When Going to Church Is Hard + The Time I Was Inactive

So many people dear to my heart have, in the last couple of years, publicly or privately, announced that they are leaving the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have been made privy to at least some of their reasons.

Here is a simple breakdown of what I see as the most common reasons to stop attending church:

  • Mental/emotional health. Church is too stressful or anxious a place to be worth trying to attend.
  • Social. Feel completely alone at church. Feel betrayed, lonely, offended, or ostracized by members. Concerned from seeing members’ hypocrisy and mistakes. Would rather connect or reconnect with friends outside the Church.
  • Physical health. Injury, illness, or other health condition. COVID-19, anyone?
  • Family. Wanting to keep the peace at home, especially with a spouse dragging their feet.

Some of these, particularly reasons of health, are perfectly valid reasons to miss physical Church meetings for a time or even, in a few cases, indefinitely.

I believe everyone has at least one reason to leave behind the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mine: anxiety.

This is my story of when I was inactive.

Before I get to that part, let me tell you two stories from my mission.

#1 – Discovering church anxiety—as a missionary

I had always known I had some level of anxiety, particularly social anxiety, but I had never really gotten it treated. The pressures of missionary life amped it up to an all-time high.

During church one day, just a few minutes into class, I felt myself begin to hyperventilate. The room began to spin, and I felt completely petrified. I told my companion I needed to go to the restroom. Tears were beginning to form as I hurried past everybody, hoping nobody looked me in the eye.

Upon arrival at the bathroom, I completely broke down. We ducked into the small mother’s lounge located in the restroom. My irrational mind believed I mustn’t let anybody see a missionary crying.

(At the moment I felt bad, and now I feel totally awful about commandeering the mother’s lounge! Please, nobody do that.)

My companion tried to calm me down, with little success. I stayed in there for at least a half hour, shaking, hyperventilating, crying, unable to control my mind or body.

At some point, I realized I had to do something to work off all the adrenaline, so we snuck out to go home and get a snack. After another half hour or so, we attempted to resume our normal missionary activities.

I don’t really remember what happened the rest of that day, but I remember being pretty spooked. That was the first time I remember having a full-on anxiety attack for seemingly no reason.

I think it happened a couple more times on my mission. Church and other social events were (and still are) common triggers for me. I tried to get help, but at this point, I didn’t know how to get the help I needed.

I learned how to cope, more or less, on my own. I got better at detecting the problem earlier and dealing with the adrenaline, so I don’t think it ever got to be as dramatic as that day.

#2 – Finding meaning in the challenge

At the same time I had had my first anxiety attack in church, my companion and I had been teaching two friends, whom I will call Marcus and Anabel.

Marcus was baptized but hadn’t been to church in a long time. He was a veteran, had PTSD, and, despite our insistence otherwise, worried he couldn’t bring his service dog, a very loyal and well-trained retriever. Anabel was at least very shy, and I suspect she had social anxiety like me. In short, they both were very uncomfortable being around a lot of people at once, and it was a big barrier for them coming to church.

After having invited them to church for weeks, and shortly after my own attack at church, general conference weekend came up. We planned and delivered a very prayerful message about general conference and invited them to come watch a session at the chapel with us. I felt prompted to tell them my own story about having anxiety at church and how I still continued to attend.

Marcus asked, “Why do you still keep going? It’s because you’re a missionary and you have to, right?”

“No.” I explained that, if I wanted to, I could go home anytime. I admitted that being a missionary and having the expectations that go along with it made it easier for me to go to church but that that wasn’t why I kept going.

I kept going because I had promised to God that I would. I knew that was what He wanted me to do. Even though my fears about having an attack again were valid, I knew God’s commandments and His promises were worth that risk.

Marcus and Anabel both came to the chapel that Sunday to watch general conference. There might have been a dozen others in the very sparse crowd at the chapel, and the room was darkened. I’m not sure anyone even noticed them come in, service dog and all.

I know the Holy Spirit is what truly made the biggest difference in them taking the big step of faith to come to church, but I like to believe hearing my story made some impact in lending Marcus and Anabel some faith. I hope I was a part of helping them see that it’s possible to acknowledge valid fears and to serve God anyway.

I share this second experience because it helped me gain some meaning for my challenge in attending church and because it inspires me to share this final part of my story with you.

My peak anxiety: when I was “inactive”

I was just about to graduate with my bachelor’s degree. I was an excellent student, but that didn’t mean I was perfect. My anxiety got in the way.

My last semester, I got my first F in my life when I walked out of a private voice lesson in a completely unexpected anxiety attack and couldn’t bear to show my face again for my final recital.

Church meetings were difficult for me. Sitting with my husband, I could usually make it through sacrament meeting and Sunday School, but I was increasingly unable to attend or make it all the way through Relief Society (the women’s class).

It was already a struggle when I found out I was pregnant and my world turned upside down.

(I know, I talk about it a lot, and it sounds really dramatic, but it was a serious turning point in my life.)

Between failure to keep food (or water) down due to nausea, inability to move due to fatigue, and emotional havoc due to hormones, my anxiety became overwhelming. I cried every day. It’s hard to say how much was from physical pain and how much was from my mental and emotional tornado.

Obviously, I missed nearly every Church meeting and activity for several months.

I began to pull out of the debilitating level of morning sickness around halfway through my pregnancy, and I gradually started emerging from my cave.

It must have been when I was about 5-6 months pregnant when I finally stepped into the Relief Society room. It felt like walking onto a battlefield to face an enemy I had once fought and barely escaped with my life from.

I sat down and waited for the room to fill in. (It’s always best to arrive early to claim a seat and let others fill in the space rather than show up and have to impose myself on existing groups.)

One sister sat next to me. I immediately recognized her as a gal who lived in my apartment building; we had met and spoken at a mutual friend’s apartment several months back, and since then, we had even communicated in the comments within the ward Facebook page. I gave her a small smile in greeting and hoped she wouldn’t want to talk. Or maybe that she would but that it wouldn’t be too draining.

She was all energy. She smiled at me. “Hi, I’m Trisha!” (Not her real name.) “Are you new?”

Ah. She didn’t remember me. I wished I hadn’t come.

I tried to inject some positivity and friendliness into my voice—but also kind of hoped my answer would end the conversation. “No, I’ve lived here for over a year. I just haven’t been to Relief Society since probably January.”

She froze. I can’t promise I know exactly what happened in her head, but I’m pretty sure it went something like this.

I’m talking to an inactive member who has finally come back to church. How do I not screw this up? The next thing I say will determine her entire salvation. I have one chance at this.

She looked me in the eye and gave me a look that I know was meant to express sincere love but made me feel like some ugly mutt breed of puppy with a broken leg stuck under a rock.

“Well, we are so happy you’re here.”

We? Who is we? Her response felt anything but genuine—and it definitely didn’t leave much room for any kind of natural response.

Thankfully, the conversation was over and class began. She didn’t say anything else to me—that day or ever, to my memory.

That was the only conversation I remember having with anyone that day at church. I went home pensive and confused.

A couple of things dawned on me.

First, I had taken on the label of “inactive.”

Sure, I had asked for the sacrament to be brought to me many times, a request granted by my husband and an accommodating ministering brother. I had continued my daily prayer and scripture study (however hazy my mind), and my husband and I had continued our family home evenings.

But in the eyes of the average ward member, I had simply sent my husband to church alone for months and chosen to stay home.

Second, I was experiencing, briefly and to a certain degree, what it feels like to return to church after inactivity.

I know nobody else’s experience will be the same as mine—which was a mild one, I admit. However, I feel my experience has lent me just enough perspective to accurately make a few suggestions, both to those who are returning or struggling to attend church, as well as to those who currently actively attend.

For those returning or struggling to attend church

“Fear not, little children, for you are mine, and I have overcome the world, and you are of them that the Father hath given me;”

Doctrine and Covenants 50:41

I know what it feels like to go week after week to church and really struggle to make friends there. I know what it feels like to miss months of church, often in serious physical and internal pain, and not have anyone reach out. I know what it feels like to return to church and not feel like anyone remembers you ever existed.

During my hiatus, I was truly struggling. I would have loved any sort of help or even messages that I was remembered and missed.

Even when I returned, I still felt far from embraced by the people around me.

If I had been in a different place spiritually at that time, this experience might have led to me fully giving up on Church life.

However, it’s during these times of difficulty during which we must cling to the reasons to stay. And while some may have social, family, or other reasons to attend church, eventually, the reason to stay will have to be the most important one of all:

Your reason has to be spiritual.

Anchor yourself to your faith in God. Anchor yourself to Jesus Christ and building your relationship with Him. Pray for the strength and vision to come and keep coming.

If you struggle keeping God at the center of your worship, or if church is still hard for you anyway, may I suggest a few tips.

Tip #1

Remember, this isn’t just church, or the Mormon Church, or the LDS Church. This is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

You might worry that others won’t accept you, but the only person whose acceptance matters is your Savior’s. He always has a seat, an ear, and a kind word for you. He sees your sacrifice to be there and will accept your offering of gratitude, love, and worship to Him.

Tip #2

I know it might feel awkward, but consider reaching out and asking for the help you need or want.

The Church is full of people who don’t know what they’re doing, and often, they’re just as lonely as you. They might feel like they would be bothering you if they reached out. If you want connection and help, try to talk to your ministering brothers or sisters, contact your Relief Society or Elders’ Quorum president, or reach out to your bishop. Even if you don’t know them, you might be surprised how much they may want to help you.

It’s possible they won’t do a good job, but they are probably trying.

Tip #3

Focus outward instead of inward. Look for someone to welcome and serve.

This story from Sister Oscarson, former Young Women General President, has long resided in my mind:

Occasionally our children would ask us the question, “Why do I have to go to Mutual? I just don’t get very much out of it.”

If I was having a good parenting moment, I would reply, “What makes you think you go to Mutual because of what you get out of it?’

…I can guarantee that there will always be someone at every Church meeting you attend who is lonely, who is going through challenges and needs a friend, or who feels like he or she doesn’t belong. You have something important to contribute to every meeting or activity, and the Lord desires for you to look around at your peers and then minister as He would.

It is as I have prayed to know whom and how to serve that I have found the greatest sense of belonging at church. It is when I became the one to help others, even in my moments of loneliness and struggles, that I found friendship and meaning.

Tip #4

Don’t give up! If you miss an hour, a week, a month, or a year, you get another chance to start over every single Sunday.

“… our destiny is not determined by the number of times we stumble but by the number of times we rise up, dust ourselves off, and move forward.”

“You Can Do It Now!”, Elder Uchtdorf, October 2013

Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was for you personally, despite and because of your imperfections. It’s never too late to come back to take the sacrament. 

Tip #5

Turn to God for help. Pray for Him to give you strength to overcome. Seek personal revelation to know what else you should do to make worship possible or easier.

I testify of His interest in you and your situation. He wants you to come back to Him, and He will always make it possible. If you ask Him, He will help you.

For active members

I don’t blame Trisha for what she said or did. I’m not offended by her admittedly awkward attempt to make me feel welcome.

I think a lot of members would have done the same thing with good intentions.

That said, here is a list of tips for members who are active who want to know how they can help people maintain or return to activity in the Church:

Tip #1

Minister to those you are assigned to. Get to know them. Even if they seem like they don’t need anything, make sure you know who they are, make sure they know who you are, and frequently offer to do specific things with or for them.

Even if it’s been months or years since you got the assignment, reach out anyway! It might feel awkward, but you will be blessed for it. 

Tip #2

Focus on creating and strengthening loving, sincere relationships.

Welcome everybody at church, especially new faces and those you haven’t seen in awhile. Try to get to know those you sit by and serve with at Church.

Reach out to others in your ward boundaries, members or not, active or not. Pray for charity, help to see others as God sees them, the ability to know how to best serve them, and for God to bless them.

I know this can be hard! I struggle meeting new people. It’s not comfortable, and I’m not good at it. However, I trust that God will bless me for my efforts and maybe even let me be a part of Him blessing others, too.

Tip #3

When it seems somebody rejects you or your invitations, don’t give up on them! Continue to be their genuine friend anyway.

Even if it doesn’t lead to them coming to church, don’t stop being their friend! Don’t be annoying, but don’t give up on them, either. People will see you as fake if you only want to be their friend if they come to church.

No matter who you are

“…if you have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?

“Behold, I say unto you, that the good shepherd doth call you; yea, and in his one name he doth call you, which is the name of christ; and if ye will not hearken unto the voice of the good shepherd, to the name by which ye are called, behold, ye are not the sheep of the good shepherd.”

Alma 5:26, 38

I testify that God wants you at church. Jesus invites you to join and stay with the fold. Whether or not you feel needed or wanted by anyone else, He wants you there.

I testify that church is a wonderful opportunity to worship Him and feel His love and guidance. You will feel the difference if you make the sacrifice to go. 

I testify that you have something important to offer to building up His kingdom. There is someone who needs your testimony, service, love, and example, whether you know it or not.

In case you haven’t heard it before, I’ll be the one to say: Please come, please stay, please come back.

Additional study

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Tell us in the comments: When was a time when going to church was hard for you? Are you in that time right now? What advice do you have for others?

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