Ethically sound research interviews must have informed consent, maintain confidentiality and undergo an Internal Review Board process to verify that psychological, social and other risks to participants are limited. Research interviews and ecclesiastical interviews differ in purpose, but with some adaptation, many of the ethical guidelines used by researchers could be applied to ecclesiastical interviews performed by local LDS church leaders. Such safeguards could help ensure that our ecclesiastical rituals do not have any unintended, harmful side effects.
The basic elements of the informed consent process include:
- full disclosure of the nature of the [interview] and the participant’s involvement,
- adequate comprehension on the part of the potential participant, and
- the participant’s voluntary choice to participate. Reference A
There are three major kinds of LDS Stake Presidency or Bishopric interviews described in church handbooks: temple recommend, worthiness and youth interviews. Here are some policy change suggestions inspired by the ethical standards of human subject research that could be incorporated into these ecclesiastical interviews:
1) Begin with a brief, written or verbal statement like this, “You may stop the interview at any time and skip any questions that you do not want to answer.” Adding such a statement would not lengthen the interview by much, but would do a great deal to eliminate the expectation that church members must disclose personal information against their will just because a priesthood leader asks.
2) Confession should be voluntary, not compelled by the priesthood leader on the basis of rumors, tattling or hunches. In most cases, it would make sense to let the transgressor confess when they are ready to do so of their own free will.
3) Forbid extra questions that go beyond the scripted interviews. Such a rule would preclude questions about controversial social issues, masturbation, details about law of chastity violations, etc.
4) Publicize temple recommend interview questions so that members can differentiate between the questions they are required to answer to receive a recommend and any improvised questions. It is easy to find the list online, as transcribed by members from memory (such as at this Exponent post). Yet, the questions are not currently available at LDS.org. A written copy of the interview could also be given during the interview for following along.
5) Similarly, allow youth and their legal guardians to read the questions in the youth interview. The youth interview is currently detailed only in Church Handbook of Instruction Volume 1, section 7.1.7, which most members, including almost all women and youth, are not allowed to read.
6) Many kinds of worthiness interviews would not pass the Internal Review Board process because the content of the interview is undefined. Depending on the personality of the interviewer, such interviews may be as simple as asking, “Do you consider yourself worthy to accept this calling?” or may be intense interrogations, several hours in length. The agenda and time duration of any meeting should be disclosed to participants in advance so they can make a voluntary decision to participate based on informed consent.
7) Make interviews confidential. If there is any way personal information will be shared, disclose this exception in advance of the interview. Members may presently assume that priesthood interviews are confidential but Church Handbook of Instruction Volume 1, 6.5 encourages bishops and stake presidents to share information with bishops of other wards in certain circumstances, such as “when members of different wards transgress together.”
8) The obligation for confidentiality applies to the interviewer, not the people who are interviewed. This is particularly important in the case of minors, because adults asking children to keep secrets is a grooming behavior employed by abusers. Reference B Minors and their guardians should be informed that they may discuss anything that was said during the interview afterwards. Guardians may even attend in-person, if desired by the guardian or minor.
9) Provide contact information for questions,concerns, and reporting of unethical behavior, such as an ombudsmen and/or hotline.
These are great ideas and could be very simple for the Curch to implement. Thanks, April.
I like these suggestions a lot. I really like the confidentiality aspect. I also like that temple recommend interviews should not deviate from the script. If the Bishop wants to chat about other issues, it should be done after the recommend is signed and handed to the member because it isn’t fair or right to do anything else. I also have taken to asking for the agenda in advance. Because my husband is the ward clerk, he sits in on all these meetings and thus knows before I do that I will be called in and what I’m going to be asked to do, calling-wise. I find that sort of upsetting. I appreciate my husband’s discretion — if he won’t tell me that, he won’t tell anybody anything about what goes on which is good, but I still hate walking in blind to an interview so I’ve started asking for a specific agenda before agreeing to meet. Not as a combative stance, just because I don’t like the power dynamic of fidgeting in the hall worrying and wondering.
EM – I think you may have a misunderstanding of what your husbands duties as ward clerk are. Ward Clerks do NOT sit in on all meetings…especially temple recommend or youth advancement interviews. Confidentiality is vital and never have I had any Ward Clerk in any interview with the Bishop. He may know what calling you or other members of the ward are receiving but that is because he is making the phone calls to schedule your appointment. And many times, the Clerk will know to call someone in, but they don;t know the specifics…because of confidentiality. Also, not every appointment with the Bishop or Stake President is an interview.
In reference to the above suggestions, I am a Human Resources Manager and I could not disagree more with the suggestions. There is a time and place for each of those points, but by drawing this down to a strict checklist, you take away the HUMAN factor of the job a Bishop and Stake President are supposed to you. I feel that some of the points are rather cold when you are discussing someone who is a religious leader. I enjoy my Boshop asking about me in the interview. It shows he wants to know about me and my family. I believe it is all well intentioned. People are too quick to take offense and look for qide spread problems when in fact, the issues may be local or isolated. We don’t need to paint all Bishops and Stake Presidents with the same brush.
Those who have received their Temple Recommend know what questions to are being asked and they are not intimidating, unless you DO have something you need to discuss. I have never heard of intense interrogations either. I am certain that Priests and other denominational leaders are not following a strict checklist as this might suggest.
At this point, if we follow these suggestions, almost all Church interviews could just be done on line with check boxes. We wouldn’t even need a Bishop or Stake President involved.
Outstanding suggestions, April. I think your framing and comparing to IRB informed consent rules is excellent. It really highlights how we let things slide in the Church (because that’s just what we’re used to there) that we wouldn’t stand for in other areas.
There is no script for youth interviews. The handbook section referred to in the post (7.1.1) reads in total:
Stake presidents, bishops, and (when authorized) their counselors conduct worthiness interviews as outlined in this section. They should prepare spiritually so they can be guided by the Spirit during these interviews. They should also seek the power of discernment. This is a spiritual gift that will help them discern truth, as well as a member’s needs (see D&C 46:27–28).
Worthiness interviews should be private. For example, a husband and wife are interviewed separately for temple recommends.
Careful listening is important during worthiness interviews. The member of the stake presidency or bishopric should give full and sincere attention to the person being interviewed. The interviewer also makes sure the member understands the questions being asked. He sets aside enough time to conduct the interview in a dignified, unhurried manner.
A later section (7.1.7) gives general guidelines for the purpose of youth interviews and possible topics that could be discussed, but even that section doesn’t contain a script.
Thank you for catching that mistake with the reference. It should be 7.1.7. I will make that change in the post. And yes, it is not a script, but rather a detailed list of specific topics, similar to a qualitative interview guide.
I appreciate the info & suggestions, but I’m still not allowing my kids (I have 4, all under age 8) to be interviewed without my wife or myself present. (I may allow it in their teen years if my kid specifically requests it.) No bishop or counselor is taking my child into a room alone. It’s just not going to happen.
Handled properly, interviews – especially with youth – are conversations until the temple recommend interviews are conducted.
Those interviews are question specific and focus on three areas of the individual member’s life;
First, their relationship with The Lord and those who represent Him as both Church and/or Priesthood Leaders (yes, there is a difference);
Second, their relationship with their family and with others; and
Third and most importantly, their relationship with themselves, during which they’re given aa final opportunity to look within themselves to determine whether they feel they’re worthy to enter the temple and participate in temple ordinances.
The questions for youth will be modified somewhat, as they’re (in all likelihood) unendowed at this point, and are adjusted to the degree of their spiritual understanding and maturity.
That being said nonetheless, priesthood leaders are NOT AUTHORIZED to deviate from the set interview questions in the recommend book. If a counselor feels impressed, they may thank the member for coming in, and have the bishop or stake president continue the interview, as any additional questions NOT on the list would constitute a separate interview to be done at a later date, and only after that presiding officer had taken time to spiritually prepare for that meeting with the member.
When interviewing a sister, the interviewer always has a Melchizedek Priesthood waiting outside the office or in an adjoining room for the benefit and protection if all parties involved, lest any hint of impropriety be read into it by the ward gossip, etc…
Great suggestions April! I have so much anxiety right now surrounding my bishop’s office that I don’t know if I will ever be able to go back in for another meeting with a bishop or stake president. I hope they make some changes like these so that I can feel like the individual is being protected within the institution.
Also, allow another woman present when youth (especially young women) are interviewed.
I recently was asked about a blog post I wrote during my scheduled temple recommend interview with my bishop (before the questions were read). I was not aware he had read it or that he was going to ask me about it. Even though my bishop was just making sure I was “okay,” I was afraid and emotional (which I rarely am when discussing feminism or other issues–I’m usually very self-assured and calm). I was desperately worried that if I couldn’t explain myself satisfactorily, I would be released from my calling or denied a temple recommend. It all worked out okay, but I felt almost violated. I’m still troubled by it.
In my eccentric opinion i do not think it is. Inappropriate to ask questions regarding publishing. a blog about feminism. That is not any of the bishops business. I would feel violated if i were in your shoes.people write blogs on every subject these days. Ots public. I do not answer questions that i dont feel comfortable with. I say i plead the 5th. Making confessions to a bishop reminds me too much of the post traumatic stress of being raised a roman catholic having to go to confession to confess my sins to a priest.i still as a lds convert embrace my protestant teaching of confessing ones sins to the lord only 1 tim 2:5 1 john 1:7-9
I (very) recently started a blog awareness campaign for this very purpose. What you have proposed here is exactly why I started the blog. I didn’t know how else to reach you, so I am commenting here.
I would love to discuss more with you and your work on the topic. If you feel so inclined, please visit the blog. Please let me know if you would be interested in discussing the issue with me. I am also looking for feedback, ideas, and suggestions for the blog.
Thank you for the work you put towards this important subject.
All the best,
This is wonderful. In keeping with informed consent, I think it’s important for youth to have the option to have a parent present to advocate, help explain or ask questions. Additionally, IRBs require special justification for working with vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, or any others of potentially disadvantaged groups. When working with disadvantaged populations, special attention must be payed to ensure they aren’t coerced or otherwise taken advantage of. Having the option to have an advocate – a Relief Society or YW President, for example – in attendance may help address this.
An important part of informed consent is also voluntariness – which means that coercion, manipulation, and undue influence should not compel the interviewee’s participation. The consequences of actions should be made known up front, so a person is aware of the process for repentance she’s agreeing to prior to confessing. Leaders should be aware of the immense social and familial consequences of revoking callings and temple-recommends, and a participant should know in advance what confessions would lead to these actions. Some standardization and awareness of the consequences associated with different actions would help the Church to avoid accusations of hypocrisy as well as helping to prevent spiritual threats and manipulation. While it’s apparent the Church has avoided any rubric assigning specific, pre-determined consequences for various sins, some sort of flexible guidelines could provide informed consent while still allow the bishop (who Ally Isom asserts knows each member’s heart the best) to make make some adjustments based on individual circumstances.
One of the biggest issues I’ve had working with IRBs is confidentiality. I have been required to clean and encrypt identifying information from data and to keep hard drives under lock and key in order to protect privacy. Having attended my share of ward counsel meetings, I’m well aware that confidentiality isn’t what one might hope for in the interview process. An interviewee should be asked for consent before any information is shared with others (Aside from information regarding self-harm or the harm of others, in the same way a therapist is required to inform relevant legal authorities. But, even then, the whole ward counsel doesn’t need to know). An interviewee should know in advance how her privacy will be guarded and what confessions would require the Priesthood leader to break confidentiality.
I recently heard an example of informed consent and confidentiality in the case of a tribunal for one of my friend’s. She and the bishop met together beforehand to write a script for the tribunal. He asked her repeatedly if she was comfortable with the information shared. Together, they determined the consequence that would be assigned, and he again asked repeatedly if she felt they were too harsh or wanted any changes. Then, during the formal tribunal (which was just the bishopric and secretary, as she is endowed but doesn’t hold the Priesthood), the script was followed without deviation, and the previously agreed upon consequences were assigned.
If the point of working with the bishop during the repentance process is to achieve a change of heart, it’s important that every effort be made to prevent coercion, intimidation (intentional or not), or misinformation, and to protect the participant’s privacy so that changes are made out of a broken heart and contrite spirit, and not out of duress.
In addition to researchers, this standard for informed consent is also required in every licensed mental health profession I know of (psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors). I agree that this should definitely be set as a standard for any ecclesiastical interview, especially since most Bishops and Stake Presidents lack any kind of credentials to deal with the kinds of issues that could arise.
Thank you so much! This issue has been on my mind for years. I forwarded this article to the bishop of our ward.
You should just pray that your ideas are implemented by HQ, or just share them with your bishop. You also should not dedicate a website to this idea, or you now what might happen.
I really love this post. I have one suggestion to add. That if a family member is in a leadership position, they should not be allowed to interview their family. My father was bishop for a while, he used that to spiritually abuse me. He forced me to confess to some rumors he had heard and forced me to “repent.” He asked more detailed questions than any other bishop had ever asked me before or after. After the interview, when he was just my father again, he shared some intimate information about his and my mom’s sex life. I was just a teen and I didn’t really understand how wrong it was, all I knew is that I didn’t like it.
‘@Annie, I agree. Another facet of the ‘family’ situation is that a leader can be put in an almost untenable position.
I know an ex-Branch President whose wife asked him for an interview, and stressed that she needed him to be acting in his official capacity, and not as her husband.
She then confessed to him things that she ought to have talked to her husband about.
He counseled his wife to talk to her husband about her issues, but she never did so. It took this brother a long time before he could resolve his issue with the firewall that his wife’s strategy had forced him to respect.
In the spirit of the relating of ecclesiastical relationships to professional relationships, it’s well to note that professionals of some sorts are strongly discouraged from treating family members.
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