Generally, I would like to see local leaders and individual members exercising more influence over the manner in which the church operates locally than they usually do. We go through the huge rigmarole of prayerfully choosing people for callings, sustaining them and setting them apart. This process, which at least in theory requires divine inspiration and the authority of the priesthood, is used for every calling in a ward, from bishop to activities committee member to building cleaning supervisor to Sunday School secretary. If the only function of a person with a calling (leadership or teaching or anything else) is merely to operate out of a manual or enact policy to the letter of the law, then this is all a waste of time. The process suggests a belief in the ability for individuals to receive some sort of spiritual guidance for their callings, or at least give the benefit of their experience, and then too often we require them to act out a script of a church policy handed down from an authoritative voice. It doesn’t make sense. More decisions about how the church operates within the scope of the core principles of the gospel should be passed further down the line. Leaders should help those under their stewardship make compassionate and otherwise value-laden decisions, not make the decisions for them.
This is not revolutionary: as I’ve read the church handbooks and received training, this is a model that the church offers for the administration for the church. It seems to be the thrust of a talk given by Boyd K Packer in October 2007 where he emphasized the significance of the common members of the church and downplayed any special knowledge or intensity of the testimonies of church leaders:
‘There is the natural tendency to look at those who are sustained to presiding positions, to consider them to be higher and of more value in the Church or to their families than an ordinary member. Somehow we feel they are worth more to the Lord than are we. It just does not work that way!’
But we as a people seem to have a soft spot for authority. When considering at the words of leaders, members of the church tend to read suggestions as directions and directions as commandments. We sometimes speak about something being ‘forbidden’ when it is merely not suggested. In some congregations, leaders discourage talks and lessons from straying significantly from summaries of statements from church leaders. Most of us can identify examples of our own of Mormonism’s instinctive tilt toward the value of authority.
I am not suggesting shedding the power of authority. I believe that the tension between centralized authority and local initiative is useful and even necessary — it allows essential doctrines and principles to be applied in the manner in which they will impact people the most. An imbalance in this tension either way will deprive members of the full impact of the gospel as it comes through the inspiration and experiences of all of those called by God to serve, from the President of the Church to the ward activities committee member.
Our preference for the authoritative over the local is holding us back. I recently read M. Russell Ballard’s two talks on councils, and his frustration with the failure of those councils is clear. But a council as he envisions it, where leaders “encourage free and open discussion” and all members have their experiences and ideas heard and respected will not work in an environment where the authority always trumps local experience. Within the discourse of the church, there has to be a chance to respectively disagree. Reading church history and statements from contemporary apostles, it is clear that the highest councils in the church have and still do operate this way. The authoritative impulse in Mormonism stands in the way of the council being a place where various voices are heard as envisioned at least by Elder Ballard. Properly held councils might seem to some as a remedy to the problem, but they will not operate properly until Mormons allow for and even encourage more personal interaction with church administration at every level.
The way the church operates in a given ward should bear the imprint of the people of that ward as they apply their own inspiration and experience to the building of the kingdom of God. As President Packer said, ‘[The Church] is carried upon the shoulders of worthy members living ordinary lives among ordinary families, guided by the Holy Ghost and the Light of Christ, which is in them.’