Domestic Abuse Resources for Bishops

Laura Brignone Bhagwat is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence.  Her dissertation tracks a public health intervention in hospital emergency rooms meant to prevent intimate partner homicide.

On a hot summer morning last year, I sat in a small room with fifteen pastors and ministers. Coffee and pastries were tucked into a corner, and the men and women of my county’s Interfaith Coalition to End Domestic Violence were introducing themselves. At the end of introductions, the pastor facilitating the meeting asked: “What are the biggest challenges facing your congregation when it comes to domestic violence?”

The answers started flying. “The abuser is a member of our church board!” “She just keeps going back to him and I don’t know what to do.” “Women in our church are taught to be meek and submissive, so when the abuser tells them something, they think they have no options.” “Victims are often looked down on when they speak out.” “Abusers misuse scripture to justify their actions.” “Even after [theological] seminary, I just don’t feel I have the training I need to respond to this issue.”As I’ve talked about domestic violence with friends and family members who have been bishops, many of these same challenges have emerged – and it’s not surprising. All clergy face these struggles. LDS bishops and branch presidents are lay ministers with full-time jobs, families and other responsibilities who also dedicate seemingly endless hours of their time to serve their Savior and their ward/branch through many, many responsibilities, of which one is responding to reports of domestic violence.

Bishops are responsible for ministering to both abusers and victims that may be in their ward. What might make a bishop or branch president’s job, at least in responding to domestic violence victims, a little easier? [1]

Responding to Abuse Victims

Diane’s husband, David, manages their finances and refuses to let her pay tithing on her income. He regularly mentions her lack of worthiness and her forfeited blessings – including her son’s temple wedding that she was unable to attend.

Katie told Kevin that she didn’t want sex. He called her disgusting names and threatened her until she was afraid to say no.

Jack got back late from an errand. Jennifer, his wife, locked him out of the house until he apologized to her in front of the children.

Petra told her fiancé, Paul, she was having doubts about their relationship. The next morning, a cherished painting by her grandfather was stabbed through with a kitchen knife. On it, Paul had written “don’t test me.”  

Domestic violence is a form of abuse where one romantic partner (usually a boyfriend/girlfriend, fiancé/fiancée, or spouse) takes power and control over the other. Abusers abuse because they get something out of their behavior. In these scenarios, David wanted spiritual and financial control over Diane; Kevin wanted emotional and sexual control over Katie; Jennifer wanted physical control over Jack; Paul wanted psychological control over Petra.

Abusers choose abusive strategies and actions that will allow them to get what they want. Most do not have anger management issues or face mental illness, and this is evident when their abuse is directed toward their romantic partners or families, but not their boss, friends, or ecclesiastical leaders. Abusers do not always need or want others to see their abusive behavior in order to get something from the victim. However, abusive strategies are often used to manipulate family, friends, and religious or community leaders – as well as the victims themselves – to remove support from the victim and allow the abuser to get what they want. These strategies often use children as emotional collateral, as David did to Diane, and as Jennifer did to Jack. These strategies often involve making the victim look like the crazy or unfaithful one, as David did to Diane. These strategies also often involve making the victim more terrified to leave than to stay, as Paul did to Petra, and as Kevin did to Katie. [2]

Abuse is not the victim’s fault, although most victims blame themselves. Abuse is particularly insidious because abusers destroy victims’ senses of self-worth, self-trust and divine nature to keep victims under their power. Abuse imprisons the agency of its victim; the victim’s choices revolve around the abuser and are manipulated or coerced until they bend to the abuser’s will. By the time the victim talks with a bishop, the spiritual and psychological wounds inflicted by domestic violence are typically far more profound than any physical wounds.[3]

As Jeff Benedict wrote in the Deseret News,

“Further complicating matters is the fact that women who go to a bishop for help are usually too ashamed to give a blow-by-blow account of their experience. Think about it – if a woman has been called degrading four-letter words and obscene names by her husband [or other romantic partner], do you think she’d be comfortable repeating these terms to her spiritual leader?”

And if victims might feel uncomfortable repeating the words the abuser used, how uncomfortable might they feel repeating other parts of the story—pieces that may include descriptions of sexual activity, personal manipulation, or rage?

Many stories of abuse consist in what the victim does not say. Abuse is not always obvious, particularly when well-respected members of a community are the victims or abusers. As a result, asking clarifying questions and listening to both what is said and what is unsaid said can help identify cases of abuse. Things that are said may include: descriptions of problematic behavior, often with either notable agitation or eerie calm. Things that are unsaid may include: one partner’s silence or deference to the other when they’re together, a hole in a story that the person seems to deliberately avoid, dramatic changes in the victim’s personality or interests over time, marked changes in the victim’s personality or behavior when the abuser is around, and isolation from family and friends. For bishops, the gift of discernment is likely to be a crucial help in this regard. To address further questions about a situation, professional counselors at LDS Family Services or professional advocates at the National Domestic Violence Hotline may be able to help identify abuse and offer ideas on how to proceed.

Specific Guidelines For Responding To Abuse Victims

Additionally, here are some specific guidelines recommended by professional advocates in working with victims of domestic violence:

Avoid indicating that the victim may have “invited” or “triggered” the abuser to exert power and control: this plays directly into an abuser’s strategy. Avoid counseling couples together or recommending couple’s therapy, particularly when the victim first comes forward; abusers often manipulate those settings to feed their strategy. Avoid assuming abuse is less severe because the victim or abuser is young or unmarried. Avoid assuming the victim knew about the abuse before entering the relationship; they likely did not. Remember, the story you’ve heard is likely only the tip of the iceberg. Encourage other ward members to do this, as well. Statistics suggest that over a lifetime, about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men experience extreme forms of abuse from their romantic partners; consider that at any time, as many as fifteen active members in a large ward could be victims of abuse.[4]

Use extreme caution when inviting victims to repent; many of their actions may have been coerced by the abuser or been carried out in self-defense. Use extreme caution when inviting victims to forgive; many victims are affected by PTSD or Stockholm syndrome, and attempting to forgive before these are healed will be ineffective at best, and may perpetuate the effect of the abuse on the victim. [5] Use extreme caution when discussing the abuser with the victim; defending the abuser will likely feed into the abuser’s narrative, and attacking the abuser may make the victim feel further ashamed of having entered the relationship or of the barriers to leaving it. Use cautious judgment and rely heavily on the gift of discernment when listening to an accused abuser’s side of the story. Abusers are often master manipulators and will twist words, tell half-truths, lead the conversation, and otherwise try to hide their actions, blame the victim, and turn family, friends, ecclesiastical leaders, and others subtly against the victim.

Consider letting the victim know the abuse is not their fault, and not their responsibility to solve. Consider letting the victim know that you believe them, and sincerely want to know what help they would like from you. [6] Consider calling the abuse “abuse;” labeling it as unrighteous dominion; describing it as unacceptable, as spiritually destructive. Victims may be wondering how to classify the anguish they feel and wondering if they are justified in feeling anguish due to the abuser’s mind games and manipulation. Giving abuse a name and describing its negative qualities can bring clarity and validation to the victim’s process. Consider explaining that God values them as an individual, and His plan of happiness – and the nature of eternal marriage itself – values their personal and individual progress and growth toward God. Consider referring the victim to community resources for help, such as advocacy, a hotline, a shelter, a therapist or a lawyer.

Community Resources

The pastors in the Interfaith Coalition meeting I attended were almost universally enthusiastic about community resources. Appropriate community resources provided the expertise, professional training, and community connections the pastors felt they lacked; these resources were locally, regionally and privately funded which allowed them to provide services for which the church didn’t have to pay. These resources included legally binding measures, when necessary, that would protect the victim and their children.

The same way you would refer a veteran suffering from PTSD to a specialized counselor who can help with that specific condition, you could refer a ward member suffering domestic violence to an organization that specializes in helping abuse victims.

Resources to look for in your area include:

Advocacy centers

  • What advocacy does: helps victims reclaim agency; connect victims to specific services that match their situation, such as housing, counseling, shelter, services for children and legal services.
  • What advocacy does not do: tells a victim what course of action to take.
  • How to find advocacy: Call 211, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233), or your U.S. state’s Coalition Against Domestic Violence to learn what advocacy centers are available in your area. [7] Trained social workers or therapists in your ward or branch will also likely be able to direct you to high-quality area advocacy centers.


  • What therapy does: helps the victim heal from abuse. This may include processing trauma, including PTSD or Stockholm syndrome, alleviating self-blame, re-establishing the victim’s sense of self and self-efficacy, rebuilding a healthy bond with children after abuse, planning future steps, and more.
  • What therapy does not do: connect a victim to physical services, such as finding alternative housing, or filing for custody or restraining orders.
  • How to find a therapist: therapists that specialize in domestic violence may be recommended through an advocacy center or hotline; some services are free of charge, some on a sliding scale, some at cost. Other therapists may be found through LDS Family Services or the victim’s insurance. [8] Victims who are able may prefer to have consultation visits or phone calls with 2-3 therapists to find one with whom they feel comfortable.

Auxiliary services (legal/medical/housing/shelters/help for children)

  • What auxiliary services do: provide practical, physical help for victims of abuse. This may include police reports; restraining orders; divorces; custody assistance; medical assistance, including doctor’s visits and physical or occupational therapy; emergency shelter; temporary or permanent housing; assistance with food or transportation; emergency cell phones; address confidentiality programs; therapy for children affected by violence; bussing and tutoring for children expelled from home; and more.
  • What auxiliary services do not do: provide counseling or emotional/psychological healing to victims. Requirements for program use vary widely, and not all victims will be eligible for services from all programs. These varying requirements can be difficult to navigate.
  • How to find auxiliary services: An advocate at an advocacy agency will typically talk through these options with the victim in an effort to find appropriate services. Depending on the advocacy center, the advocate may or may not be available for follow-up.

Domestic Violence Assistance in the Ward or Branch

The Interfaith Coalition Against Domestic Violence in my county meets monthly, and each month has a different theme. One month may focus on domestic violence and children, another on recognizing signs of abuse, another on how to counsel abusers, another on what churches and ministers can do to help victims achieve safety and healing.

In conversation, of course, the topics bleed into each other, so the group has spent many hours considering ways to make religious services / church communities places where victims feel they can seek healing, peace and safety.

Five of these ideas apply directly to LDS church services and the LDS ward family.

Holiness of Marriage

  • Interfaith Coalition: Occasionally give sermons about healthy relationships.
  • In an LDS setting: Occasionally dedicate sacrament meeting talks or 5th Sunday lessons to healthy relationships

Evil of Abuse

  • Interfaith Coalition: Occasionally give sermons about abuse with specific enough language about the root nature of abuse—power and control, manipulation and mind games—that abusers who are not physically accosting (beating or raping) their partners, and victims who are not being physically accosted can still see themselves in the description. Decry abuse in these sermons as a perversion of God’s plan and indicate that resources are available.
  • In an LDS setting: This could be implemented in a 5th Sunday lesson. I’ve lived in multiple states where individuals with expertise in these or related issues (child abuse, repairing non-abusive, challenged relationships) have been invited to wards in the stake to teach 5th Sunday lessons.

Teach Adults

  • Interfaith Coalition: Host classes or seminars in the church during the week. Individuals learn healthy relationship skills and have a chance to assess their marriage in light of what they’re learning.
  • In an LDS setting: The Strengthening Marriage and Family manual and the Preparing for an Eternal Marriage manual in YSA/SA wards course encompass the goal of positive relationship education. Some LDS Institutes and LDS Family Services centers offer relevant courses, as well.

The Strengthening Marriage and Family manual uses pithy, valuable language to address abuse in the “additional materials” section of Chapter 4.  It primarily refers individuals to their bishops for help, so prepare for that! The Preparing for an Eternal Marriage manual does not address abuse specifically, but the lesson material in Lessons 4, 7, 14, 20 and others offer opportunities to address abuse. [9] To use these manuals to combat domestic violence, teachers may be encouraged to address this material.

Teach Youth

  • Interfaith coalition: [10] Youth Sunday School lessons, mid-week youth group lessons, or other workshops may educate young people about healthy relationships and the nature of abuse. Abuse is most prevalent between ages 18-24, and many abusers and victims saw this dynamic as children. Education may help them break the cycle.
  • In an LDS setting: Sunday School and Young Men/Young Women’s lessons in the month of August center around Marriage and Family; healthy relationship and abuse education could be included in these lessons. In YSA wards, this material could be shared in firesides, FHE workshops, Preparing for an Eternal Marriage Sunday school lessons, or 5th Sunday lessons.

Designate a “Point Person”

  • Interfaith coalition: Designate someone in the congregation to be a “point person” for abuse – this may be a trained social worker or other knowledgeable helping professional in the congregation. They assist the pastor and are responsible for physical needs as the pastor cares for spiritual needs. This may include knowing what domestic violence advocacy centers/services are nearby, providing social or emotional support when accessing services, necessary transportation, etc.
  • In an LDS setting: Many callings may be adapted to this role, and bishops may be inspired to call specific individuals to serve in this way. Some ideas include: ward LDS Family Services liaison, home/visiting teaching coordinators, Relief Society compassionate service leader, or ward service committee chair. A Relief Society-specific calling would not reach abused men, or abusers of any gender, so another calling could be considered for this assistance.


Domestic violence is not a part of God’s plan, and members of all faiths work to support the most vulnerable members of their congregations. As a church, we have unique insight into the centrality of agency in God’s plan, and are uniquely equipped to help victims and survivors of abuse reclaim their agency, spiritually heal, and continue forward in their eternal progression.

[1]  This post specifically relates to bishops and victims of domestic violence. A future post may address bishops and abusers.

[2]  This fear is well-founded. The most dangerous time for a victim of abuse is in the two weeks after leaving an abusive relationship (United States Department of Justice, National Crime Victim Survey, 1995).

[3] The prophet Jacob in the Book of Mormon recognized this pattern. See Jacob 2, verses 8, 9, 31, and 35.

[4] For reference: Recommendation against couples counseling (American Medical Association Diagnostic and Treatment Guidelines on Domestic Violence, 1992); Statistics on domestic violence prevalence (The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report).

[5] For reference: PTSD/Stockholm syndrome and domestic violence: Herman, J.L. (1995) “Chapter 6: Complex PTSD” in Psychotraumatology; Premature forgiveness and domestic violence: Reed, G. (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology; The most extreme forms of abuse are at least as common in dating violence as in married relationships: Block, C., “Chicago Women’s Health Risk Study, 1995-1998.”

[6] False reports of abuse are rare: Lisak, D., Gardinier, L, Nicksa, S.C., Cote, A.M. (2010). False allegations of sexual assault: an analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence Against Women.

[7] National hotlines exist in other countries. For example, Mexico: Línea de atención por violencia (+52 01 800 10 84 053); Brazil: Serviço de Informação às Vítimas de Violência Doméstica (+55 800 202 148); Great Britain: National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline (+44 0808 2000 247). In addition, the Utah Coalition Against Domestic Violence invites faith leaders to contact their office for training or assistance supporting victims at 1-801-521-5544.

[8]  If the victim’s insurance is provided by the abuser, ask the victim whether this option will work for them.

[9]  Lesson 4: The Lord’s Standards for Dating; Lesson 7: Personal Worthiness and the Blessings of Eternal Marriage; Lesson 14: True Love; Lesson 20: Intimacy in Marriage

[10]  This idea has broad interfaith support beyond this group. Not only did the Interfaith Coalition support this idea, I visited with a Jewish organization that provides faith-specific healthy relationship seminars to youth.


  1. Ryan Hammond says:

    So, so helpful. I believe the church has something like bishop’s councils where bishops get together to receive support and advice from other bishops. It seems like this setting would be a good place for training similar to what you did with the Interfaith Council on Domestic Abuse. Even better would be for our bishops to interact with clergy in other denominations on a regular basis (though as we all know since they are lay clergy with other jobs time can be difficult).

    I would love to see a highly trained person in at least every stake dedicated to support dealing with abuse issues. As you said the statistics alone says there should be enough work in any stake to warrant this investment. They could support the bishops, act as a clearinghouse for resources to victims and act as emergency coordinators for people leaving relationships as needed.

    In any case, something needs to be done more than what we are doing.

  2. James Stone says:

    It should be noted that bishops already have access to an on-call therapist. They’re specifically there as a resource through LDS Family Services. There is no need to involve a third party. If a Bishop wants to receive training or advice before counseling a victim of abuse or the abuser, they already have the resources to do so. LDSFS exists to serve Bishops before anyone else. While they may not be therapists, they are entitled to revelation which trumps whatever training a therapist may have. When working together with LDSFS (using expertise from a therapist while accepting a bishop’s stewardship) can create amazing experiences that defy conventional wisdom and professional modalities.

  3. James, what bishops have access to an on-call therapist through LDSFS? The closest office to Chicago is about an hour’s drive, and is inaccessible by public transit, which significantly reduces the value to members here. And I suspect that most places in the US, much less the world, don’t have easy access to LDSFS.

    That’s not to say that LDSFS therapists aren’t qualified. But saying that they’re more qualified than actual counselors, because revelation? The church doesn’t say that, and that’s unsupportable and actively dangerous. Laura was generous enough to provide resources that could be legitimately helpful to abuse victims and their bishops, who, while generally good men, lack the training to deal with this. And having overconfident bishops, who overestimate their knowledge and skills, risks doing more harm than good.

  4. “They are entitled to revelation which trumps whatever training a therapist may have”

    NO!! A thousand times no. That is not how revelation works. Revelation is an adjunct to “seek[ing] wisdom out of the best books, by study and also by faith,” not a substitute for learning the basic principles that are necessary to deal with abuse.

  5. James Stone says:

    Sam— All bishops in the US and Canada have access to one. Can’t speak for other countries. The key word is on-call. There are lines staffed 24/7 that a bishop can use at any time. Doesn’t matter how far or close the local office is.

    Kristine—I don’t think you understand revelation. Sometimes it comes through studying, other times it’s spontaneous, sometimes through other means or people. In the case of a bishop he has the power of divergent and the right to revelation and inspiration when guiding his flock. Sometime that revelation may come after consulting with LDSFS but not always. I’ve seen both happen.

  6. James Stone says:

    “But saying that they’re more qualified than actual counselors, because revelation? The church doesn’t say that, and that’s unsupportable and actively dangerous.”

    Sam, you misunderstand. The Bishops are entitled to the revelation–not the counselor/therapist. Bishops can use that knowledge gleaned from the counselor to receive revelation and advise those he’s talking to how to proceed.

  7. @James: and sometimes what the Bishop thinks is revelation, or the victim perceives as revelation, is flat-out wrong and harmful. Hence the need for training and professional resources.

  8. It is unfortunate that, once again, a loud and dangerous voice is monopolizing the conversation on what should be a useful post the rest of us might like to discuss.

  9. Bishops are entitled to receive revelation to help them in their calling, but their calling is not to serve as therapists or counselors on all issues. Their calling is to watch over and care for their ward members, but just as you wouldn’t expect a bishop who’s not a surgeon to rely on revelation to perform surgery on a ward member suffering from a medical condition, neither should we except a bishop who’s not trained to attempt to treat mental and emotional health issues just because he has revelation. A bishop needs to know a bit about these things, but mostly so he knows how to identify issues that a therapist or counselor should deal with, not for him to attempt to do that himself.

    And besides all that, bishops are no more entitled to revelation to help ward members than the ward members themselves are.

  10. @Ardis: feel free to ignore the “loud and monopolizing voice” and start discussing anything you’d like to discuss. We welcome such dialogue.

  11. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    “Kristine—I don’t think you understand revelation.”

    Is there still an award for comment of the year? Or, whatever the opposite of that might be?

  12. James Stone says:

    “neither should we except a bishop who’s not trained to attempt to treat mental and emotional health issues just because he has revelation”

    Again, JKC, you’re putting words in my mouth. I never said bishops should become therapists or be the only source of treatment for abuse or anything else. But members do come to bishops with questions and situations all the time and simply to refer them to a third party without hearing them out and praying about it and seeking guidance from the Lord would be negligence on the bishop’s part.

    Revelation given to the bishop might be to refer them to LDSFS or another counselor/therapist. It may be to tell the member to get out of that situation immediately. There could be a 1000 different things he could advise the member to do and unless we’re that person’s bishop or the person receiving his counsel we aren’t in any position to second guess what was done.

    As for bishop’s giving bad advice, yes, it probably happens from time to time but no more than the “spiritual advice” given by so-called experts on this blog which, as of late, seems to be do discredit any advice/counsel/revelation received from a bishop. Everyone is entitled to their own agency and revelation. Just because a bishop advices you to do something, you’re free to ignore it or seek your own answer as well as the consequences that follow.

  13. “They are entitled to revelation which trumps whatever training a therapist may have”

    If you are a bishop and you believe this, you shouldn’t be a bishop.

  14. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    On a more serious note, it is obvious that relying on revelation in these cases has failed. I have zero doubt that when confronted with issues of domestic abuse, Bishops pray and seek revelation for how best to proceed. We also have heard ample evidence (and not just from one very high profile case) that these efforts have led to disastrous circumstances for many, many women. If a Bishop fails to reach out and take advantage of available resources (made available by Church leaders who recognize a need for them), or willingly ignores the professional advice of those who are trained to recognize the seriousness of the situation, for the sake of their own “personal revelation”, then I say, Amen to the priesthood of that man!

  15. This is great! Thank you.

    For the purpose presented, I especially like the counter-intuitive suggestions (ysing a generous or maybe cynical view of “intuition”). Things like not discussing the abuser with the victim, expecting that the abuse is worse than described, not quickly recommending couples counseling.

    Thinking back to what I thought and (mis-)understood and didn’t know when I served as a bishop (a certainly biased, selective, and inadequate experience and memory of an experience, but what I’ve got to work with), for Mormon bishops in particular I would have liked to know all of the original post, and in addition I would have lectured my old self as follows:

    >Whatever you think your powers of discernment are, by experience and education, and by calling and setting apart, this is a situation where the likelihood of deception is high. You are likely to both over- and under-estimate what’s going on and what the next best course of action is. You need to be wise and careful and question everything, and ask for help.

    >There’s a high probability that there is no easy answer and no one-day miracle. Like it or not (probably not) when a victim comes to you you are in for lots of time and worry and prayers and concern. And it still might not go well. Don’t expect to find a quick answer that will get rid of the “problem.”

    >There’s a fear running around that outside help will advise to leave the marriage and/or to leave the church. Wherever you stand vis a vis that fear, get over it. You need the help. She needs the help. At a higher priority than preserving a marriage (that probably isn’t working) or immediate church membership.

    >To the extent you have training and/or expectations about the bishop job, it was all about dealing with the one, the person in front of you, the penitent. This is not that case, so your instincts and inclinations are wrong. Slow down and pay attention. Yes there is a victim in front of you. Get her help. But that’s almost never about her sins or her church activity or anything else church related. And then there’s the rest of the family, including children who may or may not be victims or traumatized observers. You’ve got a mess of problems that are not what you thought was your job description.

  16. nobody, really says:

    James Stone is hereby nominated for the “Doctor Philastus Hurlbut Memorial Comment Award”.

    And I’m taking this post to our next branch presidency meeting.

    On the first listed story – prohibiting a spouse from paying tithing – I know of just such a case. The dear sister holds a recommend because of her willingness to pay tithing, even if she isn’t being allowed to pay it. But that’s from an unusually understanding bishop and stake president.

  17. Bro. Jones says:

    This is a fantastic resource, Laura. Thank you for gathering this information together and putting it into an LDS context.

    nobody: I’m glad to hear that leadership was empathetic in the case you describe. While I wouldn’t necessarily expect leadership to immediately kick down the abuser’s door and reprove him with sharpness of tongue, I’d be horrified if they said, “Well, if he won’t let you do it, then you’re just not a tithe payer and you get no recommend.”

  18. it's a series of tubes says:

    James, I hope for the sake of your ward that you are not currently serving as a bishop or even in a bishopric, nor have served as such in the past.

  19. Ryan Hammond says:

    Christian thanks for the reflective insight of someone that has been a bishop. It was the counterintuitive advice that also really caught my attention in the post. What also struck me was how proactive training needs to be to be effective in the case of abuse. A reactive, “hear is a number you can call for advise” is helpful but it also misses a lot of common problems with abuse – if I don’t recognize it how do I know to call? When my natural instinct to is to go down a route likely to make the person clam up or cause them trauma, its too late to find that out after the fact discussing with LDSFS. This appears to be what happened in many of the cases that are now becoming public.

    I listened to the first recording of the stake president and the parishioner whom he denied a recommend for “failing to stop talking about her divorce”. It seems to me in light of this post, a perfect case study of a SP clearly with good intent but missing a whole lot. I had a big whopping question of whether it was an emotionally abusive marriage to begin with. Nasty texts on the phone (the bishop wouldn’t look at etc.) and a number of other elements had the abuse radar pinging at very least though I think a trained therapist with full information should make that call. Then you have the whole using someone’s temple recommend to get compliance to local leaders preferences. That just stunk to high heaven of unrighteous dominion, but you totally get that this situation was probably a “problem” in the ward that they just wanted to go away.

    The point in the context of this OP is that whatever was going on there it was clear that a post-hoc call to a LDSFS was not going to be adequate support for anyone in that situation and even if it corrected some of the more egregious behavior on the part of the SP so much damage had clearly already been done.

  20. James, I’m sorry that you felt like I was putting words in your mouth with my comment. Your comment that the bishop’s revelation trumps any professional training could easily be misunderstood to suggest that a bishop should feel free to take on issues that require professional training instead of referring the person to a professional. But I’m glad you don’t believe that.

    I don’t really understand the comment about bishops giving bad advice. Did you meant to direct that at me or someone else? My comment didn’t talk about bishops giving bad advice.

  21. James Stone says:

    JKC — Sorry. Bad advice comment was meant for someone else.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    A fantastic post. Many thanks for sharing it with us.

    I found it oddly comforting that we’re not the only ones who struggle with these situations. Since pastors and such in other faiths are professionals and usually have significant education related to their calling, that they too often feel lost and unsure what to do was oddly comforting to me.

    It is unlikely I will ever be a bishop, but if I were the potential for having to deal with this kind of a situation would be very stressful to me. I loved the practical advice presented here.

  23. I am actually really disappopinted in the way the Church handles things like this. Aside from the myriad issues affecting such a large and monolithic institution, this is one that they truly cannot, and should not, get wrong. Yet they do. The ‘culture of revelation’ has sparked some really disastrous actions in this regard. The comments by @James Stone highlight aspects of this incredible tragedy. Revelation is great, but as another poster pointed out, you wouldn’t rely on your bishop to perform surgery if he is not, in fact, a surgeon. Revelation doesn’t work that way.

    Why doesn’t the church immediately sign all bishoprics up for some kind of counselling training? Even if only to teach them how to speak to those who are suffering? Even if only to teach them how to actually refer a victim of abuse to get the help they need? So many bishops (from personal and friends’ experiences) are complete morons when it comes to actually dealing with people.

  24. It’s a bit more than just the culture of revelation, though that certainly doesn’t help. But if you peel back the layers a bit, you’ll find a deep distrust of secular counseling and therapy in certain conservative circles (and not just Mormon ones either). And they aren’t wrong — secular therapists will tell you that gay conversion therapy doesn’t work, that sometimes divorce is the best option, that masturbation may not be the worst thing in the world, and all sorts of other liberal, worldly things that go against conservative belief. So, best to stick to Bishops, and LDS sanctioned therapists, if absolutely necessary.

  25. @Ryan: Thank you! What an interesting idea for a calling :-). Extra time for collaboration does seem to be a struggle—my own (really great) bishop was interested in going to an Interfaith Coalition meeting. But there was just no way with his work schedule, *or* the work schedules of the rest of the bishopric, *or* the work schedule of the RS president, that anyone else would be able to attend. Fortunately, being a grad student gave me some flexibility…

    @James: I don’t think our ideas are as different as others seem to, actually. As you mention, there are resources that are available to bishops to help and support them as they seek revelation in their calling. That was kind of the point of the post, actually :-). To my reading, it would appear that nobody on this thread thinks that bishops should be victims’ only source of help (and they rarely are, anyway), nor that bishops shouldn’t seek and listen to revelation (I sincerely hope—and trust—they do). Quite the opposite. At the end of the day, responding with pastoral care to a case of domestic violence in their ward is something only a bishop can do. That’s a heavy mantle to carry, and this post reflects my thoughts on ways to sustain them as they carry it.

    @Christian: Thanks! I appreciate your insights. Especially your third point (“There’s a fear running around that outside help will advise to leave the marriage and/or to leave the church”). I think we—as human beings generally, and sometimes as LDS human beings—risk missing out on a lot of possible help when we’re motivated by fear of what’s outside our own experience. Hopefully this post made some of those “outside” resources generally less mysterious.

  26. Thank you–very helpful. Appreciate it. When I was Bishop I served on a similar interfaith panel. And one of my best friends from my youth is now a Catholic priest (another friend is an Evangelical pastor). We talk from time to time and one thing I have come to learn is that the assumption many LDS have that our Bishops are just woefully untrained in these matters while those of other faiths are experts is simply not true. The fact is that in most cases all are untrained. My friends (and those I worked with from other faiths on the panel) received about the same amount of training I had. Basically just knowing what I was legally required to do as far as reporting and general counseling principles.

  27. Wow, this is a really great post. I especially like the section about what abusers and abused people may look like to an outsider, and how it’s often not obvious. I think that most bishops would respond quickly to a ward member who immediately described physical violence in explicit detail, but more often they’re met with someone trying to talk around the specifics of the abuse. That’s why upfront training is better than simply providing hotlines and resources – otherwise, bishops might not even know they need to contact anyone.

  28. Excellent! Thank you, Laura!

  29. Thanks to the author for the great blog entry.

    Thanks to Carolyn for defending free expression.

  30. kinda not anonymous says:

    As someone (Mike W.) that was banned from commenting on this blog, I want to thank Carolyn for defending free expression here. Clearly not everyone does.

  31. I want to emphasize the advice in the OP to avoid recommending marriage counseling immediately. Bishops and other church leaders: in the case of emotional abuse, often the woman may not even realize at first that this is what she is dealing with. She may come to you with marital distress, and no physical abuse. If she comes to you in emotional distress related to her marriage, and she comes alone and is not sure she wants her spouse to know about their visit, there is a reason for that even if she cannot verbalize it. She needs a professional to help her understand her experiences and regain a sense of herself, before she can decide what is needed. Emotional abuse can be so tricky. Marriage counseling may offhand seem like a good thing even to her, but she needs help to figure this out before launching into a potentially damaging situation that will only deepen the problem.

  32. This is a magnificent and much-needed post. Thank you!

  33. @nobody: I’m really sorry to hear about the situation you mentioned. I’m glad she has such a caring bishop and stake president, and I hope all the best for her.

    @Kevin and @Mike M: I also found it oddly comforting to know ministers of other faiths experience this. The struggle is real, as they say :-). It’s important to know what you’re legally required to do, of course, but legal requirements don’t actually heal souls — and pastoral counseling (especially in conjunction with inspiration) can be so meaningful toward doing exactly that. Ministers of all faiths often want to go the extra mile for those they serve. One of my favorite things about the Interfaith Coalition meetings I attended was hearing clergy discuss these challenges and develop creative ways of approaching them.

    @Anon: Excellent point!

  34. Very timely for me as I’ve been thinking hard about these issues and studying up. I have had several divorces in my ward which started by the sister meeting with me to tell me about emotional abuse. I’ve been a Bishop for 3 years and have had to go through a lot of these. In some ways I think women are emboldened when they see another sister decide enough is enough, which has brought more sisters to my door and ultimately more divorce in the ward. That is something I’m not real comfortable with for obvious reasons, but is certainly better than the situation continuing in silence.

    The one thing that concerns me is it possible for the pendulum to swing too far the other way? Could playing the victim or exaggerating grievances be an easier out than just wanting a divorce for other reasons. In some ways our culture has taught us the only honorable way out of an unhappy marriage is as a victim. Because I really can’t discern the difference (ironic, I know) of real abuse vs playing the victim, I definitely err on believing the victim and don’t believe I have ever even implied they aren’t a victim even if I have some doubts. Hopefully the statistics listed above bear this out.

    I usually meet with each individual and talk through things and focus on what that individual has power of and what their choices are, but expect them to ultimately make all of the choices. If one party has claimed emotional abuse and I don’t have firsthand experience of witnessing it, then it usually gets drawn into the conversation by the abuser (or alleged abuser) when I meet with him separately. Meeting the couple is almost always unhelpful, since one side dominates the discussion.

    In more than one situation the emotional abuse was two-sided. Each abusing the other in their own way.

    These are hard things for Bishops who have to be the Bishop of both the husband and the wife and if there is a divorce, than likely at least one of them will still be in his ward. So there are dangers here of at least one person involved losing both spouse and Bishop. In some cases where separation is imminent, I have brought another Bishop in to start meeting with that individual so that the level of confidentiality is reinforced and people can talk more freely knowing that information can’t accidentally be slipped to the other party if one Bishop is meeting with both.

    In short, being a Bishop sucks. More training would always be appreciated.

  35. The advice against pushing couples counseling in cases of abuse is spot on, and something I wish I had known before I tried it. It may seem counterintuitive, but many marriage therapists are not equipped to detect or deal with abuse and can be easily manipulated by abusers. Much like bishops, they may tend to identify more with the “repentant” abuser than the “dramatic” victim. Couples therapists are trained to emphasize things like shared or equal responsibility for problems, which is not helpful in the case of abuse.

    Also, Anon’s comment is a great insight. I’m getting tired of people dismissing this whole discussion around bishops and abuse by pointing out that nobody should view a bishop as the primary person to consult when one is being abused. I think this is unfair for several reasons, but more than anything, people in abusive situations often feel very confused and internalize the problem, finding themselves unable to clearly identify the abuse as abuse. They may even believe that their own personal sins or failings are the root cause. Bishops are uniquely placed to be able to help identify abuse and encourage people to get help.

    When women complain of bishops not helping with reports of abuse, I don’t think all of them are going to bishops and saying, “I’m being abused.” More often, they probably describe abuse: “My husband was so angry when we ran out of milk that he punched through a wall.” In unfortunate cases, the bishop then assumes this is a fairly isolated incident, reassures the woman that her husband is a good man, asks her what could have contributed to the husband’s anger, reads a scripture about soft answers turning away wrath, and encourages more diligent family prayer. The woman understands that the type of behavior she’s experiencing is not serious and that she can unilaterally fix it by being more spiritual. Later, when she finally identifies the abuse, she realizes that interaction with the bishop discouraged her from taking self-protective actions sooner and feels betrayed. In more fortunate cases, a bishop will say something like, “Wow, that is not right. How often does this kind of thing happen? Do you feel safe?” It’s that simple.

  36. A Bishop: Being a bishop sounds terribly complicated.

    “In some ways I think women are emboldened when they see another sister decide enough is enough, which has brought more sisters to my door and ultimately more divorce in the ward. That is something I’m not real comfortable with for obvious reasons, but is certainly better than the situation continuing in silence.”

    “Could playing the victim or exaggerating grievances be an easier out than just wanting a divorce for other reasons. In some ways our culture has taught us the only honorable way out of an unhappy marriage is as a victim. Because I really can’t discern the difference (ironic, I know) of real abuse vs playing the victim, I definitely err on believing the victim and don’t believe I have ever even implied they aren’t a victim even if I have some doubts.”

    Both of these quotes seem to attest to the enormous burden on bishops to validate a woman’s (or man’s, but not as often perhaps) experience and determine whether or not she has legitimate grounds to separate and\or divorce. It also suggests, IMO, that autonomous decision making of members is discouraged.

  37. Love, love, love something being done about the problem instead of just complaining.

  38. Comment from Wendy, posted with permission:

    This is pretty good. I have one issue with it. Under the ideas for LDS meetings it talks about having talks on healthy relationships. I sat through a fifth Sunday lesson about marriage and just felt crappier and crappier because I thought I was the one causing all the problems in our marriage even though I knew about my husband’s porn and masturbation.

    I think it’s important to clarify what exactly should be talked about when giving these lessons. Saying one should NEVER yell at their spouse in a lesson like this could, potentially, destroy what little self they had left, because, let’s face it, some of us yell when we’re in trauma. And also emphasize that sex should NEVER be “expected”.

    And maybe let bishops know that they should NEVER tell a spouse that they should “Make divorce the D-word in your home” or anything like that. That makes them feel trapped and like they’ll never be able to get out and feel guilty for ever even thinking about it.

    It also didn’t help that the lesson was given by our bishop at the time (my husband’s brother and his wife) and they lived right next door to us. I seriously felt like the whole thing was for my “benefit” even though it was a fifth Sunday lesson and the youth were there too.

  39. This is already a long comment string, and I really don’t want to threadjack it, but I would mention something in passing.
    Wendy via labrignone: “And also emphasize that sex should NEVER be “expected”. ”
    After years in a sexless marriage, this can be a hard thing to read/hear. Sex should never be expected? No sexual expectation in marriage at all?
    It reminds me of an old blog post from an LDS marriage coach that came across my desktop a couple of months ago
    I noted in my comment on this blog post that, with some of the metoo dialog and talk of “positive consent” from some people commenting on the sexual assault epidemic, that there is room for much more dialog and further fleshing out of these issues. I guess, Laura, you look like one who could deepen the dialog Coach Sam started in his blog post. I would be interested in any thoughts you or others have on the topic (perhaps in a different comment string to not take away from this one).

  40. MrShorty, I appreciate your comment. While I can’t answer for Wendy, here’s my take:

    Domestic violence/abuse is about power and control, and is about the abuser manipulating the victim’s agency to get something. There are lots of ways sex can be used as a strategy for this (or the end goal of this), including expecting the victim to participate in sex as determined by the abuser. With abuse, expectations of sex almost always come with an implied “or else.”

    Touching on your comment, there is a lot more that goes into a sexual relationship than “is it based on manipulation/coercion/fear of retaliation or is it not?” However, with abuse, that’s where you start. Going beyond that isn’t exactly the province of this post, but Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife is a Mormon sex therapist who talks, writes and teaches about it extensively; see for example:

  41. Thanks for that, Laura. I have long followed Sister Finlaysen-Fife’s podcasts and such, as I find she has some really thoughtful ideas (often applying ideas of David Scharch) about sex and marriage. That particular one was a good episode.

    Laura: ” there is a lot more that goes into a sexual relationship than “is it based on manipulation/coercion/fear of retaliation or is it not?” However, with abuse, that’s where you start.” One of the things I am reading into this is that there might be different strategies and advice depending on whether you are “starting” with abuse or not. How does this play into Bishops giving bad advice to abuse victims. We have different “theories” and “theologies” of sexuality for different situations (singles, abusive/abused single, normal married, abusive/abused married). Single married is pretty easy to discern, but discerning abusive/abused from “normal” is a big problem. If you discern this wrong, then you will give bad advice.

    Telling someone like me to “never expect sex” feels like a real punch in the gut. Telling someone in a sexually abusive marriage that “Sometimes, sex should be had, even when we’re not in ‘the mood’.” (Quoting Coach Sam’s essay linked to above) would be horrible advice. Perhaps it just emphasizes in a different way the importance of getting the initial “starting” assumptions right.

  42. Anon for just this says:

    Laura, thank you for taking the time to put this together, for sharing it, and for responding to comments.

    For others who may read this, here is my appeal to authority. I am licensed psychologist with (too much) experience dealing with domestic violence. I am an active, temple recommend holding Latter-day Saint. The guidance that Laura provides is fantastic. Please, please, share it with your bishops, Relief Society presidents, elders quorum presidents, high priest group leaders. Please.

    And as has been mentioned, don’t refer to couples counseling when there is ongoing abuse. I would add, Bishops, please don’t do your own couples work either when there is suspected abuse. Imagine the bishop who encourages the couple to pray together each night. The perpetrator is abusive all day, and then in the evening, “Come pray with me, Bishop told us we have to…”

  43. Laura el al —
    Oh how I wish to have read this post before I engaged in another treatise on abuse.
    For the most part the posts herein, with very few exceptions, are refreshing and poignant in regards of how to deal with abuse. Many of the comments are spot on — but the post by Laura originally is the one that calls for action.
    And Anon for just this says —
    Thanks for putting it succinctly and directly.
    During the day today I read again Jacobs (B of M, Ch 2, 3) instructions to the Men of the Church and that was a splash of cold water on a hot day, so refreshing.
    The issue of abuse is so very, very complex. It must start at the victim of the abuse and expand out from there, extending warmth, acceptance, love, belief, fellowship, friendship and I could write so many other adjectives by turning them to proverbial Nouns in our lives.
    From these posts I have hope that we can move in the right direction as a Community.

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