Monday, April 20, 2009

The Missouri Connection: What I Learned About Ecclesiastical Abuse or Being Judged for a Single Comment

In the scriptures we learn that we will be judged by our thoughts, our words and our deeds. I learned a hard lesson that the perception of saying something can have consequences also. It was something I did when I was a young married man in my early 30s. In 1990 I moved near Columbia Missouri to a small town Fayette, Missouri. I was hired by Central Methodist College as the head of the library and worked there two years. Our family were the only members in the small town. We initially attended Church in Booneville, Missouri. We went there a couple of Sundays. It was a small struggling branch of about 40 members. My wife and I as returned missionaries were excited to be able to contribute to a small growing branch. A senior missionary couple were assigned there to help the branch to develop leadership since there were few priesthood leaders and I was the only active priesthood holder other than the missionary and one other brother who had barely been reactivated.

I had come from working at BYU--Hawaii where I had a job in the library and taught part-time in the Religion Department. The regular missionaries were excited that my wife and I both returned missionaries would be going to church there with our young family. Our first week there we didn't say much. After the second week we were called in by the senior missionary and told that we weren't fitting in to their branch because most of the people who went there were blue collar workers and didn't feel comfortable with us as college graduates in their branch. He said he had conferred with the stake president and that we were to drive to Columbia a distance of about 30 miles instead of the 10 we were traveling. We learned from the regular proselyting missionaries that he was afraid I would be made the branch president and he didn't want that to happen since it was his branch.

Needless to say the senior missionary had badmouthed us to the stake leaders and local ward bishops in Columbia. The stake president was D. W. now a professor at another Law School but formerly a law professor at Mizzou. His second counselor was J. F., an institute teacher at the University of Columbia. The bishop was R. V. who was a health care executive and a former church leader from New York.

For some reason J. F. was also a gospel doctrine teacher. People in Missouri had a bit of a idol worship for CES types and looked at every word that came out of his mouth like scripture. I had experienced something similar during the two years I taught at BYU--Hawaii as I was invited every fast Sunday to speak to one of the student wards. My second or third week there Brother F. taught a Sunday School lesson on the Old Testament about Isaiah. Brother F. went on about what a righteous man Avraham Gileadi was and that Gileadi was held in high esteem being a religion teacher at BYU and that he was a great CES scholar.

I had worked in the religion department at BYU for seven years and I agreed that Gileadi was a good scholar but just as I was leaving the BYU religion department to go work at BYU--Hawaii Gileadi was going through a period of doubt and loss of faith. He was living up near the Koyle Dream Mine and was into Jewish mysticism which included Kabbalah. I had personally talked to Gileadi about a few issues he was working out. His faith was vacillating and he expressed that to me in the hallway outside Larry Porter's office where I had worked. Gileadi was subsequently disfellowshipped in 1993 for those same doubts. He has since come back in to the church in full fellowship. He really is one of the leading Isaiah scholars.

So when Brother F. went on and on about Gileadi I turned to my wife and laughed and said I guess Brother F. needs to be better informed about who he quotes and holds up as an example. Apparently my comment ticked off a couple of people including his wife who told him I said "he needs to dust off his scriptures." I never really said that "he needed to dust off his scriptures," I was laughing at an inside joke with my wife that we both knew Gileadi lived up near the Dream Mine which seemed kind of kooky. After that I begin to experience a very hostile environment from members of the ward including the bishopric. I experience outright hostility. They would glare at me and snub me. They spoke disrespectfully to me. I didn't know outright that it was over the previous comment until much later but I was given a very unfriendly welcome.

One Sunday the second counselor called me in and told me I was being called as the scout master. I told him I would be glad to take the calling but was he aware of the fact that I had never been a scout and had no experience with scouting. I said I know you have several former Eagle scouts why would you want to call a guy who spends his life reading books and doesn't have a clue about how to be the scout master. I said my wife who worked at summer camps her whole young life would be a better scout master. I don't even know how to put up a tent. He then said so you have turned down the calling. I said no I haven't turned down the calling but let me know if you still want me knowing I have no scouting background.

Needless to say the next week I was called instead to be the assistant ward librarian, which was also an interesting calling for a person who was a professional librarian. I was told I wasn't to touch the library but my purpose of being there was to pass out erasers and such but to keep my hands off of rearranging the library since I was only an assistant and not the librarian. I actually enjoyed the calling since I didn't have to go to gospel doctrine any more. It frustrated me that I couldn't reorganize the library which was a total mess but I did my calling well of handing out erasers.

Despite my initial reaction to J. F. my wife wanted to attend Brother F's institute class on the Book of Mormon. I really didn't want to go but she refused to take no for an answer. She told me I needed to go to support her and help her be self-fulfilled. I didn't have a problem with J.F. being our teacher I just felt he wouldn't appreciate my being in his class because he considered me competition since I knew a lot about gospel doctrine maybe as much as he did. I felt uncomfortable whenever I talked to J.F. I could sense he didn't like me. I taught it was over the fact I had also taught religion in the CES.

Despite the fact the class was during the morning my wife insisted that I needed to take off work and drive her there and attend with her. I didn't really want to go but she said she was feeling stifled in her life with five small children to care for and didn't get enough adult interaction. F. wasn't much of an intellectual in fact he spent a lot of time reading copious amounts of scriptures and quotes from general authorities. He rarely offered much unique commentary. I didn't think my wife would get much out of the class but she said it was good to hear the class members opinions and offer her own. Most of the students in the class were housewives like my wife that didn't work and a few really got in to the topics each week. There were only around ten students including my wife and me in the class. My wife enjoyed the adult interaction and contributing a comment from time to time.

One day the topic of mothers working came up. I felt strongly about the matter and sacrificed so my wife out of her choice could stay home. She made that decision after hearing ETB personally tell us why mothers should stay home. I had compiled the Teachings of Erza Taft Benson so I shared the story in J.F's class of how my wife and I with Reed Benson and his wife and Dennis Wardle and his wife had all gone with President Benson and his wife to the Jordan River Temple. I related how we sat in the temple dining room and President Benson described to us the sad fact that too many LDS women were working and not enough were staying home and having children. He felt that the Latter-day Saint women could all have more children since a few of children of our Heavenly Father could be born in our homes rather than in places like communist China. He told us he was going to give a talk entitled "To the Mothers in Zion" since he felt it a real issue.

I related how he gave the talk and received about one hundred thousand pieces of mail. The first forty thousand told him what a uninspired prophet he was and he should mind his own business. The next sixty thousand that came in told him how many of the women decided to reduce their work loads and what a blessing it had been for several to go home. I was just sharing a story about the prophet and showing how prophet of God were not always popular and how he was like a voice in the wilderness since even LDS women decried his getting involved in their lives.

A week later the day before our institute class I received a phone call from the institute secretary saying that President F. wanted to meet with me the day of class and have an interview. Since he was a member of the stake presidency and she referred to him as President F. I thought it must have to do with something involving the stake or a calling. If he wanted to see me as an institute teacher she would have referred to him as Brother F.

When I went in to the meeting he told me that he had a non-member in the class who was a working mother and that I had offended her by telling the story about Ezra Taft Benson. He said that I should refrain in the future from sharing any personal experiences. Having worked for the CES I told him that he should have informed me if there was a non-member in the class and in my opinion institute wasn't the best place for a non-Mormon since it could get indepth like the experience I shared and that there was even a CES guideline not to have non-members in institute classes for this very reason. I told him he should have let us know if one of the class members wasn't a member so we could be more careful. He said some of the members of his class knew it but he didn't feel he needed to disclose that to us. He then told me that my wife and I were troublemakers and that we weren't welcome in his class.

He said that he had heard from his wife and other students in his gospel doctrine class that I had made fun of him and that I had said "he needed to dust off his scriptures." He felt I was not uplifting and that he didn't want me there anymore. I told him I went for my wife's sake since she needed the intellectual stimulation and that she shouldn't have to suffer because he didn't like me. I said I would be glad to stop coming but not to punish her.

I could see the matter was getting out of hand so I got up and walked out and said I would be right back. I went immediately and told my wife what happened. Something told me I needed a witness. My wife insisted she would go in with me and we continued the conversation and explain why we were in his class and that he couldn't possibly feel the way I told her. When we went back in F. then reiterated that I didn't sustain him in his calling as a member of the stake presidency. I told him that I certainly did support him in his calling but when he called me in about a non-member he had overstepped his bounds and was not calling me in as a member of the stake presidency but rather as an institute teacher and that he shouldn't use his position in such a way. I told him if he asked me to do anything in the church I would do it.

My wife then explained why she was in his institute class. He said both my wife and I were not sustaining him. I told him he was abusing his power and that as a tithe payer he should treat us as faithful members with more respect since we had paid our fee for institute like any other members and our opinions should hold as much weight as a non-members or any member of the class no more nor no less. My wife assured him that we really respected him as a teacher and she wanted to continue to go to institute since she didn't have much interaction with adults with our having five small children at home. He seemed to calm down a little and said we could stay in his class but to be careful in the future.

The next week when we arrived for seminary we were greeted by the stake president D. W. President W. took my wife and me into a room and said that we had mistreated his friend J. F. and that since your husband didn't sustain J.F. that he was recommending that my bishop take my temple recommend. They didn't want to take my wife's recommend. I told D. W. that I certainly did sustain J. F. in his calling but that the matter in question involved him being an institute teacher not a member of the stake presidency and that there was a difference between his calling in the stake presidency and his job as a CES instructor. My wife and I told him that we had spoken to Brother F. and that we went to his institute class to learn more about the gospel and that we had opinions like anyone else and disagreeing with J.F. didn't constitute not sustaining him. I told D. W. that I had not disrespected J.W. by feeling he should have known about Abraham Gileadi nor by telling the ETB story. My wife tried to give her witness of what had been said but D.W. said he knew his friend and he wouldn't misuse his position. D. W. called us liars and said that his friend wouldn't say what we said he did to us nor would he ever abuse his position over a comment. We were banned from attending institute. I was told I would probably be put on probation and my bishop would contact me for my non-support of a church leader.

It created a great strain on my marriage since the church leaders took my recommend and had it put in my bishop's drawer. My wife viewed me as a source of humiliating her in her new ward. I was subsequently called in by my bishop who told me that I followed Satan. He told me he personally didn't like me and that I was arrogant and deserved what happened. He also said that since I didn't support President F. he was taking my recommend. I actually surprised him, instead of arguing with him I said "If you as my bishop say that I follow Satan then I must. Tell me what I need to do to repent."

I sincerely meant what I said but I think he thought I was being a smart aleck. He placed my recommend in his drawer. My recommend sat in his top drawer for three months in his office where anyone could see it that open his drawer. I saw it in there the two other times I went in to talk with him when he reached in for a pen you could see it. I went to church every week and sat in the front row and smiled at all of them whenever I saw them. I went for three months without my recommend.

D. W. got a new job at the BYU Law School and left Missouri supposedly to take care of his ailing parents in Utah. He must have come back or taught part-time because it claims in his Wikipedia entry he retired in 1997. When the new stake president was called in 1991 he retained the two counselors including J. F.

I was reassigned to another ward this time the Moberly Ward so that the new stake president could watch me better since that was his ward. I had to drive about 50 miles to church. I didn't have any callings including being a home teacher. I received my temple recommend back since D. W. told my bishop to give it back on his last week there as stake president and my wife and I weren't fighting anymore. After a few months J. F. took a job at another institute in Utah. I moved that summer also to take a full-ride doctoral fellowship in Indiana. I was still the same person as the one in Missouri but that next winter I was made a high priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood and became a high priest group leader.

The lesson I learned from J. F. was don't piss off an egotistical CES teacher who can use his eccesliastical position to destroy your life. Some would say I got what I deserved. I should have kept my mouth shut in Sunday School. I was sustaining and defending the kingdom of God when I shared my Ezra Taft Benson story but J.F. saw it as another form of disrespect. My greatest problem was that I didn't kiss J. F's ring and think he was a man of God in all aspects of his life nor did I realize that some men can't seperate their callings from their jobs.

I have never had a warm fuzzy feeling toward the CES since that experience nor an earlier one with P. W. and feel the Brethren know what they are doing when they downplay them as experts or church authorities. I have become militant in believing that only volunteers should be used not paid teachers in teaching seminary and institute. I think one or two zealous paid employees who happen to hold church callings can do damage to the CES. I also think that a man's pride can sometimes color his judgment.

Because of my experiences in Missouri I am more careful in what I say and do with my current leaders. I leave them alone and they leave me alone for the most part. I try to do my calling and I try to find out what my leaders expect of me.

I even have knowledge about legal matters as my lawyer says tell the truth it is the only defense for slander. I am sure all the Missouri leaders felt justified in what they did to me. I did imply F. needed to get his facts straight and who was I to question a Sunday School teacher who happened to be a member of the stake presidency. I look forward to one day standing before God at the judgment bar so all my Missouri leaders and I can have a discussion about this incident with a totally fair judge who can judge us by our hearts and true intents.

My heart was right in what went down in Missouri. Anyone that knows me knows that I tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God. I wasn't trying to take over J. F.'s class nor not sustain him. I wish D.W. would have believed me and my wife. There are always consequences to everything we do and say. I'm just not sure a comment like the one I made should be grounds for discipline. I have always agreed with Howard W. Hunter's philosophy that we should be gentler and kinder. I think leaders should consider both sides. I respect Joseph Smith who didn't take the side of Thomas B. Marsh for a few cheese curds I wish I could respect D.W. for his handling of the matter but I don't. I guess you have to respect people supporting each other unfortunately some times they make mistakes that can affect people's lives negatively.

I am of a mind that leaders should be cautious when they discipline people and do it for the right reasons. Even if I had said what he accused me of, I don't think my purported comment that J.F. needed to dust off his scriptures was ever a good enough reason to take away my recommend. I think President W. and F. had bigger fish to fry than me and my wife and they should have been nicer. I noticed J.F. never became a leader after he left Missouri. My wife and have moved on and are still active in the Church. I think it is an interesting experience with lessons to be learned.


Anonymous said...

I think what you ran into is what I call the "Good 'ol boy" network. Having grown up in the South, and having just moved to Missouri a little a fairly short time ago, I have seen this kind of thing a few times.

In our ward, we have a Young Mens President who I think has done a really great job. I think he has helped reactivate at least 2 or three boys who would otherwise be inactive. The dilemma he was faced with when he became the president was that 3-4 boys in a group of 6 or 7 who didn’t want to do scouting. Two of them even refused to attend scouting meetings at all. One would attend scouting occasionally. This new president asked the boys if they would be interested in doing the Duty to God award. They said they would. This wise president decided to change the focus of the weekly activities from Scouting to Duty to God, and only supplement the activities with Scouting. So, we went from 2-3 boys who were active to nearly the whole group of 7, minus one or two each week. Well, one of the parents who was serious about scouting complained to the Bishop. The Bishop came to the YW president and said that he had to take his focus back to Scouts. I fear this change will push away the boys again. It’s really sad that they want to push out a really great church program in lieu of Scouting, a program that only fulfills part of the purposes of the priesthood. All so one Dad can make sure his boy makes Eagle. But at what cost?

At least this situation isn’t as bad as the one you described. I’m glad to hear things are working out for you.

Michael said...

Thanks for sharing a very interesting story. While I don't mean any disrespect, it would be interesting to hear the other side of the story (there always is one you know).

KevinR said...

I sympathize greatly with your story. You may want to read other stories of ecclesiastical abuse, if you haven't already, found online at the Mormon Alliance webpage. Although it is a little older (I think blogging has replaced its function of telling stories similar to yours), there are many good ideas to consider. It is amazing and wonderful that you (and your wife) have kept your faith through this experience. I am thankful to have only run into a few minor incidents of abuse, but yours is very revealing. Although there is always another side to the story, I have gathered that you're not exaggerating or fabricating and that the stake presidency you mention will have to account for their misdeeds and sins in this matter.