Today’s guest post is from SpoonMo.

In response to David Dollahite’s Opinion article “Guest Opinion: Why we need LDS bishop-youth interviews” which was cited by Tad Walch’s article “Here’s why Sam Young faces discipline from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” to justify the excommunication of Sam Young.  

David Dollahite, a professor of family life at BYU, wrote “Guest Opinion: Why we need LDS bishop-youth interviews”  published in the Deseret News. LDS bishops interview youth at least every six months and ask questions relating to the youth’s worthiness and sexual purity.  The Protect LDS Children movement is calling for an end to this practice. In response to these calls, Dollahite claims that research shows the necessity and benefits of LDS bishop-youth interviews, citing his own research and that of others.  We examine, point by point, the evidence in the literature cited by Dollahite, and show that the data do not support his claims and many of his opinions are overinterpreted or unfounded. Dollahite’s main flaw is that he conflates the difference between one-on-one interviews and any adult-adolescent interactions.  All of the benefits cited by Dollahite can be achieved in the absence of one-on-one interviews and do not require bishops to ask sexually explicit questions.

Dollahite-Deseret News
Screenshot from Deseret News website.

“Research suggests that when youths have positive interactions with religiously articulate and active adults, they are better equipped to navigate life’s challenges.”

Without even looking at the studies that he cites, it is apparent that he is falsely equating one-on-one interviews with any positive interactions with adults.  Many of us can think of times when we had positive experiences with Bishop’s, YM/YW or scout leaders, however, the vast majority of these interactions were in a setting other than a one-on-one interview.  On the contrary, over 3000 accounts, accumulated by Protect LDS Children, have detailed the negative interactions that many people have had with their bishop during these interviews. With so many negative interactions, we must expect evidence that the current practice is justified and does more good than harm.  Dollahite tries to set forth such evidence, but fails to do so.

“Looking at a study of 3,370 American teens from various faiths…Mormon teens were the least likely to engage in high-risk behavior and consistently were the most positive, healthy, hopeful and self-aware teenagers. [Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean] attributed this success, in part, to the higher number of nonparent adults who played a meaningful role in a teenager’s life.”

The cited books, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, state that Mormon bishops and youth leaders help youth stay on track using church talks, youth programs, church attendance, and missionary work.  Dollahite is drawing a false equivalency between one-on-one interviews and any interactions with an adult.

“At-risk youths who participated in mentoring programs experienced less depressive symptoms, greater acceptance among peers, more positive feeling about their abilities and improved performance at school.”

This study, “The Role of Risk: Mentoring Experiences and Outcomes for Youth with Varying Risk Profiles”, evaluated the effectiveness of a mentoring program that occurred in places like Big Brothers Big Sisters. The major differences between the mentorship in this context and that of bishop’s interviews are detailed below. Because of these differences, the conclusions of this study simply cannot be applied to the bishop interview.

  1. Mentors were background checked, reference checked, interviewed and trained. Bishops are interviewed and called by the Stake President, but minimal training is given to the bishops. Members of the church assume that the bishop is a good, law-abiding citizen, but no guarantee is made. Additionally, bishops receive very little training in how to interact with children. The study showed that mentors who received training had longer-lasting and higher quality relationships with their assigned youth. Given the lack of training of bishops, we would not expect the same quality of relationships and level of positive outcomes.
  2. Mentors and youth had the ability to dictate the nature and duration of their mutual friendship. In the LDS church, members are forced to attend the ward in which they live.  Youth are not allowed to choose their bishops and are not allowed to switch bishops if they do not feel comfortable with the one assigned.  Youth are expected to meet with bishops twice a year in order to remain in good standing. Bishops are allowed to probe into personal matters such as sexuality. Due to this power imbalance, youth have very little recourse in changing the relationships.
  3. Mentor-youth relationships in this study were friendship-oriented in which they participated in activities and met at least twice a month (p. 10).  This is not an ecclesiastical relationship, especially one in which the bishop is able to act as a “judge in Israel” and deem the child’s worthiness.  Successful mentorships tended to be ones where the mentor was less interested interested in achieving changes in the youth’s behavior and more interested in the youth’s interests and goals (p. 26).

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“‘Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent,’ according to sociologist Jean M. Twenge. But, research reveals that attending religious services ‘cut their risk significantly.'”

At the risk of beating a dead horse, we must point out yet again another example of confusing “religious services” and one-on-one interviews.  Dollahite also neglects to mention that Twenge’s article in The Atlantic states that in addition to attending religious services, the risk of depression decreases in youth that spend time playing sports or even doing homework.  In other words, replacing social media is the important point in this study, not religious activity, per se. A bishop’s interview twice a year is not going to replace the time that youth spend on social media.  

“We found that religious youths consider adult leaders to be an important ‘anchor’ in their spiritual development. Removing the ability of religious leaders to minister personally to youths would undoubtedly impact that relationship.”

In his “Anchors of Religious Commitment in Adolescents” study, Dollahite interviewed youth, ironically, in the presence of an adult and with consent and institutional review.  He found that religious leaders “anchor” youth to their church due to their authority and a relational component. While we do not have major issues with this study, again the problem remains that these studies do not address one-on-one bishop’s interviews.  

“We have also found that meaningful religious conversations between youth and parents strongly influence spiritual development in youths.”  

This finding, from Dollahite’s “Talking about Religion” study, is completely irrelevant to the topic of one-on-one interviews and if anything stresses the importance of parents, rather than leaders,  having conversations with their children.

“We have also found that youths who decide to abstain from sexual intercourse draw motivation from both internal and external sources including parents, peers, and others.”

Dollahite somehow over interprets that “…and others” to mean bishops in one-on-one interviews.  This study, Dollahite’s “Adolescent Motivations to Engage in Pro-Social Behaviors and Abstain From Health Risk Behaviors,” sought to find whether abstaining from health-risk behaviors was due to internal or external motivating factors, but does not address the specific source of the external motivations, especially whether that motivation comes from a bishop’s interview. Additionally, one could argue that perhaps talking to a grown man one-on-one about sex is a health-risk behavior.

“Youths from various faiths spoke articulately about how abstaining from early sexual activity improved their lives and protected them from various problems they observed in peers who did not abstain.”  

This one is confusing.  The cited article “Giving Up Something Good for Something Better: Sacred Sacrifices Made by Religious Youth” does not once say anything about abstaining from early sexual activity.  The only time the word ‘sex’ is mentioned is when listing “Distinct expectations” that many faiths require of their adherents. The cited study does not talk about how abstinence “improved their lives” or how it “protected them from various problems.”  We can’t tell if he miscited the study, or perhaps did not accurately represent what was published. Nevertheless, nothing in this study has anything to do with one-on-one interviews.

After presenting this very flimsy evidence of potential benefits from the literature, Dollahite equivocates by saying “Would these benefits still derive if the church ceased one-on-one interviews between bishops and youth? Perhaps.”  

According to the evidence that he presents, we can conclude that the benefits derive from positive interactions with adults. Period.  As long as the majority of the positive interactions with adults are maintained, the benefits will still derive.  Protect LDS Children is not advocating for the removal of positive programs such as Sunday School, YM/YW, Mutual, etc. It is advocating the removal of one-on-one bishops interviews, a major source of negative interactions. The possible benefits, as he outlines, are not worth the possibility of harming a child.  The need for personal attention for each youth could be accomplished just as well by two-on-one or a small counsel setting, with the added benefit that the youth is protected from shaming and abuse.   

This point in the article is where Dollahite stops presenting evidence to back his claims and starts with pure conjecture and anecdotal personal experience.  We won’t get into a point by point rebuttal, as this response is meant to deal with the evidentiary claims. We do want to direct the reader’s attention to his many ambiguous statements and unsubstantiated claims. “Countless youths….”, “Many would say…”, “….some would undoubtedly report…”, “Some have used….”.  Without evidence, we cannot evaluate the validity of each of these statements.

Dollahite concludes his article by saying “To lose that individualized attention would not only deviate from strong social science data on the importance of religious mentoring but would also fail to follow Jesus Christ’s example of ministering ‘one by one’”  We conclude our response by saying that the “strong social science data” is in fact weak and in some cases directly contradicts his argument. We also want to point out that Jesus’ example was mininstering “one BY one”, not “one-on-one.”

Discuss.

Lead image from LDS Media Library.