Probing Interviews

There is a recent movement in a stake that I am aware of for Bishops and Branch Presidents to have more “probing interviews.” The goal is to ask more specific questions, especially about the Law of Chastity in order to uncover sins. These interviews are mostly the youth interviews, pre-mission interviews, and interviews with members who have already acknowledged worthiness issues. However, it has been suggested that Temple Recommend interviews also be more “probing,” encouraging members to define what they mean by the Law of Chastity, for example.

How this will end up is unclear to me since it is still a bit under discussion. However, I am currently undecided as to how I feel about this practice (not as if I have any say!). I can see advantages and disadvantages. Can anyone help me decide?

See also the POSTSCRIPT

18 Replies to “Probing Interviews”

  1. I believe in the confession of sins. But I believe that it must be a person’s free and willing decision to confess. If bishops push too hard to get people to fess up, I believe there will be a backlash. Nobody likes being accused.

    I’m interested to hear what you think the benefits will be. I know some LDS feel that if everyone in the church is living righteously that God will again bring forward new revelation (a very similar attitude the Pharisees of Jesus’ time had).

  2. What Dando said. The guilt trip doesn’t work for long. If the pendulum is swinging towards tighter control, they’re going to lose some people. Once they realize that their grip on us is too tight, they’ll yield to the pressure like they always do and back off again. So as far as helping you decide, I’d say that if it were me, I would decide against probing any deeper than they already do. The church is already extremely intrusive in members’ lives, any more details and they’ll start upsetting people with issues that could possibly carry with them potential legal problems.

    The problem with the chastity question is that the interviewer and interviewee might have different definitions of the term. For example, does one break the law of chastity by looking at porn? Or masturbating? I don’t know, but I could see how one could defend “yes” and “no” to those questions. So yeah, I can see why they might want the questioning to deepen or become more detailed.

  3. POSTSCRIPT: I propose that we consider this practice in the history of confessional techniques, interrogation methods, and tests of guilt. Confession has a long history in the West and is perhaps our number one method of evaluating “truth”, but has at different moments had a heightened sense of importance (e.g., the Inquisition). One could argue that in fact we are in one of those moments in history now where telling the truth about oneself is extremely important, and intrusive and extreme techniques are increasingly seen as not only permissible, but also necessary. I certainly am not saying that there is any one-to-one relationship between the War on Terror and Temple Recommend interviews, but there is an interesting cultural connection here.

    Sex has always been one of the privileged points of inquiry in the West, perhaps needing to be concealed precisely so that it can be confessed. There are whole medical and clinical industries built around the confession of sexuality. Here, I am interested in how the proposed form of interrogation and confession in my friend’s stake are situated in relation to other forms and how the goals differ from those other forms.

  4. Dando,
    I think that the benefits that I had in mind are related to the therapeutic effects of confession and the beginning of the “repentance process,” a LDS series of rituals aimed at both repenting and long-term changes of behavior. I don’t think that this proposal in the Stake is about preparing for future revelations, but about dealing with the increasingly complicated sexual lives of modernity.

  5. I think it’s best that priesthood leaders stick to the questions they are given in the book. When they start getting creative with the questions, it leads to problems. Some leaders have unusual interpretations of rules, principles, etc.

  6. The church has already done an experiment with more detailed interviews–in the late 70s, there was a question added about “impure practices” (i.e. oral sex) between married couples. Less than a year later, a new letter went out to bishops, instructing that they NOT ask this question anymore.

    I imagine that with the youth, they’re mostly trying to teach them that oral sex IS sex, since lots of teens are experimenting with everything but intercourse. When NPR did its series on the “Silver Ring Thing” (an abstinence pledge program), they interviewed several teens who had had oral sex but still considered themselves virgins. So it seems likely that some Mormon teens will be confused, depending on how willing their parents/teachers are to be explicit and direct in instructing them. However, it seems to me that the time to educate people about what the rules are is *before* they’ve broken them. Probing to get them to confess after they’ve broken the rule strikes me as a particularly ineffective method of teaching, and potentially very damaging.

    Moreover, this is one area in which I think our patriarchal structure is especially prone to abuse–a grown man interrogating a teenage girl about her sex life sets up an extremely unequal power relationship, and one which can deeply complicate young women’s feelings about their own sexuality as they grow up. I frankly think it should never happen; girls should be interviewed by their YW leaders.

  7. Kristine you totally stole the words out of my mouth. If it the intention of the church to make it clear that purity starts well before intercourse, then that should come from the pulpit, not during worthiness interviews.

    And I think this is part of the problem with the abstinence programs. We are teaching kids “don’t do X” rather than teaching them the virtues of purity and chastity which encompass far more than the activities of X, Y, and Z.

  8. TT–I think one interesting question about LDS confessional tradition is what it means that we confess to an authority we know, and who knows us, and with whom we will regularly work in the future. This has a very different valence than, say, Catholic confession, where the confessor is anonymous, and where repentance and absolution are more or less immediate, rather than an ongoing process which continues to involve the bishop. It is (or at least ought to be!!) also different from the context of law enforcement interrogations or courtroom proceedings, where the interrogator is clearly an adversary. It’s far more complicated, with different layers of shame, when the confessor is a known friend with whom one will continue to interact. It seems to me that in some ways, the power of the confessional in terms of overcoming shame and guilt is abrogated by the fact of having to routinely confront the person to whom one has confessed–there’s an ongoing kind of shame (or at least the potential for such)enforced by the face-to-face style of confession and the practical realities of working in a church with a lay clergy. Particularly in cases of sexual transgression, and *especially* in cases where confession is not made freely, but pried out of someone who is at a serious power disadvantage in the relationship (as in youth to bishop), confession becomes almost exclusively a mechanism for controlling sexuality by shame, rather than a pastoral method.

    I should say that I think many bishops manage to do extraordinarily well at making confession and discipline a healing experience, despite the institutional obstacles to pastoral care. But encouraging bishops to conduct more “probing” interviews can only make fulfilling their pastoral duties more difficult.

  9. Kristine,
    These are excellent comments. I think that you have really captured the distinctive disciplinary mechanisms of LDS confessional practices. I agree that this structure is both more nurturing and pastoral as well as more disciplinary. The close personal relationship that one has with one’s bishop both magnifies the shame (which can last for years after the problems are resolved) but at the same time when trust is established can be a powerful tool for care.

    As far as the acceptability of these questions for the youth and single adults goes, I wonder if the example of the 1970’s question about oral sex applies in the same way. It seems that the sexuality of these groups is under much more scrutiny which makes possible increased surveillance. For married men, I suspect that the target of this interview technique is primarily pornography. It is possible that there would be a backlash against the more detailed questions, but it seems that there is less of an available argument to defend these practices. That is, I don’t think that privacy and marital rights can be used to defend pornography or pre-marital sexual activity as was the case with oral sex between married couples. In some ways this surveillance might be more acceptable to the general membership since it targets the most vulnerable groups in the church.

  10. I’ll bet this is happening because the SP found out that he had been lied to. A missionary he just sent out has a girlfriend who turns up pregnant, somebody with a temple recommend is discovered to be involved in a longstanding adulterous affair, etc. I’ll also bet that the more detailed questions will have nothing to do with WoW or tithing or honesty, but will deal exclusively with chastity.

    I think the practice of asking detailed questions about chastity is counterproductive and usually does more damage than it does good. It is also prone to abuse, and leaves the church wide open to lawsuits. If people lied about the easy questions, they’ll lie about the harder ones, too. And if it is a matter of a lack of understanding, there are better ways to teach than to subject someone to a grilling.

  11. Kristine: I agree with you sentiment completely that YW leaders ought to interview their YW. Safer for everyone all the way around. Where confession to a Bishop is necessary then the YW leader could facilitate or be present in the act to ensure that security.

    Danithew: Amen brother. I’ve already seen problems with that in my own SP. No point encouraging it.

    And I agree with Dando up there in comment 1.

  12. In retrospect, bishop’s interviews bother me a whole lot. A middle-aged man asks probing questions about a young woman’s sexuality? It creeps me out.

    Other churches have confession, but the supplicant goes to the clergyman, not the other way around.

    Furthermore, the fact that LDS clergy are lay clergy actually bothers me a great deal- they’re not really trained to deal with the sensitive nature of the things they probe at, and there’s no real guarantee of confidentiality.

    Don’t get me wrong- I have had many wonderful and competent bishops who were surely men of God, but looking back on my time in the church, I think the whole setup is a fertile ground for spiritual abuse (if not other kinds).

  13. First, in the context of TR interviews, the Church has a very clear policy that the leaders are supposed to ask the questions as written and not get creative and go off the reservation. Excellent reasons for this policy exists. You say they haven’t started doing this, but are just contemplating it. It would be a kindness for someone to inform them of Church policy before they put their foots in something. I’m highly confident that if they start trying to do this and are resistant to someone telling them what the policy is, a call to their priesthood file leader would put a stop to such a practice.

    Second, the Church has gotten away from a more invasive interview style for a reason. The older style Kristine mentions amounted in many cases to institutionalized voyeurism. If you want to know what it was like, read the book Secret Ceremonies, which is a very silly book in many ways, but her descriptions of the interviews she had with bishops and stake presidents do reflect the invasive style of the times. The Church has rightly moved away from that, and I fear your stake leaders are being a little naive and do not know this history and, Santayana-like, may be doomed to repeat it.

  14. I don’t know if the newest handbook contains the same instructions, but the 1999 handbook’s instruction that “[t]he bishop and stake president conduct thorough, searching interviews with each missionary candidate” [emphasis added] seems to be interpreted by some (many?) church leaders as a mandate to conduct very detailed and laborious interviews. What does “thorough, searching” mean? The law of chastity question, for example, becomes a twenty-part question about all sorts of things designed to ferret out any evidence of sin.

  15. Thank you Justin for not using the word “probe” in your post. “Ferret out” is a much better way of putting it.

    As for my two cents … bishops and stake presidents should stick to the questions and not stray too far from that path. Missionary candidates, however, probably should be more rigorously interviewed since they will be representing the Church and are not “average” members.

    “Normal” members shouldn’t have to undergo lengthy, inquisitorial interviews.

  16. Ummm – you are plain wrong. Bishops and Stake Presidents should not conduct ‘intrusive’ interviewswith anyone – youing or old, married or single. It is contrary to what is said inthe General Handbook of Instructions ( at least the handbook last time I looked!).

    Besides as a Bishop or SP you don’t need to be an inquisitor to know that something is wrong – the Spirit tells you. And if you are anything worth your salt to God you will be sensitive to the guidance of the Spirit as to where you take the interview and the counsel you give.

    I have to say I have never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life – who would want to conduct a ‘probing’ interview. I never did. I knew what was wrong and worked with all who came into my office to put it right. A voluntary confession is that. A forced confesion is an unrighteous abuse of priesthood authority. Any leader who goes about seeking to root out unrighteous behaviour and then wastes time winkling it out of people has got too much time on his hands and is more than likely missing much more important needs in his ward/stake/branch/district/mission.

  17. A good friend of mine, a former high council member, was recently subjected to more “probing” questions during a Temple Recommend interview with a counsellor to the stake president, reportedly at the stake president’s behest. They were all intended to be about chastity. As he related it to me, the interview went something like this (C,M are Counsellor, Member). Note that I’m paraphrasing from memory:

    C: “The stake president has directed me to ask some more specific questions about chastity.”
    M, with a raised eyebrow: “Really? Did he get the First Presidency’s permission for this?”
    C, a bit red-faced: “Well, I’ve been directed to ask…”
    M: “Go ahead.”
    C: “Do you masturbate?”
    M, grinning: “Do you ask the women that question too? When my wife, the RS President, comes in after me, are you going to ask that question?”
    C, now blushing furiously: “We’ll just move on with the rest of the regular questions.”

    Because my friend had been in positions of responsibility in the Church, he knew how things were supposed to work and could gently call out his stake leaders when he knew they had overreached their authority. But I imagine the situation could be quite distressing for someone less knowledgeable.

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