Tuesday, March 31, 2015
I thought that might get your attention. So now that you’re here, let me qualify that title, twice.
1. The Church is a democracy, too.
2. The Church is a democracy, too, . . . in theory.
I know, I know. “The Church is not a democracy” is one of the favorite platitudes among twenty-first-century Mormons, but it is a one-dimensional claim that you will not find in scripture or in early Church history. What you do find is some really interesting stuff.
The Double Hybrid Organization
I’ve spent the past few weeks discussing how the Church is a hybrid—both an ecclesiastical community and a corporation. But the Church is a hybrid in a second and very different way. It is both a theocracy and a democracy—at least in theory. We believe that the Lord guides the Church, at all levels, through leaders he has called by revelation. And we believe that those leaders oversee his work for the most part by inspiration. Conversely, we also believe in the law of common consent.
“All things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith” (D&C 26:2, emphasis added).
“No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church” (D&C 20:65, emphasis added).
Voting in the Church has been more or less perfunctory for decades now—a discussion-free ratification of decisions that have been prayerfully made by an individual leader or a group of leaders. Indeed, there exists now a distinct stigma for any active Latter-day Saint who would dare vote against a person proposed for a calling by ward, stake, or general Church leaders. And this is not an inadvertent development. It represents a definite shift in the Church’s official interpretation of institutional authority. In recent decades, we have been taught from the pulpit and in Church publications that sustaining votes indicate our acceptance of the Lord’s will and our commitment to support those who have been called by inspiration.1 It has also been suggested that if we vote negatively, we are placing ourselves in opposition to our leaders and we should seek their help, presumably to assist us in repenting for our dissent.
But the law of common consent was not always interpreted in this way. The Saints of Joseph Smith’s day took the right and responsibility of voting seriously. At a conference of the Saints in Far West, Missouri, on November 7, 1837, for instance, the Prophet nominated Sidney Rigdon to be one of his counselors. Rigdon was sustained unanimously. Joseph then nominated Frederick G. Williams to be his second counselor, but Lyman Wight objected because of a letter Williams had written. Thomas B. Marsh, President of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, also objected. Bishop Edward Partridge seconded the nomination because, as he argued, the letter had nothing criminal in it. After more discussion, Sidney Rigdon nominated Hyrum Smith to take Williams’s place. Marsh, the moderator of this Church business, called for a vote of the conference attendees, and Williams was rejected, even though the Prophet had nominated him. Marsh then called for a vote on Hyrum Smith, and the conference unanimously approved him.2 This all sounds strangely democratic when compared with the sustaining of Church officers today; even the terminology of “nominating” leaders sounds foreign to us in the twenty-first-century Church, but the organization of Joseph’s day was at times more openly democratic than the institution that has evolved from it.
This more democratic understanding of the law of common consent persisted for decades. In a 1980 article, Michael Quinn, then a professor at BYU, recounted some highlights of this earlier understanding. In 1843, for instance, “Joseph Smith instructed an assembled conference of thousands of Church members that he wanted them to vote against the continued presence of Sidney Rigdon as a counselor in the First Presidency. Instead, the assembled multitude voted to retain Rigdon in his position.”3 Quinn also quoted Joseph F. Smith’s testimony in the Reed Smoot Senate hearings, in which President Smith related an instance when a ward’s members refused to allow Brigham Young to release their aging bishop, Jacob Weiler, and to install a new bishop. Of course President Smith was trying to convince the Senate that Reed Smoot would not be just a puppet in his hand and that Mormons had the autonomy to overrule their leaders at times, but the relevant point for us is that apparently this event did indeed happen. In another instance, President Young tried to install a new stake president, only to have the man voted down by the congregation. After the members were consulted, another man was proposed and sustained. Similar dissent was shown—not in negative votes, but in thousands of abstentions—when the manifesto to end polygamy was voted upon and approved “unanimously” in the Tabernacle in October 1890.4 Such open resistance against leaders is unheard of in today’s Church, but that just shows how drastically things have changed over the past century.
At the turn of the twentieth century the Church employed democratic practices we would never see today. Historian Thomas Alexander recounts, for instance, how General Authorities often asked for a vote of the high council when calling a new bishop. “In several cases the priesthood of the ward cast ballots. In one of these the visiting authorities chose the brother with the highest number of votes as bishop and the next highest as his first counselor. They passed over the man with the third highest number since he served on the stake high council and chose instead the fourth highest as second counselor.”5
Standing opposite this diminishing democratic impulse in Mormonism has been a more persistent theocratic inclination. An incident from nineteenth-century Utah sheds light on this counterpoint. At the outset of the Godbeite rebellion against Brigham Young’s leadership, William Godbe was called to the podium in the Tabernacle before the regular Saturday evening meeting of the School of the Prophets. Elder Wilford Woodruff conducted a public inquiry into Godbe’s loyalties. “Do you believe,” asked Woodruff, “that President Young has the right to dictate to you in all things temporal and spiritual?”6 Woodruff’s question was not merely an indicator of Brigham Young’s autocratic rule in pioneer Utah. Historian Ronald W. Walker explains that “this was an article of faith in Mormon society since the days of founder Joseph Smith.”7
Over the years, the Church has retreated somewhat from both of these impulses. Overt democratic voting for or against Church officials is a distant memory, and the closest we come today to Wilford Woodruff’s query is a temple recommend question that asks if individual Saints sustain the President of the Church as prophet, seer, and revelator. The result of this retreat is less tension between the two poles, but that is not to say the tension does not still exist and does not create difficulties for both leaders and members from time to time.
The Name of the Church
Of particular relevance to this tension between democracy and theocracy in the Church is what happened on May 3, 1834. A conference of elders of the “Church of Christ,” as it was then called, with Joseph Smith acting as moderator, voted unanimously to change the organization’s name to “The Church of the Latter Day Saints,”8 perhaps to avoid confusion with other churches whose names were similar or identical to the “Church of Christ.” In doing so, they apparently ignored the Lord’s direction in 3 Nephi 27:8 and tipped the scales away from theocracy toward democracy, which was obviously not what the Lord desired, for four years later Jesus Christ himself, speaking through Joseph Smith, specifically designated the official name of the Church, restoring his name to the title and firmly reestablishing a balance (and, consequently, a proper tension) between theocracy and democracy (see D&C 115:3–4).9
Interestingly, most members today see neither the balance nor the tension in the name—a sort of forest and trees phenomenon. We often refer to the Church as the Lord’s Church and assume that’s all there is to it. The Lord himself often refers to the organization as “my church” (see, for example, D&C 10:54, 69; 11:16; 18:4–5; 42:11, 32, 59; 106:1; 112:27; and 133:1). But the admittedly strange name he gave this organization is a double possessive. It is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is his Church, but it is also ours. And sometimes we fail to understand the full ramifications of that fact. It is our expectation that the Lord will take care of his Church, but it is his expectation that we will do the same. When we remove ourselves from the equation, we grant too much credence to the notion that our leaders are always and in every instance inspired by God and that they do not want or need input from the rank-and-file members. This, of course, is not true and never has been.
I wrote most of the material in this post several years ago. Ironically, though, in searching for more information about the topic this week, I happened upon the following explanation from Elder James E. Talmage. I find it interesting that he said virtually the same thing ninety-six years ago.
“The compound character of the name-title—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—has elicited inquiries from many thoughtful readers. Does the organization profess to be The Church of Jesus Christ, or The Church of the Latter-day Saints?
“The answer is—both. . . .
“The early revelations given to the Church contain frequent mention of common consent or the voice of the members, as essential in matters of administration. . . .
“. . . Every prayer that is offered, every ordinance administered, every doctrine proclaimed by the Church, is voiced in the name of Him whose Church it is.
“Nevertheless, as an association of human membership, as a working body having relation with the secular law, as a religious society claiming the rights of recognition and privilege common to all, it is the people’s institution, for the operation of which, so far as such is dependent upon them, they are answerable to themselves, to the organization as a unit, and to God.
“The plan of organization and government of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that of a theodemocracy, whose organic constitution has been revealed from heaven and is accepted by the members as their guide in faith, doctrine and practice.”10
It appears that this notion of the Church being a hybrid—both theocracy and democracy—has waned over the past hundred years. This probably has something to do with the rapid growth the Church has experienced, the increasing centralization, and the vertical pressures of the organizational imperative (discussed over the past five weeks).
Leadership by Revelation or by Participation?
The unusual bipolar form of organizational ownership the Lord has established creates a perplexing leadership challenge. If the Church is led purely by revelation, then many members assume it must be an autocratic institution, an authoritarian form of theocracy with rigid vertical lines of authority and a top-down management imperative. Obviously, as the organization is defined in the Doctrine and Covenants, a certain amount of hierarchy is inevitable. But we must be careful about how that hierarchical structure is administered, avoiding the authoritarian tendencies and methods that seem inherent in all hierarchies. Perhaps these authoritarian tendencies can be reined in only by the democratic impulse built into the very nature and name of the Church. If the Church is not just a theocratic hierarchy but is also to be governed by the common consent of its members in “all things,” as the revelation insists, then it must involve some sort of participative leadership and be at least partially democratic in nature. These two impulses, pulling in opposite directions, present a dilemma for those in positions of authority: How do I lead by revelation if I must also welcome the participation and request the consent of those at the rank-and-file level? The logical answer to this question (which I will deal with next week) might surprise some members. Indeed, some Church leaders have never considered this question, which unfortunately leaves them no obvious alternative than to resort to a familiar worldly fall-back position: autocratic governance, or, to use President McKay’s idiom, running the Church like a business.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell identified three basic types of leadership: manipulative, directive, and participative.11 Manipulative leadership is virtually always inappropriate. Directive leadership has certain advantages, particularly in time of crisis; indeed, a good leader must at times exercise directive leadership. The most difficult type of leadership, of course, is participative leadership, and it is therefore the approach that is too often neglected. A straight dose of participative leadership, however, is also inappropriate. Too much democracy is not only messy and inefficient, but it can also stifle individual creativity. The best leaders, therefore, invariably blend directive and participative leadership, and they also have a very good sense for when each style is most appropriate. Consider these wise thoughts from Elder Maxwell:
Participative leadership seeks to call upon the maximum resources of the group members. When it succeeds, this kind of leadership results in a higher achievement than the individual alone could produce. Participative leadership assumes that everyone has something to give. . . .
Participative leadership frees those concerned to provide helpful feedback, whereas directive leadership often suffers from the fact that as the leader acquires more prestige and power, his followers may be less and less likely to level with him even though he wishes this were not so.
The disadvantages of participative leadership are that, at times, groups focus too much on feelings and become too immobilized to take needed action. A group may listen and hear only the signal of “an uncertain trumpet.” Group problem solving can, when it miscarries, result in the stifling of individual creativity and can result in a great deal of mediocrity.
Recalling his work on the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein noted “a feeling of direction, of going straight toward something concrete.” This kind of creative insight—“going straight toward something concrete”—could, under some conditions, be stifled by participative leadership. Although discussions with his colleagues might have been helpful to Einstein, creative insights are often obtained in solitude.12
Supporting the positive aspects of participative leadership, Elder M. Russell Ballard applied these ideas to how councils ideally should work. He was speaking about family councils, but the concept applies to all organizational settings:
A council is when parents let their children help solve the problem. And when everyone agrees to a solution, everyone will have ownership of the problem. . . . Talking about the course of action makes all the difference. If it’s mandated or dictated, there will usually be resistance. But if parents will establish a climate conducive to openness, where every person is important and every opinion is valued, they can create a kind of spiritual synergism in the home, where the combined action or cooperation that results is greater than the sum of the individual parts. . . . A father, who is the priesthood bearer and patriarch in a home, has the responsibility to make the decisions. I emphasize the term responsibility—not the term authority. But it is far better if those decisions are made in a spirit of unity of purpose and pulling together as a family.13
So we have leaders, from prophets and apostles on down to auxiliary presidents and parents, who are supposed to lead both by revelation—divine mandate, as it were—and by common consent—not just the approval, but also the participation of the people over whom they preside. This is a very delicate balancing act, which is part of the reason why some leaders do it so badly and why many members are frustrated over seemingly arbitrary organizational constraints and demands. Authority in the Church is fraught with complex requirements that ordinary organizations do not generally experience—although, as you might suspect if you’ve been paying attention, perhaps they should struggle with such requirements.
Is Common Consent Obsolete?
Historically speaking, the law of common consent might be viewed as a principle borrowed from the “traditional congregational model” familiar to many early Church members.14 It can also be viewed as an idea that perhaps worked for the very early Church (before Joseph introduced a highly structured priesthood hierarchy) but quickly became obsolete as the Church expanded and evolved. While true voting for Church officers persisted for decades, the instruction given in D&C 26:2—“All things shall be done by common consent in the church”—became impractical within a very few years as the organization grew and became more complex, with greater vertical emphasis. Certainly, by the 1840s, Joseph felt no compulsion to follow this divine directive in such matters as his secretive implementation of plural marriage. So, since we no longer practice the law of common consent in either manner in today’s Church, the logical question is whether we shouldn’t just elide this revelation from the scriptural canon altogether. It has been altered in practice to the point that it is no longer recognizable.
Indeed, we have moved so far away from democracy that the platitude “The Church is not a democracy” is not really a platitude anymore. It is a statement of fact. But should we give up on this idea so easily? Or are there ways we can restore some of the balance between theocracy and democracy that I believe the Lord still desires? Hint: I wouldn’t ask this question if I thought the answer was no. Stay tuned.
1. See Russell M. Nelson, “Sustaining the Prophets,” Ensign 44, no. 11 (November 2014): 74–77; Loren C. Dunn, “We Are Called of God,” Ensign 2, no. 7 (July 1972): 43; Alma P. Burton, “All in Favor, Please Signify!” Ensign 4, no. 3 (March 1974): 16.
2. Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 2:522–23 (hereafter cited as History of the Church). It is interesting to note that Frederick G. Williams was not present at this conference, where he was voted out of the First Presidency, but he was present at a conference in Kirtland, a mere two months prior to this Missouri conference, where he was sustained unanimously. See “Journal, 1832–1842,” in The Papers of Joseph Smith, ed. Dean C. Jessee, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 2:217. It is also notable that when the Saints in Kirtland found out about the Missouri decision to drop Williams from the First Presidency, a vote was taken on whether or not to ratify the Missouri action. “Then the issue of the propriety of having dropped Frederick G. Williams from the presidency in Missouri was voted on to be reconsidered. Those in favor of Frederick G. Williams included Hyrum Smith himself, who had been voted to take Williams’s position in the First Presidency.” Frederick G. Williams, The Life of Dr. Frederick G. Williams: Counselor to the Prophet Joseph Smith (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2012), 528–30. Author Williams (a great-great-grandson and namesake of Joseph’s one-time counselor) cites an unfinished letter drafted from Kirtland to Thomas B. Marsh, containing the minutes of the December 17, 1837, conference. The letter can be found in the Thomas B. Marsh papers, MS 9128, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City. The letter is in the handwriting of George W. Robinson.
3. D. Michael Quinn, “From Sacred Grove to Sacral Power Structure,” Dialogue 17, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 13, citing History of the Church, 6:49.
4. Quinn, “From Sacred Grove,” 14.
5. Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 107.
6. Ronald W. Walker, Wayward Saints (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2009), 9.
7. Walker, Wayward Saints, 9.
8. The Evening and the Morning Star 2, no. 20 (May 1834): 160; also History of the Church, 2:62–63. The conference business was to discuss “names and appellations.” The motion to change the Church’s name was made by Sydney Rigdon and seconded by Newel K. Whitney. Joseph Smith, as moderator, put the motion to a vote, and the name change “passed by unanimous voice.”
9. Although Doctrine and Covenants 115 seems to indicate that on April 26, 1838, the Lord declared for the first time that the name of the Church should be The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an incident recorded in Joseph’s History of the Church, published long after his death, suggests that some combination of the two prior names was being used before this revelation was given. Speaking of dissenters Warren Parrish, John F. Boynton, Luke S. Johnson, Joseph Coe, and others, who had “united together for the overthrow of the church,” Joseph explains that soon after his return from Kirtland on December 10, 1837, “this dissenting band openly and publicly renounced the Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints and claimed themselves to be the old standard, calling themselves the Church of Christ, excluding the word ‘Saints,’ and set me at naught, and the whole Church, denouncing us as heretics.” History of the Church, 2:528. Apparently, then, the longer name of the Church that combines the older Church of Christ with the newer Church of the Latter Day Saints was in use before the revelation that made the name official
10. James E. Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism (1919; Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1948), 38–40.
11. Neal A. Maxwell, A More Excellent Way (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1967), 19–25.
12. Maxwell, A More Excellent Way, 24–25. I should point out here that leaders sometimes need to practice a fourth type of leadership, which we might term “facilitative leadership,” in which they open doors for their followers and then get out of the way.
13. “Family Councils: A Conversation with Elder and Sister Ballard,” Ensign, June 2003, 16–17, emphasis added.
14. “Common Consent,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, http://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Common_Consent.
Monday, March 23, 2015
Okay, so I didn’t finish this topic in four posts. I figured I ought to illustrate the theory I’ve presented and back up some of the claims I’ve made with a few real-life examples.
Let me make clear, though, that my intention in sharing these experiences is not to embarrass anyone. The only name I will use is in a positive example. Also, these things happened some time ago, so pretty much everyone involved has either retired or moved on to other endeavors. Let me also make clear that I loved the people I worked with at Church magazines. These were some of the finest people I have ever met. Even the managers who may not appear here in a very positive light were good and decent people, trying their level best to move the Lord’s work forward. But that is the sobering lesson of the organizational imperative. Even those who unwittingly get trapped in the web of its upside-down values can find themselves doing things that damage others. They usually just assume they are acting on behalf of the organization, but do so without understanding the values they have embraced or the ramifications of acting on those values. Such is the reality we deal with in almost every modern organization.
I am also not sharing these experiences to criticize the Church. This whole series of posts has one purpose: to make people aware of the organizational imperative, how pervasive and invasive it is, and how the adoption of its values can damage those who come in contact with them. Implicit in this already lengthy discussion is the idea that it is indeed possible to defeat the organizational imperative, to eliminate it or at least nullify it, but before this can happen, people in positions of authority need to recognize it and understand it.
By way of review, then, the values of the organizational imperative are:
1. Malleability (people can and should be molded into whatever the organization needs them to be)
2. Obedience (compliance with arbitrary institutional authority)
3. Dispensability (treating people like replaceable parts in a machine)
4. Specialization (requiring people to relate in a functional way)
5. Planning (administrators need to be able to control programs and outcomes)
6. Paternalism (the establishment of arbitrary rules and regulations, treating employees like children)
So, what do these values look like up close and personal? Let me illustrate these (and their opposites) with a few experiences from my years at Church headquarters.
A Restructuring at Church Magazines
About halfway through my stretch of employment at Church magazines, we underwent a reorganization that was a classic example of the organizational imperative at work. One Friday afternoon, the magazine staffs were called into a surprise meeting. None of us, managing editors included, had any idea what was coming. Once we were assembled, the middle managers who directed the Curriculum Department turned on a projector and beamed a new organizational chart onto the conference room screen. As we puzzled over it, numerous questions immediately came to mind. The first had to do with two of the managing editors who had just been demoted silently but publicly. We later learned that management had not even exercised the common courtesy to talk with the managing editors beforehand and notify them of their new status. They learned of their own demotions the same time the rest of us did. To this day, I can’t really comprehend what must have been going through their minds. Another managing editor’s name did not even appear on the new chart. We naturally wondered if he had been fired. It turned out he had been magically transformed into a marketing director, again without being notified beforehand of this sudden career change. As for the rest of us, we had been reshuffled like cards in a deck, without, of course, any inkling of what was coming. This whole reorganization had been put together without seeking input from or even informing the managing editors, art directors, or magazine staff members.1
The problems with this reorganization were myriad. Let me mention two. First, as Elder Ballard has pointed out, when significant decisions are mandated or dictated, resistance is likely to result.2 The resistance at Church magazines didn’t take the form of open rebellion, of course, but it boiled under the surface and feelings were very tender. Morale in the department was extremely low. Second, because these managers had not sought information from those who knew the products and processes best, they had concocted a new organizational structure that was inherently unworkable. As we stared at the organizational chart projected onto the conference room screen that fateful Friday afternoon, it dawned on many of us that this structure was totally illogical. It severed lines of communication and redistributed responsibilities in such an ingenious manner as to make the actual work we needed to accomplish much more difficult.
At the end of the meeting, one manager even went so far as to stand in front of us and bear testimony that this plan was inspired, suggesting specifically that if we didn’t like it, we could go take a walk in the park until we felt better about it. Almost immediately, however, as things began to unravel, management started to backtrack, and the new reorganization was revised again and again to try to fix what it had dismantled. We suffered from the effects of that one-directional, nonparticipative management decision for at least two years, and some effects were never addressed. All this could have been prevented, of course, if there had been open, two-way communication from the beginning, if input had been sought from those who best knew the products and processes.
Now, in terms of the values listed above, this one experience serves to illustrate (1) malleability, (2) obedience, (3) dispensability, (5) planning, and (6) paternalism. I suppose I could find number 4 (specialization) in there somewhere, but the others are far more obvious. This was a classic example of individuals with authority operating on the assumption that the organization was more important than the people. Even if the reorganization had made perfect sense, the organizational imperative was evident in the way it was created and presented. And the harm from this organizational maneuver was not insignificant. Lives were damaged. I know for a fact that some individuals were so hurt by this experience that they may never really get over it.
I will give an example below of the exact opposite to illustrate how the organizational imperative can be defused in organizations. First, though, let me finish with the aftermath of this unfortunate reorganization.
“Trust Has to Be Earned”
Not long after the restructuring at Church magazines, the manager who was responsible for the organizational mayhem retired. His successor inherited the unenviable task of trying to clean up the mess. Needless to say, he had a rather hostile and fragile department on his hands. You see, this reorganization was not a singular event. It may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, but many smaller straws had preceded it. It is hard to describe the culture that comes to exist under the influence of the organizational imperative, but the accumulation of hundreds of much smaller acts creates a very tense atmosphere. Many employees, who were not necessarily surprised by the nature of the reorganization, were nevertheless deeply hurt by the callousness of how it had been sprung on them. The unmistakable message that had been sent was: “You are irresponsible little children and don’t deserve any input.” Paternalism at its purest.
The successor tried to turn things around, and so he scheduled a “training” session, during which we were divided into several small groups to discuss what was not right and how it might be fixed. When the new manager asked each group to report on its discussion, one theme surfaced again and again and again: “We don’t feel trusted.” This, of course, was not an assessment of just the reorganization but also of the general culture that prevailed in the department. The new manager then made an unfortunate mistake. For some inexplicable reason, he got defensive and stated forcefully: “Trust is something that has to be earned.” Guilty until proven innocent. That telling statement defined in every employee’s mind the philosophy this manager espoused, and it damaged his credibility, perhaps irreparably, with that group of employees.
If we consider his statement in the context of our earlier discussion about human nature (part 2 of this series), we must ask which philosophy that statement springs from. If you assume that people are basically good at heart—flawed yes, even fallen, but with good intentions and an innate desire to do right—you don’t make people earn your trust. You give it to them freely. And if you do, most often they respond with their best effort, their ingenuity, and their loyalty. People love to follow—if they find a true leader whose vision they believe in and who trusts them. Trust doesn’t have to be earned. Within reason, people should have to prove to us that they can’t be trusted. Of course we shouldn’t leave hundred-dollar bills lying unattended on our desks, but we should give others the benefit of the doubt in most organizational circumstances.
The statement “Trust is something that has to be earned” was shocking because it was based not on the most common organizational philosophy (that people are merely neutral and can therefore be molded to serve the organization as management sees fit to use them), but on the philosophy that people are evil, or at least incompetent. This philosophy leads inexorably to the conclusion that people will intentionally sabotage the organization or, at best, bungle their duties if left to their own devices.
And this one manager wasn’t unique in this regard. The overarching message we received at Church magazines was that we were incapable of being trusted. This lack of trust percolated to the surface in many ways, but it was most evident in the multiple layers of approvals needed to get anything into print. I counted these for one particular article, and before it was printed I had to get fourteen separate approvals. Not all articles rose to this level, but all did require at least half that many. The unavoidable message this sends to employees is that they are incompetent and have poor judgment. It also tells them that the organization is so important that they cannot be trusted to protect it properly.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not the griping of a disgruntled employee. Like I said, I loved my colleagues. And I really enjoyed my work. But the oppressive nature of the organization was so heavy at times that I started experiencing stress-related health problems. These faded away after I left Church headquarters. But I will never forget the epiphany I had one day a couple of years after the troubling reorganization. I don’t remember what specific organizational hiccup (or epidemic of them) brought me to this point, but as I sat at my desk contemplating life, it suddenly occurred to me that if the celestial kingdom was anything like Church employment, I didn’t want to go there. Now that’s a sobering epiphany, particularly regarding a Church that claims to be the only true church on earth. You would think that such an organization would be able to create an ideal work environment. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It is no secret that the corporate side of the Church has some organizational problems. In President Hinckley’s official biography, for instance, appears this revealing statement: “As thrilling as [Church] growth was, he abhorred bureaucracy and at times felt himself swimming helplessly against a mounting tide.”3 And he was Church President. If he felt helpless at times, just imagine how employees feel who have no authority in the organization.
The Other Side of the Church
Micromanagement and bureaucracy, of course, aren’t limited to just the employment side of the Church. As I have suggested, corporate values tend to filter into the ecclesiastical side as well. For instance, one stake president I have heard about felt an inordinate need to control his flock. Even something as innocuous as an invitation for auxiliary board members to attend a stake board meeting had to be approved by him personally. The stake president also required auxiliary presidents to submit their planned presentations for stake auxiliary training meetings to him for approval. Once, perhaps because he had his fingers in too many pies, he wasn’t able to give one auxiliary president his response until the afternoon of the training meeting, even though she had submitted her materials weeks in advance. As it turned out, he wasn’t satisfied with her planned presentation and asked her to rewrite it, hours before the meeting. This sort of paternalistic management sends the message that the leader doesn’t trust anyone but himself. When this happens, people feel not only a lack of freedom but also a lack of initiative. Their creativity suffers, as do their individual growth, their willingness to seek inspiration, and their loyalty to the organization.
Some may conclude that these two examples are uncommon, but I have heard of enough similar experiences at various times in other Church departments and local units to disbelieve that explanation. Such misadventures are both inevitable and unavoidable when organizational values are in control. People tend to be treated as things to be used and manipulated in the greater organizational mission rather than as the reason the organization exists in the first place. This is a subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference in the world.
Not all was doom and gloom at Church magazines. In fact, one of the finest examples of what can happen when a leader rejects the values of the organizational imperative occurred after the disruptive department reorganization mentioned above. With the editorial staffs shuffled, Don Searle, new assistant managing editor of the Ensign,4 needed to redistribute editorial assignments. He could have just done this unilaterally in a directive manner. Instead, he gathered the entire staff in a conference room with a white board. The staff members’ names were then written on the left side of the board. All the assignments were written on the right side. We then talked about these assignments. Staff members expressed their preferences for the desirable tasks, and we divided them up in an open and cooperative manner. As is true in all work settings, some of the assignments were not very desirable but still had to be tackled. We took turns volunteering for these. In the end, we democratically divided up the responsibilities. Don was definitely in charge, but he didn’t make a single assignment. He made a suggestion or two, but mostly he orchestrated our participation. And we all left happy. All the editors had assignments they very much wanted, and everyone volunteered for at least one of the less desirable tasks.
Two observations about this experience. First, it could have been handled in an authoritarian way. Don might have even taken the weekend and prayed and fasted over these assignments before divvying them up himself without our involvement. But what resulted was much more inspired, and inspiring, than any plan he might have concocted, even with heaven’s help. Indeed, I believe he was inspired in not seeking God’s will in dividing up staff assignments. Many, many things we do in the Church do not need to be dictated by revelation. And that leads to the second observation: this experience was so rare as to be virtually unique in my seven and a half years of Church employment. It was one of the few times where participation trumped the usual top-down management pattern. The feeling of light and peace we enjoyed as we walked out of that conference room with our new assignments was as unmistakable as it was unusual. Cooperation and compromise are inspiring opportunities—because they are not fruits of the organizational imperative.
And this is the whole point of this post: all it takes to deactivate the organizational imperative is for a brave leader to treat individuals as if they are most important. Treat them as if they have intelligence, inspired ideas, good intentions, and unique skills. Trust them. Don’t assume that all inspiration or even revelation has to come from the top down. Even God asked the Brother of Jared to come up with a solution to a sticky problem. It is amazing how many problems simply vanish when leaders understand that people are more important than organizations. Order, which tends to emerge spontaneously in a trusting environment, is far preferable to control, which is always imposed from above and always destroys trust.
1. I feel qualified to give a somewhat objective account of this overall traumatic reorganization because I was one of the few who came out of the restructuring with a better assignment that more closely matched my talents and interests. In spite of this, however, the experience was still difficult, and I was troubled by how it was handled and how it hurt some of my closest friends.
2. “When everyone agrees to a solution, everyone will have ownership of the problem. . . . Talking about the course of action makes all the difference. If it’s mandated or dictated, there will usually be resistance. “Family Councils: A Conversation with Elder and Sister Ballard,” Ensign, June 2003, 16–17, emphasis added. Although Elder Ballard was specifically talking about solving problems within a family, this principle holds true, too, in organizations large and small. Elder Neal A. Maxwell concurred: “Participative leadership seeks to call upon the maximum resources of the group members. When it succeeds, this kind of leadership results in a higher achievement than the individual alone could produce. Participative leadership assumes that everyone has something to give.” Neal A. Maxwell, A More Excellent Way (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1967), 12.
3. Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 408.
4. Part of the new organizational structure was to place one managing editor over all four magazines, but since he was spread too thin, the assistant managing editors over each magazine acted, basically, as managing editors. The effect was simply to add an extra layer of bureaucracy that impeded everyone's work. After the reorganization, everything was in flux, and there was a good deal of confusion, which makes Don’s performance that much more admirable.