stories of good shepherds: 12 days of ymf-mas
This is Day 9 of the 12 days of YMF-Mas! We hope these posts bring you a little support and cheer this holiday season. Today we’re re-posting a piece by Hannah on stories of positive experiences with priesthood leaders. Enjoy, and happy holidays!
By Hannah Wheelwright
Inspired by my own positive experiences with my current bishop, I sought out stories of experiences from Mormon feminists who also had specific good experiences with their priesthood leaders. I know all too well that many onlookers of the Mormon feminist community (as well as many inside of it) feel we are too negative, too focused on the oppressive and difficult situations in which we find ourselves enmeshed. And while these experiences are entirely valid and important to consider, I do see value in acknowledging and honoring the life changing ways in which good leaders – good shepherds – have impacted many peoples’ lives.
Please, please submit your own story– I would love for this to be an ongoing series. Above all, I hope that these stories can inspire and provide examples to currently serving priesthood leaders of simple yet meaningful ways to help Mormon feminists in their congregations.
“When I was a missionary, I was really really worried about my moral worthiness, despite having no actual cause for concern. (I look back now and understand this is part of my scrupulosity, but then, I didn’t understand it–I just felt anxious anytime I’d see “scandalous” or “risque” ads and billboards in Western Europe, where I was serving.) I tried to confess these obsessive thoughts about nudity and sex to my SP. Wonderful man that he was, he cut me off about as soon as I said, “I’m having a hard time keeping my thoughts clean” and assured me that (1) tons of missionaries have a hard time with this, (2) it’s pretty understandable when you live in a more “permissive” culture and you’re seeing much more skin in ads than you’re used to, and (3) there would come a time when I no longer even worried or noticed these things. (“At some point on your mission you’ll hear someone say a crass joke and you’ll think, ‘Well that’s dumb,’ but you’ll just move on. It won’t scare you or worry you.”)
I love love love that this man listened kindly but also assured me I was normal and made me feel more empowered to deal with the situation. He could have gotten all stodgy and shocked that a young sister missionary couldn’t stop thinking about nudity, but he didn’t. He didn’t shame me or act disappointed, but expressed 110% confidence I could overcome this “temptation.” Even though he probably didn’t recognize this as a symptom of OCD (my scrupulosity), he reacted in an affirming and compassionate way, without judgment. His reaction was perfect for me at that time (when I didn’t realize I had scrupulosity) and got me through.
“While attending my sister’s wedding, I was feeling so profoundly sad and alone. Everyone was paired off and I didn’t even know where to sit. And I felt like I was losing my sister forever. My parents’ bishop saw me sitting alone in the temple and came and sat next to me. He must have been able to read my emotions on my face because he didn’t say much. Just sat there with me. He said something about a lot changes happening in my family that year (this was the second wedding of a sister in the same summer that my grandfather and uncle had died) and that it must be hard. It was I so much needed and nobody in my family was able to give me. I felt like as if I were sitting with Christ in that moment. I cry every time I think of it as I didn’t allow myself to cry then.”
-Maggie, Salt Lake City
“Shortly after moving to a new stake this summer a woman and her baby entered the overflow during the youth talk. I looked again a few minutes later to see that the bishop had come off the stand and was sitting by her and talking to her like she was the only person there. I don’t know who she was but I was genuinely touched to see that. I’ve never seen a bishop do something like that.”
-Tia Dali, Lake Cities 1st ward, Denton TX
“My bishop asked to be addressed by his first name. He welcomed my husband when he came to social events, but never pushed for ways to “encourage” him to attend.
I was not really in his ward, and both my RSPrez and SP pushed on several occasions for me to go to the “right” ward. My bishop just rolled his eyes and told me to do what I wanted.
When I asked to be released from all callings because I was taking a break, he understood, and as far as I know, has not chased me down through administrative channels.
If it were about my bishop, I would still attend happily.”
–Corey Howard, Salt Lake City
“When I was sixteen I started doubting the church while I was attending Seminary. Seminary was held at a cheerleading and tumbling gym owned by the former bishop’s wife. One morning the Bishop asked how I was doing and noted that I seemed like I wasn’t feeling very comfortable in Seminary, and asked if everything was all right.
I admitted that I was having trouble with the church, and having some issues with accepting my identity. He asked me to elaborate, and I told him I didn’t identify as female, and hadn’t for some time. I also admitted that I identified as bisexual. He told me he had always cared about me and always would, whoever I was and whoever I loved. I told him I was having a bit of a faith crisis and wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a member of the church anymore, because I felt victimized by other members, especially when the other kids in seminary bragged about outing and harassing fellow students at their school as queer.
He hugged me and told me that that wasn’t God, and that God would want them to accept their peers (and me) for who they are. He admitted that he sometimes had problems with the church for similar reasons, and nowadays tried to focus more on his personal relationship with God, and encouraged me to do the same.”
-Kieran, Sant Antonio East Stake
“We moved from a ward that was awful. It was truly an unwelcoming, cold place. In fact, they didn’t help us move, because “If they helped us than they would have to help everyone and they didn’t have time for that”.
We moved halfway across the country. Our new bishop welcomed us. Money was very tight when we first moved, and he invited us to come get free eggs from his chickens every week. One week we were all sick and didn’t come get eggs. He and his wife dropped them off, at our house. My husband works most Sundays. Many Sunday evenings, the bishop invites my children and me to come enjoy cookies with his family. I was called to be the nursery music leader. The primary had assembled large totes to hold all the musical toys. When I was pregnant, the bishop would take the totes down to the nursery for me. I’m not pregnant anymore and each week he still helps me. He is a good man, and I feel the love of my Savior through him each week.”
“I’ve had a string of amazing bishops. Two moments stick out in particular. When I was YW president and planning our local girls’ camp, one bishop never even asked for updates–not even when he knew I was planning rappelling and rock climbing for the girls. He just asked me to tell him when and where to show up. I didn’t realize how unique that was until two other area YW presidents were at the same campsite and had been refused permission to do the same activity. They asked, “How did you get your bishop to let you do that?” It had never occurred to me (or him, apparently) that I needed to ask.
Another bishop tracked me down after RS one day and asked me to befriend a sister who was having concerns about women’s status in the church. It spawned a whole series of women who sought me out to talk about Mormon feminist issues.”
–Kelly Merrill Austin, Cincinnati Ohio
“Many years ago I had two particularly meaningful temple recommend interviews that exemplified genuine pastoral leadership:
In my interview with my bishop he asked one question: “Do you have a desire to attend the temple?” I was already endowed and shared with him what aspects of the temple gave me peace, but also how as a woman I struggled with the inequality I felt there. We had a wonderful conversation about faith, personal revelation, and striving to make meaning of imperfect, human attempts to understand God. Rather than framing my concerns as “doubts,” he took my candor as evidence of my sincere desire to engage in meaningful temple worship. This productive and compassionate conversation culminated not only in him signing my recommend, but also the commencement of a pastoral relationship that nurtured my spirituality throughout his tenure as bishop.
A couple weeks after this interview with my bishop, I met with my Stake president to get the final signature on my recommend. He also asked only one question but his was “Do you have a testimony of Jesus Christ?” I shared my testimony of Jesus’s ministry and the way it influences my day-to-day thinking and the two of us were able to talk at length and in depth about what it meant to live a life of faith and deepen one’s testimony of Christian ministry. At the end of our conversation he said “the Spirit has testified to me that you are worthy to enter the temple of the Lord” and I left with my signed recommend.
Rather than an interrogation, these heart-felt conversations are interactions I have remembered fondly throughout my life. Approaching religious stewardship as more than acting as a gate-keeper for the institution, but as a nurturer of souls, is the most Christian form of leadership I have experienced as a member of the Church.”
–Aimee, Cambridge MA
“Over the last year, I have had several conversations with my bishop about faith challenges that members face. I have learned that he is a safe person to discuss those kinds of topics. Today after church, he was asking my advice on how to structure a combined meeting on faith and doubt for our ward. He wants every member of the ward to know that he will welcome people with questions and encourage them to stay in the church while they research and learn. He has definitely been that person for me and appreciates my desire to help and reach others in that situation.”
–Jenne A., Bothwell WA
“When I was 20 (in 1997), my bishop told me “It’s time for you to go to the temple.” I had only been a member for two years, and I assumed he meant for a baptism trip. He then clarified he felt prompted that I needed to receive my endowments.
He made my appointment with the stake president after our brief conversation.
During my interview with the SP, he started to chastise me because he didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to receive my endowments when I was not getting married, not going on a mission, and because I was the only member in my family. He told me I didn’t understand the gospel. He didn’t even ask me the temple recommend questions.
After the “interview,” I went to my bishop’s home and explained what happened. My bishop immediately called the SP. He went into his home office, but I could hear him raising his voice a little.
The bishop emerged and told me to head back to the stake center. I did, and all the SP did was ask me the necessary questions then signed my recommend.
There is no doubt in my mind I was supposed to receive my endowment at that particular time. I know beyond doubt he received revelation from God pertaining to me and my specific needs.”
“When I was a teenager, my bishop spent our interview time asking about school, college, and career plans. He was a brilliant attorney and always made me feel like he really cared about me and believed in me. Because of him I had no creepy experiences with chastity questions or anything. I truly believe this is how you teach a young woman she is “capable of more than being looked at.” Later I was honored to proofread his master’s thesis in history and economics. Such a smarty, that man.”
“I was raped at age 16 & and went to my bishop to confess my sin. I told him that I had “messed up with a guy”. He asked me to explain more what had happened, how old the man was and how I had met him. He didn’t ask too many questions about exact sexual acts but probbed enough to (and asked the right kind of questions) to be able to decipher that I had been raped. He then told me, “you’ve been raped, and I will tell your parents what happened and we are going to get you to the ER.” He did those exact things, but also stayed with me at the ER (got me in right away) and then later attended the hearing at the courthouse. He was the best bishop I’ve ever had.”
–Anonymous, Provo UT
“In my limited recommend interview and in my setting apart blessing, my bishop has told me how needed I am in our ward. He made sure to clarify with each question in the interview that no one should ask anything other than these – he defined 9 with just “apostate groups” and left it at that. In my blessing he specifically mentioned me as a labourer (I work) and told me I was an ensign to my little family. I’ve had nothing but good interactions with him. Oh I was also told while investigating that they were concerned more with where I was going instead of where I had been.”
“Just months before I was set to graduate from BYU, a new bishop was assigned to my Provo YSA ward, and he wanted to meet each of the ward members individually. I had been candid with previous bishops over the previous 15 months or so about having lost faith in Mormonism, which had lost me a temple recommend and a calling, and had made me a topic of discussion in PEC and possibly ward council meeting, but had not threatened my ecclesiastical endorsement (which depends on adherence to the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity, as well as LDS membership in good standing). I went into my meeting with the new bishop expecting that he would be aware of my backstory.
After having lost my faith while at BYU, I understood that if any bishop or stake president misunderstood the limited parameters of the BYU Honor Code and the ecclesiastical endorsement, my academic standing at BYU and any future as a student would be jeopardized. Before meeting with the new bishop, I did some research: he was a faculty member in one of the hard sciences at BYU, which I considered as I prepared to meet with him.
When I sat down in his office, he did not bring up any of my interactions with past bishops. After asking some sincere questions about my background and interests, he asked me about my testimony. My response was that I experienced a lot of doubt. This was almost a year after Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk, “Lord, I believe,” and about five months after Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s talk, “Come, Join with Us.” My scientist-bishop smiled, and (as I predicted) explained that as a scientist he was very familiar with doubt. He then asked me if I had an anchor, faith in something that gave me a foundation. Rather than going into more detail about my doubt, (which might have more directly answered his question,) I took his cue to talk about beliefs that I embraced. I told him that I liked the idea of Jesus as Savior, of God entering the world in order to save the world. This was a favorable turn in the conversation. The bishop indicated that he recognized an earnestness in my desire to know God, and he encouraged me to patiently let the seed of faith grow inside me. Again, I could have derailed the conversation by telling him that I didn’t believe there was any soil in my soul for any sort of seed to grow, but instead I gratefully accepted this bishop’s gift to me: his belief that my appreciation for christological imagery was enough to get by.”
“I gave a talk on the first Wear Pants to Church Day and I mentioned how hard it is to be a woman in the Church (and cried a bit). After sacrament meeting, my bishop said that if he’d known, he would have worn purple in solidarity. He talked about how passionate he felt about welcoming LGBTQ brothers and sisters back into the ward (this is the same bishop who called Mitch Mayne as the executive secretary) and then said he wanted to support feminists as well and that my voice and talents were needed. He then gave me a blessing.”
–Michelle Glauser, San Francisco
“My Bishop here has started using all the auxiliaries to greet people. That means that at least two weeks a month people are greeted by women in positions of authority. He’s aware I’m a supporter of OW, as is the rest of the ward, and they’ve all still been lovely. In the once instance things went badly, he said to me that he thought men would top coming to church if women had the priesthood. I told him that, with all due respect, that was an idiotic position that underestimated men. And he was able to stay with me in the moment, consider what I said and then say, “You know, I agree now that I think of it.””
–Stephanie Garis, Fort Worth TX
“The best bishop I ever had was the one I had when I my husband and I were first married. I was struggling with scrupulosity (that is religious/moral OCD) and my bishop was so kind. He would let me come in every week for my weekly “confessional”. He encouraged me to go to the temple when I was struggling with feelings of unworthiness.”
“When we were undergoing infertility treatments, we lived in U of U married student housing. Rough ward for Bitter Infertile Woman. … except I was not bitter yet, just so so sad all the time. Our bishop had a way of catching my eye in difficult moments … Mother’s Day, always, or when some well meaning person bore her testimony about how birthing her child had increased her testimony like nothing else could. And just by a look I could feel his concern and compassion for me. Such a little thing, but it still makes me weepy. When you feel marginalized it means SO much to know that the leader of your ward is mindful and that you are not being left behind.”
–Ana, Salt Lake City
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