When then-Mormon Church member Jay R. Van Sickle of Dayton, Nevada, ran into marriage problems with his non-Mormon spouse, his lay pastor — called a “bishop” in the group’s vocabulary — had a drastic solution: end the union.
Van Sickle, 60, now an ordained Assemblies of God pastor, recalled the bishop vividly telling him, We can help you get a divorce; we can help you find a Mormon wife and family, and we’ll get you set up.
The edict in 1990 floored the devout Sickle. He still loved his wife, Dawn, and knew dissolving the marriage would be wrong. Dawn, although a mainline Protestant church attendee at the time, didn’t have a relationship with the Lord. Yet both Jay and Dawn took their wedding vows seriously and didn’t want to give up on the marriage.
The harsh proposal — abandoning his wife and 6-month-old daughter in favor of a new, committed Mormon one — left Van Sickle disillusioned over his religion. Mormons, after all, are known for their belief that marriages and families can last throughout eternity. He started asking questions.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as Mormonism is formally known, has a large presence in the United States: 6.7 million people are listed on church books as baptized members. They worship in 14,459 congregations and operate 81 temples in the country. The U.S. membership represents nearly 41 percent of the group’s worldwide membership of 16.5 million.
Van Sickle counts LDS Church founder Joseph Smith — the first “prophet, seer, and revelator” of the faith — among his relatives, his fourth-generation uncle. Joseph and his brother Hyrum W. Smith died as martyrs in 1844 when a mob attacked the Carthage, Illinois, jail that housed them after being arrested. Van Sickle’s ancestors had been Mormons soon after the founding of the religion.
ROAD TO REDEMPTION
A ruptured Achilles tendon — sustained during a basketball game at his local LDS congregation — left Van Sickle, then an engineer with the state highway department, with plenty of time to read while recuperating. Forgoing the Book of Mormon, he began searching the Bible.
Van Sickle’s disenchantment with Mormon teachings grew. Finally, one Sunday, he had an opportunity to give a testimony at the church he attended.
“I hobbled up there with my crutches and my cast, I went up to the podium and I said, ‘I know that Joseph Smith was not a true prophet, that the Book of Mormon is fake,’” Van Sickle recalls. He hobbled down off the stage, out the door, and never went back.
Then came a five-year period of doubt and searching. Van Sickle saw the contradictions between Mormon teaching and what the Bible says. But he didn’t find a path out of the maze. He went to numerous churches, but couldn’t find satisfactory answers to his queries. At that point, Van Sickle determined he didn’t want to have anything to do with religion.
A friend invited Van Sickle to attend a Promise Keepers men’s conference in Eugene, Oregon. A talk Tony Evans delivered on what it means to be a Christian dad, husband, and Christian man deeply impacted Van Sickle. A fellow attendee with a well-worn Bible noticed Van Sickle’s perplexity.
“That guy helped explain the gospel to me in about five minutes,” Van Sickle says. “I got down on my knees and accepted the Lord right there. It totally changed my life.”
Returning home early Sunday morning, Van Sickle roused Dawn out of her slumber, saying they needed to talk.
“I got down on my knees and said, ‘Please forgive me for all of the stuff I put you through,’” Van Sickle remembers. “God got my attention.”
After attending several churches, the Van Sickles settled in a Foursquare Gospel congregation, The Connection Church in Dayton, where Jay quickly exhibited ministry skills. A pastor encouraged him to pursue leadership studies, and Van Sickle took classes from Global University’s Berean School of the Bible. He gained ministerial credentials in 2011 and became an ordained AG minister in April.
Initially, Jay and Dawn ministered to homeless people in Reno, Nevada. But a U.S. Missions conference they attended in 2016 turned out to be a pivot point. At the gathering, speakers talked about reaching specific people groups — including Mormons.
Now he’s a worker for the moment without a field: the pandemic has shuttered many churches, the places where missionaries go speak to congregations. Van Sickle is making calls and lining up appointments for a post-lockdown era.
Training in outreach and counseling will be important, he says, because the process of leaving Mormonism is fraught with challenges. A Mormon who leaves the church risks losing a lot more than fellowship at the local assembly.
“They’re going to lose status within their Mormon community,” Van Sickle says. “They may lose family members: husband, wife, kids, mom, dad. They might not be going to family reunions anymore because they really will be looked down upon as an apostate.”
It can even cost a Mormon his job, because in many smaller Mormon communities, businesses are owned by church members who wouldn’t cotton to having a defector in their midst, he says. Nevertheless, others have joined Pentecostal ranks after years in Mormonism.
Santiago Guerrero, an Assemblies of God missionary with Intercultural Ministries to Mormons, believes Van Sickle’s background as a former LDS member will help him witness to those in the faith. Guerrero, a former Jehovah’s Witness, says Van Sickle knows the mindset of Mormons.
“Jay coming out of there is a testimony that it can happen,” says Guerrero, who lives in Trenton, Missouri. “He can equip other people to do the same thing.”
The Van Sickles have been married 36 years. Dawn, now 56, is grateful they emerged from the rocky years in their marriage.
“I don’t think Jay would be the man of God he is today had he not experienced those years in the wilderness,” Dawn says. “I think he understands the gift of salvation at a deeper level than I do because of the deep soul searching he did.”