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.