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.
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."
Chloe moved to a new ward this winter. Like each of the six members interviewed for this story, she initiated the contact with church leaders. In February she went to the bishop and told him she needed to repent.
It was difficult. A lifelong member, she hated that his first impression of her would be this meeting. She described it as "terrible, overwhelming and embarrassing." Still, she said as she left she felt some of the weight come off her shoulders. She felt relief.
Placed on informal probation, she experienced loneliness and feelings of rejection prior to her disciplinary council. She now believes that was part of the process, and those feelings turned her to Heavenly Father.
Her meetings with the bishop quickly became "very warm and very comforting. I felt he became 100 percent my advocate rather than the determiner of my fate."
The ward disciplinary council was more of the same and healing began.
"It became so apparent they were rooting for me," she said. "I was nervous about what the outcome would be, and I was embarrassed to be with this group of people and tell them my darkest secrets. As soon as we started talking, I felt nothing but love and support. They were not a group of judges.
"For me it was such a wonderful growing experience. Since that time I have felt the intense mercy, love and support from my bishop and my Heavenly Father. I don't know why they are called disciplinary councils and come off as so negative, because I experienced nothing but light, warmth, forgiveness — nothing negative."
The council placed Chloe on formal probation for six months. She has had setbacks, but continues to feel loved and supported, she said.
"I have a great appreciation for people who feel lost and like they are never going to be the same. I know better now," Chloe said. "Now I feel so much encouragement. It makes me feel bad to know some people see this process in such a negative light, such a condemning light. I don't see it that way any more."
Church discipline is in the news.
Some leaders in the evangelical community, for example, are engaged in a new social media meme one writer in April dubbed "excommunitweets." A United Methodist minister was defrocked six months ago for officiating his son's same-sex wedding, but he has appealed and expects a decision as early as Saturday.
And last week, two members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that their respective local leaders had scheduled disciplinary councils for them — one for Sunday, one for June 29 — due to concerns about possible apostasy.
Some outside these and other faiths like the Catholic Church that practice church discipline seem surprised by it, but church discipline in Christianity has existed since Jesus Christ described it in the New Testament (Matt 18:16-17); Peter corrected Simon for offering to pay for the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 8:9-24) and Paul discussed it in his letters to far-flung church members. (1 Timothy 1, 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, 11)
In 1536, John Calvin described what he called ecclesiastical discipline as a remedy "which Christ enjoins, and the pious have always had in use."
The object of excommunication, Calvin wrote in his book "Institutes of the Christian Religion," is to bring the sinner to repentance, "to bring him back to himself, so that he may rather rejoice than be grieved at the correction."
President Ron Southworth, president of an LDS stake an hour north of Seattle, has served for 14 years in positions that sit on stake disciplinary councils. He estimates that he has been a part of 30 to 40 stake councils, and that half to two-thirds ended in excommunication.
Southworth said all but two have returned to the church, and one of those continues to work his way back: "I would describe what I see at the successful end of church discipline as a miracle," he said.
On his doorstep
A ward disciplinary council consists of four people: the ward's bishop and his two counselors and the ward clerk. A stake council includes the three members of the stake presidency, 12 high councilors and the stake clerk.
Stake councils are held when excommunication is a possibility for a man ordained to the faith's Melchizedek Priesthood.
Jacob, 37, was a lifelong church member and self-described intellectual who committed adultery. Excommunication was possible, and in his mind, likely.
"I'd become a very logical member of the church," he said. "Everything was common sense and habit. There was no spiritual side. I didn't have a relationship with God."
He also had a negative perception of disciplinary councils, but he said he felt compassion from his council, especially his stake president, who ultimately disfellowshipped him.
"There was nothing like a vengeful attitude there," he said. "It was exactly the opposite of that."
When he got home after the council meeting, a member of the high council was sitting on his doorstep.
"One thing I was dealing with was sexual addiction," Jacob said. "The high council member introduced himself and said, 'Hi, I'm an addict, like you are.' I realized these men were generally concerned about me, that they were normal and they cared."
Jacob said he rediscovered God. A year after the first council, a second convened. A few of the faces had changed, but not many. The council restored him to full fellowship.
"It was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life," Jacob said. "I had changed. They recognized I had connected with God again, that the purpose of the council was to help me get in touch with him again and start understanding his will instead of what I think is best."
Jacob still attends pornography supports groups both inside and outside the church. He said he's given up scorekeeping and let go of anger, bitterness, hate and resentment. The entire process saved his marriage.
People who go before a disciplinary council, he said, have to ask themselves if they are they willing to put aside ego, pride and self-will.
Carl said his sins were rooted in negative thinking and pride. That led him to engage in actions that shocked even him. He fully expected excommunication on that cold January day.
Instead, his stake president informed him he would be disfellowshipped. He would not be able to take the sacrament, pray in church meetings, exercise the priesthood, attend the temple or hold a church calling. But he maintained his membership, and his life already had begun to change: "I was able to hug and shake hands with every member of that council," he said.
The disfellowshipment was to last at least a year, and Carl said he now understands why.
"I'm just now starting to feel promptings from the Holy Ghost again," he said. "It's been a long time because of my previous negative attitudes and adulterous actions."
Now retired, he said his former sins now are repugnant to him and that he has devoted his life to rebuilding his relationship with his wife, children and Savior: "I want to be right with God," he said.
Members of his disciplinary council have continued to provide support.
"I don't know if I had not had to go to them," Carl said, "if I had not had to humble myself and go to them, if I would have been able to do really do something about what I had done.
"For people who would judge the church and say those are just a bunch of old men who want to judge people or control people, they are wrong. They are concerned men who looked out for the welfare of my soul and just wanted the very best for me."
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."
Southworth, 63, a photographer who leads the Arlington Washington Stake near Seattle, relies on a Book of Mormon scripture, 3 Nephi 18:31-32, for guidance. In it, the resurrected Christ tells his apostles in America that the unrepentant will not be numbered among his people but should be encouraged to continue to attend church because they might return and then be healed by him.
Southworth has been a stake president for nine years and has seen many return to full fellowship.
"When they get to that point it is such an inspiring thing to see," he said. "They have such a purity and happiness for the healing they've felt in their lives."
President Duane Jess, a 45-year-old who works in technical sales, leads the Murray West Stake in the Salt Lake Valley. His stake has eight wards and a branch that ministers solely to women in the Salt Lake County Jail. Of the 20 ward and stake councils he's been involved in, one-third have been for people completing a return from discipline.
"I've seen it bring peace to people," Jess said, "peace and healing and perspective, to people that were broken, who thought that they were lost, who thought God couldn't love them any more."
Each of the presidents said local decision-making is critical and in fact is a product of what Mormons know as priesthood keys. Stake presidents have priesthood authority for their stakes that no else has, not even the church's general authorities.
Those priesthood keys give them the divine right to direct inspiration for their stakes and the members in them. All three said they never have consulted with general authorities about a disciplinary hearing.
None of the hearings they have been a part of become public.
"Disciplinary hearings change lives if someone is willing to work through the process the way it is designed to work," Little said.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company