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?

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34 Responses

  1. Believing that a church is the gateway to salvation sets people up for needing the approval of church leaders in very personal decisions. It also limits personal growth. Both Mormons and Catholics face this problem. The Protestants have a healthier notion that the Bible rather than church authority is their link to God.

    • Kelly Ann says:

      Course Correction, I see your point to a certain extent, however I think the problems come when the questions aren’t answered by the Bible or the Book of Mormon (in the case of Mormons). The premise of personal revelation has the potential to set people free but I think it is the strong organizational stucture that contributes to the sentiment of asking for approval. Granted, I also think we shouldn’t forget that the accessibility that most Mormons have to leadership can be a huge privilege. I have had friends of other faiths comment that they envy it.

  2. MB says:

    I think your post points out the importance of teaching children and young people the art and reality of receiving personal revelation through the Holy Spirit. Helping them to recognize it and follow it is necessary for them to be able to spare their bishop from being seen as the permission giver.

    When a member sees a bishop as a resource for insight and assistance rather than a gatekeeper or law giver or authoritative validator, she liberates not only herself from unnecessary anxiety, but also frees up her bishop from the burden of being seen as such.

    I think the experiences you describe with your bishops and their responses to your anxious queries and my experiences with bishops over the years indicate that it is likely that the majority of bishops understand that they are not authoritative approval givers, but rather are to be providers of insight and assistance as needed. Certainly church leadership training teaches them so.

    So the real question is how we help each new generation to see the bishop that way. It’s a challenge simply because most children’s only other experience with an institution is school, where EVERYTHING requires rules and gaining permission and the principal is the ultimate authority on everything. And the other group they are a part of is their family where, whether their parents are authoritative or not, they experience, as part of being human, a keen desire for their approval.

    I think you have articulated well an area where Primary teachers and YW and YM leaders can be of valuable assistance in helping young people avoid the anxious experiences you describe.

    • Kelly Ann says:

      MB, Although I agree that most Bishops recognize they are not authoritative approval givers, I think it is important to remember the power differential given it is preached that they are “judges in Israel.” I am curious how do you think we can better teach youth and young adults the true role of a Bishop. I highlighted four experiences over a ten year period. In truth, in my orthodox phase (my apologies for the offense), I did not seek the advise of the Bishop has much as some of my friends did. I think the culture at BYU fed a little bit into the mentality that it was ok to go to the Bishop when struggling over big decisions like who to marry. I don’t think I actually remember any anxiety while being a kid.

      • MB says:

        Actually, my comment wasn’t that we should be teaching the true role of a bishop (though that’s fine if you want to teach that too). It was that we need to teach the art and reality of receiving personal revelation through the Holy Spirit.

        i.e. Explaining what it’s like to receive personal revelation. Giving examples from your personal experience. Helping them to identify it when it happens to them. Teaching that it is an art, like learning a language, and that the Lord will give them plenty of practice opportunities to hone that skill in small ways before the big, possibly overwhelming opportunities come. Teaching them how to forgive themselves and others when they misread the promptings they receive. Helping them to understand God’s love and gentleness with their efforts to follow him, no matter whether or not they do so as they hope to each time. Expressing confidence as they start their early attempts and bumble through those. Asking questions that help them articulate their understanding rather than simply directing what is expected. Expressing appreciation for the insights they share as they learn to listen to those promptings.

        Such experiences and learning increase a young person’s sense of being able to find answers directly from God without needing to have a human being validate it every single time. I’ve seen it work and happen in the lives of young women through the thoughtful efforts of parents and leaders and teachers. It’s empowering in wonderfully good ways.

  3. MB says:

    Also, in connection with a previous post there was an enlightening (for me) discussion about the use of “TBM” which is worth paying attention to.

    I’m sure you did not mean it to be so, but for some readers it is understood as a dismissive and pejorative phrase. “Orthodox” is probably less offensive.

  4. Hydrangea says:

    I absolutely believe that bishops can receive revelation specific to individuals in their ward. I have personally befitted from my bishops ability to listen to the spirit. Unfortunately, I think too often bishops give out information that they are not qualified to counsel on and that should be left to a physician or licensed counselor. Misinformation from a well intentioned bishop can be damaging.

  5. Paul says:

    I was interested in the recent CHI discussion and this one, too.

    I think MB’s spot on. And I think your own growth from seeking approval to seeking (or giving) counsel is the right one, and signals a maturity that many members go through.

    I would agree that most bishops don’t see themselves as gate keepers, nor are they taught to believe they are.

    Some have suggest in similar discussions that the instructions on sterilization may have come because so many people asked the question in the first place. (The specific guideline regarding surgical sterilization is not new, but until wide publication of the CHI it may not have been well known.)

    BTW, even in strongly encouraging unwed mothers the church does not dictate what they will do. That particular counsel is exceptionally kind considering the prevailing folk wisdom preceding its arrival that unwed mothers must keep their babies (and marry their fathers) as a condition of repentance even when doing so would be harmful to all parties involved.

    When should a member go to his or her bishop? When the spirit prompts him / her to, perhaps because of uncertainty, perhaps because of unresolved concerns (whatever those may be).

    • Kelly Ann says:

      Paul, I think it is a good point that some of the church policies are actually pretty liberal, including birth control, which has been completely forbidden (all types) by other denominations in the past.

      It is also reassuring that Bishops are now councilled to refer cases they are not qualified for to professionals (even if you can debate about some LDS social services) which addresses Hydrangea’s point.

      I hope that the majority of people truly progress over time from seeking advice to counseling. I really think that MB raised an important point about how do we teach youth to see the proper relationship from the start.

    • Jessawhy says:

      (Can I just say that the first paragraph regarding unwed parents in the CHI was also really offensive to me? They don’t even say “woman” or so much as use the female pronoun. It’s ridiculous.)

    • Ziff says:

      That particular counsel is exceptionally kind considering the prevailing folk wisdom preceding its arrival that unwed mothers must keep their babies (and marry their fathers) as a condition of repentance even when doing so would be harmful to all parties involved.

      I agree that it’s good that unwed parents aren’t forced to keep their children as some kind of punishment. However, I don’t think it’s folk wisdom so much as probably old church policy that’s been quietly discarded.

  6. ESO says:

    I gotta say that when I hear someone feeling that they have to ask their bishop about certain issues that I feel are minutia, I blame the individual, not the Church. No one has ever suggested that (for example) the bishop needed to approve of certain relationships or that there would be ANY counsel about HOW to pay your tithing, as long as it is done in common currency.

    The Church is VERY clear on what you need to talk to the bishop about (temple recommends, baptismal interviews, tithing settlement). If someone feels they also need to consult on personal relationships, finances, and home color, well, that is not a Church issue, but an individual one.

    • Kelly Ann says:

      ESO, it is ultimately the individual that unveils the personal information but I would have to disagree that the established temple recommends, baptismal interviews, and tithing settlement don’t sometimes invite topics (i.e. I posed the lump sum question in a tithing settlement).

      Also, just an interesting aside, did you know it is possible to pay tithing in cash as well as a stock transfer (donation in kind).

      • Anon. says:

        Do people think you can’t pay in cash? What about all those little kids with their dimes?
        I always pay in cash, although sometimes it makes me anxious–this past Sunday I handed over $7**in bills. I figure whatever happens to it after it’s turned in to the bishopric is on them. God and I know it was paid in full. That being said, I’ve never had my statement not match what I think it should be.

      • ESO says:

        Yup, and in many societies, in kind. I am guessing most North American bishops wouldn’t want to deal with that, though.

    • Ziff says:

      ESO, I agree that there’s individual variation in how much people want to go to Church leaders for approval. But I think the Church isn’t blameless. All the “follow the brethren” and “sustain your leaders” and “don’t go astray” talk certainly doesn’t encourage independent thought or action.

  7. shley says:

    One of the problems I have with outlining what should and should not be talked about with the bishop is that it kind of forms how people think. By this I mean, that if people are told, “Hey you should talk to your bishop before you get that hysterectomy,” then that is what members will do rather than come to the thought themselves. It’s like leading the horse to water and trying to make it drink, but really we should just be led to the water. You get what I’m saying?

    I think people should be able to decipher these things themselves. If for some reason I felt the need to go and talk to my bishop for whatever reason I would do so, but I would more likely just pray about it to Heavenly Father, since he’s going to know more than the bishop anyways. We don’t need to go through the bishop to get to God.

    It’s true that there are some people that are just seem to be incapable of determining a lot of things for themselves. They need to be told what to do and when, but not necessarily why.

    I don’t think putting this advice in the handbook is inherently wrong, because like I said there are people that for some reason just lack the ability to decide whether to do these things on their own. I couldn’t say why they are that way, personal choice, conditioning, or just how they are wired. It’s a reminder for them. If they have doubts or questions they can look in the handbook and if the handbook says talk to the bishop about this, then they can go and get some guidance for whatever the situation is.

    I do know that there are members that are overly talky to the bishop. They go to the bishop about everything. They go to the bishop about guilt, things their kids did, things their husband did, callings, questions about basic doctrine, questions about more profound doctrine, questions about finance, and a myriad of other things. These people obviously take up a lot of the bishop’s time that he could be devoting to other people, but for some reason they choose not to go through the decision process by themselves.

    I am definitely not a fan of bishops counseling young unwed mothers to give up their children. I know several people who have left the church for that very reason. If the bishop never would have said that to them, they might still be in church, their children going to primary, themselves going to RS and SS, having a support group of members and friends, and having a guidance for their life. These women are good women, and quite frankly I have never heard of a situation where an unwed mother did give up her children. So the advice seems to not be helping anyone, it just hurts people.

    I think people should be on personal terms with their bishop, but not so personal that the bishop knows everything that is going on in their life. Our friendship with the bishop needs to be close enough that we don’t feel all intimidated when we do need to speak to the bishop about something, but not close enough that he knows that you stole a lollipop thirty years ago.

    • Amy says:

      On the fact of unwed mothers giving up their children, the church definitely has a position on this and they should be encouraged to give up the children for the purpose that children deserve a father and mother and for the fact there is absolutely no shortage of wonderful fathers and mothers who want to have children and can’t. I know several people who have been able to adopt and it has been a wonderful experience and several who are in agony trying to adopt and can’t. I have also seen disastrous experiences of women not giving up their children. To blame the church for their position of wanting kids to have the best chance at life, for the mother to choose to leave the church seems silly (although to be fair, I don’t know how this particular bishop handled the situation). No one can force someone to give up their baby and the church doesn’t force anything, but it can and should have positions on these issues and shouldn’t have to be apologetic.

      • Kelly Ann says:

        Shley, My goal is not to outline what should and should not be talked about with the Bishop, although I inquired to what were appropriate questions to ask. I really do hope people will develop relationships with their Bishops which they feel comfortable. I like the mentality that it should be personable but not over-bearing. I hope that even when seeking the advice of a Bishop, most people make their own decisions. It pains me to hear of the examples you give of unwed mothers.

  8. ZD Eve says:

    In my experience it has little to do with the handbook or other instructions and everything to do with the bishop and with the kind of relationship one has with him. Most of my bishops have been perfectly fine–and some have been outstanding–but I’ve had a couple who’ve been dreadful. As I hear Stephen Robinson once put it, “Some bishops are puddingheads.”

    When a puddinghead bishop reigns, it’s time to go into hiding. (Or, more generously, let us say that when a bishop-who-is-a-puddinghead-unto-me-but-might-be-someone-else’s-salvation reigns, it’s time to go into hiding and wait my turn, so to speak.)

    (Let no one misunderstand. I do realize bishops don’t call themselves and that they have a horrible job, and I do my best to support them, even the ones I don’t care for. I myself would hate to be a bishop. If I were a bishop, I would just call myself “Bishop Puddinghead” to be clear about the type of bishop I’m sure I’d be. 😉 )

    • Amy says:

      To be sure, there are definitely bishops who are able to influence certain people and not others and there are definitely those bishops that I have had that I am so grateful I haven’t had to have many close dealings with. However, it doesn’t change my testimony that this is the true church, but he has to rely on some of us puddingheads to administrate it here on the earth!

    • Kelly Ann says:

      ZD Eve and Amy, I agree that relationships between a person and a Bishop vary per person and by Bishop. In thinking about the examples I described, I realize that I wouldn’t have gone to just any of my Bishops – that the relationship I had with my Bishop at the time made me comfortable to ask the questions (even if they weren’t absolutely necessary). In reality, for the most part, I have had good Bishops but it makes me think about those who unfortunately do not.

  9. Carla says:

    This kind of scrupulosity can do serious damage to the faith. This is basically what happened to the Catholic Church in Ireland. People asked priests about absolutely everything – is it okay for me to pray my rosary in bed? Is it a sin to do this? Can I still receive communion if I do that? – numerous publications were printed with Q&A sections for people to ask their questions of those in authority. And this idolization of the priesthood, putting them up on a pedestal of omniscience and holiness, had people trusting them more than one would trust any other man. This is the root of all those abuse scandals.

    There is a difference between conscience and scrupulosity. Joseph Smith said, “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.” Running to the bishop with every little question not only infantilizes the member, making them dependent on the bishop for their morality, they also fail to develop and cultivate their own conscience, their own sense of right and wrong, until they are incapable of making any ethical decisions on their own.

  10. Olive says:

    Carla, that is also how women’s rights to do healing blessings were taken away. They kept asking and asking the Priesthood if it was okay, until finally the brethren said “no”.

    • Kelly Ann says:

      Carla and Olive, I agree that there have been real consequences in asking too many questions. However, using Joseph Smith’s line “teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves” still begs the question of when is it appropriate to verify principles. Is it perhaps that the emphasis on works (ordinances, checklists, etc) in the church is sometimes over-emphasized at the expense of faith and the independent sense of right and wrong that you describe?

  11. Senile Old Fart says:

    As has been mentioned, bishops have great demands on their time.

    That said, with whom would I discuss some contemplated action that may affect my relationship with The Church? Am I seeking approval, or fearing disapproval? Or just some knowledgeable & trusted person to discuss options and consequences? I think that all of us can make use of such K&T people in lots of aspects of our lives.

    In theory, in order to reduce the demands on a bishop’s time, we’re instructed to address many of the latter questions to the Elder’s Quorum President or High Priest Group Leader. I don’t believe that such a course has “taken root” in The Church as yet, however. They may or may not be knowledgeable (and how am I, in my ignorance, to judge that?), but if I don’t know them well, then how can I trust them? And, for women, it seems to me that the RS President is more likely to be familiar, and seen as K & T.

    I can see the danger in seeking counsel (or favorable opinions) from multiple people. Some of us are more circumspect (or judgmental) than others, and one wouldn’t like intimate details to be objects of ward gossip (or condemnation). So, after all the above, perhaps we’re back to talking with the bishop.

    • Kelly Ann says:

      Senile, in theory we could ask other people in leadership positions in the wards appropriate questions, however I am reminded by a comment made by a Bishop (a lawyer) at church, that ultimately only the interviews between a member and their Bishop, not even his counselors, is protected by clergy-patron privelage. I think the gossip is more of a deterrent than potential legal ramifications but in cases of truly sensitive information, I don’t think it can be forgotten.

  12. jks says:

    I’m an orthodox mormon. I don’t go to the bishop except for TR interviews and tithing settlement.

    • Kelly Ann says:

      JKS, thank you. All the responses, which I truly appreciate, make me wonder how a poll would characterize this and the previous thread. It is interesting to hear about different people’s perspectives, which makes me grateful for having this forum.

  13. Rachel says:

    It took me about 20 years to find a bishop I felt comfortable with to ask the questions I needed to ask, knowing I would be heard, respected, and directed in an orthodox way (not wanting someone who would take my side, but genuinely hear me). Maybe some of that had to do with my getting to a state of humility because I disagree with this man on lots of issues, both doctrinal and political. But I felt he would act in his office as his office, and not what his version of the doctrine would be. This was something I didn’t feel from the multiple previous bishops.

  14. Jessawhy says:

    Great post, Kelly Ann.

    This reminds me a little of a post I read today about a 1984 conference talk that was essentially deleted by the Powers the Be.

    http://puremormonism.blogspot.com/2010/02/best-conference-talk-you-never-read_13.html

    The talk discusses how the church is different than the gospel and only one is saving.
    The best part is his analogy at the end about how the church is like the Fed Ex guy, bringing us deliveries from God. We can like our Fed Ex guy, but if we assume it’s him that’s actually the source of the wonderful packages we get, then we’re misled.

    That analogy really hits home with me, especially in a church where we have a lot of GA hero-worship and we like to consult the Bishop for everything.

    • Amy says:

      Very interesting…I think what Elder Poelman says the first time around is definitely true, however I’m guessing the GAs were concerned that some of us weren’t mature enough in the gospel to use the info properly?? And the second wasn’t untrue, however, I did like the first talk better.

  15. Jessawhy says:

    Sorry, as I reread my comment I realized I wasn’t very clear.
    Elder Poelson was the member of the 70 who gave the talk in 1984. The author of the blog post is the one who created the analogy to the Fed Ex guy. (Was Fed Ex even around in 1984?)

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