Why I’ve been AWOL


(RNS) — I’ve gotten some lovely and kind messages recently from readers who have wondered what’s going on in my life. After 12 years of mostly regular Religion News Service columns, my posts lately have been sporadic to nonexistent. So here is a column to reassure all the people who have been worried that I’ve been a) ill, b) excommunicated or c) unceremoniously eaten by the Bear Lake Monster.

I am fine. Or at least, as fine as I ever am when I’m writing a book. (Insert all the swears here.) My health is fine and family is fine and my house is even clean, as it always is when I am writing a book. Procrasticleaning is a time-honored technique I employ when I’ve got a book hanging over my head.

The book in question is a sequel to my 2019 study, “The Next Mormons,” but this time I am focusing on people who have either left the church or stayed after experiencing a faith transition.

The Next Mormons (Oxford University Press, 2019)

“The Next Mormons” cover. (Oxford University Press, 2019)

I’ve been working on this project since 2020, when a large part of my pandemic was spent conducting oral history interviews with former Mormons. Doing the interviews was a fascinating and powerful experience; people clearly wanted to tell their stories. I was overwhelmed by the fact that nearly 1,500 former members volunteered to be interviewed, only a fraction of whom I could include.

In 2021, I raised money on Kickstarter to get the next phase started and was heartened by the great show of support. So far, so good with our project! All systems were go.

In 2022, the focus shifted to collecting quantitative survey data, which my wonderful research partner, Benjamin Knoll, has been in charge of. That process, which was straightforward when we did it the first time around in 2016, took far longer than expected. The first company we hired returned fewer than half of the survey responses we had paid for in advance; it then took us six months of exhausting attempts to get the unused portion of our donors’ money back.

Our refund in hand, we hired a second survey company in late 2023. They did a great job, giving us a total combined sample of 1,420 current and 175 former Latter-day Saints in the U.S. We would have loved the sample of former members to be bigger, but it’s challenging to get nationally representative data about micropopulations.

We’ve spent 2024 cleaning and analyzing the two data sets with the invaluable help of two graduate students. A third fabulous graduate student has also been helping me organize another round of oral history interviews, this time with current members who’ve had a faith transition but who have chosen to stay in the church.

Altogether, I will have conducted just over 100 oral history interviews with thoughtful and brave people who have given such a lot of themselves to this research.

It’s a relief to finally be at the writing stage — and that’s saying a lot, coming from me, because did I mention that I hate writing and will gladly scrub my kitchen floor to avoid it?

I know what you’re thinking: Yes, I do realize I’m in the wrong job, given how much I dislike writing. But I’ve learned through the years that writing is a necessary component of the other parts of my career that I love, such as research and public scholarship. So I grit my teeth and set a daily word count and muscle through that dreaded first draft.

It also helps my editorial consulting business. It shows my clients that I understand writing a book can be an act of sacrifice and vulnerability, and shows that I will dedicate myself to making their books as excellent as I possibly can. Many — perhaps most? — books that are worth reading involved a fair number of tears during their inception.

As I undergo all this, then, you’ll be hearing from me about twice a month instead of weekly. I’m grateful to my incredible editors and colleagues at RNS for giving me the space to take time away for the deep, sustained work that writing books requires. I’m grateful to my family for loving me even when I’m at my crabbiest during the writing process. And I’m grateful to you, kind longtime readers, for worrying that I’d been devoured prematurely by the Bear Lake Monster.

Jana Riess speaking to the Mormon History Association on "Jack Mormons and Liminal Latter-day Saints: Why Do People 'Go Inactive'?" June 14, 2024, Cleveland OH.

Jana Riess speaks to the Mormon History Association on “Jack Mormons and Liminal Latter-day Saints: Why Do People ‘Go Inactive’?” on June 14, 2024, in Cleveland. (Courtesy photo)




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