A stake disciplinary council disfellowshipped Derek, 27, a returned missionary, about seven years ago.
"Councils are there to help us improve," he said. "That council opened the door for me. It opened the door to continue going where I was going, or it opened the door for me to return."
For four years, he chose Door No. 1, but when he met his future wife and she talked about getting married in an LDS temple, he knew where to start.
"I had the door to still go through," he said. "It was not like the door ever shut on me."
The couple married two years ago in the San Diego Temple, and his wife's two children were sealed to both of them. A new baby arrived a day before their first anniversary: "There's never an end in the church," Derek said.
Elise, 40, is a lifelong member who said her life wasn't turning out how she wanted, so she checked out for nearly two years. At that point, she realized she felt even worse, that she had isolated herself, and that confessing her sins was "the way out, the way back."
"I wanted my life back," she said.
Her bishop waited patiently as she struggled to vocalize what she'd done.
"When I could finally spit it out, he was so kind and I felt so relieved. It was actually the most profound spiritual experience of my life. He said to me, 'Do you know you're a daughter of God?' I just nodded my head and cried. I knew it at that moment more profoundly than ever before, that I am the daughter of God."
After her disciplinary hearing and a period of formal probation, she got what she wanted and returned to full fellowship.
"It was exactly what I'd hoped for," she said, crying. "Getting my life back is exactly what happened. And that for me is huge."
The stake presidents described disciplinary councils as a spiritual process that isn't the beginning or end of helping someone return to full fellowship in the church. Each said they approach councils with prayer and often with fasting.
"The council gives the bishop or stake president the opportunity to get the benefit of the wisdom, perspective, experience and counsel of others," said President William Little, 41, an attorney who presides over the Beaumont Texas Stake.
After the council finishes its discussion, the stake president and his counselors retire to the president's office. They discuss their decision and kneel. Each member of the stake presidency prays.
"Ultimately, we make it a matter of prayer," Little said. "We truly are trying to ascertain the Lord's will. We do believe in inspiration."
Finally, the stake presidency returns to the council room and asks for the high council's ratifying vote.
Little is a civil litigation trial attorney. He said disciplinary hearings are "totally different" than court cases.
"This is not an adversarial process at all," he said. "It's nothing like what the world sees as a trial."
Little said that in seven years in bishoprics and as stake president, he has been involved in about 15 disciplinary councils. Two resulted in excommunications. One of those has applied for readmission to the church, and the application is pending approval by the First Presidency.
"We are not dishing out punishment," he said. "The goal is to help, love, aid and bring them to Christ so they can be a disciple again, to help them take full advantage of the Atonement of Jesus Christ."
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