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.



ElleK is a foodie, gardener, and writer. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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22 Responses

  1. Elisa says:

    This sounds awful—I am so sorry this happened to you. After a few years of reflecting I’ve come to the conclusion that the very concept of “worthiness” interviews is harmful and damaging. I think it would be fine for church leaders to counsel with ward members, but I hate the idea of “faith audits” and really hate the idea of a middle aged man asking young kids about sex. I have never, ever had a “bad” experience in a bishopric interview but they’ve always made me feel uncomfortable and exposed and I think have contributed to shame around many topics for me. I barely dragged myself in for my latest temple recommend interview and I don’t know that I’ll do it again. I likely won’t have my kids participate (certainly they won’t without a parent present, but I’d rather they not participate at all as I don’t want them thinking that their “worthiness” is up to some guy sitting behind a desk, however well meaning he might be).

    • ElleK says:

      Thanks, Elisa. I read a friend’s post recently talking about her son’s first bishop interview as a Deacon, and how uncomfortable she saw he was, but how the bishop kept building him up until he gradually relaxed and “became a man.” I was glad she was in the room and that it was a good experience, but I couldn’t help but think that her son’s initial reaction: of fear, of shame, of discomfort, was there to keep him safe. We really groom our kids to give away their authority in these contexts, and it’s scary.

  2. Abby says:

    I had a traumatic period of time with a bishop 5 years ago, and despite the fact that I spent like, I don’t know, a month of scream-crying into my pillow instead of sleeping over the stress he caused me, he still sees me and smiles and waves like nothing happened! I just walked into the grocery store last week and bumped right into him in the produce section (our ward has since split, so I don’t see him regularly anymore). He got a big smile and said, “Hi Abby!”

    I just said a super unethusiastic “hello” and walked on by. (Which is about as close as you can get to being punched in the face by me, because usually I’m very chatty and friendly, so I’m sure he got the message of my cold shoulder.)

    How do they not understand the intense trauma they cause us? How can they literally give us a minor case of PTSD just walking past the bishop’s office ever again, and yet think everything is fine and we’re friends?

    Anyway, I hear you!

    • Anna says:

      As part of my training in social work, we were taught about that enormous power differential. How what we think is a concerned question can feel invasive or violating, how our judgement can be condemning, how a causal suggestion can feel like a commandment, how our advice or opinion can carry huge weight, how we should be careful not to take advantage of the power differential, how to always let our clients stay in charge of their own lives.

      The church leaders at every level have never had such training. Even the top leaders have no concept and think that not being trained clergy is a good thing. They just don’t know how much they don’t know. They think that clergy in other denominations counsel with members, so how can it be bad that Mormon leader counsel with members. Yet they have no concept that clergy in other denominations are trained not to go in like a bulldozer in a china shop. So, your local bishop who is a car sales man approaches counseling like selling a can, and thinks manipulating you into buying his opinion is just fine. Your bishop who is a lawyer has no problem arguing his case. They personally would never let their plumber do a filling on their teeth, or allow a medical doctor to fix their plumbing. But somehow they think allowing an untrained man to act as bishop and take a screw driver to try to fix your spirituality inside your head is fine. When they use shame to fix spirituality, it is like fixing your toothache with a sledge hammer, and they don’t know how wrong some of their tools are, because they don’t know how much they don’t know.

      I am like you and will never allow that power differential to be used against me ever again.

    • ElleK says:

      Abby, I STILL can’t handle your bishop’s awfulness when I hear your stories about that time. I hate, HATE, that these men claim and honestly believe they’re acting out of love as they’re violating and traumatizing those who should be in their care.

  3. EmilyB says:

    I am so glad that you stand firm in only meeting at your home with a witness or via channels of communication where the bishop cannot power trip over you like he did previously. Bishop offices are just throne rooms where they feel way too entitled to grind us into the ground. Yours is an excellent example of how women can protect themselves from future attacks in bishop offices

    • ElleK says:

      Thanks, EmilyB! I’ve also requested the bishopric member wear casual clothes, as suits can exacerbate a power differential as well. I always, always ask a lot of questions about the purpose of a meeting before I agree to one, and men are always super cagey about their agenda, but when I don’t back down they’ll eventually give in. I hate the expectation that we’re expected to show up whenever we’re called–it shows a fundamental lack of boundaries.

      • Anna says:

        yes, the church has a very strong top down set of boundaries. There are very firm boundaries between common members and those “above” them. “Above” being in quotes because in Jesus’s church the greatest was the servant of all, but in our modern church we all stand in a big show of respect to top leaders, and they demand this respect. And there are supposed to be no boundaries that common members have between them and their leaders, with leaders able to call us at a moments notice for an interview with no even common curtesy of knowing what this meeting is about. It gives bishops and stake presidents every right to ask about the sex lives of members and even male leaders the right to ask female members about how they wear their underwear. And talking about garments as sacred doesn’t change the fact that they are underwear. Bishops can punish people for trivial things like refusing to shake hands, or a mother nursing her baby where the bishop feels is too public.

        This Lopsided set of boundaries is set up specifically to maintain the extreme power differential between leaders and members.

      • ElleK says:

        Preach! We are groomed from a young age to be accepting of these expectations without question, even when they’re unhealthy and violate basic boundaries.

      • EmilyB says:

        Wow yeah I never thought about it but every interview/meeting I have ever been called into was a total secret as to why I was being called in. No bishop ever gave me enough info to provide informed consent to the meeting. That is so empowering to insist on knowing beforehand the REASON for the meeting! Also equal clothing is just so brilliant that i cannot believe I didn’t think of that sooner too!!!

      • ElleK says:

        EmilyB, I’m so glad! I am a definite evangelist for asserting boundaries with church leaders and reminding people that they have the right to know why they’re being called to a meeting, they have the right to set the terms of the meeting, they can get up and leave the meeting at any time, and they can refuse a meeting without giving a reason. It’s scary to go against that conditioning (and to see the shock and pushback from leaders unused to being challenged), but taking your power back feels amazing.

  4. Sharla Hart says:

    I am not shocked at all. Mormon men are taught that they have the priesthood and power of discernment. They decide what we should be believe. I read this quote, “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” as a Mormon man trying to convince a young man that his deeply held beliefs and his experiences with his gay mother are wrong. He tried to council him into believing what HE thinks is right. One man’s “power of discernment” trumps another person’s lived experience.

    • ElleK says:

      Sharla, that quote from the MP really bothered me. I’ve never seen an organization that can claim “love” when they’re heaping shame quite like the church can. They coerce us with smiles and nice voices. They gaslight us with compassion. It’s eerie.

  5. Ziff says:

    Thanks for calling attention to this issue, ElleK. I’m sure you’re right that your bishop is (and bishops in general are) blind to the power dynamics when he’s giving an interview. Power is like privilege, I guess, in that it can be easy to not see it when you have it, but when you don’t, you see it *very* clearly.

    • ElleK says:

      Good observation, Ziff. For how often men in the church say that men and women are fundamentally different and have different viewpoints and experiences, they sure don’t apply that knowledge to how they run their organization.

  6. Em says:

    I agree a zillion times. I now insist on knowing the agenda beforehand or conduct business via email or in my home. And I agree that past leaders probably don’t know how awful I feel our interactions were, how terrifying and violating and deeply upsetting. I think he thinks we had interesting talks. Talks where he had the power to release me from callings, deny me a temple recommend, keep me from participating fully in the ward as a volunteer and where he was the doctrinal and spiritual authority. I’m still pissed. I don’t sit and dwell on it, but I also don’t feel an inclination to trust or be vulnerable with bishops ever again.

  7. Heather says:

    Just reading this makes me rock in a corner. I was called in for a blog post several years ago. My bishop didn’t even have the stones to call me directly. Instead he called my husband and had him tell me the bishop wanted to meet. And he’d taken it to the stake president before even meeting with me. It was awful. I never trusted him after that. I hadn’t blogged about wanting to worship Satan or overthrow the church. I’d written about how a RS lesson had gone wacky about the “tragedy” of being single. And the beautiful way the sisters had dealt with it. That I loved that we could disagree but still respect and love each other. It’s not the first or last time I’ve sat in the padded chair, facing the oak desk and some salon framed Jesus, while a guy pretends there’s no power imbalance. But it was the first time I refused to play along. Even if I’m in the wrong, I’m still entitled to be heard, be treated with respect, and have the power dynamic acknowledged. Thank you for expressing this all so well.

  8. Boudicea says:

    And then try amplifying this terrifying power differential when you work for the Church, and have to explain yourself to someone (almost always male) who has authority over both your personal salvation *and* your professional employment, someone who can hold you hostage at any time over concerns about your orthodoxy. The layered intersection of thought-policing and worthiness-policing is cripplingly unhealthy. Thank you for articulating this very real form of spiritual abuse.

  9. Mike H. says:

    Not so much in interviews, but, first, one Bishop have assured me that mental illness, like my depression, can not be real, for you can’t be tempted above what you can endure. He relented a little, after comments from someone from LDS Family Services. Later on, that Bishop had a son come home early from a mission, due to depression.

    That same Bishop commented that my 3 son’s autism was due to my bad parenting, from doing too much Family History & Temple work. So, I’ve not been to the Temple in 15 years, and, one of my sons does not want to attend Church again, due to those comments.

    Later, another Bishop told us that he was hesitant to help us, when I was unemployed, due to how limited the Church’s financial resources are. But, the Church had no issue in buying a mall?

    A number of Church Leaders also feel they don’t have to apologize for anything they do wrong in their offices.

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