M. Russell Ballard To Whom Shall We Go?


As I was watching Elder M. Russell Ballard’s talk ‘To Whom Shall We Go?”, October 201 general conference talk, I liked the talk, but I knew it would be controversial.  Here, I share how I heard the talk.

Elder Ballard is keenly aware of the difficult historical issues that are causing many people to doubt their faith.  Issues illustrated in my response to Jeremy Runnels CES Letter.  He gave an excellent talk to CES Instructors earlier this year, where he chastised them for dismissing legitimate questions by bearing their testimony and telling students to ignore their issues.  He told them to drop out-of-date apologetics and get familiar with what faithful LDS scholars are saying currently.  I believe he was talking about good LDS scholars like Richard Bushman, Patrick Mason, Grant Hardy, and Adam Miller.

I believe his talk was attempting to following the same logic these scholars are carving out.  Which is to acknowledge there are difficulties to history, but to look at the fruits of living the gospel and make a decision to stay or leave the church based on that.

First, he shares a personal experience that describes what matters the most to him about the church.

I was deeply moved while reading these words and found myself praying in that sacred place that I could ever be one with my family and with my heavenly father and with his son.  our precious relationships with families friends the Lord and his restored church are among the things that matter most in life.  because these relationships are so important they should be cherished protected and nurtured.


It’s the relationships.  With family, with fellow saints, and with God.

He then goes on to illustrate the real challenges many LDS members are facing.  His quotes with my interpretations:

Some disciples struggle to understand a specific church policy or teaching.

The November 2015 policy sucks.  We know that’s a challenge for many.

 Others find concerns in our history.

Multiple First Vision Accounts, Book of Mormon translation, Book of Abraham, we understand these are valid concerns for many, that are tough to understand without a nuanced view of prophets, scripture, and church history.

Or in the imperfections of some members of leaders past and present.

Joseph Smith polygamy was not perfect.  Neither are the First Presidency or the Quorum of 12 today.  We know we make mistakes.

Still others find it difficult to live a religion that requires so much. Finally, some have become weary in well doing.

The church sometimes overemphasizes works and excellence.  Though this enables achievement and success for many, it is easy to get tripped up in the middle of it with too high of expectations for oneself and feel overwhelmed.


It’s tough for the church to apologize for mistakes.  I think church leaders are worried it would cause too many people to lose faith.  I think their strategy is to move forward slowly making the past right.  But I feel Elder Ballard’s love and compassion here.  I think this is a true acknowledgement that these are valid issues that normal, good people get tripped up over.


There may be some doctrine, some policy, some bit of history that puts you at odds with your faith.  You may feel left that the only way to resolve that inner turmoil right now is to walk no more with the saints.  If you live as long as I have you come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves.  An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light and insight on an issue. Remember, the restoration is not an event but it continues to unfold.


He is admitting he doesn’t have a perfect answer for some of these historical issues.  But he’s asking for a little patience to see if things look different with a different perspective after some time.


If any one of you is faltering in your faith, I ask you the same question that Peter asked “to whom shall you go?”  If you choose to become inactive or to leave the restored Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints, where would you go?  What would you do? The decision to walk no more with the church members and the Lord’s chosen leaders will have a long-term impact that cannot always be seen right now.


This right here is the part that tweaked some people.  The way I took this is that he’s assuming a certain foundation.  He’s assuming that the issue with history or the issue with a policy is a troubling aspect of an overall relationship with the church that brings joy and fulfillment.  He’s asking where else could you find all these other good things?


  • the doctrine of Christ contained in the book of Mormon
  • what you have felt here
  • belief in personal, loving Heavenly Parents who teach us how to return to their eternal presence
  • teaching of a Savior who is your best friend and who suffered not only for your sins but who also “suffered pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind so that his bowels may be filled with mercy according to the flesh that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities”
  • the plan of salvation gives mortal life meaning and purpose and direction
  • a detailed, inspired church organization, a structure through which you are supported by men and women who are deeply committed to serving the Lord by serving you and your family
  • people who live by prescribed set of values and standards that you should and want to pass along your children and grandchildren


It’s not all perfect, but a lot of it is pretty good.  Where can you find all this?  Can you suspend judgment on the difficult issues?  And stay with us a little longer.  Spend some months or some years deciding whether the historical issues are bad enough to invalidate the good of all the rest of this?  I feel a loving invitation.


He then counsels leaders and those who don’t struggle with faith issues to love and not to judge those who do.


My heartfelt plea is that we will encourage, accept, understand and love those who are struggling with their faith.  We must never neglect any of our brothers and sisters. We are all at different places on the path, and we need to minister to one another accordingly.


He finishes with the familiar metaphor of the good old Ship Zion.  He sees it as a full of members at varying stages of faith.  But all with a common goal to follow God and find the answers together over time.  Though the seas are stormy, the Savior is at the helm.  Like his disciples that worried he wouldn’t wake up in time to calm the sea, we fret and worry.  But on his time schedule, he will command the wind to be still, and we will find peace.

  1. Thank you for this analysis and your thoughts. I listened to the talk last night. I think you are generally correct in your assessment that he means no ill-will, and he wasn’t trying to inflame the post-mormon / doubting community.

    Ultimately, though, I think this is a totalistic style talk. Maybe a ‘compassionate’ totalistic talk, but still totalistic. And, by it’s very nature, totalistic thinking is alienating to anyone not in the program. Hence, I find the expressions coming from the post-mormon community expressing that they are adequate and they have found genuinely wonderful places to go exactly the appropriate response to a talk like this. For whatever sugar-coat of understanding and compassion he applies (which I think are genuine expressions), this is still not a unifying talk–it is divisive and belittling at its very core.

    • Thanks for engaging the article. I don’t strongly disagree with your point about the totalistic nature of the talk or Mormonism in general. And I think those responses are just fine…that an Exmo has found genuinely wonderful places to go. I’ve read a lot of sarcastic and venomous responses. I think those are out of place. I disagree that Elder Ballard’s talk was divisive and belittling. I think he was attempting to make a case for staying by using the fruits of the Mormon experience outside the traditional authoritarian reasons for staying, ie stay because I told you to stay.

      • Thanks for the reply.

        > I’ve read a lot of sarcastic and venomous responses. I think those are out of place.

        I agree that the sarcasm and venom are less than ideal. Still, I respect that some people are attempting to shed years or decades of judgement and gaslighting. The responses are more understandable when you understand their stories (which I’m pretty sure you have done given how much I see you around the web). It’s similar to how I see Ballard’s talk–it’s not ideal, but he’s trying to lead a Church which is losing members, and he hasn’t spent much time with those who have left (I believe there is only one person in his entire family who has left). So, less than ideal, but I get it.

        > I disagree that Elder Ballard’s talk was divisive and belittling

        Allow me to demonstrate using the most divisive and belittling phrases along with why they come across to me as belittling:

        > Some disciples struggle to understand a specific Church policy or teaching

        The implication is that our understanding is deficient. I understand Church policies and teachings with great precision. My understanding is not deficient–the policies and teachings are deficient in their coherence, consistency, wisdom, and charity (even though there is much within them that is also good and praiseworthy).

        > Others find concerns in our history or in the imperfections of some members and leaders, past and present.

        This can be read to imply that we are *looking* for flaws in the history and imperfections in our leaders. Again, I am not deficient because I have studied my scriptures, the history of the Church, and the lives and teachings of our leaders in great depth. I have *always* done so with an eye to finding the faith promoting and redeeming. Nonetheless, the falws, contradictions, and imperfections are real and problematic. How can anyone not have concerns who has studied deeply?

        > Still others find it difficult to live a religion that requires so much.

        This implies that those who leave are incapable or unwilling to live such a demanding religion. I can speak for everyone that I know who has left–none of us felt like it was too much. We each had sacrificed incredible amounts for the Church and would have been happy to sacrifice more if it were indeed worthy of that sacrifice. If it’s tru, then there is no sacrifice too great. I’m happy to compare the list of what I have sacrificed for the Gospel with anyone else’s list. I’m also happy to compare my committment and devotion to living gospel principles with anyone. I was not deficient in my Gospel living and found great joy and satisfaction in living my religion.

        > Finally, some have become “weary in well-doing.”

        The implication is that we either stopped doing good or just got tired of doing good. But this could not be further from the truth. A simple example is that in the past moth I’ve taken my older boys with me twice to help people move. I wasn’t asked to do this by my leaders. My sons and I will get no credit or pat on the back from our leaders or quorum members. I have not become weary in well-doing.

        > For these and other reasons, some Church members vacillate in their faith, wondering if perhaps they should follow those who “went back, and walked no more” with Jesus. If any one of you is faltering in your faith…

        This sounds inocuous enough, until we remember that faith is a gift of God bestowed as a reward for personal righteousness. We teach and preach that a lot in the Church. So, when you refer to my assessment of the truth-claims as faltering faith, you are also implying that I am deficient in personal righteousness. Again, I suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.

        > So before you make that spiritually perilous choice to leave

        This implies that a large fraction of those who leave die or are wounded spiritually (see his recent discussion of ‘Dead sequoias’).

        > Where will you go to be taught about a Savior …

        This paragraph suggests that there are no other avenues where a person can learn about a suffering, personal Savior. But this is belittling to the many devoted Christians out there.

        > I don’t pretend to know why faith to believe comes easier for some than for others. I’m just so grateful to know that the answers are always there, and if we seek them—really seek with real intent and with full purpose of a prayerful heart—we will eventually find the answers to our questions as we continue on the gospel path.

        This implies that the people who haven’t received answers have not really sought with real intent and full purpose. Again, I’m familiar with many who have literally spent decades trying to obtain spiritual answers but never did (that was never my issue–I have received many spiritual confirmations). To question these individual’s sincerity and real intent is belittling, especially when there are known genotypes correlated with spiritual insensitivity.

        Finally, to really appreciate why this talk rubs some former members the wrong way, you need to understand the way in which totalistic groups [treat those who disagree](http://www.ex-cult.org/General/lifton-criteria):

        > … The pattern of doctrine over person occurs when there is a conflict between what one feels oneself experiencing and what the doctrine or ideology says one should experience. If one questions the beliefs of the group or the leaders of the group, one is made to feel that there is something inherently wrong with them to even question — it is always ‘turned around’ on them and the questioner/criticizer is questioned rather than the questions answered directly.

        Hopefully, that makes it more clear why I find aspects of the talk ‘belitting and divisive’. I do agree that the talk is not more ‘belittling and divisive’ than many other talks on the topic (there are worse ones), but that is because Church leaders have done a poor job overall in respecting and understanding those who disagree with them or who have reached a different conclusion than them about the veracity of the truth claims.

        • I think you’re getting butt hurt over Elder Ballard for no reason. He’s got some wisdom. But he’s 90 years old, and he’s using language 90 year olds in the church use. Take what you like, and don’t read ‘implications’ into every sentence. Change is slow. btw, I liked your pdf you linked here. I agree with pretty much every point. In fact, I might use some of it with my kids for FHE tonight.

          • > I think you’re getting butt hurt over Elder Ballard for no reason.

            I’m okay if you disagree with my assessment that aspects of the talk are belittling and divisive (that’s just fine; it’s fair to assert he doesn’t realize what his statements might imply to some disenfranchised portion of the membership). But, I am not (nor do I suspect ever will be) butt hurt by a GA talk. (lol) 🙂

            I’m glad you found the pdf useful (I’m assuming you’re referring to the one about my beliefs from a comment above, not the one about oxytocin. Both are worth reflecting on, regardless) 🙂

            Sounds like you have very cool FHEs.

          • yes, the one one your beliefs you linked in the other comment. thanks for taking my ‘butt hurt’ comment in jest, as it was intended. i came back this morning thinking i had said that too harshly.

  2. I don’t think he had any ill intent at all. The LDS church has been the perfect place for him. For many in the church, I would say the same holds true. So why should they leave? I would say they shouldn’t. What Elder Ballard is probably incapable of understanding is that just because the church has been great for him, it doesn’t mean it’s great for everyone. He believes 100% it’s the one true church on earth, and he can’t comprehend why anyone would walk away from it. In my experience, many walk away because they no longer believe it’s the one true church. They don’t believe it’s led by Jesus, and when the church does things they consider to be immoral (the LGBT policy, patriarchy, etc.), they decide they would be better off without the church. But Elder Ballard can’t validate that kind of thinking, because to him you absolutely need the LDS priesthood authority to get back to heaven. So like he said, where else are you going to go to get that? He’s right, I won’t find that authority anywhere else, but I don’t feel like I need it. I feel more at peace since I’ve left. There are many paths to God, spirituality, happiness or whatever someone wants to call it. The LDS church does not have that market cornered by any means.

    • I might be seeing more than is really there, but I think you’re missing something. I think there is some evidence that Elder Ballard is truly acknowledging historical issues that only can be resolved through a nuanced view of the church, which blunts the force of traditional views of exclusivity/authority, etc. The linked talk to CES Instructors shows he’s not taking the issues lightly. He’s calling for paradigm shifts based on the work of faithful LDS scholars. In the conference talk, he doesn’t emphasize exclusivity/authority in his reasoning for those struggling members to stay in the boat. He’s emphasizing the things nuanced believers emphasize: doctrine of God, relationships, community, values taught to children.

      • > He’s emphasizing the things nuanced believers emphasize: doctrine of God, relationships, community, values taught to children.

        This is an important point. His talk represents a shift in the dialog and is likely related to his recent foray into these issues (as evidenced by his talk to CES Instructors).

  3. Just Another Apostate

    I can accept that Elder Ballard had good intentions with this talk. But all the good intentions in the world don’t excuse repeated poor behavior. And if you’re going to claim that you are being led by the spirit in your preparations for this talk, then we have to assume that the spirit approved this poor behavior.

    I think one telling part of his talk that you glossed over is that Jesus asked Peter an open-ended question. The question that Peter asked back was given as a response. Elder Ballard turned this around, and because he wanted those struggling with their faith to give Peter’s answer, he gave them Peter’s question rather than Christ’s question.

    Christ’s question is the more Christlike of the two. It acknowledges agency. When we look at Peter’s question as a response to that, it is faithful and loyal.

    When Peter’s question is put forth as a challenge rather than a response, however, it completely changes the tone of the conversation. It is no longer allowing people their agency or acknowledging that they might have values that differ from what is expected. It is a threat in disguise. It is manipulative. It has no place in the dialog of a compassionate leader. The Holy Ghost should have known that, even if Elder Ballard didn’t.

  4. I am totally surprised that people were offended by Elder Ballard talk. The gospel has been my saving grace through being a young widow. I see it working, enabling, lifting, and bringing miracles in my life. I couldn’t go anywhere else, no way. Christ is the only source of light and life for me. When I see people falling away, I feel really sorry for them, because I know they have not really truly experienced what the gospel has to offer. I was there once… thinking I was doing everything right, going through the motions, not really feeling the empowerment that I was supposed to and then my world fell apart, my husband died and all of the stupid worldly stuff I worried did matter at all. I couldn’t breath. I wished I was was dead… no, I didn’t want to even exist, but the gospel has been my wings. It has been my balm of Gilead. How sad that I had to go through all of that to learn this, but I am so grateful I did, because I get it now and I’m not leaving. I fear for all of these people who think they have a safe place to go, because in the end they will find their structure of safety has no foundation.
    I’m a seminary teacher now, and I know and teach all of these issues. I get asked these questions. I’ve prayed to have understanding so I can teach truth and help others get answers, and that understanding has miraculously come. I have come to conclude that people who develop problems with the church, history, leaders, etc have their own issue with pride. To get answers and understanding you just have to humbly go to God and ask. It works!
    I’m teaching the NT this year, and with parables like the wheat and the tares, the 10 virgins and the sheep and the goats, I just want to scream out, ‘really people, you want to walk away now? With the signs and the world the way it is?’ The leaves are on the fig tree, summer is nigh. 11:59 is not the time to dump out your oil and stomp off impatiently.’
    But at the same time, the parables are there… told from the Savior himself, in his day… the ‘very elect will be decieved.’ Half of the covenant people invited to the wedding feast will not have the oil of conversion in their lamps of testimony. They won’t be prepared. It’s time to get back to basics, to take the Holy Spirit as our guide, to repent and see the enabling power of the atonement so we can withstand the storms already upon us. Well, I for one, and digging my roots deeper. I live in the Midwest, and I know you don’t go running outside when storms are coming.

    • Thank you for sharing this perspective. I’m so sorry that you lost your husband (and at a young age). I’m so happy for you that you are finding fulfillment and comfort in your discipleship and seminary teaching. I’m glad that you have been able to find answers in your communion with God.

      > I am totally surprised that people were offended by Elder Ballard talk.

      Please read through my comment below to get a detailed analysis for why it might offend some individuals.

      > When I see people falling away, I feel really sorry for them, because I know they have not really truly experienced what the gospel has to offer.

      You are assuming that your experience has been my experience (to take my experience as proxy for many who have left the Church after assessing the truth claims). I can assure you that I have drunk deeply from the joy of Gospel living, for many decades. I agree that there is a distinct difference between partially living the Gospel and being *all in*, so to speak. Some who leave have not experienced it, but many have.

      > I fear for all of these people who think they have a safe place to go, because in the end they will find their structure of safety has no foundation.

      My belief system is centered on what I view as timeless, tried and true principles. My beliefs may evolve somewhat, but I am confident that if God has a foundation, that foundation is similarly built upon principles (so, I’m in good company, I think).

      > I know and teach all of these issues

      I would suggest that if you understand these issues distinctly then you would
      have great understanding for those who question and be acutely aware of how
      troubling the issues are. Here’s how some prominent LDS scholars talk
      about these issues:

      Richard Bushman: ‘The dominant narrative is not true. It can’t be sustained. So, the Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds and that’s what it’s trying to do and it will be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially.’

      Patrick Mason: ‘I would actually agree with the CES letter’s basic notion, that the Mormonism it is responding to [‘a certain style, tone, and mode of Mormonism that culminated in the highly doctrinaire, no-retreat-no-surrender positions taken by certain church leaders and members especially in the second half of the twentieth century’] is unsustainable.’

      Grant Hardy: ‘Today, however, it feels like we’re on the defensive. People already know quite a bit about the Church, and with a few clicks of a mouse they can know a lot more, including negative information that was difficult to come by in the 1970s. The story of the Restoration is less clearcut than we had imagined, the sorts of evidences we used to put forward are less persuasive than we had hoped, and troubling issues in Church history have not faded away but instead have been magnified.’

      > I have come to conclude that people who develop problems with the church, history, leaders, etc

      The problems are simply there. People aren’t ‘developing’ problems–they are discovering them (generally through faithful and deep study and investigation). Remember, the members who do not know about these issues are the ones who likely have not been studying deeply.

      > … have their own issue with pride. To get answers and understanding you just have to humbly go to God and ask. It works!

      Might it also be an act of humility to honestly admit that the problems are irreconcilable (if that is the way one genuinely views them)? Humility also comes in many forms.

      > I just want to scream out, ‘really people, you want to walk away now? With the signs and the world the way it is?’

      Wilford Woodruff and the entire Church was certain the second coming would occur in 1890. I’m not saying there aren’t significant issues facing us right now, and the world very well may go to pot, but I’m far less confident in predictions of Jesus’s imminent arrival–for the past 2000 years leaders have taught that Christ would return in ‘this generation’ (i.e., whichever generation they were in).

      Thanks again for your perspective. I wish you the best in your membership, discipleship, and seminary teaching.

  5. I actually went to the stake center to watch the Sunday morning session of conference, which included this talk. It struck me because Elder Ballard was asking me the question I’ve been asking myself ever since leaving the LDS Church in 2008. There hasn’t been another faith or another church that I have found that aligns with my post-Mormon view of the world. In fact, I think I’ve become less post-Mormon over the past year as I’ve been reevaluating my beliefs. Lately I’ve felt more like a Mormon, but not a Latter-day Saint.

    It’s difficult though, as a gay man, to consider joining and supporting an institution that has, and is, harming so many. Elder Ballard does make a concession to those who struggle under the weight of or are troubled by current or policies.

    ‘If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.’

    Perhaps, but until then, what about the far too many who are answering Elder Ballard’s question with overdoses, guns, or other instruments of their own death? What about those who feel there is no other place to go, but that place is a place of agony? Far too many.

    So no, I don’t have an answer to Elder Ballard’s question. I don’t know of other places to go knowing what I know and what I believe. I also don’t know if I can condone what the LDS Church is doing by returning.

    • Thank you for this. I’m a straight white guy, with not much of a personal connection to this, but these kinds of comments rip my heart out. I hope the church can work this out. Thank you for your respectfulness in addressing what is a very difficult topic.

  6. 67 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?

    68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.

    69 And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.

    In the prior verses Jesus was explaining that he is now the bread of life. Peter was confirming his love for the Savior …thou hast the words of life. Christ is the key not the leaders, not the church, not mana, not bread. We forget that Christ came to disrupt the church and its leaders.

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