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:
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?