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In watching John Dehlin lay out his plan for the future including his end of the year update, which clearly involved transitioning his organization Mormon Stories for his imminent exit from the Church, one interesting aspect of his plans was the Mormon Mental Health Association or MMHA. Looking at his explanation of his plans, I couldn’t help but do a little bit of theoretical analysis of his enterprise. Who is it designed to serve, who will it attract, what will it’s likely trajectory be as an organization? And is it a good decision for counselors to become involved with it.

The first question that comes to mind is who will it serve:

A main focus of the presentation was on providing resources to those undergoing faith transitions, and I expect that is a fair representation of their assumed clientele. This is a particularly convenient business model because it takes advantage of Mormon Stories’ ability to attract and produce people with faith problems and integrates an organization that is designed to solve the individual and relational problems caused by various grades and degrees of faith disturbances. While perhaps involving a conflict of interests, this integration makes good business sense. A particular focus seems to be couples who were formerly both LDS, and in whom one or both parties has experienced a collapse of faith.

Dehlin has, reasonably I think, asserted that loss of faith is often a source of serious disturbance in a marriage. It is not difficult to see why this might be. LDS marriages are premised on a covenant with God as their highest expression, and when one party chooses to end their relationship to God, and thus to that covenant, the remaining party’s interests are seriously compromised. This introduces the need to come up with a new basis for the marriages conceptualization, maintenance, and in some sad cases even its existence.

Whereas both temporal and eternal goals were well-aligned previously, if one member of a couple withdraws from faith this can lead to sharp and unanticipated strains within the relationship. It also withdraws from the relationship a major source of commonly held assumptions. To put this another way, there are a great many things that couples in the Church do because they have been counseled to do so by the Church. Many of them contribute to family unity and harmony, help make the family culture work, and provide real benefits when they are observed. But in the absence of the Church as an authority in one or both parties they might not have such an easy time deriving them from first principles. Some individuals even have a hard time determining and maintaining any kind of moral foundation in the absence of their prior religious context, though these problems are far from universal, and it is inappropriate to use them to caricature those who lose faith.

Thus it is not hard to see why those who are undergoing a loss of faith may also be in need of counseling for mental health, and marriage-related issues as both of these can be real and serious outcome of that process. The question I have, which I suspect is literally (well, a little figuratively, but also somewhat literally) the million dollar question, is who will be willing to trust this organization given its connection to Dehlin. As I see it, for their marriage counseling business you have three categories:

  1. Those in which neither spouse has lost faith
  2. Those in which one spouse has suffered a crisis of faith and the other remains faithful
  3. Those in which both partners have lost their faith

The first category is less likely to need counseling of the sort this groups specializes in, as neither is involved with problems specific to faith transition. To liken the scriptures to this situation “the whole have no need of a physician”. They might need counseling for plenty of reasons as marriage can be plenty complicated anyway, but the connection of the organization with Dehlin would not be especially inviting for two faithful individuals who were aware of his Mormon Stories activities and connection with the organization. A group less specialized, and perhaps with a more faith-positive approach would typically be preferred.

The second category comprises one of the two groups that the MMHA seems to have as a target clientele. However, it’s connection via Dehlin with Mormon Stories, an organization with a long history of criticizing the Church and at times promoting anti-Mormonism, would make this an unlikely choice for a couple who were wanting to equitably reconcile with one another. Typically it seems desirable to have a counselor who is a neutral partner and arbitrator between the two married individuals in helping them peacefully resolve their issues. Dehlin has shown himself to be quite biased in his public representations. Worse yet, it appears his anti-Church ideology has also at times interfered with his ability to provide unbiased counseling.

I am aware of at least one report [1] of a married couple who Dehlin counseled, in which they felt that he prioritized talking about getting them out of the Church over their interests and reasons for seeking counseling. This may violate the standards of the organization that he has set up:

2.4 Bias.  MMHA members seek to be aware of personal bias, such as religious or ideological views, which could interfere in allowing clients to explore freely within a therapeutic process.

2.5 Conflicts of Interest. MMHA members do not provide services that create a conflict of interest that may impair work performance or clinical judgment.  This would include ecclesiastical roles.  

He has also at times used psychological diagnoses as weapons in online arguments and publicly advanced rumors that Thomas S. Monson was suffering dementia, apparently as a means of trying to assign blame for his disciplinary action. His behavior (particularly in the counseling setting) seems to me to have the potential to lead to him being disqualified from counseling, and bringing disrepute upon those associated with his organization. This lack of respect for mental health propriety reflects badly on him and may be a liability for his organization going forward. In any event, I could see couples in which one party is suffering a crisis or loss of faith avoiding MMHA in order to opt for a counseling service with more neutral associations.

The third category is, in my opinion, the real question mark, and the one that decides whether the MMHA is a profitable or even vaguely useful venture. This group includes couples in which both parties have undergone a loss of faith. These couples are still at increased risk for conflict, disunity, and divorce because the basis for many aspects of their life and union has abruptly changed, but they are also differ from the other two groups in that neither party to the marriage retains allegiance to Church participation. This would make them less likely to see an anti-Church bias as inherently problematic, and might even seem helpful to some. Even in these cases, depending on the relationship they are interested in having in the future with believing family and friends, some conflict of interest may still exist. Notwithstanding this, for these clients, the empathy and validation that many of Dehlin’s followers have expressed admiration for might make the MMHA a desirable choice for helping them negotiate their union post exit. They would need exactly the set of services that the MMHA seems best designed to perform—providing counseling to those coping with the problems caused by a loss of faith, whether individual or relational.

Thus, I think that the economic viability of of the Mormon Mental Health Association at least as it relates to providing marriage counseling, depends primarily on their ability to attract couples clientele both of whom have experienced a loss of faith as this would represent a situation with the greatest set of benefits, and the fewest real or apparent conflict of interest due to the organizations connection with John Dehlin and his Mormon Stories enterprise. For this group, the synergies between his several organizations are especially apparent. Managing or mitigating association of the organization with John’s questionable activities may also be an issue at some point in the future should such allegations be made more publicly.
This having been said, I am curious about what experiences people have had being personally counseled by John Dehlin or having family members who have undergone counseling by John Dehlin. I would expect that for those who were interested in leaving the LDS Church the experiences would provide validation and encouragement, and for those who were interested in remaining in the Church that the experiences would be more mixed and include some who might have felt that it was less productive and more focused on his ideology. If you or a family member has received counseling from John and would like to share, feel free to post in the comments section. If you would like to share your experiences, but not have them posted, write “DON’T POST” at the beginning of the comment, and we’ll take note of them and remove them from the queue so that you can be heard, but not by the whole world unless you feel like it.

[1] I have the correspondence in my possession where the original allegation was made, and have obtained permission from the author to make its existence known.