intertwined


i didn’t watch the pbs special on mormonism last week. i was busy. papers to grade. novels and plays to read. seminars and lectures to attend. but i’ve seen some of the reactions on the blogs to margaret toscano’s account of the disciplinary council that resulted in her excommunication. the story itself (which i read on the pbs website) and some of the reactions to it have made me sad. because the story will reinforce mormon prejudices against feminism and intellectualism (is that a word?). because i can feel the pain behind her experience. because of unsympathetic responses to her story.

but those are not the only things that made me sad. i was also sad to see the church disciplinary process compared to the inquisition and burning at the stake. to see the church called a cult that brainwashes its members, using disciplinary councils as a means of threatening members into submission and conformity. to see half of a story (no one has heard the church’s half, after all) result in such outright condemnation of the church.

i love the church. i see and discuss some of its problems. i probably strike some mormons as un-mormon in some of my beliefs and opinions. but i love the church. part of that love comes from my own experience with church discipline. so i’m going to do what i’ve never done before and talk about that experience in a public forum.

caveat: please know that i do not equate my experience with toscano’s. they are different in many ways. but it is my experience and i believe it illustrates the ways in which church discipline can be a beautiful expression of love and compassion.

several years ago, i chose to sin. i knew my decisions were wrong based not only on church teachings, but also my own deeply held beliefs. but at the same time those decisions felt and were very right in some ways. i could—and occasionally did—justify those decisions in my own mind. but i knew that i had deliberately chosen to transgress god’s commandments and to violate my own standards.

i lived with that for a while—a couple of years. i had briefly discussed the situation with my bishop at the time, but i was essentially unrepentant—unwilling to fully identify as wrong what i had done. and at the end of those two years i made the same decisions to transgress again. for some reason my reaction that time was different—more immediate. more visceral. and more spiritually deadening. i didn’t want to talk to my bishop, who had always seemed distant and unengaged to me, in spite of the fact i had known him all my life. so i called my stake president, who i knew fairly well and who i trusted, and asked to come talk to him.

i was scared. but i wasn’t scared of talking about my situation; i was scared of the consequences. i knew what i had done was serious enough to potentially result in significant disciplinary action. and the idea that i could face such action and that my family would find out about my behavior; the idea that my ward and other people whose respect i valued would recognize i had been disciplined—these things frightened me and discouraged me. but my spirit hurt so badly that i knew i had to resolve this issue. so i went. and what i found was not judgment or threat or a violation of my privacy or any other negative response to church discipline i’ve heard people describe. i found incredible love and compassion and a great deal of understanding.

but i also found that i could not simply bypass my bishop and take care of matters with my friend the stake president. i met with the stake president several times and each time he encouraged me to go to my bishop and discuss the situation with him, as the proper chain of authority needed to be followed. and i finally found the willingness to do so.

my talks with the bishop were different. they were no less loving or compassionate. it was no less and not much more difficult to discuss the situation with him than it had been with my stake president. but my bishop did not understand the nuances of some of what i explained to him as well as my stake president had. i had been experiencing depression for some time (although i do not justify my actions because of that; i knew exactly what i was doing and that it was contrary to the teachings of god and my own beliefs and i still chose it) and some of the stimuli for that depression came up in our discussion. my bishop kept giving me advice that i found simplistic and which seemed on the face of it not to acknowledge realities. but i had committed to myself that i would do what i was asked—no matter what it was (so long as it didn’t truly contradict my conscience, but in my opinion this caveat should be a given)—in order to resolve my situation. so i took his advice. and it surprised me by helping in ways i had not anticipated.

i did not experience a disciplinary council, so i obviously cannot discuss that specific process. but i did experience the judgment of a bishop acting as a judge in israel. and it was part of the most beautiful spiritual experience of my life. i sat through many hours of counsel and discussion with both my stake president and my bishop. and i felt spiritual pain i didn’t even know was possible. throughout it all, i also felt love and respect—from the men who sat in judgment of my sin and from my heavenly parents.

the last time i met with my bishop, he told me that when his boys were young my father (who had over the course of a couple of decades been their bishop, their young men’s president, their scoutmaster, and their stake president) had helped them. and with tears in his eyes and love that i knew was genuine, he expressed how glad he was that he could help me—that in some way, he could do for me what my father had done for his sons. and in that moment i saw with incredible clarity the beauty of this church. of a community of imperfect, sinful, flawed human beings doing their best to muddle along and help each other by loving each other. of people laying aside their differences (and probably just as often not even registering differences as important) as they come together to celebrate and use and make possible christ’s atoning sacrifice.

in 2 corinthians 1:4-6, paul writes that God “comforteth us all in our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ. And whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation.”

this is my vision of the church, including its disciplinary process. this symbiosis of love and suffering and comfort. this intertwining of lives and pain and love.

Amelia

Amelia has recently relocated to Salt Lake City for her new job selling college textbooks (a job she loves). She's a 9th generation Mormon redefining her relationship with the church (the church she both loves and hates). She's passionate about books, travel, beauty, and all things cheese.

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  1. Maria says:

    Thank you, Amelia, for sharing this clearly painful, yet beautiful, experience with us. Through your words I could feel the spirit so strongly. This is one of the most important things I have read in a long time.

    I don’t have any personal experience with disciplinary councils, but my husband has expressed to me how they can be a very spiritual and testimony-building experience for him. At first, this seemed somewhat odd, but through his attempts to explain I eventually began to understand a little better. Your post clarifies for me what I think he was trying to express. The disciplinary process teaches all persons involved about the atonement in such a real, hands-on way–Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”

  2. Caroline says:

    Amy, thanks so much for posting this.

    Though I don’t have personal experience with them, I tend to not have positive feelings towards disciplinary councils. Perhaps I’ve read too many stories of people being excommunicated for following their consciences.

    But your story sheds a new light on church discipline for me. I’m so glad to know that it was such a loving, spiritual, compassion-filled experience for you.

  3. amelia says:

    Maria– thanks for sharing that scripture. i’m sure i’ve read it because romans is a book of scripture that i love, but it hadn’t stood out to me before.

    caroline– i’ve heard stories that bother me, too. but i think they always need to be taken with a grain of salt. for two reasons. one, we never get the full story. so while i hurt for those who have been hurt by this process, i do not feel like i can actually make a comment or reach a judgment about the process itself. it’s too rooted in context and i can never know the entire story.

    two, i think the ones we hear about are exceptional in some way rather than exemplary. the only people i personally know well enough to know they have experienced church discplinary councils have all stayed with the church–either be regaining full fellowship or by being re-baptized. and they’ve gone on to full participation in callings and leadership within the church. the process was not easy for those people but they see the process as one of spiritual growth and love, not one of punishment, judgment, and exclusion. there’s a reason that these stories are not told in public forums–they’re not sensational. so we don’t hear them.

    one of my brothers told me that his biggest complaint about the pbs documentary was that the examples of believing mormons they showed–the family of 11 with a terminally ill daughter or the missionary whose mother died giving birth to her 8th child, for example–were not in fact exemplary of typical mormon families. these days, a typical mormon family is more likely to have 3, 4, or 5 children than 8 or 11. i don’t think there’s a single family in my current ward with more than 4 children. in my sister’s ward in the heart of conservative mormon utah, i can’t think of a family with more than 5 children (though her own will grow to 7 through adoption in the next year or two). the situation of a parent dying while a boy is on his mission is also not typical. tens of thousands of people serve missions every year without experiencing such a tragedy.

    these stories make for good tv watching. just as toscano’s experience with excommunication does. but neither is necessarily exemplary. such stories operate by the principle of hyperbole–they are exaggerations of the ordinary. so i’m hesitant to listen to horror stories of excommunications and accept them as representative of the process.

  4. Deborah says:

    Amelia: This was a fascinating, thoughtful post. I’m glad you found peace in the process you pursued — and I think it’s probably key that you felt a spiritual need to have these conversations. I imagine it would be more difficult to be “called in” for such a conversation.

    My favorite part of this post, however, was your description of the circle of support — your father helping his son, his father helping you. I see that cycle at work all the time in wards, informally, and I love it.

  5. amelia says:

    deborah– the fact that i felt the need to initiate this process is why i would never suggest that my experience should be definitive in any way. i don’t know what it would be like were i “called in,” but i believe and hope it would be a process governed by love and compassion.

    and i also love the reciprocity implicit in my bishop’s comment to me. that reciprocity is at the heart of the gospel.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I find it remarkable that anyone can go through a “disciplinary procedure” unscatched. I find it particularly remarkable that a woman could benefit from the process.

    It’s wonderful that there are benefits and blessings that come from confession and repentance.

    I just think that it’s unseemly for a single woman to disclose to a (usually older) man information about her sexual identity, health, and activities. It also leaves things wide open for potential abuse, especially within a lay ministry.

    I can understand the need for ecclesiastical disclipine when it comes to the penitent’s having hurt another party, e.g. with adultery or embezzlement, child abuse, etc. However, in cases where the sin is not criminal or adulterous, it seems that it could be confessed just to God.

  7. amelia says:

    i understand that perspective. and i am sure there are women who have been uncomfortable confessing sexual sins with their ecclesiastical leaders. and i am equally sure there are leaders who have not handled such situations well. and, unfortunately, i’m sure there have been situations that have been abusive in some way.

    i would point out that confession is not meant to be a catalog of every sinful act. it’s simply meant to make clear the extent of the sin and details should not be necessary. we as members should know that and help our leaders observe that guideline. i would also point out that confession is simply the starting point of a somewhat long process. once a confession has been made, it’s really not necessary to talk about the sinful acts over and over.

    all of that said, the idea that it is “unseemly” for a woman to discuss past sexual misconduct with a man bothers me. mostly because i think sex should not be as taboo as it is. because i think that adults–men and women, not just among one sex or the other–should be able to discuss sex with each other without it turning into something that is embarassing or, worse, inappropriate in some sexual way. while i fully recognize that our natural tendencies and appetites can make it difficult to talk dispassionately about sex, i don’t think that means it’s impossible. and i do think that we’re supposed to learn how to govern those natural tendencies.

    in some ways this idea that women shouldn’t discuss their sexual sins with male leaders reinforces destructive gender stereotypes. in the effort to protect women from discomfort, we can instead reinforce negative stereotypes. i am, obviously, much more sympathetic to protect women from potential abuse. but my desire to protect is a desire to protect all people from abuse, both men and women. and i think the answer is not to avoid the situation, but to teach all possible participants how to behave appropriately.

    i do understand that in reality this problem exists. i just think it’s one of those realities we need to mitigate and change, not give in to.

  8. manaen says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I went through a disciplinary council and my experience with love and healing from the Church’s disciplinary process echoes yours, as I posted a couple of years ago here.

    I experience the continuing reality of Pres. Hinckley’s promise that “Nevertheless, we recognize, and must always recognize, that when the penalty has been paid and the demands of justice have been met, there will be a helpful and kindly hand reaching out to assist. There may be continuing restrictions, but there will also be kindness.” (Priesthood Session, GenCon, 4/2002). This unfailing help and undeserved kindness surprise me in each ward and stake in which I’ve lived since confessing — I’m continually amazed at the healing available to sinners like me through what appears to be such a strict, judgemental, old-leader organization. Yet, I have this nagging sense of well-being that doesn’t subside.

    I believe that it’s noteworthy that a person’s love, my bishop’s and SP’s, was the agent that led me to feel God’s love. And God’s love is “the most joyous to the soul.” (1 Ne 11:23). Your words capture perfectly my feelings now, “i saw with incredible clarity the beauty of this church. of a community of imperfect, sinful, flawed human beings doing their best to muddle along and help each other by loving each other. of people laying aside their differences (and probably just as often not even registering differences as important) as they come together to celebrate and use and make possible christ’s atoning sacrifice.”

    Again, thank you for this.

  9. AmyB says:

    I’ve read this post and the following comments with interest. I have to admit that my initial gut reaction was similar to the anon comments regarding confessing to a man. At the very least I would like to have the choice of a woman if I wanted.

    Amelia, I appreciated your comments about sex being something we should be able to discuss. I have a very visceral reaction to the idea of having to talk to a man, but yet I’ve had a male therapist in the past and had a good experience. I still feel suspicious and uncomfortable about the idea of having only men to confess to, and all men on a disciplinary council, but I do appreciate the call to mitigate the negative stereotypes and ideas I have about men in leadership in the church.

  10. amelia says:

    thank you for sharing your own experience manaen. i think it’s so important that we dispel the myth that church displinary councils are by definition exclusionary and destructive or exclusively about punishment. i do not deny the negative experiences that some people have had (like toscano’s); i just want there to be a balanced representation of the process.

    amyb– i have several friends who have expressed this same desire–to have the option to confess to a female rather than a male. they have not confided in me whether they have actually experienced confessing to a man, so i don’t know if their opinions are based solely on the abstract or on experience. but i understand the perspective. and i see the need myself, especially if a woman who has sinned is also a past victim of abuse by a man.

    my suggestion in response to this has always been to bring a woman with you to meet with the bishop. either the RS president or a close friend. with the understanding that she is there not to participate in the conversation necessarily, but simply to be a moral support. based on my experiences, i think both my stake president and my bishop would have been open to my doing this had i felt the need to do so. toscano says she wasn’t permitted to bring anyone with her for her council, but i don’t know if that’s standard policy or not. can anyone clarify what the handbook directs?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Yes, when I say it’s unseemly for a single woman to discuss sex with her married bishop or stake president, I don’t mean being squeamish or prudish about sex talk.

    There are several disequity issues about requiring an unmarried woman (the lowest on the hierarchy of Church totem poles) to confess what will always be indiscretion to a male in the Church. Whenever a single female in the church engages in the kind(s) of sexual act(s) that require(s) confession, such confession must ALWAYS be made to a male, and almost always to a married male.

    Besides the obvious risk of sexual harassment (I will explain later), the dis/-inequity issues I can think of off the top of my head are these:

    1. The shamed female approaches the male to–for all intents and purposes–intercede and “help her repent”. The penitent has no female equal to approach. There is no choice in the matter. This is forced patriarchy at best.

    2. Particularly for teens and younger single women, the bishop/stake president often assumes (consciously or not) a father role–paternalistically invoking disapprobation, disappointment, anger, etc., in place of both her father and Heavenly Father. The repentant woman cannot voluntary ap9proach a female with this kind of confession but is forced to reveal herself to the male Priesthood holder.

    3. Men are men, bishopric or not. You mention that you did not actually go through a disciplinary court/council. Of the women I knew who did, several reported emotional and spiritual abuse. Sometimes there is also sexual harassment/abuse. Some examples:

    (a) As a lonely 36 year old never-married woman asking the bishop for general advice on maintaining a hopeful attitude, I was told that “all (I) need is a good physical relationship with a man.” Completely improper, and rather creepy–all behind closed doors with his hand on my knee.

    (b) My best friend was tired of being single and celibate at 40 plus, and chose to sleep with two men she had recently met in the same ward. She was asked at her disciplinary council to name the men, describe details of their rendezvous (not an uncommon request from sometimes prurient Priesthood leaders) and threatened with excommunication if SHE didn’t contact the men and ask them to come in and confess.

  12. amelia says:

    all very valid points. and two disturbing examples of inappropriate (in my opinion) behavior. i appreciate your willingness to bring them to light.

    i understand the potential for inequity that you explain and acknowledge that such inequity does sometimes materialize.

    that said, i find some of what you say problematic. you suggest that an “unmarried single woman” is “the lowest on the hierarchy of Church totem poles.” i flatly reject that notion. while i realize that some people perceive women in this way, i do not believe that the structure of the church necessarily results in unmarried women being lowest on the “totem pole.” and the doctrine certainly does not. in spite of some unfortunate cultural misconceptions about both the unmarried state and women in the church, i have found that whenever i assert my own value and equality my contributions are welcomed without question. this is true whether i’m talking about making suggestions in meetings (whether ward leadership or activity planning type meetings) or telling a bishop i think he’s wrong in front of the rest of the relief society or ward (always done very diplomatically, of course). i believe without even one little bit of doubt that god intends men and women to be absolute equals and for both men and women to contribute to the fullest extent of their individual abilities. i think that this perception of myself in relationship to others, both male and female, contributed to my comfort in going to my stake president and, ultimately, my bishop.

    you rightly point out that a woman will always have to confess to a man, most likely a married man. but that is only the necessary point of confession. i think there could be earlier “confessions” (or confidences if you’d rather) made to a woman that could facilitate the disciplinary process if a woman is hesitant to first speak to her bishop. i suggested in an earlier comment that a woman could invite either her RS president or a close friend to accompany her to talk with her bishop and i believe most bishops not have a problem with that. i think there are ways to mitigate this particular problem.

    i do not see the disciplinary process in terms of gender. i see it in terms of a repentant sinner, who necessarily will be shamed simply by virtue of his or her own acts, seeking guidance from a spiritual advisor/leader. sometimes that happens to be a woman seeking guidance from a man; sometimes a man seeking guidance from a man. (would i like women to be in leadership positions in the church? when consulting my own feelings, yes. i see no inherent reason why women cannot hold the priesthood and leadership positions; the only reason i see is that god has not so ordained it at this point in time. which i accept. because i trust god and i believe he guides the church.) i have no problem with the idea that sometimes we need to be helped in repenting.

    i’m not sure about bishops/stake presidents assuming the “father role.” i don’t know. it was not my experience. in spite of the fact that i was a relatively young single woman at the time (28). and, more strikingly, in spite of the fact that both men involved had known me all or most of my life and had been involved in ward and stake youth activities i participated in as a teenager. one of them has a daughter a year younger than me and was in my ward while i was growing up. but i didn’t feel like they attempted to behave in a “fatherly” way at all. they were compassionate and loving, but in no way condescending. and i didn’t sense even the smallest amount of “disapprobation, disappointment, [or] anger.” that they did not approve of what i had done was a given, but it was never voiced or even implied. rather than making me feel they were disappointed in me, they extended empathy and kindness. rather than expressing anger, they offered understanding and love. i never sensed even the slightest amount of anger and i truly believe they never felt any.

    your two examples are very upsetting. your bishop’s behavior was completely inappropriate. i do not know general practice in a situation like your friend’s, but i do know that not all bishop’s ask for details. i’m sure these situations are not isolated instances, that others like them have happend. but i’m just as sure that they do not represent the majority of experiences; and i’m even more sure that they do not coincide with how bishops and leaders are intended to behave.

    i’m not trying to say the process is without any problem. nor am i trying to suggest there is not potential for abuse. i’m not suggesting that there are not problems unique to women given the all male-leadership involvement. i’m simply trying to balance perspectives a bit and remind us that the process can–and often does–operate on principles of acceptance, compassion, and love.

  13. Eve says:

    Amelia, just wanted to say I loved your post. It’s a beautiful example of how the church should work–the way we all depend on one another, help one another, give back to one another. It’s stories like this that remind me of what I love about the church, in spite of my moments of frustration with it.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I love the suggestion to bring along another woman for moral support, and I think we should continue to advocate for change so that someday the men can squirm at the idea of confessing their sins to the “bishopa”. In the meantime, if the choices are to confess only to a man, or not to confess at all and not resolve the sin, I’ll grit my teeth and confess just to get if over with. And I have. I agree that it would be nice if the repentance process didn’t always lead through men, but at the same time, I think it would be foolish NOT to unload ourselves of the guilt. By refusing to talk to the bishop or SP just because he is a man, we’re punishing ourselves, not him.

    Space Chick

  15. amelia says:

    absolutely. and we’re playing into the stereotypes of gender essentialist sexism.

  16. Dora says:

    This has been such a lovely thread, and I don’t want to disrupt the tone. However, the potential for ecclesiastical abuse is so high because the bishop or stake president who is running the disciplinary court has the deciding “vote.” Which is fine when the B or SP is a godly person. However, when there is a bias or personal agenda, there is little that can be done to avert him.

    When someone very close to me was going through the process, I queried a good friend who had served on the high council and is now a counsellor in the bishopric, about his experiences serving on disciplinary councils. He ruefully stated that while everyone has a chance to speak, the deciding voice is the B or SP.

    My special person was brought for disciplinary action by the stake president. My special person went to the court, that was presided over by a very personally invested SP, and was excommunicated for apostacy. Wrongly. Said person still goes to church, has actually handled it much better than I did, and is waiting for new ecclesiastical leadership to begin the offocial reconversion process.

    When I went to speak with my stake president about it, he advised me to be patient, etc etc. Then warned that appeals by my special person to the first presidency must be funneled through the stake president, and that there is a special bias toward believing and supporting stake presidents.

    It’s been heartbreaking. And while I don’t want to malign all the earnest and good leaders out there, I’ve been devastated at the lack of checks and balances in the system.

    Also, as Toscano related, none of us were allowed in with my special person, we all had to wait in the anteroom.

  17. Tanya Sue says:

    I am going to have to agree with anonymous who said that a single woman is lowest on the totem pole. I would possibly add women married to a non-member, and let me explain why.

    I am in a different situation than you are as a single woman. I am also still in the stake I grew up in. However I grew up without the priesthood in my home and have no one to go to bat for me in certain situations. I had an incident with a priesthood leader regarding a temple recommend. This leader was completely unwilling to even give me the time of day and made up his mind without listening at all. It wasn’t until someone with the priesthood went and talked to him that he was even willing to listen to me. I never felt so vulnerable in the church until that moment. As a women with no male family member or husband to go to bat for me I was insignificant. I have had this experience before and know of many other single women who have had the same experience with different priesthood leaders.

    Perhaps it is different for those who have someone with the priesthood who will go “fight” their battles for them in a church setting, but I know that as a woman who doesn’t I am as low as you get on the totem pole when it comes to church situations. In my situation with the temple recommend I was lucky-a man whose kids I used to tend went to bat for me. If it happened now when that same man was not around I would not have the same outcome as I did before.

    I am constantly told in church that as a woman I am valued and don’t need the priesthood. I have not found that to be the case.

  18. amelia says:

    thank you, dora and tanya, for sharing your experiences. they make my heart ache. i wish they had been other than they were.

    the weakness of the system is certainly that it depends upon individuals–individuals with flawed characters and imperfect vision (since we all by definition have flawed characters and imperfect vision). i suppose the important thing is to remember that the flaws of the individual actors are not all-determining. that does not erase the pain of these situations, but it does mitigate it.

  19. Tanya Sue says:

    I don’t think any priesthood leader sets out to do these things. I truly don’t. I do think that it is an unfortunate side effect of the fact that all positions of leadership (and power) in the church require one to hold the priesthood, and in order to hold the priesthood you must be male.

    I don’t think that when a leader treats a woman with less respect they are consciously saying “she is a woman with no ties to the priesthood and is therefore less important”, instead it is subconscious. Subconsciously they are acting out what they have seen for years. A woman doesn’t have positions of leadership, and the few positions they are always will answer up to a male. A male will never have a woman as an authority figure. Women have the subservient role in the temple covenant. Many of our leaders were shaped into the way they are by watching years of women’s roles be less than men’s. There are some wonderful exceptions and I am grateful for them, but the problem is that in my experience they are the exceptions not the rule.

  20. amelia says:

    There are some wonderful exceptions and I am grateful for them, but the problem is that in my experience they are the exceptions not the rule.

    and my experience is the reverse of yours. in my experience the inappropriate behavior is the exception and what you call exceptional is the rule.

    regardless of which behavior is exceptional and which the rule, i think the only thing we can do right now with the given structure and organization of the church is to demonstrate that we are intelligent, capable, powerful individuals–people who demand to be treated as equals. not consciously. not with the intent of making a point or proving our worth. just because it is who we are and we will be no less or no other than what we are. we must simply be the women god intends us to be. it is, in my opinion, the only thing that will root out the kind of unconscious condescenion tanya speaks of.

    i’m with ghandi when he says we must be the change we hope to see in the world.

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