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.
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.