Why Hide the Handbook?

Why can’t ordinary members read the Church Handbook of Instructions?

Three things got me to thinking about this question. First, in the discussion following Vada’s recent post on people getting endowed before serving a mission or getting married, Mark IV helpfully quoted from the Handbook to clarify the Church’s official position. Although the Handbook may not always be the last word about how Church policy works out on the ground, it’s at least a very good starting point.

Second, in the discussion following Margaret Young’s post “The Haircut” at BCC, several commenters matter-of-factly noted that her bishop was going beyond the Handbook in requiring her son to get his long hair cut before being ordained a priest. It’s great that they knew this, but I’ve never been in a calling where I get to see the Handbook. How would someone like me know if my bishop is going beyond the Handbook? But at least I was raised in the Church, so I have some sense of what Church policies are; how does a new member know if her bishop is going beyond the Handbook?

Third, in a recent Teachings for Our Time lesson, my elders’ quorum discussed a talk Elder Ballard gave last Conference about the Bible, in which he said,

The Dark Ages were dark because the light of the gospel was hidden from the people. They did not have the apostles or prophets, nor did they have access to the Bible. The clergy kept the scriptures secret and unavailable to the people. We owe much to the many brave martyrs and reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Huss who demanded freedom to worship and common access to the holy books.

Now I know the Handbook isn’t scripture, but I still think the comparison has some merit because the Handbook does influence our Church experience, perhaps even more directly than scriptures do. Christian reformers wanted widespread access to scripture so that common people could act as a check on the clergy doing whatever they wanted and claiming it was what God wanted. (Isn’t that some of what the Reformation was about?) But while we praise the reformers who made the Bible accessible, we sue people who make the Handbook accessible.

And just a brief extension of this point: It’s rare, but the Handbook has occasionally been referenced in General Conference. For example, Elder Nelson did in 1985, President Packer did in 1988 and 1991, Elder Oaks did in 1987 , 1993, and 1994, Elder Perry did in 1994. This seems truly bizarre to me. The point of referring to a source is to appeal to authority, to say, in effect, “You could look it up.” So why would speakers in General Conference refer to a document that they have explicitly made sure that most members cannot look up? Doesn’t this kind of defeat the purpose of putting in the reference at all?

I’m sure there’s a rationale for not letting us all see the Handbook. I suspect that this rationale is printed in the Handbook itself, which is why I haven’t seen it. 🙂 So who will enlighten me? What’s the reason? And do you find it convincing?


  1. What’s the reason?

    One word: liability.

    And do you find it convincing?


    If I was counseling the church as its lawyer, out of an excess of caution, I would probably counsel them to keep the handbook private. Why? Because making it public can only be a negative. Increased liablity could result from the public perception that leaders aren’t following the instructons of the church. Misunderstandings could result from interpretations of the language that differ from those held by local leaders. Disputations could arise over whether a particular leader was or was not following the handbook.

    These reasons, however; while valid to a degree, are not good enough reasons to continue to keep the handbook private. Mostly because the cat is, generally speaking, already out of the bag. With the wide availability of info onthe internet, the idea that these documents are not going to be made publicly available is just head-in-the-sand thinking. Playing hide-the-ball with this info just makes the Church look
    needlessly archaic and mysterious.

    The Church should post the handbook on its website, with links to detailed explanations and training materials. I doubt many people would find it terribly fascinating once it was out in the open.
    The Church

  2. There are enough members who watch their bishop’s every move waiting and hoping for a slip up, failure, or mis-step (or a perception of these) without giving them access to a detailed list of potential faults. To sum it up: to save us (in a small degree) from the Pharisees.

  3. I think lack of distribution of the CHI volume 1 is a leftover remnant from a bygone age. Hopefully it will disappear in the future. However, anyone can get CHI volume 2. (if only in sections) by just asking their ward clerk or going to a distribution center and picking it up.

    On the other hand, I have been a member for 9 years, and have had a handbook for 8 of those years, so I am perhaps unusual.

  4. Matt W., you are unusual. Is it right that no one female gets a copy of the handbook, at least as far as I know? Women can only access it if they have a husband with one.

    From time to time the handbook’s been posted on the internet. I’m not sure if a copy is online now or not.

  5. I think auxiliary presidents get copies, don’t they?

    I came across the handbook my husband had when serving in a bishopric (I was looking for a phone number) and became mesmerized. He came home and caught me and flipped out.

    I didn’t see what was the big deal.

    And I agree, I think it should be available to all of us. Just another arbitrary hierarchial decision that makes us look like paranoid loonies. IMHO

  6. Ziff, I sympathize with your frustration. As I see it the reason the Handbook is not publicly available is to enhance the power of bishops and avoid making them accountable to the membership. It’s an organizational thing: bureaucrats always hoard information — it’s how they garner and retain power. It’s worse for Mormon bishops because, unlike Catholic priests, for example, Mormon bishops have no claim to authority other than their “bishop” box in the ward org chart. If the Handbook were made public, any attentive ward member would know as much as the bishop about authoritative counsel in some areas. The bishop would have to deal with challenges to his authority to act in certain ways based on a quote from the Handbook. Or he’d have to defend his interpretation of what is written in the Handbook. That’s just not the Mormon Way.

    I say that in a rather jesting tone, but I’m serious that the whole thing is related to how intensely organizational the Church is (and this has actually worked fairly well for the Church). Someone who doesn’t deal well with organizations and hierarchies would likely be happier in their local and unaffiliated “We Love Jesus” congregation or even in a non-theistic religion like Buddhism where you can pursue nirvana by your own lights alone. That’s not a suggestion you pursue that course. I’m just pointing out there are choices to be made.

  7. Just for precision, there are two books that comprise the General Handbook of Instructions as mentioned in #3. Book 1 is the version for stake presidencies and bishoprics. Book 2 is for priesthood and auxiliary leaders. Book 1 is the copy that’s not for general distribution and, according to the Handbook

    “When Church officers who have a copy of Book 1 are released, they should give the copy promptly to their successor or to their presiding authority.”

    I, too, find it interesting to just flip through and see the subjects addressed — everything from adoption to vasectomies are covered

  8. Book 1 of the 1998 handbook is available online on a site in the Netherlands. Simply google the phrase “church handbook of instructions.”

  9. From time to time the handbook’s been posted on the internet. I’m not sure if a copy is online now or not.

    Look here for the old version (1999) recently replaced as of 2007. It’s a place to start.

  10. Thanks for y’all’s comments. See how ignorant I am–I didn’t know (or had forgotten) the issue of multiple sections of the Handbook.

    I also hadn’t though of the legal angle, so thanks for bringing that up, MCQ. I really like your point that people would likely find it less interesting once it was out. I know it’s not possible to go back and make it not a big deal by making the Handbook open from the beginning, but I think you’re certainly right if that were the case. As things stand, the very fact that it’s been secret for so long would make it interesting at the beginning, but I’m sure after a little while, we would all say, “We were anxious to look at this? It’s so mundane!”

    Related to that, I appreciate everyone who pointed me to ways to find the Handbook online. It’s actually not so much its contents that interest me as that I would like the Church to be the one to say, “Here! Have a look, even if you’re not one of those leadership types.”

    Dave, I think I understand your point about letting information out of the bureaucratic grip of the hierarchy just isn’t the Mormon way, but I’m kind of hoping that it would become the Mormon way with just a little more time.

    To me, anyway, like Matt W., it doesn’t seem like a fundamental change would have to take place for the Handbook to not only be made public, but to become recommended reading. Then we could all go to sacrament meeting and moan to our spouses that we heard another talk that quoted from the Handbook and that it’s so dry and why can’t people quote from Alma–he’s much more fun than the Handbook?

  11. Oh, and I forgot to mention, over on FMH there’s a discussion of divorce that, like Vada’s discussion on the temple, was, I thought, much enlightened by a helpful commenter quoting from the Handbook.

    Wouldn’t it be great if, like MCQ suggested, the Handbook were posted on lds.org, and we could all browse through it and fling quotes from it back and forth at each other like we now do with the scriptures? 🙂

  12. Let me think out loud for a minute (that means I’m not convinced myself):

    Perhaps the handbook contains information that should be mediated by your bishop. For example, you only need to hear that vasectomies are “strongly discouraged” if you are the kind of person (or in the kind of situation) where you would ask your bishop about it. Otherwise, you are on your own. If they thought everyone should know that v’s are strongly discouraged, they’d say so in conference. But they don’t.

    Does that work?

  13. I do want to reitterate that the is a CHI book 1 that is the Stake President Bishopric CHI, and a CHI book 2 which contains all the rest. book 2 is easily available to everyone and sections can be gotten by anyone at the church distribtuon center. Book 1 does contain some brief reminders of policy on certain matters of orthopraxy, but I do not believe it is any sort of data that would be otherwise unavailable. It also contains data on how to do excommunications etc. I think it is not mass distributed because it is primarily a secular book, and it is not mass distributed as a throw back to when it was even worse. (I have the 1968 CHI also, and it talks about how to put little codes on paper records. very dull stuff.) Again, I think more transparancy is the future of the church at all levels.

  14. I like Julie’s answer, and will even take it a step farther, the handbook gives the best answers for bishops & leaders to give when they don’t already know how to respond.

    So, as an example with the vasectomy idea- Mary’s health is precarious and having another child is extremely risky. Bob, her husband is thinking of getting a vasectomy. They pray about it and they get a clear yes. If Bob had known about the CHI’s take on vasectomy he may have been unwilling to even entertain the idea. …Or they are unclear and seek out the bishop’s advice. While listening to them speak he feels the spirit confirming to him that a vasectomy is the best option for them and shares this impression with them. If the general membership knew the CHI’s stance then would the bishop have been as willing to share what the spirit confirmed to him if he knew that various ward members might condemn him for giving this advice. …Or the bishop is also unclear and looks to the handbook for help- where the advice amounts to ‘don’t make a permanent change.’

  15. Nice post Ziff. I think you hit the nail on the head. I am totally perplexed by the secrecy surrounding the handbook and I don’t find any of the justifications given to be sufficient. More than once I have had a semi-run-in with a bishop when they tried to tell me something was prohibited by the handbook when I knew that it was not. It puts the lay person in a very awkward position if they are not supposed to have access to the handbook that we are all ostensibly supposed to be following.

    So, Dave’s answer in #6 seems like it sanctions part of what I consider to be the problem. As to Starfoxy’s and Julie’s answers, if the leadership really wants people to approach vasectomy with an open and unbiased mind, then they wouldn’t say that it is “strongly discouraged.”

  16. Jacob J: I always respond “show me in the handbook where it says that.” though typically it’s stuff like “Don’t take the CTR 8 class to a firing range to shoot M-16s” that the Bishop is against.

  17. I remember Marvin Ashton stating that if Nephi had a copy of the handbook he would not have killed Laban … He acknowledged that they needed something like the handbook, but wanted people not to be overly constrained by it.

    Part of the problem is that many of those who write and use the handbooks believe it is a “best guess” of what is right for the present time, not definitive doctrine. As a result they do not want to quench the Spirit by having the handbook become too institutionalized.

    Anyway, it is an interesting issue, isn’t it. I mean copies of the books are all over the Church, showing up in garage sales and on the internet. But it is not canon, and it is intended not to be allowed to become canon.

  18. Matt,

    I could have done that, but that would come across as very confrontation to most Bishops I have had. Luckily, in my most recent situation I could just give an honest apology for not knowing he would object and that seemed to smooth things over alright. But the point of the post is, what about all the people who don’t have access to the handbook. How are they going to say “show me where that is in the handbook” if they don’t know what is in there.

  19. Re; vasectomies: isn’t funny that a member who gets a vasectomy quite possibly wouldn’t know anything about the “instruction” until it was too late?

    Bishop: “Will you be joining us at the campout?”

    Bob: “Oh, I don’t think I’ll feel well enough.”

    Bishop: “Is something wrong?”

    Bob: “Oh, not at all, but I just had a vasectomy and it should take a little while for the swelling to subside.”

    Bishop: “A vasectomy?! Didn’t you know that the Handbook says you should consult with your bishop before doing that?”

    Bob: “Well, no, I wasn’t aware…. But my wife is getting a crown at the dentist next week—should we set up an appointment to talk about it?”

  20. Stephen: “But it is not canon, and it is intended not to be allowed to become canon.”

    There is a really good solution to this that would also solve another problem with the Handbook: publish it in a three-ring binder with sub-sections instead of page numbers. This would allow up to whole sections to be added or replaced very simply and would make it clear that it is not “set in stone.” It would also make it easy to add all the new regulations (i.e. the letters from the first presidency) that come periodically (e.g. the FP letter a few years ago about kids bearing testimony in Primary instead of sacrament meeting—anyone who became a bishop just three months later would probably have no access to that letter, and hence, to that policy.)

  21. Starfoxy, 15: “Mary’s health is precarious and having another child is extremely risky….” I certainly hope there are less extreme reasons for a vasectomy. But perhaps you were going for the “no brainer” situation.

  22. I think the most interesting part of this discussion is the idea that the bishop (or local leaders) be accountable in some way to the membership. I think there was an Elder Packer talk about how church leadership “faces” the people and represents God, not the other way around. However, there are certainly people, including Margaret Tuscano, who think the church could use more channels of feedback from the members, or some system of accountability. For me, I can understand both perspectives, and perhaps institutionally, it works best for the church to be set up as top down, with the top being Jesus Christ, of course. And then on a local level, we can handle specifics incidents individually (like the Priest haircut example) as we see fit.
    Honestly, the idea that local church leaders make mistakes is a pretty new idea for me. Sure, I’ve always believed they were human, and might swear if they slammed their finger in the door, but not that they could err in their divinely inspired church leadership responsibilities. So, what does the church say about these situations, is there any level of accountability to the membership? Who determines if a leader is in error? What options does a member have to challenge a specific decision by a leader? Does this vary from ward to ward and stake to stake? (maybe this is all in the handbook, and if I had a copy I wouldn’t have to ask . . . 🙂

  23. anneg,
    When my husband was called to the Bishopric, the Stake President actually encouraged me to the read the handbook. I am not sure if that is standard advice, but I definitely did not find anything in the handbook that suggested that I shouldn’t have been reading it….

  24. My father, who has served as a bishop and then as a member of the stake presidency for the past 8 years, is quite a stickler when it comes to the CHI. If I ever mention something unusual that one of my local leaders does, 9 times out of 10, his reaction is “That’s not in the handbook!” This response is so common that it’s become a running joke between my brother and me.

    I should mention that when my father references some rule outlined in the CHI, my reaction tends to be one of surprise: “Really, that’s in there?”

    And then I think: Why didn’t I know that? (Well, I guess it’s because I’ve never owned a CHI). But why shouldn’t I know these policies?

    In my opinion, the shroud of secrecy around the CHI enhances the local leaders’ authority, which may well be the justification for keeping it secret. Members do not know the policies that are supposed to govern their leaders’ interactions with them, and so have no choice but to trust that their leaders are dealing with them in accordance with the CHI.

    While giving members access to the CHI might lead to more harsh judgment or criticism of hard-working and well-meaning bishops, I think one of the primary benefits–empowering the members to recognize and guard against abuses of authority–would far outweigh such negative consequences.

  25. Oh, and another quick comment. Having taken a cursory look over the CHI that’s posted on the Internet, I was actually impressed (granted, I was looking at an old edition, but I doubt that the current edition is radically different). The instructions seem quite clear and equitable, but there is also substantial room for the local leaders to exercise their discretion. I really see no reason why this shouldn’t be in the hands of ordinary members. I think it would be a wonderful resource for them.

  26. they do not want to quench the Spirit by having the handbook become too institutionalized.

    Thanks for making this point, Stephen. That possibility had never occurred to me. If this is indeed the reasoning, I have to say that I’m impressed at the GAs’ trying to counter our common Mormon tendency to want to set everything in stone as a law forever.

    I guess keeping the Handbook secret would also make it easier to make changes because very few people are looking at it at any one time, so no hue and cry will arise when it gets changed.

    Julie and Starfoxy, your example is interesting. I can see that there may be circumstances in which it would be better to have the priesthood leader be the mediator between the member and the counsel in the Handbook. Still, I tend to agree with Jacob J and Steve M that it’s likely more common that knowing the handbook would be helpful to members in general, and we’re put in an awkward position when we’re kind of supposed to know this book that’s used to regulate our religious lives, but technically we’re not.

    When the secrecy of Church finances is discussed on the bloggernacle, Jusice Brandeis’s comment that “sunshine is the best disinfectant” is often quoted in support of the idea that Church finances should be open. I wonder if it might not also apply to the Handbook.

  27. Two Steve Ms … 😉

    I have to say that I’m impressed at the GAs’ trying to counter our common Mormon tendency to want to set everything in stone as a law forever.

    But that is human nature, which means it is probably part of the natural man.

  28. I still have huge chunks of the handbook given to me by my bishop when I was in the RS presidency. Of course, I cannot find them anywhere.

    Y’all have responded quite well to Ziff’s query, I can add no new insight, but I’ll add a little anecdote: when my BIL was a bishop he gave every single unit of the extended family a CD-ROM of the handbook for Christmas. And DH’s family is uber conservative.

  29. Once I mentioned to my previous bishop that I’d always wanted to read the handbook. He offered to let me come and read it in his office anytime I wanted. I never took him up on his offer, but I appreciated his openness. Now that DH is in the bishopric, he’s been reading it, and he reads me interesting sections aloud every so often. I’ve never felt that it was so protected that I couldn’t find out what it said if I really wanted to or needed the information; people have offered to look things up for me on various occasions.

  30. I’ve gone to my bishops many times to read from the handbook. Some bishops are fine with the request and just whip it out, allowing you to read the section you are interesting in. But recently I had a control freak of a bishop who refused to let me look at it. He instead asked to know what topic I was interested in and read it to me! I guess he figured I’d never read it before (I had, many times with previous bishops who weren’t such control freaks.) Some bishops get pissy when they tell you something and then you want to confirm that they are telling the truth by a perusal of the handbook. I’ve pissed off many a bishop. But don’t you believe you have no access to it. You do. If you want to see it, demand to see it. It is your right as a member. The only thing you can’t do is take it.

  31. Bishops (and stake presidents are fallible. Members or wards are fallible.

    While there is not ‘dark conspiracy’ to keep members in the dark about what is in the book, there probably are some in leadership positions who feel they MUST keep the ‘secret recipe’ a secret. There are probably others who feel the secrecy gives them power.

    Others probably have not ‘read’ the manual and only refer to it as needed. They might feel insecure with members ‘reading’ the manual and ‘pointing out flaws’ or mistakes in the leadership. (It happens).

    At least in part, the manual cosists of guidelines (hence the word instructions, not church handbook of LAW) This reduces the legalistic quibbling that could occur.
    Some would read – the church discourages as the church prohitis at all times, rather than it is situationally dependent (pray about it). So meeting could devole into
    You should not have done that becuase the instructions state on page…
    But I can because on page…

    People are people even if we are all supposed to be guided by the same spirit.

  32. All I can say is that, in THIS CENTURY, most companies make “technical support” available online to reduce human resource expenses. MAYBE, since LDS clergy work for free, AND since they are more likely to remain loyal to the church than a general member (give a man a little power and it becomes hard to turn away, give him a lot of power and it becomes almost impossible), there is no motivation (and arguably DISINCENTIVIZATION) on the part of LDS leadership to circumnavigate their “downline” (so to speak). In wholesale/retail distribution, an “online priesthood keyholder source” would definitely constitute a channel conflict.

  33. Thanks for your comment Malinda. That’s a very interesting way of framing the issue that I hadn’t thought of.


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