Who Calls Apostasy? Picking up the Pieces When Local Leaders Fail

Kate Kelly is not my favorite Mormon feminist, and Ordain Women is a movement I’ve never agreed with. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to make it clear that I’m in a different feminist camp.

But the news that the Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly would soon face a disciplinary council for apostasy and possibly be excommunicated – all in absentia since she moved across the country before receiving the news – struck a chord with me. It reawakened that bubble of fear that lives in a tiny, nearly invisible place in the back of my mind. It’s a fear many Mormon feminists hold, though most of us rarely think about it, never mind talk about it. It’s the fear that we too will be called apostate, that we’ll be told we’re not welcome as we are, that we can only return to the Gospel and the religious family we know and love if we change our fundamental way of viewing the world.

As I watched the bloggernacle light up with panicked reactions to the news, I still couldn’t exactly get behind that panic. The assumption seems to be that her council and John Dehlin’s are connected and have been orchestrated by Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City. If that assumption is true, then Dehlin and Kelly don’t stand a chance of returning to the church through anything short of rebaptism. But if the decision is coming from Salt Lake, the Church PR department (and by extension the First Presidency) lied when they released a statement emphasizing that these decisions belong to local leaders. But I don’t believe that Church PR was lying, and – ironically – that is what scares me.

My own experience with local leaders has by and large been positive. I’ve never been through the kind of faith interrogation an anonymous writer at feminist Mormon housewives describes, but I know what it feels like to have my personal convictions and the answer I received through personal revelation dismissed by a Bishop. When I was 24, I came to the conclusion that it was time for me to go to the temple and receive my endowment. I had wanted to receive my endowment from the time I was eighteen, but as an unmarried woman who had not served a mission, it was more difficult to receive approval from local leaders.

I had a friend who received her endowment at nineteen because the Spirit directed her to, and both her bishop and stake president were receptive to that answer. When I prayed, the answer was a consistent “not just yet,” and so I waited. Every year I fasted and prayed, carefully contemplating the question of whether it was time for me to receive my endowment. Each year, the answer remained the same. Until one summer. I was 24, and an unshakable impression came to me that it was time to receive my endowment. So I went to my bishop, expecting to have a thoughtful discussion and open to whatever council he offered. What happened instead shocked me.

The bishop didn’t think about it. He didn’t pray. He didn’t consider. He didn’t stop to take a breath – he just said no. He said I had to wait 6 months, until I turned 25 before the stake president would even consider it, and sent me on my way. For weeks afterwards, I felt haunted by the impression that I needed to receive my endowment now, that I was not to wait. Perhaps a stronger, braver person would have gone back and spoken to the bishop again. Instead I prayed for the impression to leave me. I told God that if I walked back into that office and had the bishop once again dismiss my personal revelation so cavalierly, it would break me. And, probably as a tender mercy, the prompting ceased.

Six months later I received my endowment, and I later spoke to a friend who said comfortingly, “Are you glad now that you had that extra time to prepare?” I told her no, that being forced to wait had been the greatest trial of my faith. A greater trial than growing up with an abusive father. A greater trial than going to multiple church leaders about that abusive parent, only to have them tell me how sorry they were but that they couldn’t help me. Never before had I encountered a leader who simply dismissed my access to personal revelation.

At the time, I saw one bishop who wasn’t listening. Looking back, I see a more disturbing pattern of leaders who refused to take responsibility for their decisions. The bishop passed it off as the stake president’s decision, and the stake president claimed he was only following the advice included in a letter from the First Presidency, which discouraged bishops from allowing single members to receive their endowment before their mid-twenties. The letter never said what age counted as “mid-twenties,” and it acknowledged exceptions to the rule, but both the bishop and stake president declined the responsibility of determining those exceptions. Instead, they stuck to a hard and fast rule based on their interpretation of a letter.

Most local leaders are good people who are doing the best they can. But we have a problem here: in a church that values personal revelation, when is a local leader justified to step in and tell someone that the answer they received through personal revelation is outweighed by the answer a bishop or stake president received? Kate Kelly and John Dehlin are acting on the convictions they feel they’ve received through personal revelation, when they write statements that their leaders perceive as apostate.

And if Salt Lake washes its hands of the matter and leaves it to bishops and stake presidents, where does that leave the transient Mormon?

That question is paramount to what Kate Kelly faces. She received notice that she was no longer a member in good standing while in limbo between two locations. While living in Utah, she more recently received notice that a disciplinary council will be held in Virginia. When my husband and I moved to Maryland a couple weeks ago, we filled out a form that included listing where we had last attended church, so that our new leaders could have our membership records transferred. But when Kate Kelly tried to have her records transferred to the Utah ward whose boundaries she now lives in, the Church refused – it’s unclear who made the call not to transfer the records, just that the call was made.

If a council were being held for her in Salt Lake, the former Virginia resident would stand a better chance of attending. So no, I’m not afraid that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are targeting feminists and intellectuals. I’m not afraid that we have another September 6 on our hands, or that there will be a church-wide purge of those who refuse to express orthodox thoughts. But Kate Kelly’s situation reminds all of us unorthodox members that each of us could some day encounter the rare bishop or stake president who abuses his power. That orthopraxy (same actions) may not be enough in the eyes of a future local leader, and that our own answers to the questions in the temple recommend interview won’t be good enough if we do encounter that leader. And if that does happen to one of us, where in the church hierarchy will we turn?

I don’t know, and that is what scares me. Because the Church structure doesn’t allow us to leave that one bad leader behind. We can attend a different ward, but our records won’t be transferred if we don’t live in the boundaries of the new ward. And the new bishop is working with the same records that the last bishop influenced. In a global church, local matters don’t remain local.



  • JohnH2

    Reportedly Rock Waterman has also been told to shut down his site or face church discipline.

    I don’t think the PR department was lying per se, but I do really think they are engaged in PR and so what they say may be technically true, the decisions on what to do will/are made by local leaders and not directed by headquarters, that doesn’t mean that headquarters had no part in getting the disciplinary councils to happen.

    Here is Elder Oaks from the last time this happened explaining the current PR position:

    Elder Oaks said the disciplinary decisions ranging from probation to excommunication are meted out by bishops and stake presidents.

    He explained that local leaders are informed by church headquarters about members who may possibly be violating church standards. The church’s Strengthening the Members Committee pores over newspapers and other publications and identifies members accused of crimes, preaching false doctrine, criticizing leadership or other problems. That information is forwarded on to the person’s bishop or stake president, who is charged with helping them overcome problems and stay active in the church.

    “It is a way of keeping busy bishops informed,” he said. “But it is up to the bishop to handle it. Bishops don’t report back.”


    • ecb

      That’s a good point that I didn’t really address – Salt Lake is likely involved, even if they’re not necessarily coordinating and directing the disciplinary councils. It could be something as simple as the stake presidents asking for approval from Salt Lake before proceeding. And if that’s the case, I’d like to see more clearly-owned accountability from Church PR.

  • Brennan Laurence Smith

    I know how you feel about “gut reaction, by the policy” decisions.

    Once, I had a bishop who took away my access to the sacrament. If you go “by the books,” then yes, he had reason to take away my access to the sacrament for an undefined period of time, but I felt (through revelation) I was a special case.

    During that period of about two months, I continued to attend church. While there, a funny thing happened. You know that feeling you get right after you take the sacrament? That feeling of cleanness, that feeling of God’s love, and that feeling of peace? Well, I got that feeling every time I *refused* the sacrament. I feel that was likely because God knew that I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing.

    About two months later, the bishop called me into his office. He asked how I was, and I explained how my studies were going, how my calling was going, and how I was helping the people I was home-teaching. I expressed my continued confusion over the issue of the sacrament, explaining I still didn’t understand why it was being denied me.

    The bishop listened to that explanation, thoughtfully, then said “Can you try and restate that, as precisely as possible, in an E-mail, then send that to me?” I said I would do so. That afternoon, the bishop E-mailed me back and said he had forwarded my letter to the stake president, and the stake president had said “There is no reason why this young man should be denied the sacrament.”

    I feel as though the local leaders in the church can indeed make mistakes. Mistakes involving worthiness, what ordinances we can be involved in, and (for males) who we are allowed to use our priesthood to help can be especially painful. But in my (limited) experience, I feel that God makes up for the mistakes those leaders make. I felt cleansed by rejecting the sacrament, for instance. If this sister of whom you speak is excommunicated unrighteously, I personally hope that God will not revoke the gift of the Holy Ghost, and that her new bishop will allow her to be rebaptized at the first available opportunity.

    I believe you cannot stay under the thumb of corrupt or misguided leaders forever. Running into one (or a string of them!) is a trial of faith, but it will not last. And in the meantime, God himself can support us as we work to balance respect for priesthood authority with our respect for God, through the promptings we receive.

  • Straubhr

    In response to the idea that this is a purely local affair, what are your thoughts on this?


  • RaymondSwenson

    If you are an active Church member, you likely have a calling right now. Are you perfect in magnifying your calling? Do you make mistakes? Would you refuse to reconsider a decision you had made in connection with your calling, if someone approached you privately and asked about it?
    Your bishop is in exactly the same position as you are. He is trying to magnify his calling, and he has two counselors, and meets with the leaders of all the organizations within the ward, specifically so he can make better decisions. If you don’t understand a decision made by him, and believe honestly that he may be mistaken, you should follow the standard practice of approaching him privately to speak about your concerns.
    Every once in a great while there is a bishop who is wrong in one of his decisions. He may have an incorrect understanding about one gospel principle. He may need to talk it over more with his counselors, and with the member of the High Council assigned to his ward, and with the stake presidency.
    The Lord prescribed that, while a bishop is a “judge in Israel”, the decisions he and his counselors make on matters of Church discipline can be appealed to the stake presidency and high council. In other words, the Lord’s system assumes the fallability of bishops and provides a safeguard against their mistakes.
    Even more rarely, there may be a bishop who has comitted a serious sin and needs to repent and resign. You are entitled to go over the head of your bishop to your stake president so you are not harmed by someone who needs to repent.
    If I had been in your position, I would have spoken with one or both of the counselors to the bishop and told them that you did not understand why you had to delay receiving your endowments, that you were just as mature as the sisters being called as missionaries at age 21, or being married at younger ages, and that as a young single adult you could actually receive a calling to serve in the temple, which always needs more workers.
    You could also have spoken with the Relief Society president about your desires, and sought her support and endorsement of your maturity and faithfulness. You could also speak with other members in the ward who had served in bishoprics or stake presidencies to get feedback on your desire and whether they thought you were mature enough as a person and Church member to receive your endowment.

  • RaymondSwenson

    I am not aware of John Dehlin claiming that his current views with regard to the truth of the Church are based on any kind of personal revelation through the Holy Ghost in answer to prayer. Rather, he appears to be relying mostly on his own reasoning to distance himself from the truth claims of the Church.
    Did Kate Kelly claim she had a revelation in direct opposition to the current order of the Church on priesthood ordination? I would be very skeptical of that, since she has no particular entitlement to receive revelation on behalf of anyone else, let alone the entire Church, and the general authorities. Purported revelations that directly challenge the authority of the Prophet have occurred often down through Church history, and are clear manifestations of rebellion and apostacy. They include the many polygamist sects who claim that the current First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve are invalid.

  • RaymondSwenson

    Unless you are going around telling other Church members that you know how the Church MUST be altered, I sincerely doubt that your bishop is worried about your personal views on what God might eventually do in prescribing how priesthood ordination is administered. Bishops have a full plate just keeping everything functioning. They are not looking for opportunities to call members of their ward to repent of ideas they have. They do not have a charter to “perfect” the thinking processes of members of their ward. They are tasked with encouraging everyone to actively participate and serve and learn and teach. In the process of participating in the Church, we often develop new understandings of the gospel. They want to give you opportunities to experience that growth, not slap you around and fix every notion you have that may not be precisely correct.