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Losing the faith: BYU students undergoing faith crises torn between leaving university or staying quiet

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Everyone told her that it was just a phase.

But as the weeks, and months, and even a year passed on, Emily Lifferth’s realization that she no longer believed in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remained.

“That is the kind of realization that will turn your entire world upside down,” Lifferth said. “And it did.”

Lifferth’s faith crisis and transition impacted every aspect of her life, including her education. At the time, she attended Brigham Young University in Provo, which is both owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and requires members of the church to remain in the religion in order to continue attending.

She faced an ultimatum — leave BYU, or fake her belief.

Movements for change

Students at the church-owned university have to obtain and maintain an ongoing ecclesiastical endorsement in order to attend. The requirement falls under BYU’s honor code, which bans actions such as premarital sex, the consumption of alcohol and homosexual behavior.

Ecclesiastical endorsements must be renewed every academic year. For Latter-day Saint students, that’s done through their congregation’s bishop. Non-Latter-day Saint students can receive an endorsement through their local ecclesiastical leader, a Latter-day Saint bishop or the nondenominational BYU chaplain.

Ex-Latter-day Saint students cannot get an ecclesiastical endorsement.

Endorsements can be withdrawn at any time, leading to the immediate loss of good honor code standing.

“Students who are not in good Honor Code standing must discontinue enrollment,” the code reads. “Also, they are not eligible for graduation, even if they have otherwise completed all the necessary coursework. Excommunication, disfellowshipment, or disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints automatically results in the withdrawal of the student’s ecclesiastical endorsement and the loss of good Honor Code standing.”

The code defines “disaffiliation” as the removal of a student’s name from the church’s official records.

Students can appeal the withdrawing of a statement through their local ecclesiastical leader, or can petition the BYU Dean of Students Office for an exemption.

“Requests for review are rare,” Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for BYU, said in an emailed statement. “In a small number of cases exemptions have been granted.”

Jenkins said the continuing ecclesiastical endorsement interviews include a standard set of questions, which include asking a student about their commitment to the honor code. Jenkins said Latter-day Saint students are expected to fulfill church duties, attend church meetings and follow the church’s rules and standards.

Jenkins said Latter-day Saint students can receive support from their ecclesiastical leaders, religion professors, faculty members and other students. She also pointed to BYU’s weekly devotionals, where BYU employees and church leaders address students.

“All students are required to complete the ecclesiastical endorsement process through their ecclesiastical leaders,” Jenkins said. “However, BYU retains the ultimate authority as to which students may be admitted or continue to be enrolled.”

Brad Levin, the director of FreeBYU, an organization seeking change to allow ex-Latter-day Saint students to attend, said the exemption policy exists only on paper.

“We are not aware of any attempts that have been successful,” Levin said.

Levin, a BYU alumnus who experienced a faith crisis and transition during his time as a student, first started thinking about BYU’s policy on expelling ex-Latter-day Saint students in 2006 when his brother stopped believing and wasn’t able to return to school. Levin started writing on the topic in 2011, and FreeBYU was formed in late 2013.

Since then, the organization has submitted complaints about the policy with different organizations and accrediting bodies, including the American Psychological Association, the American Bar Association and the NCAA. Recent efforts have included reaching out to speakers and conferences that plan to go to BYU in order to urge them to take action about the policy.

Levin said it’s an issue of religious freedom, since BYU students who belong to other faiths are allowed to change their beliefs without punishment.

FreeBYU has found that most students who have a faith crisis experience one in their junior or senior years, after they’re already invested in their programs. Leaving, Levin said, isn’t always feasible. Credits don’t always transfer, students lose local support systems and other universities are more expensive than BYU, which is subsidized by the church.

For graduate students, he said the stakes are even higher, since they can’t transfer a thesis to another university.

Restore Honor BYU, a student-led group that led a protest in the spring to urge changes to the university’s honor code, has its eye on updating the ecclesiastical endorsement requirement.

The group is working with administration to provide a path for students who have a faith crisis to have a safe place where their enrollment and scholarships are not threatened, according to Riley Madrian, a spokeswoman for Restore Honor BYU.

“We are all human and we should be able to have that human experience of finding ourselves and come to what we believe in,” Madrian said. “The university shouldn’t get in the way of people discovering who they are and what they believe.”

The group is pursuing different options with administration, including standardizing the requirements needed to get an endorsement in order to eliminate variance between bishops.

“We don’t want to get rid of the ecclesiastical endorsement completely, because it is a religious university and that does play a role in being a BYU student,” Madrian said.

Living in fear

Mason was drawn to BYU because he felt it had the best program that he wanted for the lowest cost.

“At the time, I was very much a believer,” he said.

Mason, whose name has been changed because he fears his standing with the university would be at risk due to his beliefs, entered BYU as a Latter-day Saint.

He began having doubts when he took a philosophy class. Those increased when a friend told him that the church’s standards make people feel unnecessarily guilty and that a caring God wouldn’t expect such difficult things.

“At that point I got the same feeling that I had always assumed to be the Spirit, and I think at that point it kind of all collapsed because I started thinking about things,” Mason said.

That feeling was contradictory to what he’d felt before. Mason was left wondering if the Holy Spirit would tell him two contradictory things, if neither came from the Holy Spirit or if he couldn’t tell where it came from.

Mason, who now identifies as agnostic, began looking at the tradeoffs to leaving BYU. But he said he wasn’t able to find a program that was the quality he wanted, at the cost he wanted, that would have accepted all of his credits and let him be close enough to keep his friendships.

To stay, he fakes his belief. He’ll offer a prayer when he’s asked to and attends church to keep up appearances, but feels frustrated. In religion classes, he’s torn between writing what a professor wants to hear or sharing his real thoughts.

The process makes him feel dishonest and deceitful.

“I don’t like doing that,” Mason said.

He said the bishop he had his first year of school was helpful. The second, not so much.

“I told this bishop I was uncertain about the church, and they suggested that if I didn’t get sure he would be happy to revoke my ecclesiastical endorsement so I could go elsewhere,” Mason said.

He doesn’t think that’s a way to get students to be open with their religious leaders.

“It seems like it’s a good way to get people to tell you what they believe,” he said.

A desire for honesty

Emily Lifferth’s questions snowballed during her freshman year. She began praying, reading scriptures, reviewing talks from church leaders and sought to find a moment where she’d get confirmation that the church was true. One year later, she still didn’t have that answer.

“I was still hoping it was true and still planning my life with the assumption that it was true, because I didn’t really know how to exist if it wasn’t,” Lifferth said.

Lifferth, who graduated from BYU in April, considered transferring. But after hearing that the process was difficult, and because attending high school in Holland meant she wouldn’t qualify for in-state tuition rates, she felt like she had no other option but to stay.

Staying came with its own mental costs. Lifferth felt like she wasn’t able to open up to others about her faith crisis because everything on campus linked back to the church, including student groups.

“Even if they aren’t religious in nature, they are church dominated, so it didn’t feel like it was somewhere where I could tell the truth,” she said.

She didn’t know what the requirements were to keep her endorsement. She had friends who didn’t attend church and would keep it, while Lifferth had one bishop who would call students in if they missed one meeting a month.

The dynamic between students and bishops, who controlled their educational status through the endorsements, made it difficult to open up.

“If the bishop didn’t hold the ecclesiastical endorsement authority over students, I wonder if students would be more honest with their bishops and stay in the church,” Lifferth said.

Her experience led to social isolation, until she started to talk to others at her off-campus job.

She’s hopeful that BYU’s policy will evolve. She’d like to see the power to grant ecclesiastical endorsements be taken from bishops. That change, she said, would make the relationship between students and bishops healthier.

“It would mean that they could focus on their faith, or lack thereof, without being afraid for their future,” she said.

Choosing to transfer

For others, the costs of staying outweigh those of leaving.

Mckay Jensen started at BYU in 2015 before going on an ecclesiastical mission for the church. He returned, and attended BYU one additional semester before transferring to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Jensen grew up in Provo, with BYU always nearby.

“I didn’t really want to go there, but then I realized that it was just, it was very cheap, it’s a good school, it was convenient and I mean, I actually really liked it at first,” Jensen said. “It was great and my experience was great.”

He realized he had issues with the church after his first semester.

“When I got back from my mission, at that point I was really, really uncomfortable with things, and I knew that continuing to be a student at BYU, that would be a problem,” Jensen said.

If he stayed, Jensen said it was likely he’d either be kicked out, or would have a meltdown and have to drop out, anyway.

He no longer identifies as a Latter-day Saint and helps with FreeBYU’s efforts. At BYU, he said, he felt trapped.

“What I would really like people to understand about the experience of people like me, it is very difficult,” Jensen said. “It is not something that you choose, and these sort of doubts and issues that people have are very much legitimate, and we are trying to do what’s best.”

Creating a resource

Unsure of who to turn to, BYU students have formed communities to support them through their faith crises.

“It feels like you are living this Mission Impossible, double life,” said Andrew Jacobs, a former student who now attends the U of U.

Jacobs is a co-creator of the BYU Survival Guide website, a resource that provides suggestions for students who are undergoing a faith transition or consider themselves unorthodox Latter-day Saints. The website addresses topics from paying tithing to maintaining appearances, and allows students to anonymously connect with support groups.

Jacobs attended BYU on and off from the summer of 2014 to this year. He was raised in a Latter-day Saint family in California and entered the university fully committed to the religion.

“It was the only school I applied to,” he said.

He became depressed after he and his ex-girlfriend prayed about whether she should go on an ecclesiastical mission and received different answers. Jacobs started questioning why that would happen. He investigated the church’s finances, didn’t find much and started questioning what might be different from what he’d been taught. By December 2017, he realized he no longer believed in the church.

“I was very careful,” Jacobs said. “I didn’t want my roommates to know.”

He reached out to his parents and confessed that he no longer believed.

“They started telling me that I was being led away by Satan,” Jacobs said.

His plan was to drop out of BYU and transfer to a school in North Carolina. That plan didn’t work out, and by the time he returned to his housing contract at BYU, he no longer qualified to receive in-state tuition rates for Utah’s colleges.

He needed to stay in Utah for another year in order to regain residency, so he decided to use that time to push the limits of what he could say and still retain his endorsement.

Jacobs told his bishop that he wasn’t done with the conversation of whether he believed in the church, and wanted somebody to convince him. His endorsement was renewed.

“At any rate, it comes down to bishop roulette as far as being how open you can be and even whether you can express any doubt at all,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said professors told him he wasn’t allowed to raise his hand or make comments in class because of his position in the church.

“I felt oppressed by the system, not by people,” Jacobs said. “I think that the people, including professors, are at most times very willing and understanding of faith transitions.”

He left BYU in his junior year in order to go public with the BYU Survival Guide website. With a spectrum of religious experiences at BYU, Jacobs said he wanted to be a resource.

“The survival guide is meant to enable people to live the way that they want, and however that is is fine by me, as long as it is not illegal and doing things that are harming others,” Jacobs said.

During his own time at BYU he joined an underground support group he found on Reddit that enforced tests such as drinking alcohol or coffee in order to get in. The groups say they seek to provide social frameworks for people who have lost them.

“There were several nights I would spend crying in my car ready to drive away, leaving everything behind and not telling anyone where I was going because I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to,” Jacobs said.

He now identifies as agnostic/atheist.

Jacobs personally screens people before adding them to any of the groups he oversees. Jacobs said students are hesitant of the groups, and aren’t sure if they’re set up by people fishing for students who no longer believe in the church.

The groups are getting bigger, which is causing problems with finding space for them to meet where students won’t run into friends, classmates or spouses who they might be hiding their crises and transitions from.

Jacobs said he might add to the website in the upcoming months. The most requested topic he’s seen is a guide on dating as an ex-Latter-day Saint at BYU.

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