Editor's note: This commentary by Brigham Young University professor David C. Dollahite is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.
Some have called for the end of one-on-one LDS bishop interviews with youths because, among other reasons, the subject of sex could be discussed in these conversations.
However, research and experience suggest that ending these interviews would hinder the spiritual development of LDS youths. Bishop counseling, even on sensitive matters, is part of a broader constellation of ecclesiastical mentoring that serves as an important tool for healthy adolescent development within the LDS tradition. With contemporary youths facing a host of escalating emotional and social challenges, society should be calling for an increase in positive adult-adolescent interactions, not an end to them.
We should, of course, continually help adult-youth relationships to be as healthy as possible for youths. Personal ecclesiastical interviews must be safe spaces free from abuse or inappropriate behavior of any kind. Sadly, a few have violated positions of trust and others have, through ignorance or insensitivity, crossed lines of propriety in discussing sexual matters. This year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took steps to ensure that youths are permitted to have an adult accompany them into personal interview settings. And, anytime a bishop meets with a youth, another adult or parent must be nearby. This summer, the church also published a uniform list of questions that bishops ask youths prior to their receiving an endorsement to enter an LDS temple. It appears the church is wisely balancing the need to protect personal boundaries without losing the benefits that come with meaningful mentorship derived from candid pastoral conversations.
Research suggests that when youths have positive interactions with religiously articulate and active adults, they are better equipped to navigate life’s challenges. Looking at a study of 3,370 American teens from various faiths, conducted by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean observed that, among those studied, Mormon teens “were the least likely to engage in high-risk behavior and consistently were the most positive, healthy, hopeful and self-aware teenagers.” She attributed this success, in part, to the higher number of nonparent adults who played a meaningful role in a teenager’s life. In one study, at-risk youths who participated in mentoring programs experienced less depressive symptoms, greater acceptance among peers, more positive feelings about their abilities and improved performance at school. In a digital environment, personal connections (especially religious ones) provide benefits. “Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent,” according to sociologist Jean M. Twenge. But, research reveals that attending religious services “cut their risk significantly.”
With colleagues and students at BYU, I have conducted various qualitative and quantitative studies on the spiritual and religious development of Christian (including LDS), Jewish and Muslim youths in a family context. We found that religious youths consider adult leaders to be an important “anchor” in their spiritual development. Removing the ability of religious leaders to minister personally to youths would undoubtedly impact that relationship. We have also found that meaningful religious conversations between youths and parents strongly influence spiritual development in youths. Personal, sustained conversations about religious matters with parents and other adults can be a powerful tool in helping youths progress toward a healthy and happy adult life. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emphasizes the prime role of parents in youths' spiritual development. Ecclesiastical leaders provide appropriate support. We have also found that youths who decide to abstain from sexual intercourse draw motivation from both internal and external sources including parents, peers and others. Youths from various faiths spoke articulately about how abstaining from early sexual activity improved their lives and protected them from various problems they observed in peers who did not abstain.
Would these benefits still derive if the church ceased one-on-one interviews between bishops and youths? Perhaps. But cutting off the stabilizing and important relationship youths cultivate with ecclesiastical leaders during the social and emotional transitions of teenage years would be a loss, especially for youths with fewer social connections and who need the added outreach the most. It could also foreclose a relationship that can be a source of support and assistance when youths face domestic or other forms of abuse.
I have served as an LDS bishop of a congregation of single adults. Those of us who have served as bishops would be the first to say that bishops are far from perfect. Some bishops are more wise and compassionate than others and all bishops grow in experience during their years of service. No bishop provides perfect counsel for all people at all times. And, not all bishops are as sensitive in their approach as they could be around matters such as sexuality. Tragically, a very small number of bishops have broken the sacred trust placed in them by God, the church and local members. These individuals must be punished for their actions and never shielded from the full force of the law.
But the vast majority of bishops are caring lay leaders who have the eternal well-being of each person they serve in mind. They seek to reflect the love of God in their interactions with the youths to whom they minister. Countless youths consider the opportunity to counsel regularly with a compassionate bishop among the most helpful blessings of membership in the LDS Church. Many would say that those personal interviews aided them in avoiding or overcoming the challenges of life. Some would undoubtedly report that those interviews allowed them to obtain peace of conscience and even move beyond sexual sin. Some have used such bishops’ interviews to report abuse that they may have not otherwise reported.
I joined the LDS faith at age 19, and, during my adult life, I’ve watched the church expend vast resources to assist individual members, especially youths, in their spiritual and personal development. Such investments help improve, and even, in some cases, save lives. Candid conversations with ecclesiastical leaders about real challenges are important in order to empower youths in all aspects of their lives as they move toward adulthood.
Most religious institutions expect young men and women to take upon themselves more adult religious obligations as they mature. This means holding them to a higher standard and mentoring them along so they can meet it. In many Christian faiths, teenaged members undergo confirmation wherein they confirm their earlier baptism and agree to follow their faith in a way that adult members do. In the Jewish faith, girls become bat mitzvah (daughter of the commandments) at age 12 and boys become bar mitzvah (son of the commandments) at age 13 and are then expected to take the mantle or yoke of the commandments upon them. In Islam, when boys and girls reach the teenage years they are expected to begin to take on more adult religious obligations such as the five daily prayers (salat) and fasting during the month of Ramadan.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is similar to these faiths in that LDS youths become Young Men and Young Women at age 12 and are then expected to participate more fully in the religious life of the congregation by serving others, including doing LDS temple service. Part of this growing spiritual and religious obligation involves the opportunity to have candid soul-shaping conversations with ecclesiastical leaders about their religious and personal development. An individual’s personal growth is complex and requires repeated nuanced dialogues. Matters of character are deep and sensitive. A number of things can help in this development process. Serving others, participating in religious rituals such as partaking of the sacrament (communion) and being in religious educational settings such as Sunday School, youth classes and seminary are all welcomed forms of communal worship and connection. But some parts of personal development require individual, one-on-one attention.
LDS doctrine holds that each person is a unique spirit child of heavenly parents, is an eternal being with divine potential and is blessed with individual agency and accountability to make meaningful moral choices. Based on my experience working with various bishops, being a bishop and watching my seven children engage with bishops, the positive mentoring that takes place on a wide range of issues is an immense benefit to parishioners of all ages. In personal interviews, bishops engage in spiritually inspired, individually focused dialogues with congregants on gospel living, life goals, career planning, marriage and family relationships, and a host of other important issues.
Public religious activities may not always provide this kind of personal spiritual attention that each young person needs and deserves as he or she develops and becomes self-reliant contributing community members. There is, in other words, no substitute for candid and confidential conversations devoted entirely to the needs of an individual. It’s little wonder then that society affords the priest-penitent relationship a unique privilege akin that of spousal confidence. To lose that individualized attention would not only deviate from strong social science data on the importance of religious mentoring but would also fail to follow Jesus Christ’s example of ministering “one by one.”