When Leaders Choose the Wrong

SERENA: A recent story I read online has caused me to wonder where I can turn for peace when a church leader is exercising unrighteous dominion. The story involves a mother who was told by her stake president that if she didn’t refrain from nursing uncovered in a foyer during services, she would be denied a temple recommend. To further add insult to injury, her husband was told he had to choose between his church and his wife, and the leader implied that he should be able to control his wife’s will. This couple reportedly took their case to an area authority who sided with the stake president.  The story caused me to wonder how someone who is being bullied by a leader gets justice when the area authorities are lockstep with whatever a stake president decides.

But I want to put aside that one case. Based on my own experiences and stories like this breastfeeding mom’s, it appears that area authorities habitually send matters back to the person inflicting the harm, which means that those above are either blissfully unaware or intentionally aloof.  For a church which just released a new ministering program that emphasizes caring for the one, as Jesus did, it seems our actions are the exact opposite when it concerns people abused by leaders.

Do area authorities ever make decisions that contradict what a stake president has done in an individual matter?  My experience is no. The church has no meaningful way for members to protect themselves from an abusive leader.  The mentality seems to be suck-it-up-buttercup: you sustained the leaders and now you are subjects of their will. It seems that no matter the hellish existence created by a controlling leader, that leader will be protected.

I can cite my in-laws as a personal example.  My father-in-law, who was a counselor in a stake presidency, together with my mother-in-law, turned on every woman married to one of their sons, myself included. They called up each son and told him he needed to flee their spouse because Dad had received a revelation from God. He expected us to treat this “revelation” as though it came from Jesus himself.

In my case, my father-in-law told my husband he had a revelation that I was a beast who was turning his son’s heart black.  My husband’s brother and his wife were physically assaulted by my father-in-law while his wife was holding their four-month-old baby.  My in-laws seemed fixated on literally beating their will into that particular couple, and probably would have done similarly with me and my husband if we didn’t live 800 miles away.

My husband and his siblings tried to get help from the stake president and also an area authority, but they were told to figure out what they had done wrong.  We received zero help because nobody wanted to look into the conduct of a member of the stake presidency.  Assault charges were even pressed against him, not because my brother and sister-in-laws wanted him in jail, but because they wanted help for their father and the church essentially abandoned our family to my father-in-law’s overzealous whims. Yet the official church continued to treat the two family members who were assaulted as if they were the problem. One of my husband’s siblings has since left the church completely, unwilling to believe he won’t be forced to submit to another good old boy leader who allows abusive things to happen.  Those of us who remain have a horrible time trusting leaders or believing that anyone will be there to protect us in the event of ecclesiastical abuse.

Mormon culture and practice seem to heavily rely on leader worship. Members treat leaders as somehow divinely above us.  I remember a time when a ward member told me our stake president had counseled her not to be seen with members of the opposite sex because it creates the appearance of evil.  I told her the stake president would not be choosing who my friends are because God put me here to choose for myself, and I know how to make good decisions.  I said that I disagreed with a church leader micromanaging any person’s life in that manner. My friend said I shouldn’t speak ill of the Lord’s anointed.

Excuse me, but I thought we were all the Lord’s anointed, or had the potential to be such, because that is what happens when we receive our endowments in the temple.  Mormon culture and practice often means we are supposed to bow down to every fancy of our church leaders. Abuse can be perpetrated by the mentality that sustaining a leader means doing whatever he tells us to do.  Leaders shouldn’t be able to take away blessings and saving ordinances that we cherish (for instance, by taking away our temple recommends) as punishment for our unwillingness to surrender our free agency, good conscience, and integrity to their will.

What do you call people that control others in manipulative and twisted ways outside the church?  Tyrants. But when a tyrant appears in a church leadership position, we call him “inspired.”

This inability for the little person to get help from abusive leaders reminds me of my little town and our school board.  Parents will submit concerns to the board, but nothing gets done, and, as a result, a child suffers.  Thus, parents have decided the only way to get results is to take to social media.  And surprisingly, when something goes town-viral, action is taken and the injured people are heard.

I’m not a fan of blasting people on social media, but sometimes that’s the only recourse available.  Unfortunately, social media campaigns are often driven by anger and frustration—anger and frustration that wouldn’t occur if honest dialogue had happened in the first place.

I mentioned earlier that I struggle to trust leaders, given my past experience.  Yet, I do my best to get to know them and see them outside of my painful past.  I work hard to sustain them because I believe the vast majority of leaders in the church are people with good intentions and a desire to do what is right, and people who will do their best to help anyone over whom they have stewardship.

I believe sustaining leaders means to help when I can and hearken to their spiritual guidance as it pertains to the ward or stake. But no abusive leader should be protected under the umbrella of “members must sustain their leaders.” Our practice and culture must remember that we are all born worthy and nobody is above anybody else.  Leaders are human, too.  Mistakes will be made.  None of us are infallible.  But protecting abusive leaders doesn’t protect the church.  It harms souls.


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