BYU-I instructors fired for failing ‘ecclesiastical clearance.’ They can’t find out why.

Was it over LGBTQ issues or something else? Even their bishops aren’t sure.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) At BYU-Idaho in Rexburg, shown in 2018, adjunct instructors are being let go after failing to obtain “ecclesiastical clearance.”

Lindsay Larson Call, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had just wrapped up a contract with Brigham Young University-Idaho evaluating potential hires for its online program when she got the call. After 10 years working herself as an online instructor for the Rexburg-based school, she was out of a job.

“The [BYU-I employee] who called me wasn’t anyone I had ever had contact with before,” the Bakersfield, Calif., resident said. “He said he had nothing to do with the decision, that he doesn’t even work with online programs.”

Instead, the caller said, he’d received a list of names from the Ecclesiastical Clearance Office (ECO) of individuals who had failed to obtain “ecclesiastical clearance.” As a result, they were no longer eligible to work at BYU-I.

She was one of them.

Ben Buswell, a Houston resident with a background in business and entrepreneurship, was another. Together they represent just two Church Educational System employees to see their careers cut short due to failure to meet what appears to be new criteria established by the ECO of demonstrated loyalty to the Utah-based church.

Created in 2020 by the church’s governing First Presidency, the ECO is overseen by the faith’s commissioner of education, Clark Gilbert. Its purpose, according to church spokesperson Sam Penrod, is to “assist in the process” of ensuring that “employees in the Church Educational System commit to maintain gospel standards as part of their employment, including an annual ecclesiastical endorsement from their local bishop.”

BYU-Hawaii’s official policy statement on ecclesiastical clearance indicates that the ECO “assesses historical and current activity in the Church of Jesus Christ, religious behavior, and support for the teachings, practices, and leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ,” in addition to verifying whether an employee or applicant holds a temple recommend.

Any updates to employment policies, Penrod wrote in a statement, “are communicated in advance to all employees and provided to new applicants.”

Buswell and Call, however, said they had met the requirements as they’d been explained to them, including obtaining the endorsement of their lay bishops and a temple recommend (given to those local leaders deem to be following the faith’s principles and practices). Rather, both have come to suspect they were pushed out over issues relating to the LGBTQ community — despite the fact that they don’t view themselves as particularly outspoken on the topic.

Whatever the reason, their experiences have spooked their peers, many of whom they said are making their way to the door in search of a more stable work environment.

Baffled bishops

(Lindsay Larson Call) Lindsay Larson Call taught as an online adjunct instructor for Brigham Young University-Idaho for 10 years before she discovered her contract would not be renewed.

Call, who taught a course on family studies, and Buswell, who taught classes on launching new business ventures, felt confident it hadn’t been their job performances that had been the problem. For starters, each had received high marks from students through the years. Call had been repeatedly promoted over the previous decade, from assistant instructor manager to instructor evaluation specialist.

Moreover, their callers had been clear that the issue had come down to “ecclesiastical” matters. When Call and Buswell pressed for details, the answer was the same: If they wanted more information, they would have to reach out to their bishops.

Call did so “right away,” her mind scanning through every recent interaction for some kind of clue for anything she might have done that could have colored his opinion of her. However, her bishop responded quickly, reassuring her he had endorsed her using the provided form. That, he explained, was the extent of his knowledge about the event.

Buswell’s bishop was “absolutely shocked” when he told him the news, the former BYU-I instructor said, so much so that he offered to read to Buswell each question the form asked and the responses he had provided.

The questionnaire had been longer than in times past. The form took effect in late March and applies to all potential Church Educational System hires — from cashiers and custodians to full-time professors.

Among the new topics it asks bishops to comment on is whether the candidate supports the church’s teachings on “marriage, family and gender.”

It turns out that Buswell had recently opened up to his bishop, someone he saw as a peer and a friend, about concerns he had around the church’s policies regarding the LGBTQ community. The conversation had been a casual hallway chat that, according to Buswell, ended with him reassuring his bishop that he felt “confident I’ll figure it out, and it’s not a big deal.”

That conversation had been fresh on the bishop’s mind, the bishop told his congregant, when he had completed the form. “So, he told me, ‘I said Brother Buswell has expressed some concerns’” around the issue, but that ‘”...he is honest in his desire to understand the Lord and will come to the right decision on this.’”

Buswell believed this was the only response that could have “raised a flag.” All he could think was that a moment of honesty with his faith leader had cost him a job. As the meeting wrapped up, he said, his bishop apologized, acknowledging that if he thought such a statement would have hurt Buswell’s chances at a contract, he might not have included it.

Neither bishop returned requests for comment. Copies of emails provided by Call and Buswell, however, corroborate descriptions of their reactions, including in Call’s case her bishop’s decision to endorse her.

Powerless supervisors

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU-Idaho students rally in 2019 for changes to the school's Honor Code in Rexburg.

For Buswell, who started teaching as an online instructor six or seven years ago, the hunt for answers stopped with his bishop. Even if he could somehow discover and resolve the issue with the ECO, the experience left him wary of staying on. Besides, he had enough work coming in as the founder and CEO of a technology startup.

Call, in contrast, saw more than a third of her household income dry up when she lost her BYU-I contract, and at a time when her family was already feeling the inflation squeeze. Even more important than the money, though, was the fulfillment she had found in the work.

Throughout her life, she had wrestled with questions of belief even as she remained committed to the faith. Teaching at a church-owned school doubled, she said, as a “very personal ministry” to those who lived with similar questions.

“I had a lot of students,” Call said, “who told me over the years, ‘I thought the only way forward for me was to leave the church, but I can see how you continue to wrestle with things but stay. Maybe there is still a place for me.’”

She shared the news of her termination with her BYU-I supervisors, who were as “blindsided” as she had been.

“They tried to talk through some of their channels to find out more,” she said, but also hit a wall. They, too, reiterated to her that all information from the ECO is confidential, including from department chairs.

In an interview, Jason Blazzard, the online representative of BYU-I’s Faculty Association College Representatives, confirmed that he was aware of a “big situation” in which an online instructor asked the department to advocate on the person’s behalf.

“And we did,” he said, although he could not specify who that person was.

BYU-I’s human resources department did not return a request for comment.

Confronting the Ecclesiastical Clearance Office

During the original phone call informing Call her contract was not being renewed, the speaker had given her a phone number to the ECO along with the instruction not to dial it. Only her bishop, he said, was allowed to use it to try and get answers.

“[My bishop] called, but he said they wouldn’t give any information on my termination,” she said. “They told him, ‘Yes you endorsed her, but there’s more to it than that.’ But they wouldn’t tell him what it was.”

Not until she had exhausted all other avenues of inquiry did she give the number a try herself. Her husband listened and transcribed the conversation that followed.

Right away, the man — someone who introduced himself as Ken or Kent, neither was sure which — apologized but told Call he was allowed to speak only to “priesthood leaders.”

But Call, who at this point was having trouble sleeping from the stress of the firing, was determined to be heard.

“I just want to communicate how damaging and hurtful this is,” she said. “...It feels like a betrayal when I am being told nothing.”

The man offered his sympathy. “I do understand, and I do recognize the pain you are in,” he said, but he was “legally bound” not to say anything.

“I can tell you that any other corporation . . . might say [their] reasons for firing are confidential,” the ECO employee said. “This is a common practice at corporations.”

Call was stunned by the comparison.

In the end, the speaker emphasized that the ECO office hadn’t fired her. That decision had rested with BYU-I. This felt disingenuous to Call. Perhaps legally that was the case, but every conversation with BYU-I had pointed to a command coming from the ECO.

“This call made me feel the sickest of any part of this process,” she said. “I’m sure the person I talked to was just saying what lawyers have told him to say, but the dishonesty and twisted justifications made me feel physically ill.”

Creating a taboo around LGBTQ issues

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU-Idaho students rally in 2019 for changes to the school's Honor Code in Rexburg.

Like Buswell, Call is convinced that the reason her contract was not renewed had to do with concerns she had raised, not at church but in work meetings, around discussions of the LGBTQ community.

This is the conclusion she has come to after learning, through her own network, about Buswell’s experience. In another case, a fellow instructor was given a warning after showing a family photo to her students that included a daughter and the daughter’s wife.

In her case, Call said, she wasn’t shy about raising concerns from time to time in faculty meetings about how the curriculum treated LGBTQ issues, pushing back in one instance against a video that theorized mothers contributed to same-sex attraction in their children. Such speculation, she pointed out, was at odds with the church’s own stance, spelled out on its website, that it did not take a position on the causes of same-sex attraction.

“That was five or six years ago,” she said. “I don’t think that my advocacy for removing that video specifically probably made its way to [the] ECO, but it is emblematic of some of the changes that I advocated for over the years.”

Call’s and Buswell’s conclusions echo those of an adjunct professor laid off from Brigham Young University since the creation of the ECO. Sue Bergin spent nearly 30 years teaching at the Provo school, where she racked up praise from her peers and her students before suddenly being ousted without explanation in December 2021.

After trying and failing to obtain an answer, Call came to the conclusion that her support for the LGBTQ community cost her the job.

‘If she’s not safe, no one is’

It’s unclear how many have had their contracts yanked after failing to pass ecclesiastical clearance. Church and BYU spokespeople declined to comment on the subject.

More apparent is the effect stories like Call’s and Buswell’s have had on morale among their former colleagues, some of whom have taken the dismissals as their cue to leave.

That list includes Melissa Davis, who, after 10 years of teaching as an online adjunct writing instructor, left BYU-I for an administrative job. Watching what happened to Call, the Provo resident said, played a major role in deciding to make the switch.

“If she’s not safe,” Davis said, “no one is.”

Buswell’s wife, Amanda, also called it quits after watching her husband’s experience. A marriage and family therapist, she taught alongside Call in the home and family department. Part of her work, she said, included answering questions and discussing ethics around LGBTQ issues.

(Ben Buswell) Amanda and Ben Buswell taught for years as online adjunct instructors for Brigham Young University-Idaho. This fall, Ben's contract was pulled for "ecclesiastical" reasons. Amanda handed in her resignation soon afterward.

“I talk honestly about needing to have a separation from your beliefs and when you’re acting as a professional,” Amanda Buswell said. In the current environment, she figured it was “only a matter of time” before someone sought to have her fired for saying as much. And, based on her husband’s and Call’s experience, believed they would probably be successful. “I [felt] like I was at risk just because of my profession.”

Breeding suspicion and alienation

Call’s last official day on the job was Sept. 16. A month later, she received a call from someone in BYU-I’s human resources. According to Call, the woman said the ECO had told her to reach out and tell Call she could submit a clearance request and have her case looked at with “fresh eyes.” There was no guarantee that Call would be reinstated, but the school was holding a January contract for her just in case.

“She said that those in the ECO are trying really hard to do the right thing,” Call said, “to take the policies they’ve been given and consider each individual situation.”

Call declined.

“Even if I came back on,” she said, “I could be terminated again in a short time because I don’t know why I was fired in the first place.”

She and Buswell said they’re trying to put the whole thing behind them. The problem, they said, is that their experiences have impacted not only their relationship with BYU-I but their faith community as well.

“I feel like I’m getting pushed out,” Buswell said.

For her part, Call has found herself wondering if maybe she is just “too different” from her fellow Latter-day Saints. After all, a church-owned office with a direct link to high-ranking Latter-day Saint leaders had found her, in some way, lacking.

“Am I,” she mused, “not welcome here anymore?”

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