Questions and Answers

Victor L. Brown

Answers are for help and perspective, not as pronouncements of Church doctrine.

“I have a personal problem. My friend suggested that I should go see a professional counselor, but I feel I should go to my bishop. Which is right?”

Bishop Victor L. Brown Presiding Bishop of the Church.

President Spencer W. Kimball, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, gave important guidance regarding this question. It is helpful here to quote from a speech he gave to a group of Latter-day Saint mental health workers on the subject of the bishop in relation to professional counselors:

“A bishop is ordained with an everlasting endowment, and it is lost only through unworthiness which brings to him Church discipline, possibly excommunication.

“Because of his call and ordination and setting apart, he also becomes a judge in Israel (D&C 58:17.) and has the responsibility of making many decisions for his people which affect their progress and development and their life. He has control over their spiritual activities so that he can give them opportunities for growth and judge their accomplishments. He decides if they are worthy and eligible for certain blessings and privileges. He holds the key to all temples in the world and it is he who must turn that key to open the doors thereof to his members and through eternal marriage to life eternal.

“It is not uncommon to find the spiritual leader of a ward in a trench with plumber’s tools, on the farm with his cows and pigs, in a bank at the teller’s window, or at an administrator’s desk. He may be the custodian for the school or its principal or president. The bishop may be collecting garbage or delivering mail, be a policeman, a painter, a teacher, a merchant, or a retired capitalist.

“We do things differently. Peter said, ‘Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation,’ as well as a ‘peculiar people.’ (See 1 Pet. 2:9.)

“Accordingly, bishops may lack much in formal training or they may be specialists high in academic training. But both will succeed in proportion to their dependence on divine guidance and their humility, industry, love and consecration.

“I have been amazed on numerous occasions when I have joined with a bishop in a serious problem of a ward member to see the sagacity, wisdom, inspiration and judgment which some of these young bishops display in their handling of most perplexing problems of members.

“It would be unrealistic and untrue to state that all these young men are perfect men or perfect bishops. They are mortals subject to the whims and weaknesses common to their fellowmen. They are not all as personable as President David O. McKay. They are not all as kind as President George Albert Smith, but as I have known thousands of them personally through a half century and more, I again am astounded at the power and strength and dignity and goodness and ability of most of these young men. An occasional one must be replaced for improper conduct or for inability to do what is expected of him. This is rare. The great majority are most impressive. Stand these personalities up in their cloak of authority, and it would be difficult to get a comparable group of like numbers anywhere who would be so striking.

“It is said: ‘God’s ways are not man’s ways.’ (see Isa. 55:8.) This man, the bishop, need not be schooled in all the fields of education, for he has access to the fountain of all knowledge. There is revelation, not only for the prophet, but for every worthy and righteous man. He is entitled to divine guidance in his own jurisdiction: every man for his own family and himself; every bishop for his ward; the stake president for his stake.

“Therefore, the bishop may draw on this limitless reservoir of knowledge and wisdom if he is in tune with his Maker; whereas, if he relies on himself and his training only, he may miss. His source of inspiration is the Master Physician, the Master Psychiatrist, the Master Psychologist. He is not likely to get far astray if he is humble and doing what he should.

“Numerous times the Church has been urged by certain of its members to train bishops in these special fields to make them efficient in handling of the social problems confronting them, but this has not been done, the feeling being that if the bishop is in tune with the Lord, he may get his help from above.

“Briefly, our program is this:

“The Malady: Mental and physical sin.

“The cure: self-mastery.

“The means of achieving the cure: The Church

“The Medication: The Gospel

“The Treatment: Constructive activity so full of good works there is no time nor thought for evil.”

This statement of President Kimball is my personal guide. It places the bishop where the Lord wants him, as the presiding high priest over the people of his ward.

What then, about the professional social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or other counselor?

President Kimball, in the same talk, said: “The Church finds situations when the trained (mental health professional) is called in for assistance.” There is a proper place for these professionally trained specialists. The Church has an organization for this purpose. It is called LDS Social Services. There are also other faithful Latter-day Saints who are in public or private practice and who can be called upon as a bishop feels the need.

Determining the need is critical. My experience causes me to feel quite strongly that true and lasting problem-solving occurs only through living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Experience also indicates that many of our people become so confused, are so badly mistreated by parents or spouses, engage in sin, or become mentally ill to such an extent that the right professional person is necessary to help these folks stabilize their lives sufficiently to be able to take full advantage of the saving program and principles of the Church and the gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, there is sometimes need for collaboration of the bishop and the professional, with the bishop in control.

Thus, in subordination to and in cooperation with the bishop, I feel the professional helper is a valuable resource. At the same time, there are two grave concerns.

The first is that too many humble bishops relinquish their place to professionals. If the bishop completely gives the responsibility for counseling his people to any professional, whether they are with LDS Social Services or in another setting, that bishop is abdicating a responsibility that God himself assigned.

The second concern is about the professional person himself. Sadly, there are many, even active in the Church, who feel they know more than the bishop; or some of these professionals seem to have reservations about some of our doctrines or practices. These types of counselors are to be strictly avoided. They cannot be trusted. Only that person who recognizes and honors the authority (power, office) of the priesthood is trustworthy enough to be used to assist the bishop.

There are some wonderful professional social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other counselors in the Church. They are characterized by superior professional skills, total allegiance to the Church, and true humility before the enormity of the overwhelming challenges of mental health today. These people are of the select group who can be called upon to assist the bishop.

One final thought: Any competent counselor knows that people change by exercising their own free agency. When we seek counseling help, either from the bishop or a professional person, the responsibility to change or improve remains ours. No one else should be expected to solve our problems for us. We appropriately seek wisdom, counsel, guidance, and other aid, but the power remains within us to change our behavior and, therefore, our course of life. This is why a personal relationship with the Savior is so crucial to a successful and happy life.