Five months ago, I posted “Rethinking Bishops’ Interviews.” Let’s revisit the topic, as today the Church posted at the LDS Newsroom updated guidelines for youth interviews: “First Presidency Releases New Guidelines for Interviewing Youth.” Attached to that post is a copy of the letter sent by the First Presidency to general, stake, and local leaders (and, since it is released publicly, basically sent to all members of the Church). Also attached to the post is the text of the updated Handbook 1 Section 7.1.7, “Guidelines for Youth Interviews,” and one paragraph from Section 7.4. Here are some quick observations on the updated guidelines and what we can learn more generally.

What particular guidelines have changed? Without a line-by-line comparison to the prior version of Section 7.1.7, it’s hard to tell. When the Church updates handbooks and manuals, it does not provide a guide to the updates or changes. You would think that if they make a public announcement about updated guidelines, they would give a clearer explanation of what exactly they updated and why. That would sure be helpful, wouldn’t it?

Parents, teach your children well. Give them a code that they can live by. The Church wants that code to be For the Strength of Youth, which is referenced in the guidelines. At several places, the guidance emphasizes the duty and privilege of parents to teach their children. But parents can teach children whatever they feel the kids need to know. Increasingly, LDS parents are deciding to teach their children not to engage in one-on-one conversations with adult men about sexual topics and behavior. That is likely what this whole update is about, although it is never spelled out in the guidance.

No, children don’t have the final say. Oddly, despite emphasizing the role of parents, the guidelines contain the following statement: “If the person being interviewed desires, another adult may be invited to be present during
the interview.” But the kid does not control this decision, the parent does. What the guidance should really say is: “With the permission of a parent, the bishop may conduct a one-on-one interview with a youth. Otherwise, the parent or another adult approved by the parent should accompany the youth in the interview.” So to prevent the common occurrence of a youth being pulled out of Sunday School class to go have a one-on-one interview with the bishop without the parents’ knowledge, an LDS parent is going to have to be proactive and assertive, expressly informing the bishop of their wish.

Will anything change? Hard to tell. Based on the post and attached guidelines, it is hard to see how any bishop is going to stop and say, “Whoa. I need to change how I set up youth interviews and change the content of my inquiries.” The guidelines refer to the For the Strength of Youth handbook as well as the detailed missionary interview questions to be asked of missionary candidates. Those more familiar with these documents might offer their comments, but as I recall there is nothing in those documents to restrain a curious bishop who feels inclined to review a youth’s sexual thoughts and conduct.

Wild card: Regional leadership training. Sometimes the direction local leaders receive comes through verbal instruction at regional leadership training meetings conducted by visiting General Authorities. That instruction may parallel the public directives leaders are given (such as the letter and guidelines we are talking about), but verbal directives may go beyond earlier written directives and may even contradict written guidelines. If, in the Q&A session, a bishop asks, “I really miss talking to the youth in the ward about masturbation in our interviews,” I doubt the leader is going to praise the bishop for avoiding that topic. The GA is likely to say, “Avoid detailed discussion of such topics, but if moved by the Spirit you can ask such questions, and if a youth is confessing to sexual sin, you can ask questions sufficient to understand the extent of the behavior and provide inspired counsel.” If anyone wants to chime in with an alternate view of the kind of answer a senior leader will give, have at it. The guidelines are frustratingly general on what, for many LDS parents, are relevant and particular concerns along these lines.

Want reform? Only bad publicity changes LDS policy and practices these days. This lesson rang out loud and clear from the Bott Affair: decades of patient requests and good arguments did nothing to motivate LDS leaders to publicly reject racial folklore, which persisted in the Church even after 1978. But a Washington Post story highlighting that LDS racial folklore (and quoting a BYU religion prof spouting it) got results in two days. Here, bad publicity about LDS youth interviews, including hundreds of personal accounts of adults who relate the embarrassing and sometimes traumatizing interviews they had with LDS bishops and several newspaper stories, has produced results. Somehow, LDS leaders need to change this dynamic. Leadership needs to be more open to feedback from the membership and take member comments and complaints more seriously.