I lived in Kansas for couple of years as a military dependent. I was in a ‘part member family’. I was about 14 years old at the time. Our Bishop asked many of the young men about sexual practices such as ‘bestiality’, which at the time I had no idea what it meant. I was disgusted by it, but was curious if it was enjoyable given ‘why would a bishop ask this if it wasn’t enjoyable’. Thankfully I never investigated this further, but that kind of topic should NEVER have been brought up to a minor, who doesn’t have the maturity to process something like that.
The general tone of Bishop’s discussion about normal sexuality as a youth was generally negative and involved social ‘punishments’ for infractions, such as not taking the sacrament, not passing the sacrament, and other minor social changes that were ‘necessary for my repentance’. I remember distinctly ideating on suicide when I had normal sexual experiences (such as masturbation) because of fear of my unworthiness or fear that I was some how ‘damaged’. Even when I was fully ‘repentant’ and thought that I had ‘fixed my problems’, I actually thought that “dying right then” was a good thing so that I would be safe from further temptation. Again, in retrospect, I was completely unaware that I was experiencing normal sexual urges part of being a teenager.
During my pre-mission interviews, even though I had repented of all previous sexual sins, I was encouraged by my stake president to confess further about sexual experiences in a very humiliating way. I remember his stern face, almost angry expression about past sexual behaviors that are extremely normal for youth. This created an extreme amount of guilt and shame that was really unnecessary.
My experience with Bishops counseling members vacillated between bishops who were understanding and supportive men to bishops who thought shaming and belittling was the right solution. I have had some bishops who indicated that my sexual urges were childish manifestations of my youth that I would look back on with regret (priming my already rampant shame about what I deem normal sexual experiences and desires for a man). I’ve had other bishops that indicated that confession of simple sins like masturbation wasn’t really necessary, which was a surprise. The lack of consistency between leaders is very frustrating and led to an eventual decision to never involve an ecclesiastical leader in anything that I would ultimate work out with my Savior. To quote Jacob from the Book of Mormon, “the keeper of the gate is the Holy One of Israel, and he employeth no servant there”. Ironically, when I made that choice (to not share any ‘sins’ or misdeeds with my Bishop), my problems with shame and guilt went away, and my desires to improve or address any unhealthy problems improved dramatically.
I want to be clear that I believe Bishops in the church and Stake Presidents are generally very good men. Clearly they are not perfect nor would I ever expect them to be. They are placed in a role of being a “Judge in Israel” that is fraught with problems – particularly since they are attempting to place themselves between Christ and the members and provide counseling as they interpret Christ would, and imperfectly at that. If my church chooses to continue allowing Bishops stand in place of Christ, I hope they introduce more compassionate, less intrusive, less explicit, and more loving approaches to counseling members than I’ve experienced in the past. I hope they introduce boundaries for what they can and can’t ask members about – boundaries that reduce shame, express empathy, and redirect questions to either parents or to God himself. Especially with our children who lack the maturity to process mature topics.