I have long believed that the Church’s reliance on a lay clergy is both one of its strongest selling points, as well as one of its greatest weaknesses. On the hand, our DIY approach to religion results, among other things, in folks having a very personal stake in building the Kingdom, which is a plus. On the other hand, following a leader who is simply plucked from the congregation, without any formal training or indoctrination, can lead to the imposition of personal, non-doctrinal strictures (e.g., Stake Presidents banning beards and other such nonsense). This, of course, is too big a topic to cover well in a single post. So, I want to focus on one particular aspect of the lay clergy dynamic that has been on my mind lately — the role a member’s wealth (or lack thereof) can play on his/her worthiness to serve.
Before going any further, let me define what I mean by “worthiness.” I’m not necessarily talking just about my personal relationship with God, i.e., freedom from sin. I’m using the term in the more colloquial sense we all use in a ward setting on Sunday mornings, i.e., being “worthy” to hold a calling means not only that I am striving to keep the commandments, but also that I have passed muster in an interview with a leader (“I have interviewed Brother Larsen and found him worthy to clean the restroom floors every third Sunday afternoon”). While the two concepts overlap, they are not the same, in my mind.
Here’s what I see happening with increasing frequency as the Church fully embraces a more corporate model: Priesthood leadership positions being given to those who are financially better off than most of the congregants over whom they preside. On its face, there may be nothing alarming about this phenomenon. Wealth certainly is not a sin (well, except for maybe for that whole “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” stuff) and should not be a barrier to an otherwise worthy person’s service in a leadership position. However, when only the wealthy are moved up the ranks, it sends a clear message to others: wealth = worthiness. This is especially pronounced in a lay clergy community such as ours, where every member, at least on paper, has an equal chance at attaining wealth and position.
We’ve all heard stories of General Authorities dispatched to pick a new Stake President, and who, under the influence of the Spirit, and choose a humble (i.e., non-rich) guy who has been reactivated for a few months. That has not been my experience; my last three Stake Presidents have all been very successful (i.e., rich) attorneys. In fact, when I first moved into the area, the entire Stake Presidency, down to the Executive Secretary, were lawyers. Even in the wilds of Guatemala, where no one was rich by any American standard, leadership positions tended to rotate among the those who had more than others. Thinking back, virtually all of my Bishops have been very successful white collar professionals. The same is true of Mission Presidents.
Why is this problematic? Because it can lead to a virulent strain of classism amongst members. Those with more money (and position) begin to believe themselves to be more favored of God than other, less-blessed members. Once these folks get into power, they may come to believe that, as evidenced by their pocketbooks, they are more in touch with God’s will, and thus are entitled to push their interpretation of His will onto those they preside over. Similarly, leaders looking at open ward positions may tend to gravitate to the more affluent, assuming their wealth to be an indicator of their worthiness. At the same time, poorer members believe that their financial situation is a curse from God, leading to lowered self-esteem, lessened spirituality and, potentially, departure from the Church.
Such thinking is not unprecedented. Over the past two decades, a new strain of evangelical Christianity based on the principle that wealth equals worthiness, and vice-versa, has come to prominence. Led by televangelists such Creflo Dollar, Joel Osteen and the Crouchs, this “prosperity theology” (aka the “Health and Wealth” or “Name It and Claim It” Gospel) teaches that religious piety will result in the adherent’s material prosperity. Put another way, the more righteous one is, the more financial success he/she can expect to enjoy. In this view, wealth becomes the measure of one’s devotion to God — the more you have, the more “worthy” you must be in the eyes of God and his church. (Apparently, it doesn’t always work out that way, even for celebrities). Preachers of this doctrine are known for their flashy lifestyles, expensive cars, and big paychecks. For example, the New York Times reported that Rev. Dollar is the proud owner of “Rolls-Royces, private jets, million-dollar Atlanta home and $2.5 million Manhattan apartment” (Perhaps I should say, “was the proud owner” — the Senate, led by Chuck Grassley, has opened a probe into the finances of six “prosperity theology” televangelists, including Dollar).
Perhaps you’re thinking I am overstating the case. “Come on, that sort of thing doesn’t actually happen, right?” Wrong. I live in Orange County, California, one of the most affluent counties in the country. Just think of all the reality shows glamorizing the OC lifestyle (“Laguna Beach” & “The Hills,” just to name two). Heck, the housing community where “The Real Housewives of Orange County” is filmed is in my Stake! While we’re not into Creflo Dollar territory just yet, I have had several friends relay to me their concerns over the seeming connection between wealth and worthiness in their wards. One buddy of mine, who is among the few families not to live in the gated community housing the majority of his ward, has told me several times how out of place he feels sitting in Elders’ Quorum while CEOs use lessons to swap stories of their latest international adventures. For me, I’ll admit its strange to pull into a parking lot full of sports cars for Stake Conference.
At the risk of sending this whole topic down the rabbit hole of yet another SSM debate, let me highlight another way in which wealth and worthiness may be inappropriately linked. Here in California, we are in the throes of a pitched battle over Proposition 8, which would amend the California Constitution to outlaw gay marriage. As part of its effort to ensure passage of Prop 8, local stakes (at least here in the OC) have set/been given member fundraising goals. Bishops are responsible for making sure their ward’s goal is met. To do so, talks are given in Sacrament meeting, and lessons are given in the 2d and 3d hours to encourage donations. To make up any remaining difference, ward leaders may send out a mailer to a select number of ward members and/or call through the ward list to ask for money. At the extreme, I am aware of instances in which Bishops have gone into the homes of members to personally request a donation, down to the exact penny.
Personally, I find this sort of behavior problematic for a number of reasons which go beyond the scope of this post. But as an active member of the ward, I am expecting to get the call to donate any day now, along with many others who may share my point of view. If I refuse to commit to a donation on the spot or if I refuse to disclose (i) whether I have donated/will donate, or (ii) how much I have donated/plan to donate, I foresee the potential for a black mark on my worthiness. While my leaders know and like me and I hope that they will understand/respect my point of view, there is the possibility that could be viewed as me “not being part of the team” and, as a result, not “worthy” of priesthood callings. At the same time, those who have more money to give (the wealthy) and who, as a result, give large donations, are likely to be viewed as more worthy. Again, the underlying message is, wealth = worthiness.
For my money (pardon the pun), I think this is an issue worth examining. The Book of Mormon is rife with examples of harmony within the Nephite community being totally undone by wickedness springing directly from the pride of members as a result of their wealth. The question is, how do we address the problem, apart from advising leaders not to take wealth into account when making callings. What do you think? Am I seeing something that is not there? Also, I’m interested to know if this trend (if you want to call it that in the first place) is unique to the West, where there is a concentration of Mormons (and, hence, more rich Mormons).