Should Bishops Be Able to Counsel Divorce?


Let me start with a disclaimer. I have virtually no personal experience with divorce. Also, I don’t have access to Handbook 1, so I don’t know for sure what it currently says on this topic. But I know that in recent history, the Handbook provided that bishops were not allowed to counsel couples to divorce. See for instance this 2007 GC talk by Elder Oaks, which includes the matter of fact line “Bishops do not counsel members to divorce.” Whether that is the current standard is on-topic for this post. But whatever the current standard, I’m interested in what you think the standard should be. Are there ever circumstances where it would/should be appropriate for a bishop to counsel divorce?

On the one hand, I can see some cogent reasons for what appears to be the Church’s policy. The following come to mind:

  • Bishops don’t have any training as counselors to be dishing out such potentially life-altering advice. An insurance salesman probably shouldn’t be weighing in (based on little more than a gut reaction or a common sense take) on whether a couple should split or not.
  • Too many members would be willing to do whatever a bishop said, where in reality they need to be the ones to make the final call on ending their marriage. The great authority members are willing to cede to bishops can be problematic in this regard.
  • I’ve heard of stories where bishops counseled (apparently against Church policy) one spouse to divorce the other because he or she had left the Church. A blanket policy against counseling divorce would (if followed, at least) put a stop to such a simplistic approach to what may well be a very complicated situation.
  • In theory, at least, such a policy (if it indeed were absolute) would prevent a bishop from advising a man or a woman in a homosexual marriage from divorcing, even where the only possible grounds for the divorce were the fact of it being a same-sex marriage. That it seems to me would be a good thing.

On the other hand, I can see some reasons why bishops should be allowed to counsel divorce. To wit:

  • Mainstream media advice columnists seem to follow a standard similar to the Church’s, where they will not under any circumstances advise a letter writer to divorce. And I’ve gotta admit, that drives me nuts sometimes. To me there are some pretty obvious cases where divorce is a necessary thing, and if you take that out of your toolkit entirely, what good are you doing in such cases?
  • Specifically in the LDS context, what about situations where there is on-going abuse in the marriage? Sometimes the desire to continue the marriage and refusal to countenance divorce seems to be grounded in preserving the husband’s status as a contributing priesthood holder, negative consequences on the wife be damned. Similarly to the advice columnist setting, if we’re going to take divorce out of the bishop’s toolkit entirely, are we not doing the person being abused a grave disservice?
  • What about a spouse in a mixed-orientation marriage (a “MOM”)  at his or her wit’s end and desperate for a resolution to his or her situation? Since the couple almost certainly entered the MOM in an effort to live the way the Church teaches, shouldn’t we bear some responsibility to smooth the way for the termination of such a marriage?
  • In our religious culture, the bishop is entitled to inspiration/revelation for his flock. I’m not sure how much stock I put in that personally, but if we believe that he has access to revelatory insight beyond mere intuition, shouldn’t we allow him to communicate that to a married person seeking his counsel?

It should be clear from the above that I’m conflicted on what the best policy in this area should be. Which is why I’m calling for your insights: Should bishops be able to counsel divorce? And if so, under what circumstances or subject to what constraints?



  1. It’s the case of abuse where I feel the case is strongest that advising someone to leave a marriage might be the “right” course of action. You also point out the weight some members are inclined to give to a bishop’s input. The problem here is that the bishop’s silence on divorce can also be seen as an instruction to stay married whatever the cost, including physical danger to one of the spouses. To me, that’s reckless, particularly if accompanied with two traits some church leaders may have: 1) a tendency to identify with the man more than the woman and to want to help the man save face and 2) a tendency to disbelieve women (see #1).

    Part of the problem is that you can have a good heart, but bad advice.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Great points, Hawk.

  3. Counseling someone (usually a woman) to take the life-altering step of divorce may not be what bishops are trained for.

    But just because marriage is central in Mormon theology doesn’t make make a bishop any better trained to give someone the equally life-altering counsel to stay in a dysfunctional or worse — abusive — marriage.

    It’s also worth mentioning that bishops may well be counseling both spouses, something that can can deeply bias the bishop in ways that are potentially very harmful. Counseling both spouses would be considered unethical in the counseling world.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Sometimes, that’s a great point about bishops counseling both spouses. I hadn’t thought of that, but I can definitely see how that can be a problematic practice.

  5. I am very hesitant to say that bishops should be able to counsel (in an official capacity) anything at all. As you rightly point out, they do not have any training in family counselling, or even in pastoral care, and what may seem obvious may be exactly the wrong thing. What we seem to have done is try to create a series of simple decision rules (such as “never counsel divorce”), mainly for our own legal protection. Better options, I think, would be 1) to require serious pastoral training for bishops; or 2) to get bishops out of the counselling business altogether and authorize them to pay (when necessary) for actual experts for their ward members who need family counseling (or addiction counseling, or financial counseling, or just a out anything else that they are not trained to do). It seems odd that we would not generally expect a bishop to pull a tooth or remove a kidney, but we do expect them to be able to treat other problems that require just as much training and have just as much potential to do permanent damage if handled badly.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Good points, Michael. The problem with bishops not counseling divorce under the current system is that many members will take that as tantamount to counsel to remain married, which could be ruinous. I love your idea to get bishops out of the “counseling” business entirely. Maybe I’m relatively faithless, but if I were called to be a bishop I would be very reluctant to counsel folks on much of anything that was out of my personal knowledge and experience set.

  7. Professional counselors may ethically counsel both spouses, but the nature of the counseling relationship must be clearly defined. The couple is considered jointly to be the client only if one of the spouses is not identified individually as the counselor’s client.

    Professional counselors typically refrain from telling a client to do anything, much less something as consequential as divorce. The purpose of the counseling relationship is to help clients work through problems and identify constructive action for themselves. The counselor’s role is to facilitate this process—not to impose advice. In making suggestions, counselors have to be very cautious about the outsized influence they have.

    The best bishops I have known tend instinctively to use caution about giving advice. The good ones are not shy about encouraging spiritually nourishing practices, but they are reluctant to tell people what to do. They are also very happy to refer ward members to professional counselors when that would help. Of course, the quality of pastoral training varies widely, as does the wisdom of individual bishops. And that can be a problem.

  8. lastlemming says:

    In cases of ongoing abuse, perhaps bishops could simply point out that whether an abused spouse chooses to seek a divorce or remain married, he or she will not suffer any ecclesiastical consequences as a result of that choice. That should take their thumb of the scale entirely.

  9. I think bishops should not be counseling people about divorce. However, my impression of the current system is that all too often bishops either 1) counsel AGAINST divorce, or 2) try to give counsel suggesting alternative solutions, while skirting around divorce.

    The second approach is problematic because it can give victims of abuse the impression that their situation is not severe enough to warrant divorce, even when it definitely is. Furthermore, not all women realize that bishops will not counsel them to divorce, and bishops don’t always make this explicit. I know several women, including myself, who delayed divorce because they thought that they needed some sort of green light or at least acknowledgement from a bishop.

    I think the ideal situation would be for bishops to be direct and say something like, “This is a very serious situation and I can continue counsel you about your general spiritual health, but I can’t help you make decisions about the future of your marriage. If you’d like, I can help you find a trained professional counselor…” Also, I think bishops should take reports of abuse seriously: in the case of both my ex-husband and my father, bishops continued to extend priesthood callings and positions of greater authority, even after being informed that things were not right at home. Ideally, bishops should ask if a spouse feels physically unsafe, and try to help them access community resources if they do.

  10. Current guidelines state that no priesthood leader should counsel a member about whom they should marry, nor that they should divorce. Those decisions must originate and remain with the individual. The following section of the handbook is about referring for professional counseling.

    I don’t think this precludes leaders from talking through a range of options and the possible consequences and helping members choose for themselves, which is the best approach in my opinion.

  11. environmentaldna says:

    Agree with other comments that bishops do counsel NOT to divorce and they can often do more harm than good, even with the best of intentions, because they aren’t trained and can often be manipulated by an abusive spouse. I would never recommend someone talk to their bishop when considering divorce especially in cases of abuse. Bishops should have a list of local resources (counselors, helplines, lawyers) to help people get the professional help they need and support whatever decision their ward members have almost certainly very prayerfully come to. And they should be required to read this

  12. After listening to the horror stories of a relative in an abusive relationship who saw her bishop, I don’t believe Bishops should be doing any sort of life counseling outside of spiritual. The ‘stay in the marriage’ message is unbelievably strong, even if the words are not said. Another friend of mine confided that she felt huge (huge!) guilt because her Bishop talked about ‘breaking up an eternal family’ when she divorced her husband for long-term, flagrant infidelity.

    I agree with what was stated above that a second problem is that Bishop’s don’t always see the abuse. The bishop in my sibling’s situation didn’t. One of the problems of abusive relationships is that the abuser (primarily the husband) comes off as the calm, steady, logical one while the wife (abusee) comes off as an emotional wreck. Guess who the bishop sees as being the/having a problem?

    My trust in church leadership is so low at this point that I would never go to a bishop (or anyone else) for assistance, but especially not for marriage help. I’m all for welfare assistance or recommendation for someone with a counseling background. There are some good reasons therapists are highly educated, credentialed, professionals.

  13. They shouldn’t, but they should also state to the person they can’t and won’t, just like they wouldn’t on someone getting married. But they should help them to go through the decision making process so the individual gets the Lords approval. There’s a difference between not counseling divorce and stating they should stay married in any situation.

  14. It’s worth considering that one reason bishops may counsel more than they should and probably more than they want to is because of limited availability of professional counselors, or limited member resources to pay for them.

    Counseling through LDS Family Services (or whatever it’s called now) is available in only limited areas. Clinics with sliding scale payments are also limited and often have long waits.

    Many otherwise very good insurances do not cover couples’ therapy.

    That leaves many couples facing the choice of private pay at $120-$300/session. Weekly sessions are often recommended for critical cases, and that’s more than many budgets can absorb. Even if a bishop agreed to help with expenses, it would likely cover only a fraction of the sessions needed to make headway toward healing a crumbling marriage.

    By financial default, then, and for better or for worse, that leaves bishops as the first line of support for many couples in the church. In my extended family I have seen the devastating consequences of a bishop who abused this situation. For bishops like that, but also for all the gentle, humble, possibly terrified bishops who are more aware than anyone that they are a contractor or an engineer or a teacher who has no business playing a therapist, there have to be better guidelines or more training. Or something. Seems like the stakes are a little too high to keep things as they are.

  15. Given the crap-shoot on Bishops, and given the utter lack of not only counseling training, but pastoral training (and Michael Austin said above), I think it’s generally a good policy. I say that as a woman who has been through a divorce. It’s too big a decision, and to risky of a leadership gamble, to involve an untrained, non-professional, lay-person, simply because he holds a volunteer administrative position in a shared church.

    Hawk makes super salient points about bias:

    1) a tendency to identify with the man more than the woman and to want to help the man save face and 2) a tendency to disbelieve women (see #1).

    This isn’t necessarily intentional, but it’s very real, boots-on-the-ground problem for many women at some point in the church. Add that to the tendency (already pointed out) to too-heavily weigh not only a Bishop’s actual words, but his *implied* intent, and it’s a bad recipe. It’s safe and more rational for Bishops to stay out of things that do not directly relate to their administration of the ward. They’ve received zero training beyond that stewardship.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Just woke up and read the overnight comments. Thank you so much for the thoughtful, cogent commentary on this type of situation. And I agree with the point several of you have made, that if a bishop is not allowed by policy to counsel divorce, then the bishop should affirmatively disclose that to the couple, because otherwise silence will often be (mis)interpreted as affirmative counsel to remain married, even when such an implication was by no means intended by the bishop.

  17. My bishop (and Stake President) both clearly and unequivocally stated “I cannot counsel you to get a divorce.” Outside his office, I looked at him one awful morning (we had a good relationship and had known each other a long time) and asked “I get it, I know why you don’t say one way or another, but if I were your daughter, what would you say?” He didn’t skip a beat, “Get out now.”

    I had already made the decision myself, and he knew it, and had started the process. Having someone I trusted validate my decision in that capacity was kind. I guess this is just somewhere we hope for thoughtful and sensitive leaders. Had he been a different man, I wouldn’t have asked him.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for sharing your real life experience, Tracy.

  19. Yes, thanks to Em and Tracy for sharing your experiences. I think that the nub of the issue here is that bishops lack training in either pastoral care or pastoral counseling (which are not the same thing), and yet the cultural authority that they wield means that people will seek them out to provide both of those things. Noting that the heavier burden falls on the people in hard situations who get harmful advice, I think that it’s collectively unkind of us to put bishops and stake presidents in this position. We ought to invest more in their training than we do. This lack harms both the people seeking advice and the leaders. Although some leaders lack self-awareness on this point (and there’s history in my family involving an apostle telling an abused woman to return to her marriage), I think that most leaders want to do the right thing. Unfortunately, we don’t equip them well to do that, and everyone loses as a result.

  20. As a divorced woman, I’d say bishops absolutely should not counsel people who to marry or who divorce, or who not to divorce (or not to marry specifically). So often marriage and divorce is he said, she said–and they will take sides without realizing it. It does no one any good. If someone is being abused, surely they can suggest leaving and help the person find a place to go–but divorce needs to be worked out by the individuals involved.

  21. I suspect that the primary reason why it is church policy that bishops never counsel a member to seek a divorce is to limit the church’s liability under “alienation of affection” tort suits. If a clergy member counsels someone to divorce, their ex spouse could sue the church claiming they are responsible for the failure of the marriage. So if an individual bishop does counsel divorce, the church can defend itself by pointing to its blanket policy, which leaves nothing to the discretion of the bishop.

    Even absent the legal considerations, it is probably a good policy that bishops should never counsel someone who to marry or who to divorce. I agree with many of the above commenters who say that bishops should be very clear that their non-counsel regarding divorce does not constitute counsel to remain married, and that they should also make clear that choosing to divorce is a personal decision between the person and God and will not result in any ecclesiastical action or judgment. And then refer the person to professionals if they need additional assistance.

    This reminds me a little bit about how the church counsels members regarding decisions about when to have children and how many to have. The official policy is that it is up to the couple, but all of the examples given are of the decision-making process are of couples who decide to start their family right away or have additional children despite financial difficulties, so the message members receive is that the right decision is to not delay having children. With divorce, bishops leave it up to members, but the message is about saving the marriage and not breaking up eternal families, so it is easy for members to read between the lines and conclude that the church and, by extension, the Lord, want them to remain in an abusive marriage and tough it out.

  22. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    This is probably an issue for a separate thread, but we really need to re-examine the role of a Bishop, generally. As Michael, and others, have pointed out, Bishop’s are simply unqualified for counseling – not just in matters of marriages/relationships, but in finance, addiction (substance abuse/pornography/..), personal conflict among Ward members, etc. Jason K. notes the cultural authority a Bishop wields, but this cultural authority is vastly disproportionate to the actual authority he wields. Gone are the days when the Bishop was the “Father of the Ward”. The list of things I would actually go to the Bishop for counseling on continues to shrink. Really, what is the role of a Bishop in a Church where he doesn’t actually run a storehouse, have quasi-political authority over a geographic area in a frontier environment, or have the ability to do anything that is not explicitly sanctioned by his superiors? There is a role for a Bishop in the current church, and duties that should be specifically reserved for the office. But that role, I believe, is not what it used to be.

  23. The questions regarding what bishops should and should not do eventually lead to whether or not it would be better to have a paid clergy. If you have any religious faith at all, I think you’d have to agree that pastoral counseling, marriage counseling, and even psychological counseling overlap to a degree. To train a bishop to the extent some are suggesting might not be a reasonable expectation of a lay-minister. On the one hand, I’ve heard of situations where bishops have given some terrible advice, in my opinion, but I also know of some situations where credentialed counselors gave some terrible advice (both LDS and non-LDS), again in my opinion. It’s a bit of crap-shoot regardless who you go to for advice. It’s dangerous to grant the bishop too much influence over one’s personal opinions, but I think it’s also dangerous to simply trust the consensus “wisdom of men”. In my case, I’d only counsel with my bishop if I felt he had the Holy Spirit about him, or if I felt led by the Spirit to do so. But I’d be no less wary of professional counselors.

    It might be a better policy to simply instruct bishops that personal decisions such a divorce, separation, marriage need to be made by the individuals themselves, and that bishops shouldn’t attempt to hand them the answers.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    Martin, interesting point about paid clergy. Having grown up Mormon, I’ve long liked our lay clergy model, and in many ways still do. But as I get older, and especially with more exposure to other churches, I have to admit I see a lot of advantages to full-time clergy that we simply cannot match with oiur volunteer-only model.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    Joel, thanks for your observation. The Church is definitely all about the limitation of its liability, so that aspect of things makes sense to me.

  26. LivinginSaltLake says:

    For the most part, I’ve had well-intentioned, good-hearted bishops over the course of my life in the church, but I’ve been altogether too deferent to authority, something that as an abuse survivor, I continue to work on. I appreciate Jason K.’s comment on the cultural authority that bishops wield. I came to the decision some years ago that I wouldn’t seek advice from a church leader unless this was someone I would seek advice from if they weren’t in a position of leadership. I’m at a point now where I think even if I were to do something that required confession to a bishop, I would wait, if necessary, to do that with I bishop I felt confidence in. As a therapist, I second the difficulty of identifying an abusive dynamic. I remember a bishop once saying to me about a man I had strong reason to believe was abusive, that both members of a couple contribute equally to a problem. I thought, You don’t begin to know. My own great-grandmother was counseled by a Methodist minister to leave her very abusive husband. That is a man I’d like to meet.

  27. “I’d be no less wary of professional counselors.” I think this is a very valid point. Lots of people weigh the role of an authority figure too much in their decision making, whether that’s a counselor, a bishop. or a parent. But only the people in a marriage really know what’s going on, and often we still don’t know!

  28. People seeking professional services of any kind need to be thoughtful, cautious, and vigilant. That principle applies when we hire counselors, doctors, accountants, lawyers, or any other kind of professional. This is a difficult principle, because a client seldom has the expertise to judge the professional’s work independently. This is a doubly difficult problem when we seek professional services for problems with our psychological well-being in times when our judgment might be impaired. We want to be able to put ourselves in the professional’s hands and trust that person implicitly.

    Ethical rules for professionals exist largely because clients are not fully able to protect themselves, lacking the knowledge that the professional has. But ethical rules can never fully replace clients’ responsibility to use their best judgment about a professional’s work.

    These observations apply equally to the relationship that a ward member has with a bishop who takes on a pseudo-professional role as a counselor. We often want to put ourselves unquestioningly in the hands of a loving bishop. It feels good to believe that someone else has a direct line to God on our behalf. But we must not abdicate responsibility for our own choices. Genuine, lasting solutions to our problems only come when we grow enough to make choices for ourselves. Trusting the wrong person too much can be terribly damaging to that kind of growth.

    I agree with others here who have suggested that the greatest shortcoming in our system of lay ministry is our lack of consistent pastoral training about the unique dynamics and ethical challenges of a counseling relationship. I think most bishops grasp their own shortcomings pretty well, and that’s a good check on their influence. However, ethical rules are made not for angels, but for sinners. It would be nice for bishops to have some baseline training on these matters.

  29. Ecclesiastic leaders ought not be telling members who to marry, or whether to divorce. That much is in the handbook, and rightly so. To discuss options and consequences is not prohibited and I suspect more bishops could do better in this regard. One thing not prohibited in the handbook but seemingly comparable to these other prohibitions would be one that bishops should not counsel a person to remain in a marriage. The decisions to marry or not, to stay or go… these all are important enough and so vital that the decision should rest solely with the individual. No person after marrying, divorcing, or not divorcing should have any reason to think they “did what the bishop told me to do.” The decision should be their own.

  30. Anonymous says:

    The most current advice I have seen that a Bishop could use to refer a struggling marriage partner to is the “Spouse and Family Support Guide” offered through the LDS Addiction Recovery website, which was updated as recently as a couple months ago. Rather than being a traditional 12-step program, this guide is mostly an application of principles of the atonement in the context of very difficult family problems, including addiction and infidelity.
    Principle 8 “Be Firm and Steadfast” addresses the need for boundaries, consequences, preserving relationships, and also not enduring abusive behavior. It includes the following:
    “In some instances, separation or divorce may be justified. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said:
    We know that many of you are innocent victims– members whose former spouses persistently betrayed sacred covenants or abandoned or refused to perform marriage responsibilities for an extended period. Members who have experienced such abuse have firsthand knowledge of circumstances worse than divorce. When a marriage is dead and beyond hope of resuscitation, it is needful to have a means to end it.” (“Divorce”, Ensign, May 2007, 70-71)

    Even in the intimate circle of a women’s support group, I have never heard anyone counsel another woman to get a divorce. I have seen however, that having a safe place to cry, to share, to laugh, to be completely honest or sit silently and be supported rather than judged, no matter what you are wrestling with is healing and often provides the personal answers and strength that have not been found elsewhere.

  31. Kristine N says:

    Anecdotally, I do know a woman whose bishop counseled her to seek a divorce in a mixed orientation marriage. I’m pretty sure that bishop wouldn’t have counseled divorce for any other reason, but he did recognize that in that instance a divorce was necessary.

    On the other end of the spectrum, when my parents were considering divorce the bishop counseled against one and also counseled my mother to submit more fully to my dad in order to preserve their marriage. She’s not exactly the submissive type. Their marriage ended soon after and I think pretty much everyone is happier on the other side.

    I think a lot of good counseling involves active listening, asking questions, and giving people the support and space they need to figure it out for themselves. Some bishops do that and some don’t, and I have my doubts about how well training would change that. I don’t get the impression that bishops are called for their ability to listen and minister to the emotional side of things.

    I’m actually a bit against counselors giving direct advice in general, whether they’re paid, volunteer, or family/friends. Terribly hypocritical of me, given how opinionated I am, but I’ve noticed that most of what people need is to talk through a problem and then, when they’ve come to a decision, to get the information they need to pursue the track they’ve decided on. Bishops could do that–help get people connected with the resources they need and alerting them to what’s available. I think that’s what a lot of them do, but I’m not sure telling people what action they should take is advisable for many situations, and not just divorce.

  32. A Fellow Taveler Along the Path says:

    Many of the previous posts talk about the bishops’ need for more training in order to competently counsel about much of anything. I completely agree. Regardless, look at any advice column or Church magazine and they will list your clergy as a place you should seek counseling. The bishops’ lack of training can have much more serious consequences than one person staying or leaving an abusive marriage.

    The bishop, as a clergy member, is legally a mandatory reporter of abuse in many states, regardless of how much training he has or hasn’t had. He is bound by law to report physical, sexual, and economic abuse, not just for children but in also for elders (all things I personally think should be grounds to counsel for divorce). From what I’ve read from official Church sources (mostly the Ensign), that’s far from what the Handbook instructs. Instead of their first call being to law enforcement or the applicable agencies, the Handbook tells the bishop to call the church. Law enforcement reporting isn’t much mentioned.

    Having personally witnessed a bishop who didn’t consider an senior being abused as “important enough to cancel my date with my wife. It’s not an emergency like a car accident, especially if it’s been going on for awhile,” I have to question why the Ensign continues to tell members the bishop should be the first-line person to turn to in crisis. And this particular incident was only about 5 years ago.

    And yes, my family has had a fairly extensive history of not just bishops, but stake presidents, regional representatives, and apostles telling women they must stay in marriages that were abusive in all ways (even sexually). They just needed to submit more to their husbands and stop doing things that make them angry. Advice that was given over many decades and to many different women in different localities over several generations, perpetuating the cycle of abuse over and over again. And those are only the stories I heard first hand.

    I wish my family history was anomalous, but I’ve heard similar stories from non-relatives.

    While making a choice for yourself and your family to not use the bishop as a counselor and letting others on this blog understand why, is important, it leaves the majority of the body of the Church who don’t follow this blog with a fundamentally broken system.

  33. Anonymous for this says:

    When my daughter reached the conclusion that a divorce was necessary, she met with her bishop (who had counseled both of them). She had made the decision. The bishop, in my mind, very wisely told her something like this, “Sister So-and-so, as an ecclesiastical leader I want to validate for you your conclusion that you have done all that you can do to save this marriage and that you should feel no guilt or regret about your decision to move forward in this way with your life.” He did not counsel her one way or the other before she reached her decision, but he did support and validate her decision once made, and I think that is what she needed at that time, and I am grateful.

  34. Neither bishops nor anyone should counsel divorce.

    That’s a decision the partiest must make, so they can’t blame anyone else. They will, but it shouldn’t be the bishop busting his ass to help people.

    The bishop has enough for which he is held responsible.

    But bishops don’t need to stand back and let people suffer.

    They can listen and repeat back what the person said.

    When a person hears themselves speak outloud in front of a witness who isn’t on his/ her side…that helps them figure things out for themselves and seek professional help.

    But if the bishop just sits there with a “what do you want me to do” approach because they are too afraid to influence someone one way or another…that means people leave the office having spilled their guts, desperate for help, feeling foolish for trusting in the process of going to an ecclesiastical leader before things get really bad.

    I know.

  35. Feeling Anonymous says:

    I second what hawkgrrrl, Loursat, and others have said about being just as cautious of professional counselors as of bishops. Professional credentials are no more guarantee of wisdom than are spiritual callings. (I should know; my ex-husband is a professional counselor, but all his training, including extensive training in domestic violence intervention and work with batterers, didn’t prevent him from becoming an abuser himself.) Neither credentials nor callings relieve us of our responsibility to exercise our own best judgment.

    When my marriage started falling apart, I went to my bishop with great reluctance. He had a very different background than I did and I’m ashamed to say that when he’d been called I’d basically written him off. I couldn’t have been more wrong about him. He was immensely helpful and supportive through the whole difficult process of separation and divorce. I know that’s not always the case–I’ve definitely had bishops I would never confide in, as I suspect all of us have–but I’ve also experienced immense divine help and grace from completely untrained bishops. It’s no exaggeration to say that two different bishops have saved my life.

    When I had to decide whether or not to divorce (my ex-husband had one foot out the door but was waffling), my bishop told me it was entirely up to me, that I needed to seek my own inspiration and make my own decision, that he could not make the decision for me because I was the one who would have to live with it. That was exactly what I needed to hear. At a vulnerable time of my life he did everything he could to empower me to seek my own answers and act for myself. After a lot of heartwrenching, prayerful consideration, I decided my marriage needed to end–and I immediately found the peace that had been so elusive during the previous terrible months of my ex-husband’s infidelity, erratic behavior, and incessant verbal abuse. Hard as it’s been for me and for my children, I’ve never had a single moment of regret. But it was MY decision–not my bishop’s. That was and remains important to me.

    I do think bishops need a lot more training in the dynamics of abuse and domestic violence, and likely in many other issues. Clearly many bishops need to take abuse much more seriously and both bishops and Mormons more generally need to understand abuse as a reason for divorce. At the same time, I’m inclined agree with the instructions that bishops counsel neither marriage nor divorce. I think we all need to make our own decisions in such matters.

  36. When I was considering divorce, I didn’t want anyone to tell me that I had to get divorced. I didn’t want anyone to tell me not to get divorced, either. But I did really want validation that the decision was mine, and that if I did choose to get a divorce I was justified and not simply selfish or unwilling to put in the requisite work. It’s a tricky line, but I think bishops can validate without advising.

    I heartily agree that even professional therapists aren’t all great, and that a good therapist would generally not give direct advice to divorce or not. Early on in my marriage I saw a therapist who told me she couldn’t help me if I wouldn’t consider divorce, and in response I just quit going to therapy. On the other extreme, my husband and I eventually saw a marriage counselor who always wanted me to describe how I was provoking the abuse, and got angry with me when I insisted that I wasn’t. After that, I got a really wonderful personal therapist who said things like, “That’s abusive,” and “That is not normal,” and “You seem very unhappy,” and “I’m worried about you.” When I brought up divorce, she helped me walk through the pros and cons and reminded me that my happiness wasn’t less important than anyone else’s.

    For a long time, I felt that divorce somehow wasn’t my decision to make, because I saw how many other people’s lives this decision would impact. But really it was ONLY my decision (or my husband’s) to make. I love that several commenters’ bishops said exactly that, and I wish mine had too (instead, when I said I thought I wanted a divorce, he said something like, “Uhhhh… Why don’t you pray together as a couple for two weeks and report back to me?”).

  37. Another Anonymous says:

    A Fellow Taveler Along the Path says: “Having personally witnessed a bishop who didn’t consider an senior being abused as “important enough to cancel my date with my wife. It’s not an emergency like a car accident, especially if it’s been going on for awhile,” …. And this particular incident was only about 5 years ago.”

    I would say good for the bishop, as long as he also recommended that you call the police, social services, and an elder care attorney. Bishops have to have boundaries and preserve their own mental health and their own relationships. Bishop burn-out is a real thing. Over the past decade, I have seen the needs of a small ward burn out several good, well-intentioned bishops. One of them was so ill by the end of his time in the calling that he could barely see straight. It has been a relief to see his health start to recover over the past couple of years.

    Honestly. Take care of your stewardships in the ward to relieve the cares on the bishop and take your crises to the correct law enforcement or social services agency. Don’t expect the bishop to do it all. He’s not Superman.

  38. When I was a 1st counselor to a Bishop a few years ago, I heard that he had counseled a sister to get a divorce. I knew what the handbook said and also knew some of the details since the couple lived 2 doors down from me. At the time I was a little irked by hearing that the Bishop counseled it, but also knew it was the woman really needed to get divorced. The problem as I saw it was that it placed responsibility for the decision it at least partially on the Bishop.

    Now I’m the Bishop. I’ve had one couple in my ward so far get divorced and another sister who is currently planning to divorce.

    The first couple never asked me if they should or shouldn’t. The husband did not want a divorce, but the wife did. I persuaded them to try counselling, which they tried and probably cemented the desire for divorce even more since they finally talked to each other and realized how different their respective views of each other and the church really were. The marriage slowly dissolved over the next several months, and even though I continued to meet with them as a couple and as individuals neither party was really willing to talk about the problems to each other or work to find common ground. When they met as a couple they both clammed up and wouldn’t say much. When they met as individuals they talked more, but they were only saying it to me. Since I would not share information I learned in private counseling with the other spouse, I tried in vain to bring it forward during the meetings as a couple.

    In the 2nd case its a couple I don’t know as well, though have a lot of respect for both. The wife came to me with her plan to divorce, but has not yet shared the plan with her husband. She did not ask me if she should divorce, but came to me with her decision. She asked that I be present when she told him. I asked questions to understand better the decision and made it clear that it was still entirely her decision, but that I would help where possible to make sure she was safe and her goals could be met. I also made it clear that I was also her husband’s Bishop and that I would not take sides. I would still be his Bishop in the aftermath and it would be unfair to him to lose both wife and Bishop. Now this is a hard line to walk. She has told me in confidence her plans and I won’t betray them even though in some ways it makes me look complicit in the planning. My hope is that when this hits the fan, the husband will still trust me enough to seek my counsel.

    Being a Bishop is a hard job. I hope people that judge Bishops realize that. Bishops for the most part work in isolation in these instances. We don’t even get to counsel with our counselors unless it is in the confines of a Disciplinary Council. The one person we can talk to is the Stake President and they can vary as much as Bishops in skill and ministering abilities. It’s a very lonely position to be in. I started this post with my own judgement of a Bishop and while my judgement hasn’t changed in that respect, I do think Bishops should get some degree of forgiveness for willingly placing themselves in a precarious situation at great cost to themselves. Thanks to all those who commented above who recognize that.

    A very big toll on Bishops is their personal friendships. All of a Bishop’s current friendships in the ward change as soon as he is called. It took me about a year to accept the fact that I was rarely called by my first name anymore and am now called by my calling title in nearly all situations. It places a distance on an existing friendship which is hard to define but nevertheless omnipresent. Since this realization I’ve made it a point to call previous Bishops by their first names whenever I see them. I look forward to the day I get my first name back.

  39. Bishop #2 here. I echo much of what was said in the previous bishop’s comment (absolutely true about what happens with personal friendships; people can suddenly treat you very differently. I have to work very hard to encourage people to be “normal” with me, and I very much look forward to returning that non-leader relationship normalcy some day).

    Generally, I stay far away from recommending any specific course of action to anyone with regard to major life events (marriage, divorce, job, having children, etc.). I listen a lot. We talk through pros and cons, we talk through consequences of this and that. We discuss gospel principles. But the decision is up to the individual, as it should be. (If a specific course of action is obvious but the person can’t or won’t see it, I do my best to get them to see the facts and a rational course of action, but even then I do so with caution. That’s a very hard position to be in as a leader.)

    I’ve had a few people become very bothered by this approach (including divorce situations), mainly because they expected much more from me in terms of authoritative help. “But you’re the bishop! You’re close to God!” I can’t say that I blame them for feeling that frustration. I afraid there is too much of a mindset that as soon as any kind of issue comes up, you should “talk to your bishop.” I hear that advice given from senior leaders sometimes and I think “I have no idea how I would help someone with that issue”, other than try to problem-solve like any other somewhat intelligent person, and to seek the Spirit’s guiding light.

    I have built a solid professional counselor network and I think this is a highly underutilized tool in the church. I believe I know my limits and I have no problem directing people to *trusted* professional help when needed. Plus, those counselors have been a great resource in helping me to understand difficult, complex issues.

  40. Feeling Anonymous says:

    I don’t blame you at all, A Bishop. Being a bishop looks almost impossibly isolating and psychologically taxing. It sounds as if bishops could use not just more training but more sustained and ongoing support.

  41. pconnornc says:

    One more comment in support of our lay ministry and, while imperfect, some real benefits.

    About a year ago as a member of a bishopric I was feeling overwhelmed and inadequate in being able to minister w/ some serious problems in the ward. I had tried to help someone and had only made them feel less loved – and felt a deep sadness and burden.

    Here is the light that came to me…

    Though Pastor Brown may have divinity school training and 20+ years of experience, here are some advantages our lay ministry bring. First, though the bishop is the “father” of the ward, between counselors, a RS presidency, home teachers and visiting teachers, there is a net of 10+ people who are sincerely trying to minister. No matter how good Pastor Brown is, he runs the risk of not having the specific experience, ability to connect or right approach to minister. While in our case, even if Bishop Smith is lacking, there are many there to help and fill in the gaps. I like the increased odds.

    Additionally, because of the organization of our church and size, a bishop has access to manuals and guidebooks, 800 #’s for legal counsel, LDS social services and experienced leaders in his ward and stake (high counselor/stake president) who can guide him. Whereas Pastor Brown might be on his own a bit more.

    Lastly, and I am sure Pastor Brown would leverage this too, I think most leaders (like the bishops who contributed) are humbled and overwhelmed by these situations and as a result are extremely humble and open to the Spirit.

    I know these ministers are men and women, but my observations have been that overwhelming it works. We do hear the horror stories and people rarely publicly pronounce the role our ministering played in saving their relationship, but I have heard many in private express those sentiments.

  42. Don’t forget, though, that other pastors also have an internal support network, with different names but similar roles as a ward council, RS pres, etc.

    And perhaps most important of all, Pastor Brown’s job as pastor *is* her job. She is not balancing it with her paying job. I believe in the Spirit but am also aware that the burdens of doing a job in one’s free time that others do full time will mean unique pressures on bishops (as have been described) and that those pressures, when added to the lack of professional training in a loaded situation such as marriage counseling, could easily be a convergence of weaknesses whose catastrophic potential is very high for both parties.

  43. Kevin Barney says:

    I liked the notion a couple of you shared about the nuance of validating a decision already made (as opposed to encouraging a decision not yet made).

    And a special thanks to the bishops who commented with their experience from the trenches. You gave our discussion here a depth and real world perspective that was needed. May God bless you for your service.

  44. Couple of observations:
    1. Agreed that good counseling doesn’t tell folks what to do but offers clarification and access to resources to help the individual decide.
    2. Certainly professional counseling for all those who could benefit would be optimal but unlikely given the financial constraints of those in the greatest need.
    3. If we consider the alternatives. a) a professional clergy with considerably less reach – because we would have fewer bishops if they were collecting a living wage – the access of those without means to get any counseling (even from a lay member) is less likely. b.) Even with a professional clergy does access remain to those who need the counseling the most but cannot afford? Some of my exerience suggests that well trained and effective professional clergy are often supported by younger (and less expereinced) clergy which cover such counseling needs. So while a professional clergy may be seen as a preferred model it also has its constraints.
    4. Another alternative is that lay bishops should get more training. As a current bishop, the notion that we need to have additional training (meetings) while serving seems untenable.
    5. Any given institutational solution is likely to have both successes and failures (as is true of the LDS model among other solutions). However given the assumption that Bishops are generally chosen with a preference for those honestly seeking to do good, means that in general the model does good with some exceptions.
    6. There is also hope for a more nuanced and sophisticated clergy as the church ages. For example, I would guess that the lay clergy of today offers a richer approach to counseling than those in the past.

  45. Bishops are way too overloaded physically and psychologically. More training is a good idea, but only to the extent that it helps bishops to delegate or draw healthy boundaries.

    I was a little surprised that the church doesn’t have a better system of financial aid for counseling. In Utah, maybe they do with LDS family services, but not outside. At one point I specifically asked my bishop for help finding a local couple’s counselor, and he located somebody about two hours away who was LDS and cost $200 a session. He told me that he could not offer any financial support for the counseling, but also advised against a non-LDS therapist who would not “share our values” or “understand the importance of eternal marriage.” I know the church can’t pay for professional counseling for everyone, but it seems like a not-totally-terrible use of tithing funds…

  46. Em, bishops outside of Utah can and do pay for counseling from fast offerings, from both LDS and non-LDS counselors. It is not uncommon in Southern California.

  47. Former Bishop says:

    As a former Bishop, I counseled divorce a couple who had about the worst marriage I ever saw. They stayed together anyway. And still have a terrible marriage, but I am no longer the Bishop, so I guess I won!

  48. Martin, that’s good to hear. It must be up to the discretion of the bishop or the financial capacity of the local ward, though, because my bishop was very clear that he couldn’t help.

  49. Kevin Barney says:

    Martin, that’s what I thought, because when my daughter needed some counseling the bishop signed a referral to LDS Family Services and they gave her services gratis. But I admit I don’t know the details of how all of that worked.

  50. I pay for counseling out of fast offering funds to both lds and non lds professionals. I was referred to these counselors by lds services which is not verylarge in my region. Over time I’ve gotten good feedback from my members on the strengths of each of them and now send people their way without consulting lds family services at all. At least in my part of the vinyard there is no rule about referrals and payment partly or fully out of fast offerings is completely up to the Bishop. I have heard that some Bishops feel pressure to not spend more fast offering funds than comes in to the ward, but not in my stake. When talking to Bishops in more affluent wards they say its possible, but in my ward fast offering payments arent anywhere close to parity. That is why fast offerings arent a local account, but a church headquarters account. If it were local, only affluent wards could afford professional counseling. It says a lot for a church to trust its clergy well enough to discern for themselves how to fulfill the scriptural mandate of seeking out the poor.

  51. Em, I wonder if some Bishops get more pressure to keep Fast Offering payments in parity with Fast Offerings coming in to the ward. I feel no such pressure in my Stake and have been told not to worry about the disparity. I live in a nonaffluent ward, but from talking Bishops in more affluent wards in my Stake they are closer to parity. IMO This is what makes Zion. If only affluent wards could afford professional counseling, we would not be fulfilling the scriptural mandate to seek out the poor.

    Your mileage may vary depending on the direction Bishops are getting from their SP or what the SPs are getting from their authorities.

  52. I’m divorced and know many other divorced members. I don’t know any Bishops who counseled that anyone get divorced. In saying that though I know plenty of Bishops who counsel people to get married. it just seems so odd, ‘get married but then it’s up to you if you want to stick it out or not, make your own decision, it’s your life’ um, was it my life when you told me to marry them because i’m disappointing God if I don’t? I don’t get it. I wish Bishops would butt the heck out when people make their own decisions. I once heard someone say never take advice from someone who hasn’t had to live with the consequences.

  53. When I told my bishop (in tithing settlement) that I was already divorced, and had been separated for more than a year before that, he seemed quite taken aback. Yes, his system of VTers and HTers and whoever else he thought was monitoring me had failed, but he seemed to feel hurt that I had undergone major life events without him noticing, and without consultation. He decided to get even by talking to me for 2 hours about how he was sure I could get a better mortgage than I had. I am quite certain he thought he was doing this to show his love and concern, but it only felt like I was being chastised for not being more financially savvy, which was not helpful. I am sure it is hard to be a bishop, but I really think the prevailing instinct should be to listen, not talk.

  54. As a current serving bishop I cannot imagine a situation where I would advise somebody to get a divorce. I just wouldn’t do it.

  55. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    PeterV, can you please elaborate? Is this because you don’t think it’s a Bishop’s place to make any recommendation about entering into or exiting a marriage? Is it because you don’t think divorce should be an option? Is it because you, personally, don’t feel qualified to offer such counsel? Honestly, just curious about your reasoning.

  56. PeterV,

    What if there was abuse of children or spouse that was unlikely to change, and/or required law enforcement notification/intervention? Would you recommend staying in an abusive marriage?

  57. I’m generally in agreement with “counsel neither marriage nor divorce” (and I’ve been in the bishop’s chair to think about from that point of view). However, it’s a too-simple formulation. Almost everyone’s prior is that the Church recommends marriage, and recommends not divorce. Therefore, silence carries a message and to “not counsel” requires saying something, in my opinion. To actually “not counsel marriage” I would say something like this: “You know that the Church favors marriage in general, but the Church–and I as bishop–do not counsel about particular people in particular relationships.” And to “not counsel divorce” I would say something like this: “Most of us have an understanding that the Church generally favors marriage and generally discourages divorce, and sometimes people get the impression that divorce is banned or always wrong or grounds for discipline. The latter is not true. Divorce can be the right or best choice in particular circumstances, for the individual and for the family. However, you should know that the Church–and I as bishop–does not counsel for or against divorce in any particular circumstances. It’s just not on the menu. As we talk–if you still want to talk with me, and with me mostly listening–I am not going to tell you one way or the other what you should do.”

    In short, when the bishop “counsels neither marriage nor divorce”, that shouldn’t be taken as an implied yes. Or an implied no.

  58. A Bishop only has his call for 3-5 years, maybe 7, in general. You live with your marriage, family, parental decisions for life (meaning you don’t get “released” from being a parent). It doesn’t seem right or thoughtful to make decisions based on the opinion of someone who will not only have no stewardship for you in relatively short order but will not live with the consequences of those choices.

  59. whizzbang: “I once heard someone say never take advice from someone who hasn’t had to live with the consequences.”

    Joshua: “It doesn’t seem right or thoughtful to make decisions based on the opinion of someone who will not only have no stewardship for you in relatively short order but will not live with the consequences of those choices.”

    When I was 19, I decided not to go on a mission after all; I just didn’t feel called to the work and had absolutely no desire to serve. It was hard to resist the well-intentioned entreaties of my local leadership, but I’m really, really glad I did. I ended up going on a mission later after I independently had an experience that changed my mind. I struggled enough with my mission even with that new-found desire to serve, and I can’t imagine having to do it on the strength of other people’s wishes alone.

    I appreciate good advice from my ecclesiastical leaders, but as Christian noted above, the problem isn’t really a lack of information about the church’s basic position on things like missions and marriage.

  60. Anon for this one. says:

    I’m a divorce attorney in an LDS community and have done thousands of divorces. Bishops should certainly not get involved (although I like the example of Tracy M.’s bishop). Actually, what happens to me is that they (usually women, but sometimes men) show up in my office and say, “Bishop or President So and So recommended I come talk to you.” That’s generally code for, “I can’t tell you what to do, but you should seriously look at the option”. For the last quarter century, I’ve come to realize that every one of those thousands of cases is different to the individuals and that some could have been saved if the people were willing to do something different, but many couldn’t. Thankfully, we have a Judge who will be merciful to all of us (including my for my roles in all this).