There are different types of “worthiness interviews” in the Church:

  • Baptismal (and other live ordinance) interviews
  • Youth temple recommend
  • Adult temple recommend
  • Ecclesiastical Endorsement

These have changed a lot over time. The temple recommend, for example, originally wasn’t even an interview. It has been done with various frequencies over time. Currently it is done every two years for endowed members. For the purposes of this week’s survey, I’m going to exclude these other types of interviews from what is meant by “worthiness interview”:

  • Callings
  • Tithing Settlement
  • Ministering Interviews
  • Personal Priesthood Interviews

First, some personal stories.

A few years ago, a friend of mine and I had a difference of opinion. He was a former bishop. For obvious reasons, I am not. I affirmed that the purpose of the temple recommend interview was for people to self-determine their own worthiness and readiness. Evidence I cited included that the interviewer is prohibited from asking questions other than the yes/no questions on the approved list. It’s not supposed to be a fishing expedition. Plus, it ends with a self-affirmation of worthiness: “Do you consider yourself worthy…?” which sums up the interview as a personal declaration of worthiness.

He disagreed, stating that as a “judge in Israel,” he was responsible to ensure that no unclean thing entered the House of the Lord. I asked how he did that exactly, and he said through spiritual promptings during the interview. I clarified that he still only had the person’s answers to go on, and even if they were not being truthful, he would have no defensible basis to deny the recommend (other than his crime-busting stare and gut feeling suppositions). He said he would deny it anyway, even if he didn’t have a reason from their answers if he just didn’t feel right about it. I said that was kind of terrifying.

Here’s why. Every time I’ve ever been pulled over by a cop, regardless of whether I was consciously doing something wrong or not (expired plates are the quintessence of being unaware), I’ve had an immediate sense of panic, like a perp thrown into an interrogation room. Do I look guilty when I get pulled over? I talk too much, my armpits get prickly, and I nervously start rummaging around in my car looking for any paper that will make me look legitimate. I’m far too friendly, and I have a nervous laugh. It’s a normal human reaction to being put under a microscope by an authority figure. If you are looking for people that feel guilty, the act of looking for guilt is prone to creating the appearance of guilt.

Every time I have ever been pulled over, I literally start thinking up every possible reason I’m being pulled over. One time I mentally came up with six possible reasons–none of which were the actual reason! That makes it sound like I was driving like a crazy person, but my list was all the little ticky-tack things that can be a moving violation but usually don’t result in getting pulled over: not signalling far enough in advance of a lane change, changing lanes too quickly, being too close to the car in front of you, going a couple miles over the speed limit, etc.

When I was a teen, my best friend’s dad was the branch president. He was also a professor of education at the local college, but he fancied himself a bit of a psychologist. He would act like Sigmund Freud in his interviews with us, writing random things on a notepad and raising his eyebrows as if I’d just inadvertently revealed some hidden psychological tic that he could easily decipher. “Interesting. Go on.”

I learned early on not to play this game. He was more often than not fishing to find out what his daughter and I got up to on our weekends in the city, which was generally harmless stuff: trying on clothes at the mall, eating Chinese food, going to dance clubs, meeting cute boys, hatching schemes to play tricks on our friends, wearing parachute pants and far too much hair product. She told me he didn’t approve of us going to the dance club, imagining all sorts of crazy shenanigans, illicit and illegal activity (it was an under-21 only club, so totally tame). Sometimes I would deliberately make up things that I thought would get a rise out of him, but he was pretty unflappable. It was amusing. I didn’t personally find him intimidating despite his best efforts.

But the idea of a bishop I don’t know well thinking he can second guess my answers and bar me from getting a recommend (when I believe I’m worthy) is pretty outlandish. That only happened to me once, and he did sign it, but he was angry about it. It was a BYU bishop whose ward I hadn’t been attending because I attended with my fiance. The bishop didn’t want to sign my living endowment recommend because of my non-attendance in my student ward. He yelled and pounded his desk and ran his hands through his hair. He was frightening! I did my best to calmly answer the questions, but his accusatory tone and his anger at my not having attended my student ward was very disconcerting. I didn’t realize that was an issue. I was a returned missionary, and I had only lived in that student ward for just over a month. He kept saying he had no way of knowing anything about me, and I kept pointing out that I was answering the questions.

Other churches don’t do a routine check of member and youth worthiness in this same way, so something unique is going on within Mormonism. Catholics have “confession” which can take place as often as people want to do it. Catholics have been encouraged to go to confession as early as age 7 in the past; however, it’s waned in popularity, and now many Churches don’t offer it or have very limited hours.

  • Foster confession. As teens, this was what we believed was the main reason for the youth interviews. Everyone was called in regularly, and this gave them a chance to tell the bishop what dirty little secrets they had been harboring, particularly sexual sins. The Church identifies specific sins that need to confessed to a bishop, and others that do not. As teens, we were constantly seeking to understand these legal lines to ensure that we didn’t cross them because telling your friend’s dad something so personal would be . . . awkward.
  • Ensure communal purity. This is similar to what my friend said about being a Judge in Israel so that no unclean thing could enter the temple: the idea that we need to keep out the sinners, to bar the wolves from among the sheep. Early Church members took this idea very seriously that one unclean or unworthy individual would prevent the group (or the Church as a whole) from achieving whatever spiritual experience they were striving to have. This is why Martin Harris recused himself saying “Lord, is it I?”
  • Self-assess worthiness. This is the argument that I made to my friend, that worthiness interviews are designed to give us a chance to reflect on our own worthiness across a range of questions. It’s not for someone else to determine our worthiness, despite their confidence in their ability to sniff out crime. It’s a structural touch stone, a routine reminder of our religious commitment and convictions.
  • Bolster the Church’s authority. In this view, the bishop or stake president is a stand in for the Church, and the Church is the only gateway to salvation. If we want access, we have to go through them. You can’t really “self-assess” worthiness (if it were really self-assessment, they could move it on-line). You can only be “recommended” through the approval of a man in a position of Church authority. Requiring you to go through the interview process prevents you from imagining you can do this on your own.
  • Enforce orthodoxy & orthopraxy. Rather than focusing on the role of the Church or one’s impact on the community, this view holds that the questions are designed to control the behavior and beliefs of individuals in the Church. By requiring you to affirm your belief in pre-written statements and to attest that your actions don’t contradict things specified in the interview questions, the Church can define what it means to be a member. There is less acceptable variation. Rather than having the latitude to say for yourself what you believe and don’t believe, you have to agree to meet a minimum standard or be barred from temple (or BYU) attendance (and most callings in the Church), which often carries a social stigma.

Time for you to weigh in.