How LDS Church disciplinary councils work, change lives

Published: Friday, June 20 2014 7:20 p.m. MDT

LDS Church disciplinary councils operate in confidentiality, but six members shared their stories with us. "This is not a tool to condemn me or make me feel guilty or excluded," one woman said, "but it is a tool to help people come back to God."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — On a chilly Saturday last January, a man who once led a small LDS congregation walked into a church building in the Salt Lake Valley expecting to be excommunicated.

"It was very serious," Carl said this week. "I repeatedly sinned, in any religion's book."

Four years after he joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1970s, Carl had felt intimidated when he had to convene a disciplinary council to evaluate a member of his branch in the American southwest.

Now he sat down at the end of a long table to face a disciplinary council convened for him.

The meeting began with a prayer. A lay minister called a stake president outlined Carl's circumstances to the council. Then it was Carl's turn. He described what he had done.

"About a box of Kleenex later, I finally finished," he said. "There were no scowls, no looks of judgment. I felt total concern on their part for me as an individual."

Four weeks earlier, Carl had approached his bishop, who called in the stake president. They placed him on informal church probation. He could not take the sacrament in Sunday services nor pray in church meetings.

"They also gave me a blessing," he said, growing emotional. "I never felt like I was being humiliated or being judged. They were sorry for me. We met weekly for a month."

After Carl confessed to the council, he left the room so 15 men could discuss his situation. Finally, the stake president and his two counselors retired to a separate room and knelt in prayer, seeking inspiration.

When they reached a decision, they invited Carl back to the council room.

Church discipline

LDS Church disciplinary councils happen in strict confidentiality, so they often are labeled by the few that become public. To provide an uncommon inside look at disciplinary councils, the Deseret News granted anonymity to six church members who have been the subjects of disciplinary councils and interviewed three LDS stake presidents who have sat on dozens of them as members of stake presidencies, bishoprics or stake high councils.

Together, those interviewed have been involved in an estimated 75 to 80 disciplinary councils on the branch, ward or stake level. (Branches and wards are LDS congregations. A stake is a geographic group of, typically, five to 12 wards and branches.)

Such access to the information about actual LDS disciplinary councils is extremely rare. Information about a council or its actions nearly always comes to light only through social media or news reports prompted by the person involved.

The interviews reveal a gap between the rare public reports about councils and the majority. Like the Prodigal Son, who Luke wrote "came to himself," the stake presidents and members interviewed for this story described disciplinary councils as corrective actions taken with love to help members come to themselves and return to full faith and fellowship in the church.

"My disciplinary council was one of the most loving, inspired meetings I've ever been a part of," said Mark, who had felt prompted to clear up sins that stretched back 20 years to before his marriage. "It was certainly one of the most spiritual experiences of my life."

He encouraged anyone struggling with the decision of whether to go to a bishop in a situation that might lead to a disciplinary council to do so.

"They will never regret it, ever," Mark said. "They will save their soul."

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