Today’s guest post is from Anonymous Former Bishop.

The following is a heavily edited version of a letter I sent to Elna Baker of the radio show This American Life:

Dear Elna Baker,
I recently listened to the This American Life podcast “But That’s What Happened,” which focused on your exploration of bishops’ youth interviews within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The episode bothered me a great deal, and I felt like I should respond to you. I don’t normally do this sort of thing, but I keep thinking about it, so here goes.

I am an active, believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I was released as a bishop a couple years ago.  Your piece did bother me enough that it’s been several days since I heard it and I’m still thinking about it. I am familiar with some of your work going back several years, and I have followed your transformation from “Mormon girl in the big city” to “former Mormon with the inside critique.” I feel I relate to and sympathize with you. So, I’ve had to consider that the reason I was so bothered by your critique of the bishops’ youth interviews might be that “the truth hurts.” 

I’ve thought of all the interviews I did over 5 years.  It’s really disturbing to think that maybe I made some kid feel as uncomfortable as you and others describe.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t talk about sex with Beehives (12, 13-year-old girls) or ask people if they masturbated, but I definitely had some ashamed young women confess to me, and it wasn’t always immediately clear what they were confessing.  Some could hardly speak when it sounded like all they had done was make out, but others had done things that would make any parent cringe, such as giving blow jobs at parties.  As bishop, if you’re going to help them navigate through these things, you have to ask — you can’t just assume.  Clearly, the way you do that can affect people.

I can’t deny that these young women who confessed to me were vulnerable.  But that same vulnerability that opens them to harm also opens them to healing.  The idea that bishops’ interviews can lead to healing may sound crazy to you, but your world view has changed a lot since you were young, particularly with respect to sex.  The culture that you’re immersed in now has the attitude that when it comes to sex, anything and everything is okay between consenting individuals. From this perspective, a bishop’s interview is reduced to a coercive power differential.

The emotions associated with sex can be very powerful (especially for the young and inexperienced) and tie into a sense of well-being, self-worth, and connection.  Misuse of sex can lead to misery in all of those senses, even when no coercion is involved.  Continued misuse can lead to a desensitization to the human bonding that is supposed to come from sex.  I believe God gave us sexual expression specifically to reinforce marital bonds, and that engaging in sex with one’s spouse and not engaging in sex with anyone else contributes to a better sense of well-being for individuals and connectedness for couples.

I felt like, as bishop, I was given a unique opportunity to help young people navigate their experiences, sometimes including their budding sexuality.  For example, as her bishop in a private interview, I tried to help the young woman “guilty” of passionate making-out understand the emotional component of her sexuality, defuse the shame she didn’t need to feel, recognize her passion as a good thing, and suggest she might be happier saving it for her someday fiancé, since actual sex was reserved for her husband.  I was also able to help the young woman giving blow jobs at parties understand that by trying to increase her value in other people’s eyes, she was lowering it in her own.  I assured her she was both loved and lovable, and with my encouragement she shared some of what she was going through with her parents, who then gave her more support.  These private and confidential interviews provided these young women a safe place to talk through these things.  I can’t say for sure how much I helped personally, but there is a sort of ceremonial aspect to “talking to the bishop” that can be helpful in and of itself.

Most bishop’s youth interviews don’t involve confessions or questions about sex (other than the simple “Do you keep the Law of Chastity?”), but those that do are each unique.  The easy confessions were the ones where people were truly penitent and humble, genuinely wanting to put themselves right with God.  The Spirit was always present during these interviews, and I felt like I always knew what to say.  The hard ones were when people confessed as a matter of form or requirement, or just to assuage some guilt, but weren’t truly repentant.  They’d often hold back.  “Yes, I saw some pornography on my phone one or twice.  I feel bad about that.  I won’t do it any more,” a young man might say.  But even if a kid feels badly about that, most wouldn’t confess to his bishop, he’d just stop doing it.  Unless, of course, it was a bigger problem than what he originally let on, and it was really weighing on his conscience.  What do you, as bishop, do?  You ask.  You try to understand how big of a problem it is. Masturbating to porn on the weekdays and blessing the sacrament on Sunday is a kind of hypocrisy that isn’t good for the soul, and yet isn’t uncommon.  A half-baked confession isn’t going to help resolve this kid’s internal conflict, or help him feel right before God, and as a bishop, that’s your goal.

Taking this example, let’s see where the story can end up going:  1) the young man confesses fully, establishes practices to change his behavior, receives support, improves, and feels cleaner and happier; or 2) he may or may not confess fully, may or may not try to change his behavior initially, but eventually decides he’s not giving up masturbating to porn and that he shouldn’t feel bad about it because it’s completely normal [1].  So what becomes his perspective on his bishop?  In the first case, the bishop is a helpful and supportive sounding board who probably won’t figure prominently in the kid’s future memories;  in the second, the bishop is an institutionally empowered busybody sticking his nose into a young person’s personal business and making an unhealthy religion even more unhealthy.  The bishop’s behavior could be exactly the same in both cases, but the resulting narrative is dramatically different depending on the teenager’s perspective.

That’s not to say that bishops are always guiltless, or that none of them are ever tempted by titillating details.  As part of your radio interview, there’s a story about a young woman confessing a sexual sin to her bishop and him coming around the desk and putting a hand on her knee.  As described, the bishop sounded voyeuristic and creepy as hell.  It made me nauseous.  But was he really being creepy or was he attempting to give comfort?

Shortly after I was called as bishop, an email went out from the stake president to all the bishops in the stake. One of the bishops in the stake had hugged a woman in his office and she’d felt he’d been inappropriate.  We were given no details, but we were instructed not to hug women from then on.  For the next three years I made it a point never to make physical contact with any woman I met with behind closed doors.  Time after time, I would meet with women struggling with personal or family problems, baring their souls, desperately seeking for some sort of guidance to make things better, and some of them doubting whether anybody including God could ever love them again.  After talking, I’d open the door, shake their hand, and wait for them to leave.  It felt cold and clinical.  I eventually decided that sometimes you have to risk being misunderstand and simply allow someone to cry on your shoulder while you assure them that God loves them and that they are not alone.  After all, I did that with the men.  I decided I needed to do that with the women too. 

I was wary and careful, usually opting for a one-armed side-hug.  I don’t think I ever misjudged and made anyone feel uncomfortable… but how could I really know?  Somebody might have been grateful in the moment, only to second guess it later.  When it comes to that bishop’s hand on that young woman’s knee, I have no idea whether whether it was meant to be reassuring or was as creepy as described, and probably nobody would know except the bishop himself. [2]  And we can’t know his side of the story.

The part of your radio piece I found unfair, is when you challenged the church spokesperson to issue an apology for how you were subjected to bishop’s interviews growing up.  You wanted to know why the Church didn’t instruct bishops on exactly what they were allowed to ask.  The Church representative maintained that bishops were directed not to probe too deeply, but that what was appropriate depended on the situation.  You wanted him to acknowledge that there was a problem, or else the church wouldn’t have changed the policy to allow parents to participate, and that he should apologize on the church’s behalf for that problem.  This he declined to do.  He only said the church was trying to improve things.  You again requested an apology, and the silence hung.

Let me ask you a question.  Do you believe that the objective of the Church leadership was to give middle-aged men voyeuristic power over vulnerable young women?  Or do you believe they were genuinely trying to put in place policies and practices they felt would benefit the Church’s adherents?  I suspect you believe the latter, but consider church leadership to have been arrogantly negligent about the harm they were enabling. You believe there should be an apology for this negligence.  Knowing that you’ve publicly expressed that you have left the Church and that you feel the Church’s doctrines and practices have harmed you, have you asked your parents to apologize for raising you Mormon? If not, why not?  Were they not just as arrogantly negligent?  My guess is that you still believe your parents tried to do their best for you, even if you feel they were mistaken. 

It is true, as you stated, that many Church leaders have taught that sexual sin is next to murder in seriousness, but I believe that comes from a misinterpretation of Alma chapter 39.  The prophet Alma had brought his son, Corianton, along on his travels to preach to a group of people, and while there, Corianton had abandoned his ministry and chased after a “harlot.”  Alma wanted Corianton to understand the seriousness of his sin, but it wasn’t just the sex act that was so serious; it was that when the people saw Corianton’s behavior, they would not believe Alma’s words.  The “sin next to murder in seriousness” was that Corianton, in his privileged and elevated position, had satisfied his own selfish desires in such a way that led others away from accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ.  If you want more on this interpretation, see this article for a fuller explanation. [3]

I hope the number of bishops who are genuine creeps is vanishingly small, but that may not be the case.   I suspect bishops who have indulged their creepiness, and caused those whom they were supposed to shepherd to abandon their faith, have themselves committed the sin next to murder in seriousness.  I hope to God that I never did anything as bishop that caused someone to lose their faith–it is literally one of my greatest fears.  Anyone who has been blessed with knowledge of the gospel, who then misuses that power and influence thereby leading others astray is guilty of serious sin, whether that’s Corianton, a bishop, a former church member, or one of the highest leaders.

I do believe that Church leadership genuinely wants to help people.  I wouldn’t be surprised with all the changes the church has been making lately if there are further changes to bishop’s worthiness interviews.  Maybe women will even someday be confessing to women.  Having grown up in the church and been interviewed by many a bishop, and having sat on the other side of the desk for 5 years, I think there’s merit to the current process, even as it is. 

As for serving as a bishop, it was a fantastic experience for me personally.  Never in my life have I felt God’s love stronger than I have in one-on-one interviews in the bishop’s office.  It wasn’t His love for me I felt — it was His love for the person sitting across from me.  I was simply used as a conduit for that love because the person sitting across from me couldn’t feel it herself.  It may genuinely be the most miraculous thing I’ve ever experienced, and I’ve never been more convinced of God’s reality.

I know this is a long letter. I don’t understand the compulsion I had to write you.  I genuinely wish you well.  Maybe 10 years from now you will have found whatever it is you’re looking for, and maybe the Church will have found a way to accomplish all the good that can come from bishops’ interviews without all the collateral damage.  Here’s to hoping!

___________________________________________

Readers, what do you think?

  • Did you listen to Elna Baker’s radio piece? What were your impressions?
  • Do you think there are good qualities to bishops’ interviews as well as improvements that need to be made? Do you believe the church should discontinue them entirely?
  • Which do you think is the sin next to murder: sexual sin or knowingly leading others astray through abuse of power?
  • Should the church issue a formal apology for the actions of creepy bishops? For the entire practice of worthiness interviews? Are institutional apologies necessary when individuals did the best they could with the information they had?
  • Do you think you would have been happier if you had been raised without the Law of Chastity or would you have been unhappy in a different way?

Discuss.

[1] There are clearly more possible outcomes, but these are the two relevant to this conversation.

[2] For the record, I never put my hand on a young woman’s knee, nor do I believe I ever hugged the youth (though I’m not absolutely positive).

[3] The only other person implied to have been committing the “sin next to murder in seriousness” was Alma himself, when he talked about “murdering” so many people when he was fighting against the church.  He clearly had a knowledge of the gospel but did not accept/believe it. Obviously, the “sin…” is a concept introduced by Alma to illustrate a point; it’s not necessarily really a thing.  It is, however, a concept heavily laden.