Towards an Even More Institutional Church

Not too long ago was my local Stake Conference. Within a couple of talks by male leadership it was quite clear that the theme was “Tell Everyone To Do Come Follow Me.” I do not suggest that this is a bad idea, but I am disappointed that from this conference, and General Conference, that Come Follow Me is being added to the grocery list of items that “good” members, or members who are struggling with the spirit must do to access spiritual communion.

 

To be clear, there were a couple of beautiful, humble, heartfelt talks in the Stake Conference that I connected with. These modest talks invoked the spirit, connecting us as mortals and humans, and though they were not connected to the childing Come Follow Me Theme, the spiritual upliftment was distinct and clear.

 

But not the Come Follow Me orations. Though well prepared—they felt prepared for a specific …. Something. It soon came to me. The area authority was speaking, and, like all the other leadership, his talk was also focused on why we all need to do Come Follow Me. First the man was introduced:

Life-long member

Returned Missionary

Missionary service defined his line of study

Employed by the church since he first finished university

List of leadership church callings

 

This already made me twinge. I do not live in North America, so church employees are effectively employed by a US corporation. As per church culture and policy, he was paid well enough that his wife did not “need” to be fiscally employed “outside of the home,” but I was also aware of the disproportionate burden place on local membership to pay this man’s wages.

 

Then he began: A comfortable and well-rehearsed speaker, this area authority stood and delivered the same sermon as he had likely a dozen times before. He started by calling on the organist, and as polite as one can be when standing in authority and presuming the organist can play any hymn in the hymnbook. He asked the woman in her early twenties to play “just a main line” of a specific hymn. She did, with occasional embarrassed error, yet smiling the whole way through. He then asked her to play the entire unrehearsed hymn, which she did, and then we all joined in in singing one verse. A nice time killer, all at the expense of the organist.  

 

Though the area authority seemed very comfortable in speaking, I felt as though he were almost… too comfortable. In a dishonest way. He was clearly presumptive with the organist. And he seemed just fine with that, treating everyone like they were from the same club. So much that he then asked congregation members to stand at the prepared microphones to speak in support of his teachings on the benefice of Come Follow Me. He had yet to bare testimony, share a scripture or share with us his prayerful preparation- which I suspected was lacking. Soon, two people gathered at the microphones to share their positive experiences with Come Follow Me. 

 

This is where I rolled my eyes and nearly threw my hands in the air. You see, the majority of my stake is not white/ethnically Anglo. But the area authority and the stake president are both white men. And each of the congregation members who went to the microphone in support of the Area Authority were also white. Of the two individuals who stood to support the area authority in his “improvised” invitation, both felt a little … planted. And maybe they weren’t. Yet the area authority thanked them by name, joking with the women that he asked her (stake president) husband the same question the night before, and the stake president gave the same answer as she did, so clearly they were a righteous coupling. And after the new-to-the-stake, single, late-teen male spoke,the area authority complimented him and asked the teen to pass on the area authority’s regards to the teen’s parents. The most powerful “presiding” man in power knew all of the speaking white people and their families. 

 

Long before this happened, the man acted he was running a corporate meeting. I almost anticipated a testimony on Amway, but that, nor a testimony of Christ came. Instead, the man spoke of how easy it was to include Come Follow Me in families—omitting that families in our area likely were two income, and based on statistical education rates, likely did shift work who might have to juggle to make church meetings, much less regular family lessons. He added no personal references of how Come Follow Me was going in his own family (Does mum make it happen? Does dad?), or anything about his own family. It was completely impersonal, with a business-like sterility. But he did share stories about his church work, and how superior he was in… everything.

 

Then he spoke of how easy it is to talk to strangers on a plane about the church when travelling on church business. Because when you are wearing a church name tag, and only have the flight time to engage with no social repercussions, it is easy to share church discourse. You have no after-effect or exclusion from after-school activities and community BBQs. You are not shunned as a religious zealot for talking about religion. Thus, you can be as thoroughly disconnected to your seatmate as you are to the members of the church community of which you preside. Well done, Mr. Missionary, I guess. 

 

This man represented religious institutionalism. And disconnection. But this is what the church looks like from my lowly seat, in the back, sans upper church echelon (church-employed, white, male) connections: rich white men paid well enough by the church to not have to give up dental insurance to pay tithing. White men connecting with each other and their spouses discussing how easy it is to schedule in Come Follow Me and Family Home Evening on a 9-5, M-F work schedule. White men presuming that the (mostly likely) female organist had enough free time to learn every hymn in the church hymnbook so she can play requests as though the church was a piano bar without a tip glass.

 

The speakers I loved were not white. They were not wearing suits. They were not employed by the church. They spoke from the heart with humility—true humility, relating their imperfections, their desire to improve, their longing to be included in Christ’s arms. They did not lecture me about church programs, but bore witness of what spiritually worked for them. These speakers were those who the area authority white man did NOT know by name. These speakers sat with their families because there was no room for them in the inn on the stand. These speakers inspired me, and exited the meeting without fanfare or congratulatory Mormon-guy handshakes.

 

Suffice to say, stake conference left me disappointed. The starkness of the institutionalised leadership in comparison to the average church membership was never so distinct to me previously. But I could not un-see or unhear the corporation of the church, its empirical spirituality, and 2-piece suit/dental insurance income.  To me, the church is feeling less and less like it is being run by lay-members, and more and more like it is thickening the glass ceiling to institutionalised leadership. It was never so apparent before, but it seems only too clear of a foreboding disconnect between the institutionalised leadership and the working-class, saintly membership (which pays for the leadership in tithes).

 

I do not like this institutionalism. It does not reek of nationalism to the community wherein we live, but speaks of a patriotism to a corporate organization. Mostly, it is absent of the spirit. So whilst I support my fellow membership, they are wherein my loyalty lies. But to the white guys on the stand, I feel like I owe nothing. I could and would not voice an “amen.”

 

How institutionalised is the church where you are? Do you feel a divide between leadership?

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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26 Responses

  1. nicolesbitani says:

    What a stark example of the divide in the church today. Thank you for sharing the story from your Stake Conference – I’m sure the leadership responsible for the disparities you mentioned didn’t bat an eye but it’s wonderful that you are raising your voice and naming the institutionalization for what it is.

  2. Maria says:

    Elder Uchtdorf’s (then president Uchtdorf) talk about a plane going one degree off its flight path and then ending up being totally off course comes to my mind over and over for the last several years. That is how I feel about the church – its destination is totally off – it’s cold, spiritless and frequently hateful. So sad – I used to love church and I’m trying my best to find something that would still inspire me to keep on going.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you, Maria. I feel similarly. I actually wonder if the church grew too fast. Thus to sustain itself, must be run as if a business, rather than than a religion. I don’t know.

      I can’t offer you inspiration to attend, but I think the church is better with people such as us are in it, and striving for honest change and improvement.

      But the burn out is real. Take care of you first.

  3. Katie Rich says:

    You raise such an important point about church employees who are paid through tithes, and yet are disconnected from the people who pay those tithes. Area authorities DO have a ministerial role, and yet members have no role in selecting these leaders. These leaders do not represent their areas, they represent the authority of Salt Lake. Thank you for sharing your observations about how this plays out in your area.

    • spunkypog says:

      Thank you for commenting, Katie. It really is like a stereotyped college fraternity — those men who apply for, and obtain church employment/fraternity membership, rise through the ranks with the occasional public show of community good will.

  4. Risa says:

    You just reminded me of something I hated the most as a pianist and frequent accompanist – being put on the spot by someone with no musical background to play something without practicing.

    • spunky says:

      I once had a Relief Society music specialist or chorister or whatever they are called, who would call me literally Saturday evening and tell me what I was supposed to play the next day. No matter how often I asked her to let me know a week in advance so I could practice, she never, ever did. One Saturday night, she began her playful, “It’s so easy! You can do it!” junk.

      I responded with, “Well, it’s not easy for me. I have to practice. So since it is easy for you, how about you play the piano tomorrow and I’ll be the chorister?”

      Her response? “I don’t know how to play.”

      Of course not. And to be honest, in my experience, there are more female than male pianists. so I can’t help but see this as an issue in sexism.

      Thank you for your comment!!! <3

  5. Hedgehog says:

    That sounds like a truly dreadful stake conference. Jaw-droppingly so!

    You make an important point I have noticed over recent years of expectations in church programmes and callings that we’re increasingly looking like a church for the middle class. What with in some cases removal of printing facilities from our buildings, active discouragement for wards to order printed manuals, materials moving online, administrative functions moving online and everyone expected to have their own devices. I’m not anti technology, but if the pandemic showed anything with lockdowns here in the uk it was the very uneven access of families to technology and an internet connection in their homes. With the poorest losing out. In some callings now it’s pretty much a given that you will have a laptop or tablet in order to function.
    I’m in the position of having a calling recently opened to women on the audit committee, and I am trying to use my influence to reverse this trend at the local level where I can. I am finding the whole “widow’s mite” framing of everything financial pretty triggering at this point. Yes we need to look after it. But 1. we need to have equal respect for the mite the widow gets to keep to live on.. and 2. the widow expects the mite she’s given to be put to use, not sat on. Frankly if you aren’t going to put it to use you’ve no business taking it from her. So I push against members out of pocket expenses incurred in their callings which strictly speaking they’re supposed as per the handbook to be able to claim for, but frequently (especially teachers) find they cannot. We should not be making the widow pay twice, when the tithes they pay should be funding programmes..

    • Kaylee says:

      Yes! Thank you for your comment Hedgehog. I think this topic could make a great guest post if you want to expand upon it:
      https://www.the-exponent.com/site-map/submit-a-guest-post/

    • Kaylee says:

      At Last She Said It had a fabulous episode about the widow’s mite that you might enjoy as well. I can’t think of that story in the same way anymore.
      https://atlastshesaidit.org/episode-062-when-is-enough-enough/

      • Hedgehog says:

        I subscribe to the At Last She Said It podcasts and enjoy them a lot.
        And yes, I can’t think of the story in the same way. But it is the way it’s framed in all the financial side of things..

    • spunky says:

      You get me, Hedgehog. That is exactly what I am witnessing– those without funds to pay for technology miss out, and those in the “inner loop” of area presidencies are employed by the church. When you look at many general authorities, you see similar things– President Hinckley, for example, was a life-long church employee, with a small stint in the private sector. Same with Elder Holland and even with Elder Soares. With the church primarily progressing men from within it’s own employment ranks, it looks a lot more like an MLM than a volunteer-led, altruistic church.

      • Dianna says:

        Multi-Level Mormoning is the perfect analog for some of these problems. Promising you can be your own boss and get your own revelation, but then be beholden to inventory you can’t do much with, and being restrained by the top authority whenever your ideas aren’t normal enough. But for the fabulous few, it works and is glamorous and they go to big fantastic retreats and talk about success like it’s a drug.

      • Hedgehog says:

        I first blogged about the issue in 2014:
        https://wheatandtares.org/2014/03/13/the-paperless-stake/
        That poorer members are being disenfranchised with the move to tech.

        • Spunky says:

          Thank you for sharing this, Hedgehog!!! It’s crazy– I know of some areas where the church provides a handful of hard-copies of handbooks, etc. because of the limited access to technology. However, the majority of the members in these areas also don’t have access to education– so even if they each had a handbook, it does no good if they cannot read. I know this is very uncommon, but it is one of a few things that I’d love for the church to offer– free school in areas for those who do not have access.

          • Hedgehog says:

            Back when Chieko Okazaki was in the RS general presidency there was a literacy program organised by the RS. I was a student at the time, but my mother told me of one sister in the ward who learned to read with that program.
            All those good things have been sucked out of RS since…
            Yes, you’d think an organisation with the resources they have could do something to support education at the very basic level. But even those church schools that did exist have been discontinued. I’m in the UK, and there were none here. But I have followed the events in NZ and that was appalling.

    • JC says:

      I agree with everything you’ve said. The thought of the widow’s mite either being sat on or being used to fund things she – and many other members in her situation – cannot use or access is sickening to me… and it goes much deeper than technology.

      Church members who will only have the opportunity to attend the temple once in their lives and give up everything to do so are paying the salaries of general authorities who are out of touch with how the majority of church members actually live. Church members who sacrifice their opportunities for education and career advancement are subsidizing those who take for granted the opportunities attending college/university at a CES school provides. Church members who pay their tithing faithfully despite their own bad circumstances with the intent of it being put to good use find that these so-called “sacred funds” subsidize the lifestyles of people who abuse and take advantage of the goodwill of others… that is, when it isn’t going towards real estate.

      There’s a lot to think about here. More often than not, it feels like in its aim to be a middle class church and appear “normal” to the world that the church loses sight of the least of these – the very people they ought to be helping. I long for the day where we’ll see men and women of all ages, all races, all economic backgrounds, all levels of education and work experience leading the church and being accessible to people worldwide… and not just the white, (upper) middle class baby boomer members who live in the Pioneer Corridor. Something’s got to give, and if something doesn’t change, then the church will eventually lose the widows and the backbone (mainly the people in my second paragraph) it relies so heavily on.

      • Spunky says:

        I commiserate, JC. But to be clear– I don’t live in the US, and this area rep was not American, nor was the stake president. I do not know if anyone in the meeting were American (post-pandemic reduced international/American missionaries). And I have seen wonderful things completed because of the generosity of tithing donation in providing shelter, emergency disaster relief and more. But in times of disaster, these big funds were organized by the church in Salt Lake, and distributed by local leaders who are in touch with the people. The area authority to have no connection or recognition to the actual membership in the least; he was a disconnected middle manager at best.

        • Hedgehog says:

          There’s a pretty large humanitarian aid donations fund that’s been sat on here in the UK for a decade or so, all while the church continues to solicit donations. We can see this because it has to send annual accounts to the charities commission which are published. Only in the last year or so have a very small fraction of those funds been released to a stake involved in working with refugees across the channel in Calais. I suggested to my RS President that we might request funds from this account to purchase specific items we had been asked if we could help with as a ward by a charity helping the homeless that we are trying to be involved with locally as a ward. The request was refused. If it was refugees we could have it (even though refugees have been around for a lot longer than the last couple of years, and only recently had they released anything). So apparently homelessness isn’t regarded as a humanitarian problem. I was appalled.

  6. R B says:

    I only know my own region of experience. In general I feel like our stake leaders are very caring and call on new converts, youth, and a good diversity of members to speak. I feel like they are humble men (yes men, but anyway) who bring a diversity of experience and carefully curate the Spirit in our meetings. One of the counselors in the stake presidency is a convert of Asian descent. I can’t even tell you who our area leaders are, but the regional leaders I do know are very personable and loving, and “lay ministry”. As a pianist and sometimes organist I would find it exceptionally affronting to be asked to play a hymn that wasn’t something like Come Come Ye Saints or I am a Child of God off the cuff in stake conference. I practice for 1 to 2 weeks for accompanying for SM.

    Thank you for sharing your experience, I like how you are trying to especially sustain the characteristics that are spiritual to you, and I think it is crucial for us to hear of each other’s experiences.

    • Spunky says:

      Thank you for your comment, RB. My stake presidency is quite diverse, even if at the time of the area president’s speech, they diversity was hidden. That is what bothered me– that meeting felt like the diversity, the heart of the people, and their personal, unique testimony, was dismissed on behalf of the institution.

  7. Deborah says:

    I feel so connected to my local sisters and brothers but come General Conference, with a few exceptions I feel I’m in another Church. I try to console myself and say this talk is not for me, but someone else will get something from it, but I often miss Christ. In so many talks I look for him and cannot find him. More and more I find the General Leadership have less influence on my life. There is online talk about a ‘sad heaven’. The church seems to be preparing me for that. Over the past years it’s been turning into a ‘sad church’.

  8. EmilyB says:

    Glad to know I am not the only one to experience stake conference frustrations. We had a seventy speak at our stake conference once; he is a native Spanish speaker whose accent is so strong that I ypu could tellnhe was reading a pre-prepared talk that somebody translated into English for him. Meanwhile, hispanic members were up on the stand with headsets, translating his words back into Spanish! Why not televise it with English captions and let the the guy use the language he does know how to speak? Why does English have to be the lingua franca of the church in stakes where there are equal numbers of Spanish and English speakers?

    • Spunky says:

      Gah! Yes! This exactly! I have visiting non-English speaking wards and branches, and love signing (as best I can) along with the native words in familiar tunes. I never asked anyone to change the class language for me– I am there for the spirit, and that come across regardless of which language is being spoken.

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