By the age of 15, I had googled the word “Mormon” just enough times to know that a lot of people had some serious objections to the polygamous history of the Mormon Church.  I was struggling with my testimony at the time – frustrated that everyone else at church had “testimonies” and that God seemed unwilling to tell me the same things he was telling everone else.

So I approached my bishop & expressed my very basic concerns about polygamy. I don’t remember much about the conversation we had – I’m sure it wasn’t noteworthy as far as discussions of polygamy go.  He wasn’t able to resolve my concerns that day, but I know I left his office feeling better that we had discussed it – relieved that I had gotten it off my chest.  He was understanding, warm, & compassionate.  But the good feelings ended about a week later when one of the bishops counselors was driving me home from a youth activity.  

“I hear you’re having concerns about polygamy,” he said.

I didn’t respond.  I felt betrayed, angry, & embarrassed.  I had approached my bishop in confidence & was furious that he had shared details of our conversation with someone else.  I sat quietly in the passenger seat of the car, too angry to listen to anything the counselor said to try and resolve my concerns about polygamy.  Part of me was truly grateful to realize that this counselor cared enough about me to want to help me & that the bishop felt I was important enough to talk about – but mostly I just felt angry.

I realize now that this is how it works.  Bishops tell their counselors personal things about the people they meet with.  Bishops, counselors, and most of the ward leadership have regular meetings where they discuss members of the ward so that all can be better equipped to help them.  As a missionary, I sat through many PEC & Correlation meetings where details were shared about individuals that I felt was none of my business. I alwas wondered how many of those individuals knew their personal information was being shared with me. 

I have long since forgiven the bishop & now it seems a little silly to have been so angry about it.  He was a good man & a good bishop. I even considered him a friend soon thereafter when [EDIT: 8:17 PM – reference deleted]. But the experience left me scarred.  I no longer view bishops as confidants. I no longer tell bishops anything I don’t want his counselors and the general ward leadership to know about.  This is one of the reasons why I have never been able to have a strong relationship with any church authorities.

[EDIT: 5:08 PM.  The purpose of this post (which I did not make clear when first published) is not just for me to complain, but for us to reason together to figure out how we can make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.  So got any ideas?]

20 comments to Confidentiality

  • Sorry about that experience Reuben! I haven't had that experience but I have witnessed other encounter that. One of my roommates 4 years ago went to a bishop to chat. He proceeded to tell her that she should date "this guy" and pointed him out to her, then he went on to tell her that he had a pronography problem. He wasn't a very good bishop anyways… I was pretty much inactive that year I was there.

    I have had great bishops too. I had expressed much concern about issues I was having and he helped me out so much. I am sure he mentioned it to his counselors, but they knew better than to approach me with it. I think the mistake lies with the counselor of your bishop, he was out of line.

    Speaking of polygamy, I wrote my senior thesis about it! I only got 2 points taken off! *Sigh* a new member, writing about polygamy at a conservative Lutheran college … hehehehe, it went well though!

  • I think a bishop is told a great many things from ward members, and I can't imagine the weight of responsibility of having to deal with all of it by yourself. I think that's what counselors are there for, to lighten the bishop's load by helping in the situations the bishops decides they are able. I think someday you are going to be called as a bishop just to teach you a lesson, so you better watch what you say about them……jk

  • Casey, I'd like to read that thesis sometime…

    Kristen, I think you're exactly right. The burden placed on Bishops in the LDS church is HUGE. They have an incredible weight on their shoulders & yes, that is what counselors are there for. I am nearly 100% positive that being a bishop is not in my future.

    On the bright side, I'm just trying to do my bishops a favor by never telling him anything. That's less for him to remember or deal with, right?

  • Its unfortunate that you had this experience BEFORE you realized exactly what kind of confidentiality you could expect from a bishop. I think that if you don't want your Bishop to share something with his counselors you could specifically ask them not to and should expect that confidentiality to be kept.
    I also think that when we support our bishops we should also support the people he has asked to be his counselors. If the bishop trusts them enough to think they can help with a situation, we should trust them too. I bet there are a lot of people who get burned with this sort of thing before they realize how the bishopric and ward councils really work.

  • Mel, you're spot on. I don't think I was too clear in the post. The problem isn't necessarily that the Bishop shared the info with his counselors. I know now that this is how the system works. The problem is that I DIDN'T KNOW that was how it worked, so I ended up feeling hurt. How can we make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else?

  • I wonder how this is different for temple recommend interviews. Do bishops consider this info more confidential then other discussions they have with ward members? Or do they share that info with their counselors as well?
    Maybe they would share info with counselors like "This ward member doesn't have a recommend right now because she is struggling with smoking," But not info like discussions of past sins in which the bishop decides that you are now worthy to hold a recommend.

  • Oh, I also think that part of the problem in your story is that the counselor wasn't too tactful in how he brought this info up. I think that would catch anyone off guard.

  • Reuben, you as one individual will never ensure this doesn't happen to a future member. Sad, but true. The responsibility is placed on parents' shoulders to teach their children the gospel; not just to read your scriptures and say your prayers, but the background of how the church "government" works. My husband just joined the church three months ago and I have seen how important it is to teach him the simple organization that I have taken for granted all my life. It is the same with our children, they won't know unless we teach them!

    Hope you don't mind that I have worked my way into your blog, no longer a spectator but a contributor! I am VERY impressed with your willingness to share so much of the gospel online, and you do so eloquently!

  • F5, welcome. I write the blog because I want people to read it, so I'm glad you're here. It's good to hear that you and your husband are united in faith. Thanks for contributing. I look forward to your future comments!

    Oh, and tell your friends.

  • That is an intersting situation. I agree with many of the comments that have been said in regards to understanding the need a bishop has for the support of his counselors. On the same token, I can see the problems it causes to share any personal information given in confidence without the person's permission. I think one way to potentially combat this problem is to ask (or let the person know) up front that this information may be shared. If the person specifically requests for the information NOT to be shared, then the bishop should respect that right. It's as simple as that.

    I have a close friend going through the process of disfellowship. I'm fairly certain his bishop has told no one about the situation, except to say that this person cannot participate in priesthood ordinances. He has given no specifics to the ward members or to his counselors. It seems that some bishops naturally respect a person's privacy.

  • P.S. I'd also like to read the thesis on polygamy! To be honest, polygamy is still a tough pill for me to swallow, no matter how strong my faith and testimony is of this church.

  • Sarah, no need to be bashful… I don't know anyone who DOESN'T continue to have concerns about polygamy. I think even the most ardent of Mormon apologists will admit that.

  • This is very interesting.

    So what if the Bishop told you specifically that he was not going to share any of the information you told him with any of his counselors, without you requesting so? Would you expect him to stay true to his word?

  • Donette

    I just want to point out the very important fact that Google did not exist until late 1998, and thus you had never googled anything by the time you were 15. You probably lycosed it. I hope this really helps the discussion.

  • I, too, have a problem with the idea of polygamy in my mortal life … I also have a problem with it in the eternal realm (as does the hubby) … however I decided that if Jonathan MUST have a spouse in the eternal realm besides me I want it to be those poor Muslim girls who are murdered by their fathers for talking to a boy (there are 3 sisters that stand out in my head from a few years ago) … now I just gotta run this past God 😉 and a marriage in Name-only like some Mormons used to do would be just perfect.

  • Darcey, if the bishop specifically told me he would not share something with his counselors, I would DEF expect him to keep his word.

    Donette, you're so helpful:) And right. I undoubtedly used Lycos or Excite, my favorite search engines of the day.

    Casey, I wouldn't lose sleep over it. I'll let you develop your own theology of the afterlife, but I can tell you that mine doesn't include polygamy.

  • Anonymous

    As I've understood it in my many years of church membership, those things that you tell Bishops are not confidential and nor are they freely spoken. Almost certainly will they be shared with counselors. If the needs of the interviewee are temporal, they will probably be brought before Ward Welfare committee, PEC if priesthood muscle is needed, or with a specialist such as an employment coordinator. The song and dance that that those "in-the-know" have to play can be awkward.

    However, whether or not total confidentiality exists should not be a reason for avoiding the necessary steps for repentance in cases where only a judge in Israel can properly bring someone back to the Lord.

  • anonymous, thanks for sharing. I agree completely. I definitely think people should visit with the bishop every time they feel it is required of them by the Lord. I also believe in letting people choose for themselves (by consulting directly with the Lord) when a visit with the bishop is required.

  • Canadian

    I am not Mormon but I expect what I tell a member of the clergy to be kept confidential. I would expect this even if wasn't in the context of the confessional. It's a question of pastoral ethics. This would be the norm in the denominations I am familar with. Even the courts normally recognize this, except perhaps in case of child abuse or similar.

  • Canadian, thanks for commenting. It's good to hear a non-mormon perspective on the issue.