When to talk to the Bishop?
by Kelly Ann
As noted in yesterday’s post “Birth Control and the CHI” by Jessawhy, many are bothered by the specific admonition to “consult with your Bishop.” While the position on surgical sterilization seems to be the only one to use those words in my quick perusal of other specific medical and health church policies in the Church Handbook of Instructions (CHI), one cannot forget that the book was originally written for leadership having to address certain issues and used to answer member’s questions. The church has also often admonished over the pulpit to “talk to your Bishop” or “go to your Bishop” where need be. I think that the majority of people approach the Bishop about church auxillary concerns /questions or while preparing for baptism, going to the temple for the first time, temple recommends, going on a mission, or re-entry into the church. However what concerns me is the personal matters that people bring before the Bishop, perhaps to ensure that they are “following the rules” on personal decisions.
Having taken a bioethics class at BYU that introduced me to a number of official church positions, my opinion (not being able to read more than the quoted excerpts at the time) was that the church kind of waves its hands “it is between those affected and God” for most modern gray areas allowing although not advertising exceptions. As a young adult, I got the sense that it was better to ask forgiveness than permission. However, I still knew that there were rules to be followed.
In my TBM years (that is relative of course), I posed a number of odd questions to my Bishop, the most unusual when I was considering fostering a child while single. I wanted to know if the church had a policy against it since I knew they “strongly discourage” unwed mothers keeping their own kids. Although in fairness the question was also prompted from the foster agency that brought up whether or not my family and social circle would be accepting. I knew it was my decision, and had the Bishop said I would be disciplined for it (which someone suggested was a possibility), had I continued to feel prompted to do so (which I did not), I would have done it anyway. Thankfully the Bishop did not condemn me. He listened, copied the only slightly relevant section of the handbook for me, told me it was my decision, and to pray about it. However, in context of the CHI discussion, I am reminded that I feared disapproval of the church in the way I asked the question.
I look back on other experiences in the church and see my desire to make sure I was following the rules at time. I felt guilt over needless things. I timidly, even though I felt strongly about in opposition to my truly TBM family members, asked a Bishop whether or not it was ok if I payed my tithing in one lump sum at the end of the year. I also had a long conversation about whether or not it was ok to date a non-member when I was a temple worker. I recognize the conversations were helpful, as I had good friendships with most Bishops, thankfully being told again that it was my decision and I just needed to recognize the challenges that came with, but I now really find it appalling how much I sought the churches approval.
And the thing that is truly frightening is that I frequently say I feel like I was muzzled in my church experience prior to my paradigm shift. Not that there was anything else I would have asked for approval for (I really have always been pretty independent, not thinking twice about a science career, mission despite family opposition, and ignoring all pressure to get married at BYU), but that I had plenty of other questions that I should have asked. I did not feel I could ask my questions that emerged about Joseph Smith, women and authority, the temple, and other doctrine that came to my mind at the end of temple recommend interviews when some leaders politely asked me if there was anything else. I subconsciously worried too much about the churches approval to acknowledge things I didn’t believe. I also knew they were ready for confessions or policy questions, not a doctrinal discussion. I also just shelfed my doubts with the hopes they would go away, which they did not.
And while I have moved past that mentality, I also think a little bit my recent church experience. I found the bloggernacle (not that I am complaining about that) asking questions I could have answered myself. Also, in coming back, I felt the need to be very open with my Bishop and Stake President about what I did and did not believe. I was no longer seeking approval but wanted to be upfront, perhaps to counter my previous experiences. While I can’t say they could answer my questions, they were far more accepting than I ever dreamed squashing my fears of being labeled a hopeless apostate. However, I know people who might see my seeking them out at all as seeking approval to a lesser extent.
So as much as I am flabbergasted by the idea of people approaching the Bishop with reproductive questions as discussed in yesterday’s post, the topics following along the line of questions I would have never asked, I think the church has created the monster of making people think they need to consult with, talk to, or go to the Bishop about a range of topics. Yes, for the most part, a good Bishop or the CHI will tell you it is your decision, but when they don’t on something that really is personal, the damage can be irrevocable. And when I think of the dichotomy of myself being so strong willed and independent yet so clinging to expectations at times, it just kind of confounds me.
So to complement yesterday’s discussion, what do you think is the role of a Bishop? What other questions do you consider appropriate and inappropriate to ask? Why do you think people feel the pressure to consult with, talk to, or go to the Bishop about a range of issues? In general, do you think more harm or good comes from it? Even in the case of repentance, where one is councilled to confess to the Bishop, is it really necessary? Is it possible that access to the policies and organizational guidelines in the Church Handbook of Instructions are trying to decrease the tendency to run to the Bishop (even if they come with the problem of some binding rules and over interpretation)? Finally, how have your interactions with your Bishops changed over time?