10 Questions About Spiritual Abuse: Mormon Edition

David Hayward at nakedpastor.com wrote a short blog post a few weeks ago that hit home. I have read several things Hayward has written. He provides a wonderful religious perspective on a host of issues, and I think we could all learn something from him, regardless of our spirituality or religious affiliation. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,I feel like the church has made several missteps, things that most organizations would consider a PR nightmare. Interestingly, some of those missteps have happened because of the church’s own PR department. If you have followed the feminist movement within the church as well as the more recent Ordain Women (OW) movement, you know exactly what I am talking about. However, I want to discuss some fundamental problems most Mormons experience within the church, even without supporting “fringe” movements, and Hayward’s post “10 Questions Churches Can Ask Themselves About Spiritual Abuse” has provided the perfect platform.

Before I continue, I want to make it perfectly clear that I love my church, despite its imperfections, and it has plenty of them. The church doesn’t need to be perfect.

1. Do we use guilt, shame, humiliation, or fear to motivate people?

The first question a church can ask itself about spiritual abuse is a doozy for a Mormon: “Do we use guilt, shame, humiliation, or fear to motivate people?” The answer to this question is easy, a resounding, “Hell yes!” There are many cultures that “motivate” people with as much shame and guilt as the LDS Church. However, I feel as though that guilt, shame, and humiliation are the result of cultural constraints, traditions, rather than the purpose behind the doctrine of repentance. Using these tactics to motivate people will almost always backfire to some degree. How do I know? I grew up Mormon. I have experienced more than my fair share of these motivational devices. At the same time, I have had some of the most wonderful leaders, leaders who motivated with love, leaders who genuinely cared about me because they took the time to know me. No one should ever leave a bishop’s or stake president’s office feeling shame or humiliation. Even guilt, which is probably the most important motivator that leads someone to repentance, must come from within. That genuine guilt comes from the Godly sorrow the repentant soul must feel to truly repent. But if one tries to force that guilt on someone else, whatever the result, it will likely lead to some form of resentment.

2. Do we elevate the church’s wellbeing over the individual members’?

The second question asks, “Do we elevate the church’s wellbeing over the individual members’?” If you know people whose bishop or stake president has disciplined as the result of their involvement in the Mormon feminist movement or OW, then you already know the answer to this. If you truly know these people, you know that they have serious concerns and sincere questions. However, some leaders have gone out of their way to ignore those members’ feelings for what they see as mere rebellion or intended insubordination. I know someone whose stake president asked to remove a blog post in which the member spoke out against people persecuting members of OW. Though the member in no way offered support for OW but a defense of the individuals receiving un-Christ-like treatment, he obliged and took down this personal blog post. Just a few months later, that same member lost a temple recommend for daring to post “I Mourn with Kate” as a personal Facebook profile picture and for daring to wear purple to church. Why? As the member explained it to me: “Because I clearly don’t sustain the prophet.” I have known this person most of my life, and I have met few people more dedicated to the gospel and to the sustaining of the prophet.

3. Do we employ peer-pressure to get our members to do things?

Question three is directly related to the first question for me: “Do we employ peer-pressure to get our members to do things?” Of course we do. Again, this is a cultural and traditional concern, but much of the shame, guilt, and humiliation we experience in the church come from our judgmental brothers and sisters in the gospel.

4. Do we treat the truth as though we have it and the people don’t?

Question four brings us back to the truth: “Do we treat the truth as though we have it and the people don’t?” Well, Joseph Smith said, “One of the great fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may” (See Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith). Joseph Smith knew better than anyone that other people have the truth. However, I believe there is another dimension we need to consider here: the member in question. Yes, a bishop or stake president, as stewards over ward and stake members, respectively, can receive revelation, spiritual guidance on behalf of those members. However, those leaders should never discount a members own truth to which she or he is entitled through personal revelation by the same spirit.

5. Do we speak before we listen?

Question five, despite the efforts of Stephen R. Covey, is still a large problem: “Do we speak before we listen?” When someone believes he is entitled to revelation on behalf of someone else, then that person often has no interest in what the other person has to say. Therefore, whatever that leader feels the spirit has guided him to say is tantamount to a commandment for that member.

The way it should be?

6. Do we try to distance our members from their other relationships?

Question six reminds me of so many lessons I heard as a youth: “Do we try to distance our members from their other relationships?” Do you choose friends who tempt you to sin, or do you choose friends who help you to keep your morals and values? This is how it starts, but it often leads to avoiding non-Mormons altogether. And people wonder why so much of the rest of the world thinks Mormons only care about and help other Mormons. Some of the most loving, caring, kind, and righteous people I know are not Mormons. And they never will be if we continue to treat them like they are second class citizens, spiritually.

7. Do we punish with demotion, isolation, or silent-treatment those who differ?

Question seven applies to the previous question, but I think, more appropriately, to other Mormons: “Do we punish with demotion, isolation, or silent-treatment those who differ?” The stereotypical Mormon is an ultra-right-wing conservative Republican, one who wears a floor-length skirt or a white shirt and conservative tie. Although, Mormons have shown much improvement in this area recently, people who are obviously different still find it hard to fit in.

8. Do we trivialize our members’ feelings?

Question eight rings especially true when we consider recent women’s issues: “Do we trivialize our members’ feelings?” I refer to women’s issues in the church because it is so prevalent right now, and one of the most common arguments I hear against feminists is the ol’ standby, “I have never experienced inequality in the church.” The easiest way to respond is to blurt a quick expletive and walk away. However, the best way to respond is to remind people that they cannot apply their own experiences to someone else.

9. Do we get jealous when our members seek out other spiritual helps?

Question nine may need some rewording for Mormons, but it still fits: “Do we get jealous when our members seek out other spiritual helps?” While jealousy may, indeed, play a part, the priesthood leader is more likely to point out that only we have the truth, so why go anywhere else? (See question four). What is really at stake, here, for many of these leaders is more than the truth but the priesthood. The LDS Church claims direct authority from God, and while I have no problem with that, some leaders fail to realize that the priesthood generally only matters in the case of ordinances.

10. Do we always blame the people for when something goes wrong?

Question ten is directly related to so many of the others: “Do we always blame the people for when something goes wrong?” Of course! The church is perfect, except it is not. Again, we are talking about an earthly entity, which by definition is imperfect.

While I think the LDS Church clearly engages in spiritual abuse, I believe it is on an individual basis. However, the individuals involved are at the mercy of what is essentially an institutional problem. It may not necessarily be officially condoned by the church, but with thousands of bishops and stake presidents, all imperfect humans, we are bound to encounter multiple misuses of authority, regardless of the sincerity and love with which those leaders may feel they are handling the situation. The ultimate problem, then, is not the abuse itself, but system that makes it possible. The hierarchal structure of the LDS Church makes accountability virtually nonexistent. There is almost always no recourse for situations of spiritual abuse. The LDS Church almost always defers to the local leaders: minimally trained, non-professional clergy who can never do wrong if they feel guided by the spirit.

23 replies »

  1. This is one of the reasons I’m uncomfortable with the philosophy shared in the General Conference talk, “which way do you face?” As if it’s a black/white all or nothing choice, either you face the brethren or you have your backs to them? No. My number one priority is not copying GAs in word and action, but finding the least among us and helping them. Can’t I follow our leaders by doing so, even if at times I have to speak up towards them to raise awareness of something they may not be aware of? You can do both. I won’t ignore those who are suffering the most to toe the line.

  2. There are many other religious affiliations and membership organizations which use a sense of group identity and shared values to motivate individuals toward collective action. These questions would be fairer and more contextual if each was introduced by the phrase, “In comparison to other religious or volunteer organizations, …?”

    And I disagree with the statement, “The hierarchal structure of the LDS Church makes accountability virtually nonexistent.” That’s nonsense! The structure of the Church is all about accountability, and most of the complaints being surveyed here reduce themselves to a desire of some individual members to be free from accountability to anyone (or Anyone) other than themselves. I don’t mean to suggest that bishops, stake presidents and other authorities never exercise “unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39), because of course that happens and, by definition, it happens far more often than it should. But each of those priesthood holders is subject to accountability from above, laterally and from the membership in varying ways, and they each know that someday they will be released from that position and will resume their places in the pews. We know that infallibility does not exist at any level in the hierarchy, a fact that has been affirmatively declared by apostles in recent times. But look around you to other religious orders, membership organizations, corporations and government entities and ask yourself if you can find instances of unrighteous dominion anywhere there. On that standard, I’ll stake the LDS record up against anyone’s.

    • -These questions would be fairer and more contextual if each was introduced by the phrase, “In comparison to other religious or volunteer organizations, …?”-

      The question raised in the the post was not ‘How spiritually abusive is Mormonism compared to other organizations?’ but ‘Is Mormonism spiritually abusive?’. Trying to deflect criticism of the church by pointing to other organizations does not make the abusive practices of the LDS church any more justified.

      -And I disagree with the statement, “The hierarchal structure of the LDS Church makes accountability virtually nonexistent.” –
      You forgot to include the two following sentences which clarifies the author’s statements.
      ‘There is almost always no recourse for situations of spiritual abuse. The LDS Church almost always defers to the local leaders: minimally trained, non-professional clergy who can never do wrong if they feel guided by the spirit.’
      The point is that leaders are rarely, if ever, held accountable to people lower than them in the hierarchy.
      For example what recourse is there for the member who had their temple recommend taken away for posting a message supporting Kate Kelly? They can appeal to the Stake President, who is likely to support the local Bishop and possibly may have initiated the disciplinary action himself. If the victim then appeals to a GA they are referred to the local leaders.
      What if the words that are spoken at general conference qualify as spiritual abuse? How can I hold them accountable? – It is impossible because of the hierarchal structure of the church. Hardly nonsense IMHO.

      • So in your bitterness, you reject context, comparison or reason. That’s too bad. What I wish you would get is that no one wants to abuse you; the truth is that they want to, and do, love you. And your family. It is you who are making a point of rejecting the common beliefs that bind the members together into a church – and then you feel victimized when they notice. Sad.

        • Thanks for proving #10 and #8, good show my friend. I think you also gave a good example of another form of spiritual abuse that Mormons specialize in – rejecting you in one sentence then saying they love you in the next. One prominent member who was excommunicated described her experience as getting gang-raped by the care bears. This was not that extreme of an example but I think it still applies nonetheless.

          I didn’t think I was rejecting reason, I thought I provided counterpoints and examples of how I think your argument is flawed. I stated that I reject comparison in this case because the article itself was not trying to compare but it was trying to point out flaws within the Mormon church only. In the same way it would be wrong to discount the evils done by Stalin by comparing them with the evils done by Nazi Germany. They were both wrong, and in this case the Mormon church and any other organization that does the things listed are all wrong.

          BTW I don’t feel victimized because people notice that I reject their beliefs. I feel victimized because I gave a considerable amount of my life and my resources to an organization I trusted who wasn’t straightforward with me from the beginning. I feel victimized because said organization then blames the problem on me in general conference with my parents, siblings, wife, and children all watching and listening. I feel victimized when I request politely that said organization let me have my space and they repeatedly ignore my feelings and requests and send their representatives to my residence, then they have the gall to tell me they love me. Actions speak louder than words my friend.

  3. -“Do we always blame the people for when something goes wrong?” Of course! The church is perfect, except it is not.-

    This to me is what hurts the most. The church can mislead, tell half-truths, cover-up, and straight out lie, but if I am angered or outraged at the church for its’ actions then it is my fault because I didn’t look with the right intent or I lack faith in the ‘Lord’s anointed’. I am labeled as bitter and offended by the believers and my wife is constantly told how sorry they feel for her because I no longer believe in the LDS church dogma. The leaders tell me at general conference that I have been fooled into believing half-truths I read on the internet, while they continue to overtly preach half-truths in the very same talk (I’m looking at you Mr. Andersen).

  4. “As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,I feel like the church has made several missteps, things that most organizations would consider a PR nightmare.”

    I’m always annoyed by people who claim to be members of the LDS church and pretend to represent our beliefs. I read your article and you do not represent beliefs of faithful LDS members. If you did it unintentionally, please change. If you did it on purpose, please repent and change.

    I’m fine with listening to your opinion of the church. Just don’t pretend it somehow represents the vast majority of active members who have a testimony of a modern Prophet of God.

    • Every time a ‘faithful’ Mormon comments here they prove the author’s points more and more. It sounds a lot like you saying that a faithful Mormon would never dare criticize the leaders of the LDS church, especially the PR Dept., oops.. my bad, I mean prophet. Which is proving his point about the hierarchy and how leaders are not held accountable, along with #’s 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8. The sad part is these things are so engrained in the culture of Mormonism that many Mormons can’t help but repeat them, it is like they are completely blind to them. To them the best way to get someone to see your point of view is to guilt, shame, pressure, belittle, and trivialize the person who thinks differently because that is what is modeled by the church.

      Also, the part you quoted states ‘I feel like the church has made several missteps’. This hardly sounds like he is pretending to represent the beliefs of most faithful members. If that were the case he would have said something like ‘Most faithful members of the LDS church feel like the church has made several missteps’.

      Who are you to decide what most faithful LDS members believe and then call the author to repentance? Are you assuming that most members tow the party line like you do? If so, how did you come to such an opinion? Are you privy to data the rest of us aren’t? If I’m not mistaken, according to a recent press release only 36% of the members of your church even attend regularly, and only 2/3 of those hold a temple recommend. It sounds to me that the majority of the members of your church might have a different point of view than yours. But I am only making an educated guess based on the data I have available.

  5. I wonder if we looked to Christ’s church described in the New Testament how many of these alleged signs of “abuse” would be found. My guess is all of them or nearly all of them. The church is true and built on an inspired foundation, and critics often forget that many of the things they decry are ordainrd by God and have been that way in each dispensation.

    • Are you saying Christ condones the use of guilt, shame, and humiliation to motivate people?

      The New Testament I read talks about a Jesus who soundly criticized and challenged the religious leaders of his day. He saved the woman caught in adultery from being stoned. He ate and dined with publicans.

      This is another problem I have with the Mormon church. It seems to me that they model Jesus after the organization and leaders of the LDS church. If the church does it now, it must have been how they did it back then. For example Elder Oaks in his most recent general conference talk inserted the words ‘at this time’ to the scripture where Jesus tells the woman caught in adultery ‘neither do I condemn thee.’ Insinuating that the woman was due for some good ole’ humiliation in the form of church discipline, or possibly that He would still condemn her in the final judgment. Either way it does not sit well with me.

      If there is a God in this world I believe He would do no such thing. Neither would He treat people the way the LDS church does. Just because the church says it has been so in every dispensation does not make it so.

      • I don’t think Shame, Guilt or Humiliation is appropraite, but I think that the examples raised of shame and guilt are actually often Christ inspired instances of calling people to repentance. Anything beyond those bounds taught by Christ is unrighteous dominion and unworthy of his Church.

        • Which specific examples are you talking about where the shame and guilt are Christ inspired?

        • Certainly those who Paul called out as apostate in his epistles (by name) may have felt shame, guilt and humiliation. I am some of them murmured and complained about how Paul was exercising unrighteous dominion. Certainly that complaint was leveled against Moses and Nephi in their ministries.

  6. Good Post! Lots of good points and clear thinking. Thank you!

    First two commenters; I must say you surprise me with your “instant-judgment”.
    (“bitter”, “need to repent”, etc.) Please be civil and make factual arguments without jabbing at the messenger.

    I am surely overdoing my comment now, but this poem came to mind.

    When you get what you want in your struggle for self
    And the world makes you king for a day
    Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
    And see what that man has to say.

    For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
    Whose judgment upon you must pass
    The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
    Is the one staring back from the glass.

    He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
    For he’s with you, clear to the end
    And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
    If the man in the glass is your friend.

    You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
    And get pats on the back as you pass
    But your final reward will be heartache and tears
    If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.

    Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr.

    • Nice poem. I’m sorry for my quip about the PR dept. It was uncalled for. If I have said anything else that was not based upon factual arguments please let me know.

  7. Excellent, thoughtful article. Your responses to those who criticized were even better because you highlighted their demonstrations of the very abuses you are discussing. To suggest that only the opinions that matter are those which belong to members who do not question and do not think outside the box, speaks volumes about the sort of thinking and responding that is rewarded and punished in the LDS church. I, myself, politely and quietly took my questions and concerns about church history to my bishop. He then told me that everything I had read (from church historians) was lies and that I must repent for focusing on such things. He said that doubt was a sin, and that my actions were inspired of Satan and his angels. He then proceeded to tell me that he needed to cast evil spirits out of me, which he did, as I sat there in shame and humiliation, for having brought questions to him that were troubling me. I remember wondering as I sat there, if that is what it is like to be in a cult? Still I felt so ashamed that I threw my history books in the garbage and tried to be a good mormon. Years past and more concerns kept coming up until I couldn’t ignore the red flags, I did more research and this time I was thorough. I was also terrified of what my family and friends would think if they knew I was looking into the darker sides of church history. Once again, I went to see my bishop – this time a new one. I told him that I could not deliver the Relief Society lessons in my manual because they were guilt and shame based and promoted fear-mongering. I also told him that I had looked into the topics and prophets more closely and found that what is being taught in church about Joseph Smith and the early church is far from the truth .He told me that what I was reading were lies. I responded that the facts were confirmed by F.A.I.R. and F.A.R.M.S. and that if they weren’t true, surely this group of lds apologists would have been eager to know it. Once again I was told to repent. Once again I felt like I belonged to a cult. So pretty on the outside, yet so spiritually manipulative and shaming. How is one to ever know if they truly have the truth if they are not permitted to question it and question it openly without punishment?

    • Carlie, thank you for your comment; how awful and how frustrating for you. Part of the problem, as I am sure you know, is the incessant as well as insistent leader-worship in the LDS church. Prophets are the mouthpiece of God and can, therefore, do no wrong. Well, the last I checked, every prophet to have ever lived was human and, therefore, fallible. I think I would have slapped my bishop for treating me the way both of those bishops treated you. Just horrific.

  8. I can’t even express how much I agree with this article. There are so many practices and policies that are completely problematic with in the Church, especially in regards to gender in equality. For example, no teenage girl should be required to confess sins of a sexual nature to a bishop who is not only male, but lacks any kind of training in counseling or handling such a situation, anyway. And the fear-based motivation is all-too real. Great post, and fantastic blog! I am following, and can’t wait to hear more. Care to drop by my site? DownWithTheNorm.com


  9. None of those faults listed are unique to LDS Society.
    Anyone involved in another religion, political philosophy, or monetary pursuit will have all ten in spades. Let’s replace LDS with Office politics.
    What makes the LDS Society stand out is their willingness to fess up to being less than perfect and even striving to avoid these human pitfalls.
    Strive; not to attain easily, if at all.
    I think that listing the faults of men as though they were an artifact unique to Mormonism, is sour grapes. We put our pants on same as anyone else, but bear the scrutiny of people who largely remain in the shadows.
    Yes, we need to shame less and be more inviting. Sounds like the author needs to follow some of that sagely advice also.

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