OK, I’ll admit upfront that my title is somewhat disingenuous. I’m not really going to talk about my highest ark-steadying priorities, but rather an ark-steadying proposal that I could see actually happening in the near term, especially through experimentation on the local level.
Just so you know, if I were going to steady the ark I’d do it like the tagline for the Georgia Lottery: Think Big. Think Really Big.
Why bother messing around the periphery? I’d ordain women to the priesthood, I’d allow my gay friends to marry in the temple, I’d revise the temple liturgy so that men and women have equal access to God, and I’d bump up the 4th mission of the church, giving caring for the poor and needy precedence over redeeming the dead (not that I have anything against dead people–some of my best friends are dead people). Oh, and I’d banish The Light of God from the hymnbook and replace it with Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and I’d require members to drop and do 20 push-ups anytime they quote the Proclamation on the Family.
But no one asked me, so I guess those changes will have to wait. But let me propose a less radical idea for the Church–a way to promote retention.
According to Seventy emeritus Marlin K. Jensen, attrition in the LDS church has accelerated in recent years. Why are members leaving? There are numerous reasons, of course, but in John Dehlin’s survey of why people leave, the reasons often have to do with difficult historical issues (e.g., first vision, Book of Abraham) , past policies (e.g., polygamy, racial priesthood and temple ban), or current treatment of women and homosexuals.
What was even more striking to me than these reasons, however, was where members seek for help when they have concerns, or more precisely, where they do not seek. According to the survey, when members are experiencing a faith crisis, the last ones to know are their bishops. The reason for this, presumably, is that members worry that by being open about their concerns with bishops they risk ecclesiastical sanctions such as release from callings, loss of temple recommends, or even church discipline. Likewise, they often do not take their concerns to parents, children, extended family, or ward members, presumably because of the potential social consequences attendant to expressions of doubt.
Instead, members are left to make decisions about church activity with input only from sources they consider to be safe from ecclesiastical and social sanction. And what are those sources? Obviously the internet is a big one. And sometimes the online discovery of negative historical material (from both anti- and pro-Mormon sources) can lead members to leave, where they might have weighed their decision differently if they had access to safe consultation with leaders or active members who were aware of the historical material and had wrestled with it themselves.
In other instances, rather than trying to process problematic history or past policy, members have concerns about current policies. They may be suffering because of such policies and, like Mack asking Yertle the Turtle for respite, they are looking to those above them for relief. However, when members’ concerns relate to Church policies, such as male-only priesthood, exclusion of LGBT members, or worthiness interviewing practices, the bishops and stake presidents do not, in most instances, have authority to address the concerns.
Furthermore, although it is likely that local leaders share some concerns with higher authorities, there seems to be no clear mechanism for this to occur. According to the experience of former area authority Hans Mattson, it was highly unusual for area authorities to share critical feedback with area presidencies or apostles. It simply was not the culture of the organization. In the Church hierarchy, direction and counsel typically flow from the top to the bottom, rather than the bottom to the top.
Nor is it easy for members to communicate directly with apostles or others who have the authority to change church policies. In fact, the Church Handbook of Instructions specifically discourages such communication.
Members of the Church are discouraged from making telephone calls or writing letters to General Authorities about doctrinal issues or personal matters.
…In most cases, correspondence from members to General Authorities will be referred back to their local leaders.
This policy of returning letters to the local leaders can have a chilling effect on the expression of concerns, since members may fear ecclesiastical sanctions from local leaders when their letters are re-routed to bishops and stake presidents.
So what do we do? We need someone who can represent our concerns to Church leadership. My steadying-the-ark suggestion is that we need the equivalent of an ombudsman.
According to Wikipedia:
“An ombudsman…is usually appointed by the government…but with a significant degree of independence, who is charged with representing the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints of maladministration or violation of rights.”
“…the typical duties of an ombudsman are to investigate complaints and attempt to resolve them, usually through recommendations (binding or not) or mediation. Ombudsmen sometimes also aim to identify systemic issues leading to poor service or breaches of people’s rights.”
Creating an ombudsman position would be a form of pastoral apologetics, apologetics specifically meant to address the social and spiritual aspects of doubt, rather than the theological or doctrinal aspects of doubt. This position could be occupied in the stake by a trusted former bishop, relief society president, or patriarch, along with his or her spouse. Like the Church’s addiction recovery program, members with concerns would not be reported to local leaders–what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But, their concerns would be reported to local leaders and area authorities, and responses and actions by these leaders could be communicated back through the ombudsman, helping leaders be accountable to their flock.
When meeting with members, the ombudsman could explore concerns and share resources from a faithful perspective. For this to work for members who are considering leaving, responses would need to be non-directive (e.g., How do you think you should handle this?) and the ombudsman should not claim that all questions have answers or that all that was done or is done in the Church is correct. Mansplaining or churchsplaining would need to be verboten for this to work–no declarations that all will be resolved in the next life, or that some institutionally induced suffering is divinely appointed for our growth. That sort of approach simply will not work. The prime directive of the ombudsman would be to listen, empathize, and validate–and then represent the members’ concerns to the Church leaders.
I realize that I may be tilting at windmills. Creating ombudsmen would go against current tendencies of strong hierarchical control. Bishops would be out of the loop, and in advertising the existence of an ombudsman the Church would be implicitly acknowledging that it has problems.
So, maybe this will never happen. But the alternative is, in my view, heart-rending. The alternative is that many good, committed, Christ-like members–members who have worked in key leadership and service roles–will continue to leave this religion I love. The alternative is that I get to keep watching my siblings, my children, my friends, and their children leave the Church because their spiritual needs are being ignored, their moral sensibilities are being violated, and their pain is being treated as the cost of doing business in a large, corporate church.
I suppose this would not be such a big deal if I didn’t care so much about said church. But in it I have learned to serve, to love, to know God. I believe in its unique wonderfulness, its beautiful theology, its nonpareil community building.
So throw me a bone, Church. Hear my pain and institutionalize a mechanism for hearing the pain of us all. If this is Christ’s church, make it so, and make it so we may all say:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.