Preparing for Disruption in Sacrament Meetings

In my past post, “My Take on the Joseph L. Bishop Scandal, and Steps We Can Take to Better Help Victims and Reduce the Threat of Abuse in the Church,” I expressed my desires for resolution to the scandal and expressed sympathy for the victim who is raising serious charges about an event that took place 30 years ago. The woman, McKenna Denson, recently escalated attention to her case by walking to the pulpit in Joey Bishop’s ward in Arizona to make public accusations against him. Ouch. Regardless of the truthfulness of her accusations, this is clearly the wrong forum to raise them and creates a truly difficult situation for the bishopric in charge of running a religious service that is meant to be spiritually uplifting and at a minimum must be a safe, family-appropriate environment for those attending. So what is a bishop to do when someone takes the pulpit to lash out at another member and make accusations of rape or other crimes? Just cringe and smile?

The current Handbook of Instructions does not seem to provide guidance on these kind of situations. There is guidance about helping to correct serious doctrinal errors that might come over the pulpit with gentle clarifying statements if needed, while always seeking to avoid embarrassment and so forth. But when someone misuses a sacrament service to attack another member or make criminal charges or raise other topics that are clearly in appropriate and possibly severely damaging to other members, what should leaders do? In this case they asked her politely to stop, and when she didn’t, they escorted her away from the pulpit. But this escorting involved touching her to move her away. This led to McKenna stating that they were assaulting her and has led to condemnation of the men for their insensitivity and harsh treatment as they “dragged” her away. “Dragged” strikes me as an inappropriate word for what I have seen. It better describes the Untied Airlines moment when an uncooperative passenger was pulled out of his seen and off the plane, but not the much gentler effort to get an uncooperative person away from the pulpit. But should a different approach have been taken?

I think Ward Councils should spend some time discussing how to prepare for similar events in the future. It’s not an academic exercise. Similar inappropriate events can occur from time to time, and pose some of the most difficult scenarios for church leaders.

In my service as a bishop, I faced some difficult situations where I wondered if I should interrupt and stop someone from continuing, and a time or two did so in the gentlest way I could think of (I think I said something like, “we’re short on time, could you briefly share your testimony and wrap up in a few seconds?”). But I did not face the nightmare situation of having accusations of terrible crimes levied against a fellow member sitting in the audience. What would I have done? With the publicity and support the victim has received for her stunt in Arizona, I think similar tactics may be tried again by others. Latter-day Saint congregations need to have a thoughtful, cautious plan in place to cope with disruption, ideally one that won’t look bad on YouTube and  won’t give the accuser the chance to claim that she was assaulted by men who dragged her away from the pulpit. But what to do?

One suggestion to consider is this: After politely asking the person two or three times to please stop, if they continue, then 1) turn the microphone off and 2) go into a loud hymn with enough verses to give the accuser time to realize that he or she is not going to be allowed to continue speaking to a captive audience. If they persist, then at the conclusion of the hymn, announce that sacrament meeting is over for now and we will now move into classes (or perhaps have a 15 minute break and then resume, giving time for police to come help). You could also announce that those who want to hear the details of the accusation can join the accuser for a press conference to be held later at a nearby park. Do it all in a calm voice, with a smile. After all, you are probably being filmed.

Don’t attempt to physically escort the person. Don’t push, don’t touch, don’t drag, don’t carry. Be absolutely aware that the disruptor will have friends filming every moment of the event and that whatever you do may be projected in the worse possible light, so act with great caution and respect. If by chance they strike at you, then flinch, duck, move away, but don’t use any serious self-defense tactics other than fleeing unless there is genuine risk of physical harm. Don’t shout even if they do. As much as possible, respect the person, stay out of their personal space, try to avoid heated confrontation, but if they insist on disrupting, close the meeting and move on. Splitting up into classes takes away the excitement of having a large audience. If they want to move into Gospel Doctrine class and continue the accusations, at least they won’t be doing that in front of the young children, and frankly, only a tiny fraction of most wards ever seem to make it into Gospel Doctrine, so any harm there is minimized.

That’s just my suggestion. I think Ward Councils should discuss this scenario and bishoprics or branch presidencies should use that input to have a plan in mind so that they can act with calmness and love when a nightmarish scene erupts. And yes, remember that however angry and unhinged the disruptor may seem, what that person is saying may be completely true and may need careful action, so please be sure to ask to meet with the person immediately to more fully understand the charges, and be open to the fact that what is being said may be real and serious, however preposterous it may seem at first. On the other hand, all of us  also need to emphasize the role of due process and recognize that some accusations are only partially correct and others are entirely fabricated. In this case, I remain sympathetic to McKenna and what she has suffered, and believe something serious occurred, but wish she had not disrupted a sacrament service in this case. The ends do not justify the means.

We will occasionally see more extreme attempts at abusing the pulpit in our sacrament meetings. It’s vital that we be ready in order to keep our cool, respond in love (not only for the accuser, but also for the accused!), but also respect the sacred nature of sacrament services and keep them uplifting, family-friendly, and safe.

Scenarios we should consider include anti-Mormon critics looking for a chance to attack some aspect of the Church, angry people lashing out at an ex-spouse, people expressing hate toward other members or even non-members (politicians included), and many other antics that can derail an uplifting sacred service. Have a plan to respond gently and also take some steps to explain ahead of time where the limits are so members will be less likely to unknowingly violate our expectations for sacrament meetings.

One final hint. When someone approaches the stand and suddenly a bunch of cell phones go up to record the incident, know that something is about to happen. Smile. Be on your best behavior. Take a deep breath and begin a silent prayer for guidance. You are about to be on a potentially viral Youtube video. The actions you take next may be used to judge the Church by millions of others, so handle the crisis well. It may be hymn time any moment. Pick one that sounds good.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

34 thoughts on “Preparing for Disruption in Sacrament Meetings

  1. It's like the "Nauvoo Expositor," isn't it? It doesn't matter what the truth is. It's the decorum and appearance of righteousness that's important above all. So kill the messenger!

  2. "When someone approaches the stand and suddenly a bunch of cell phones go up to record the incident" get up and remind people that there is no recording allowed in the chapel.

  3. No need to kill any messengers. I'm asking that they be heard and respected — but in an appropriate forum. They have no right to deliver their message to audiences seeking to worship in reverence. Can you agree with that?

  4. FYI, the Church released new safety guidelines in March that address this, and echo much of what you suggest.

    Responding to a Disruptive Person in a Church Meeting

    If a person becomes disruptive during a Church meeting, be respectful, speak calmly and with self-control, and respect his or her personal space.

    Whether the person causing the disturbance remains seated in the congregation, approaches the stand, or stands at the pulpit, approach the person and ask him or her to stop or to leave, or invite the person to meet with a priesthood leader in the foyer. Tell the person that his or her behavior or comments are inappropriate. If the person has been asked to leave but refuses, inform him or her that the police may be notified and he or she may be arrested for trespassing. If the person refuses to leave and continues to cause a disturbance at the pulpit, turn off the microphone and dismiss the meeting. Do not attempt to physically restrain the person unless it is absolutely necessary. (Adapt these guidelines as needed for auxiliary meetings, classes, or other Church events or activities.)

    If a serious or dangerous disruption is occurring on Church property, call the police. When the situation is under control, notify your priesthood leader and the Church Security Department.

  5. Ask them to leave. Tell them they are tresspassing and you will call the police.

    Too many churches have had to deal with violnev shooters. There is no rainre why we should be polite and wait for them to get out a fun an start shooting.

    Anyone who would do some of these things are mentally unstable.

  6. Excellent advice! This is just like what King Noah told his high priests when that pesky Abinadi showed up! Protocols must be followed! Decorum must be maintained! Wagons must be circled! Rapists must be protected!

  7. Great advice. Appreciated this article and the constructive comments, such as Daniel's. This would be a good time for bishoprics to go over those new guidelines. It sounds like the situation in question would probably have been better handled by that bishopric following that advice. That being said, it appears that Mike Norton (aka "New Name Noah") put her up to this stunt. She should have known better than to stoop to that level. She would get more sympathy for her cause if she had used a more appropriate venue for expressing her grievances, and didn't hang around with Mr Norton, who, like Alex Jones, is not exactly a model for appropriate behavior.

  8. So is Joseph Bishop a better model for appropriate behavior? Is the message that disrupters can't be countenanced but monsters who have exaulted titles and practice decorum fit right in to family worship and are welcome to share the sacrament with your wives and children?

    That's the message the church is sending out when all it's efforts go into marginalizing and disenfranchising someone like McKenna Denson leaving her previous few options. Are you honestly surprised that she chose this one?

  9. As a retired LEO I will just say that not one officer will enter your place of worship and force-ably remove someone speaking from your podium. Now if she's brandishing a weapon or beating the Bishop over the head with a club, then that's a different story. Basically you're on your own until such time as they actually break a law and put the members in fear of their lives. I have always believed it to be bad policy to turn over a microphone to anyone in a church except the qualified leaders trained to speak and lead the service and certainly not to non-members for any reason. As for testimonies they can be given standing up where the congregant is seated and kept brief to no more than 3 to 5 mins with the Bishop still in control of the microphone, podium and service.

    1. Whether you have access will likely depend on your church calling. It was part of an official Church notice released to Bishops/Stake Presidents and other general leaders on April 23, 2018. It was entitled, "Security Guidelines for Church Meetinghouses."

      Instructions asked that the document not be distributed outside of local councils, but that the information could be shared as appropriate. That is likely why it's not readily available online.

  10. Anon @11:55 seems to think a woman can't come up with an idea on her own.
    I hope there's more and more of this type of disruption in the Mormon church! Did you see Cook's livestream? Things are not well in the Q12. Things are falling apart, as they must. Truth will out. Truth will win. Justice will come. And may Joe Bishop and anyone who harbored his unrepentant actions rot in hell with him.
    Meanwhile Jeff, keep straining at gnats and looking for the specks of meaning in this nonsense like a crackhead looking for their next fix.
    This church is in the process of falling apart. Why can't you all see it? How stupid are you?

  11. Why keep pretending that Ms. Denson or what Ms. Denson does is the problem? The problem is that Joseph Bishop used his position of trust to abuse vulnerable young women and all the power and resources of the church are directed at protecting him.

    Every day that this problem goes unattended and uncorrected is another day that rot spreads through the church's image if not the church itself. It happens quietly. It doesn't ruffle anyone's composure. But it increases the sure and certain erosion of the church's very foundation.

    What do the handbooks have to say about that?

  12. And furthermore (I'm a different anon than 9:34), what kind of message does this send to the children? It's a double standard! They're taught in that same building that sexual sins are second only to murder (no one dares deny this is actual Mormon doctrine. Don't. You. Dare.) and then they turn around to see this former MTC president walking free and happy and completely unpunished! A rapist walks among them and no one bats an eye? AND YOU'RE CONCERNED ABOUT HOW TO MAINTAIN REVERENCE? IT'S GONE, JEFF! Any notion of the "spirit" surely left long ago.

  13. I've thought a lot about this. Sexual crimes are particularly heinous and the perpetrators should be investigated to the extent that the law allows. I never remember that the proper forum to announce another's alleged criminal behavior from the pulpit was ever the proper venue for fast and testimony meeting. In particular, when someone is repenting, we do not want to have that person be defined by his / her past behavior. It is hard enough for the person to move on and rectify the wrong without having everyone know of the allegations. The victims of these crimes also have a tough row to hoe that can take years of healing all because of the misdeeds of another. This is where prosecution according the extent of the law comes to play. Also, the Church should hold disciplinary council accordingly.

    Now, if I were Bishop and I had such a disruptor, I would probably allow the person to finish as long as it were civil and then I would stand up to remind the congregation that both spiritual and legal actions are taken and that steps are moving forward. Tough call though. To produce more fanfare would more likely draw unnecessary attention to the ordeal.

    I read the article in MormonLeaks and the "leaked" document. It was surprisingly short. I say surprisingly short because anon 4:45 PM, September 11, 2018 made it sound like abuse was rampant. I think that there are more convicted sexual predators in 5 square miles of my house (I live in a predominately non LDS neighborhood) than the entire "leaked" list documented.

    Also, I have no idea the ratio to false allegations to true allegations there are made against people in authority, probably more true than false but I just don't have the background to say.

    And, as a public service announcement, if your minor receives a "sext" (or, heaven forbid, sends one), that is reception and distribution of child pornography.


  14. That was the month of Oct '12. And maybe not a full month at that. Nevertheless, what's important is the steps taken to avoid dealing with the offenses in favor of maintaining the PR image.

  15. Steve, it appears to be only one week. The rest of your comment was equally nonsensical, but thanks anyway for trying to explain what's obvious. THE CHURCH HAS A PROBLEM!
    What should be noted is that MTC president's typically have their second anointing, so there's really not much the leadership can do to him that he hasn't been specifically protected from in a special secret ceremony.

  16. Hi anons,

    Point taken, an obvious detail that I did overlook was that the report was for only one month.

    Interesting comment that MTC presidents typically have their second anointing, any facts to back up that statement? Even though one has had their second anointing, he / she can still be excommunicated though. Apostle Richard Lyman was excommunicated and I can only speculate that he had his second anointing.

    Sorry that my post was a bit nonsensical, I've had close family members affected by sexual misconduct so what I posted were really my thoughts that were the tip of an iceberg so to speak.

    Regardless, fast and testimony meeting is not the forum to announce a congregant's alleged criminal activity. Church disciplinary councils should be setup in such a way where both justice and mercy are served. But to be quick to judge that the Church has a problem, I really don't know. I am not privy to details surrounding Church disciplinary councils nor every aspect surrounding these types of cases. In the court of public opinion, Bishop appears to be 100% guilty.


  17. I wasn't implying that Joseph Bishop, if he is indeed guilty of what he did years ago, is a better model for behavior. I was simply implying that McKenna is not helping the matter any by keeping company with Mike Norton, and in fact makes many folks, like myself, who otherwise might have wanted to support her, very uncomfortable with her way of handling the situation. Also, even though it does appear that Joseph Bishop likely did some very inappropriate things in his past, at this point I believe the best attitude would be to simply forgive him and move on, and leave it up to God to judge him, rather than us. I am convinced that the church is taking extra care to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, and that it is an extremely rare situation to occur. Who are we to be judge, trial, and jury in a situation like this, and then to try to justify McKenna's bad behavior just because she is a victim. Being a victim doesn't justify poor behavior. Sorry, but it was low of her and her fellow perpetrators to interrupt that sacrament meeting in that manner, and the ends don't justify the means. Frankly, there are a lot of people who really have an "attitude" and an axe to grind when it comes to the Latter Day Saint faith, and this sort of thing really brings them out of the woodwork, and seems to bring out the worst in them. They will find fault, look for the negative, and otherwise assume the worst in every single opinion they have of LDS leaders and the faith in general. Frankly, it is an attitude that I am uncomfortable with, a very mean, unforgiving, spiteful, hateful attitude to have, which poisons the soul and affects everything else in one's life. Time to forgive and to move on with life, look for the positive, and not dwell on the negative. There is a lot to be said for being loving and forgiving.

  18. Do you understand at all that it's the leadership of your church and their deliberately evasive response to this horrific situation that has driven McKenna Denson to this desperate measure? Do you not understand that it is their policy to protect predators and evade responsibility and that that is what will necessitate similar events in the future? Are you failing to grasp that it is the leadership of your church that you should be complaining to?

    Just ask yourself if you, a faithful and respectful member of the church, have some legitimate but difficult and unusual problem of a non-explosive nature that requires some response from church leadership how you would bring it to the attention of your leaders. Let's assume you have already tried your bishop and he has contacted your Stake President and the matter hasn't been resolved. What do you do next? Because anything you address to anyone higher than your Stake President is going to be sent back down into the same loop that has already failed to be helpful.

    McKenna Denson's outburst is only an extreme result of the fact that your leadership has — except for the personal appearances where they can be adored and answer only the pre-screened questions that they care to — has isolated themselves by design. They won't respond to you and they won't respond to the victims of the untrained personnel they have put in place to preserve their isolation.

    By maintaining the decorum and the appearance of all being well in Zion they and you are only ensuring the continuance of their abuses.

  19. The LDS church leadership in Salt Lake City has gone the way of the Catholic church when dealing with sexual assault, as well as other issues. This cover up attitude is at the stake and ward levels also.

    Ms. Denson did the correct thing. It is the only way people can get their story out in the Mormon church.

    Moving away from God and moving to mammon is what the Catholics and Mormons are very good at…..all religions have abandoned God, and the Mormons are up there with them all.

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