Note: This is the second of a two-part post resulting from a lengthy conversation among the permabloggers at BCC regarding repentance, and should be considered a group effort more than my own personal post. Part 1 was posted previously and can be found here.
To this point, I’ve focused solely on the concept of “worthiness” as a social status and the perverse incentive to avoid repentance that may follow as a result. As noted in at least one of the comments on the previous post, the conflict of interest in repenting need not be limited to social circles. It is (sadly) easy to imagine a man or woman putting off repentance because of the fear–which may well be justified–that their significant other will pull the plug on the relationship. In this post, I’d like to focus on circumstances where the conflict of interest is most explicit: students and faculty at a Church-owned educational institution, such as Brigham Young University.
A friend of mine who worked at BYU once wrote,
“Changes to the bishopric were always a time of great fear and dread for me, for the bishop had complete and absolute power over my employment. That there were people in my ward who believed I was a pernicious influence on the hearts and minds of the youth … always gave me a sense of dread. It’s like a cooperate takeover when the new owners come in. Will they clean house? Ack. If your bishop could fire you at will how would that change your relationship with the church and its leaders?
According to the 2010-2011 Undergraduate Catalog,
”Students must be in good Honor Code standing to be admitted to, continue enrollment at, and graduate from BYU. The term “good Honor Code standing” means that a student’s conduct is consistent with the Honor Code and the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Excommunication, disfellowshipment, or disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints automatically results in the loss of good Honor Code standing.” (emphasis added)
A additional requirement to being in “good standing” relates to the Ecclesiastical Endorsement (“EE”)–a signed document from a student’s Bishop stating that the student is, essentially, “worthy” to attend BYU in terms of Honor Code compliance. All students are required to receive an EE prior to each academic year; if an EE is not completed or if it is withdrawn, the student is immediately disqualified for continued enrollment at BYU.
There are some quirks about the EE that deserve attention. First, “LDS students may be endorsed only by the bishop of the ward … in which they live and … that holds their current Church membership record.” Second, while it is obtained annually before each school year, the EE can “be withdrawn at any time if the ecclesiastical leader determines that the student is no longer eligible for the endorsement.” Third, if a student’s EE is withdrawn, “the decision to withdraw an ecclesiastical endorsement may be appealed through appropriate ecclesiastical leaders only.”
It is sobering to consider just how powerfully the requirement for EEs for students and employees alters and compromises their relationships with their bishops. When examined through the lens of a religion where a) geography, not personal preference, determines which congregation we attend and b) local leaders have broad latitude when it comes to discipline, worthiness, and…general willingness to sign a paper saying they endorse a member, these three quirks create a strong disincentive to seeking pastoral guidance–especially where sin or doubt is involved. Confession of serious sins or crises of faith–even for the truly penitent or searching soul–no longer take place in a solely spiritual sphere. Instead, a person in need of pastoral care must calculate considerable educational, professional, social, and financial risk into the equation.
A bishop should be, and often is, an invaluable resource in dealing with serious problems–whether doubts, frustrations, or transgressions. However, when an individual’s status at the university or current/future employment are contingent on not having a bishop revoke an EE, it is a virtual certainty that such authority dramatically alters many individuals’ choices about what to and what not to speak to him about. Tragically, the more serious the problem, the powerful the the disincentive to confide.
While it is easy to dwell on the instances of “sin,” the more devastating situation perhaps involves cases where an individual has a crisis of faith. Many people–if not most–go through periods in life where they doubt and question things they once “knew” to be true. As tempting as it might be to assume that some major sin lies beneath the surface of such doubts, that is simply not a necessary condition, nor should it be an assumption that we ever make without cause. Doubts and concerns about one’s beliefs can arise at virtually any time in a person’s life–deaths, broken relationships, sickness, unemployment, and myriad other life events can result in significant doubts. Sometimes these doubts are fleeting, while other times the questions linger, as no apparent solutions can be found. Another friend, who is familiar with the administrative procedures at BYU, said:
“I’ve seen its harm to the students over and over. When you are a senior or Junior say, and you find yourself with serious troubles deep and wide, do you go to the man who may or may not strip you of your graduation and toss your hard work away?…It’s a sad truth but for many people to attend or teach at BYU is essentially to give up any chance to avail yourself pastoral care.”
Importantly, the loss of a job or expulsion from school need not be required in order for the disincentive to seek pastoral care to exist. Last spring, when BYU basketball player Brandon Davies was found in violation of the Honor Code, he was suspended from the basketball team for the remainder of the season, but was still allowed to remain at BYU. The school’s administration drew both praise and criticism for the decision to suspend Davies. While most discussions in the aftermath of the suspension focused on the consequences for the basketball team, it is worth considering what effect that suspension had on the willingness of other student-athletes, students, or employees to come forward in seeking atonement.
Unexpected pregnancies, lost or dying testimonies, addictions–these are only a few of the areas where we need spiritual counsel most desperately. Yet, the conflict of interest for church employees is enormous, and ironically results in a situation where, as dependence on the Church for physical livelihood increases, the incentive to depend on the Church for spiritual livelihood decreases.
 Oh those intellectuals…
While this statement applies specifically to students, it is my understanding that the same situation applies to faculty members. While I was unable to find an actual statement on this from BYU’s website, the faculty members I spoke to indicated that, available statement or not, they have to submit EE’s regularly.
 “A student’s endorsement may be withdrawn at any time if the ecclesiastical leader determines that the student is no longer eligible for the endorsement. If an endorsement is withdrawn, no confessional information is exchanged without authorization from the student. Students without a current endorsement are not in good Honor Code standing and must discontinue enrollment. Students who are not in good Honor Code standing are not eligible for graduation, even if they have otherwise completed all necessary coursework. Excommunication, disfellowshipment, or disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints automatically results in the withdrawal of the student’s ecclesiastical endorsement and the loss of good Honor Code standing.”
 “As a matter of practice, BYU does not intervene in ecclesiastical matters or endorsements. In unusual circumstances, however, a student may petition the Dean of Students Office to allow an exception to the ecclesiastical endorsement requirement … When considering the petition, the Dean of Students will focus not on the merits of the ecclesiastical leader’s decision to withdraw the endorsement but instead on whether the student has demonstrated sufficiently compelling grounds to warrant an exception to the university’s ecclesiastical endorsement requirement. In addition to speaking with the student’s present and former ecclesiastical leaders, the Dean of Students may also choose to personally interview the student, who may further explain the circumstances which might justify an exception to the ecclesiastical endorsement requirement. The student bears the burden of persuasion that he or she should be considered to be in good Honor Code standing, notwithstanding the lack of an ecclesiastical endorsement. The Dean of Student’s decision regarding the petition will be reviewed by the Vice President of Student Life if requested by the student. The decision by the Vice President of Student Life is final.”