Shhh! Don’t ask your stake president.

When I was still single, I spoke with one of my engaged friends about her recent interview with our stake president in preparation for her upcoming temple wedding.  I was shocked that she had promised him that she would only use birth control for the first four months of her marriage.  What?!  Since when were such pledges a prerequisite to temple marriage?

Fast forward two years. I was engaged myself and still living in the same stake with the same stake president. My fiancé and I scheduled our prenuptial bishop and stake president interviews.  I was nervous.  I had no intention of making such a pledge but the stake president held a lot of power over me. Would he refuse to sign off on my temple marriage if I disagreed with his directives about family planning (or the lack thereof)?

kissing engaged coupleAt my bishop’s interview, after safely securing the bishop’s signature of approval, I told him about my friend’s experience and my concerns.

“Your friend probably asked the stake president for his opinion about birth control.  It wouldn’t surprise me if that is what he said; he has very conservative views,” my bishop conjectured.  Then he made an excellent suggestion. “I would recommend that you don’t ask the stake president for any advice. I don’t think he will counsel you about birth control if you don’t ask him about it, but if he does, just tell him that you are going to make this a private decision between you, your fiancé and the Lord.”

I did not ask the stake president for any advice and was relieved that he did not give me any.  Our temple wedding was approved.  Three years after our wedding, exactly when we were good and ready, we welcomed our first child to our family, without any unnecessary guilt about breaking some stupid pledge to a stake president.

I wonder how many other crises of bad counsel from priesthood leaders could be averted if we members exercised a bit more autonomy and nondisclosure. Our clergy, after all, are only regular laypeople.  Unlike trained therapists, they do not have specialized training about how to counsel people without pushing their personal opinions.  Let’s not tempt our priesthood leaders to give us bad advice.  We can keep personal decisions to ourselves.

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at

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13 Responses

  1. I don’t know why it still blows my mind when I hear experiences of counsel given like this. It really shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but I suppose some part of me keeps having hopes. I keep hoping the SP would respond to many questions with, “Ultimately it’s between you, (your spouse, if applicable) and God, but here’s what I’d do in your position.”

    Give the reminder that external advice from any authority (Bishops, RS Presidents, SPs, parents, grandparents, well meaning in-laws) is just advice, and ultimately it’s your call. You’re the one who carries the consequences of your choice, and no one else but God knows all the circumstances, knowledge, and feelings involved. Maybe if they kept a salt shaker on their desk, as a reminder that some advice needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

  2. EFH says:

    Your story illustrates to me that even though we blame priesthood holders for interfering and imposing, we forget that often we bring the subjects up ourselves and in addition, internalize their advice as if it was a revelation to us from God himself/herself. We have to be wise in what we want to open up about, how we perceive their word and advice and promising things only to people that actually will be impacted by our decisions. Stories like this make me upset about the naivite of certain people rather than the conservative views of many leaders.

  3. Dave K says:

    I find this story interesting on many levels. First, the SP’s advice is not really troubling in itself, but becomes so when he requests a “promise” that the member comply. Hopefully that is just an artifact of your friend’s memory and the SP was not premising a temple recommend on such a promise.

    Second, the idea that birth control is permissible, but only for a short period of time, seems just weird. I would love to know where he came up with four months figure. It sounds eeriely similar to advice given to my wife’s class at BYU by a Marriage/Family professor who said that oral sex was okay for newlyweds but should be phased out within six months.

    Last, maybe I’m making too much of it, but I find the bishop’s advice to be even more interesting than the SP’s: Bishop – “don’t ask the stake president for any advice.”

    • Calliope says:

      Phased out within 6 months? Wah?

      I took quite a few MFHD classes at BYU and thankfully never heard any such silliness. In fact I was lucky to have quite straightforward and forward-thinking professors. I heard a couple horror stories, though… oy.

  4. Sarah says:

    In addition to the excellent points in the comments above, it is not always physically beneficial to go on birth control for only 4 months. I personally take almost that long to adjust to the change in hormones to know if it’s the right one for my body. It seems too close to medical advice for my tastes.

    I think it sort of does make sense not to ask the stake president advice of that personal nature. You form a closer relationship w your bishop (in theory) — just by numbers, he is advising far fewer and can get to know many more. The stake president just has too many people to advise to (IMHO) speak appropriately to anything of that nature.

  5. Ziff says:

    Julie of T&S made an interesting comment in response to a post I wrote about the Handbook a few years ago. She suggested that maybe the point of keeping it for bishops’ eyes only is so that members won’t have to feel bound by things since they can’t see them unless they ask. I thought it was an interesting possibility, and your post reminded me of it. (Here’s Julie’s comment.)

  6. April says:

    Naismith brought up a similar thought in response to my recent post about the lack of transparency around the Church Handbook of Instruction Volume 1:

    I do not think lack of transparency in policy is the solution to encouraging free agency. I think a better way to encourage agency would be to delete all of the passages that “discourage” but do not forbid certain actions and replace them with statements such as this one: “The church does not have a policy forbidding or encouraging this course of action. The church encourages members to make this a matter of personal prayer.”

  7. EmilyCC says:

    I view interviews with my SP and bishop as a formality. I’m answering to God, so I have a conversation with God before I go in for my interview. If I need or want advice, I tend to keep praying or go to trusted family and friends looking for answers (I’d totally ask a SP or bishop if I felt like they fit those categories, though.).

  8. Tim says:

    A close friend of mine, an RM who had just been back from his mission for a year or two and was active in his singles ward, had a stake president who told him to shave his beard. He did so (but grew it back soon after, after he moved out of the stake).

    I’m not terribly surprised that there are other stake presidents out there giving unsolicited questionable advice that’s really not part of their job description.

  9. Caroline says:

    This situation reminds me of how Mormon women lost the right to bless and annoint. In the late 1800s, early 1900s, women kept on asking priesthood leadership if they were sure it was ok for the women to do these things. Eventually, in the early 1900s, the men started to discourage it. Lesson: Women, don’t ask. Don’t give them an opportunity to say no. Just do it.

  10. Davis says:

    Has anyone ever thought that perhaps this council was something the Stake President was inspired to give? I know all Stake Presidents are just mired in the patriarchy, and never do anything correctly, but maybe sometimes one of them does.

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