect. Most of us don't consider ourselves anti-anything. We would prefer pro-equality, pro-truth, and pro-love. We don't care so much about "bringing the church down, and making all men miserable like unto ourselves!" as we do about empowering people, who may be trapped by culture, geography and religious dogma, to live their lives in harmony with truth, and to be their most authentic selves.

I don't want to persuade you to join us or believe that our way of being is the best way of being, so rest easy. But I do want to help you see us--this eclectic, vibrant, growing group to which many of your family and friends now belong, or will in the future--in a kinder light. We didn't leave for the cliches of sin, pride, or taking offense. This is not a group of morally bankrupt people, or people who have betrayed their birthright and sold their soul to the devil. In actuality, it's a totally amazing group. People of the highest intelligence and integrity. People I love hanging out with. People of incredible moral courage.

Seriously, imagine someone you love having to make the heart-wrenching decision to step away from their family and culture, with the threat of their eternal soul hanging in the balance, because they feel compelled to follow a higher truth they've reluctantly discovered. Imagine someone determined to "do what is right, let the consequence follow." Maybe you disagree with their decision, but hopefully you can at least see the courage and humanity in their choice. We celebrate fictional heroes like Truman Burbank and John Dunbar and Jake Sully who leave their culture at great cost to embrace a new way of being.  And real heroes like Jackie RobinsonSusan B Anthony, and even bodhisattvas like Jesus and the Buddha, for their courage and grace in crossing cultural boundaries, for their unwillingness to passively persist in a stagnant status quo. These are all examples of frontier explorers, people with soul power, with strong medicine.  Maybe you can find a way to consider the exmos in your life the way they consider themselves, at least a little bit, at least in our best moments: as humble followers of truth. Maybe even as, ahem, pioneers.

Exmormons don't aspire to perfection. It's safe to say we relish our imperfections. But as a group, we do tend to be principled, creative, witty, compassionate. Also, at times irreverent, damaged, erratic and angry. Regrettably, it sometimes happens that, once the constraints of religion are removed, some exmos flounder in the subsequent chaos and make poor life decisions, getting caught up in the excesses of things that were once taboo. (And can you blame them? They were told their whole life that drinking coffee was a sin grave enough to prevent their eternal salvation, only to find out that it's actually good for them, not to mention totally delicious. So what else have they been missing out on???) I feel nothing but compassion for these wounded friends. There but for the grace of Gaia go I. But this proverbial "going off the deep end" happens much less than most Mormons are led to reflexively believe. Without a doubt, most exmormons I know would say their lives are exponentially better out of the church than in, despite the enormous social and family costs. (Don't believe me? Ask one of them!) We honestly feel that leaving the church was both the hardest and best decision we ever made. We lost so much, but the price was worth the reward of finally feeling comfortable in our own skin in this preciously short life that is the only one we have to live. So it's a mixed bag. Exmos are both fully human and fully divine, just like Jesus, just like Mormons, just like anyone. In short, exmos rock.
More pixelated exmos at our November gathering.
Even among this group, "exmormon" is a controversial word. Some prefer "Post-Mormon," or "New Order Mormon" or "Non-Traditional Mormon" or "Mormon In Transition." Many prefer to lose the Mormon moniker altogether and adopt something new: "Christian" or "Buddhist," or often "Agnostic" or "Secular Humanist" or even the dreaded A-word, "Atheist." I'm personally a fan of ditching labels completely. Forget Mormon or Exmormon, Republican or Democrat, American or Foreigner, Doctor or Lawyer. How about just "Mark, Human Being And Fellow Traveler On The Highway Of Life." (All right, so that's not specific or confidence-inspiring enough if, say, someone comes to me for medical advice about their hemorrhoids. I guess there are pragmatic reasons to use labels.)

For simplicity's sake, I typically use the term "exmormon." Because it's crystal clear. It instantly delineates our status in regards to the institution that, for the vast majority of our lives, enveloped us like our own skin, that taught us to believe from the earliest age that, in matters of self-identification, "I'm a Mormon, true blue, through and through!" came before all else. So "exmormon" is in part a one-word declaration of independence from the church that we feel interposed itself between us and God, that claimed to be our "only pathway to salvation", and that demanded our adherence to its proscribed lifestyle as the unquestionable "manner of happiness." We've found that there are, in fact, other ways.

Like it or not, the cumulative burden of our lifetime of intimate interactions with the Church, in doctrine, organization, and culture--even underwear!--in both positive and negative ways, was and perhaps always will be a pivotal--perhaps the most pivotal--influence in our lives. Removing ourselves from it now, or twenty years ago, doesn't make that ubiquitous influence disappear. I've told my children, when they've asked why I can't just forget about it or move on, that it took me thirty five years to be so entirely wrapped up in it, body and soul, so immersed that I couldn't see heads or tails anymore, couldn't even tell who I was without it, or fathom a life separated from it, that I'm expecting at least another thirty five years to unwrap it all. (That'll put me at seventy, and then I look forward to a final fifteen blissful years in a truly post-Mormon world. Or dementia, which at that point may be indistinguishable.) But at least for my children, they won't have to spend a lifetime untying that knot. The point is that many of us find that the church continues to define us, at least for the time being, in absentia, although we look forward to the day when hopefully it won't.

Here's a pro-tip: one sure way of making any exmo mad is for a believing Mormon to reply to a critique we may offer towards the church with the tired, brain-freezing axiom: "You can leave the church, but you can't leave the church alone, eh, buddy?" Well, that doesn't cut it. Try engaging the issue next time. And consider that, in a way, our continued interest in church affairs is indicative of our prior level of involvement, and a reflection of how deeply we believed. Our roots are intertwined. Imagine ripping off your own siamese twin. That's gonna hurt, and you might want to talk it about for a while, although you might have to stop the bleeding first.

This continued interest in the church is also indicative of our ingrained missionary zeal to share truth once we've found it. (Now where would we get that idea from?) While we (most of us) freely acknowledge that many people will remain happiest within the church, we're aware that there are many, like ourselves, for whom the constraints are too suffocating, even life-threatening. I concede that many of us exmos could benefit from better tools in dialogue (see Jacob's and my Third Space project). Unlike our proselytizing mission experiences and efforts to convert our neighbors, it would be good for us, now that we're exmos, to stop trying to change others' earnestly held religious beliefs. Yet I don't blame any of us for trying. We didn't create the dichotomous thinking, the dire stakes, the us vs. them mentality, that permeates Mormon doctrine and culture. "Each of us has to face the matter--either the church is true, or it is a fraud. There is no middle ground. It is the church and the kingdom of God, or it is nothing." (Gordon B Hinckley, LDS Prophet, in a 2003 general conference address.) All right, so I just found out it's not true. So taking you at your word, President Hinckley, where does that leave me? Shouldn't I at least tell the people I care about . . . ?

So in a way, that continued interest and occasional antagonism is a way of honoring the depth of commitment and love we once held for the church, and of our family and friends still in it. Speaking personally, the church gave me a lifetime of good memories. It brought me a happy childhood full of warm family moments, it gave me structure, values, identity and purpose as a young man in a morally chaotic world, a blueprint for clean living and an aversion to (fear of) drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and premarital sex. It gave me my incredible experiences in Brazil, a second language, many of my very best friends, and even my beautiful wife, and by extension my kids. I'll always be grateful for that foundation. In a real way, I don't regret being raised in the church. I owe a lot to it. And yet I'm still so glad that I found my way out. It's complicated.

(Here's an unpixelated, genuine exmo family, wearing the jerseys of the One True Team.)
When Elizabeth and I left the church five years ago, we did so in total isolation. We had nobody to cling to but each other. It remained that way for well over two years. Then, through some harmonic convergence, I reconnected with my friend Karl, who lives locally and has walked many similar spiritual paths. This connection provided an outlet and sounding board for me to be able to process my experiences. Then I slowly began to engage in some internet forums, and was amazed to find that there were people like me out there. Thousands of them. Good people who saw the world the way I did. That saw their leaving not as a defeat, but as a bold, necessary step into a brave new world to keep their sanity and integrity. Through more harmonic convergence, we finally encountered a family just like ours, the Whitakers, who lived just a few miles away. Our two families kept our heads up, and soon began to meet more and more folks from Colorado. We planned a few get-togethers. College students, retired couples, recently divorced, newlyweds. Men and women, doctors and lawyers, and PhDs by the boatload. And lots of families with kids. Such a diverse group, yet so many similarities in our journeys, chief among them the fact that all of us had made at some point a soul-piercing, life-altering, socially-ostracizing decision, and were now seeking to rebuild a community out of that rubble

Eventually we formed a facebook group, which, after merging with some other existing groups, has grown to 168 members in under ten months, getting bigger every day, and representing well over 300 total people all over the state, because kids. Lots of kids. (Duh, we were all Mormon.) We get together at least once a month, and usually more. We commiserate, we console, we laugh, we share. It's incredibly accepting, supportive, funny, incisive and smart. Honestly, participating in the development of this group has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have no idea where it goes from here, but we've got a good foundation and a lot of positive energy.

So if you're Mormon, now you know that we exist, and at least a little about who we are, and how we view ourselves. And if you live in Colorado and you're exmormon, or in some manner questioning your relationship with the church, and want to join us, give me a shout. I'll hook you up. And no matter where you are, I have great news. There is a now a website called Mormon Spectrum that contains information about similar groups all over the globe. Seriously, no matter where you live, there's probably a group somewhere close. These are in-person groups, like ours here in Colorado. Not only has the internet revolutionized the access to information, but as the global exmormon community has matured, it has now distilled back down out of cyberspace and into your local geography like the dews of heaven, giving you a chance to meet someone--a real live human who will accept you for who you are!--for coffee, or a hike, or a play date. Which doesn't replace that close-knit, all-inclusive community the church once offered, but it's a start, and you can be a part of it.

In summary, I repeat: exmos rock. I'm proud of you, and proud to be counted among you. It's good company to be in. And for believing Mormons who are still reading this, don't be afraid. In the end, labels aside, we're just people like you, trying our best to make sense of this short life while we scratch out a living. So if we can't agree on or even talk about religion, let's find a comfortable place, a Third Space, perhaps, where we can see each other not as enemies, but as people. Just people, trying to do our best and learning to get along. Fellow travelers on the highway of life. Or something like that.
(And lastly, here is a picture of a happy exmo man with his gorgeous exmo wife who has some sort of Age of Adeline thing going on, because he's getting older and she's not.
Sadly, this guy left the church and got cancer.  :(
But then his cancer was miraculously (or at least robotically) cured,
which isn't sad at all, so there's that.)


  1. Well said. I have to wonder how many Mormons will listen to or even read anything you say here. Much easier to pretend we are fallen or don't exist.

    I'm so glad I left when I was young and relatively uninvested in the LDS. It was very hard for me for a few years and has affected my life to this day, but I've never regretted leaving, not once.

    1. Matthew, Hi I am one of those devote Mormons that was stated above have found that the principles of the church work for me and enrich my life. However, most of my friends are not Mormon or are Exmos. I love that we have a common respect and understanding of each other. Much of what was written above. Good read. We all want to be loved and understood. So here is a devote Mormon willing to read and listen. I may not always agree with people, but I will respect them and want them to feel heard and loved no matter what.

  2. Wonderful post. My husband and I recently decided to "take a break" from the Mormon church, and tour words resonated with me in so many affirming, empowering ways. Although leaving that faith behind was incredibly painful, it has also been even more wonderful. I feel so much more myself, so much more authentic and strong then when I was so fully "active" in the church. I can now listen to my own internal compass instead of always searching for the outside voice of the church leaders, God or the Spirit, what other Mormons thought or were doing, etc, etc. Thank you so much for posting this happy, hopeful, funny post. It is a declaration of hope for those of us who are new on this paths and need reassurance that we will be just fine without the church!