Boundaries for Worthiness Interviews

Boundaries for Worthiness Interviews February 15, 2016

My daughter is turning 12 this week.  The bishopric called to schedule her Beehive interview.  I love our bishop.  He is very humble and trustworthy.  I feel safe with my daughter around him but also don’t want her learning that she must have private interviews with men about her worthiness.  I don’t know what to do…

This issue has been a growing concern for me for the past 15 years – and culminated with my own personal experience with a daughter who had a very negative experience (in spite of the fact that like you, I had no personal qualms about the ecclesiastical leaders interviewing her – good men with good intentions).  And therein lies the problem: it’s not necessarily the men holding the callings (albeit some men in leadership positions do abuse their ecclesiastical power), it’s the interviewing process in of itself that can be harmful and needs to change.

Now to be clear, having ecclesiastical leaders who are available for support, who serve their wards/stakes, who take the time to meet with individuals and their families, who provide helpful resources, who hold abusers accountable, etc. are an asset to our community.  And I respect and am grateful for the many volunteer hours and energies that go into many of the callings found within our church structure.

At the same time, this tradition to have minors as young as 8 years of age go behind closed doors to be questioned about their worthiness (something that we should be messaging as intrinsic and not conditional on what we deem incorrect behavior) – especially when these questions often involve some measure of sexual subject matter is worrying and has easy potential for abuse of power.

I’d like to offer the following suggestions to parents who have minors in the church.

1. Unless you have crossed the line into abusive behavior, nobody trumps you as a parent. And you have the right to decide how your child/teen will engage within your church community.

2. You have a responsibility as part of your parenting role to teach healthy boundaries.  This is hard to do when many of us don’t know how to have healthy boundaries ourselves, or when the community we are a part of has a precedent for unhealthy boundaries.

3. It is perfectly appropriate for you as a parent to request to be present during worthiness interviews.  And this should just be considered a standard protocol that your family has (so that it is not based on whether a particular bishop is deemed “safe” or not).  It’s just the rule.  Some families write a letter to each new bishopric explaining their stances, some meet with them individually, others just show up.  Some bishops and leaders have no problems with these stances (even encouraging them) and some are resistant because it’s not how things are generally done.  Standing your ground may feel uncomfortable but is important and role models healthy boundaries.

4. It is perfectly appropriate for you to discuss with ecclesiastical leaders, teachers, etc. what topics/questions they are or are not allowed to talk about with your child.  For example, I have a history of talking to my leaders that if they are going to be discussing sexual education in a class setting I would want to be present or know the material that will be covered and that my children are not to be taught that masturbation is a sinful behavior or asked about during worthiness interviews. It is my understanding that bishoprics/stake presidencies are supposed to stay to the “do you keep the law of chastity” question without expounding upon it anyway.  And as a parent, I get to teach my children what that entails. Side note: I always find it interesting when religious families opt their children out of public school education – which is presented by trained sexual educators and information has to go through approval of school boards, but give complete leeway to untrained church members, often biased by personal experience, to discuss such important matters.

5. It is important to teach your children some skills/strategies/how-tos around managing some of these situations. Especially because power differentials are difficult to manage even just between adults, and much more so in an adult/child dynamic.  Depending on your child’s personality and developmental level, some of these suggestions might work better than others.

  • They need to know that just because a question is asked does not mean they need to answer it.  They can say anything from “I don’t know; My parents told me I don’t need to answer that type of question (blaming parents can be a great strategy ;)), That’s none of your business, That question is inappropriate, I’d rather not talk about that, I’ll have to get back to you, I need time to think about how I want to answer that question, That’s private information that belongs just to me, I need to go to the bathroom, etc.”
  • They can leave an interview/meeting/class anytime they want to.  They can just get up and go without saying anything. They can say things like, “I need to go to the bathroom (blaming your bladder is always a great strategy too), I want you to go get my mom or dad (guardian, trusted adult), I’m going to go get my mom or dad, I don’t feel comfortable and want to leave, I don’t agree and I’m out of here, etc.”
  • They can say “No.”  To anything.  To a bishop’s interview, to accepting a speaking assignment, to offering a prayer, to sharing personal information. To anything.
  • They have a right to their beliefs.  I notice that we often tell our children/teens what Mormons believe – without spending much time or energy exploring whether or not those beliefs are resonating with them. And this can come into play with worthiness interviews as well – if you don’t believe or “know” certain things then that somehow disqualifies you from being a full-fledged Mormon.  Unfortunately, this goes against doctrinal teaching that testimony building and faith are personal processes that each individual has a right to explore, pray about and come to conclusions on their own.  If there is pressure to say yes, so you can go to a temple trip that all your friends are going to – how are we respecting the agency Heavenly Father has bestowed upon our minors?
  •  If your bishop/leader/teacher responds negatively to your boundaries, that is not your fault. If they are uncomfortable/rude/disrespectful/abusive to your requests/answers/etc. that is their problem.  You come get me immediately – even if that means more drastic measures (screaming for help, running away, texting me, asking for help from another leader, etc.).

6. Even if you take all these steps, issues may still come up. People either unintentionally or intentionally will not respect your boundaries. This is why constant communication with our children is important. Two questions I like to ask my kiddos after we attend any church meetings/gatherings (whether Mormon or otherwise) are a) was there anything that happened at church today that made you feel uncomfortable, that you disagreed with, scared you, etc.? and b) was there anything that happened at church today that made you feel the spirit, enlightened, good about yourself, etc.?  These questions have allowed for some wonderful conversations on our way home, around the dinner table, or more privately later on in a one-on-one discussion. I’m letting my kids know that just because we are at church – not all will be well – and that they have permission and safety to explore these issues in our home.

7. It is important for our children/teens to feel like they have trusted adults in their lives that they can go to other than their parents.  This is why the policy in my family is “if you would ever want to go talk to the bishop because that’s your idea (or any other of their leaders, including their school counselors/teachers) you have every right to do that.”  It is normal for some topics to be super uncomfortable to talk to your parents about.  And I also always offer my children the option of seeing a professional.

8. Speaking of professionals – it’s wise to discuss the differences between a therapist and a bishop to your kids. Bishops can help with doctrinal questions, spiritual thoughts, and again, a resource for issues that might be happening in their lives.  Their advice and guidance will probably be of spiritual nature.  And that can be very helpful.  But it may not be the only type of help one needs.  Therapists can help with anxiety, depression, educational issues, trauma, bullying situations, self-esteem, healthy boundaries, exploration of options, etc.  Teaching your kids about the many different resources they can tap into can be a really good start to a well-balanced life.

9. One issue that parents/teens may face as they attempt to place healthy boundaries – is that they may be marginalized, treated differently by ward members, and even disallowed to participate in certain important events (passing the sacrament, going on temple trips, holding callings, etc.).  If this is the case in your particular ward/stake – I am incredibly sorry.  Because this makes this process that much more difficult.  It is the reason why some parents leave church attendance all together – because their child’s spiritual development is harmed instead of enhanced in certain environments. Hopefully we can negotiate and find healthy ways to stay engaged – but if not, it is perfectly appropriate to take a break, a “sabbatical” – whatever you want to call it in order to protect your children.

Again, many, many members have wonderful experiences in their ward communities – feel supported, loved, cared for and find a great network of people to help raise their children – it takes a village after all. Hopefully we will see some changes to unnecessary traditions that are not needed for wonderful, inclusive gospel living.  Until then, I hope we can work within our communities to respect and be cognizant of healthy boundaries so that more and more families can experience a sense of safety and comfort.

Recommendations from two Mormon Sex Therapists

10 Ways to Build and Preserve Better Boundaries

 

 

Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at natashaparker.org. She authors the Mormon Therapist Blog, hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, writes a regular column for Sunstone Magazine and is the current president of the Mormon Mental Health Association. She has 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.

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