What Church Leaders Don’t Understand About the Power Dynamics in Worthiness Interviews
Several years ago, I wrote a post on my personal blog that I thought was completely benign, but someone in my ward sent it to the bishop. That Sunday I had a temple recommend interview scheduled with a bishopric counselor, but when he pulled me out of Sunday School, he said I’d be seeing the bishop instead. When I entered his office, the bishop told me someone had sent him my blog post. He said he’d read it in depth multiple times. He asked me probing questions about my personal beliefs, then soliloquized at length about his own (completely undoctrinally supported) views.
The bishop sat behind an enormous solid oak desk, a framed portrait of Jesus just above his shoulder. I sat in a padded chair in the center of the open space in front of him, small and vulnerable. I shook and cried and struggled to speak as my heart raced and my throat constricted. It must have seemed to him that I was crying from guilt or sadness or the spirit, but the truth was that I felt completely violated and angry by this ambush, and I was terrified that this man who held spiritual power over me could decide that I was unworthy of a temple recommend, regardless of my own Spirit-confirmed convictions of my worthiness.
After 45 grueling minutes, the bishop decreed that he thought I was “just fine” to answer all the recommend questions “correctly,” and he signed my recommend, but the damage was done. The interview, which should have been about encouraging self-reflection to determine my own worthiness, became instead about me trying to prove myself worthy to this man with a different worldview than mine who was sitting in judgment of me.
I left his office white faced and shaking, tears still in my eyes. I promised myself that day that I would never again sit in an interview by myself with a priesthood leader, that I would never again give someone else the power to tell me whether I was worthy or not. And I haven’t.*
Yesterday, I read an article in the Salt Lake Tribune by Peggy Fletcher Stack about a missionary, Elder Smart, who was denied a temple recommend by his mission president. Smart had previously disclosed under questioning by the mission president that his mom is gay, that his family had left the church over the November policy about LGBTQ people, and that he supported gay marriage but would not express that support as a missionary. In the temple recommend interview, the mission president grilled Elder Smart about his views and ultimately decided he “didn’t feel comfortable” giving the young man a recommend.
Afterward, Smart cried in a restroom and wrote in his journal, “I felt horrible for my beliefs, horrible that I wasn’t considered temple-worthy. Just like crap.”
Regarding a conference call with his mission president and the stake president back home who’d given Smart his recommend just months before with no hesitation but now took the side of the mission president, Smart said in the article, “I felt like I was in a corner and they were beating me over the head with a bat, over and over. I felt I was not a good person for holding these beliefs. It made me think: Will this impact my salvation? Will I not be able to be sealed to my future family? I had fought so hard to be where I was comfortable and happy in the church and on my mission, and now I was being told that wasn’t good enough.”
A few days later, the mission president changed his mind, apologized, and said he would give Smart a recommend and that he wanted him to continue his missionary service. For Smart, though, it was too late. He couldn’t continue his mission after the trauma he’d experienced at the hand of his mission president, and he felt peace about his decision to end his missionary service.
His mission president stated for the article: “I love this good young man. During his time in the mission, I spent many hours with him seeking to understand and counsel with him. Details of those conversations are held in sacred confidence, but I can say (and I hope he would agree) that every effort was made to help him, and to find a way for him to serve as a missionary and hold a temple recommend.”
When I hear the point of view of priesthood leaders in these situations, I’m always shocked by how oblivious they are to the power dynamics at play and the real trauma they inflict. Elder Smart’s mission president saying he’s done everything he can to give him a recommend and get him to stay is gaslighting nonsense. It betrays how little he understands about the power he holds, how little he understands about how completely violating it is, how much it bends the spirit, when you know your worthiness before God, but someone you believe is God’s judge over you tells you that you’re not okay, that you’re not worthy, that you don’t measure up.
If you had asked my bishop for his perspective after that temple recommend interview, I’m certain he’d have said that he loved me, that his questions were motivated by concern for my well-being. He even said as much to me during the interview. But his probing and lecturing did not feel like love or concern. They felt violating, like I was being weighed without my consent on arbitrary scales of righteousness. I felt violated when my bishop said he “carefully” read through my blog post several times, not to understand my point of view, but to determine whether I was a threat, whether I was worthy. And despite his assertions that his questions were motivated by concern for me, I experienced trauma, self-doubt and lasting anxiety as a result of his clumsy interrogation.
Both my and Elder Smart’s priesthood leaders ultimately decided that we were worthy, but knowing the reality that it could have just as easily gone the other way (and did for awhile in Smart’s case) is traumatic. Like Elder Smart, I had no doubt going into that interview that I was good with God, that I had worked through my conflicts with church doctrine and policy in a way that kept me in line with worthiness standards and kept my integrity intact. To have my priesthood leader repeatedly question and disagree with that conviction caused me to doubt my ability to receive revelation, to doubt my relationship with God.
Going off script in interviews is damaging. Bishops, mission presidents, and all other priesthood leaders should never be the arbiters of someone else’s worthiness.
*For all subsequent bishopric interviews, I have either brought my husband in with me, requested meetings be done over the phone or in my home, or refused them altogether. I find the power differential at play in the bishop’s office particularly triggering, so I only agree to meetings on my own terms.