The Slowing of Church Growth

This post comes to us from Christian Anderson, a biostatistician living in San Diego county. He previously guest posted on mentions of Heavenly Parents in General Conference.

In the Saturday Afternoon Session of General Conference on Apr 1, 2017, the church announced a membership of 15,882,417. Combined with last year’s total, this represented an increase of 248,218 members and 1.59%. For many denominations, this would be a banner year. However, for the LDS church it represents a remarkable underperformance relative to historical trends and enthusiastic predictions by some members.

Absolute growth
In terms of absolute growth, the addition of nearly a quarter million members is still a substantial achievement. After all, the church didn’t reach 250,000 members total until 1897. However, since 1984 the church had reported growth of at least that magnitude for 32 consecutive years until last Saturday. Reported is an important word here, as membership totals reported in General Conference were rounded off to the nearest 10,000 from 1984-1991, and there are several statistical anomalies in the various time series suggesting that totals sometimes reflect incomplete reports (usually reflected by an anomaly in the opposite direction in the next year).

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The Sins of Pride and Self-Negation (or, How I Learned to Lighten Up a Little About Service)

In 1960, a thinker by the name of Valerie Saiving wrote an influential article which is often considered the beginning of modern feminist theology, critiquing traditional models of sin which were centered around pride. Since such perspectives considered pride or excessive self-assertion to be the most basic sin,  they understood the process of overcoming sin as necessarily involving a move toward greater selflessness. Love was defined in such approaches as being “completely self-giving, taking no thought for its own interests but seeking only the good of the other.”1 Saiving raised the objection that these models ignored some basic differences in the self-development of women and men, and arose from an essentially masculine perspective. The crucial point that these formulations overlooked, she argued, is that there is danger in the other direction as well, as it turns out that too much selflessness, far from producing someone in an idealized and virtuous state, leads to the development of a kind of “chameleon-like creature who responds to others but has no personal identity of his [or her] own.”2  Saiving saw this as a temptation to which women are particularly vulnerable. Read More

  1. Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” in Womanspirit Rising (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 26. []
  2. Ibid., 41. []

A Person Who Stays

Like most kids born into the church, I was baptized at the age of eight. I turned 42 earlier this year. (Tangential sign that you are getting at least middle-aged: I actually had to stop and check the year and subtract to verify my current age. But yes, it’s 42.) That means I have a solid 34 years of membership in the LDS church. I was by no means consistently active for all those years. My first foray out of Mormonism happened about thirty seconds after I finished my last class at BYU, and was no longer required to have an ecclesiastical endorsement. That time around, I left for a good year and a half. But looking back, “left” is a very strong word for what I did. I mean, I quit going to church every week (though I’d still drop by for special occasions). But I still did stuff like praying and reading my scriptures, and even (such are the contradictions of life) attending an Institute class for a while. And given that I was living in Provo, with five Mormon roommates, I was still pretty immersed in the whole thing. In a stroke of good fortune, I got to take a night class on Mormon literature from Eugene England, who had found refuge at UVU at that point, and I loved it. It was an environment where there was room for real questions; I found there a constructive and supportive space to begin the process of seriously wrestling with my Mormon heritage and what it meant to me. Given my continuing attachment to the LDS tradition, I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised when I eventually decided to come back to church. Read More

Worthiness

My favorite Richard Dutcher movie, one perhaps lesser known than God’s Army or States of Grace, is a thought-provoking film titled Brigham City. It’s a highly suspenseful murder mystery set in a small Mormon community, and it deals head-on with some hard religious questions. The final scene is deeply moving. I won’t spoil it by giving too many details, but I will say that a crucial element of that scene is the question of what it means to be worthy to take the sacrament.

About eight years ago, when I was still a PhD student, I got to design and teach a Master’s-level class on Mormonism at my school. One week, I showed them Brigham City. The group of mostly Protestant students quite liked the movie, but they said something that has really stayed with me. They said that their take on that scene was different than mine had been, because they came from traditions in which there isn’t a worthiness requirement to take communion (or the sacrament, in Mormon lingo); in fact, one of them said that when you feel unworthy, that’s actually the time when you need it the most. I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. Read More

Cleverness and Kindness

The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel is often quoted as having said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” I’m not that old yet, I wouldn’t say, but I’m also realizing these days that I’m not exactly young, either. And I find that I’m with Heschel in experiencing this shift in perspective as my age has increased. Read More

Thoughts on My Current Religious Meanderings

I posted this on Facebook the other day, with reference to my recent exploration of the Episcopal tradition, and I thought I’d share it here as well.

I’ve been wanting to express appreciation to my believing Mormon friends in particular who’ve been so supportive of my recent forays into other religious possibilities. It means a lot to me that no one has lectured, or asked me if I just have Word of Wisdom issues, or played the “you’re falling into apostasy” card, and that so many of you even seem excited and happy for me. Because I am in fact excited and happy. This has all been spiritually nourishing and powerful, and because I am still in many ways very Mormon, I have to think that it unquestionably passes the Moroni 7:41 test (“every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.”) Read More

Conference Talks Most Likely to Be Edited

Ever since Boyd K. Packer’s October 2010 Conference talk “Cleansing the Inner Vessel” was significantly edited between the version he delivered and the printed version, I’ve seen increased attention paid to differences between the spoken and printed versions of Conference talks.

Given that we’re in the relatively brief window of time between all the Conference talks being given and the release of their printed versions (other than the Women’s Session, for which they’re already out), I thought it might be fun to speculate about what edits we might see this time around. Here are some of my guesses. I’d love to hear yours in the comments.

Speaker Spoken version Printed version (my guess)
Brough, Saturday morning “I earnestly prayed to know if I had to give my dog away [after my father was called as a mission president]. My answer did not come in a moment. Rather, a specific thought kept penetrating my mind: Don’t be a burden to your parents.” “I earnestly prayed to know if I had to give my dog away [after my father was called as a mission president]. My answer came in a flash, as my beloved dog was simultaneously struck by lightning and run over by a train. I rejoiced in the miracle God had provided to keep me from being a burden to my parents.”

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Some (Okay, Actually Way Too Many) Notes Made in the Absence of Depression, about Augustine, Willpower, and How CBT Failed Me

I recently emerged from a very long depression. While I am quite enjoying this rare life interlude of an existence not characterized by overwhelming apathy and despair, and am wanting to just savor the radical sense of being remarkably and unexpectedly enthusiastic about this whole being alive thing, my therapist keeps pushing me to think about how I can cope better when the depression returns. This isn’t a fun question to tackle, of course, because in my current state I’d prefer to believe that the depression won’t ever return. I do realize that this is completely wrongheaded. My particular manifestation of bipolar disorder is constituted by something like eighty percent down, fifteen percent in between, and a mere five percent up. (To really look at that, which I don’t often do, makes me feel both profound grief about how much of my life I’ve lost to depression, and intense rage about the unfairness of it all. Which is probably why I don’t like to think about it too hard.) But I do know in my head, at least, that the chances of the depression being permanently gone are close to zero, and I’ve thus been reluctantly willing to do the kind of strategic thinking that my therapist is asking me to do.

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Trump to Resign Presidency to Become Mormon General Authority

In an unprecedented move, US President Donald J. Trump announced today that he will be resigning the Presidency, convert to Mormonism, and become a member of the First Quorum of Seventy, one of the three highest governing bodies in the Salt Lake City-based church. Trump made the announcement in a press conference held on Saturday morning in Salt Lake City, just prior to the second session of the church’s 187th annual conference. In the press conference, Trump was joined by Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, the LDS church’s second-highest governing body.

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Exploring the Episcopal Church

Several months ago I decided, for the umpteenth time in my life, that I needed a break from church. All the usual factors were at play, from frustration with the expectations surrounding gender and marriage to frustration with the culture of obedience and family-worship. The immediate catalyst for my leaving was not unrelated to these things. My older sister moved into the ward, and we started going to church together. This should have been fun, and of course I was happy she was there. But watching the sharp differences in the ways we were treated by other members of the ward just brought home to me that no, I was not imagining my marginalization in the community. People who barely registered my existence went out of their way to talk to and include her. People would literally talk over me, if I was sitting next to her, to engage her in conversation, without appearing to notice I was even there. I may as well have been a piece of furniture. She was asked to speak in sacrament meeting soon after moving in, and had a calling shortly thereafter—very different from my experience moving into the ward nearly a year earlier. Read More

I’m bored of white men

White men are 31% of the US population, but hold 65% of elected offices in the United States.

 

That 31% of the population is also:

  • 60% of the authors reviewed in The New York Times
  • 82% of film directors and most of the speaking characters
  • >90% of Fortune 500 CEOs
  • most film executives, movie producers, and sports team owners
  • 98% of presidents
  • and, of course, 100% of LDS prophets and apostles.

With power in our society so thoroughly dominated by white people, and men in particular, the stories and perspectives we’re exposed to run the gamut, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, from A to B. I like white men–I’m related to them, friends with them, work with them–and their personalities are interesting and their opinions worth considering, to be sure, but still: seeing and hearing from white men so much, in so many places of power and influence, is like eating the same thing every day. Variety is the spice of life, and I’m hungry for more and different foods in my diet.

As an example of a similar effect, since I’m a book lover, think of novels about the Holocaust. I’ll start: The Book Thief, All the Light We Cannot See, Number the Stars, The Reader, Suite Française, Schindler’s List, Code Name Verity, The Last of the Just, The Boy in the Striped PajamasEverything Is Illuminated and I’m just naming the ones I’ve read, and not even including memoirs, non-fiction treatments, or movies. Many of these are great novels, and stories about the Holocaust are important. And yet, can you name nearly as many novels about the Khmer Rouge? I’ve got In the Shadow of the Banyan, and then it turns out the other I was thinking of was about Vietnam instead. And how many novels can you name about the 1990s genocide in Rwanda? I’ve gone out of my way to read about Rwanda after visiting there a few years ago, and I can still only name a few memoirs and non-fiction books. And where are the novels about the genocides in Bosnia, Armenia, Namibia, and many other places? Imagine how much more vibrant our literary landscape would be with a broadened range of cultures, histories, and individual stories to draw from, beyond those belonging to primarily white people in the West.

And on a Mormon note, imagine a General Conference with a leadership roster that reflected a truly international and truly diverse Church, instead of one dominated by white men. We’d be able to hear people speak about their personal experiences of growing up on farms in Utah and flying airplanes in Germany, but also of fleeing Spain during the Civil War, integrating the hospitality industry in the early 1970s, learning about the Church from Reader’s Digestgiving up a child for adoption by a friend, or sneaking through security checkpoints to get to church. I love that I can find those stories online (major shout-out to the Mormon Women Project!) but I want more of them everywhere–in my ward, in the Ensign, over the pulpit in General Conference.

We should end this overindexation of white men and their perspectives for all kinds of reasons–a world with more equal representation would better live up to the exhortation to recognize neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female–but, on top of all the reasons of justice and equality and striving for Zion, let add my complaint: this is boring.

Who will GAs endorse if the Johnson Amendment is repealed?

Donald Trump has promised to get rid of the Johnson Amendment. This law prohibits church leaders from endorsing or opposing political candidates from the pulpit if the churches want to maintain their tax-exempt status. (It also applies to non-religious non-profits, but it’s the application to churches I’m interested in.)

I have no idea how difficult it might be for Trump to actually get this done. What I’m curious about is what General Authorities would do if he did. They clearly pay close attention to American politics, so I’m sure they would immediately see the implications for them and for local leaders in American wards and branches. How would they respond? I can imagine a few scenarios:

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Conformity Is the First Law of Heaven

I was listening to an episode of Kristy Money’s new relationship podcast, Mormon Journeys, where she was talking with fellow therapist Rachel Brown, and Rachel made a point that particularly struck me. Here’s what she said:

There’s not a lot of cultural room in the LDS tradition for differentiation of an individual. It’s almost like we’re set up to never differentiate as adults. And by “differentiate” I mean a couple of things, but mainly the idea that you can choose your own set of beliefs and values.

Now this might sound obvious, but what was striking to me here is that I typically think of us Mormons as being obedience-happy, but Rachel’s point is that we’re also conformity-happy. The distinction between the two is that obedience is doing something in response to a command(ment), whereas conformity is doing something in response to a social norm. Conformity also includes changing beliefs and attitudes, in contrast with obedience, which only involves behavior. (Here’s a nice article I found that discusses the differences.)

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Seven Little-known Perks of Being a GA

Since the recent leak of documents that give the size of GAs’ salaries, some of the discussion around the issue has missed the important fringe benefits that GAs also receive. For example, here are seven little-known perks of being a GA:

  • When you speak at firesides, women shriek at you in reverent voices, throw modest clothing at you, and open their coats and ask you to autograph their . . . binders.
  • An attractively bound pop-up pedigree chart that traces your genealogy back to Eve.
  • Shaves and haircuts at the barber’s shop on the hidden 13th floor of the COB. (Not transferable in cases of baldness.)
  • Initial seer app. When loaded on your phone, it displays the middle initial of anyone the phone is pointed at so you can address them in full. (To be used on mortals only. Pointing your phone at Jesus H. Christ may void its warranty.)
  • Correlation-on-your-wrist device that reminds you with a helpful electric shock any time you are about to say something uncorrelated. (Commonly known as the OmitBit.)
  • Curelom rides for you and your family at the Granite Mountain vault. (Cumom rides no longer available.)
  • Lifetime supply of cumom jerky.

Please add to the list. What other GA perks do most of us not know about?

Gays and the Mormon Afterlife

This guest post comes from a regular ZD reader going by the name of Humboldt.

Yesterday, I was talking to my mom about a mutual acquaintance of ours who happens to be gay. He’s the son of a very strong Mormon family that mentored my parents and our family decades ago. He and I went to BYU at about the same time, so I know him too. We were talking about some family photos that had been posted on Facebook, when my mom made the comment that it’s a good thing that our mutual acquaintance isn’t married. Her implication was that gay marriage was intrinsically so wrong, so disordered, so sinful, that it would be better for gay people to live life alone than be married. This was a pretty shocking idea to me, so rather than ask her more about why she would say this, I moved the conversation along, as I usually do when I’m feeling threatened. Read More

Nacle Notebook 2016: Funny Comments

This post is my annual compilation of the funniest comments I read on the Bloggernacle last year. In case you missed them, here are my compilations from previous years: 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008.

Most of the comments I’m quoting here are excerpted from longer comments (or posts). I’ve made the name of each person being quoted a link so you can always click through and read the entire comment or post. The comments are in roughly chronological order.

Michael Austin, in his post “Abrahamic Tests” at BCC:

If somebody has some brass plates that God wants or needs, He can do His own smiting. He knows how. He’s done it lots of times. I don’t smite.

petebusche, commenting on Michael Austin’s post:

“Smiter, no smiting!”

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“God Wouldn’t Do That”

In conversations about whether God really commanded such-and-such a thing, I’ve often heard the argument that “God wouldn’t do that.” God wouldn’t tell Abraham to kill his son, tell Joseph Smith to marry underage girls, tell contemporary prophets to enact a policy against the children of gay parents. Such things go against the character of God, so we can be confident that there was no divine involvement in these cases—just human error at work. The response from defenders of these things is often that God is far beyond our comprehension, that his thoughts are not our thoughts, and we are in no position to evaluate what he might or might not do. Read More

Things That Keep Me Going

As a follow-up to my last post on chronic suicidality, I thought I’d mention some of the things that have kept me going over the years.

1) Poetry

I’m like Hermione—when life throws you lemons, go to the library. Except that it’s hard to find books that have anything helpful to say. I’ve read my share and more of self-help books, and they’re almost all completely stupid—they don’t really speak to the experience of utter despair. There are some books on depression that I’ve found to be worth reading, though they can be hard to find. I prefer memoirs, accounts of people who’ve actually experienced it. But what’s helped me the most, honestly, is poetry. Mary Oliver in particular has a way of re-connecting me with what matters in life, of making me see things differently, without being cheesy or sentimental. For example, “The Journey”:

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