A LETTER TO A MORMON BISHOP

I have a dear friend - I have known him for many years - who is a Mormon bishop. He is basically a good man, and I am certain he has never questioned the truth of Mormonism. He is the most faithful Mormon I know. We generally avoid discussing religion because we each know that there is no chance of changing the other's views.

Recently in a note he asked what I was doing to keep busy, and so I told him about how much time I spend corresponding with people - Mormons and exmormons - and trying to help them deal with the problems created by that church. He asked, so I told him. I begged him not to be an ostrich about the problems in his church.

He wrote me back, and I was somewhat surprised by the openness of his response:

Knowing, as you do, the things that cause people to become disenchanted with their life in the LDS church, in what areas would you counsel me, as a bishop, to help and strengthen my congregation? Know that I firmly maintain the doctrine of the church and sustain the leaders as prophets, so I would not be a reformer. Picture yourself, if you can, believing as I do, but needing to fortify the members against losing faith in some concept or practice. It's kind of like the bank hiring the robber as their security adviser.

But treat me tenderly. Come in the attitude of a friend, not an antagonist, because you'll be talking about the one thing that means more to me than anything else. If I were to be compared to a fowl, I'm not an ostrich, hiding its eyes from a world that it considers threatening. My eyes have been opened to many of life's ills and woes as I have tried to magnify this call. I'm not ignoring or hiding from what I see, I'm trying to evaluate its potential danger. If I'm a bird, I'd see myself soaring above the earth-bound ostrich, finding nesting in a safer, more beautiful world. So, can you temper your remarks so that I can help those I love within the context of our beliefs? I'm sure that you would be up to it.

I do respect you for the things you are trying to do.

Here is my reply (names have been changed to protect identities).


Dear Tom,

I've been giving a lot of thought to what you asked me:

"Knowing, as you do, the things that cause people to become disenchanted with their life in the LDS church, in what areas would you counsel me, as a bishop, to help and strengthen my congregation? Know that I firmly maintain the doctrine of the church and sustain the leaders as prophets, so I would not be a reformer. Picture yourself, if you can, believing as I do, but needing to fortify the members against losing faith in some concept or practice."

Let me give it a try. And please understand that I am trying not to criticize the church that you love, but that in pointing out where I think people develop problems with the church it is inevitable that I mention what people see as those problems. I am trying to answer your questions as some outside disinterested observer might answer them. I have often thought that when a Mormon leaves the LDS church, for whatever reasons, it is much like the divorce of a married couple. Could the marriage have been saved? Is anybody to blame? Is either party solely to blame? I know the analogy is faulty, but to a certain extent it is helpful. It is as though you are consulting me as a marriage counselor: what can be done to preserve this union?

In the past few years I have been quite active in the exmormon community and have gotten to know hundreds of former Mormons, and my suggestions and comments to you are based on what I have learned from them. If you want to hear directly what they have to say, there are over a hundred personal stories of people telling why and how they left on the web at www.exmormon.org. Other, shorter comments and insights are on my web page at http://home.teleport.com/~packham/voices1.htm. You might find it useful to study their stories. If you can read them trying to see their point of view, rather than dismissing them with thoughts like "Well, she never had a real testimony" or "Well, of course he'll lose his faith if he doesn't pay his tithing" or "She was just overly sensitive and condemns the whole church because of one unpleasant bishop!", etc., perhaps they will help you see the kinds of reasons people have for leaving.

I think the first suggestion I would make to you is that you will understand the potential apostate better and be in a better position to prevent an apostasy if you realize that most devout Mormons and Mormon leaders have an inaccurate picture of the apostate and the reasons that the apostate left the church. Most Mormons believe that someone leaves the church for one of the following reasons:

or variations and combinations of them.

I can assure you that, among the exmormons I know, probably only 1% left the church for any of those reasons. If I'm correct, and if my group is typical of the potential apostates in your ward, you will not solve any problems by operating as if those are the reasons for apostasy.

Among the former Mormons I know are hundreds of returned missionaries (who were good missionaries - probably among them they baptized thousands of people into the church), elders' quorum presidents, Gospel Doctrine teachers, Relief Society presidents, dozens of high council members, quite a few temple workers, and almost a dozen bishops. Many (like me) suffered the breakup of a marriage because of their leaving the church. They are intelligent, sincere, thoughtful, good people. And 95% of them were good Mormons, I am sure. They are people who, at least at one time, did have a testimony of the truth of the gospel and devoted a good deal of energy to spreading and promoting it. They lived the gospel. They had temple recommends. They did their home teaching, fulfilled callings, and taught their children the gospel.

What happens to cause good Mormons like that to begin to doubt? One writer called it the "double bind" of Mormonism. The church promises happiness, joy, salvation, blessings, and a good life as a good person. Whether the church actually promises these things, members understand that living the gospel 100% will bring them close. When the Mormon does everything the church asks him to do, work, pray, study, tithe, go to meetings, do genealogy, do temple work, fulfill callings, etc., etc., etc., and somehow he does not feel that it's working the way it should, the response he gets from the church is that he isn't really doing it right, or often enough, or faithfully enough. The solution suggested to him is to study MORE, pray MORE, read MORE scriptures. The double bind is that the church places the blame for not fulfilling its part of the bargain on the member. It's the member's fault.

This can be psychologically devastating, especially to someone who is really devout, who is really trying, and who really does not see what he is doing wrong or how he is not living the gospel as completely as he can. It destroys a person's self-esteem, puts tremendous guilt on him, and he sees no way to solve his problem.

Some Mormons have problems because they do not fit into the life-mold that the church says is really the only mold: mission, marriage soon after, husband works, wife stays home and raises large family, everyone a good Mormon. This image of what the ideal life should be is often especially hard on young women, who have yearnings for a professional life, or who are not particularly fond of children. To be told that God wants them to do something they have no real desire to do can be shattering and depressing. And it is fatally devastating to those with homosexual natures. This leads to chronic depression, alcoholism, and suicide.

The following was posted yesterday on the exmormon e-mail list by a 56-year old woman whom I have met personally. It is a common theme:

Over and over and over on this list I read about the enormous guilt, depression, etc. created by the ungodly, unkind, ignorant and mentally abusive litany of "stuff" that Mormons are supposed or not supposed to do. Hating of self -- some of you have defined it that way. Including my daughter. The more I distance myself, the longer I am essentially "out", the more I realise how much emotional and mental abuse I took for so many years -- not because of guilt over "sin" but because of believing I had to stay in a situation that was killing me -- all because of the "shoulds" I had been taught and believed. I am looking back on the waste and emptiness of my entire adult life, all to live up to the expectations created by the church. My soul cries as I see my Mormon children doing much of the same, especially the daughters: overworked, burdened with multiple pregnancies, exhausted, depressed, feeling that they can never do enough, shoving down the anger and confusion that they feel, denying, denying, denying. I can hardly bear to watch. It's all I can do to not take them in my arms and scream: YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO IT!!!! But I will be a pariah in the eyes of all of them if I do.

Another problem that started many people to doubt the claim that the church is led by God-inspired leaders is that old truth: power corrupts. Authority over others can so easily be misused. It is a very heady thing to believe that you have power from God, and that God is telling you what to do, and therefore what you are doing is sanctioned by God. It may be the returned missionary announcing to some girl that God has revealed to him that she is supposed to become his wife; perhaps it is the bishop who appoints the child molester to teach the young children in Primary; maybe it is the bishop who counsels the battered wife that it is her fault that her priesthood-holding husband beats her; or perhaps it is the bishop who pries into a teenager's masturbation practices in too great a detail... (These are all actual cases.) We have seen hundreds of people start to question the church when they see that these priesthood holders, these men "in authority over them," are not truly inspired by God, but are rather arrogantly deceiving themselves into believing that they are. And they are in positions in which they can do real harm.

Another aspect of this is the tremendous responsibility which a bishop has to counsel his ward members in so many ways, especially in domestic matters. Marriage counseling, counseling depressed people, counseling problem children, - these are such sensitive areas, where great harm can be done. And yet the bishop's only source of wisdom is his own experience and "inspiration." In other words, the bishop is really not trained or qualified to give the kind of counseling which his calling requires. If a ward member has an appendicitis attack, the doctor is called in before the bishop. But if a ward member is having marital difficulty which requires serious attention, all too often the psychiatrist or marriage counselor is called in only as a last resort, because the folks have been trying to work out their problems by meeting with the bishop.

When this happens, when a bishop advises someone with serious problems to pray more, or read the scriptures more, or "examine yourself and see if there aren't some areas of the Gospel where you are not keeping the commandments," i.e., "you would not be having this problem if you were living the gospel," the member quite naturally begins to doubt that this advice is from God, that God is inspiring this advice.

Annie [a mutual friend] is a good example of one way this works. She was frustrated, depressed, trying to be a "Mother in Zion," and found the only release from her troubles was alcohol. Nobody wants to deal with the underlying problem; her problem (in the Mormon view) is that she doesn't keep the Word of Wisdom. If she would just stop drinking, she wouldn't have a problem. Well, I don't think it's that simple, and I doubt that any psychology professional would think it was, either. But for Mormons, that's the solution: just live the Gospel.

The doctrine of the church on sin causes a lot of problems for people. An extreme example is a case we know of where a Mormon girl was raped by a returned missionary when she refused to date him. It was really a rape. But she has "lost her virginity." The bishop counseled her to "pray for forgiveness" that she had been raped. She is not as pure now, and so less attractive as a wife for a good Mormon man. Through no fault of her own, but because of the counseling and the church doctrine on chastity ("once lost, it can never be regained"), she is suffering terrible psychological torment, being advised to repent when she has nothing to repent of.

Today on the list we had this example, posted by a former bishopric counselor and former high councilman in Germany:

On this theme, the worst thing I personally experienced was when I was a member of a bishopric. We had a returned missionary who had psychological problems, even ended up in an asylum. I took care of him and visited as often as I could. He hardly ever talked, very shy, very closed up. I worked together with one of those folks treating him because of the "religious" aspect. He figured that religion was part of the problem.

One night the phone rang, the asylum was on the line telling me that my young friend was attempting suicide, standing in a window frame, 4th floor, prepared to jump. They couldn't get him inside. He mentioned my name, he would only be prepared to talk to me. I needed about 30 minutes by car. Crossed quite a few red lights. Making a long story short: I talked to him with wardens, police etc. hanging around. I actually hated it, I was scared I would say something wrong and he would jump.

After a long time I got to the point were I could ask him why he wanted to end his life. He paused and then said because he had sinned so terribly. Which sin? He had masturbated once (!) during his mission. He was back from his mission for 18 months now and had "sinned" again (masturbated). So that's twice in 18 months. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, forget the other folks around me. I asked him how come. He had confessed his first sin to his home teacher a few months before. The home teacher assured him that it was a terrible sin. He had sinned "again", therefore the jump.

This was then one of the few occasions where I used my "power and authority of the priesthood": I told him by that authority to come inside again, that all was well, that he had not sinned, rather his home teacher had! Those few seconds afterwards were awesome. He came back and cried his soul out in my arms. Next day, actually the same morning (Sunday) I had an interview with the home teacher. I admit that I used my "power" again. I asked him to show me an official source for his "masturbation doctrine". He couldn't provide it. I "rebuked" him and then told him what had happened. He went silent. By the way, the home teacher actually is a "nice fella". Really. But then, it's the same person who doesn't have any children. According to his wife they have a very "pure" life: They haven't had sex for about 15 years!

That, to me, is an example of how a bishop should operate. But, technically, he was "wrong" in the eyes of church, and the home teacher was doctrinally more correct.

(These two quotes from posts to the exmormon list are both from within the last 24 hours, and they are not unusual, but rather very typical.)

Actually, the advice to pray more and to read the scriptures more often has exactly the opposite effect. Someone who is praying as often and as faithfully and sincerely as they know how, and still getting no response, must begin to wonder about whether prayer really works the way it is supposed to. They often begin even to question whether there is a God listening, especially when those who are supposed to know about these things keep insisting that if you pray right and your request is righteous, God will answer.

And it has often happened that reading the scriptures more avidly, and studying the words of the prophets has merely served to draw attention to the contradictions and absurdities there and to create even more unanswerable questions. That is, rather than assuaging doubt, it nourishes it. Many, many Mormons (I, for one) began the journey out of the church with a sincere effort to strengthen their testimony by study of the church writings.

So the obvious suggestion, I would think, is don't advise someone to pray more and to read more. It may actually put them out of the church.

At our last exmormon convention we had a non-Mormon visitor, a professor at Stanford whose adult daughter joined the church several years ago. He had heard about the Recovery from Mormonism group and came to learn what he could. He took extensive notes and listened to "testimonies" from a lot of people. He summed up his impressions by saying that it seemed that the theme in all the stories he had heard was that the exmormons felt that the church had lied to them in one way or another: about its doctrines ("milk before meat"), its history, the inspiration of its leaders, its promises of happiness to those who lived it. I think his perception is accurate.

What, then, can I give you as advice or suggestions to help you in your calling as bishop? (I think I can do this honestly - when asked, I have given advice to Christians on how to be better Christians, or how to help their Mormon friends become Christian, even though I myself am an atheist.)

First, my attitude is that for some people it is better for them to be Christian, or Mormon (or whatever they are now). They are happier, life makes more sense to them, it fulfills some need that they have. Annie is an example. I would not want her to leave the church, because it is the only thing she clings to (although I also think that the church has been a major factor in her problems). My Mom and Dad were other examples.

But, by the same token, I think you should recognize that there are Mormons who would be better off if they were not in the church. Keeping them in the church is causing them major unhappiness and may even endanger their lives (suicide). Admit that not everyone will be saved in the Celestial Kingdom. Ease the pain for those who will be in lesser kingdoms, and let them go in peace. Learn to recognize who they are, and do what you can to ease them into life outside the church.

For example, we have heard hundreds of stories of how bishops harass, harangue, and bully people who they think are going to leave the church. Emotional threats ("You will not be with your children in the Celestial Kingdom!"), spreading innuendoes of sexual transgressions, delaying the processing of name removal requests, etc. Occasionally we hear also of bishops who are gracious and kind and understanding, and who say, in effect, "Go in peace, and I wish you happiness." I hope you would be the latter kind.

Second, to insist that the church is 100% true, that there are no contradictions, no material historical problems, is going to drive people out of the church who know enough about the doctrine and the history to see that such a position is unjustified. At least it seems so to them (as it does to me). But I also know dozens and dozens of people who are "secret apostates," that is, people who are active members in good standing, but who don't believe it any more. I think probably most of their bishops do not know their true feelings. These people are playing a role, and playing it very well (with callings, temple recommends, teaching Gospel Doctrine class, etc.). They stay in the church primarily because of their families, because they don't want to pay the price of leaving, and because the church does give them a sense of community. As Thomas Ferguson said (the Mormon authority on Book of Mormon archaeology, who was just such a secret apostate), "The LDS church is the greatest social club in the world!"

So, my suggestion is that you will keep such people by not pushing them, not questioning their loyalty or their doctrinal purity, allowing them to have their own views privately and to remain in the church on their own terms (if they can do it without causing problems for other members, of course). After all, doctrinal purity was never such an important matter - Brigham Young and Orson Pratt disagreed over many fundamental doctrinal questions (Adam-God, whether God progresses, etc.). In fact, my impression is that the church is easing up gradually on many doctrines that don't directly have to do with how one lives one's life... I see more often statements such as "it doesn't really matter, after all, whether there really was a Flood... the important thing is the example we have to follow in the figure of Noah..." The stance on the Book of Abraham has had to change, in light of the embarrassing translation by Egyptologists of the papyrus; it is now a "revelation" and not a "translation." President Hinckley is backing off on the "God was once a man" doctrine, it seems. The Reorganized Church is even going so far as to see the Book of Mormon as a book of inspired teaching, but not necessarily history. So, if that is the direction the church doctrine is taking, go along. Don't insist on doctrinal purity; just help people to live good and happy lives. Let God worry about their souls and their salvation or exaltation.

People carry enough guilt around, and if one had to summarize the message of Christianity in its finest and most humane form, I think it would be that "God forgives you! You are his child! Bask in the love of God, freely given!" Now, I know that idea is modified in Mormonism by requiring the sinner to repent, do penance, wait, work, and "earn" salvation. But for those who cannot meet the rigorous standards of the church, consider that Jesus said to the woman taken in sin (John 8): "neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more." Jesus' message everywhere was "Thy sins are forgiven thee." It was the Pharisees who condemned him for forgiving sins; don't be a Pharisee bishop, but - as one who claims to represent Jesus - forgive every chance you can. Those whom you forgive will stay in the church. Those whom you do not forgive will leave and find their forgiveness and peace of mind from some Christian pastor. Remember what Micah said (6:8) "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" If you can teach people that, you will have accomplished a great deal.

Another suggestion is that you be extra-extra-extra humble in interpreting your feelings and hunches as being God's messages to you for your ward members. If even President Hinckley admits that when God is talking in his loudest voice to his number one mouthpiece on Earth, it's only by means of a "feeling" he gets, I would think that you would have to be extremely cautious about the great risk of interpreting a feeling of yours as a special-delivery letter from the Creator of the Universe. To put it another way, I would think the best advice you could give 99% of the people who come to you for advice and counsel is to tell them that it's between them and God, and there is no reason why they can't ask God themselves.

Also, I think it's important for a bishop to understand clearly what are church matters and what are not. That is, what the church can deal with appropriately and what not. Some things require professional intervention. Some behaviors are crimes. Those should not be dealt with primarily by church personnel. To try to handle a rape as a "sin" rather than as a crime is, in itself, a crime. The same goes for child abuse, or spousal abuse. I probably don't really have to tell you that. But I know people who have left the church because they were victims of such behavior and the bishop insisted that it be kept quiet and dealt with by the church, and it seemed to them that more concern was shown for a priesthood-holding culprit than for the victim.

I think you cannot hope to convince people to accept "some concept or practice" - especially one of a fundamental nature - if they really find it objectionable. As bishop you probably have no control over such concepts and practices, and so your only argument is to say that the Brethren have Spoken. When the Brethren have Spoken something that people really find wrong, you are going to have increased doubt among the people, and there is nothing much you can do about it. In other words, the faith in the leaders (in any organization) depends on the leaders leading where the people want to be led. The flap over the "Defense of Marriage" campaign in California is a good example; we are aware that many people who were still active in the church are now leaving because they think the church's position in this matter is so wrong. But you, as bishop, cannot help that. You are in a bind. If you are too aggressive in defending the church's position, you may lose members who find it wrong. If you are too lax (so as not to lose those members), you may be disciplined yourself.

Well, this is already much too long. I hope that you find my comments of some use. I have tried to be objective and non-condemnatory in tone. I may think of a few other things; if so, I'll send a supplement. If you have questions, let me know.

Fond best wishes,
Richard


POSTSCRIPT

I posted a draft of this letter to the Recovery From Mormonism mail list and asked for suggestions and comments. You can read those comments here.


Comments? (Please, no preaching or hate mail!) Write:  packham@teleport.com

©  1999 Richard Packham    Permission granted to reproduce for non-commercial purposes, provided text is not changed and this copyright notice is included

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