Many Mormons cheered at this week’s announcement that their church now will allow an additional adult — besides the bishop — to sit in on interviews with individual teens and women.
Activists heralded the move as a first step toward removing potential dangers of one-on-one meetings between male lay leaders and adolescents, young adults or mature women, conversations in which the man may ask questions about sexuality.
However, the revision is hardly a simple solution to all potential problems, including leaders who sometimes shame teens, who pose inappropriate sexual questions, who impose their own views of sin, and, in extreme cases, who are abusive.
In addition, what if it’s the parent who is the abuser yet insists on pushing his way into the interview? What if a teen wants to discuss matters alone with the bishop but feels pressured to have a second person in the room? What if nothing is wrong, but a 2-to-1 ratio is simply awkward and uncomfortable for all involved? Does the change address problems or create more?
Perhaps the biggest question of all is this: Are “worthiness” interviews worth doing? Couldn’t such conversations be more general about a person’s faith and reserve any disclosures of sin for voluntary confessionals?
Indeed, for months Houston businessman Sam Young, a former LDS bishop, has been calling for an end to sexually graphic questioning and one-on-one interviews of young Mormons by church leaders.
Young plans a downtown Salt Lake City march Friday — the eve of LDS General Conference — to present church officials with more than 50,000 signatures supporting his position. More than 1,000 people have signed up for the rally.
Nature of the conversation • An LDS interview happens in two ways. First is when the Mormon lay leader of a congregation (usually the bishop and always a male) calls in the boys and girls in his flock from age 12 on up for an annual interview to ask about their testimonies, church attendance, faithfulness to the LDS health code (called the Word of Wisdom) and adherence to the law of chastity.
“In these interviews, church leaders are instructed to be sensitive to the character, circumstances and understanding of the young man or young woman,” the church has stated. “They are counseled to not be unnecessarily probing or invasive in their questions, but should allow a young person to share their experiences, struggles and feelings.”
Even so, some bishops ask pointed questions about moral cleanliness, perhaps quizzing about masturbation, foreplay or fornication.
Similar interviews occur with men and women who are seeking a “recommend” to gain entrance to Mormon temples so they can participate in the faith’s highest ordinances. If the interviewee is married, the bishop asks about sexual fidelity.
Another type of interview is when penitent members go to their bishops to confess “serious sins,” which could include intimate sexual behavior.
Some Latter-day Saints wonder about the need for such questioning, especially of young Mormons.
“Why must there be worthiness interviews?” asks Amy Albers Hillis of Orlando, Fla. “Why not just ‘hey, how are you?’ conversations?”
Hillis says her daughter has had a couple of disconcerting bishop’s interviews, including one that focused on her attire.
The young woman “had no worthiness issue,” Hillis says, yet “learned to not talk about difficult issues because [asking questions] could just be blamed on her and a lack of prayer or scripture study, rather than an addressing of the issue.”
“Is there a reason our leaders can’t just chat with the kiddos,” the mother wonders, “and get to know them?”
Richard Ostler developed his perspective on interviews while rearing his own children and later as a bishop of a Young Single Adult ward, or congregation, in Magna.
“From my perspective as a parent,” Ostler writes in an email, “I liked my [teenage] children visiting with the bishop on an annual basis.”
But he would like to see those meetings be “less about worthiness and more about ‘where are you?’ ‘how are you doing?’ and ‘what can I do to help you?’”
LDS youths need “trusted adults in their life to help them,” Ostler says. Bishops should spell out in a group setting what questions will be asked and what constitutes “serious sins” that may need to be addressed.
He believes “confession to the bishop is part of the repentance process and helps the person on the path to full repentance.”
But it never can be coerced.
“Compulsory confessions and judgment are a little bit of a social control,” Chicago therapist and counselor Jennifer Finlayson-Fife argues in a recent The Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast. “It is a [church] mechanism more than something that helps people progress.”
The questions focus too much on sexuality and obedience, she says. They are mostly about demonstrating “compliance, rather than being self-reflective.”
Prepare the parents, kids • One way to reduce harm, Finlayson-Fife says, is to share with all teenage and adult Mormons what questions will be asked and assure them that the bishop will not go off script, pushing for specifics.
Rosalynde Welch, an LDS mom of four kids in St. Louis, told her children what to expect in interviews, including appropriate questions about sexual worthiness.
“We have had ongoing family discussions about the fact that a church authority is not absolute, and they should never hesitate to speak up, object, and resist if something seems wrong in a situation with a church leader,” she says. “I have not attended the interviews with my teenage kids, but going forward I will definitely offer them that option if they are more comfortable with it.”
Welch’s children have “never had any disturbing experiences, she says, “at least not that they have shared with me.”
Even in the most positive interview, a young person could be intimidated by the presence of two adults, Finlayson-Fife says. Maybe it would be better if the teen says she would like to bring her sister or a Young Women leader.
Sadly, the “most vulnerable teens would be the ones least likely to have someone to bring,” the Chicago therapist says, “ … or an ability to advocate for [herself] ... or who feel a lot of pressure to defer to adults.”
The ‘M’ word • Some parents want to be in the room because they don’t want the bishop to ask about masturbation, a practice they feel is little more than an infraction, says Salt Lake City attorney James McConkie, a former bishop.
Other parents want to be there to guarantee the bishop has the same views they do — that masturbation is wrong and needs to stop.
Some kids want to speak alone with a Mormon leader who won’t be judgmental, he says. “They would never have come in if parents were going to be there.”
It puts the bishop, McConkie says, “in an awkward position.”
Before her son turned 12, Welch says she talked with the bishop about what he would ask in the interviews — specifically about masturbation. “This bishop said he didn’t raise that issue with young teens,” she recalls, “and in general was very open to my broaching the topic and vetting what would be said in the room with my child.”
Still, Welch says, she doesn’t object to ecclesiastical leaders raising questions about sexual practices, including pornography and masturbation.
“As this moment in our culture shows,” she says, “sexual behavior must be subject to ethical guidance.”
While Mormon sexual culture “has its problems,” Welch concedes, “one thing I appreciate is the way in which it reins in male sexual entitlement — worthiness interviews communicate clearly that there is no universal right or entitlement to sexual gratification — and that ethical considerations ... must discipline male sexual drive.”
That’s not a message that “our culture has reinforced with boys and men,” she says. “On the contrary, popular culture shows sex as a playground of male actualization and domination.”
Mormon discourse of sin and shame needs to evolve, she says, so that “we reach a balance, where sexual ethics are affirmed by ecclesiastical authority but individuals are not plunged into spirals of shame and self-loathing for their sexual natures.”
Finlayson-Fife has a different view: Mormon bishops should never ask about masturbation unless it is “compulsive… and out of line with healthy development.”
Otherwise, it is part of normal sexual maturation, she says. By asking about it so routinely, the church sends the message that the person who does it is “defective.”
“We need to shape a clear understanding of what constitutes normal sexuality, especially in our very positive understanding of sex,” the therapist says. “That kind of framing” is what Mormon couples will take into their marriage.
What about the women? • The church’s revisions on interviews, Finlayson-Fife says, are an “acknowledgment that there is a problem.” One way to mitigate it is to allow girls and women to have these worthiness interviews with female leaders, rather than men.
“There is no reason why the Young Women president couldn’t be the one to talk to young women,” she says, or the president of the all-female Relief Society could be the go-to interviewer for adult women.
Davis County resident Polly Scott, founder and CEO of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, a worldwide online service for victims of abuse and infidelity, advises all LDS women never to attend another bishop’s interview alone, especially when reporting their husband’s bad behavior.
With the support of “a safe woman at your side,” Scott writes on her website, “present your husband’s porn use, lies, manipulation, verbal abuse, the related sexual difficulties as abuse issues. Let your bishop know that you expect your husband to be held accountable for his infidelity and abuse in order to help him truly repent and protect you and your children.”
In the end, what does “worthiness” entail for a Mormon?
“I confess that as I’ve aged I don’t really know how to make spiritual sense of the notion of ‘worthiness’ anymore,” Welch says. “I tend to frame ecclesiastical interviews for myself and my children more in terms of reinforcing our commitment to church, family and community, rather than assessing our spiritual value or status in the eyes of the Lord.”
Steve Evans, a Salt Lake City attorney and Mormon blogger at the website By Common Consent, is blunter.
“Worthiness,” Evans asys, “is an enormous misnomer. None of us are worthy. That’s the entire point of Jesus Christ.”
Instead, he sees the bishop’s questioning as being more “about cultural markers and community boundaries.”
“‘Are you one of us?’ is what they’re asking,” Evans says. “That’s why they ask about some things which are, frankly, not very heinous sins. I sleep soundly at night knowing that my soul’s safety does not depend upon abstaining from coffee.”
But that is one of the things LDS leaders have “chosen, a little arbitrarily, to designate us as a people,” he says. “I respect it, even though on a spiritual level I also know that loving my neighbor (something they don’t ask about) is far more important than not smoking (something they do ask about).”
The answer, he says, to the final temple recommend question — “Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord’s house and participate in temple ordinances” — should “always be no. For all of us.”