Often I hear that we need people more trained for the ministry like chaplains are trained in the LDS Church.
With that in mind, I thought I’d go over my experience with chaplains.
My first discussions of chaplains had to do with some we went to church with. The kind that, since he was an officer, had the enlisted personnel he interacted with stand at attention and answer “yes sir” or “no sir” while he counseled with them.
As a trained LDS chaplain he obviously didn’t need any more from those he counseled than “yes sir” and “no sir.” Why waste any more time on them? He was proud of his efficiency.
I really did not deal much more with people who had training for the ministry until I was in the hospital with my oldest child. I was assigned a chaplain with experience as a pastor who had a PhD in theology as a part of preparing to be a pastor.
Mostly I held space for him and listened as he vented about how unprepared his PhD had left him for the ministry, something he was hoping to remedy with chaplaincy training.
I saw him last when he was assigned to prepare me for a meeting with the doctors for them to tell us that our daughter Jessica was not expected to make it. His preparation “you’ve dealt with everything really well. I think I could learn a lot from watching how you cope with getting bad news. Would you mind letting me observe and learn from you as you are told your daughter is expected to die?”
Guess that is the way that everyone would want to have that news broken to them – and I really think he didn’t realize that he had broken the news to me with the way he asked the question.
Not surprisingly as she died on my arms later in the hospital he was no where to be found.
Later, when my daughter Robin was in the hospital I wandered down to the hospital chapel. The chaplain in charge of the chapel (and the person in charge of the hospital’s chaplaincy program) let me know that I was really in the way as they were preparing the space for something and that there were much more important things for her to do than talk to me.
Or even allow me to sit in the chapel.
I still don’t know what religious observances are around July 9th, but I got out of her way.
Robin died fairly soon afterwards so she was probably right that I was just in the way.
So, forgive me if my experience of people who have been trained for the ministry does not necessarily give me confidence in their superiority. Or if assertions of same do not bring out my unabashed support instead of memories, like the ones above.
On the other hand some pastoral training of bishops seems like it couldn’t hurt.
Surely there is useful training of chaplains going on somewhere.
What do you think?
OMG Stephen M – thx for sharing. I am so sorry for your losses.
Stephen, thanks for sharing your experiences that show that professional clergy/chaplains can also be far from ideal even when they have significant training. Here is some training that would have been helpful for the times when I was serving as a bishop:
1) A clear understanding of the personal legal and liability risks I incurred when I accepted the calling. When I had questions about these risks in some difficult situations, I was told by the abuse helpline attorney that whether or not the church had any responsibilities to help me in case things went wrong was the church’s intellectual property and is not divulged to bishops and stake presidents. In the light of this statement and other experiences with attorneys for the church, I ended up believing that the church did not have my back. Contrast this with my work life, where I have been able to get good clear guidance from in-house legal counsel.
2) A clear explanation in advance of how the abuse reporting requirements in my jurisdiction applies to the role of a bishop. If a bishop understands the reporting situation ahead of time and the church strategy for reporting, he can do a better job with victims. What I mean by this is that if a disclosure of abuse is potentially about to be made, the bishop can explain the church process ahead of time to the victim so that the victim gains as much control as possible over the process including whether or not they wish to name the perpetrator.
There are several other things that are harder to do, so such as workshops and providing spiritual counseling in supportive and appropriate ways, self-care when dealing with heart rending situations, etc.
Nice picture. Maybe the message there is “needs some fix up work.” Maybe the same can be said for LDS bishop training (sic). I’m not sure chaplains are the right model or example for a better-trained LDS lay clergy.
I went to “bishopric training” every couple of months for a few years and honestly it was largely wasted. A lot of admin stuff. A few Handbook section reviews. Nothing, absolutely nothing, directed to make bishops better interviewers or better counselors or better pastors. Any bishop who is good at those things is either a natural counselor or else learns it on the job. At the same time, I doubt many stake presidents looking for the next bishop for a ward look for a good pastor or counselor. They want someone who will manage the ward, toe the orthodox line, and not cause problems. There is just almost nothing in the current LDS system that either selects or trains a man called as bishop to be a good pastor or counselor. Maybe the quickest way to get better people and counseling skills would be to call women as LDS bishops. It seems to work fairly well in other churches.
I issue my strongest possible condemnation to those who treated Stephen R. so harshly. That should never happen.
At the same time, it is clear that there must be more and better training for stake presidents and bishops. The abysmal lack of training leads to tremendous inconsistency.
The lack of training leads some bishops to be overly lenient in an attempt to be popular. As a result, their wards become a cornucopia of substance abuse and promiscuity. On the other hand, some bishops treat the ward no better than the Russian serfs of old who existed only to carry out the will of the master.
In short, there must be more and better training for those who have such an impact in the lives of their congregants. That is irrefutable fact.
I’m sorry you experienced that Stephen.
I’ve had a few interactions with chaplains whilst at university, given I would attend the chaplaincy groups for my department and hall of residence. They generally seemed to be good, caring people, who were welcoming, without any expectation of conversion. There were some interesting discussions. I didn’t have any complex pastoral needs, so I don’t know how any of them would have managed with that. They were concerned to know that I was okay after I had attended a showing of. The Godmakers on campus. There was no coercion from any of them. Compared to local LDS leaders I’d interacted with all my life, there was a degree of distance that I sensed, which I now put down to proper application of boundaries.
I do think LDS leaders at a local level can be oblivious to the risks they are subjecting themselves to. That plvtime asked about this and was told he couldn’t have that information is shocking. Though I have long sensed that the church may well be happy to throw individual members to the wolves rather than have their backs. There are things well meaning members can do without being aware that they’re breaking the law. Data protection regulations being one such field.
You know how we are taught that in the last days bad people will say good is evil and evil is good? Well, what I have discovered is that it is the COJCOLDS that actually does this, not society. There are many examples. And one example is that the Church has ingrained in us the idea that paid ministry is a bad thing. We are supposed to question the motives and sincerity of the local minister because he’s paid. And we are supposed to automatically accept the sincerity of the dentist next door who is called to be an LDS bishop. After all, he is dedicating his time for no pay along with working as a full-time dentist.
But here’s another way of looking at it: what if the minister of the other church is the kind of person who sacrificed opportunities in other professions because he/she really wanted to help other people and he felt a kind of personal calling to become a minster? So he/she goes to divinity school and also engages in continuous training to become a better minster throughout his/her life. On the other hand (and with all due respect to the Mormon bishop/dentists out there) perhaps your local LDS bishop is someone who really has no business being in a ministering position. He’s super organized and efficient but doesn’t really understand people and theology. But he accepts the calling because you never turn down a calling. The social ramifications alone are much too negative, not to mention the guilt of saying no.
These days, when I encounter a paid minister, I’m give the person the benefit of the doubt. They have probably sacrificed. They have probably been trained. Thank goodness for these kind of people. And yes, thank goodness the COJCOLDS is full of people willing to volunteer their time. Most of them are very good people and most LDS bishops are very good people, although I’m not sure they are better ministers than the paid ones.
I am sorry for the deaths of your daughters. Unimaginable and heartbreaking.
I never experienced personal chaplain care.
I attended church in a children’s hospital led by a female chaplain. We sang Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. It was nice.
I attended church at Primary Children’s Hospital. It was welcoming and warm. Wear what is comfortable. Children who were mobile came with i.v. poles and pumps attached, which sometimes alarmed. Some children had toys that make sounds. Testimonies were heartfelt. Branch leadership had experiences that helped them relate, but I only knew because I knew the sister of one of them. Children chose a blanket on their way back to their rooms.
Later when the leaders visited the room, the message was moving. They didn’t offer answers, but did provide comfort, maybe the Mormon version of Jesus Loves Me.
I attended church in a mental health facility. It was fast Sunday. No one got up. After a while of silence, someone from the ward that put it on that week got up. He thanked the priest-age boys who accompanied him for coming. I think they could be more thoughtful to those they were there to serve.
Stephen, first, I’m sorry. For all of it.
I know a young Muslim woman training to become a chaplain. She wants to work in a hospital that specializes in pediatric care. She feels strongly called to this work, which I think is an important element: you have to feel, strongly, that pastoral work is part of your purpose here. This can be problematic in a rotating, unpaid, voluntold clergy, but it can be problematic for those paid for pastoral care too. The other thing my friend has in near-endless empathy. Her life as an outsider here in the United States: a woman of color, member of a minority religion is, I think, part of how she developed that empathy.
It’s hard when the people providing pastoral care have no frame of reference for understanding the experiences of those they care for; it can result in a lack of empathy. This is often what happens when we select only those with the most privilege, however we define it, for pastoral roles. I would say that without a true vocation and empathy, no amount of training is going to help. I do know that my friend says her training has been very valuable.
Thank you Stephen for your vey heartfelt comments. My condolences for your losses.
When I was called as bishop of a YSA ward, the initial training focused on managing LDS Inc risks. Not surprisingly, my wife provided the best training: listen and love. The lack of substantive formal training often resulted in inconsistent and damaging interpretations of church discipline.
Typical of a YSA student stake, as bishops we were often involved with counseling members in regards to intimacy and sexual issues. The abysmal lack of training and at times shameful treatment (especially of females) finally culminated in an emergency meeting called by the SP and attended by the bishops. In that unforgettable meeting, we were told in no uncertain terms to stop referring members for church discipline unless there were ongoing patterns of promiscuity. Apparently some bishops were initiating immediate disciplinary actions based on simple confessions ranging from masturbation to one-off intimate experiences. In other words, there was gross disciplinary abuse.
The experience taught me two important lessons: 1.) Leadership roulette is real and can be severely damaging to individuals; and 2.) Confessing sins to lay LDS leaders is highly overrated. I now advise individuals to seek repentance directly through their own methods. There is no need for an often untrained intermediary to stand between us and God.
Stephen, I am sorry that you had to go through those experiences, but also thank you for sharing as it helps me personally become more sensitive and aware to that facet of suffering and loss others go through. Sending a warm virtual hug to you right now:)
As for the topic, I think there are numerous pros/cons with having a paid versus unpaid local leadership (I won’t attempt to bark at the obvious irony that our higher ups do get paid very well). I am also torn with the idea of implementing more training and all of the pitfalls that can come with that (does the leader really get substantial information, who is doing the training, is it updated sufficiently, etc.). And given that we do pull ordinary folks into these callings, why are we asking more of them than they are equipped to handle? Is that really fair to them?
When I was EQP a few years ago, my new Bishop ran into a number of problems with Ward members that he was not equipped to handle from an experience standpoint. Just didn’t have a big picture view of how his counsel or actions would affect individuals across many spectrums and for a long time. And he knew he was not competent to advise, and stressed out over it for his first year or two. I did have professional experience with many of the issues presented to him, but I found that any advice or information I gave the Bishop (upon his request), seemed to stray a bit too far away from the reasonable boundaries of appropriate ecclesiastical advice/input. Meaning, this Bishop was not an expert to address the member’s issues, and even if he was he would be acting outside of his role as a spiritual advisor.
My strong belief is that before the LDS Church attempts to “train” these local leaders to give better pastoral care and attention, perhaps it ought to consider reducing and limiting the circumstances under which a leader is consulted at all. Specifically, let’s revamp worthiness interviews, let’s make it known to all members that if you have a specific mental health, financial, or similar personal crisis you will be instantly referred to a trained professional. But certainly, an ongoing course (let’s get rid of Sunday School for a couple years?) for leaders and all members on Christ-like empathy and love might be appropriate. Most of the time, people simply need listening and compassion more than answers or action.
One of the reasons some leaders get a God-complex or risk handling more than they should is because they think the mantle of their calling and priesthood/Holy Ghost will lead them to be a success, and they cannot be persuaded otherwise because “the Church is true” and “whom God call, God qualifies.” Oh, yeah, and the usual leader-worship stuff that seems to provide evidence to them. Dangerous stuff there.
I agree with Counselor that the scope and range of Bishops responsibilities is just inappropriate. I feel like it may have been a reasonable system in pioneer-era Utah to have a Bishop for a community acting as judge and counselor but not now.
There are several possible solutions to problems at the Ward level: (1) involve more women in major leadership positions; (2) encourage fewer visits to the Bishop; (3) separate pastoral, financial, and doctrinal care from Ward administration; and (4) better training for all in Ward leadership position.
I can only think of some lines from CS Lewis’ Great Divorce:
“There’s something in natural affection which will lead it on to eternal love more easily than natural appetite could be led on. But there’s also something in it which makes it easier to stop at the natural level and mistake it for the heavenly. Brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is. And if it finally refuses conversion its corruption will be worse than the corruption of what ye call the lower passions. It is a stronger angel, and therefore, when it falls, a fiercer devil.”
“I don’t know that I dare repeat this on Earth, Sir,” said I. “They’d say I was inhuman: they’d say I believed in total depravity: they’d say I was attacking the best and the holiest things. Thev’d call me . . .”
“It might do you no harm if they did,” said he with (I reallv thought) a twinkle in his eye.
“But could one dare-could one have the face-to go to a bereaved mother, in her misery -when one’s not bereaved oneself? . . .”
“No, no. Son, that’s no office of yours. You’re not a good enough man for that. When your own heart’s been broken it will be time for you to think of talking. But someone must say in general what’s been unsaid among you this many a vear : that love, as mortals understand the word, isn’t enough. Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried.””
You who have broken may speak to the rest of us who have not yet been.
It sounds like what you needed was a social worker, not a chaplain. The same could be said for many of the things we expect bishops to handle.
Those are awful experiences. I’m sorry. Did your ward leadership respond in a helpful way?
So sorry for your loss and experiences. Those are heartbreaking stories.
I was surprised to hear about the LDS chaplain that would have those who he counseled stand at attention and respond with “Yes sir!” I’m shaking my head in disappointment. I think that goes to show that even when provided with training, some people are just going to proceed with their own ineffective way of doing things anyways.
I’ve known many LDS military chaplains and have two in my branch right now. They are awesome, kind, loving, great counselors who I look up to and admire. In them I see the great characteristic that Josh H. described, “people who sacrificed opportunities in other professions because they really wanted to help other people and felt personal calling to become a minster”. Within the LDS community, becoming a military chaplain is a way to make a sustainable lifestyle out of heeding that personal calling.
An interesting comment that one of them made to me was along the lines of, “Any good home teacher or ministering brother could be a good chaplain. It’s basically what I do all day, only instead of having 4 families to minister to, I have multiple squadrons that I minister to.”
I’m still not sure what I make of that comment. I think he meant it as testament to the gospel knowledge members get from attending seminary, serving missions, etc… combined with the charity that one has from following Christ– that LDS members are for the most part good Christians capable of taking care of those around us. (I will note that he did emphasize it would be “any GOOD ministering brother”).
The LDS military chaplains I know sacrifice a lot, are on call all the time, and serve others at all hours of the day and night. They have my utmost respect, and I would be happy to have one of them serve as my bishop/branch president.
Stephen, I am sorry for your loss.
When my boys were in the cancer ward at Primary Children’s, our only chaplain experience was with one who was a friend (former Army Chaplin) who was very caring. The hospice chaplains who came to our home prior to and after their deaths, were very compassionate and helpful in preparing us for the inevitable and providing comfort and support resources after they passed. Together with a nurse, the chaplain told us what to expect towards the end, told us how we might limit the trauma to the siblings (like getting a platelet infusion towards the end so they didn’t bleed out at home). We knew the signs and were able to make the unthinkable, peaceful.
Likewise, as we spent 10 years in grief support (3 as clients and 7 as volunteers), there were several parents that had lost children who became chaplains and were very effective. I am considering the same path after I retire.
In contrast, a counselor in the bishopric came over and testified how beautiful death could be, using the passing of his grandmother – in the presence of my son. My wife asked, “How old was your grandmother?” “94.” My wife said, “He’s 15. It’s not the same.” My son (he had Down syndrome) got up, opened the front door and told them to leave. When the bishop joked about it, he yelled, “RUN!”
The bishop came by towards the end and sat with me and my son. He told us how excited he was to speak at the funeral because my son was so popular and the Jr. High Choir was going to sing: “There will be so many youth there hear my message.” I talked to the SP and made sure bishop was off the program.
A later bishop consoled my wife’s expression of grief by saying, “It seems to me that it’s been long enough. You need to get over it. Everybody’s lost someone.”
So, yes, a little more training for local leaders couldn’t hurt.
Been There. Your experience is heartbreaking.
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aporetic1—I am so glad you have had better experiences.
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In my time in the military, I’ve gotten to know 5 LDS chaplains in different times and places. As far as I could tell, with the exception of one, they all did their jobs well and had a good sense of professional boundaries (not always the case with my bishops and SPs). The other side of that coin is that 4 out of those 5 LDS chaplains are now divorced. It’s a job that really takes an unseen toll on the families.
The one LDS chaplain who I didn’t like very much was a former CES teacher who had been “let go” and then joined the military primarily for the health insurance and family benefits. When I encountered him during a deployment, he was still pretty new to the service, but he had a mild messiah complex and saw himself as one who was ordained to preach the Gospel “where the missionaries can’t go”. I didn’t see him much after that first meeting, but I hope he eventually figured out what military chaplains are actually supposed to do, and either fixed himself or got out of the service.
When my father was dying in the hospital, I asked the social worker to send a chaplain to the room. I expected to get a visit from a non-denominational professional hospital chaplain to give us non-specific spiritual perspective on end-of-life issues, which I thought would have been helpful to some of the people in my family who were inactive or not friendly to the LDS Church at the time. Instead, they looked up my dad’s religious preference in his patient record and sent for a pair of missionaries. When a pair of young elders came into the room, we were as confused as they were. These were basically teenagers who had no experience with being around dying people, no experience or training in handling grief, totally out of their depth and it showed. All they could really do was offer to give my dad a blessing (he had had several at this point) but they were really awkward doing it because they were basically strangers to us and knew nothing of my dad’s condition or prognosis (pro tip: giving a blessing of “healing” to a patient who is stage 4 terminal with only hours left to live is usually more hurtful than helpful). One of my siblings who resigned from the Church years before was really offended and threw a major fit, adding a lot of unnecessary family tension to my dad’s final hours. The real chaplain never came.
I have mixed feelings about giving bishops additional training in pastoral counseling and mental health. I’ve heard plenty of stories of bishops mishandling or bungling sensitive situations and I have occasionally been a victim of such bungling, so I would appreciate any help in fixing or preventing these problems in the future. On the other hand, I am opposed to empowering bishops any more than they already are, and in-depth specialized training does exactly that; a dentist-bishop who awkwardly gives sexual education advice to teenagers is bad, but a bishop who spent a Saturday at a Church-led training seminar on “healthy sexuality” knows enough to be dangerous. We need to stop making a big deal about bishops having priesthood keys and being common judges in Israel, and instead remind members of what bishops actually are; imperfect volunteers capable of making mistakes. Get bishops out of the business of confessions and private worthiness interviews. Make temple recommends a completely online process with checkboxes and no local leader involvement. No more officiating funerals or acting as authoritative sources of advice for anything. Also, bishops should be subject to regular performance reviews, and removed and replaced when they fall short.
@BeenThere, that’s appalling.
I think this has been discussed before on this blog, but I have seen several situations where someone’s funeral was hijacked as a missionary opportunity. Really inappropriate.
I think generally humans, Mormons included, aren’t good at grieving and especially not good at watching others grieve. It’s very uncomfortable for us so we just want to rationalize and comfort and move on. It’s something I’m working on.
One thing I find interesting is that in many nuanced Mormon spaces there are calls for more training (I agree, and have some stories of my own about clueless bishops) and possibly moving away from a lay clergy model. We look at other churches and the theological and pastoral training they have and feel some holy envy. I get it.
However, I spend a little time around the edges of evangelicalism because I’ve been following Sheila Gregoire for about 10 years. I suppose she could be considered a nuanced Evangelical, although I’m pretty sure that’s not how she sees herself, she’s considers her work faithful and Biblical. In many of the online spaces she’s a part of, women grapple with the truly horrible messaging they’ve received about sex and duty and gender roles and I often read, “Stop going to your pastor for help for EVERYTHING. He’s not a therapist. We’re in this mess because pastors have no business giving marriage advice – they need to stay in their own lane!”
There’s some irony in reading the comments of these disparate spaces. Sometimes I wish we weren’t so isolated as Mormons. It would be interesting to REALLY have interfaith dialogue and discover what other faithful people are grappling with.
Elisa, my friends and I have a pact with one another that if someone starts giving the awful plan of salvation missionary talk at our funerals, then those of us still around will run to the stand and put a stop to it!
Back to the original post, I think that looking to chaplaincy training is the wrong model. Many Catholic and Episcopal seminaries have classes on different aspects of pastoral care, of which hospital visits are just a small slice. (I can’t speak to seminaries for other denominations — I just don’t have that information off the top of my head.) Chaplaincy training may be a start, but we should set our sights on something more comprehensive, especially, as others have noted, a good distinction about what’s appropriate pastoral counseling and what should be handled by non-religious professionals.
I suppose that my experience is somewhat different from the bulk of those above. I was newly married when I was called as bishop and painfully aware of my inadequacies. I also quickly learned that there was very little institutional support for guiding me to deal with the numerous issues I faced over the next 8 years ( multiple out of wedlock pregnancies both teenage and adult , divorce including my prior bishops , murders , suicide , as well as the typical faith crisis and fornication by both teenagers and adults ). Fortunately I discovered several competent professional counselors who were a real blessing both in the lives of church members and collaterally my own. I made liberal use of them even if my The various Stake Presidents were not enthusiastic. I discovered professional training does not a good counselor make. Over the last seven years I have worked very closely with chaplains in the state prison system and discover that with some exception they tend to be much better at institutional administration than effective counseling. I doubt that additional bishopric training would help in a LDS setting. The best solution is do a better job at choosing bishops and encourage them to make good use of qualified and vetted counselors.