Worthiness Interviews and Moral Authority

In our church, we don’t do confession. Nor do we offer absolution. The church has made the decision to not be an arbiter of your stance before god. However, we do have worthiness interviews.

Worthiness interviews are not an attempt to determine your worthiness per se. A priesthood leader goes through an interview with you attempting to determine where you are in repentance. None of us are worthy; we are all idiots. But if we are at least trying to (do better/keep the commandments and covenants/repent/be less idiotic) then grace is extended and, generally, the priesthood leader sends you on your way, offering support on your spiritual journey. Or, at least, that is the theory.

Of course, sometimes, the priesthood leader extends discipline. They may request that you refrain from taking the sacrament for a period. They may take away your temple recommend. This isn’t meant as penance (because, again, we don’t believe that God requires that), but sometimes, it is thought, a period of time away from these holy experiences can help someone become sufficiently repentant to make some changes. I don’t believe that this usually works at all, but that isn’t the point of this post.

The point of this post is that for someone to do that, to take away access to priesthood ordinances, they must have some sort of authority from God. That is, of course, why we bother with the priesthood at all. Nobody can prevent prayer and private communion (and nobody should), but we believe that someone who is authorized to provide access to proper ordinances can also restrict it. This is why we talk about priesthood keys and their importance (even if we have only the vaguest notion of what any of that is supposed to mean).

However, holding the keys is insufficient justification for granting or restricting access to ordinances. We believe that these men, who judge your repentance, are themselves worthy. Not perfect, not always right, but worthy to be inspired by the spirit of discernment. In theory, if you think you are repentant, and they disagree, this is because they have the spirit of discernment and can see something about your heart and not just because they think you are a lying liar who lies.

So the reason we submit ourselves to the sometimes humiliating process of worthiness interviews is because we believe that the priesthood leader is, like us, attempting to (do better/keep the commandments and covenants/repent/be less idiotic) and that, therefore, the spirit of discernment can dwell with them and whisper to them about the things we don’t even know about ourselves. If the opposite is true, we believe, amen to the priesthood of that man.

This credulity is a kind of grace that we extend to our leaders, a faith that, if we listen to them, they will guide us in righteousness. Which is why the current financial scandal (and the sex-abuse hotline scandal from last year) is so devastating. In both cases, church leadership, apparently at the highest level, has valued maintaining an appearance of worthiness over actually being worthy. When I do that, I need to repent. Depending on the circumstances, I might have access to ordinances taken away.

So what do we do if the priesthood leadership of the church, the men actually holding the keys, appear to be unworthy, not because of any particular sin that they’ve committed, but because, even when it is being shouted from the tweettops, they are not humbling themselves in repentance? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that the keys (whatever that means) that authorize folks to conduct worthiness interviews are supposed to originate in those same councils that attempted to deceive church members (for more than 20 years; in, at least, two seperate arenas). And, while my local leaders seem like nice enough fellows, who appear repentant, without those keys, they cannot use the spirit of discernment to judge my repentance. So, maybe, for the time being, I’ll just be less inclined to participate in worthiness interviews.


  1. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Thank you for this, John. It seems like I am constantly reminding myself that priesthood authority does not equal moral authority. I do believe in priesthood authority. I respect it, and strive to work within it’s bounds. I do not believe that, by virtue of their holding the priesthood and having keys that extend beyond my own, my leaders have any moral authority over me (some of them might, but not because of the priesthood). They may be able to restrict my access to priesthood-y things because of the keys they hold (which I don’t). But that doesn’t mean they are more righteous, or more worthy, or more justified, or more correct (although, many of them are those things). For those reasons, I do not participate in worthiness interviews. I can sort things out directly with God – I have that right. I respect the priesthood and the authority of Church leadership. I won’t be going off starting my own religion, or proclaiming to receive revelation for others, or performing ordinances outside the keys I hold. But Church leadership is losing the moral high ground, and making it increasingly difficult to look to them as exemplars. That’s alright, though, because I’m able to study that person who is supposed to be the exemplar, and follow him. Ironically, the untoward actions of Church leadership is actually driving me further toward Christ.

  2. I liked Jennifer Roach’s recent FAIR podcast episode “Why You So Judgy?”. Something it went over was how denominations who don’t have anything like a worthiness interview, leave their members to work out a relationship with God without any assistance. But the church has things like worthiness interviews to provide people assistance in strengthening their relationship and standing with God. I’d rather have assistance than going on my own and messing up.

  3. Great post. I’ve been surprised with how the crimes of 1st Presidency & Presiding Bishopric impacted me.

    Based on Leonard J. Arrington’s writings we know the selection process for higher church officials funnels only the wealthiest Saints towards Executive offices. As a result, those leaders often struggle with nuanced theology, but excel at administration. I guess I’ve given up hope Executive leadership will navigate theological issues like sex and the priesthood, homosexuality, gender, and racism based on inspired interpretation of scripture rather than the identity politics of the Evangelicals we hold ecumenism with based on our faith’s early and continued (but different) opposition to the civil rights movement.

    To see them be so plainly deceptive in church administration, which is their strongest capability makes it way harder to take very generous views of them. Even if one assumes all the lawyers the church hires are terrible, which seem implausible, there are enough finance bros among “the brethren” to know micro-structuring is an outdated approach to moneylaundering and not an effective one to dodge the SEC.

    Even if all the former private-sector Executives in the Senior Leadership of the church missed every session dedicated to Ensign Peaks Advisors eventually they all saw the audit reports calling out likely crimes, and then were aware of the crimes starting in 2019. Still, they all told members all is well and legal in General Conference after General Conference. It’s sketchy they created EPA and the LLCs to deceive Wall Street and the Press. It’s disqualifying to knowingly deceive the Saints foe multiple years.

    It’s hard to remain in the give those criminals 10% of our income, so we can access the temple and wear our garments camp.

  4. @jader3rd, I think pastoral care in Church would be great. That’s not what worthiness interviews are.

    I have received pastoral care at Church from Church leaders (and peers). That care has never, ever been in the context of a “worthiness interview” to obtain a temple recommend. I’m all for pastoral check-ins with appropriate boundaries. I am very, very against worthiness interviews and I don’t really appreciate Jennifer’s reasoning which IMO distorts what is happening in worthiness interviews to justify a harmful practice.

    I refuse to participate in “worthiness interviews” for a variety of reasons–I consider them to be spiritual abuse that has nothing whatsoever to do with the gospel or teachings of Jesus Christ–but the one described here is certainly an interesting new reason for some folks.

  5. nobody, really says:

    “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”

    We have also learned that it is the nature of almost all priesthood leaders to think they are firmly outside the “almost all men” designation. “That scripture clearly means ‘someone else’, not me. I’m different. I have Keys, they need to respect that….”

  6. “Worthiness interviews are not an attempt to determine your worthiness per se”

    Then what are we doing? Let’s just stop doing them. I see no reason the church needs these interviews.

  7. Jennifer’s perspective on worthiness interviews is aspirational at best, but more like wishful thinking. As a convert from evangelicalism, she thinks bishops can function like youth pastors, but on the whole, they do not. Not by design. There is a lot less freelancing in our faith than in the faith of her youth, and our organization is significantly more hierarchical.

    A former colleague of mine (who had been a bishop) & I had a discussion about what bishops “should” do and “would” do if a person attested that they were worthy, but the bishop just didn’t believe them. My perspective was something like “doubt your doubts” and sign off anyway; the attestation of worthiness is theirs to make, and any consequences were theirs to bear.

    His view was the opposite. He was there to be a judge, and if there were no facts in evidence to contradict their claim to be worthy, he still had to tell them they weren’t worthy based on his own “inspiration” / hunch / (mis?) reading of the situation. He saw it as his responsibility to keep out any “unclean thing.” Protip: People aren’t “unclean things,” and seeing them as such is the opposite of pastoral care. This guy was honestly a very good, decent human being, a great colleague and friend, even a feminist, and a solid leader with integrity. But all that doesn’t change what he believed his mandate to be as a bishop.

  8. I’m sorry, but what worthiness interviews, beyond the occasional temple recommend interview, are people engaging in? Do bishops in random wards out there sua sponte initiate worthiness interviews with the members in their wards? I’ve never seen such a thing.

  9. nobody, really says:

    Adam F:

    Baptism interviews. Each youth will be interviewed by the bishop or a counselor every six months as a worthiness interview, and these interviews are intended to serve as limited-use temple recommend interviews. Interviews for new callings, including Aaronic Priesthood presidencies and Young Women class presidencies. Ecclesiastical endorsements to attend CES schools. Missionaries get interviewed at least every two months, and may be interviewed more often by district leaders, zone leaders, and APs. Interviews for living ordinance recommends. Interviews for fast offering assistance. Interviews by Elder’s Quorum presidencies or Relief Society presidencies as part of PPIs or ministering companionship interviews. Tithing declaration. Interviews to access LDS Family Services counseling. Stewardship interviews by bishops, stake presidents, high counselors, stake auxiliary presidencies. Interviews in conjunction with new callings or changing counselors. Temple recommend interviews.

    And, just for the sake of doing it, the Bishop will often ask the Executive Secretary to “Call Brother and Sister Specific and ask them to come in on Wednesday night. I’ve had them on my mind.”

  10. There is a significant advantage in treating confession and absolution as a ritual act. That way, the priest’s lack of worthiness is not a problem in the vast majority of situations where the ritual is performed. If perfection is the standard of worthiness, then no priest qualifies because everybody sins. If something less than perfection is the standard of worthiness, then we have the fundamentally insoluble problem of setting a consistent objective standard. When a priest has the authority to perform the ritual merely by virtue of being ordained, without additional judgments of the priest’s worthiness, the penitent person can have confidence that the ritual is meaningful. The priest does not serve a pastoral purpose in the ritual, but rather becomes a facilitator of the ritual. The priest must be a reliable, responsible person to perform this task, but the priest need not pass any judgment. The pastoral process can then take place freely, without the confounding threat of retribution.

    I would prefer to see something like this approach in our church. In my view, the role of bishops and stake presidents as judges who discipline is a legacy of the days when the church was new, small, and perhaps needed strict measures to survive as a community. Those days are past.

    We do not behave as if those days are past. We spend a lot of time ostracizing people from the church both formally and informally. If we give ourselves enough credit, we will see that we don’t need to do that anymore. The church can grow in size and we the members can grow in love if we let go of the ostracism.

    (We could also talk about pitfalls of the ritual approach to confession I’ve described here. It’s not a perfect plan! But we really, really need to recognize the ways our current system hurts members and hurts the church. That’s the urgent problem.)

  11. The idea of worthiness interviews becomes more and more troublesome as I age. Simply using the name “worthy” implies authority to represent God and decide on His behalf who has access to Him. Pure hubris.

    I’ve always wondered about logic behind the ability for a bishop or SP to remove a temple sealing – due to unworthiness – that binds on earth and in heaven. Is the sealing so easily broken that a mere bishop can unseal?

    If I, as a deeply flawed parent, would welcome my children home unless they had done something truly reprehensible… wouldn’t an even more loving and perfect heavenly parent welcome wayward children home? The whole idea of worthiness has to go.

  12. True North says:

    I am a ministering brother to a sister who served a mission, got married in the temple, and is a lovely latter-day saint. She stopped coming to church because she got tired of continually having to prove herself worthy.

  13. Thanks Nobody, Really. Many of those I don’t see as worthiness interviews. But some are ones I just never have to deal with, including at least the CES interviews. That will never be one I have to worry about…

  14. I might be considered an outsider to this discussion, having avoided all kinds of interviews in the Church for more than 25 years now. But never shy, and now fairly public (see my recent book), here’s my for-what-it’s-worth:

    As a purported substitute for the judgment of God (which I would want to frame in terms of grace rather than judgment anyway), I don’t view the Church as having had moral authority or lost moral authority because the whole idea is a non-starter for me. The Church does not give or take away on that dimension of “judgment.” And never has.

    Thinking about ordinances and sacraments, I answer the relevance and efficacy questions by starting with a concept of ordinances as effecting change in me and in my relationship with God. In that framework, concerns about the righteousness or moral authority of the officiant making the ordinance more or less effective in a mechanical sense, as though it takes a certain quanta of spiritual energy in the officiator to make the ordinance “work,” is a kind of magical thinking I preach against. On the other hand, if we take a ritual approach, the power of ritual is partly in the belief and trust of the participants. If I or we lose confidence that the officiator is the right kind of officiator, the ritual may lose its power to change hearts and minds. In that way, a loss of what we see as moral authority can be a loss for all of us.

    Focusing back on interviews, I would challenge the premise of a “worthiness” interview. I think that’s very rarely what’s going on. For certain major callings, especially ones which confer authority and control over lives and property, there are background checks (and probably should be more) and reviews of experience and performance, and sometimes searching interviews, that impress me as a kind of worthiness review. Worthiness for the job, at least; probably not worthiness for heaven. But for most of us most of the time what we’re talking about are tests of readiness, measures of cleanliness, loyalty oaths, obedience criteria. I suppose attitudes vary widely, so speaking for myself only, none of those measures depend on the character of the inquisitor, and while I’m not interested or willing to engage on cleanliness or loyalty or obedience, there is something of merit in the concept of readiness or preparedness. For example, before someone goes to the temple for their own endowment, I want them to know what they’re doing, to have respect for the ritual for themselves and others, and to have a sincere desire to participate. That kind of readiness is not casual or trivial and warrants something that might be called an interview. At the same time, I don’t require a searching inventory of the questioner’s character before I can engage in a discussion of readiness.

  15. “Then, when we have proven worthy
    Of thy sacrifice divine,
    Lord, let us regain thy presence;
    Let thy glory round us shine.”

    These lyrics make less and less sense to me as I age. Isn’t the point of his divine sacrifice that I can never prove worthy of it?

    In Mathew 8, the Centurion asks Jesus to heal his palsied soldier. Jesus says, let’s go. The Centurion says, “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.” Christ knows this man, knows he has never kept Shabbat, never sacrificed in the temple, has eaten swine, has probably persecuted Jews. Christ knows all this, but that was not an impediment to Jesus saying, let me accompany you to your friend. This man’s worthiness never enters Christ’s actions, words or willingness to be with him and bless him and his friend. Instead, all Christ says about this man is to marvel at his amazing faith. “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” Christ was around many who nearly perfectly kept the commandments. I don’t recall him making any similar pronouncements about them. No one obeyed their way to his grace. Many repented and believed their way to it.

    Sorry, one more point. Can anyone show me one place in scripture where Christ encounters a repentant person and asks her or him to take a spiritual time out? Anything at all that would be our equivalent of asking repentant sinners not to partake of his sacrament, say public prayers, give talks, go to the temple, serve in a calling, pass the sacrament? Any at all? (Indeed, he even gives the passover bread and wine to non-repentant Judas who had already resolved to betray Christ. Christ himself gave him the sacrament.) Where did we get our policy of asking repentant sinners to step away from engaging with the symbols of Christ’s atonement? You could analogize it to the Law of Moses time outs after doing or touching something that was unclean, such as having to wait so many days after an issue of blood, touching a dead body, having sex, etc. But that is so . . . Law of Moses. When did Christ ever impose any such awaiting period?

  16. Nobody: Man, bringing up missionary interviews makes me think that moving towards a more freeform, “pastoral” interview model might make things worse.

    In a worthiness interview, at least the questions are defined. You can just yes/no your way through it and be done, as long as the bishop just sticks to the format.

    In regular missionary interviews though, there isn’t any strict format (that I know of) and so the mission president can just laser in on his own priorities, which are, in my experience…


    Waking up at 6:30

    Everything else

    So whatever we do with worthiness interviews, I desperately hope we don’t replace them with freeform “pastoral” interviews until we completely destroy the whole judge-in-Israel idea.

  17. Soren K, I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I talk about pastoral care in this context, I’m using that phrase to indicate something entirely different from worthiness interviews. Good pastoral work starts by responding without judgment to a person’s own perception of their needs. Worthiness interviews impose external judgments on the person being interviewed.

    We need to give pastoral care. We also need to hold people accountable. But these are different things—even when one person needs both things. The great mistake of the LDS method is that it pretends an accountability process (worthiness interviews) is really a pastoral process. The result is that we are less likely to get productive accountability, and we are much less likely to get good pastoral care.

    A lot of members of the church have no idea what pastoral care means because their only reference point is the worthiness interview.

  18. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Yes, thank you Loursat. When they need pastoral care members are often unable to get it from their Church leaders because those leaders are, simultaneously, using the encounter to ascertain worthiness. Or, if not simultaneously, those are the same leaders who will be ascertaining their worthiness for other things (callings, temple attendance, attending or teaching at BYUs, …). This is why faculty, and students, at BYU can’t go to their Bishop when they need counseling because they might be jeopardizing their employment, or education. Of course, another reason members are unable to get pastoral care from Church leaders is because most leaders are simply unqualified to provide it.

  19. Loursat says:

    Some thoughts on the problem of accountability.

    The idea of the worthiness interview is a bad model for accountability because it conflates accountability with pastoral care. As long as we’re saying it’s about “worthiness,” the focus can’t really be accountability. That’s why I agree with others here who think we should scrap worthiness interviews.

    There are different situations in which we need accountability. When we’re talking about accountability through repentance, I think it’s better to use a formal process that lets the repentant person define the need for repentance. That kind of process reduces the potential for abuse or incompetence from the priest/officiant. As my first comment suggests, this is an advantage of treating repentance as a ritual.

    It’s a different situation when we’re evaluating our organizational responsibilities. In the church, we should treat that a lot like we treat being accountable for other kinds of responsibilities we take on in life. We work together, and we talk cooperatively about what we need to do next.

    There is a third situation, in which severe discipline is necessary because of terrible conduct that’s criminal or otherwise harmful to members of the church. We need still another way of dealing with that kind of problem.

    There is also a more involved discussion to have about what we should do with baptismal interviews, temple recommend interviews, and the like. I think it’s probably wise to defer that discussion until we get more clarity about disentangling accountability from pastoral care. (That discussion includes the question of whether “worthiness” is an unproductive idea, but, as I said, that’s another discussion.)

    The main point is this: we get good results when we’re good at treating different problems differently. Treating all of these situations as basically the same thing is not helpful.

  20. Soren K says:

    Yes, that’s a good distinction – I might also add that many of the things we think people need to be “held accountable” for are things that really require pastoral care.

    Of course, on the flip side, you’ll sometimes hear about situations where somebody is causing serious harm and intervention is needed, but it’s treated as a pastoral issue. That’s the confusion you get when you conflate the two processes, I suppose.

  21. Rockwell says:

    “ In our church, we don’t do confession.”

    I have seen other people say this before, and I don’t understand it. I mean, I know we don’t do confession the same way as other churches, but I have thought since my early seminary days that certain sins were supposed to be confessed. So this statement, that we don’t do confessions, I don’t know if it means that we don’t have to confess, or that we should confess but don’t do it, or that the confessions that are made somehow don’t count? I don’t get it. But apparently I’m the only one because I one else is saying anything about that.

  22. Rockwell,
    It is true that there are scriptures that suggest we confess our sins, but, if I recall correctly, they ask us to do it in front of the congregation (but I really might be misremembering). In any case, what I meant is that we don’t do confession like other faith’s do and because our church doesn’t offer absolution like other faith’s do, whatever confessing we do serves a different purpose.

  23. A Disciple says:

    LDS practice produces a pharisaical culture that must pretend the good people are worthy of God’s blessings. In contrast to those unworthy people who need to be chastised and punished to shape up.

    It would serve the LDS people to have a means of confession that wasn’t perceived as risking social shame, judgment and punishment. A duty of a priest was to carry the burden of the people’s sins (see Hebrews 9 where Christ is described as the great High Priest). LDS culture skips this and emphasizes the priest being a judge and repentance requiring some type of penance.

    Now there are sins that require ecclesiastical judgment because they are especially serious to the integrity of the congregation and the welfare of the individual. At the same time there are too many sins a person may commit for a leader to test and validate a person’s “worthiness” (see Mosiah 4:29).

    The defining message of Christianity is that we all fall short of God’s glory and we all are utterly dependent on the Savior to be redeemed. And thus we read in the Gospels that Jesus was receptive of the sinful and flawed, who humbly approached him in faith and gratitude and love. Those who considered themselves righteous and were skeptical of what Jesus could do for them spiritually did not impress Jesus much.

    So it is that the prophet Alma taught his son Shilblon it is better to consider oneself unworthy before God (Alma 38:14).

    “Do not say: O God, I thank thee that we are better than our brethren; but rather say: O Lord, forgive my unworthiness, and remember my brethren in mercy—yea, acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times”

    How fascinating is it that the LDS theology teaches one must feel worthy to approach God, and the Book of Mormon emphasizes the opposite!

  24. I think the real problem with worthiness interviews is that they carry no promise of absolution, only coercion. The bishop will always say something to the effect of, “Only you will know when you are forgiven.” So, what’s the point then? It seems fairly coercive, really. Basically, the threat of withholding the marks of worthiness in order to ensure compliance.

    The fact that the church engages in institutional simony (offering the saving ordinances only to those who pay money) enforced by worthiness interviews makes it that much worse.

    A big reason the LDS church has bajillions of dollars while other churches struggle with money isn’t because Mormon’s are more generous or righteous, or other churches are really terrible with money, it’s because simony is (outside of Mormonism) considered a grave heresy. You can beg and plead for folks to pay their tithing, but you can’t withhold ordinances if they don’t pay.

  25. your food allergy says:

    Fantastic comment, Disciple. Thank you

  26. I would describe “worthiness interviews” as “loyalty tests”. What leadership really wants to know is whether or not the interviewee is likely to embarrass the organization of the church.

  27. @Paul M, if we were trying to avoid people embarrassing the church, we’d shut down testimony meeting or we’d add lots of other questions which would deal with more public facing embarrassments. The worthiness interviews are sincere in the belief that the correct answers indicate a minimum level of worthiness. I simply question the premise that the yes’s and no’s called for indicate worthiness to be in God’s presence or to be in communion with fellow sinners or that the keyholder’s assent makes it so.

  28. Todd M Smithson says:

    Worthiness interviews are masquerading as pastoral care, pretending to have interest in the well being of the individual, but they aren’t even doing what they profess by name, assessing ones personal purity. They ask questions that primarily are a measure of loyalty, and commitment to being affiliated with the church as an Institution. What does my personal worthiness have anything to do with whether I believe and sustain our Prophet and Apostles?
    Worthiness / Temple recommend interviews have more with protecting and preserving the institution than caring for the happiness of the individual.

    The sacrament, Temple, baptism, ordinances, etc. are treated just as the prevailing Jewish culture saw the women with an issue of blood. Those who partake of the Sacrament unworthily are thought to taint that which is clean and worthy. Why do we not understand that Jesus’ virtue had the power to make her clean. Her uncleanliness did not have the power to rob him of his virtue.

    The Sacrament is not a prize to be won, it’s an invitation to be part of the body of Christ, it’s something to be received. And our capacity to become like him is predicated on our receiving his Grace. We don’t invite people to this sacred communal meal because they have risen to some arbitrary level of personal purity. Performed in this way, our Sunday ritual becomes more a way to signify to fellow saints the story we want them to believe about us. It’s a story that projects the parts of me that are worthy of praise and obsesses and suppresses the weakness that contains the greatest sealing power.

    If partaking of the Sacrament begins with the idea that I am good, then the whole ordinance carry’s the danger of using it to signify our own worthiness to one another. In short, we have already lost the infinite nature of Christ’s sacrifice by reducing it to a medicine only available to those who first prove they are worthy. This is backwards, and furthermore obscures our focus during the sacrament, centering it first on fixing my flaws as a way to deserve his infinite love. Additionally, if I am consumed with my own flaws and sins, what is stopping me from fixating on the darkness in others?

    We invite them because we love them, and we have agreed, by way of covenant, to share life’s weakness, to bare each other’s imperfections, and to care for even the least of these.

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