A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings


M. Russell Ballard

The longer I live, the more profoundly grateful I am that the Lord has given us a plan to help us grow and progress. As part of this plan, He has given guidance on how we can overcome serious error and sin. His desire is that all his children return to him, that all partake of the precious fruit of eternal life. (See Ezek. 18:21–23.)

Both the Lord and his church stand ready with open arms to welcome back all who stray. The First Presidency has extended this special invitation:

“We are aware of some who are inactive, of others who have become critical and are prone to find fault, and of those who have been disfellowshipped or excommunicated because of serious transgressions.

“To all such we reach out in love. We are anxious to forgive. …

“We encourage Church members to forgive those who may have wronged them. To those who have ceased activity and to those who have become critical, we say, ‘Come back. Come back and feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints.’” (Church News, 22 Dec. 1985, p. 3.)

When members need to have certain blessings withheld, the Lord’s object is to teach as well as to discipline. So probation, disfellowshipment, and excommunication, when they become necessary, are ideally accompanied by eventual reinstatement and restoration of blessings.

I remember as a child occasionally coming unkempt to the dinner table. My mother wisely sent me to clean up and then return. My parents would have been pained if I had taken offense and had run off—and I would have been foolish to do so. In the same way, the servants of the Lord occasionally find that they must, in loving concern, send some of Heavenly Father’s children out the door so they can return clean once again. The Lord does not want us to “miss supper.” In fact, he has a great feast prepared for those who return clean and pure through the door. He is greatly saddened when anyone decides they prefer to be unclean and miss the meal, or when they find an excuse to take offense, or when they run away. He is pleased to extend the chance to start over.

I’ve known a few rebellious people who disregard the commandments and are influenced by the evil one or by other rebellious people to transgress God’s laws. I’ve seen their distress and pain. I’ve also seen their joy when, humbled and fully repentant, they have returned to the Church and have had all their blessings restored.

“I Would Love a Blessing”

Some time ago I was asked by the First Presidency to stop and visit a man on my way to a stake conference. This man had been excommunicated, had fully repented, and had been found worthy to be baptized. But baptism did not restore his priesthood and temple blessings. That was my assignment, acting on behalf of the Lord at the direction of the President of the Church.

I found the man lying in a hospital suffering from a disease that left him unable to move or speak. On seeing him, I realized that it would be impossible to conduct the customary interview. Instead, I felt impressed that I should interview his wife, who was there with him. We found a vacant room in the hospital, and I had a wonderful visit with this stalwart woman, the mother of eight. She had stood by her husband, remaining true and faithful through all his struggle and difficulty. Now she, like her husband, greatly desired that he have his blessings restored.

As we walked back into the husband’s room, I asked his wife to help me communicate with him. During the two years that his body had deteriorated from disease, he had developed a way to communicate with his eyes. I leaned over his bed and said, “I am Elder Ballard. I have been sent here by the President of the Church. I am authorized to restore your blessings. Would you like that?” I quickly saw I wouldn’t need the help of his wife. Tears filled his eyes and ran down his cheeks in affirmative response.

I placed my hands on his head and, using terminology associated with this ordinance, restored to him the Melchizedek Priesthood.

He sobbed—perhaps the first sounds he had made in some time. I restored his office in the priesthood. Then I restored to him, by the power of the priesthood, the holy endowment that he had received when he went through the temple for the first time. Last, I restored what was perhaps most valuable to him—his sealings to his wife and children.

As the blessing concluded we were all filled with emotion. I looked at his wife and had the impression that I was to bless her also. I said, “Sister, would you like us to give you a blessing?”

She said, “Oh, I would love a blessing, Brother Ballard. I have not had a blessing in a long time.”

I asked her to sit down; then the regional representative, the stake president, and I placed our hands on her head. But when I tried to bless her, the words would not come. We took our hands off her head and I said, “Brethren, let’s move her chair closer to the bed.” We pushed her chair over where I could lift her husband’s hand and place it on her head, since he was unable to lift it himself. As we proceeded again with the blessing, the words flowed. Blessings were given, conviction and comfort came.

I have since thought what a marvelous lesson that experience teaches us. This man had sinned, and a loving Heavenly Father had required that he repent so he could be worthy to be once again numbered among the Saints. He had subsequently done our Heavenly Father’s will; he had turned his life around; he had repented. Now, back in the Church and continuing to progress, he was worthy to have his greatest blessings restored. And he was able to use his restored priesthood immediately, participating in giving his wife a special priesthood blessing.

Informal Church Discipline

When a bishop learns of a transgression, usually through the confession of the member involved, he first counsels with the member. When the sin is not grievous, the bishop may decide, through inspiration, that no disciplinary action is needed. He may continue to give counsel and caution, helping the member resist temptation and avoid further transgression.

Another option the bishop has is to place the member on informal probation, temporarily restricting his privileges as a Church member—such as the right to partake of the sacrament, hold a Church position, or enter the temple. The bishop may ask the member to surrender his temple recommend temporarily. In addition, he may require the member to make specific positive changes in attitude or behavior. No official record is made or kept of informal probation. The bishop maintains close contact with the member and may terminate the probation period when he is prompted to do so.

In these cases, informal Church discipline may negate the need for formal disciplinary action. Since repentance and reformation are the primary objectives of any Church disciplinary action, the bishop may feel that the person has done or is doing everything necessary to repent and that a disciplinary council would serve no useful purpose.

Formal Church Discipline

On the other hand, the spirit of inspiration may move the Church leader to convene a disciplinary council, particularly if the member holds a prominent position in the Church.

In the scriptures, the Lord has given direction concerning Church disciplinary councils. (See D&C 102.) The word council brings to mind a helpful proceeding—one of love and concern, with the salvation and blessing of the transgressor being the foremost consideration.

Members sometimes ask why Church disciplinary councils are held. The purpose is threefold: to save the soul of the transgressor, to protect the innocent, and to safeguard the Church’s purity, integrity, and good name.

The First Presidency has instructed that disciplinary councils must be held in cases of murder, incest, or apostasy. A disciplinary council must also be held when a prominent Church leader commits a serious transgression, when the transgressor is a predator who may be a threat to other persons, when the person shows a pattern of repeated serious transgressions, when a serious transgression is widely known, and when the transgressor is guilty of serious deceptive practices and false representations or other terms of fraud or dishonesty in business transactions.

Disciplinary councils may also be convened to consider a member’s standing in the Church following serious transgression such as abortion, transsexual operation, attempted murder, rape, forcible sexual abuse, intentionally inflicting serious physical injuries on others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, child abuse (sexual or physical), spouse abuse, deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, robbery, burglary, embezzlement, theft, sale of illegal drugs, fraud, perjury, or false swearing.

Disciplinary councils are not called to try civil or criminal cases. The decision of a civil court may help determine whether a Church disciplinary council should be convened. However, a civil court’s decision does not dictate the decision of a disciplinary council.

Disciplinary councils are not held for such things as failure to pay tithing, to obey the Word of Wisdom, to attend church, or to receive home teachers. They are not held because of business failure or nonpayment of debts. They are not designed to settle disputes among members. Nor are they held for members who demand that their names be removed from Church records or who have joined another church; that is now an administrative action.

The How of Disciplinary Councils

The bishopric, in consultation with the stake president, has the responsibility and authority to hold disciplinary councils for all ward members. However, if excommunication of a Melchizedek Priesthood holder is thought to be a possibility, the matter is transferred to the stake presidency, who, with the assistance of the high council, may convene a stake disciplinary council.

An appeal of a decision of a ward disciplinary council goes to the stake presidency and high council. Any further appeals go to the First Presidency.

Missions and districts have jurisdiction similar to that of stakes and wards, with mission presidents having jurisdiction over the missionaries and branch members in districts over whom they preside.

A disciplinary council begins with an opening prayer, followed by a statement of the reason for the council being convened. The member is asked to tell in simple and general terms about the transgression and to explain his or her feelings and what steps of repentance he or she has taken. The member may respond to clarifying questions from the leaders. Then he or she is excused, and the leaders counsel together, pray, and reach a decision.

The council takes into consideration many factors, such as whether temple or marriage covenants have been violated; whether a position of trust or authority has been abused; the repetition, seriousness, and magnitude of the transgression; the age, maturity, and experience of the transgressor; the interests of innocent victims and innocent family members; the time between transgression and confession; whether or not confession was voluntary; and evidence of repentance.

Those who sit on the council are to keep everything strictly confidential and to handle the matter in a spirit of love. Their objective is not retribution; rather, it is to help the member make the changes necessary to stand clean before God once more.

Possible Actions of Disciplinary Councils

Decisions of the council are to be made with inspiration. A council can reach one of four decisions: (1) no action, (2) formal probation, (3) disfellowshipment, or (4) excommunication.

Even if a transgression has been committed, the council may decide to take no action at that time. (The member would be encouraged to receive further counsel from his or her bishop.)

Formal probation is a temporary state of discipline, imposed as a means to help the member fully repent. The presiding officer of the council specifies the conditions under which the probation can be terminated. During the probation, the bishop or stake president keeps in close contact to help the individual progress.

The third decision the council may take is to disfellowship the member. Disfellowshipment is usually temporary, though not necessarily brief. Disfellowshipped persons retain membership in the Church. They are encouraged to attend public Church meetings, but are not entitled to offer public prayers or to give talks. They may not hold a Church position, take the sacrament, vote in the sustaining of Church officers, hold a temple recommend, or exercise the priesthood. They may, however, pay tithes and offerings and continue to wear temple garments if endowed.

Excommunication is the most severe judgment a Church disciplinary council can take. Excommunicated persons are no longer members of the Church. Therefore, they are denied the privileges of Church membership, including the wearing of temple garments and the payment of tithes and offerings. They may attend public Church meetings, but, like disfellowshipped persons, their participation in such meetings is limited. Excommunicated persons are encouraged to repent and so live as to qualify for eventual baptism.

Great consideration is given regarding the confidentiality of the decisions of a Church disciplinary council. No announcement is ever made when a member is placed on formal probation. Decisions to disfellowship or excommunicate are generally not announced publicly unless the transgression is widely known.

Restoration

Church disciplinary action is not intended to be the end of the process—rather, it is designed to be the beginning of an opportunity to return to full fellowship and to the full blessings of the Church. Priesthood leaders try hard to be sensitive to the disciplined person’s needs for understanding, encouragement, counsel, and assistance. They work to see that he or she has regular visits with his or her bishop; that the person has mature, caring home teachers or other specially assigned individuals; and that his or her family receive the attention, counsel, and fellowship they need during this difficult time.

The desired result is that the person will make whatever changes are necessary to return fully and completely to be able to receive the marvelous blessings of the Church. When the person has progressed to that point, his or her current bishop or stake president has the authority to convene a new disciplinary council to consider what action needs to be taken—even if the person is now living in a new ward or stake or if a new bishopric or stake presidency is now serving.

After the rebaptism of a person who has not been endowed in the temple, his or her membership record shows the original baptism date, with no reference to the excommunication. A man who previously held the priesthood but was not endowed should generally be ordained to his former priesthood office. Again, his membership record will show his original ordination date, with no reference to excommunication.

A person who was endowed in the temple before being excommunicated may regain priesthood and/or temple blessings only through the ordinance of restoration of blessings. This is a special ordinance performed by a General Authority as directed by the First Presidency. Afterwards, a new membership record is created, showing the original dates of baptism, endowment, sealing, and (if applicable) priesthood ordinations—with no reference to excommunication.

Our Father in Heaven is pleased to restore former blessings to his sons and daughters when they have demonstrated sincere and complete repentance.

“It Was Difficult but Necessary”

The trauma of being disfellowshipped or excommunicated from the Church will likely never be fully understood by those who have never experienced it. One man said, “The shock I felt was terrible.” But he knew it was the Lord’s will. “I could feel the spirit of concerned brethren in the room as I was told the decision of the council,” he said. “I felt only love and compassion.”

Still, the pain was hard to bear. “Left to cope with the anguish and grief inside me, I cried, I prayed, I lay awake at night afraid that I would lose my wife and children forever. Although I continued to counsel with my bishop, I felt alone, with rebellion in my heart many times and feelings of guilt because of this rebellion. …

“As I look back now, working through each personal challenge was terribly difficult but necessary, and the whole process was a great blessing to me. … Repentance is something that each individual must find for himself or herself, in process of time.”

Friends and family are vitally important for an individual who is struggling to return to the gospel path. Those around such a person must refrain from judging. They must do all they can to show love. The Lord has commanded, “Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin.

“I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” (D&C 64:9–10.)

A woman who had been a Relief Society president tells of the love and support she received during a painful period of disfellowshipment. “When the brethren of the council listened to me, I could feel love as I had never felt it before. They all wept with me.”

Although she initially felt as if her heart would “break into a million pieces,” the next day a comforting spirit returned, and she realized that she would not be abandoned.

One of the most difficult things for her was going to church the next Sunday, even though it was much easier than she had thought. The bishop made a point of shaking her hand. With words and without, priesthood leaders who had participated on the council expressed their concern and love. No one else knew. “There was no sign of disrespect,” she says.

As the weeks and months passed, she found that her pain and suffering were actually aiding the cleansing and healing process. In fact, her pain and suffering served a necessary purpose in the process of healing. And the pain that her family experienced was relieved somewhat through the kind and thoughtful attention extended to them by others.

With agony she acknowledges, “Every member of the Church must realize that he or she is capable of sinning. How I have paid for fooling myself about what I was doing!”

We must constantly guard our thoughts. Serious sin almost always begins with unworthy thoughts. Some years ago at the direction of the First Presidency, I interviewed a man for the restoration of his priesthood and temple blessings. This brother had been excommunicated while serving in an important calling in his ward. While we visited, I asked him, “How did this all happen?”

In very sober terms he said, “It all began when I picked up a pornographic magazine and read it. From this subtle beginning, I was led to more and more erotic things—including R- and X-rated films and videotapes—until I committed adultery with a prostitute.”

He continued, “As I look back, I can hardly believe I did those awful things. But I did them, and it all started by reading a pornographic magazine. Brother Ballard, tell the Saints to be careful what they read and what they see on television, movies, and videos.”

A sister who was disciplined after years of faithful service and devotion to the Church said: “I had no idea I was capable of committing such a serious transgression. I had assumed that if I knew something was wrong, I would never do it. Little did I understand the sometimes strange dynamics of human behavior, or what I was capable of.”

Never forget that. Satan is real, and he has the power to “grasp” mortals “with his everlasting chains … and [lead] them away carefully down to hell.” (2 Ne. 28:19, 21.)

Struggles and Blessings

The miracle of the gospel is that we all can repent. Church government calls for Church disciplinary councils. But the Lord’s system also calls for restoration following repentance. Disfellowshipment or excommunication is not the end of the story, unless the member so chooses. Rather, after excommunication, followed by full repentance, come additional steps, each one bringing great blessings: baptism, restoration of priesthood and temple blessings, further growth and participation in the kingdom, enduring in righteousness to the end.

President Ezra Taft Benson has spoken about the kind of repentance that truly brings forgiveness:

“I would not have anyone believe that there is no hope if there are some who have made such a grievous mistake, because repentance and forgiveness are also a part of the gospel. Thank God for that! But it must be real repentance. Such repentance is a deep, heartfelt sorrow for sin that produces a reformation of life. It is not just a confession of guilt. Sometimes we regard all too lightly the principle of repentance, thinking that it only means confession, that it only means feeling sorry for ourselves. But it is more than that. It is a deep, burning, and heartfelt sorrow for sin that will drive us to our knees in humility and tears—a deep, heartfelt sorrow for sin that produces a reformation of life. That is the right test: a reformation of life. Only then may the God of heaven in his mercy and his goodness see fit to forgive us. He—not the priesthood on the earth—is the judge. Priesthood holders can only carry out certain requirements. They can require certain things set forth in the revelations, but forgiveness comes from above.” (God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974, p. 196.)

Elder Marion G. Romney bore beautiful testimony of the principle of repentance. He said, “I am grateful for my Redeemer, grateful that he paid the debt and brought about the means of repentance so that by repenting of my transgressions I can bring my soul within the reach of his atoning blood and thereby be cleansed of sin. … I love the doctrine of repentance.

“During the past few months I have seen the need of it—oh, how I have seen the need of it. I have seen missionaries, Saints, and nonmembers of the Church in far-off lands sorrowing with a Godly sorrow for sin. I have heard them say, Oh, Brother Romney, do you think there is any hope for me, any chance for me to get on even the bottom rung of the gospel ladder?’”

I believe that is a question many ask who have undergone a Church disciplinary council. And President Romney, knowing the truth and power of the gospel, had a ready answer:

“And so I comforted and encouraged those who confided in me, and I encouraged all sorrowing, repentant men to be comforted—comforted by the experience of Alma and by Paul’s assurance that ‘… godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation. …’ (2 Cor. 7:10.) For today, as well as in days of old, there is hope, there is peace, there is rest in Christ for all whose Godly sorrow brings them to that repentance which worketh salvation. Forgiveness is as wide as repentance. Every person will be forgiven for all the transgressions of which he truly repents. If he repents of all his sins, he shall stand spotless before God because of the atonement of our Master and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1955, pp. 123–24.)

Elder Romney’s message is comforting to all who truly repent and return to the arms of a loving and merciful Savior. It is a lie propounded by the adversary that our sins can run too deep, that any one of us has sunk below the reach of the Savior and his atonement. The scriptures give us only one exception: those who have sinned against the Holy Ghost, “having crucified [the Savior] unto themselves and put him to an open shame” after having known the Lord’s power and partaken of it. (See D&C 76:31–37.) If we do not fall into this category (and those who do are few), we can, with the help of the Lord, come back onto the path and become clean and pure again, worthy to receive our Father’s greatest blessings.

Once a repentant member qualifies for these blessings, none will be withheld, including the blessings of the priesthood and the temple. President Spencer W. Kimball expressed this glorious principle in a beautiful way, and I add my testimony to his:

“When soiled clothes have been through the laundry and washed, starched and pressed, they are no longer filthy. When the smallpox victim has been healed and cleansed, he is no longer contaminated. … When one is washed and purged and cleansed, he is no longer an adulterer. …

“The effect of the cleansing is beautiful. These troubled souls have found peace. These soiled robes have been cleansed to spotlessness. These people formerly defiled, having been cleansed through their repentance—their washing, their purging, their whitening—are made worthy for constant temple service and to be found before the throne of God associating with divine royalty.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, pp. 352–53.)

To members and leaders of the Church who know of a brother or a sister who has been disfellowshipped or excommunicated: Love him or her without judging. Be sensitive and thoughtful without prying. Be warm and caring without being condescending. Be forgiving and forgetful. The Lord has said, “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42.) Can we be justified in doing any less?

To you who have come back into full fellowship in the Church: Welcome home! Now, as Nephi said, “Press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” (2 Ne. 31:20.) Believe that promise.

To you who have not yet returned, who may still be struggling with the hurt and haven’t yet felt the healing: please allow yourself to feel the love that the Lord, his presiding authorities, and your friends in the Church feel for you. We are aware of your pain, and we pray for your healing and your return.

As the First Presidency has said, “We are confident that many have longed to return, but have felt awkward about doing so. We assure you that you will find open arms to receive you and willing hands to assist you. …

“We know there are many who carry heavy burdens of guilt and bitterness. To such we say, ‘Set them aside and give heed to the words of the Savior: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

“‘“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

“‘“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28–30.)’

“We plead with you. We pray for you. We invite and welcome you with love and appreciation.” (Church News, 22 Dec. 1985, p. 3.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann