Prophets, Seers and Bureaucrats

Aaron R. aka Ricoapostles, Culture, diversity, doctrine, General Authorities, Mormon, Priesthood, prophets, revelation, theology 24 Comments

I listened recently to a Mormon Expression podcast with John Dehlin, in which he comments upon the difficult position the Church leaders face.  He observes that their are times when they make particular decisions based upon a legalistic-bureaucratic framework that sometimes seem incomprehensible, even unchristian but that these decision are understandable. I would like to ask this question: Is there an alternative?

Quinn argues that during the explosive Church growth of the 1950’s-1970’s the Church attempted to draw upon a number of external influences in making the organization more efficient and effective.  At the same time there was an explosive growth in Church bureaucracy.  This led some to become concerned over the influence and direction of power and authority within the hierarchical structure.

According to Quinn, both J. Reuben Clark Jr. and David O. McKay were concerned that the increasing bureaucratic, financial and organizational burden meant that the GA’s were not able (due to lack of knowledge or expertise) to make decisions that would need to be made.  They would, of necessity, have to rely upon technocrats and other specialists from the various sub-committees at Church Headquarters.  President McKay’s concern was that this movement would involve an ecclesiastical abdication of the God-given authority to led the Church.

This model of Prophetic leadership in temporal, as well as spiritual matters, has a long and varied history in the standard works and has been exemplified by our earliest and most influential leaders.  The first reason therefore that I am unconvinced that there is an alternative to a mixture (even a heavy emphasis) on the bureaucratic, as opposed to the prophetic, in our Church leadership is that theologically they are expected to be able to guide a temporally-situated Church.  Yet, their burden is fraught with a multiplicity of complex challenges that Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and others never faced.

John Dehlin rightly notes that within this they have a responsibility to protect the image of the ‘Prophetic Mantle’.  In one sense, therefore, it seems possible that although they believe that as ‘Prophets, Seers and Revelators’ they have a responsibility over the temporal, they also feel a sense of dissatisfaction or dissonance over the types of decisions they have to make.  This is evident by the fact they do not talk about such decisions and even try to mask these processes from the general membership because they feel that such decision-making processes might undermine the image of the ‘Prophetic Mantle’.  I think they are right; it might well have this effect.

Now it is possible to argue that the ‘Prophetic Mantle’ does not need to be protected.  I can sympathise with this position however I believe that the Brethren intentionally present a view of their work which most accurately exemplifies what they expect from their local leaders.  Bishops and Stake Presidents do not make the same type of decisions that might require this legalistic-bureaucractic framework and they therefore expect local leaders to seek the Spirit in dealing with spiritual matters.  I am not convinced that this is disingenuous  but rather sense that they are trying to model the gospel in action to a culturally and intellectually diverse membership.

Therefore, they are in a tough, ecclesiastical bind.  Abdicate the responsibility for the kingdom (to a small or even a large extent) or face the possibility of undermining the ‘Prophetic Mantle’, which I believe they have, and giving scope for local leaders to approach issues in this same legalistic-bureaucractic manner.

I can see why they do what they do because I am not sure I see a valid alternative, theologically or organisationally.  Do you?

Comments 24

  1. Inside the larger bureaucratic structure that forms the jurisprudence of American law, the Church is as much in a bind as any other organization to certain ways of doing business. This was unofficially settled during the anti-polygamy defeats, which bore as much to bring the Church into line with the modern way of things, as it was with the repugnance of polygamy to the Victorian pressures in America at the end of the 19th Century. The burdon of bureaucracy is a creature of our time, one in which larger interconnected frameworks weigh upon small organizations. In the early days up and until Wilford Woodruff, the Church was its own law. Imagine for example, instead of using GAPP to ensure accounting standards during an audit of church funds, which indelibly take a technocrat, that accountants utilized revelation in their auditing practices, through a calling nonetheless, to find errors in the intent or performance of a balance sheet. While this may have worked in Zion past and may work in a Zion future, we are now under the confines of GAPP. The Church is in it’s Babylon phase where it has to scrape to the rules of Babylon. The employment of technocrats and bureaucrats is part of this fallen world, as much as “wearing the robes of a false priesthood” at BYU graduations.

  2. “The Church is in it’s Babylon phase “……..”technocrats and bureaucrats is part of this fallen world, ”

    Very true.

    As well as the above the technoes and bureaus create a very real barrier or a firewall between the membership and the general authorities. Today, no one can get through that firewall unless invited by a GA or they are related to them and still on friendly terms.

    Personally I dream of the day when the employed bureaucrats will be given their marching orders and the church then returns to religion only with a central stake linked to all the others stakes around the globe. But for now, imho, they are really just part of those secret combinations that the BoM talks about. They can control what GAs see, what they respond to and who GAs will support as they try to “protect the image of the ‘Prophetic Mantle’.” Get on the bureaucrats bad side and you’re finished in this church.

  3. The current model for the church involves a very centralized structure with virtually no independence for individual units in the church. This sort of structure needs bureaucrats. There are other ways of doing things, though that don’t require nearly as much bureaucracy.

  4. #1 – What about places outside of the US? Your illustration of Audits is interesting primarily because on a local level there is none of these technocrats (unless we are lucky). Thus the conflict between standards imposed by professional bodies but which are carried out in local wards by unskilled volunteers.

    #2 – That is strong critique. I wonder how htese bureaucrats see themselves. I would be curious to know more about them, are they TR holding members of the Church or are they primarily made up of outside agencies. If they are members of the Church how do they maintain the control you mention with out coming against GA’s who (I assume) would want to be in greater interaction with members.

    #3 – I am not sure I agree with your vision of the Church. Though I agree there is a strong centralised component this does not mean that local leaders can’t make decisions for themselves. If anything the reduction in the CHI over the last 20 yrs indicates an increased autonomy. Moreover SP’s can pretty much do what they like, they won’t but they could.

  5. On a much larger scale, I think Catholicism has addressed this issue by decentralizing the bureaucracy but retaining central theological control. Each Diocese/Archdiocese has its own assets – buildings, land, etc. – and largely makes its own administrative decisions. This has the net effect of isolating the church at large from the mistakes in “the field.” The Spokane diocese was solely responsible for the financial repercussions of lawsuits they lost for sexual abuse of parishioners – the financial consequences did not extend to New Orleans or Rome. This leaves the Vatican primarily responsible for larger issues such as practice and doctrine.

    The LDS Church’s central control over assets virtually assures a huge bureaucracy. I would also argue that the majority of the leaders, with their utter lack of training in theology and ethics (beyond maybe a semester in law school) are unprepared to effectively address doctrinal issues, either.

  6. I think the bureaucracy has been largely created as the leadership has been drawn more and more from Lawyers, CEOs, VPs and CFOs. They have brought their business organizational “skills” and ideas to the Church and lost somewhat the focus of an ecclesiastical organization. Not saying the the Brethren are not spiritual minded and great minsters, but that they cannot help but bring the corporate mindset to play.

    If the leadership were teachers, farmers and tradespeople, it would be very different, I think.

  7. #6 – I think that is an interesting insight. I wonder if the direction of causality is the other way around. The bureaucratic explosion was in the 60’s-70’s and so I wonder whether Businessmen and Lawyers became a more viable option after this bureaucratic increase. I will have a look for some data on this. If anyone else knows of any I would be v. interested.

  8. Re 6 and 7, It seems nearly all of the 1 and 2nd Q of 70 are lawyers, business owners, or Fortune-500 corporate execs, with the exception of a few that came in through the CES/Seminary door. Do management skills trump gifts of the Spirit? If not, where are the tradesmen, teachers and farmers #6 talks about? (“Growing up on a farm in Cache Valley” doesn’t count as being a farmer…)

  9. “If the leadership were teachers, farmers and tradespeople, it would be very different, I think.”

    Or fishermen.

    Actually, we have a fine historical example of what would happen: The spiritually-gifted fishermen, farmers, tradespeople, etc. would promptly get schooled by the first polished, self-confident, Greek-educated Hebrew that came along. And the resulting church would be much more the creation of the new guy than the original crew.

  10. I think the problem is largely one of their own making. The Church tries to keep a homogenized, correlated and unified image throughout the entire world, despite differing cultures, languages, etc. This necessarily requires an increasingly large bureaucracy to do that. There is a large difficulty doing this while retaining the “prophetic mantle”.

    As long as the Church tries to micromanage everything at all levels, the problem is insurmountable. At some point, the leadership will need to step back and focus on the gospel. Let local regions focus on things unique to that region.

  11. Sorry. Hit submit too soon. A perfect example of the difficulty in maintaining the “prophetic mantle” is missionary calls. The impression that young men get is that their call came directly from the prophet. The reality is that there is no physical way the prophet could look over hundreds of applications each week, pray about each one, sign them, etc. While there is some prophetic oversight, the applications go through a missionary committee which looks at mission needs, etc. and makes recommendations for assignments. And for decades since the more infirm prophets in the 80’s, the calls generally aren’t even hand signed by the prophet.

  12. I’m trying to see what the issue is under discussion. Is it central control of a worldwide church? Is it festering disappointment that more farmers don’t serve in the Seventy? Is it the correlated lesson manuals?

    As it relates to #1 — GAAP (not GAPP) does require certain accounting principles to be maintained in order to satify reporting requirements to government agencies, it’s true. And even on a local level, there is a process (if imperfectly followed in some cases) for stake auditors to audit local units. Having participated in many of these audits, I’ve often had to help the auditor know what evidence to examine in order to satisfy the requirements. But more than satifying GAAP, the audit exists to protect church funds, sacred funds donated by faithful members, and to ensure they are handled in a way consistent with accepted church practice.

    #2 — not sure what wall you’d like to break through. I’m able to listen to conference in all sorts of formats and read it in scads of languages to have “access” to the teachings of the brethren. Further, they visit my stake in stake conferences and I can hear them and see them in person and ask them questions. Counsel not to seek out specific advice is not, I believe, driven by the technos and bureaus (interesting turn of phrase) as by respect for local priesthood leadership who are supposed to also be able to offer counsel to members in their stewardships (the antithesis of central control, it seems).

    As for who serves as General Authorities (or bishops or stake presidents, etc) — it is an interesting question. Just because many of them come from professional training (medicine, law and business) does not also mean they have been called of God to serve.

    Is what is viewed as bureaucracy viewed as a result of who serves, a result of rapid growth (what President Hinckley called the greatest challenge of the church), or a natural (or even spiritual) outgrowth of the development of the church?

    Clearly there is today a greater focus on keeping doctrine and teachings pure, and less emphasis on having the same “program” in every unit in the church. I remember hearing Elder Packer speak at a state-wide conference in Michigan a number of years ago. He suggested that strong US stakes would need to be increasingly self reliant spiritually, and to do so they should focus on the basics, with more focus on teaching the gospel in our homes and less on far reaching “programs”.

  13. A very sad but completely perfect example of this issue is from the blog Dissenting in Part. If the Prophet doesn’t believe climate change (i.e., stewardship over the Earth as commanded by God) is a moral issue then he’s abrogated his responsibility to be a Moral Leader, a Seer and a Prophet to some portion of the bureaucracy. And who wants to believe in a bureaucracy?

    Here’s the quote:


    According to an op-ed by Ed Firmage in the Salt Lake Tribune:

    I recently met with an executive of one of the LDS Church’s commercial enterprises about ways The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could help prevent climate change. My interlocutor told me that the church’s mission is limited to moral issues and that climate change isn’t a moral issue.

    I guess I missed that lesson in Sunday School, because I was under the impression that being good stewards of God’s creation was a moral issue, indeed a commandment. The church will henceforth invest only in things essential to its core mission, my interlocutor went on. I asked myself what is more core than survival?

    When I read this, my mind jumped to the following scriptural passage. I may be taking it slightly out of context, but it seems like an appropriate response to the unnamed church executive.

    And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face?

    And when Enoch heard the earth mourn, he wept, and cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, wilt thou not have compassion upon the earth? (Moses 7:48-49)

  14. #4 Yes (we) need to maintain a TR, pay full tithing which HR can work out obviously plus there is a yearly review of church activity sent to bishops that he and SP need to sign for employment to continue.

    However we can throttle things going from members to GA’s (ie firewall things going to them, maybe that wasn’t clear in #2) cut off contractors (usually members) who aren’t liked etc. But the more common and for me most reprehensible practice is the complaint letter to the members bishop, which the bishop usually ignores, but which is then attached to that member’s record forever as a red flag. Nothing written in church is ever deleted but just moved around between different databases. Then if the member is later recommended for bishop or stake presidency that flag usually ends the process and someone else is chosen (but they’ll claim that the ‘inspiration’ was for someone else). This last part is what I find particularly despicable and even immoral but I know several colleagues who have used it to black list people they don’t like. Then they go off and serve in at least one temple session per week as is also required by the job. Well I’ve probably said way too much already so yeah, the best the church could do is fire all staff and rely on volunteers which, by the way, is the current trend today by using part-time missionaries for many jobs, although they claim its to save tithing..

  15. Thanks for all the responses.

    #8 – Clark, the few educators you mention (such as Packer, Eyring, Bednar, Holland, Oaks (lawyer/educator) – just of my head) actually form a fairly high percentage. I acknowledge other professions are not well represented, but then I would argue that for these men to become Apostles most if not all have been GA’s since late 20’s or early 30’s and therefore with their higher degrees actually were not working very long in their chosen professions. I guess in our culture a particular type of person (diligent and bright) is more likely to move into occupations of a particular type because of our current culture. I don’t see that as a bad thing but rather a ephiphenomenon. It could become a bad thing but it is not necessary.

    #9 – Interesting point thank you.

    #10-11 – I agree that in some instances it might be helpful to drop the veil a little, but I understand why they do this thing with Missionary calls. They feel called by God to do what they do and therefore extend that call in the same way. I have met some Bishops who will say that every calling comes from direct revelation from the Lord, but in reality we know that this is not the case. They maintain that image because they think they should.

    #12 – Thanks Paul. I agree. The trends I have seen have been a mixture of keeping ideas centered on the gospel while trying to maintain organizational simplicity and efficiency. This is a difficult balance, I sense that there is a fairly large amount of local autonomy but that Local leaders choose not to use it.

    #13 – Interesting experience. I am not convinced that the person cited speaks for the Church’s position, in fact our doctrine is quite explicit in that regard as you cite.

    #14 – Thanks for your comment. Living outside the States my interaction with the centralized bureaucracy is limited. You give share some interesting insight into what it is like for a Church employee. So if the hurch is moving that way, is there a limitation to which they can do that and maintain the current level of productivity.

  16. I’d at least like to see a more honest approach to helping the general membership understand how decisions are made in the church hierarchy. There are a lot of church members out there (I used to be one of them) that think that whenever there is a decision about something to me made the prophet and the quorum of the twelve all go up to the temple, meet with God face to face, and get explicit instructions about how to proceed. The reality is (as far as I can tell) that this sort of thing rarely happens. I suppose that letting people keep on believing that way does “protect the prophetic mantle” and result in greater obedience from the general membership, but it just isn’t truthful, and it really irks me that the GAs rarely if ever talk about this sort of thing in a more forthright manner.

  17. #17 – I get a different impression. I hear them repeatedly teach that they get revelation by the still small voice and that this more dramatic experiences are rare. I just think most members want to believe differently. In addition, I think for the most part the brethren talk about discussion and revelation which emerges from that discussion. They also emphasis that the emerging unity is part of the revelatory process. I think this is consistent with what I argued in the OP, that the Brethren want this to be the model of how revelation is enacted at a local level.

  18. #13: “If the Prophet doesn’t believe climate change (i.e., stewardship over the Earth as commanded by God) is a moral issue then he’s abrogated his responsibility to be a Moral Leader, a Seer and a Prophet….”

    Or, alternatively, the Prophet — either by inspiration or good judgment — is capable of discerning when science is being corrupted for political ends.

    “Stewardship” of the Earth does not mean that human beings can have no effect on their environment. We are part of the Earth’s environment, after all. What it means, is that in accommodating our own needs, we take the Earth and our fellow creatures into account, and tread as lightly as possible. Stewardship of the Earth is indeed a moral issue, but it does not follow that if human activity causes the Earth’s average temperature to increase by half a degree Celsius (manifesting largely in raising arctic winter temperatures from “bone-chillingly freezing” to “a couple of degrees less bone-chillingly freezing, but still well below zero”) the stewardship is violated.

  19. I’m from the UK and so have little experience with bureaucracy. Personally I dislike management styles within the Church not because they are not useful or effective, but possibly because it is so effective, applicable, and has the capacity to be devoid of Christ’s influence.
    Thomas S. Monson states “where performance is measured, performance improves, where performance is measured and reported, performance accelerates” whilst I understand the logic and can even see that God has influenced the process. By focusing upon this over the power Christ has upon the life of the individual I believe individuals wear themselves out through incorrect focus.

    It is impossible to remove bureaucracy or management methods because “society” needs order, A standard needs to be set despite the fact that we won’t achieve that standard, the important part is the after care. I see bureaucracy as a method to increase the Steven Covey “Circle of influence” I would see the Brethren as having a almost crushing burden of concern and management methods aid strengthen the positive influence that permeates from the senior leadership.

  20. #18 – Perhaps your right. I doubt it. Primarily I think that our more recent Prophets have spoken only when they are sure and what this silence suggests to me is that Brethren are in disagreement.

    #19 – I wonder why we dislike management styles. I do. Yet, I suspect that people who use such styles probably feel like they are using true principles to further the Lord’s work. Our SP is a very successful businessman and yet I do not really see much evidence that he treats people or organises the stake in anyway that is uniquely business centered. I recall moving to a new ward at about the age of 25 and being asked to perform a quite prominent calling. One of the more senior people in ward came to say hello and their comment was ‘I suppose you are one of these business types’. I am not. Yet because I was young and the Bishop and SP were both business men they assumed that I was like them. My point is that I wonder what is so bad about these business types? What is it specifically that they will do that is so bad, or is it the fear of what they might be like?

  21. I find this thread fascinating, because the same explosion of bureaucracy occurred in the CofChrist from about 1960 to maybe 2000, even though most of the things mentioned above as causes don’t strike me as applying to us to the same extent. I wonder if its simply a case of wealthy societies expanding make-work to consume available wealth.

  22. #21 – A very interesting thought. It is highly probably that this dynamic is influential primarily because without that resource such expansion could not happen. The reason I am skeptical it is a major driving force is that just prior to this expansion in the Church, Henry D. Moyle had pursued an expansive building programme which had nearly used up all the Church’s funds. I suspect that there was not lots of money floating around during the early parts primarily due to his influence and commitments elsewhere.

    What has influenced the increase in bureaucracy in the CofChrist?

  23. Rico:

    Part of what fascinates me is that I’m really grasping at straws to think of an explanation.

    Our leadership came more out of academia (there is a particular emphasis on attending Graceland University), not business. Although we only recently had our first prophets who were not direct descendents of JS, the best route to church employment is still blood or marital relationships to church leaders.

    Our business people dominate the church’s financial arm, of course, and have always had strong influence on church employees, but that doesn’t explain the proliferation of employees itself.

    In fact, upon reflection, the growth of bureaucracy is confined to Independence. Our membership peaked in 1980 or so and so did the number of world church contributors (Tithe paying is a different priority to us than to the LDS; much more of our contributions are directly to congregational priorities or church and non-church charities; we generate less than $10 million per year in tithing and less than $20 million in investment income.) Contributions per member continued to climb for a while thereafter as the membership of the church aged, but is now in decline in absolute terms. So we’ve actually been collapsing levels of administration in most places while protecting Temple priorities and missionary expansion in the third world.

    Yet, we have more teams and committees than any small business I’ve worked with that had similar revenue, even accounting for the volunteer corps of retirees in Independence. And we constantly restructure ourselves, undoing the previous restructuring.

  24. Post

    #23 – I have some quick thoughts. I wonder whether the volunteer nature of the organisation actually provides (ironicaly) a fertile ground from which to create a large bureaucratic structure. My reasoning is this: with the local level almost solely run by volunteers coupled with growth, which was at times quite quick, the need to supervise and direct the work of these volunteers becomes a more prominent problem. Surely lay leadership, especially in areas where growth is fast, is an uncertain context where problems emerge. I am thinking of sending two apostles to areas of the church where growth was very fast to try and contain and solidify it. Moreover, that a centralised bureaucracy, which seems to exist in both cases, is where the source of power lies would also exacerbate the problem because of the lack of local autonomy in this overseer role.

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