Taking Sides: You’re the Bishop (Poll #17)

By: Bishop Bill
February 18, 2012

There is a man in your ward who moved in about a year ago. He is separated from his wife and is working through a divorce. He tells you that they have been “emotionally” divorced for many years, and that his grown children have wondered why he took so long to finalize the divorce.  For several months you have noticed that he sits by a single sister in the ward his same age during sacrament meeting.  You call him into your office and warn him against dating until the divorce is final.  He tells you that they have spent time together, and have decided to get married immediately after his divorce is final, and he asks you to conduct the wedding. You agree to his request, but again warn him about dating before the divorce.  

About a month latter you get a call from your Stake President.  He is quite upset. He said he got a call from a fellow Stake President, who is the Stake President of the soon to be ex-wife of the brother in your ward.  The man and woman in your ward attended the temple together, and members of the wife’s stake saw them together in the celestial room and called their Stake President.  You explain that you have counseled them not to date until the divorce is final and that they plan to marry civilly as soon as the divorce is final.  He tells you not to marry them, as it would look like the church approves of their premature relationship.   You are the bishop, what do you do?

You're the bishop. What do you do (Poll #17)

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30 Responses to Taking Sides: You’re the Bishop (Poll #17)

  1. mh on February 18, 2012 at 8:24 AM

    option 5. you aske the stake president how you are supposed to handle the situation, and ask the stake president if he would feel comfortable discussing the situation with the brother and his girlfriend.

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  2. el oso on February 18, 2012 at 8:25 AM

    Yes it is time to up the ante on the meddling SP. You have to start with your own SP and disagree with the dictate not to marry them. They have been separated for a year and have no young children. Many people would assume that the divorce is already final.
    If the SP agrees that after a waiting period is OK, I would tell the soon-to-be couple that they need to wait a few weeks before I can marry you.

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  3. anon on February 18, 2012 at 8:38 AM

    seeing them in the temple together seems a heck of a lot better than other things they could be doing together! were they kissing in the celestial room? holding hands? what level of PDA made the others assume it was a date? i’ve found myself at the temple with people i know before, without plans to marry them.
    it’s no one else’s business, marry them!

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  4. annegb on February 18, 2012 at 9:21 AM

    Maybe his marriage has been over for a long time because he’s been in love with another woman.

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  5. ji on February 18, 2012 at 9:23 AM

    “…members of the wife’s stake saw them together in the celestial room and called their Stake President…”

    Wow! I hope this is pure conjecture for the sake of the discussion exercise. Or in other words, I hope such tattling doesn’t really occur among members in real life. I also hope in real life that the distant stake president wouldn’t call the present stake president. And finally, I hope in real life the present stake president wouldn’t call the bishop with an ultimatum.

    If I were the bishop, I would do the wedding. The stake president has no authority to say no as the matter of civil marriage is outside his jurisdiction or keys, and the bishop is acting as a civil officer rather than as a church officer. The Church might withhold a later sealing from the couple if their romance was the reason for the marriage’s failure, but the sealing is a wholly Church matter so this is okay with me.

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  6. Jake on February 18, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    Option 6:

    Agree with the Stake President that it might look as if the church approves of the premature relationship. Then point out that refusing to marry them would look as if the church does not approve of marriage between two people who seem to be in love, and wishes to forbid people from getting married if they want to.

    Secondly, neither of us know what the real state of the relationship is before the divorce so to not marry on what we think might be the situation between them is to act only on gossip, rumour and speculation.

    Thirdly, I would remind him that this is a civil marriage so whilst I valued his ecclesiastical advice, ultimately I will do what I think is in the best interests of the members of my ward, not what is in the interests of the institution.

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  7. NewlyHousewife on February 18, 2012 at 11:28 AM

    Say some rude snotty comment about how as the person’s bishop you have a better handle and more knowledge in the situation than the Stake President from Uganda (we are assuming he’s from Uganda right?) and this advantage makes you not the bit worried about marrying the two civilly. Then share some advice about how maybe he should tell the other guy ought it be time to evaluate his priorities if he’s spending more time worried about a male no longer in his jurisdiction thanks to a ward gossiper than the sex offender who just moved there.

    More proof that if I were ever bishop, I’d be released before I was called.

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  8. Left Field on February 18, 2012 at 11:39 AM

    I don’t know what the current handbook says, but I’ve always understood that if a couple has been engaging in problematic behavior, the church has been happy to get them married as soon as possible. I don’t think implied “approval” of previous behavior is remotely an issue.

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  9. Paul on February 18, 2012 at 12:34 PM

    I did not select any of your options.

    I’d need more conversation with the stake president. And I’d invite his help in discussing the matter with this Melchizedek PH-holding (and otherwise temple worthy) brother.

    I can imagine several concerns the stake president has:

    1. If this brother left his wife, he is stepping out of a temple covenant. That’s something I would not take lightly. (That said, the brother will, in the end, decide what he will do, and I do not know all of the issues surrounding his pending divorce.)

    2. I’ve already counseled him not to date until his divorce is final; a discussion with him about the nature of a temple date would be appropriate. I’d remind him of the importance of honoring his marriage covenant as long as it is in force.

    3. As much as I’d like to slap whoever “tattled” on this brother, I can’t. She is out of my jurisdiction, as is the other stake president.

    What I have learned over the years is that there is always more than one side to a story. So far the stake president only has one, and he deserves to get the rest of the story from the brother involved.

    Hopefully, in counseling with the brother and the stake president, a mutually acceptable agreement can be reached through open discussion and prayerful consideration of the matter.

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  10. Stephen Marsh on February 18, 2012 at 1:11 PM

    If it is your stake president telling you to do something that is different from the other stake president.

    There are huge issues that always arise when people start to take sides in these messes.

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  11. E on February 18, 2012 at 2:13 PM

    I don’t see how the Bishop can do anything but accept what his ward member tells him about the relationship. I would agree with meeting with the man again and discussing things; I think the man should lose his temple recommend if he affirms any inappropriate behavior and I consider dating while separated awaiting divorce to be inappropriate). I don’t see what good it does to refuse to marry them.

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  12. K on February 18, 2012 at 3:01 PM

    I’m sure this hypothetical situations strikes too close to actual real life situations for those of us who have served as bishops.

    In my mind, a more likely outcome would be a series of interviews between the bishop and the couple and the SP and the bishop to determine the best course of action.

    Real life has never been as clear cut as the alternatives listed in the poll.

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  13. KT on February 18, 2012 at 3:24 PM

    It should not be the Church’s prerogative to control people’s actions. If they (the couple) are comfortable with their actions, then that is their choice – they will suffer any possible consequences. I don’t understand why people are tattling to their stake president. This is ridiculous.

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  14. Sinclair on February 18, 2012 at 10:39 PM

    “Emotional divorce” is very different from legal divorce and it smacks suspicious.

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  15. Cher on February 18, 2012 at 10:54 PM

    I would tell the Stake Pres. that the brother had been commanded by an angel with a sword that he must court this lady or else. Dear Brother Joseph had the same problem- so who are we to judge?

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  16. wonderdog on February 19, 2012 at 5:23 AM

    You kindly remind the SP that you are a “judge in Israel” and that the Lord gives you inspiration to fulfull your calling. You humbly ask that he sustain you in your calling and for his support in your decision.

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  17. GuwapoAko on February 19, 2012 at 9:39 PM

    What is people’s beef with opposite-sex friends? Spending time with the opposite sex does not mean that one has or will or is thinking of having sex with them. If it did, I’d probably be in a lot of trouble ;) I think that the continual worry about opposite sex friends reinforces the sexual objectification of the opposite sex, which I feel puts obstacles up when we indeed to enter a bonafide sexual relationship (hopefully after marriage, but who am I to judge…)
    In this case, there are clear romantic intentions. I would recommend at least 6 months after the divorce before they even begin dating (nothing like baggage from an old relationship ruining a new one) but I’d leave it at recommendation only. After all, Agency is something that even God won’t take away, so I wouldn’t dare tread there.
    Just some rambling thoughts….

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  18. Heber13 on February 20, 2012 at 11:04 AM

    People get caught up in the middle, and the church leaders get worried how the church image is…but none of that overrides the personal situation going on.

    Bishop giving counsel to be careful of dating before the divorce is good counsel.

    It seems out of place to go beyond counsel and start telling people what they can and can’t do because of “perceptions”.

    A message needs to be sent to the members and SP of the other stake, to remind them to support and care for their friends, but know limits of involvement in others’ situations.

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  19. annegb on February 20, 2012 at 12:29 PM

    Paul has a point. Also, I agree with Stephen. When a bishop’s stake president tells a bishop to do something, is there room for discussion?

    I don’t like people tattling on others–do you know people have taken my blog posts to my bishop? (he didn’t do anything).

    But, if I were the bishop (outside of having a short, but good time, like newly housewife), I would be asking more about how long he’s actually been separated and how long he’s actually been seeing this woman. I smell a rat there. Maybe he’s now saying his marriage has been over for a long time, but his wife might not agree. The bishop has the right to probe into the situation.

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  20. jmb275 on February 20, 2012 at 12:34 PM

    Re Paul
    I liked your solution, but I’m not so about this:

    What I have learned over the years is that there is always more than one side to a story. So far the stake president only has one, and he deserves to get the rest of the story from the brother involved.

    It’s not clear to me that the Stake President deserves anything. I really do think there is a fundamental problem when the church (local or general) starts making judgments about our personal relationships barring any broken covenants. In this situation it really starts to look like a witch hunt. Being “emotionally divorced” and “separated” is a significant thing (for all intents and purposes they’re not married anymore aside from some paperwork and a legal technicality). Perhaps there are tax reasons they have stayed married. Doesn’t matter really, if the couple hasn’t had sex or broken any covenants then the the bishop should marry them (if he wants) and the SP, the other SP, and the tattler all need to get slapped for meddling. But I do think you have the right attitude of trying to congenially work out a solution. Belligerence won’t get anyone anywhere.

    Re the OP
    Seriously, protecting the image of the church as a reason to ask two people not to spend time together? What a shallow, judgmental reason for interfering in a personal relationship. Who are these people?

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  21. Paul on February 20, 2012 at 3:04 PM

    jmb, I couldn’t disagree more.

    You said, “Doesn’t matter really, if the couple hasn’t had sex or broken any covenants”

    Dissolving the first marriage is a broken covenant. The brother may not be at fault. But only further discussion will reveal that. In any case, until the first marriage is legally ended, then it is in force, and as this brother’s bishop told him, no dating until the first marriage’s divorce is final.

    The stake president deserves information because he is the president of the Melchizedek Priesthood in his stake, and therefore is responsible for this Melchizedek Priesthood-holding brother. In matters of church discipline (and I’m not saying any is required here), he would need to be involved (the bishop would consult with the SP before engaging in any disciplinary council, for instance).

    Because the other SP has involved him, the brother’s own SP should seek to understand both sides of the story before making a judgement about whether the man did anything wrong by appearing in the Celestial Room with the new sister. It’s possible the happened to meet at the temple. It’s possible that the meeting was completely benign. But because a busy-body from the wife’s stake “tattled”, the SP’s are now involved whether they like it or not.

    Personally I cannot fathom why a bishop would be told not to perform a wedding. But I’ve never been in this situation before, either.

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  22. Heber13 on February 20, 2012 at 3:31 PM

    Paul, along your same line of thinking of not assuming things, I would think there very well could be valid reasons the SP knows something and the direction to not agree to marry them is valid. Thus, more information is needed, otherwise it just doesn’t feel right, and a bishop should follow his conscience to ask appropriate questions, not just blindly obey or disobey the SP. But based on the OP:
    “He tells you not to marry them, as it would look like the church approves of their premature relationship.”
    …that would need some followup discussions with the SP, because that alone, to me, is not good enough reason to deny the request to perform a marriage, IMO. I think it is good for bishops to push back on SPs.

    It would be an interesting situation. If the bishop didn’t dot the i’s or cross the t’s and handle it carefully, it could be a messy situation.

    I think the part where the married brother is sitting next to the single sister in sacrament meeting is “iffy” – and should be called to the brother’s attention that he should show better judgement to avoid the appearance of evil, even if he thinks it is harmless. If the brother can’t respect the bishop’s concern that such behavior is uncomfortable, then maybe the bishop isn’t comfortable performing the marriage. IOW, try to get the brother to work with them on this sensitive situation through many interviews and talks, always avoiding unrighteous dominion in doing so.

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  23. hawkgrrrl on February 20, 2012 at 6:24 PM

    Going to the temple is a cheap ass date.

    I do think there’s some reason to probe further with this guy, if for no other reason than his use of the term “emotionally” divorced. That smacks of self-justification. I’m with annegb in that I smell a rat. Having said that, it also seems stalker-esque for the people in the soon-to-be-ex-wife’s ward to be spying and tattling, but people rally around the spouse they think was wronged. Maybe the SP is being conned by the ex-wife’s story. Or maybe she’s right.

    In reality, it’s very hard to assess blame in a divorce. There’s always more (or sometimes less) to the story than either party is objective enough to see. Once you decide to divorce, you start down a path of justifying your decision, and suddenly you see evidence of your rightness everywhere you look.

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  24. NewlyHousewife on February 20, 2012 at 8:48 PM

    “Going to the temple is a cheap ass date.”

    Ah the lovely stories of going to Orem/Provo/Salt Lake/*insert city* as a first date.

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  25. Bess on February 21, 2012 at 6:57 AM

    I think I smell a rat also. There are usually many sides to a story, the fact that this man is already planning on marrying another woman that he is attending church with means that they have spent time together at some point. He is still married until the divorce is final, he has temple recommend and he should be keeping his covenants. Yes, someone tattled on him, but why? What does that person know about the first marriage that the new bishop doesn’t?
    My dad moves from ward to ward to avoid the powers that be finding out about how he treated his family and he is still able to keep his church membership and temple recommend because communication breaks down between ward and stake leaders.

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  26. jmb275 on February 21, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    Re Paul and I guess everyone

    Dissolving the first marriage is a broken covenant. The brother may not be at fault. But only further discussion will reveal that. In any case, until the first marriage is legally ended, then it is in force, and as this brother’s bishop told him, no dating until the first marriage’s divorce is final.

    Wait, I’m confused. Dissolving the first marriage is a broken covenant? What do you mean by this? From what I read, the marriage hasn’t actually ended, right? That’s the rub. So did he break a covenant, or not? And which one? I can see that getting divorced is breaking the contract, but we don’t punish people for that in any way, nor for separation, and neither does that nullify the marriage sealing. I’m not saying this brother was justified in starting dating, but I can understand it, and I definitely don’t personally think that if he and his wife have been “emotionally divorced” and separated for some time that he has broken any covenants. Having the bishop ask him to not date isn’t a binding covenant either. I think it would be fair (if we had more information) to discuss the morality of what he did, but I don’t see the covenant breaking, and I don’t see how we can pass judgment about morality of the situation without more info.

    The stake president deserves information because he is the president of the Melchizedek Priesthood in his stake, and therefore is responsible for this Melchizedek Priesthood-holding brother.

    I think I could buy into this is I thought there had been a covenant broken. But I guess I don’t see it, so I can’t help feel that the SP doesn’t need to be involved in what is a personal relationship.

    BTW, I’m a little concerned at the overwhelming support for the legal contract of marriage in society at the expense of what I think marriage really is. This couple is not married by any stretch of what that word means outside it’s legal contract. The process of divorce is ugly, and terrible, is extremely expensive, and takes a long time to complete. There might be many reasons they have kept that in place. Additionally, I think it’s weird that no one is differentiating between the marriage sealing, and the legal contract. If this brother and his wife were divorced, legally, but didn’t have the sealing canceled, no one would have a problem, and yet, it seems to me, our sealing is what ought to define the marriage, not the legal contract. So in the LDS system, one can get legally divorced, but still not break the sealing covenant? What does that mean?

    Re Hawkgrrrl

    I do think there’s some reason to probe further with this guy, if for no other reason than his use of the term “emotionally” divorced. That smacks of self-justification.

    Hmmm, could be as simple as him not using the term “divorced” since they’re not actually divorced, but in his mind, for all intents and purposes, they are. I do think the onus is on the brother to tell his bishop is he has broken any covenants. But if he hasn’t, I think we need to withhold judgment. Incidentally, as bad as an “emotional affair” is, we don’t actually punish people in the church, or in society for it.

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  27. Paul on February 21, 2012 at 11:18 AM

    In LDS terms, jmb, marriage is a covenant. It’s even called the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage. And certainly the verbiage in the ceremony is all about covenant making. So leaving marriage is leavaing that covenant.

    The Savior made clear that adultery is not just the sexual act.

    So our dear brother has a number of ways he may be breaking his covenant:

    1. The intent to leave his marriage. (You are right: we do not punish someone for leaving that covenant, but we do make clear that while the covenant is in force, it should be honored.)

    2. Beginning a relationship with another woman before the first marriage is legally ended. Though they may be chaste, they are still operating outside the covenant of the first marriage until it is ended.

    The brother already admits that he and the new sister intend to marry as soon as the divorce is final, so they clearly have explored their relationship at least at an emotional level. It may be that the brother’s wife is the reason for the divorce. Maybe she has broken their marriage covenant in ways we do not know. But the point is, we don’t know. And even if she has, until the divorce is final, he is bound by that covenant.

    As I have said repeatedly, we do not know enough to know how to counsel the brother in question. The bishop has already been clear, however: no dating until the divorce is final. The brother has admitted that he and the sister in question have spent time together, and the bishop has (in my view, rightly) counseled against it.

    I understand and accept that there are two sides to this story. And I freely admit that I do not know either side. That’s why I’ve repeatedly said that there’s need for more understanding before making statements like those of the SP.

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  28. jmb275 on February 21, 2012 at 2:58 PM

    Re Paul

    In LDS terms, jmb, marriage is a covenant. It’s even called the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage. And certainly the verbiage in the ceremony is all about covenant making. So leaving marriage is leavaing that covenant.

    Yes, I think I understand this, but I think there’s a lot of details missing here. What is the covenant precisely? From what I can glean the covenant is:

    …her unto yourself to be your lawful and wedded wife for time and all eternity, with a covenant and promise that you will observe and keep all the laws, rites, and ordinances pertaining to this Holy Order of Matrimony in the New and Everlasting Covenant…

    So, what are the laws, rites, and ordinances? I think in addition to this (though not a part of the sealing ordinance), the chastity covenant applies, which clearly delineates sexual activity.

    The Savior made clear that adultery is not just the sexual act.

    Where? Are you referring to cleaving to “her and non else”? Are we trying to read into the scriptures our definition of adultery, or is this clearly laid out somewhere?

    So our dear brother has a number of ways he may be breaking his covenant:

    1. The intent to leave his marriage.

    Does this mean that anyone filing for divorce, for whatever reason, has broken their covenant? I don’t think I can accept that. It’s short sighted, and unfair.

    2. Beginning a relationship with another woman before the first marriage is legally ended. Though they may be chaste, they are still operating outside the covenant of the first marriage until it is ended.

    Again, I guess I wonder about our obsession with the legal contract vs. the actual spirit of marriage.

    Look, I’m not condoning his behavior, but it doesn’t feel as simple to me as you’re portraying it. I think we’re really obfuscating the lines between sealing, and marriage. After all, the covenant you’re claiming he broke is a religious covenant, the sealing covenant. But in the OP we have no information indicating that this brother intends to have his sealing cancelled. Indeed, he may intend to keep that sealing in place. Church policy is sort of weird on this issue, you can divorce, and remarry (if you’re a man) without getting your sealing cancelled. It feels like you expect the legal marriage to run in parallel to the sealing covenant, but that isn’t the way it works in the church. And there is no covenant made for the legal marriage.

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  29. Heber13 on February 21, 2012 at 5:22 PM

    I know we have established more information is needed here, and because of that, can we be sure the brother is breaking the covenant?

    What if the missing information is his soon-to-be-exwife already broke the covenant with being unfaithful, emotionally or physically.

    Would that change it? (Again, the details would be needed, but maybe we can’t assume he is breaking anything?)

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  30. Paul on February 21, 2012 at 5:32 PM

    jmb, I think we agree more than disagree. All of what I’ve said about the brother may also apply to his wife, as well. We just don’t know.

    BTW the Savior taught that a man can commit adultery in his heart without the physical act.

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