Who Is the Shepherd?


What do we learn if we consider that WE might be the lost sheep in the parable of the lost sheep?

“God’s Love: The Most Joyous to the Soul” by Susan Porter, First Counselor in the Primary General Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“Heaven is cheering you on today, tomorrow, and forever.” Elder Jeffrey Holland, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Want to talk about the episode? Join the No Empty Chairs Podcast private Facebook group. If you’d like more help, schedule a free Conversation with Candice or visit candiceclarkcoaching.com for more information about how coaching tools can help you keep your relationship with your children and your faith.


Welcome, everyone! Today I am thinking about a talk I heard at church recently that is going to stick with me for a long time I think. The speaker shared a quote from Susan Porter’s talk in October 2021 General Conference called “God’s Love: The Most Joyous to the Soul.” Susan Porter is the First Counselor in the Primary General Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She said,

“Brothers and sisters, do you know how completely God, our Heavenly Father, loves you? Have you felt His love deep in your soul?

When you know and understand how completely you are loved as a child of God, it changes everything. It changes the way you feel about yourself when you make mistakes. It changes how you feel when difficult things happen. It changes your view of God’s commandments. It changes your view of others and of your capacity to make a difference.”

It’s something to consider. When I think about the moments when I am most trusting in God’s love for me, deep in my soul, these are the moments I feel most at peace. These are the moments I realize that God already loves me, without my needing to do anything differently. God loves me even though I have made parenting mistakes. God loves me even though I continue to stumble around, uncertain of the next right thing to do with or for or about my children. My Heavenly Parents love me, knowing that I have made and will continue to make mistakes. They love me–whether or not I repent or grow. 

Think about that. God’s nature doesn’t change based on our behavior. As Elder Jeffrey Holland has said, “Heaven is cheering you on today, tomorrow, and forever.” Our Heavenly Parents are cheering us on, and not only us, but our children also. Today, tomorrow, and forever. Our children are Their children, just as loved as we are. When I trust in God’s perfect love for me, and for my children, I don’t see challenges in my life as judgments against me or punishments, but rather as simply part of the mortal experience. Mortality is about having a human experience. Part of the mortal experience is that people we love make choices we would prefer them not to make. Part of the mortal experience is us making choices that our loved ones would prefer that we not make. Think about the last time you said or did something that someone you love didn’t like. Mortality is happening all around us, mortality operating as designed. We are all human beings with agency, so now what? 

After sharing this quote from Susan Porter, the speaker went on to talk about the parable of the lost sheep. I’ll read it from Luke 15:4-7.

“4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.

7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.

Often we talk about this parable in terms of those of us at church “going after” people who are not at church. There’s nothing wrong with caring about people who don’t come to church. I am all for it! Let’s meet them where they are. But I was intrigued by the idea shared by this speaker, that “You are always the sheep.”

What? How can that be? This person is the lost sheep? He’s at church every Sunday. He serves faithfully in his calling. We don’t normally think of people like this as lost. There was a time when I didn’t think of myself as lost. I was comfortable in my vision of myself as one of the ninety and nine.

But what do I learn if I consider that “ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” don’t actually exist. There is only one just person who needs no repentance. That one is Jesus. And the way Jesus tells the story, any one of us is worth celebrating with joy, more than 99 of Him. That math doesn’t make sense at all. And I think that’s the point. The point is our infinite worth–before, during, and after we are lost and found. We are always the sheep, and Jesus will always find us because we are worth more to Him than can be measured.

When I’m coaching I help people slow things down to take a closer look at what they’re thinking. I help them gain more awareness around their beliefs and what those beliefs are creating in their lives. I want to do that now with this parable and circle back to verse 5. “And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” Already Jesus is rejoicing, and they haven’t gone anywhere yet.

When I’ve thought of this story in the past, I’ve had this movie in my head where the shepherd finds the sheep, lifts it up and immediately carries it home, and then celebrates with everybody else. But when we slow it down we realize there isn’t a timeline here. A friend of mine pointed out that, in her experience, Jesus is just out with the “lost” sheep, for however long they’re away. He always knows exactly where they are and He is there with them, waiting for them to turn to Him. He doesn’t immediately haul them back to the fold. And I think we can read the parable that way. Jesus is the shepherd who knows where every one of His sheep is. He is the shepherd who lays them on his shoulders, keeps them close to Him, and rejoices in their inherent value. Joy doesn’t wait for them to be back with everyone else. Joy is there in the relationship, in the closeness to Jesus, in the closeness of Jesus.

We don’t know exactly when, but at some point in the story, this sheep does get reintroduced to the flock. It’s still the sheep that it was before Jesus carried it back, but now it’s here with the rest so they can all celebrate together, just because they’re here together, in the same way the shepherd rejoiced in the sheep when it was just the two of them. I wonder whether we could do better at celebrating together just because people are here with us, as they are, whatever that looks like for them. And maybe that is some of the work we need to do to repent and grow ourselves, because there’s a case to be made that we are always the lost sheep in this story.

And I wonder how we could do better at encouraging and celebrating the people who aren’t here with us, especially our children.

Remember, there are no empty chairs.

What’s Helpful – And What Isn’t


A former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shared with Candice what was hurtful and what was helpful from family and friends as they navigated their faith journey.


  • Setting minimum standards of belief such as “as long as you still believe in God”
  • “Have you prayed about it?”
  • Giving apologist books with answers that don’t resonate
  • Labeling as “not diligent” or “lazy”
  • Ridiculing people who are not at church for their clothing choices or their intelligence, etc.
  • Only talking about church
  • Ignoring their experience as they leave the church
  • Failing to consider the actual impact of well-intended offers


  • Talking about things that are not church-related
  • Learning and honoring boundaries
  • Sincerely saying things like, “Thank you for telling me,” “I know this is hard for you,” “I want to support you,” etc.
  • Asking follow-up questions – with consent
  • Remember that, although someone else staying or leaving is outside of your control, you always get to decide how you behave
  • Expressing pride and respect in them as a person
  • Take a sincere interest. Don’t just tolerate them; embrace them


  1. Is there a difference between what I am trying to communicate and the actual effect it’s having?
  2. Is there a way for me to be more loving that would improve my experience and strengthen my relationship with my child so I can be a blessing in their life and not a painful burden?


Today we’re going to talk about what’s helpful and what isn’t when our kids are experiencing a faith transition.

Recently I spent over an hour on a call with a former member of my stake, who is also formally a former member of The Church [of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints]. They had seen my post about my local in-person support group for members in mixed-faith families and wanted to share their perspective with me so I could share it with others, anonymously, and I am going to share it with you today. I think it will be helpful to consider, and the things they shared are all things I have heard before from others in similar situations. It is certainly not unique.

I had thought my friend and I would talk for 30 minutes or so, but more than an hour later I had said only a few words. When we started the call I realized that they had prepared notes of their story and the things they found unhelpful or helpful, from their family and from their friends, but mostly from their parents. At that point I realized that my job was to listen, so I listened. And I took notes. So today I am sharing with you first some things that this former member of the Church found unhelpful in their journey, and then some things they found helpful and would recommend.

Before we drive into that, I’d like you to think about what you want from your children. Sometimes as parents we want our children to think, feel, and act in ways that validate our own worldview so that we can feel peaceful. We think that if our kids are doing all the “right“ things, then everything is going to be okay. And then when they stop going to seminary, we think, “Well, this is bad, but at least they’re going to church.” And then when they stop going to church, we think “Well, this is bad, but at least they’re still going to activities.” And then when they stop going to activities and don’t want to be around people from church anymore, we think, “Well, this is bad, but at least they still believe in God.” And we think all of those things because our human brains are looking for safety and predictability. We think we will find safety in conformity, our own conformity and our children’s conformity.

Good news! We don’t find safety and peace in rules or in controlling other people. We find safety and peace in the infinite Atonement of Jesus Christ, in loving God and loving others. We didn’t know how things were going to end up when our kids were attending seminary, and we have know idea how they’re going to end up now. So why not choose to believe that the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ is indeed infinite and that we and our children are going to be okay? Today I want us to think about the thoughts and experiences my friend shared with me that I am going to share with you through the lens of confidence in the infinite power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, or even just the belief that the universe is conspiring in our favor–and in our children’s favor–always.

First, what was UNHELPFUL to my friend?

  1. As this person began to open up with their parents about their changing beliefs, one of their parents said, “As long as you still believe in God and Jesus, that’s what’s most important to me.” You might wonder what’s wrong with that. It can seem at first like it’s a way of reaching out for common ground. The problem is that people whose relationship with the Church is changing often also experience a change in their relationship with God. They may not have settled into a confident belief in Jesus or God, or they may be thinking that God isn’t real. My friend heard this statement from their parent as placing conditions on their acceptance by their parent that didn’t leave room for the evolving belief system they had under construction. They didn’t really know what they believed at this point, and this statement felt like a rejection in advance. Their parents were okay as long as they believed in God, but if at some point they didn’t, well, that was just unacceptable.
  2. Another thing the parents said to my friend that was not helpful was, “Have you prayed about it?” To a believing person, tools like prayer, scripture study, learning from church leaders, understanding doctrine and talking with faith-filled family and friends may be tools that have been integral to their own faith journey. But these tools are not always currently available to someone who is navigating their struggles with faith. Suggesting such tools or applying my life lens to their situation could be a huge negative for them. It can feel to them like I am judging them and their decisions. In my friend’s case, they had suspended formal prayer as a form of self-care while they worked through their conditioning to reject their internal voice in favor of deference to authority. This question from their parents about prayer felt like a lack of trust in their ability to make decisions for themselves.
  3. The next thing my friend mentioned as unhelpful was giving them a book of apologist answers to questions that mostly didn’t resonate with their experience. As parents sometimes we think we just need to explain things better because our kids aren’t getting it. We think we’re right and if we can find the right approach, or the right book, or the right podcast, our kids will suddenly understand and then everything will be okay. The problem with needing to be right is that it’s a losing relational strategy. It sets the other person up to be wrong, and ignores the fact that we are all filtering God and the world through our own human lens. We are all operating on the best of our understanding–even our children who believe differently than we do. It’s helpful to our relationships with other people if we can have some humility around that.
  4. In the same vein of needing to be right, another thing that is not helpful is labeling people moving away from the Church as not diligent or lazy. Just as we want our children to assume our positive intent, it’s helpful if we can give them the same benefit of our doubt that they are sincerely trying to find their way through this mortal experience with honesty and integrity. My friend described being labeled as not diligent or lazy as both offensive and painful.
  5. Even before my friend experienced a faith transition, they heard their parents repeatedly ridicule family members who were not at church. Their parents made critical comments about things like clothing choices and intelligence. And I have to tell you that when my friend mentioned this one, it stung. I know I have done this myself, many times, and sometimes I still do it. I had a flashback to sitting in a Panera with my children when my oldest daughter was a preteen. A bunch of high school students came in vibrantly laughing and talking and the thing I chose to say to my preteen daughter was, “In our family, we don’t wear jeans that tight.” I remember thinking that I was protecting her and teaching her how to be safe. Now I think I was reacting from fear and teaching her how to look down on other people. I sometimes feel embarrassed that I can go through the world finding fault with other people who are simply living their lives consistent with their own belief system, and not doing me or my family any harm. Comments like these from my friend’s parents made them feel unsafe in their relationship when their own faith shifted and their choices around clothing and other things changed. It gave them the sense, “That’s how my parents feel about me now.” I don’t get to go back to that Panera and say something about those teenagers’ liveliness and friendship to my children instead of judging them negatively, but I can notice when I am judging others now and make better choices going forward. And by the way, next time you find yourself condemning and disapproving of someone, notice how that feels in your body. Consider whether you want to keep creating that experience for yourself, or if love might feel better. Love is always an option, and love always feels good.
  6. Another thing that was challenging for my friend was family not finding ways to talk about things that aren’t church. This can be especially difficult in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because it’s a religion that permeates all facets of our lives every day. Recognizing that church topics can be tender for people leaving the Church, especially at first, can motivate us to find common ground around other interests. Sometimes just finding different words to express our appreciation and enjoyment of nature, for example, or for other good things can be a way to include people with different beliefs without denying our own gratitude to God. We don’t always have to call something a blessing for it to be one.
  7. On the flip side, my friend wanted to talk about what they were experiencing with someone who could listen. Now, this doesn’t have to be you, and if it is you, it doesn’t have to be every time they want to share. It’s okay to set limits of what you’re willing to hear. But if you can hold space for the experience they are having, you can get to know who they really are and help them build their sense of safety. My friend shared that silence from people who had been close to them was painful.
  8. It’s important to recognize that someone who is leaving their religious community is likely to feel marginalized. It’s practically inherent to the process of a faith transition. So attempts to reach out to them can have an impact quite different from what we intend. For example, as my friend’s child approached age 8 and they were living several states away from extended family, their parents made a point to tell them they would be sure to make time and come out to visit if their grandchild was going to be baptized. This felt to my friend like there was a price for the grandparents’ attention, like they were only worth visiting if they were conforming to expectations. No baptism, no visit. What was meant as a loving gesture of generosity, actually felt like a rejection.

My friend has given us a lot to think about. Not everyone is the same, but my experience tells me my friend’s perceptions are not unique. And I’d like to point out that you can get a lot of benefit from simply stopping yourself from doing things that are unhelpful, even if you don’t know quite what to do instead. If you’re lucky, your child has shared with you what’s hard for them. Honor that sharing by respecting their challenges and making room for difference in your family.

Let’s move into a more positive, proactive mode now. You’ve thought about what things you do that might have an unintended negative impact, and decided what you’re no longer going to do. What can fill that space?

Here are a few things that my friend found HELPFUL

  1. The first thing they mentioned is finding things to talk about that are not church-related. This is the flipside of unhelpfully only talking about church. It’s worth noting that my friend brought it up in both contexts. It was meaningful to them when people were able to converse with ease and be interested in their rich, full life that does not include participating at church.
  2. Finding out the person’s boundaries and honoring them, such as not trying to change their mind or bring them back. If you’re not sure what someone is okay with, ask them. “Do you want to talk about your experience walking away from church?” “Are you okay hearing about my experiences at church, or would you prefer I avoid that topic altogether with you? I am happy to find topics we both feel comfortable with discussing.” Get someone’s consent before having a conversation.
  3. Here are a few things my friend appreciated hearing people say when they shared their faith transition with them
    1. “Thank you for telling me.”
    2. “I know this is hard for you.”
    3. “I want to support you” 
    4. It’s important to be sincere and follow through. If supporting them means agreeing not to talk about church, hold to that boundary. Apologize when you forget and then change the subject.
  4. It can also be helpful to express willingness to continue the conversation by asking follow-up questions. Bring your curiosity. People can tell whether you’re genuinely interested in them, or if you’re just trying to lay the foundation of your next argument or sermon.
  5. Know that it isn’t in your control whether someone stays or leaves. What is in your control is how you behave. If it doesn’t feel loving, it might not be loving. Be honest with yourself about why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  6. Express pride and respect in them as a person. My friend choked up as they described a moment where one of their parents did just that. I think we can use more of this and let go of the idea that the unhelpful things are serving some useful purpose. Our kids grew up with us. They know what we believe. Our best path is to support and trust them as they use their agency to navigate their lives. We can use our agency to choose love and kindness.
  7. We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating. It’s helpful to take interest in them rather than just tolerate them. Don’t just allow them to be who they are and where they are. The truth is they don’t need our permission. They simply ARE who they are and where they are. Choose to embrace who they are and where they are. Make them your teacher and you’ll find ways to grow and become more like our Heavenly Parents and Jesus Christ, who are the essence of love. Whenever I access humility around my children, I’ve found the Spirit teaching me how to be more Christlike. I don’t need to worry about my children; I just need to grow myself up.

The sentiments my friend shared with me are ones I’ve heard before. There are a lot of people around us experiencing the world and the Church differently than we are. I hope you find these ideas helpful as you consider your own family situation. I will leave you with a couple of questions you can ask yourself as you navigate your relationship with your children who don’t come to Church.

  1. Is there a difference between what I am trying to communicate and the actual effect it’s having?
  2. Is there a way for me to be more loving that would improve my experience and strengthen my relationship with my child so I can be a blessing in their life and not a painful burden?

Most of the time we mean well. If we’re thoughtful, we can do better for ourselves and for our children. Remember, there are no empty chairs.

The Covenant Path


How do you feel when you hear the words “covenant path?”

When you think about Pr. Nelson’s direction to “keep on the covenant path,” who do you think he’s talking to: you or your children who don’t come to church?

What is a covenant? Do you think about it transactionally or relationally?

What do you mean when you describe someone as “inactive,” “less active,” or “returning member?” Does thinking about your children in those terms help or hinder your relationship with them?

Want to talk about the episode? Join the No Empty Chairs Podcast private Facebook group. If you’d like more help, schedule a free Conversation with Candice or visit candiceclarkcoaching.com for more information about how coaching tools can help you keep your relationship with your children and your faith.


Welcome, everybody! Today we’re going to talk a little bit about the covenant path and the way we tell stories about ourselves and about others, and the way we tell stories TO ourselves and to others. Honestly, I’ve wrestled a lot with this question, and even more recently as I’ve thought about what I want to share about my thoughts. Hopefully, future episodes won’t ask as much time of me or I won’t even be able to keep up with a once per month pace. But I HAVE wrestled with the idea of the covenant path and I have some thoughts I hope will be helpful to you.

Before we dive in I want you to pause for a minute and notice how you feel when I say “the covenant path.” Maybe you hear this expression and feel comfort and safety because you think our Heavenly Parents have prepared a way for us to return to Them through our Savior Jesus Christ. Maybe you hear this expression and feel despair and dread because you think someone you love is not on the covenant path and they should be.

Notice that there isn’t any one way to think or feel about the covenant path, but different thoughts about the covenant path create different emotions for people. In fact, the same thought about the covenant path can create a different emotion for different people. Thinking the thought that our Heavenly Parents have prepared a way for us to return to Them can feel painful to someone who also has the underlying thought that something has gone wrong that their child isn’t taking advantage of that opportunity.

So notice what thoughts and feelings come up for you when you think of the covenant path. I invite you to let them be whatever they are without judging whether or not you should think or feel that way.

If you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you’re familiar with the expression “the covenant path.” It’s something Pr. Nelson has been talking about since he became President of the Church. If you’re listening to this podcast, you probably also have someone in your life that someone could describe as not being in the covenant path. You’ve probably felt some pain, sorrow, or worry when anyone brings up the covenant path, and that makes sense on some level.

In President Russell M. Nelson’s first public address after he was set apart as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said this,

“Now, to each member of the Church I say, keep on the covenant path. Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere….[He goes on:]

Now, if you have stepped off the path, may I invite you with all the hope in my heart to please come back. Whatever your concerns, whatever your challenges, there is a place for you in this, the Lord’s Church. You and generations yet unborn will be blessed by your actions now to return to the covenant path. Our Father in Heaven cherishes His children, and He wants each of us to return home to Him. This is a grand goal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—to help each of us to come back home.”

I notice a couple of things about this quote. The first thing I notice is that he’s talking to members of the Church and asking US to follow the Savior. And he’s telling me as a member of the Church that if I have stepped off the path, he invites me to come back. He’s talking to the people who are listening to him and he’s talking to us about ourselves. He isn’t talking to people who are not listening, and he isn’t talking to me about anyone else–not even my children. The invitation is for me to follow the Savior. The invitation is not for me to control everyone around me and make sure they live their lives the way I think they should.

So, what is the covenant path? What’s hard about it? How can we relate to the idea in a way that’s healthy for us and for our relationships?

The simplest way for me to think about the covenant path is that it’s the way back to Heavenly Father. Part of our belief system in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that we lived with Heavenly Parents before we came to earth, that life on earth was meant to teach us to be like Them, and that we can return to Them through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. In order to return, we each need to make covenants with God, special agreements where God sets the terms of the agreement. Baptism is an ordinance where we make a covenant to follow Jesus, followed by confirmation where we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. There are further covenants we make in the temple, including temple marriage. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/covenant?lang=eng

What a lot of people have in mind when they think of someone being in the covenant path is a person visibly, actively progressing from baptism to temple covenants and then continuing to participate at church and in temple worship, renewing the baptism covenant by partaking of the sacrament at our Sunday sacrament meetings. People showing up at church are ostensibly “on the covenant path.” They are doing things that will get them blessings from God is how we sometimes think of it. People not showing up at church are ostensibly NOT “on the covenant path” and not worthy of the same blessings.

There’s another way to think about a covenant, though, that is relational rather than transactional. I like to think about making a covenant as entering into a particular relationship with God. My life coach training taught me that my relationship with anyone is simply how I think about them. My relationship with my mom is how I think about her. My relationship with my brother is how I think about him. My relationship with my child is how I think about them. My relationship with my ex-husband is how I think about him. And my relationship with God is how I think about God. So for me, my formal participation in a covenant ritual like baptism, sacrament, or temple worship is an expression of my intention to be in a relationship with my Heavenly Parents where I am trying to follow my Savior Jesus Christ to become more like Him, where I remember Jesus and commit to grow.

All of that sounds pretty great, right? What’s not to like about the covenant path? Well, for parents whose children are not participating at church, thoughts about the covenant path can be a source of pain, sorrow, and worry. What does it mean if your son was baptized at age 8, raised in the church, and then decides not to serve a mission? What does it mean if you find alcohol in his room? What if he moves in with his girlfriend? What does it mean if your daughter serves a mission and then at some point stops attending church? What does it mean if your daughter doesn’t graduate from seminary? What does it mean if your child is gender non-conforming?

We might think it means that they have gone off the covenant path, that they are lost or gone astray, that something has gone wrong. We can worry about their immediate physical safety with some of the choices they make. We can feel rejected when we think the life they are creating for themselves is not the life they should be living, the one we had imagined for them during all those years of regular or irregular family home evening and family scripture study. We can feel shame when we think our children’s choices are evidence that we did it wrong, or that if we had just been more faithful and consistent with family prayer, or spent more time at home with them, this wouldn’t be happening. All of these thoughts are potentially painful, and none of them is true.

What? What do I mean, none of them is true? Here’s what I mean. The human brain is a meaning-making machine. Your brain will come up with a story about anything. It isn’t true and it isn’t untrue. It’s simply the story our mind tells. Let’s say a car pulls into traffic in front of me some number of feet closer than I feel comfortable with, without signaling for whatever length of time I think is appropriate. I can think the driver’s a jerk. I can think they’re a bad driver generally. I can think they must have been distracted in that moment. I can think they have an urgent need to get to the hospital to be with their child who was just taken to the emergency room. And depending on which of those stories my brain chooses to tell and which story I choose to believe, I’m going to feel mad, disgusted, frustrated, compassionate or loving. I’m going to have a different experience of driving on the road that day based on the story I tell myself about that driver who pulled their car in front of me. I’m probably never going to know what the “truth” is. And it doesn’t matter what the so-called truth is, whether they drive like this all the time or whether they have a reason I think is good enough to drive like that today, the only thing that matters to my experience is the story I tell myself about what happened. And what happened is simply a driver drove their car in front of me at a certain speed and a certain distance without me seeing them make a signal. It isn’t a good thing. It isn’t a bad thing. It’s just a person in a car that is now in front of me.

Now if my brain tells a story about how that driver almost hit me and I could have died, I might feel afraid. If I notice that I didn’t die, I might feel relieved. But none of that is coming from the car in front of me. It’s all coming from my brilliant, story-telling, human brain that is trying to avoid pain and keep me alive.

So what does this have to do with the covenant path? Well, sometimes when the people around us start doing things we didn’t expect and didn’t want, our brilliant, story-telling, human brains panic. Our daughter decides not to go to seminary or church. Our child lets us know they’re part of the LGBTQ+ community. Our son consumes alcohol and moves in with his girlfriend before getting married. And our brains think things like, “Oh no! My child is not on the covenant path! The world has led them astray! They are lost! They’ve gone inactive!” And then we feel panic or shame or anger or worry, not because of our children’s choices, but because of what we think about them. We might even call it judging. And then we want our children to make different choices so we can feel better.

Here’s the good news: we can feel better now, no matter what our kids do. No matter what our kids believe, feel, or do, we can find peace in Christ. We can choose to tell a story of hope, for ourselves and for our children, because the truth is we don’t know what the truth is about how anyone’s story ends.

I was sitting in a Relief Society meeting for women at church one Sunday and someone started talking about children who had grown up in the church and who are now “inactive.” It got me thinking about why I choose to say the longer version, that my kids don’t come to church, when “inactive” is a common description that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints use.

But what does “inactive” actually mean? There isn’t a clear definition of what it means. Does it mean they don’t come to church every Sunday? What if they’re sick or traveling? Does it mean they don’t read their scriptures every day? What if they forget one day? Does it mean they haven’t read their scriptures or entered a church building in a month? In a year? 5 years? 10 years? How long, then, does it take for someone to become inactive? When does it start? What’s the precise moment where someone switches from being active to inactive? Once they become inactive, do they stop being inactive if they read a verse of scripture one day? When they see a poster with a scripture reference on it at an athletic event on television and kind of remember what that scripture says, does that count? What about prayer? How do we know whether someone prays? Does it only count if they are kneeling down and using the format we’re used to, addressing Heavenly Father and closing in the name of Jesus Christ? What constitutes a prayer and how do we know if someone is doing it?

Over my lifetime, the term “inactive” has fallen out of official use in the Church in favor of “less active” and then later that was rejected in favor of “returning” members. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with using the word “inactive,” it’s just unclear what that specifically means. The same is true for “less active” and “returning.” “Inactive” isn’t a fact; it’s a story. It can mean different things to different people, depending on their experience and perception. If local church leaders sitting in a ward council want to use the term “inactive,” “less active,” or “returning” member as a succinct way to describe people whose perceivable behavior falls into a clearly defined category they’ve established locally, then that’s potentially useful. If they decide, for example, it means anyone who has attended sacrament meeting less than once a month for more than one month in a row, then that’s useful. It’s less useful to use the word “inactive” in a regular Sunday RS or EQ or SS meeting where we’re all going to have a different idea of what it means. And sometimes what it comes to mean is that those other “inactive” people are not like us and we need to go find them and explain to them what they’re doing wrong. We think they are broken and we need to fix them.

Sometimes people have good reasons for not coming to church. Church is full of human people getting things wrong–a lot. Sometimes we misunderstand the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, sometimes we understand a principle of the gospel but live it imperfectly, judging others, being so certain-sure of all the ways we are right.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. Those “inactive” people are exactly like us. They are acting on their existing belief system, and we are acting on ours.

The human brain likes a nice binary dichotomy where we’re either active or inactive, on the covenant path or not on the covenant path. It’s a tidy way of organizing the world to know whether my socks are inside the drawer or outside of the drawer. But there are a lot of things that don’t work like that. We may be inside or outside of our personal faith in any given moment. There’s a lot more fluidity around that than around my sock drawer, and a lot more complexity, too. And the truth is, the only person I can really know the truth about in relation to God is me.

So, if you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I join Pr. Nelson in inviting you to be on the covenant path to follow the Savior. I invite all of us to practice feeling peace and love more often than fear and judgment. Our covenants rescue us from misery because we have hope in Christ. It’s going to be okay. If we’re wrong? Well, in that case, we spent a lot of time feeling peace and love and making decisions from that place.

Remember, there are no empty chairs.

No Empty Chairs


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Welcome, everybody! I’m so glad you’re here. I’m excited to get started with this podcast project I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Some of you may be familiar with me from my podcast Finding Fifty with Mette Ivie Harrison, my best friend from high school who no longer participates at church. Some of you are brand new. Welcome, all! In this podcast I hope to provide you with some ideas that will increase the likelihood that there will be no empty chairs at your kitchen table.

For this first episode I want to talk a little bit about where the name of the podcast comes from. There’s an idea that circulates among the members of my faith community that parents need to make sure there are no empty chairs at the family table in heaven. As far as I can tell, this idea originated with the prophet President Ezra Taft Benson. He was the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 10 November 1985 until his death, 30 May 1994, which is essentially the time that I was in high school and college. Pr. Benson placed renewed emphasis on studying The Book of Mormon as another testament of Jesus Christ. That was the hallmark of his time as the prophet.

I’d like to read just a couple of paragraphs from Chapter 14 of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson on “Marriage and Family–Ordained of God.” It says: 

“From the beginning of their marriage, Ezra and Flora Benson made their home and family their top priority. When their children were young, they began emphasizing that they wanted their family to have no “empty chairs” in the eternities. President Benson emphasized this same message during his service as a Church leader. He said:

“God intended the family to be eternal. With all my soul, I testify to the truth of that declaration. May He bless us to strengthen our homes and the lives of each family member so that in due time we can report to our Heavenly Father in His celestial home that we are all there—father, mother, sister, brother, all who hold each other dear. Each chair is filled. We are all back home.” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, page 493.)

There’s a lot to love about this idea. I think it’s motivated by a desire for our children to know that we love and value them. As parents we want to remember that our family is our priority. We want to tend lovingly to each family member’s spiritual, social, physical and intellectual health. Encouraging that is what the Children and Youth program of the Church is built around. And it makes sense that we want to have the people we love with us, now and in the eternities. 

It gets a little sticky for me when I think of reporting to our Heavenly Parents that we are all there, as if that were something I have control over.

It is NOT something I have control over.

What I have control over is me. In my church we call this power to control ourselves “agency,” and it belongs to each of us as children of God, even our own children. In fact, before we came to earth God rejected a proposal that we would each come to earth and then be forced to do things the “right” way so we would all return to be with our Heavenly Parents without fail.

I think the reason that proposal was rejected is because that isn’t how it works. We CAN’T grow and develop to become like our Heavenly Parents without having the opportunity to make mistakes, and lots of them. Experience is the best teacher, and it’s what we came to earth for. And it’s why we have a Savior.

As I was researching this idea of no empty chairs, I came across an article from the Ensign magazine titled “No Empty Chairs.” The anonymous author shares how she first tried a drug while she was working in a nightclub. She says, 

“My grandfather’s face flashed across my mind just before I decided to put the deadly poison into my system.

The next morning, I found out that he had died during the night. My grandfather, feeling that his death was imminent, had recorded a tape to be played at his funeral. In it he told us that he wanted to see every single one of us on the other side of the veil. “Always remember,” he said in his tape, “no empty chairs.” As I listened, I felt sad and embarrassed about my inactivity in the Church and about what I had done.

But the shame I felt didn’t stop me….

I had become an “empty chair.” I felt as though Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ could never forgive me for what I’d done. Every time I would even consider trying to clean up my life during the moments when I could think clearly, self-loathing and discouragement took over. I would then give up on myself again.”

Shame doesn’t stop us from making bad decisions. It feels terrible and often leads to more bad decisions. “No Empty Chairs” sounds good when everyone is complying with expectations. When they don’t meet expectations, it can be poison, fueling self-loathing and discouragement like it did for this woman. 

Shame, according to Brene Brown, is the 
“intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

And I think sometimes that is the feeling people get when we talk about them as “empty chairs.”

I like to think of a baby learning to walk. Most of them fall down. A lot. And getting back up is the way they develop the muscle strength and coordination to keep progressing toward an ability to walk. As a parent, I want to be there to love and encourage. I want to give guidance that will keep them from serious harm that is outside their understanding. And I want to let them fall down so they can become stronger by getting back up.

That last part can seem particularly challenging as a parent of older children who may be making mistakes that we deem more serious. Drug use, sex outside of marriage, taking physical risks. It can feel more challenging to discern when to let them fall down and when to prevent them from serious harm that we think is outside their understanding. At some point along the way we have to hand them the title deed of their own lives as adults and let them do with them what they will.

Sometimes it seems like it would be a better idea to micromanage them along through all of the decisions so they’re doing what we think is best. We have really good ideas, and we love them! But we cannot yet love them perfectly and we don’t actually know what is best for them, or what path their journey toward God’s love will take. When I remember this, I return my focus to what I can control, which is only me. I can continually work toward being more loving and less fearful myself.

The anonymous author I mentioned above continues her story:

“Finally, two years after I’d first taken the drug, I mustered up what courage I had and decided I could not go on like this anymore, or I would end up dead. There was an LDS church across the street from where I lived. I knew what I needed to do, and although I was scared, I walked across the street. I did not know who the bishop was; I just knew I had to talk to him.

I will never forget that bishop who invited me in with such kindness, charity, and compassion. When I met him I was very nervous. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was afraid of what he would think of me. Gently, he asked me to explain everything to him….With his encouragement, I decided to start the quitting process.”

Kindness, the pure love of Christ, compassion, gentleness. These are feelings that create an environment where someone feels safe to be who they are. When it’s safe to be who we are, we often decide we want to grow because we feel encouraged.

Lately I’ve had a couple of phrases from the New Testament running through my mind. One is from 1 John 4:18-19 

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear…We love him, because he first loved us.”

I worry less and less about my children loving God, or even loving me, and put my energy toward loving them right now, exactly as they are. My only responsibility is to keep picking myself up off the floor and walking ever more steadily toward my loving Heavenly Parents.

I also think of the story in Mark 10:17-22. A man comes running to Jesus wanting to know how to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him of the commandments and he asserts that he has observed them from his youth. 

“Then Jesus beholding him loved him.”

Even though, I imagine, Jesus knew what was coming next. “Jesus beholding him loved him.” Jesus didn’t love him because he kept the commandments. Jesus just loved him, knowing that in a moment he was going to value his great possessions more than eternal life. Knowing that this man had not yet become as loving as we all eventually need to become to actually be like Jesus, Jesus saw him and loved him.

The way I like to think about “No Empty Chairs” is that heaven will take care of itself. President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shared this: 

“A prophet of God once offered me counsel that gives me peace. I was worried that the choices of others might make it impossible for our family to be together forever. He said, “You are worrying about the wrong problem. You just live worthy of the celestial kingdom, and the family arrangements will be more wonderful than you can imagine.”

I have the idea that there may just be all kinds of people living on the earth when it is renewed and receives its paradisiacal glory. I think what may constitute the highest order of heaven is the capacity to love like God loves. It isn’t a place; it’s a way of being with other people. I heard Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife speak once about the ability to metabolize evil, to receive what comes our way with softness, to extract what is nutritious and useful for us, and let the rest go, without becoming defensive or reacting with similar behavior. This way of being improves our own experience and increases our influence for good on the people around us. But it doesn’t control them, just like our Heavenly Parents don’t control us. They operate from love, desiring our growth, rather from fear and worry that we are getting it wrong.

We don’t need to worry. We are going to get it wrong. So are our kids. That’s a given. What’s also a given for me is the infinite power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ to redeem me AND my children. I choose to believe that nothing has gone wrong.

Let’s not worry about having “empty chairs” in heaven. Let’s lovingly extend a standing invitation for our children to fill the chairs at our kitchen table now, just as they are, whatever they believe, and whenever they’re ready. And let’s not think of our children as empty chairs.