Book Review: Bridges – Ministering to Those Who Question

Book Review: Bridges – Ministering to Those Who Question by David B. Ostler

Bridges: Ministering to Those Who Question

There are a few books out there that discuss what those with faith crises should do to strengthen their faith and return to activity. David B. Ostler’s book is the first that speaks to church leaders and parents about others’ faith crises, and how to deal with them.

Bridges contains 160 pages of guidance, and 18 pages of notes and resources. There are 11 chapters under three main sections: A Crisis of Faith; Trust, Belonging and Meaning; and Ministering. The chapter headings are:

  1. A Different Time
  2. How Societal Changes Affect Belief
  3. Why People Leave
  4. Confronting Today’s Challenges of Faith
  5. How Faith Changes
  6. Trust
  7. Belonging
  8. Meaning
  9. Key Principles of Ministering
  10. Ministering at Church
  11. Conclusion: Not Walking Alone

Ostler uses a variety of recent studies, including from the Pew Center and LDS scholar Jana Riess, as well as surveys and interviews he’s done with both Church leaders and those who have left the faith.

Those interviewed, who have left the Church, did not leave because of sin. Most were very active, returned missionaries, temple goers. But then something happened that shocked them, or caused them to question a Church practice, its history, or its activities. No one was able to help these members adequately deal with their faith crisis, and so they felt their final option was to leave.

Something very interesting from his surveys is to see just how topsy turvy the results are from leaders and those who have left the Church. For example, when leaders were asked if the Church provides adequate information to help them deal with others’ faith crises, 53% agreed or strongly agreed. When former members were asked the same question, 99% disagreed! Clearly, there is not a proper connection between leaders’ skills and those struggling with a faith crisis.

The issues that created the greatest reasons for leaving included the very different culture of Millennials, Church history, LGBTQ issues, and Women and Priesthood, Ostler explains each of these issues, using very pertinent personal experiences from those who have left the Church.

Occasionally, our desires to protect the Church and the active members, cause us to attack those going through a crisis, often pushing them away from the Church, with no path to return. In Bridges, it also happened to a sister, who was a Relief Society president. When Ostler interviewed her, she explained she had a few concerns about the Church’s history, which she discussed with her bishop. The bishop told her not to worry about it, then promptly released her from her calling. When asked by another organization to have her called to assist them, the bishop said she was not worthy to hold a calling.

Such stories (and Ostler provides many of them) reminded me of a General Conference talk Elder Holland gave in October 2018, “The Ministry of Reconciliation.” In his talk, he shares the story of a couple who lost their farm and were starting life anew in the city. In visiting with their new bishop for a temple recommend, the bishop did not believe the brother’s statement that he was a full tithe payer. As Elder Holland put it:

“I don’t know which of these men had the more accurate facts that day, but I do know Sister Bowen walked out of that interview with her temple recommend renewed, while Brother Bowen walked out with an anger that would take him away from the Church for 15 years.” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2018/10/the-ministry-of-reconciliation?lang=eng )

Ostler gives us tools to understand what happens in the lives of those who have faith crises. He discusses the first 4 of 6 stages of James W. Fowler’s “Stages of Faith Development.” The first two stages are the basics, what we learn in Primary and early development of faith. Stage three usually occurs in the teenage years, or perhaps during a mission. For many members, this is the stage they happily remain in the rest of their lives. However, some hit Stage Four, a faith crisis. It throws them out of Stage Three and into chaos. Nothing is the same. If they survive Stage Four and go onto Stages 5 or 6, they are never the same. They can never return to Stage 3.

I am thankful for that insight. I personally went through a faith crisis of sorts about 20 years ago. I struggled with Brigham Young and Joseph Fielding Smith’s dealings with racism, Church history, Mountain Meadow Massacre, the priesthood ban (and its invented reasons), etc. I did not feel I knew anyone that could help me with such struggles, and so I spent years finding my own resolutions, meanwhile, holding faithful to those things I knew were true. In the end, the Lord revealed insights to me to accept the problems. If you were to ask me now, I would say that Joseph Fielding Smith was a great witness of Christ, and a holder of priesthood keys. Yet, he was also a terrible scientist and even worse Church historian. In other words, I had to deal with their human weaknesses and personal biases.

But many aren’t able to find such solutions. I’m a gospel student of 35 years, and I still struggled. Thankfully, Ostler gives some great tools and advice for leaders, parents, and members on how to properly help those having a faith crisis. His first tool is to learn to listen. Too often, we aren’t listening, but waiting our turn to give advice, counsel, call to repentance, or encourage the person to study harder. Often, what the person really needs is to be heard and loved for who they are in the moment.

Ostler notes the Church has made good strides towards resolving many such problems in the last decade or so. He encourages parents and ward leaders to study the Church’s Gospel Topics essays and discuss them. Sadly, his survey show that many leaders are concerned that using the Church’s Gospel Topics may lead to faith crises. For me, I applaud the Church’s efforts, as such information may prevent many faith crises, as issues are discussed in faithful ways, inoculating our members from the often unfair treatments given by detractors on the Internet. The reality is, as Ostler notes, we can no longer hide our history or teachings from our members. They can either learn the problem moments from us, or from those who want to lead members away from faith and activity.

Ostler taught me a wonderful new meaning and understanding of Matthew 5:48, “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” He encourages us to not seek being perfect according to some grocery list of commandments, but to reference the whole of the chapter. God gives rain to both the righteous and the wicked, not because they deserve it, but because He is their Father and loves them. We aren’t to be merciful, peacemakers, or pure in heart, because of a commandment, or because others are merciful and peacemakers, but because we follow Christ in being merciful to all, including those who persecute us (whether real or imagined).

The focus isn’t on compelling them to stay faithful, but to build a bridge of love, trust, meaning and belonging. One major thing I got from Bridges is that I cannot save anyone. That is not my job. In trying to save others, we try to compel them to be like us in our version of orthodoxy. Instead, we are to minister to them in love, providing them with what they truly need, even if they choose to leave the Church for whatever reason. How refreshing it must feel to be in crisis, and to have those who should love and accept you, to tell you that they love you regardless of your choices.

Bridges does not gloss over the problems with Church history or current cultural issues. It faces them directly and honestly. It helps us know how to inoculate the members from crises where we can, and embrace everyone regardless of their choices. With this new information, I hope to build everlasting bridges to others.

Bridges is a book that every Church leader and parent should read. While the solutions offered do not guarantee our family and friends will remain with the Church, it will guarantee that there is an open bridge for them available, if they ever choose to cross back over.

Available at:

Greg Kofford Books: https://gregkofford.com/collections/frontpage/products/bridges

Amazon Books

17 thoughts on “Book Review: Bridges – Ministering to Those Who Question

  1. Thanks for the review – not sure I’ve seen this book yet. Luckily, my ward has embraced my autistic folks. Part of that is them trying to calm me down when I get upset that my daughter invited herself to food at yet another gathering of a congregation of which she is not a member.

    As to stuff, that’s why I remain passionate about sharing the history as I think it occurred. In my view, when we see the forgiveness and extreme measures Emma and Joseph went to to retain and protect the flock, it demands more from us. The gospel is for all the world, no matter how fallen.

  2. People need to realize that

    (1) There’s no one religion that’s for everyone.

    (2) A faith crisis is not a bad thing.

    (3) Leaving the Church, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.

  3. I learned that leaving the Church for a while was anything but a good thing. I had doubts and questioned the reasons local Church leaders thought and did things I disagreed with, but they proved to be correct, and I had to let pride go and become active again. That was a very good thing for me.

  4. I don’t see it as a faith cricis, but I certainly understand the gospel differently from unquestioning members.
    Nice to see someone else sees Matt 5:48 in context, that it is sumarising the chapter and means we learn to become people who love perfectly, as God does.

    When the endowment changed I was excited with the reduction in sexism, and suggested to the ward newsletter person they should say so, after consulting the Bishop. Next Sunday called into the bishops office and told it is not OK to use derogatory words like sexist about the church, and that I would not be giving talks or holding positions while he was bishop. I feel so welcome in this church. Not. But I still go every Sunday,

  5. I am grateful for the faith and stalwart example of unquestioning members. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is a beautiful thing. I’ll use an Old Testament example… Given a choice between unquestioning loyalty to Moses or a knowledgeable choice to follow Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, I hope I and my friends will choose the first. If ever I did pay heed to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, I hope I and my friends will forget them when Moses calls for me.

  6. I wish the multiple stages of faith had been explained in the OP. Based on looking things up, it seems these are:

    Stage 0 – “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith (birth to 2 years), is characterized by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e. warm, safe and secure vs. hurt, neglect and abuse). If consistent nurture is experienced, one will develop a sense of trust and safety about the universe and the divine. Like kids one sees at Church in nursery and before.

    Stage 1 – “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), is characterized by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious, and marked by a relative fluidity of thought patterns. Religion is learned mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people that one comes in contact with. This would be kids in late nursery, Sunbeams, and the CTR classes.

    Stage 2 – “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. This would tend to be kids who are in the “Valiant” classes at Church.

    Stage 3 – “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence; aged 12 to adulthood) characterized by conformity to authority and the religious development of a personal identity. Any conflicts with one’s beliefs are ignored at this stage due to the fear of threat from inconsistencies. This is a stage that correlates with pre-adolescence at Church, and can extend into the youth years. In my observation, most people recognize complexity during teen years, and progress through other, later, stages of faith development. However I see folks returning to a view where the value of heeding authority is seen as highly valuable, at least within Church circles.

    Stage 4 – “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for his or her beliefs and feelings. As one is able to reflect on one’s own beliefs, there is an openness to a new complexity of faith, but this also increases the awareness of conflicts in one’s belief. The OP sees this stage as analogous to faith crisis. I don’t see this as faith crisis, per se, but natural maturation.

    Stage 5 – “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems. I suspect in many traditions, this is the conflict between the inherited system and the real world. As an inherited faith system embraces the real world, there is less need for conjunctive faith to cause a noticeably ripple.

    Stage 6 – “Universalizing” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment”. The individual would treat any person with compassion as he or she views people as from a universal community, and should be treated with universal principles of love and justice. In my observation, the kind of faith crisis proclaimed by those who style themselves as ex-mos is not this universalist enlightenment.

    If the Church is correct, then every human agreed to follow Christ and accept the gospel before ever being born. This transforms the paradigm from one where any of various possibilities could be right to one where we all had previously agreed with on “right” answer. In this paradigm, joining the Church or remaining within the Church in mortality is more about whether one is part of the rescue of mankind, restoring mankind to a previously selected goal.

    In that vein, there well may be those who claim to be within the fold who would serve better by exiting the fold and returning with a new heart. Just as there are many more of those who would do well to serve by entering into the fold with a new heart.

    Meanwhile, I think it behooves is to recognize that errors occur even in the best of cultures and most well-meaning of peoples. If we truly love all, we will be able to help heal these wrongs, rather than spend inordinant amounts of time weeping and blaming. IMO.

  7. I don’t like characterizing Stage 4 as “faith crisis” or Stage 5 as “mid-life crisis,” or anything that suggests a crisis is a normal or necessary step in the process of maturation. If Stage 6 or “enlightenment” represents the most perfect, more robust, most pure faith, I believe it can be reached without any crisis.

  8. ji: to synthesize the two points, perhaps those are the stages _where_ crises generally occur, if they occur; not that those stages are crises in and of themselves.

    Meg, your list gave me an important insight to my own history regarding some acute trauma at age three, and ongoing family “dysfunction” (to put it nicely).

  9. JI, but it is a crisis. It is a point that changes everyrhing. It happens to those who gain a testimony of the Restored Church and must then risk losing loved ones, etc. Muslims finding Christ must deal with the risks of becoming Christian.

    I suppose plural marriage in Nauvoo put many into a faith crisis. Brigham young wished he were dead. Even Joseph shied sway at first, until his crisis led him to be threatened by an angel with a sword.

    And many members experience it when the prophets they rhought were infallible, were not only fallible, but knowingly doubled down on their errors.

    My gaith is stronger because of my own crisis, though it is now very different from when i converted.

  10. Still, if Stage 6 or “enlightenment” represents the most perfect, more robust, most pure faith, we can all agree that it can be reached without any crisis, right? Some people arriving there will have had an intervening crisis along the way; others may reach it without crisis.

  11. Re the conversion with jl, I wonder what the writer behind the six stages says…? On the one hand, faith crisis are so altering that its hard to see the depth of change happening with out the struggle. On the other hand, it seems judgemental and condescending to say that only those who follow certain steps, experience certain things ever reach the highest level of faith. Anyone read the original book on the six stages and know how this is dealt with?

  12. Stages 5/6 are not discussed in Bridges.
    However, many go through a Trial of Abraham, which changes ones faith, and often purifies it through the crucible of fire. Still, many more remain in stage 3, never having their faith deeply tested.

  13. To borrow a phrase… “It depends on what the meaning of ‘faith crisis’ is.”

    In my lexicon, faith crisis is not synonymous with trial, not even an Abrahamic trial.

    Crisis, in our current usage of “faith crisis,” has the connotation that faith or belief (which are not synonymous either) is in jeopardy, or that there is doubt about the whole paradigm of modern prophets and revelation.

    Joseph, Brigham and Abraham all knew what the Lord was asking them to do. They knew the Voice. There was no doubt there. The question/issue was “can I go through with this sacrifice?” and not “wait…, is this really from the Lord?”

    In our modern context, even from 1830, where most of us don’t have the knowlege of Joseph, Brigham, and Abraham, our question/doubt is more along the lines of “Whoa! Wait a minute. How can that be? Is that really from the Lord? Is that church leader really delivering the will/word of the Lord to us?”

    So there’s one category where we flunk the trial thinking “Yeah, that’s from the Lord, but I don’t want to do that, or can’t do that, or can’t see how I could do that.” But then a subsequent decision usually needs to be made: to go on doing what we can do (or want to do), or to just give up entirely.

    It’s a different kind of flunking-the-test when someone then concludes “Well, the leadership just can’t be right in this matter.” And then the subsequent decision is how to navigate from there, “if they’re wrong on this, are they correct/authorized in anything?”

    In my view, if the challenge or trial is not about questioning the Restoration — and the continuation of those keys — then it is a trial, a test, a refiner’s fire. Questions are typically “Can I do this? How can I do this? Why do I need to do this?”

    If the challenge/trial is causing one to question or doubt the Restoration, and/or the continuation of the keys, or even the existence of God, then that is a “faith crisis.” Once someone concludes that Joseph wasn’t a prophet, or that the current Brethren don’t hold Joseph’s keys, then they’re not going to continue at all. That is the crisis.

  14. Bookslinger, your division makes a lot of sense. I need to ponder it a bit I think (and perhaps hunt down the book on faith stages which I keep hearing about). It’s interesting to look at events in my life that were clearly refining fires as compared to my faith crisis and how each changed me in different ways. And of course it’s somewhat egotistical to think that I’m finished in terms of faith growth and that either refining or crisis are now complete, but I suppose it’s human nature to see where we’ve been much clearer than where we are going.

  15. One doesn’t have to have a major crisis to migrate from a simplistic belief in the rightness of authority to an enlightenment that values all mankind any more than sunrise need necessarily involve a startling and scintillating light piercing darkness.

    I think a challenge some Church members (and other hyperorthodox religionists) face is when they or their culture artificially retain them in the simplistic belief stage long after they naturally would have otherwise matured. When they are finally unable to ignore the mental dissonance, it becomes like a metaphysical earthquake, and they find themselves fundamentally ripped from their prior simple belief.

    As for me and mine, I recall a conversation with my six-year-old sister where she asked me how one could tell if God was god or the devil. And so we had that conversation. I didn’t try to tell her that she was silly or otherwise force her into simple obedience.

  16. Perhaps we would have fewer faith crises within our church if we stopped trying to shame people for honest questions or true statements about the mistakes church leaders make.
    In my case I trusted in the words of bishops and general authorities for over 20 years. All these things i was experiencing were because of sin and Satan, either mine or the other person’s who was doing terrible things to me. But finally, following the death of the person perpetrating these immensely evil acts in my life, I approached my current bishop seeking help. He gave the same rote answers but I stopped him. What he was telling me was not true. It was not what had happened, I told him. I asked for a blessing and was told by the Lord that if I would seek for the answer, I would find it. I have never had to seek so diligently. But I did find it after a conversation with someone not of our faith. Mental illness. And within a week, I found the exact mental illness and the unfortunate information that there are no drugs that treat this. With proper diagnosis and psychiatric care, they can become better at coping but will probably relapse multiple times during their life.
    Unfortunately, we in the Church instead believe in one path. Church courts and excommunication. The bishops goal is then to help the person back to rebaptism and restoration of temple blessings. But with mental illness of the most severe stripe, this will not work. He relapsed shortly after attending the temple again. Sin, Satan, the bishop proclaimed. No, priesthood healing power needed, I now say.
    These people need the truth and correct care. Let us be careful when we are sure we already possess the truth. Especially priesthood leaders.

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