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Being Supportive After Church Discipline

by EmilyCC

Last Sunday, my husband came home from bishopric meetings visibly shaken. Two Church courts had happened that morning resulting in one excommunication and one disfellowship (the two cases were unrelated). Nate shook his head, saying he couldn’t believe that these were the people that this had happened, too. It left him feeling sad and dare I say, vulnerable.

Though I don’t know who was involved (Nate and I have a strict “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy in our household), I have been surprised at how sad it has made me. This is the third time in as many months that I’ve been upset by a Church court, and these events have shaken me more than I’d like to admit.

Sometimes, I’m sad because the Court feels punitive and unnecessary. Other times, I’m sad that someone has sinned, hurting themselves and others. But, always, I am left pondering my own sins and wondering were I fit into this religious community that uses this system of judging and expelling those who aren’t (or who are deemed to not be) worthy.

I wonder…if these courts are so unsettling for me, an individual not directly affected by what has happened, what does it feel like for those who have been disciplined?

And, more importantly, what do they need from me, a member of their community? How can I be supportive to them and their families?

I understand there was a time when excommunications were read over the pulpit. When I initially heard this, I thought, “Good! How shameful that we would make such an announcement!”

While I still don’t think that is the best way to deal with discipline in the Church, part of me looks around and thinks, “I wish I knew who it was so that I could tell them I love them (and so I don’t put my foot in my mouth when I’m talking to them).”

So, I’m left with questions to ponder…How do you support those who have experienced an excommunication or being disfellowshipped? How do you support their families?

If you have been in this position before, what did you find helpful? And, what was upsetting or hurtful?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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24 Responses

  1. jillian says:

    my dad was excommunicated about 4 months ago (i wrote the good dad/bad dad post). one of my biggest worries has been that people would treat him differently and alienate him. i’ve been most touched and helped by hearing of people who went out of their way to make sure he felt their love and acceptance. the day after the excommunication, a man who had been his friend for thirty years and was on the high council called to reassure him that nothing had changed between them and that he loved him. i’m dealing with the excommunication in my own way a few states away, so what helps me most is to know that there are good christlike people out there who are withholding judgment and focusing on love.

  2. Caroline says:

    These are good questions, Emily. I am reading Sonia Johnson’s From Housewife to Heretic right now, and it’s made me upset and uncomfortable that church courts were apparently used to punish someone for publicly disagreeing politically with church leaders. Really upset. I can sort of understand excommunicating rapists and such (sort of – I still don’t really know why it’s necessary given that most other faiths don’t practice excommunication) but I really don’t understand it in issues of public political disagreement.

    So I don’t have anything really insightful to say in answer to your questions, but I’ll tell you what Sonia said she wanted: a) someone in the ward to come up to her and ask her if she needed anything. b) people to not avoid her and refuse to associate with her.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    Jillian, I was thinking of your guest post when I wrote this. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    Caroline, I also struggle with the Church’s use of excommunication. I wonder why our church continues to use it when so many other Christian denominations don’t. And, do you remember if Sonia’s excommunication was read over the pulpit? Just curious…

  4. Jana says:

    My husband’s excommunication is probably an unusual situation because the reason was apostasy (not sexual indiscretion or criminal behavior) and he was very public about his experience. So most of our friends know what happened. I imagine that it would be much different if the court and the reasons were kept private.

    I can’t say that anyone has done anything particularly offensive in the wake of the court. I think I would have appreciated hearing the sincere reactions/feedback from the men who attended, but given the circumstances, I don’t really see that happening. As in “Wow, that was hard for me,” etc. I really was curious how they experienced the event & what it meant to them. We had a large group of friends who gathered at our home that night to hear the story and just “be there.” That was beautiful.

    I wouldn’t want my friends to pretend nothing had happened, but I also don’t like re-telling the story over and over again. Right after the court was the Boston Exponent retreat. The first night I shared a bit about it with the group. It was nice to have women who were nearly-strangers express support or just give me a hug. I also liked that there was plenty of time to giggle that weekend–perhaps laughter therapy was what I needed most.

  5. Anon says:

    I believe because disfellowshipping and excommunication are sometimes more of an emotional than a spiritual decision, it should be more strongly discouraged in the Church. I was threatened with excommunication when I helped my friend escape an abusive marriage (her husband was a close friend of the stake president and a general authority who lived in the ward.) My daughter was ex’d after she was raped and her active LDS boss seduced her. She was vulnerable, fragile and naive after the rape, and the excommunication has destroyed her life.

  6. jillian says:

    anon– both of those stories are absolutely heartbreaking.
    i also struggle with the idea of excommunication itself. i’m not entirely sure what good it generally does. however, i know that in his case, my dad expected to be excommunicated and sees that as a necessary step for him to completely repent and start over from scratch. i think it gives him something solid to work toward, that when he’s rebaptized, he’ll know he’s starting new.

  7. davis says:

    Excommunication is necessary at times. It is not punishment. It is for the offender. Sometimes eventual re-baptism is the best way to complete full repentance.

    I do not doubt that at times some see it as punishment, and that some try to use it as such. But in general it has a purpose and that purpose is to help people repent as quickly as possible.

    The Church can’t just discontinue excommunication just because every one else does.

  8. madhousewife says:

    The media was camped in the church parking lot for Sonia Johnson’s church court, so there probably wasn’t any need to read her excommunication over the pulpit, as everyone knew what happened. I think that practice had stopped by then anyway.

  9. Racy says:

    I’ve had excommunication be a real possibility
    before in my life and I’m for it. I think
    that it should be taken very seriously when
    done, and that, like all disipline, it matters what spirit it is done with (hopefully The Spirit).

    I talked to several bishops at this time of
    my life (I was moving around alot) and was
    suprised by how different the reactions were.
    When I finally found a bishop who sais “I’m so glad you came back, now let’s work on this together” I just sobbed with relief. If that wonderful bishop had said “This will be better if we just start over again” I would have happily done just that and seen the reasoning,
    particularly if I was still under temple
    covenants.

  10. Karen says:

    My husband was a bishop, and I saw many miracles he lovingly helped people repent and return to full activity in the Church. Those who received church discipline also received an increase of love, devotion, and compassion. Some have asked him to speak at their funerals. His love for those who transgressed, and the eventually return of those who has strayed from keeping important commandments was a beautiful thing to observe.

    With that said, I have also observed bishops misuse and abuse their sacred responsibilities. In the Salt Lake area, sometimes bishops and stake presidents make some terrible mistakes as they listen to their friends, who may be adulterous and abusive, and turn against their wives, who become scapegoats for their husbands’ violent and vicious behavior. I have observed some horrific abuses of ecclesiastical power.

    To answer you question, how do you support those who have been excommunicated or disfellowshipped? Love them, respect them, listen to them, remind them that they are beloved children of God. Sit by them at Church, invite them over for dinner, reach out to them with kindness and compassion. If they are no longer active, show them by your words and examples that God lives and that He know and loves them personally. Nothing is more joyful than to see a loved one return to the fold.

  11. velska says:

    One thing would be to try not to engage in condemning others’ behavior or opinions. We are always very limited. I’m not saying you do that, just reminding.

    Second, from having sat in disciplinary councils, my experience is that by far the overwhelming majority of excommunications come when the people just totally have decided to leave or something. No desire to work with the issues or work with the bishop/SP.

    Besides, it hasn’t been called a Court in a while. Its design is not to judge people, but to help. Sadly, sometimes abuses occur; I would not throw out the whole idea because of the few abuses I have heard of.

    I have also personally benefited from counseling with a wise Judge in Israel about some things in my own life, and am grateful for it. Our bishops do amazing work!

  12. velska says:

    And the dropped paragraph:

    In any case, I think we should treat everyone with kindness, even if we disagree with them; even when they would seem not to deserve it.

  13. EmilyCC says:

    Jana, thank you for sharing your experience; I thought that the idea of having friends gathered at your home when you came back from the court was a beautiful idea.

    anon, I’m so sad to hear your stories, just tragic. Has your daughter been able to find emotional and spiritual healing?

    Davis, I can see times when excommunication can be a helpful tool for repentance and growth, but I worry that perhaps it often can do more harm than good. It’s something that really puzzles me, though, and something I know little about. Would you mind saying more about how it makes repentance happen more quickly?

    Madhousewife, thanks for your response!

  14. EmilyCC says:

    Racy, I’m so glad to hear that you have been able to find a bishop to help you; this sounds like a long and difficult journey for you. Blessings as you continue on it.

    Karen, what a beautiful comment. Thank you so much for sharing it.

    Velska, thanks for sharing your experiences. You make several good points. Do you know what they call Church courts now? I’d like to get my terms right 🙂

  15. orange says:

    My fiance/now DH was excommunicated one week after we got engaged, despite the fact that our courtship was completely chaste (not even french kissing). The court was a delayed reaction to some serious chastity issues that he had prior to meeting me…. so this court was a long time after the past offenses and long after the confession of the past offenses. In hindsight, I feel the SP called the council and disciplined my fiancé/now DH out of a misguided strategy to prevent me from marrying him. It didn’t work. I can be stubborn like that.

    As the fiancé, I was allowed to come into the court to make a statement on his behalf. I still remember the strong feeling of God’s love that seemed to come straight from the heavens directed at my future husband. I was incredibly nervous and distraught up until that point. That moment calmed me, and confirmed my belief in God and that he loves each one of us very much.

    However, the feeling I got from the SP and the men on the High Council was one of complete ice cold.. no emotion or love at all. Maybe I was just too scared of them, since my future of being able to marry in the temple was in their hands. (We got married 2 months later anyway, and sealed 3 years later.)

    If I had to give advice on how to support people in this situation, I would say to be an extra generous friend to them. We suffered gossip, pregnancy rumors and lack of support for our “lesser” wedding. It was so hurtful. Afterwards, we kept going to church out of sheer stubbornness sometimes. That is a pretty lonely feeling and an experience I would not recommend to anyone. I think, even if you were not close to us prior to the excommunication, we would have appreciated any outreach and we would not have been cynical about the efforts, because we were in such need of positive friendshipping, even if it is was just to counter the gossips/judgmental people that we were encountering. Personally, we never got that. The ward members generally were just distant.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like I am bitter about it. I think you can learn great truths and grow from all of life’s experiences. Today, I am truly blessed with a great marriage and wonderful children.

  16. orange says:

    As to the necessity of excommunication, I think it is not necessary to have the church leaders impose themselves so much in the repentance process. I think many times (and definitely in our case), it just confuses the process that should be happening via prayer directly to God. I think excommunication/church discipline can undermine a person’s relationship with the Savior.

    Also, there is lifelong baggage from excommunication within the Mormon culture that never completely goes away. Your “life story” will never fit in with the expectations, which is acceptable for a convert, but a RM and BYU grad? Not so much. It comes up consistently (over 20 years now), and the weird looks and subtle judgment follow you around to every ward, across the country. I don’t think that is how the Savior intended for repentance to be. Of course, this is just my opinion and personal feelings based on my own experience.

  17. Kelly Ann says:

    It is great to hear people’s opinion and experiences on this subject even though I really don’t like the idea of church discipline. I understand the purpose to call a sinner to repentance, to protect the innocent, and the name of the church but I agree that it is often a harsh punishment and can do more harm than good, pulling people away from the spirit instead of towards it. If a church leader was to embezzle, have an affair, commit a felony, etc. I can see more merit than the routine cases involving law of chastity violation, I generally hear about. What particularly bothers me from a feminist standpoint, is the idea of a women being so publicly exposed before a panel of four to fifteen men. It doesn’t seem fair to her or to the men like your husband who have to judge them. And for such atrocities as the case of Sonia Johnson, the September 6, and other missteps, my blood just boils a bit. I’d like to think that is has helped some but I wish it wasn’t such a part of our culture. As to interaction with both excommunicators and excommunicates (or others who have been served church discipline), I just try to love and not judge as I would do to anyone else and I would like done to me whether church discipline is involved or not.

  18. EmilyCC says:

    Orange, thank you so much for sharing your experience here. That was just the kind of information I was hoping to learn about how someone would want to be treated when in this difficult situation.

    Kelly Ann, I’m right there with you, sister 🙂

  19. CatherineWO says:

    I appreciate this post and the comments, especially those by Orange. We have a couple of close friends who have been exed and then re-baptized and it amazes me how other people bring it up years later. I know that sometimes it’s just curiousity when we ask people about their religious pasts, but it really isn’t anyone else’s business.
    I have a real problem with disciplinary councils (as I believe they are now called). My husband has been part of many and I know they bother him too. I can understand it in some cases, such as that of a stake president in our area who was convicted (and is now in prison) of sexual relations with minors, but those cases are rare.
    I think that the very existence of disciplinary action restricts discourse among LDS Church members. For me, it restricts even what I say in my own home, since for twenty of the past twenty-eight years my husband has been a signer on my temple recommend (either as a bishop or as a member of a stake presidency). Not that I’ve ever thought myself to be in a state of opostasy, but I do ask a lot of questions and don’t always agree with Church leaders.

  20. Caroline says:

    Great points, CatherineWO.

    You said:

    “I think that the very existence of disciplinary action restricts discourse among LDS Church members. For me, it restricts even what I say in my own home, since for twenty of the past twenty-eight years my husband has been a signer on my temple recommend”

    Wow. That to me is a pretty powerful example of the negatives of having a spouse also be a priesthood leader. I would dislike having to censor myself to that extent within my own home.

  21. jtt says:

    “Excommunication is necessary at times. It is not punishment. It is for the offender. Sometimes eventual re-baptism is the best way to complete full repentance.” Spoken like a true self righteous believer.

    I do not believe “it is for the offender,” and I do not believe “it is not punishment!” How is getting re-baptised better than repentance? You are supposed to repent before baptism. Baptism is a covenant not repentance.

    Only God, not the church under inconsistent bishopric leadership, gets to decide whom He forgives.

    I have no direct or indirect experience with excommunication, but I can’t find any good that could possibly come of it. Even for the serious criminal it seems more like the church worrying about it’s good name than any actual concerns for the sinner.

  22. velska says:

    First, the official name for what used to be Church Court is Disciplinary Council – and usually it seems to be the bishop(ric; first the bishop, then he involves others if necessary) just thinking and discussing how to help the person see their situation, and how to get some positive movement. Really, that’s what it almost always is from the bishop’s POV. That’s my experience.

    However, there are members, who are MP holders, who maybe have a calling with responsibility and they do something *bad* – not something like disagreeing with FP letters, drinking coffee or stuff like that – and don’t even want to discuss repentance.

    In situations like that, especially when we see the Church being condemned by outside communities based on one or two individuals’ actions, it may be necessary to excommunicate someone to make him (usually him) realize that he’s way out of line.

    And there are the unfortunate cases, where Church authority has been used as a club wielded in personal battles and/or aspirations. The Lord has said something about those in D&C 121.

    However, as I look around, I haven’t run into one single case where the necessary facts are known. In many cases we only have the “victim’s” POV, and the PH leaders can not tell theirs, because of confidentiality. In cases like that I take the stories with a grain of salt.

    Overwhelmingly misunderstanding on the part of the members of the Disciplinary Council – often because the person who is under the lens is uncooperative – is more likely than outright malice. I’ve known enough bishops/SPs so well personally that I can say that not one of them would ever use their positions to score points in some petty social game.

    And I know how this works, from both sides (have been present as a member of the Council, and as a member who wants his life in order. My Council was just the bishop, who asked the SP to veto if he felt like it. He didn’t, so I got off “easy” from some point. It was damned hard to go talk to the bishop and tell him I’d been incredibly stupid. I’m telling this with the hope that it would help someone.

    Repentance is a daily, lifelong process. We have to watch and pray always.

  23. LEB says:

    My husband was disfellowshipped after his first affair. He was reinstated 1 year later. Six months after that he had another affair. He went before the high council and they lovingly, not judgingly, ask questions. They were respectful and kind. Obviously, my husband was struggling with repenting and was told by being ex’d he was being given the opportunity to start over. The decision to ex him didn’t happen in five minutes. There was much prayer involved. We had several close friends on the council and all were loving to my husband whenever they saw him. Even after he continued with his affair and I divorced him. He has alienated himself from church. Anyone at church who did know our circumstances never treated him badly. It was his own guilt that he blamed people for feeling uncomfortable. I was willing to forgive but he was not willing to repent. Overcoming excommunication is difficult, but possible with hard work. We were considered the perfect,strong,happy mormon family in our ward. After this experience my eyes have been opened wide to the great sadness that happens to families when someone sins. And no family is perfect, everyone has issues. BTW after reading some of the contributors blogs about women not being treated equally in the church, I have never felt that way. I’m sorry that you have.

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