I’ve talked to many women and I’m hearing the same story. Three bishops, three similar responses.
Each of these women have or are going through broken trust issues from their spouse or former spouse; pornography use, abuse, betrayals, affairs, and have experienced trauma. Many have had narcissistic husbands.
The first bishop I talked to when I found out about my husband’s secret life, his response was to pray, read the scriptures and attend the temple together, even though my husband wasn’t worthy. After two weeks and things only got worse, I asked if I was doing something wrong. His response was that I wasn’t forgiving.
My second bishop was friends with my husband. And the third bishop after hearing my story said he didn’t know how to help me.
In each instance we are all feeling unheard, not believed, not taken seriously, and that the bishop feels we are overreacting.
How can we feel the peace, understanding and comfort we need when we go to someone who is supposed to meet these expectations and we leave feeling alone in our struggles?
You’ve asked an important and delicate question. I know how tricky it is to question those who lead us in the Church while actively trying to sustain them. I’ve counseled with countless members of our faith in the past two decades who have had both positive and negative experiences working with their leaders as they worked through betrayal, affairs, addiction, and abuse. Perhaps I can share some ideas that might help you know how to respond when ecclesiastical support isn’t supportive.
It’s natural to think of the bishop as your first line of support when struggling with issues that profoundly impact your marriage and family. President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke directly to bishops 35 years ago and outlined the unique and important role they play in the lives of their ward members:
You must know something of the circumstances of all of the flock over whom you preside. You must be their counselor, their comforter, their anchor and strength in times of sorrow and distress. You must be strong with that strength which comes from the Lord. You must be wise with that wisdom which comes from the Lord. Your door must be open to hear their cries and your back strong to carry their burdens, your heart sensitive to judge their needs, your godly love broad enough and strong enough to encompass even the wrongdoer and the critic. You must be a man of patience, willing to listen though it takes hours to do so. You are the only one to whom some can turn. You must be there when every other source has failed. You must stand as the strong friend of the widow and the orphan, the weak and the beleaguered, the attacked and the helpless.”[i]
The Lord and the members of his church have high expectations for bishops. I personally discovered those expectations when I was called to serve as a bishop almost twenty years ago. I had high expectations for myself as did the members of my ward. It’s a serious responsibility that can make the most capable man shudder under its immense weight. Most of the bishops I’ve personally known, including myself, carry the constant worry of not doing enough for their people.
I don’t think you’re asking bishops to be perfect. I also don’t think you lack compassion for the unrelenting pressure placed on bishops. I do think you’re asking what should be done when the bishop causes injury to an already injured person. I believe it’s possible to have compassion and respect for the tremendous load bishops carry while also speaking clearly about the direct impact their words and actions have on those they serve.
I believe anyone who counsels with their bishop has a right to speak up about their experience with their bishop. If the bishop says something that is insensitive, uninformed, rude, dismissive, or blaming, I believe it’s important to say something directly to him. Though it was difficult to receive, I ultimately appreciated the courageous and loving correction from the ward members I counseled. It was an essential part of my own education and growth. The information you share about your experiences is a central part of creating a working partnership with your bishop. President Russell M. Nelson reminded us that, “Good inspiration is based upon good information.”[ii] I believe this information includes your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
Now, I recognize that you’re already in a vulnerable position when you’ve been betrayed, abused, and neglected in your marriage. Trusting one more person, especially a man in a position of authority, can feel like too much to ask. I do believe that trust must be earned by a bishop. Even though the calling of bishop signals an initial level of safety and trust, the interpersonal experience between you and the bishop must align with the conditions outlined above by President Hinckley for trust to exist.
Even though it’s impossible for bishops to be experts on every topic facing their ward members, they are asked to prepare themselves to support those who seek their counsel. As you know, the Church website is packed full of trainings and resources that will help increase awareness and sensitivity. When dealing with these traumatic issues, I would hope that a bishop would know to refer individuals and couples to specialized professional and mutual support resources, such as counseling and betrayed partner support groups.[iii] Addiction, abuse, affairs, and abandonment must be handled by those who have the proper training and experience. While these situations certainly require the bishop’s involvement with spiritual matters, these also involve emotional, physical, relational, and safety issues that need in-depth treatment.
If your bishop is unable to show up like this or refuses to understand your situation, please know that there’s no requirement for you to counsel with your bishop about these issues. Even though I do encourage everyone experiencing these types of trials to seek counsel and support from their spiritual leaders, you have the right to discern if that counsel is helpful. Many of us feel guilty if we don’t trust our bishop as a source of support. It’s risky to approach anyone, including a spiritual leader, with our deepest and most vulnerable pains. We need them to be prepared, trustworthy, and capable of assisting us. If that trust isn’t earned during those interactions, it’s okay to move on and seek other support.
President Nelson reminds us that we can seek answers about what we need and then act on it:
You don’t have to wonder about what is true. You do not have to wonder whom you can safely trust. Through personal revelation, you can receive your own witness…Regardless of what others may say or do, no one can ever take away a witness borne to your heart and mind about what is true.[iv]
You get to be in charge of who you let into your circle of support. If your bishop or another leader isn’t someone who has earned your trust, then you aren’t required to include them as a confidant. Brené Brown once said that when we’re going through a crisis, we should be careful to not include people in our inner circle who turn into a piece of debris in our tornado.
If you don’t have the personal bandwidth or strength to educate your bishop about your needs or repair a strained relationship with him, it’s okay to respect your limits and seek other types of support. Some of that other support might include your ministering sisters or a member of the Relief Society presidency. We often only think of the bishop as our only option when there are others who are capable and willing to offer need support.
I also think it’s important to be clear with yourself about your expectations of the bishop. Are you primarily looking for spiritual support and understanding? Are you seeking direction? Are you looking for access to local counseling or other support resources? Are you hoping he’ll hold your husband accountable? I encourage you to be clearly communicate your expectations with your bishop. I’ve spoken with countless women who meet with their bishop, assuming he’ll know how to best help them. Ideally, you can find peace as you work together for the benefit of yourself and your family. If it’s clear that it’s not going to be an option for you, seek to be directed to others who can offer the support you need.
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Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at ge***@ge**********.com
If broken trust is an issue in your relationship, download Geoff’s FREE video series “The First Steps to Rebuilding Trust” to help you begin healing: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/freebie
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
The advice offered through Geoff Steurer’s column is educational and informational in nature and is provided only as general information. It is not meant to establish a therapist-patient relationship or offer therapeutic advice, opinion, diagnosis treatment or to establish a standard of care. Although Geoff Steurer is a trained psychotherapist, he is not functioning in the role of a licensed therapist by writing this column, but rather using his training to inform these responses. Thus, the content is not intended to replace independent professional judgment. The content is not intended to solicit clients and should not be relied upon as medical or psychological advice of any kind or nature whatsoever. The information provided through this content should not be used for diagnosing or treating a mental health problem or disease. The information contained in these communications is not comprehensive and does not include all the potential information regarding the subject matter, but is merely intended to serve as one resource for general and educational purposes.
[iii] I recommend https://sal12step.org/ and https://addictionrecovery.churchofjesuschrist.org/spouses-and-families?lang=eng for 12-step support.
MaryannApril 1, 2023
It is not unusual for Bishops to refer people to trained therapists or psychiatrists. I was very blessed to have a therapist who was also a Bishop (in another ward) so he understood my foundation in the gospel. It's not always possible to find someone like this, but there are also some good therapists who are not members of the church. I highly recommend it. You may not hit on the right one for you the first time, but keep looking until you find someone who can help. It is essential that they understand your moral foundation, so be clear with them about that.
Corey D.April 1, 2023
As a General Authority Seventy who came to our stake some years ago said in leadership meeting, "I don't know where or why members get the idea that Bishops are marriage counselors". Having said that I know it's natural for many members to seek counsel from their Bishop because they recognize or feel that mantel that the Bishop has or they have been taught that's who you go to. Certainly there has been good advice and comfort given by many Bishops in regards to marriage or life problems but their main responsibility is spiritual. But that also doesn't mean a trained counselor or therapist always has answers and may even say things that are contrary to gospel standards or may make things worse.