Katie Langston: ‘Worthiness interviews’ are not healthy for young people

When I was 13 years old, an LDS bishop pulled me into his office and asked me an extensive series of questions as part of a routine practice called worthiness interviews.

Did I think impure thoughts? Did I consume impure media? Did I touch myself?

I wasn’t interested in talking with him about any of this. My instincts told me to run, but since he was my church leader, presented to me as a Judge in Israel who had the authority to determine my worthiness before God, I felt I had no choice but to answer his questions honestly.

I still remember how my ears burned and how I detached from my body in order to bear it. I barely whispered my replies. I left his office trembling, vowing that I would do everything in power to avoid having a conversation like that again.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the system worked.

Over the years, other bishops and priesthood leaders asked me similar questions. They probed me about age-appropriate romantic experiences, asking whether boys had ever touched my genitals or I theirs, how frequently I had been kissed, and if I had experienced sexual climax. Even when bishops stuck with the routine question, “Do you live the Law of Chastity?” worthiness interviews filled me with shame and dread. I never felt safe in a single one.

Jennifer Roach’s recent assertion that worthiness interviews are advantageous to youth is misguided. She speaks of her own experience as a survivor of clergy abuse — a horrible tragedy, to be sure — and postulates that worthiness interviews might have spared her pain.

While I lament the betrayal of trust she endured in her evangelical upbringing, I am concerned that Roach’s position on worthiness interviews fails to consider their context — a context that, as a recent convert to Mormonism who did not experience these interviews in her youth, she might not fully understand.

To be clear, I have no argument with her point that youth need safe, non-parental adult mentors they can talk to about sensitive questions, including sexuality. As a pastor-in-training, I don’t even have trouble with the notion that church leaders should be available to youth for confession. I am not among those who think it’s always inappropriate for church leaders and youth to have private conversations — although for everyone’s safety, such conversations must be handled sensitively and appropriately, and pastoral caregivers should be well-screened and well-trained.

Unfortunately, the LDS church does not take such care in its practice of worthiness interviews, and as such the practice has perpetuated significant harm.

Here are four reasons worthiness interviews do not create the safe space Roach advocates:

1. Worthiness interviews are framed in a damaging theological construct. In Christian teaching, “worthiness” is not something a person can attain by adherence to a list of rules, but is a gift of grace from God. The notion that one’s “worth” might be impacted by the compliance or lack thereof to a set of standards introduces conditionality into the pastoral relationship and paints a picture of an unloving God. To be effective in helping church members develop healthy relationships with God, each other and themselves, Mormons must eradicate language of “worthiness” and of “qualifying for” God’s blessing and replace it with the notion that God’s love, forgiveness and mercy are assumed. The church leader is there to help communicate the grace that already exists — not to determine one’s “worthiness” to receive it.

2. LDS bishops do not receive sufficient training in pastoral care. While some bishops have natural gifts for pastoral counseling, many do not. In any event, even the most gifted leaders need training in how to be helpful, not harmful, in pastoral relationships. LDS bishops receive no training in pastoral listening, theological reflection, self-care and how to handle situations of abuse and harm. As such, most are not prepared to work with youth (or adults, for that matter) in areas of psychosexual wellness.

3. Worthiness interviews are leader-initiated, not youth-initiated. Roach points out that there are other churches that allow for one-on-one conversations between church leaders and youth. While this is technically correct, she misses a key distinction: In other churches, youth typically seek out trusted leaders for confession or advice, whereas in LDS practice youth are typically called into the bishop’s office for routine interviews. Though I am not aware of any major denomination that deviates from this, if there are circumstances where this basic distinction isn’t observed, that, too, is abusive. There is a profound difference between a youth initiating a conversation with an adult mentor about a particular question or problem and church leaders initiating a conversation to go over a standardized checklist.

4. Worthiness interviews teach youth to ignore their own instincts. When worthiness interviews are leader-initiated and introduce topics youth would not bring up on their own, they represent profound boundary violations. By attributing such boundary violations to God, the interviews teach youth to ignore their instincts about what is appropriate and what isn’t. Roach argues that worthiness interviews in and of themselves isn’t “grooming behavior,” and, again, she is technically correct; however, worthiness interviews normalize patterns of behavior that are often used by predators to “groom” victims to accept boundary violations and ignore safety instincts. In this sense, they pave the way for potential predators down the line, including in positions of ecclesiastical authority.

I appreciate and affirm Roach’s desire to protect youth. I am in full agreement that kids need trusted, non-parental adults in their lives. Unfortunately, Roach has misidentified worthiness interviews as a vehicle that would accomplish this.

If the LDS Church would like to create a safe space for youth to have difficult conversations with trusted leaders, they must do away with their routine practice of worthiness interviews in favor of youth-initiated conversations of trust and care. They must also do away with theological notions of “worthiness,” provide more training for pastoral caregivers, and adopt less controlling practices of genuine pastoral relationality.

Katie Langston

Katie Langston, St. Croix Falls, Wis., is an intern pastor and candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.