Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Few Thoughts About Church Disciplinary Councils and Disfellowshipment

I learned a long time ago that nearly everything is subjective, and in the case of disciplinary councils, I believe rightly so, the public only hears the individual's side of the situation. We are not supposed to hear the other side (the institutional side) - and I think that is appropriate. Those who participate in these councils pledge to not talk about the details, and that is an important and valuable thing with which I agree totally. What it does, however, is allow those who are displeased with the decision to be the only public voice - and memories and perspectives while under stress are incredibly tricky things.

Reaching a "proper" decision becomes especially difficult whenever mental or emotional issues are present, since it's almost impossible to trust completely that the person who has such issues will be able to control them in a way that allows them to avoid repeat offenses. Add to that the automatic confidence of many that they won't sin again, even if there isn't evidence of that ability, and disfellowshipment becomes a reasonable "probationary" measure for many instances - a chance to delay a more extreme action (in either direction) and allow the person to prove themselves (one way or the other).

In my experience, disfellowshipment often is the most merciful decision possible - especially when the offense truly is serious and remorse seems real. Just like a time out or grounding or removal of privilege for a child can impress on him the seriousness of something done, without having to resort to extreme measures, disfellowshipment can do the same in tricky or complex situations where the council wants to believe the person but can't have full confidence yet.

In the end, I try not to judge anyone involved in a disciplinary council (in any position in that council), since I know I never will have the full story - sometimes even when I'm involved in it personally.

Having said that, and knowing how often excommunications result in long-term or permanent separation from the Church, one of the most amazing spiritual experiences of my life was a council where someone was cleared to be re-baptized after being excommunicated. I will NEVER forget that glorious experience. When conducted as intended, for the truly penitent, these councils are an amazing thing.

10 comments:

backandthen said...

This post revived an old pain.

I typed something and then I erased it realizing that I was wrong and trying not to pin point what had really taken place because somewhere it was loading a leader's plate a little more when I have been trying not to feel as bad as I should concerning what he did.
I don't know why it suddenly became clear and with this clarity I realized that I may be the one who has been offended but in the end it is my biological father who has lost the most on it because he has lost the unique opportunity to repent and recover from what he did. And all of this because of a bad bishop. I am not judging him, I am judging the fruits of what he did during all the years he was the branch president and then the bishop.
Wow.
I used to say that I had forgiven my father.
Wow I am starting to feel for him. Really.
I read a talk a long time ago from Boyd.K.Paker telling us not to sin (whatever) because repenting is a long and painful process. This sweet leader of ours does not what the state of sin is. Really not. Repenting was sweet to me. As I see my adoptive father I can tell that he is suffering and blaming on others for the pain he brought upon himself. It could have been different if ONE leader had not chosen once again to listen to his own self opinion and had listen to the Spirit. the problem is that to do such a thing it would have taken him to practice communication with the spirit and he has not been in a state of wanting to do such a thing for a long time.

So I was going to write about your post but then all these thoughts came to my mind and I just shared them with you.

Papa D said...

Thank you, b&a, for sharing that perspective. It's not waht I addressed in the post, but I really appreciate it - and it is amazing sometimes what the Spirit can teach us when we are ready to listen. As much as I wish you hadn't gone through those particular experiences, I'm very happy you've been able to receive the insights you described in your comments.

True charity is an incredible thing, and I think you might have gotten a better glimpse of it. I wondered, frankly, if I should write this post, and I'm glad to know it helped someone, somehow - even though it wasn't in the way I would have imagined.

Howard said...

I think the church crosses the line when it pretends to broker your relationship with God through men. I have been in the ironic position of having a strong testimony being completely repentant and square with God but still at odds with the church or at lease with one of the church's representatives.

Papa D said...

"I think the church crosses the line when it pretends to broker your relationship with God through men."

Fwiw, Howard, I agree with you when it's worded that way. I don't think that is the purpose of disciplinary councils, so when they are approached that way, I agree that it often isn't healthy or right.

Having said that, I do believe the Church can't accept every member's statement of sincere repentance at face value. Part of the "opposition in all things", I suppose.

Patty said...

Having been disfellowshipped myself and having known close friends and family who have been excommunicated and then re-baptized, I have come to see the mercy and beauty of the church disciplinary councils. It's hard to explain to people who have never experienced formal church discipline and then gone on to full repentance and fellowship the weight that is lifted when this happens.
Someone very close to me was excommunicated and was angry and bitter for years. With patience, love, and persistence he was finally able to let go of the grudge he held against the church and see the disciplinary council for what it was- a chance to make a new start. The difference between his life then and his life today is like night and day.
When done with love and in the right spirit, a disciplinary council can be the best thing to ever happen to someone. BUT... that person has to have an open heart and be willing to accept responsibility and want to repent. Otherwise it is often just seen as leaders punishing them for something they felt was their own business. (These are the type that usually end up alienated from the church.)
I for one am grateful for the Bishops who have had to discipline a "soul so rebellious and proud as mine" because it has allowed me to more deeply comprehend "amazing grace."

Papa D said...

Thank you, Patty. I always appreciate your comments, and I REALLY appreciate this one.

PaulM said...

I have to quibble with your blanket statement that "We are not supposed to hear the other [institutional] side." I think if the accused/disciplined individual agrees to an "open" council then those making the disciplinary decisions ought to be subject to inquiry and be obliged to provide the rationale for the decision. So many of the potential causes for church dicipline are, as you say, subjective and absence of any check on the authority structure of the Church should be cause for concern. In the vast majority of instances the desire for an "open" council would be irrelevant but I am aware of instances where the evidence presented was in dispute or the interpretation of said evidence was difficult and in those cases a bit of sunshine would incent participants (all of them) to be as deliberate and careful as possible.

If you take the position that any diciplinary council decision taken is always "what the lord wants" then you will dismiss my quibble out of hand. But if you accept that human imperfection can influence the outcomes of these diciplinary councils then I would be interested in your argument for maintaining institutional privelege in all cases

Papa D said...

I think your concern absolutely is valid, Paul - but the format of the council is supposed to address that concern. I know it doesn't always, since the format also is subject to individual alteration by the participants (especially the presiding authority), but, point by point:

1) "I think if the accused / disciplined individual agrees to an "open" council then those making the disciplinary decisions ought to be subject to inquiry and be obliged to provide the rationale for the decision."

A rationale for any decision is supposed to be provided to the person involved. That person is supposed to be given a chance to ask questions, to present his or her view about the accusation, to challenge the decision (at the time) and/or appeal the decision
(afterward). There isn't supposed to be ANY "secret" about anything that goes on - except with regard to the individual input given by those not making the decision itself (those, like the High Council in Stake cases) who are there to ensure each "side" is represented fairly and fully and offer perspective to those making the decision.

2) "So many of the potential causes for church dicipline are, as you say, subjective and absence of any check on the authority structure of the Church should be cause for concern."

I agree, in theory - but I'm not sure how "any check on the authority structure of the Church" is possible. I really mean that. The decision (whatever it is), ultimately, is the Church's to make - which is why it is made, ultimately, by the Church's presiding representative (generally, the Bishop or Stake President). It's not structured as a "jury vote" but as a "judge's decision" - and I have STRONG reservations about changing that for LOTS of reasons.

Papa D said...

3) "In the vast majority of instances the desire for an "open" council would be irrelevant but I am aware of instances where the evidence presented was in dispute or the interpretation of said evidence was difficult and in those cases a bit of sunshine would incent participants (all of them) to be as deliberate and careful as possible."

I have been involved in multiple disciplinary councils, and I have never seen one in which the participants weren't as deliberate and careful as possible. I know that it surely doesn't happen that way in every single case - but I've not experieinced it personally. Also, and most people don't realize this, I'm sure, the more complex and disputed the individual case is, the more of the Church's participants are involved in prividing input - distributed equally between those speaking for the Church and those speaking for the accused.

Also, what exactly do you mean by "open" in your comment? Do you mean "public - or do you mean more transparent within the structure of the council itself?

4) "If you take the position that any diciplinary council decision taken is always "what the lord wants" then you will dismiss my quibble out of hand."

I don't - and never will. I think it's patently obvious that humans can err in pretty much all things - even in cases where everyone is trying sincerely to ascertain God's will, and especially in cases where the presiding authorities have a logical reason to be biased or even antagonistic to the accused. I would hope they would recuse themselves, but I'm not naive enough to believe they always (or even generally) will do so. Those are the situations that concern me the most, frankly.

5) "But if you accept that human imperfection can influence the outcomes of these diciplinary councils then I would be interested in your argument for maintaining institutional privelege in all cases."

I just don't think there is much good served, frankly, in allowing these councils to turn into a public fight. I understand the concern - really, but I believe the consequences wouldn't be worth it, especially since the accused is free to air his or her complaints, without challenge, publicly if desired.

Anonymous said...

This may be quite irrelevant,but as the wife of someone who has served on disciplinary councils,I know of his particularly merciful nature.I also know that he does not serve fools gladly. I've seen his anguish,and genuine desire to make God's love manifest,and his complete absence of revenge or malice towards individuals involved.I actually believe that he was changed deeply by the experience of being involved on an institutional level in these situations.

This is a man who is known as 'the Rotweiler' by his professional opponents.

The experience was a revelation to someone previously untouched by these experiences.