Who Determines Worthiness?

By: hawkgrrrl
April 2, 2013

Who determines worthiness in the temple recommend interview?  The bishop?  The individual?  The questions? Other methods of discernment?  Can the bishop rightly withhold a temple recommend based on nothing more than a hunch or the Spirit even if probing reveals no wrong answers?

I recently read a blog post written by a group of ex-Mormon ne’er-do-wells who claim they snuck into a temple session in the Philippines.  They cited their ability to con kindly octogenarians into letting them participate unworthily without detection as further evidence that the church has no special spiritual gifts or authority.  To me it sounds like a pretty boring way to spend your time when you could be out boozing and whoring it up.  Isn’t that the benefit of being an ex-Mormon?  Perhaps their priorities differ from what my own would be.  Yet their experience begs a greater question:  can leaders discern worthiness just by looking at a person?

In Kirtland, the story is told that for daily admittance to the School of the Prophets that was held in the upper floor of the Newell K. Whitney store, Joseph Smith would shake hands and look earnestly into the face of each of the men invited to participate in order to ascertain their worthiness. Only if he was satisfied during this wordless encounter were they allowed to enter and participate in a contemplative and spiritual day of smoking cigars, using the floor as a spitoon, prayer, theological discourse and visions.

Later, temple recommends were issued by invitation rather than petition.  Members as young as 12 years old who were in good standing and deemed worthy from afar (no interview questions at the time) would be invited by their bishop to attend the temple.  The bishop’s discernment was initially the only requirement.  Later, interview questions were asked of candidates to ensure they were also living a minimum of the standards.  (Source:  Mysteries of Godliness by John Buerger).

Which brings us to the present day.  We are told that worthiness is something each of us must ascertain for ourselves.  Bishops are strictly instructed not to elaborate on the questions, and participants are told to provide “yes” or “no” answers to the questions.  There has definitely been a shift away from leader discernment as the means to determine temple worthiness.  But is it completely done away with?

In chatting with a good friend of mine who was a bishop for many years, he said that he considered it his responsibility to ensure that no one unworthy was able to obtain a temple recommend, regardless of the answers to the questions, if he felt that there was an impediment or knew their answers to be incorrect.  Clearly, fishing bishops was something the church cracked down on a few years ago to prevent bishops from adding their own personal standards (about Coke drinking or card playing) into the interview.  I know other bishops who would state that individuals are responsible to determine their worthiness based on the questions as they are written by church leadership and to the best of the member’s understanding.

Do you believe leaders have more discernment than regular members?  More importantly, do they believe it?  Is this belief unrealistic and dangerous?  Or is it a spiritual gift that comes with the mantle of responsibility and goes away when one is released?  Have you been the recipient of the soul-searching leadership stare?

Does a bishop have the right to withhold a temple recommend based on a spiritual hunch if the member has answered all the questions satisfactorily?

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*This post was originally  published at BCC.

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28 Responses to Who Determines Worthiness?

  1. Jenn on April 2, 2013 at 8:25 AM

    I consider myself very lucky, or maybe “the spirit” intervened, but the bishop did not confiscate my recommend when he told me I was not worthy to enter the temple anymore (solely on the grounds of having lost my testimony- I was still worthy on all other points).
    Since I still had a recommend, and felt very strongly prompted to go despite my bishop telling me not to, I went to the sealing of some extended family to an adopted toddler. And while it didn’t save my testimony, and I can’t say while I was sitting there that I believed the ordinance was essential or that the officiator had an exclusive power, going was one of the best things that could have happened to my relationship with mormonism at the time. I was able to see just how good the temple (and mormonism in general) is at accomplishing divine means: of making a family put each other first, strive to be worthy of each other, to make promises, to be part of something bigger than themselves, to contemplate eternities’ mysteries, to establish eternal perspective… My beliefs have changed drastically but I till hold the ceremonies sacred and holy. Not because of some authority or necessity, but because the people who participate MAKE it holy.
    I may not buy into all of the means but I love the end so much. That was one of the last things I did as an active member of the church, and I’m SO glad it did. I can no say as an outsider that I believe that mormonism does a wonderful job of accomplishing its worthiest goals.

    If only I could force myself to believe in the priesthood again. I doubt I’ll ever see the inside of a temple again. Fortunately, the principles (family first, perspective, worthiness, relationship with the divine) can apply even without the building. So glad I didn’t listen to my bishop, and so glad he didn’t confiscate my recommend when he had the chance (though I’d now willingly surrender it).

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  2. Last Lemming on April 2, 2013 at 8:38 AM

    The question is too broad. If a Bishop has hard evidence that an interviewee is lying, he should deny the recommend. But a spiritual hunch is not enough.

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  3. hawkgrrrl on April 2, 2013 at 8:45 AM

    Lemming – good point. I’ve modified the poll per your suggestion!

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  4. DB on April 2, 2013 at 10:02 AM

    I believe that a bishop, as a common judge in Israel, should have the authority to grant or deny a temple recommend at his discretion (ie, spiritual hunch). Yes, of course, unrighteous dominion will prevail with some bishops but I don’t subscribe to the belief that every bishop’s authority should be limited just because we know that some will abuse it.

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  5. KLC on April 2, 2013 at 10:15 AM

    This post was originally published at BCC? When? I looked for it and didn’t see it but maybe I just find it among the new National Enquirer clutter of their redesign.

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  6. hawkgrrrl on April 2, 2013 at 10:42 AM

    KLC – it was titled differently. Here’s a link: http://bycommonconsent.com/2012/02/21/discerning-readers-want-to-know/

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  7. anon for this on April 2, 2013 at 10:43 AM

    Not wanting to stir up a hornet’s nest with this BUT – I now believe it is the member’s determination that is most important. I’ll use myself as an example. I was a TBM but numerous experiences have brought me to change and I now have the label, not applied by me but from others, as “less-active.” I have however, kept my temple recommend. I no longer find much solace in the temple as a woman but faithfully attended for decades. I pay my tithing differently now, after much prayer. I pay a small amount as “tithing,” a generous fast offering (because it stays in my ward) and a substantial amount for two sisters serving missions in my ward. I changed my tithing after the church invested and promoted the City Creek Mall – I simply cannot support that in any way. I can answer every question appropriately without divulging my deep concerns of which you can imagine as they are common topics on this blog. Why do I want a recommend? So my youngest DD will know I am still a “good” Mormon – if I want to go with the youth to do baptisms, I can. And I’ve realized that it’s easier to keep a recommend than to let it lapse and try again. My X lives in the same ward – insane- and is a faithful temple goer so I NEVER go with the ward, ever. To me, he sullies the temple. But he was an abuser to the core. Last time I had my interview two years ago it went fine except when I met with a SP counselor. He asked when I last attended the temple. Before I answered, he had a phone call and excused himself to take it in the hall. He was smiling when he returned so I assumed it was not an emergency “bad news” call. He apparently forgot he had asked me about the last time I attended the temple and we walked thru the questions, I gave the appropriate answers, and he signed my recommend. My take-away was three-fold. 1. He didn’t really know me in any way. 2. I would have NEVER EVER taken a cell phone call during a recommend interview and I wondered if I would have been chastised if I would have. To me it is supposed to be a sacred and respectful time. 3. I came to the conclusion that the temple recommend interview is a ritual that we participate in, with each party playing their part. Please understand that I am not making light of any part of the recommend process. I am so sick of being marginalized in my ward because I divorced Mr. Righteous Mormon Man them married a NOMO who does not want to be baptized. As I mentioned before I do not often attend SM for mental health reasons, seeing/hearing X can trigger PTSD-like episodes. I am still the same good person I’ve always been altho now “my eyes have been opened” to the cracks in Mormonism. The initiatory is my favorite place to be in the Temple – surrounded by women and feeling blessed by the words that are said. In the end, I feel that I am the one determining my worthiness, not my Bishop or SP. God and Goddess know my heart; they do not.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on April 2, 2013 at 10:43 AM

    I wonder if there is a significant split between how bishops and former bishops would answer the poll vs. the rest of the poor slobs on the other side of the desk.

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  9. anon for this on April 2, 2013 at 10:46 AM

    PS – normally I use my first name without fear of repercussion, but I’m a little squeamish about telling this. My recommend expires soon and I’ll repeat this ritual in the next month. Remember, this in only my opinion and what I feel I’m lead to do. It certainly may not appeal to others.

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  10. Howard on April 2, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    Fortunately, the principles…can apply even without the building. So true! Well said Jenn!

    All of the buildings, the leaders, the materials, the make work, garments, interviews, recommends, the words and hymns – in short the entire church is just a proxy for one’s spiritual relationship with the divine and loving others.

    It’s a mistake to confuse the finger pointing at the moon or the building housing the observatory for the moon.

    Worthiness? It’s easily explained; who would Jesus exclude?

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  11. shenpa warrior on April 2, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    “It’s a mistake to confuse the finger pointing at the moon or the building housing the observatory for the moon.”

    Amen! In that way, a lot of us end up worshipping idols – conflating all the stuff that is supposed to guide us with the goal itself.

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  12. jmb275 on April 2, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    Last time I went in for an interview the bishop and I together lamented that we couldn’t just skip right to the last question and call it a day. My bishop trusts me and he knows I have radically different interpretations of what all the questions mean than many Mormons.

    I think he’s more interested in people going to the temple and participating in the Gospel than he is policing the borders.

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  13. Jeff Spector on April 2, 2013 at 12:54 PM

    I think the judgment is about 90% on the part of the member. I supose if the Bishop wanted to deny a recommend, it is within his power to do so for the right reason. If the member thinks it is the wrong decision, they certainly can appeal to the Stake President. A short-sighted SP would immediately side with the Bishop, a more thoughtful one would investigate himself.

    For me the Temple is a place of learning and service. Why someone who is not that interested in those aspects wants to be there is really beyond my conplehensive since it is not exactly a fun place. Except to save face or some other self-serving reason.

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  14. also anon on April 2, 2013 at 12:55 PM

    A recent Stake interview, held on a scheduled evening with a dozen or so members being rushed through, was so irreverent and flippant, both in the waiting room and during the individual interview, that I wrote an anonymous letter to the Stake Prez, asking him if he felt the Lord approved. BTW, writing complaint letters is way outside my comfort zone.

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  15. Porter on April 2, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    I believe that everyone lies in temple recommend interviews at some level, everyone. I’ve always viewed this process as engaging in self-analysis with the bishop as a facilitator. If Jenn and others feel comfortable answering the question in a way that will get a recommend then they should do it.

    Having served in bishoprics, I can tell you that there is inspiration here and there, but the majority of the time we just feel our way through it. It would take a brave bishop to deny a recommend based on a feeling alone, without outside evidence (from a spouse or business associate for instance) of unworthiness. And my recollection is that the CHI discourages bishops from second guessing or probing too much. They are also prohibited from adding questions or changing the wording in any way.

    For those who didn’t know, there are whole web pages devoted to helping people get TRs even though they lack a testimony of the basic tenets of Mormonism. NOMs are big on this. There are ways to keep your tithing payments off of the local ward records, and ways to “finesse” the answers to the TR questions to get a recommend. Why would such a thing be necessary? Because lacking a temple recommend keeps you out of family events and even from performing some ordinances for your children. The church uses TRs as a way to keep people in the fold for fear of missing out on family weddings and the like. So I think one could argue that intentionally lying in the TR interview is an appropriate way to avoid being marginalized by the church. In fact, I highly recommend it.

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  16. IDIAT on April 2, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    On the topic of issueing recommnds, Handbook One says church officers are to make every effort to see that no unworthy person enters the temple. It would seem it is not strictly a time for self reflection or self assessment. I don’t recommend lying to get your way. That’s called not being honest with your fellowmen. Instead, pretend President Monson is asking the questions. Then answer them honestly and let the chips fall where they may. Lying is the most obvious form of pride, which we all should be trying to overcome.

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  17. IDIAT on April 2, 2013 at 2:14 PM

    And yes, one could argue the sum total of that “effort” was to simply ask the recommend questions. However, the “answers” are not set forth anywhere. In my experience, a “No” to a question that is usually answered “Yes” has not necessarily resulted in a denial of a recommend. Instead, it’s a learning and sharing opportunity. Again, better to be honest, express concerns or doubts if you have any, and have faith in the process.

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  18. Howard on April 2, 2013 at 2:22 PM

    Having served in bishoprics…everyone lies… The church uses TRs as a way to keep people in the fold for fear of missing out on family weddings and the like. So I think one could argue that intentionally lying in the TR interview is an appropriate way to avoid being marginalized by the church. In fact, I highly recommend it.

    “Everyone lies” and as we well know the church lies! So it’s a lying culture even among those with TRs! I’m not picking on Porter here, I appreciate his candor but isn’t this why Mormons seem to be over represented in the hypocrite category and aren’t they trained in this way to “lie for the Lord” and use end justifies the means tactics?

    Is this the kind of church you want to be a member of?

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  19. Brian on April 2, 2013 at 8:45 PM

    The instruction I was given when I was in bishoprics was to ask the questions and rely on the members answers. I liked that teaching because I always felt completely unwilling to render a decision on someone’s worthiness simply because of a “feeling”. I remember sitting next to a man in high council meetings for months and months, all the while this guy was stealing money from the physical facilities account the stake (and he) were in charge of. No one had any “feelings” during the year or so that this embezzlement was going on. I always felt that “inspiration” was simply good decisions that were re-characterized after the fact when things happened to work out. Cynical, I know.

    On the other hand, a bishop withheld my recommend because I told him I didn’t pray.
    He said I could have it back when I started to pray again. That bishop was released after three years because the stake president didn’t like the way he did things.

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  20. allquieton on April 2, 2013 at 9:35 PM

    Not everyone lies Porter. You can give the wrong answer by being honest (to a fault?), and some bishops will still give you a recommend.

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  21. hawkgrrrl on April 2, 2013 at 10:28 PM

    Personally, I don’t think lying is the way to go, but from working with people in various sites like StayLDS, etc., it’s quite clear that some members are more self-critical than others and are more likely to make alarming self-disclosures because they don’t understand what they are talking about – or because some bishops don’t put people at ease, instead making them feel nervous and unpleasant or grilling them. Some of the advice referenced above is just to help people see that the questions are written more broadly than they may think.

    On a personal note, I asked in an interview once what Q7 meant: “7 Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” Of course we all do this. The church itself does this! It works in inter-faith efforts where they have a common objective on one specific point, but the rest of what both organizations stand for are totally at odds. Those other churches are sometimes open enemies to the church, calling us cults that worship a “different Jesus.” But we work together to oppose gay marriage, for example. And by the way, we are not automatons. The question sounds like thought police. We have different political opinions and life circumstances.

    When I asked what it meant I was told it was in reference to splinter groups from the church, particularly those practicing polygamy (which was something I had no idea existed when I asked – I was actually shocked anyone would voluntarily practice polygamy in this day and age). However, there are stories of bishops denying recommends over this question because of things like Prop 8, etc., causing the church to clarify.

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  22. IDIAT on April 3, 2013 at 6:34 AM

    I think those in the West like to frame Q7 as referring to splinter groups, but considering the fact that we’re an international church and have been for a long time, I personally don’t believe the question is so limiting. To me, the phrase “support, agree with or affiliate with” implies something much stronger than a casual disagreement. If you read the church’s positions at the end of Hanbook 2 and find yourself at serious odds, then you should answer honestly. The most obvious dispute is homosexuality, same sex marriage, etc. The church is not the thought police. But it’s a bit of a stretch to say you sustain President Monson and Q12 as prophets, seers and revelators yet claim they are 100% wrong about homosexuality. In most cases your membership in the church would not be at issue but you might not qualify for a temple recommend. If one’s mind is so made up on an issue that even a purported prophet of God can’t change it, I don’t know why one would give the temple any credence, any way.

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  23. Douglas on April 3, 2013 at 7:30 AM

    Brian – I think I’ll of your bishop for denial of TR over personal prayer. Thou shalt not micromanage.
    This is a thorny issue for me since I’ve been separated from my wife of 12 years for about a year. I hadn’t renewed my recommend but asked about getting it. I was told that it was ‘policy’ that members going through a divorce should NOT hold a recommend unless they’d been cleared by a GA. I checked the CHI and found no such instruction. When I confronted my bishop about it, he was mildly upset and told me that my second-guessing him and my SP was further proof that I didn’t ‘sustain’ my leaders. What rot. At this point, it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Suffice it that I couldn’t in good conscience waste my Bishop’s time on an interview that I couldn’t pass. Hawkchick, if you want the gory details, Andrew S has my email address.

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  24. Jenn on April 3, 2013 at 7:40 AM

    I’ve actually asked many a bishop about Q7, specifically during prop8 and such. I was always told that that wasn’t what the question was asking.
    I suppose I’m a hypocrite. I hear about lying during interviews and think “ew no, if you can’t answer the questions honestly then what do you hope to get out of going to the temple?” And yet, though I was fully honest to the bishop, I had no problem completely ignoring him and going to the temple even though he said I wasn’t worthy. So, um, be honest, but ignore what they have to say if it doesn’t mesh with you. Yes I see the hypocrisy.
    I will say it is such a shame that having doubts in your testimony will keep you out of the temple- when those are often the people who stand to gain the most from going.

    The endowment ceremony really wasn’t even “my thing”, that kind of symbolism just doesn’t speak to me. I did not find my answers in the temple but many people do.

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  25. Jeff Spector on April 3, 2013 at 8:32 AM

    When I was doing TRs, I found that some members want to confess to all sorts of minor caveats along with their “Yes” answers. Firstly, I was not in a position to take confessions and, for the most part, they didn’t hardly apply to worthiness.

    I tended to ignore them usually and just move from question to question. In some cases, I might have asked them to see the Bishop, if they really had a concern. but, that may have only happened once.

    I think good members tended to be very self-critical which is why they changed that last question from “worthy in every way” to “worthy.”

    Because in reality, none of us is worthy in every way.

    I always assume Q7 was about polygamy-related groups and never thought it applied to cavorting around with apostates. In the most extreme interpretation, it would mean we do not even associate with any non-members or non-church organizations, which is ridiculous.

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  26. jmb275 on April 3, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    The problem is in the “honesty” business. Those who have internalized their moral compass will have no problem answering the questions “honestly” even if their adherence to a particular rule, or their testimony looks radically different than the kind stereotypically thought of. For those who still have a largely external moral compass, they are likely to gauge their worthiness according to what they perceive is the accepted “right” answer.

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  27. Douglas on April 3, 2013 at 2:35 PM

    #18 (Howard) though hypocrisy is certainly found among the Saints, disappointingly at times from those that ought to have been better examples, it’s dishonest to indict the institution w/o citing a specific example. Nothing in a third of a century of membership has led me to believe that the LDS Church is corrupt or tolerates devious and/or dishonest behavior of its officers and members. It’s “perfect” because of whose Church it is, but it’s for the perfecting of the Saints. If yours truly requires more perfecting than the average “pick-a-nick’ snarfing bear, I can live with that, commend those that need less, and reach with compassion those that need more.

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  28. Geoff - A on April 3, 2013 at 7:32 PM

    I have had a TR continuously for 45 years, except for 4 months. When I went for my last renewal I answered all the questions appropriately but at the end the bishop said he would not give me an recommend because I did not support my P’hood leaders.

    The HP group leader had sent to the ward list some anti gay marriage propaganda and I had questioned the assertions it contained. I had not said I supported gay marriage. The SP did not see that as a problem but it took him 4 months to persuade the Bishop.

    We now have a new bishop and SP. The bishop will be OK but the new SP is a black and white person and has the old bishop as a councillor. May still have a problem.

    Does anyone know where this statement by church about not punishing for not opposing gay marriage is?

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