Why Excommunication?

I was waiting to share my thoughts on this until I felt like I had full context of this situation, and until I had worked out my own triggers around it.  I suppose the pull to share my feelings on this won’t leave me alone because I’ve had a personal connection to this woman – sex therapist Natasha Helfer – who was recently excommunicated.  And as I’ll share towards the end, I also have a personal connection to the humiliating process of church discipline. 

I know firsthand of this brave lady’s goodness and of the purity of her intentions.  I have a strong sense of what is at “the heart” of what she has been fighting to heal in the Latter-day Saint  community (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often shortened to LDS or “Mormons.”) 

Last year, I met Natasha and she asked to interview me on the Mormon Mental Health Podcast. I ended up sharing our interview on my podcast as well.  In it, we spiritedly discussed ways that respectable, church-going folks are often emotionally and psychologically harmed by misinformation and blanket statements surrounding their sexual development and sexuality in general. 

Some church practices and policies are harmful to the extent that they can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions and past sexual trauma that clergy (and general church leadership) wouldn’t be trained to observe.  Some policies marginalize large groups of people, like LGBTQ+, and fuel hopelessness and despair with respect to their sexuality and reconciling their spiritual salvation.  Such policies have led to multiple suicides. This is well documented, and Natasha has been an outspoken advocate for not only more compassion and tolerance, but for church policies being a softer place to land for the marginalized.

Some ecclesiastical interviews can, unknowingly, fuel shame and drive sexual behaviors underground, thus setting the stage for secrecy, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more shame. Speaking as a Mormon female who grew up having to go through a series of worthiness interviews with a bishop from the time I was 12, I can say there was extreme awkwardness in being asked questions about my sexual morality, alone in a closed room with an adult male.  This is not something I dared question as improper in my youth, even though I felt uneasy about it 100% of the time.  I remember thinking, “Why am I being asked something so private and personal over and over?”  I internalized that my body and normal sexual development was something I needed to stay on alert to potentially be ashamed of. And then there was the emphasis throughout my whole adolescence and young adulthood on covering up my body so as not to entice the young men. Like this kind of rhetoric:

It’s a decade old, but I found this article insightful: https://www.the-exponent.com/rape-culture-and-rape-apology/  It states, “It’s harmful to young women to be saddled with not only their own growing and changing bodies, developing sexuality, and insecurities, but also with the responsibility not to tempt boys and men.  And not just to tempt them in an impure-thoughts kind of way, but not to tempt them in a it’s-your-own-fault-if-he-rapes-you kind of a way.  No woman deserves that kind of pressure and responsibility.”

Following the church membership council that eventually led to her excommunication, Natasha delivered an impassioned speech. One of the things that stood out to me: Her observation that the constant admonishment by general and local church leaders to the men and boys to not look at porn and masturbate is having the opposite of its intended effect. Pornography warnings are issued by church brethren in nearly every general priesthood session – a place where no boy or man needs the visuals that are conjured up when the word “porn” gets mentioned.   These males are there to worship, for heaven’s sake, and church leaders have just planted in their minds the exact contrast of spiritual edification.  They already know pornography use is potentially destructive.  The church’s fixation on these issues is sparking more curiosity about porn and is fueling the flames of sexual addiction. One blatant example of this is the fact that Utah leads the nation in internet pornography consumption.

Because of her actual experience – because of what she has heard day after day, year after year, from Mormon clients – Natasha has been a voice for normalizing what is oftentimes shame-inducing. Not in a “break the commandments” kind of way, but in a way that minimizes fear and confusion for the individual.  She’s highly credentialed and experienced in her field. Those who excommunicated her haven’t looked at the extensive data and research.  In essence, Natasha’s in the trenches with the hurting, hopeless, shamed, and disoriented.  She’s helped thousands of God-fearing LDS couples and individuals deal with the complexities of their gender identities, sexual orientations, spiritually-shamed adolescent self-exploration, modesty fixation, religious scrupulosity, body rejection and compulsive behaviors. 

Unless you are in the field, working with people’s deep psychic wounds, trauma and emotions, you don’t really know how damaging sweeping assumptions, policies, and edicts can be.  But there is One who does.  And I believe in instances like these, He throws the book away and looks upon the heart.

Natasha’s excommunication just feels so off; so wrong.  Being honest, I personally feel that there isn’t a healthy basis for church discipline, church courts, membership councils – whatever we want to call them. I was conditioned to believe they are “courts of love.” They now seem to me to be, at their core, punitive, even for the most compassionate council and penitent defendant. I say this because the one on “trial” has so much at stake; so much to lose. Ultimately, these summons and councils have the “outcast” vibe and I can’t recall a Jesus that ever condoned such.

 

When did Jesus ever excommunicate anyone?

Spiritual shaming is abusive. Shame creates a vast divide between us and God; a chasm that separates us from fully feeling divine love.  There is some debate on the fairness of how Natasha’s church court was handled. She didn’t get the chance to speak or bring in her witnesses because they wouldn’t allow her cell phone (which contained her notes) into the council room. This cut off her ability to present what she’d prepared and so she felt uneasy about continuing with the “trial.”  They held it without her, and then later sent an official letter with their decision to excommunicate.  This happened without hearing her defense, her story or the opportunity to discern the state of her heart in person! 

When someone is ex’d, their baptism is revoked, as are all their former covenants and current religious privileges. How are these “official” church actions actually representing Christ? How is the church surrounding this woman with unconditional love, mercy and respect? Natasha was catapulted into deep grief over the prospect of losing her church membership from the moment she was given the summons (served on Easter Sunday, no less).  She loves the church and holds her membership dear.  She did not want to be excommunicated.

Perhaps the most damaging part of her very public excommunication is that it sends a message to other Mormon therapists in Natasha’s field to look past well-established data and research and conform to uninformed church policies and procedures. Their aim in disciplining Natasha was to silence her and future therapists who espouse the same widely respected research. Natasha is not advocating for immorality, sexual irresponsibility, or the breaking of the law of chastity.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s about the preservation of human dignity.

 

Where this gets personal:

At the heart of it for me, and why I ultimately got so triggered by Natasha’s experience, is because to some degree, I have been in her shoes.  Twenty-seven years ago, I went before a council of priesthood men – men I had never met – as a scared, single, pregnant college student. The boyfriend had left, my family was out of state, and I’d never felt more alone.  The brethren asked me very private questions that made me feel deeply uncomfortable.

I wasn’t ex’d but received the next most serious penalty: disfellowshipment. As I break that word down now, dis-fellowship, it’s all about separation. I was not allowed to take the sacrament, pray in church publicly, hold a church calling or fully participate with the other church members.  I was also removed from BYU mid-semester because I’d violated the school’s honor code. I was deeply repentant at the time, feeling positively unworthy and deserving of every punishment that “Jesus” was handing out to me.  I would later place my daughter for adoption at birth with a worthy temple covenant-keeping couple at the urging of my bishop and his official church handbook’s section for Unwed Mothers. I was 25 years old.

I met my husband Jeff when this daughter was three months old.  Prior to me being deemed worthy to go to the temple to be married, I had to go through a reinstatement process that involved yet another council with the same men. I brought Jeff as a “character witness” who stood before these men and declared that I was, in fact, keeping the law of chastity. He openly wept as he attested to my love of God, testimony of the Gospel, heartbreak over placing my daughter, desire to start a family, etc. Jeff and I assured the council our courtship was chaste and expressed how much we really wanted to be married in the temple. Luckily, I was reinstated and we were married in the Salt Lake Temple later that year.

Some of you know my story – the story of me having six children, instead of the five in our family pics.  My firstborn daughter is beautiful from the inside/out and I had the privilege of being a part of her life as she grew. It was always an open adoption and we have a wonderful connection and sweet relationship to this day. She is now a mother herself.

As I’ve unpacked and deconstructed my whole church disciplinary experience over the years, very little of the process felt Christlike and loving to me. I would even go so far as to say it was spiritually traumatizing. I was deeply afraid and humiliated. I felt that I was wearing the scarlet letter before these priesthood men and at church (not being able to fully participate). Even though my heart was in the right place, I still felt unworthy in every possible respect.  I did feel the Spirit, not due to the official church disciplinary process, but in spite of it. As I look back, I believe I was sent an outpouring of the Spirit during that time because of divine mercy, love and compassion, not because God was condoning my removal from the church and the actions of the council.  I am of the opinion now that this is why these courts get conflated with “courts of love.” The spirit of compassion and unconditional love sweeps in to protect that soul from the process of spiritual separation.

The truth is, NOTHING can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8).  So, why excommunication? Why disfellowshipment? I am just one woman, but if I could make an impassioned plea to the hierarchy of the LDS church it would be to remove these “membership councils” entirely! What if salvation and spiritual standing is ultimately sacred and private; something between the individual and God?  What is the worst that could happen if the church respected this sacred connection between God and the individual and got out of the middle?

This is actually the first time I’ve spoken openly about my church discipline experience. I went into more detail about it on this week’s Women Seeking Wholeness, Episode 122… the first episode where I full-on lost it emotionally and had to collect myself.

https://cherieburton.com/2021/05/05/122-how-to-heal-your-body-image/ 

I know there are many who disagree with me and yet I’m also aware that I’m not alone in my views. I can only speak from my experience and hold it as my truth.  It just feels like the right time to start speaking out.

Like so many thousands of others: 

I STAND WITH NATASHA HELFER.

 

Link to news article:  https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2021/04/21/lds-sex-therapist-natasha/

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