READER POST: I once served as the Ward Executive Secretary in my small-town, Texas ward. During this time my bishop openly groomed me for future leadership roles. “Someday when you’re a bishop or stake president…” As such, I was invited to participate in almost everything the bishopric did. While this boosted my ego at first, the more I saw of the inner machinery of administering the gospel, the less I wanted to ever have any part in the realm of church leadership. I saw many things that turned my stomach but just happened to follow the Handbook perfectly. This story is about just such a time: the time I saw a disciplinary council.
“We’re holding a disciplinary council for a sister on Tuesday evening. You won’t always have to come to these, but I think you should come see this one to learn about church processes for your future leadership positions. It’ll be a good learning experience. You can listen and, if the Spirit leads you, your input will be valuable too. We [the three members of the bishopric] will then excuse you and Sister ___ while we come to a decision. Review Handbook 1 beforehand.”
I said something eloquent like “Oh, uh, sure. I can do that.”
“We will prayerfully and lovingly hear her, then have the opportunity to ask questions to determine her level of repentance. Our job in a disciplinary council is not to counsel, but decide how to best help her repent through either excommunication, disfellowship, or just suspending her temple recommend and sacrament for a time. Or nothing at all! But you should review those things in the Handbook.”
Tuesday evening came. The only people in the building were me, the three members of the bishopric proper, and a wide-eyed sister in her mid-20s. Not wide-eyed with amazement, wide-eyed consistent with the fight-or-flight response. Fear. But with a nervous smile.
All five of us wore nervous smiles, walked into the tiny office, and closed the door. Normal small-talk followed with bigger smiles and quicker laughter than the conversation actually merited. Finally, someone said one of those mostly meatless Mormon prayers where the word “opportunity” showed up a lot. Then the thing began.
“Sister ___, we’re here for a disciplinary council. You contacted me last Sunday and told me you had sexual relations with someone outside of your marriage. We are here in a spirit of love to decide how we can best help you apply the atonement of the Savior to help you repent… Can you tell us what happened?”
Sister ___ then told a story to a room full of men, a room full of people who were unlike her but held power over her. I won’t share the details. We were grossly unqualified to understand the story she told us, much less pass a judgement of any kind. Yet, there we were. And one of us was wielding a gavel with eternal consequences.
I was aware enough at the time to know that we weren’t hearing a simple, straightforward confession of sin. I’m aware enough now—too late after the fact—to suspect that what we were hearing was a report of sexual assault by a “friend.”
We men didn’t really know that was even a thing, so it didn’t occur to us. We men didn’t really know what it’s like being female in the male-female dynamic or about power balance. We men didn’t know about being afraid for our safety, even with a friend. We men didn’t know the difference between acquiescence and consent. Now, my post-hoc analysis about her story being closer to victim than sinner might be wrong, but isn’t that the point? The men in the room had exactly zero tools to handle what was before us.
We just knew we had to determine her percentage of fault and sort her into one of the Handbook specified groups: excommunicate, disfellowship, sanction. You know, like Jesus did in the gospels right after he said, “Always judge others.”
I wish I had asked a helpful question (yes, the secretary got a turn), but I didn’t. I wasn’t aware enough. The helpful questions didn’t occur to me until long afterward, and I probably still don’t really know what they are. I don’t remember what question I asked when my turn came. I think I just asked if she was ok.
After the questions, she and I left the bishop’s office so the three actual leaders could deliberate and sentence. Sister ___ and I sat on opposite sides of the foyer making light conversation. She and I talked about our related professions. She lit up as she spoke of her future career plans. I’m positive she never relaxed or forgot for a moment that she was being judged by middle-aged men one room over and probably by the man in the foyer with her. She never trusted me despite my attempted kindness, and I don’t blame her.
When the bishopric came out, we all went back into the tiny office. Decision time. Good news! She just needed to skip the temple and sacrament for a while, talk to her husband, and follow up with the bishop so he could take the asterisk off her church record. We (the men) pretended that not excommunicating or disfellowshipping her showed great insight, understanding, and mercy. Surely the work of the Savior had occurred this day! She departed, the bishop reminded me that we were never again to speak about the meeting (oops), and I went home.
I saw Sister ___ at church about three more times. We smiled and said good morning in the hall. Then she stopped coming. A couple months later, we heard she moved, but she never followed up on the asterisk. I never heard the bishop mention speaking to her new bishop (and he would’ve mentioned it, he loved holy gossip). She might still have the asterisk.
The entire ordeal was terrible. In Mormon-speak, I would say “I felt the Spirit leave,” but that would imply I ever felt it there in the first place. This wasn’t a matter for a common judge in Israel and his counselors. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for a lenient punishment, the men in the room should have provided some pastoral care. Or better, connections to people actually qualified to provide pastoral care.
Maybe this could have become about Sister ___’s life instead of the integrity of the church and its handbook. If you talk to almost anyone outside of the Mormon tradition and say “church disciplinary council,” they’ll look at you like you have three heads. Maybe we do.
Sister ___ was failed that Tuesday. She needed help. Probably a trauma therapist, a marriage counselor, a friend. She got a court and a judgement.
She reached trusted the process exactly as she was taught to do. Even if there had been wise men in the room (there weren’t, I certainly wasn’t) the process had nothing to give her.
There should have been women in the room instead. And no gavel.
Bio: Michael Mathews II is a Texas-born convert to the church. Taking everything lovely from Mormonism and leaving behind the rest, he, his wife, and four young daughters are reconstructing a faith life where girls are just as important as boys. He works in hospitals during the day, but would lean in to his competitive kayak paddling if it would pay the bills.
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