The Wilderness of Faith
Edited by John Sillito
The Two Churches of Mormonism
The ward, the loving community at the center of Mormon religious life, is the final destination of Mormonism, the place where the most important things happen. It is the most dynamic of church institutions, the community shared equally by leaders and members alike. But the ward as a community of the faithful has become less ambitious, less important. This process of reductionism could have threatening consequences.
The social contract is the basis for any community. It is a natural consensus, an agreement, between those who lead and those who follow, those who make policy and those who respond. It is a recognition of what Rousseau refers to as the general will, the will of the majority. In a democracy, monarchy, and theocracy, certain rules hold. Those who lead must recognize the needs, desires, and hopes of those who follow; those who follow must assume the responsibilities of good and loyal citizens. This natural sovereignty and territorial right must be respected by presidents, kings, and authorities. Revolutions result when leaders disregard the fundamental needs and inherent rights of their followers.
How then does the social contract relate to the church? In the Mormon tradition, the General Authorities and the large managing bureaucracy constitute the central church and rule the organization as a whole. I will refer to this entity as management, that part of the church which leads, manages, provides a service. The membership at large comprises the other church, the church which follows. I [p.26] call this church experienced at the ward level the community. These two churches sometimes have conflicting goals and needs. But there are natural boundaries and natural territories which ought to be respected. Only the social contract can insure a balancing, and thus a proper functioning, of the church.
Unfortunately the needs of management are consistently met, while the needs of the community remain unclear, undefined, disregarded. The social contract is out of balance. A condition exists similar to that which caused early Americans to complain about “taxation without representation.” The natural rights of the community have been violated by management. All the power and wealth belong to management. Obedience is demanded from the local church with few demonstrable benefits following.
This imbalance does not result because those in the hierarchy have despotic motives but rather because they see themselves as chosen leaders and are awed by the responsibility. The control by management has evolved slowly. The challenge of rapid growth, the problems of managing diverse peoples, a concern that the religious expression remain simple, and a commitment to financial stability have all played a part in decisions which have slowly and methodically concentrated power. Despite noble motives, a rigid, centrist form evolved; with no representation from the community. Management simply got its way.
We are not talking about theological matters defined by revelation but rather procedures required of a new, large institution. Of course guidelines had to be established, methods and systems put into place. But are all these methods and systems positive? Do the procedures of management benefit the community? Even more fundamental, do they conflict with the restored gospel—with free agency, with the view that the glory of God is intelligence, with the concept of eternal progress, and with the optimism of the ideal which counters Calvinism: “man is that he might have joy?”
All of these concepts are of enormous importance to members within the community but seem to get in the way of the procedures of management. Demeaning alternatives are often promoted, undoubtedly to make management easier for a remote and too often isolated leadership. Obedience is emphasized; free agency is often disregarded. Correlation is emphasized; individual intelligence is minimized. Repetitive activities such as church attendance, [p.27] missionary work, temple attendance are stressed with few alternatives for the individual to move beyond repetition. Eternal progress remains a remote ideal. The organized religious experience has become so efficient, so minimal, there is little cause for celebration, and the joy which should result from intelligent, righteous living remains unrealized. The free and open aspirations of the faithful are subordinated, even crushed, by the demands of institutional conformity. The natural balance is disregarded, the community territory violated. Simplistic phrases and formulas (such as the “Forever Family”) replace the challenge to the individual of the restored truths, the truths which once set us apart from conventional Christianity.
Such criticisms are not made to just censure but rather to establish the basis for the following questions: (1) Why do we need an all-powerful management? (2) At what distance is revelation and even inspiration still relevant? (3) Is the main responsibility of management to serve or to rule the community? (4) How would the church be different if management existed primarily to serve the community? (5) Is there a natural territory for management and for the community? (6) What would be the basis, that point of balance, for an authentic social contract between management and community?
In order to begin answering these questions, it is necessary to first consider the limitations inherent in total domination by management.
First limitation: The rejection of two-way communication.
Although there is a continual flow of information from management, the community has no legitimate vehicle for responding. Obedience to encyclicals is not expected but demanded. Curiosity concerning how various programs are working is minimal if it exists at all. Here, of course, is a clearly visible imbalance—a total disinterest in the general will demonstrated by management.
Second limitation: The office and calling of a stake president.
In every sense, the stake president is the local representative of management. He is chosen by management because he is a man to be trusted. His popularity with the community is of secondary importance. Often the stake president has aspirations in management. As a result he seldom reports problems with various programs. Here is a clear violation of community sovereignty, a disregard for the general will.
[p.28] Third limitation: Division of the priesthood.
Management priesthood, which includes the authorities as well as the bureaucracy, has social, economic, and spiritual power over the church. The bureaucrats, a paid ministry if you will, have power over bishops, even stake presidents. The priesthood of the community is limited to spiritual powers—a clear violation of natural sovereignty.
Fourth limitation: The total financial power of management.
Tithing money from wards across the nation arrives at the church bank Sunday evening, a very efficient system to insure control from the top. A typical ward generates over $100,000 per year in tithing alone, and a typical stake can account for $1,000,000 per year. When a new ward building is built (remember three wards) and management provides the money for a new $1,000,000 building, it is hardly magnanimous since the stake donates that amount annually.
Fifth limitation: Management’s control of all charitable donations and limiting these donations to church-sponsored programs.
Although the welfare plan is a highly esteemed program, it assists no more than 2 percent of the church membership. The community is rarely if ever allowed to join with other denominations in funding the critical charitable needs of the cities and towns where the wards are located. Since it makes no contribution and remains socially aloof, a Mormon ward is not a respected institution in many local communities.
Sixth limitation: Management’s resorting to various forms of coercion, often centered around the collection of tithes.
By decree of management, marriage for eternity must occur in the temple. (Again tithing is a requirement for a recommend.) There attendance for both participants and guests is restricted to full tithe payers. Another example: temples are built throughout the world so that members will not have an excuse to be without a recommend. Management is well aware that where temples are built, tithing increases.
Management insists that confession to the bishop is required before repentance can be fully accepted. Excommunication is the result if the sin is thought to be grave enough. Personal behavior is thereby made public, institutional values are made supreme, and the obsession with personal transgression can poison the community with unfounded suspicion and gossip.
[p.29] The missionary program is another example of social coercion. Management allows no legitimate alternative for a healthy, faithful nineteen-year-old male. Despite this only 32 percent participate, and 68 percent are left wanting.
Seventh limitation: The reduction of the basic church program to three hours of worship on Sunday.
There is little or no concern whether this format is beneficial to the optimum functioning of the community. This marathon of meetings is questionable even for adults, and for children it is often a disaster. Behavior modification is based on a system of rewards. The rewards of three hours of sitting for children are non-existent and the negative reinforcement so pervasive that one must question how our children will respond to the church once they are free to choose for themselves. Statistical data indicating that only about 50 percent of the members of an average ward choose to participate suggests we already have a problem.
Eighth limitation: The importance to management of institutional perpetuation.
The mindless defense of a sacred history, even the fear of history itself, is pervasive. Anything which could tarnish an over-polished image is disdained.
Ninth limitation: A new fundamentalism, even a neo-Calvinism, requiring a tightening of theological positions and a rigidifying of form.
This is the response of a management struggling to control and fearful of what might result if that control was lost. The creation of a vast bureaucracy, trusted more than the community, is used, often with disregard, to keep the community in line. Management bureaucracy controls everything from teaching manuals to architecture and music. The results are predictable, banal, nothing worthy of praise.
The previous discussion of the limitations resulting from total control of management provides the basis for a most important consideration. How would the church be different if management served the community? What if the community assumed its natural sovereignty, its inherent powers, functions, purposes? What could be anticipated if a new balance were struck, an authentic social contract achieved? Of course this is little more than wishful [p.30] thinking, yet it is necessary if we are to clarify the great untapped potential of the community.
First, we would expect that two-way communication would be established, a recognition and acceptance of the general will. Change can only begin to occur when management is made aware of the many flaws in methods and procedures. In order to make intelligent recommendations, experimentation by the community would be required. Reporting the results to management could be extremely helpful. An important function of management would be to dispense this information, still recognizing that there are many ways to celebrate the gospel. Each community would then have the right to determine what programs and systems worked best for it. A rich diversity and vitality would result.
The main purpose of local initiative would be to create an optimum environment for rearing the young, an environment where the individual was encouraged, respected, loved, where the community was there to assist not dominate, where a positive self-image was accessible for all and considered of more value than a guilt-driven testimony. Success of the community would be determined by the success of the individuals comprising it.
Second, the stake president would be chosen by both management and the community. This would be imperative to establish a trust, an intelligent working relationship between management and community. In the process the stake organization would achieve a new relevance.
Third, there is one priesthood, and the community would have to achieve equality with management. This means equal social, economic, and spiritual powers. Management bureaucracy would of necessity shrink in size because it no longer was required to dominate the community but rather assist.
Fourth, since women make an enormous contribution to the proper functioning of the community, limitation of priesthood to a single gender would cease. Women would become full participants in a lay priesthood that needs their vitality.
Fifth, the community would have the financial muscle to solve its own needs. It would achieve financial independence. Management would also have the financial capacity to support its vital functions. In simple terms, all the tithing would not go to management, but the majority would remain in the community, as it did [p.31] until the turn of the century, to invest in significant local programs and needs.
Sixth, the community would assume its charitable responsibilities in the towns and cities in which it exists. Relief Society and priesthood programs would become less institutional, less myopic, and would reach out into the community to participate in solving community needs. Housing for the aged, recreational facilities, and programs for the youth, even communal experiments in food production and other forms of self-sufficiency, could be functioning programs.
Seventh, the community would perform the primary proselyting function, not through an exotic marketing program but rather in simply being available to those interested in joining a vital socio-religious experiment. The entire strategy would be based on the premise that if the product is good enough, people will want to become part of it. The problem as it exists today, with 80 percent of the converts falling away because they are not integrated into the community, would be resolved.
Eight, church attendance would become enjoyable. Meetings would be shortened, refreshments served, camaraderie encouraged. Rewards for participation in the community would be prevalent. Members would get to know each other well. An authenticity of community would be achieved.
Ninth, theology would be opened to investigation. History would be analyzed, truth sought. A real, authentic, verifiable heritage would be established and with this new found integrity could be built upon. A rich pluralism would develop, even a regional expression. The church in South America would no longer replicate the church in Utah.
Tenth, church buildings would be designed by those who use the space not reproduced by a remote bureaucracy. The vitality, the creative ingenuity of the members would be expressed in every facet of the building. The quality of the architecture would reflect the quality of the community. We have a responsibility as a church wherever we go to honor the people, the land, their traditions, their hopes and aspirations. Perhaps in Guatemala the members could attend church in some simple indigenous structure which honored and respected their way of life rather than reproducing the standard plan.
[p.32] Recently a worker on the General Motors production line was asked by a research specialist if anyone in management had ever asked for suggestions on how to better perform his specific task. He replied that he had many suggestions but that in his thirty years with the company no one had ever asked. Even attempts to make recommendations were instantly rejected. It is a classic example of what is backward and reactionary about contemporary American industry, and the same could be said of church management. It is disinterested in how programs, methods, activities, and life in the community could be improved.
The community needs the space, the freedom to solve its own particular problems using the talents and capabilities of its members. Programs should be user-designed. Goals and parameters could be set by management, but their accomplishment should be left to local initiative. Management could recommend some systems over others, but it should no longer establish a single solution for everyone, everywhere, for everything.
We do not need an all-powerful management. We need leadership with the tolerance and wisdom to recognize the great diversity of people and ideas.
We do not need a single, universal system for practicing the faith, because that system must eventually stagnate as in fact it already has.
The main function of management is to assist the community not to dominate it.
Life in the community would improve immeasurably, and a higher percentage of activity could be expected if the community could respond directly to the needs of its members.
Management will have to understand and show deference to the general will.
A social contract, a point of balance between management and community, must be achieved if the church is to succeed in the future.
Management must not treat the community differentially. The church in South America must develop its own resources for survival. A subsidized community is not a real community. A real community must have the internal capacity to survive on its own. Management should not take critical funding from one [p.33] community and give to another without the consent of the donating community.
The two churches of Mormonism must find a new balance, a respect for natural sovereignty, a new social contract in order to provide intelligent, workable, common sense solutions to the needs of its members. Management must learn to accept its limitations; the community must learn to assume its full responsibilities. That point of balance where an authentic social contract is achieved is impossible to fix and will forever be so. Yet we are presently a great distance away. But if we were to approach that point, we would recognize it.
We would realize that if a ward is to achieve community, it must be given the right to experiment, make mistakes, discover a better way, establish its credentials, prove its validity, demonstrate that through righteous principles people can in fact rule themselves.
Most of all, life in the ward should not be dull, repetitive, mind-numbing. It should be joyful, hopeful, purposeful, filled with fresh air and sunlight. Obedience, correlation, repetition pave the way to a corporate sterility. Free agency, the glory of God is intelligence, eternal progress, man is that he might have joy—all remain valid stepping stones. The Kingdom of God in a Promised Land can never be achieved by a remote leadership directing a bureaucracy. It will be achieved by an intelligent, righteous people with the common sense to see what needs to be done and the love and energy to accomplish it.[p.35]