Chapter 3
Home Up

VOLUME 2, 1996

Chapter 3
Shrinking to Fit

Phyllis Ford Rueckert


Phyllis Rueckert is fifty-five years old, married for thirty-four years, and the mother of two grown unmarried sons. Among her ancestors are some who were baptized during the 1830s and who moved to Kirtland. After a 1981 Motherís Day sacrament meeting on womenís proper roles that she felt was "just too insulting," she walked out and has not attended meetings since that day. Her husband has continued to be an active member during the intervening fifteen years. He was Gospel Doctrine teacher in the Sunday School at the time of this incident and still teaches this class after seventeen years, with a yearís service as a stake missionary in 1993.

Phyllis doesnít think that any individual knowingly abused her spiritually, but she feels that she was a victim of organizational abuse.

I always believed that the Mormon Church was the "only true church on the face of the earth" because that was what I was socialized to think since my birth. I also "knew beyond any doubt that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God" and "the prophet received revelation from God."

However, from the time I was a very young child, I experienced cognitive dissonance when Mormon teachings came in contact with my observations of the world around me. For example, I observed goodness and badness in Mormons and non-Mormons. I also couldnít accept the concept that the Mormons were Godís chosen people. Priesthood discrimination against black men was another problem for me. And finally, I was also very uncomfortable with the concept that polygamy was the "higher law."

For a long time, I dealt with these problems by blaming myself. I felt that I was deficient spiritually because I couldnít reconcile Mormon teachings with what my intuition and reason told me had to be Godís justice. I always felt that if I studied more, the answers to all my questions would be answered.

Well, I did study more, and I studied myself right out of the Church. The history of religion, comparative religion, Mormon history, psychology, sociology, and mythology were some of the areas that I studied. I earned a Ph.D. in family sociology in 1986 at Texas Womanís University. After graduation I was employed as the manager of the statistics laboratory at Southern Methodist University and as a professional researcher/statistician until health problems made it necessary to retire from full-time work.

But I would have remained active in and attached to the Church for its many positive aspects if I had felt accepted. Instead, I felt oppressed and confined. I felt that I had to compromise myself at every turn. As result, activity in the Church brought more frustration than it was worth. For example, as chorister in the Primary I wanted the children to sing, "Jesus Loves Me," a popular and simple Christian song with a beautiful message. I was told not to use any songs that werenít in the Primary Childrenís Song Book. Another time I let a child hold a small lighted candle when we sang "My light is but a little one, / My light of faith and prayer ..." I was chastised for using a candle: "Catholics use candles, but Mormons donít."

The Relief Society women were captivated during a practical lesson I organized. As the lesson leader for the monthly homemaking, I invited a sister in the ward who managed a dress shop to teach the principles of creating a basic wardrobe and asked another sister who had six of the best-dressed children in the ward how to buy childrenís clothing out of season. Nevertheless, I was criticized by a member of the stake Relief Society presidency for not demonstrating how to sew on a button.

Another time, a stake visitor chastised me for giving a cultural refinement lesson out of order. We were supposed to follow the order of the lessons as they were printed. I gave that lesson out of order because I was so excited by the topic that I just couldnít wait. I had recently returned from a BYU Travel Study tour and had visited the country featured in the lesson. I felt I had a great deal to share and the sisters always enjoyed my lessons.

These events are trivial in and of themselves, but the pattern repeated itself until I just couldnít stand any more. It took the enjoyment away from serving in the church. In my opinion, I was casting pearls before swine. I felt diminished, scolded, on trial all the time. I saw other sisters shrink into conformity under the same treatment, but my new-found self-confidence would no longer allow me to take the blame.

A catalyst (the straw that breaks the camelís back) precedes a change in a personís view of reality. My catalyst was an act of espionage on the part of the Relief Society president, Julie. While in Carolís home during an emergency, she took a letter written to Carol out of an unsealed envelope, read it, and gave it to bishop. The letter was written by Mary, another ward member and a close friend of Carolís.1

The next day, Carol and Mary figured out what Julie had done when the bishop summoned Mary to meet with him that evening. I remember how frightened Carol was when she told me about the meeting, and I admit to feeling a certain amount of fear myself. But most of all, I was appalled that Julie would read a friendís personal mail and turn it over to the bishop. I considered this an immoral act. Surely, you wouldnít do such a thing to your friend! Carol, Julie, and I were neighbors and friends. Mary was also our friend.

I compared Julieís act of spying and reporting with what I had observed in the USSR only two months earlier. This was a decade before the collapse of international Communism, when reports of thousands disappearing or being sent to the Siberian gulags were common. I had seen first-hand the caution in speaking, the over-the-shoulder glances, the palpable paranoiaóall for fear of being turned in to the authorities and the subsequent consequences. Everyone, right down to the bus drivers, acted frightened. The fear extended to their homes. As a guest in a Russian professorís home, I saw how nervous he became if we started talking about subjects he considered dangerous. He pointed wildly at the ceiling because he thought his apartment was bugged with listening devices. Julieís behavior reminded me of this experience, which was still very fresh in my mind.

I continued to attend church and perform all the acts of a perfect Mormon for about two more years, but the Church was never the same for me after this. When I stopped attending meetings after Motherís Day sacrament meeting in 1981, no one asked why. My husband said that no one at church asked where I was. In the grocery store, women Iíd thought were my friends changed aisles to avoid meeting me. I found this very strange.

Over time, I could see that the ward had major problems; you could say it was dysfunctional. The "spying" incident was only a symptom of the wardís ill health, but there were others. Eight couples who were leaders in the ward divorced, most within a two-year period. At least four women quietly dropped out of activity for personal reasons. I feel very fortunate that I walked away with no personal damage. As a later bishop told a friend, "Those were bad years for this ward."

Iím sure some people think that my problems with the Church are all my faultóthat I was too easily offended, that I took sides, and that I wasnít properly humble. I see it differently. I feel that I was placed on earth to grow but the Church offered only a box I had to fit myself into. I tried for years to shrink to fit. But as I became more educated and more confident in my ability to think for myself on all topics, including religion, I no longer gave the Mormon Church power over me.

During the last fifteen years, I have felt God guide my life. I have been led to three wonderful nondenominational Christian groups where I am spiritually fed, render service willingly, and can be myself at the same time. I believe I am an important part of Godís church.

Endnote: (Click on the Back button to return to the reference.)

1The details of the letter and what happened to Mary are her story. I include this incident because it impacted my relationship with the Church.