It was late. I pulled up in front of my home, exhausted from the events of the evening. I was drained, both physically and emotionally. I summoned what little strength I had left, picked up my scriptures, climbed out of the car, and walked toward the front door.
As I walked into the house, I glanced to my right and saw my wife. Despite the hour, she met my glance with a look of concern. I reached for her, pulling her close and holding her for longer than normal. As I buried my head in the familiar curve of her neck, I thanked God for the blessings He portioned to me, most of all for the supportive companion He had allowed to share my life.
The gratitude, however, was punctuated with sadness. Mixed feelings, at best. The reason for my exhaustion was that I had just come from the bishop’s office, where I had presided over a disciplinary council that had resulted in a beautiful young lady being excommunicated from the Church. She had lost her membership due to her choices.
The council had been expected for weeks. Private counseling sessions had been held with the sister and the procedures explained. Possible outcomes were discussed, but no particular outcome was a foregone conclusion. The evening was preceded by 24 hours of fasting and prayer on my part; fulfilling the commission of “common judge” required insights and strengths beyond my own. I tried to do everything I could to be what God wanted me to be in exercising that commission.
If I had to characterize my attitude going into the council, it would be somber. Or, perhaps, serious. I knew what was coming, as I had participated in dozens of such councils before. I arrived early and cleared the desk of everything except my scriptures. I removed all chairs from the room except one for each participant—me, my two counselors, the clerk, and the sister. I didn’t want there to be any distractions from the purpose for the evening. There were no trappings of office or position, as there might be in the chambers of an earthly judge.
I met with my counselors about a quarter hour before the appointed start time. We knelt and pleaded for the Lord’s Spirit to attend the evening’s events. We needed it; I needed it. But most of all, the sister we would be meeting with would need it.
My counselors knew nothing about why the council was being held. After the prayer I explained for whom the disciplinary council was convened. This was the first time they heard that the council was for this particular sister. They knew her, as they had seen her at church meetings and events from time to time. But they had no idea I had been counseling her or what her actions were that made the evening’s council necessary.
I didn’t go into exquisite detail with them, even though I was intimately aware of the details. They didn’t need to know, and to burden them with those details would have brought unnecessary sorrow into their lives. I provided just enough information to illustrate why the disciplinary council had been called and what we would be discussing that evening. I then pulled out the Church’s handbook of instructions and reviewed the procedures that we would follow in the council.
The appointed hour arrived. I asked my counselors and the clerk to stand as I went out the door to invite the sister into the room. She came in; I know she had to be scared. My heart went out to her. I felt a wave of sorrow that her actions had made this council necessary. I did my best to make her feel welcome. I wanted her to know, above everything else, that I loved her.
Love, however, doesn’t spare one the consequences of actions nor remove the need for repentance in the wake of those actions. (Even now, as I write this years later, there are tears as I remember the feelings of that particular day. They were feelings I had experienced many times before and that I would feel many times in subsequent years.)
I invited everyone to kneel a second time as we asked the Lord to be with us. The sister offered the prayer. It was a beautiful, honest, simple prayer. She asked for the Lord to not only bless her, but to bless me, as bishop. I was touched. I appreciated her desires for me.
I then explained the procedures of the council to the sister. She had heard them before; I’d shared them with her as we approached this date. My counselors had heard them before, just a few minutes earlier. But it was important that everyone knew, once again, how the evening would unfold.
I then explained, in a very generic way, why we were convened this particular evening: “conduct unbecoming a member of the Church.” It is a “placeholder,” if you will, designed to indicate that wrongdoing had occurred, but not provide specifics as to the actual wrongs. After the explanation, I invited the sister to share with those present what had brought her to this point. What had happened in her life—and what were her choices—that had resulted in this council?
She provided the details. It wasn’t “blow by blow,” so to speak; that wasn’t necessary. She did, however, provide enough detail that those present could understand the gravity of the actions. There were tears shed by the sister, as one would expect—it is hard to openly discuss things you did that you know are wrong. There were also tears shed by one of my counselors; hearing of these actions was hard for him. I experienced more sorrow as my heart went out to him.
In those few instances where the details provided by the sister were unclear or lacking, my counselors or myself asked respectful questions. We loved this sister. Our purpose wasn’t to embarrass, harass, shame, or “guilt” her. There was no condemnation occurring. There was only explanation by the sister, in her own words.
Most of the questions that my counselors asked were about the sister’s feelings. What did she feel about the actions she had chosen? How did she feel those actions had affected others? How widely known were her actions? How had they affected her marriage? Her children? What were her feelings about the Lord? Did she understand repentance? How had her prayers been going? Did she feel like God heard her?
In a secular setting—perhaps a courtroom drama on television—one might envision a witness being cross-examined and put on the spot. Questions are asked to “trip up” the witness. Voices are raised as attorneys try to score points with the jury. Objections are made and the judge weighs in to keep the trial on track.
Such a scene is antithetical to what occurs in a disciplinary council. There is no desire to hurt anyone. The only desire is to understand the Lord’s will. Intrinsic to that is understanding the relationship of the sister to the Lord—what state it had been in, what state it was in, and what state the sister wanted it to be in.
When enough details had been shared and all questions had been posed and answered, I asked the sister to wait in the foyer as we tried to understand what the Lord wanted done. We stood, and I walked her to a comfortable chair in the foyer. I was concerned that she was alone—not because of safety, but because I know that in emotional times it is important to have the support of a loved one. (In my experience, some choose to have someone with them and others don’t. This sister didn’t.)
I walked back into the office and shut the door. It was not a time for discussion yet, it was a time for prayer. I offered it. I stretched out my soul, seeking God’s will. Please, Father, pour out your Spirit. Please, Father, show us Your desires. Please, Father, help us to know Thy will. Please, Father, bless this sister. Please, Father, help us. Please, Father, let us know what will best help this sister to return to Thee. Please, Father. Please.
It was my turn to cry. I felt the weight of the responsibility press down upon me. I believe the Lord when He said “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I know God supports bishops, for I have felt that support. I cannot imagine shouldering the weight, the responsibility, without that support.
I arose from my knees, as did my counselors. I asked them what their feelings and impressions were. I first asked my first counselor and then my second. I asked them what outcome they felt was appropriate given the circumstances and the needs of this sister. They shared freely with me, and I mulled over their comments. I appreciated these men so much, especially at times like these. In my heart I prayed for God’s blessings to be with them for their dedication, devotion, and love.
We knelt again. We prayed again. We implored again. My first counselor prayed, then my second counselor. I prayed third. After the prayer we remained on our knees as I listened for the still, small voice. I thought about each possible outcome for the council. I thought about the needs of this sister. One outcome drifted to the surface, taking primacy over the other possibilities: Excommunication.
No! Such a drastic step; could this be what the Lord wanted? I had to be sure. My counselors were still kneeling, as was I. All was quiet in the room, but my heart was racing. I knew my counselors were silently praying for me. I loved these men so much.
I wrestled before the Lord. Was this His desire? It must not be what I wanted, but what He wanted. I had to be sure. I had to be sure.
And then He spoke peace to my soul. He let me know in a way I cannot fully express that this outcome was His will. He loved this sister. He let me see that love. I loved this sister. I loved the Lord. I can do hard things with His love and support, and so could this sister. I knew what the Lord wanted done.
I looked up. My counselors were still kneeling, waiting on me. I quietly announced what the Lord wanted done. I asked them, individually, if they could sustain that decision. They could; they did. We rose from the floor and again took our chairs.
A different feeling now permeated the room. The decision was made, and now we needed to know what counsel the Lord would have us give to this dear sister as we delivered the decision. We discussed it for a while and made a few notes. These would be expressed to her and would end up in a formal “decision letter” after the council.
I then stood and went out into the foyer to invite the sister to again meet with us. She came in; I know she had to be scared. My heart, again, went out to her.
Once we were all seated, I announced that decision: “It is the decision of the council that you be excommunicated from the Church.” She was not entirely surprised, but that didn’t stop the tears from coming. The words sounded so final. I knew, in theory, that they didn’t need to be, but I also knew, in practice, that they often were. Not everyone who is excommunicated from the Church returns, even though the path is always open and the door is never shut.
I expressed sorrow at the decision. I expressed love for the sister. I told her what the effects would be—that she could no longer offer prayers in Church meetings or hold a calling, she could not attend the temple, she should not wear temple garments, she could not donate tithes or offerings. I told her she was welcome to worship with us, and invited her to do whatever was necessary in her life to return, once again, to membership through baptism.
I then shared with her the few items of counsel I had put together with my counselors. I again expressed love for her and my faith in her ability to do the Lord’s will in her life. I assured her that she would not be “left alone” by me or the Lord, that as long as she lived in the area we would stand ready to help her in any way that we could.
I invited my counselors, in turn, to share any thoughts that were on their minds. They expressed their love for the sister. They were sincere and caring. I invited the sister to share her thoughts and feelings. She was humble and accepting. She indicated that she wanted to make her way back. We encouraged her to do so.
The council closed with prayer. We stood and my counselors shook this dear sister’s hand. I hugged her. Oh, how I wanted her to return! Oh, how I prayed for the Lord to bless this sister!
Everyone left after straightening the office. Goodbyes were said in the parking lot. I started the car, turned on the lights, and was the last to pull out of the lot. Before I got home I pulled over once and prayed and cried and prayed. I fully understood Nephi’s comment:
For I pray continually for them by day, and mine eyes water my pillow by night, because of them; and I cry unto my God in faith, and I know that he will hear my cry. And I know that the Lord God will consecrate my prayers for the gain of my people. (2 Nephi 33:3-4)
Disciplinary councils are hard. Very hard. However, they serve a very important place in the economy of the Lord’s Kingdom. I cannot fully express the Spirit that attends such councils. It is not what the world presumes or supposes.
My heart goes out to all bishops who must preside over such councils.
Edited (July 1) to add: I participated in an interview for the FairMormon podcast about this article, my experiences, and some wider-ranging thoughts about Church discipline.