“It is what you make it…”

Aaaargh. We have, willy-nilly, stumbled onto one of my heretofore unidentified hot buttons! “The Church is what you make it.”* If you are a woman who is not entirely content with the status quo, you will have heard this many, many times. I hear it most often from my brothers and my mother “Kristine, I don’t know why you have to be so negative all the time; can’t you just be grateful for the Church and work within your sphere of influence?” My mother’s particularly ghastly version of the argument includes references to Holocaust victims who survived the concentration camps by being cheerful and trying to help others as much as they could.

Of course, the statement is true on its face, and as far as it goes. It is true that individuals have a choice as to how they will respond to circumstances, whether those circumstances are divinely willed, naturally occurring, or institutionally mandated. Natural disasters, acts of God, and institutional injustice have all served as fertile ground for individual nobility and heroism. However, applying this truism in an institutional context can be a particularly subtle and dangerous way to shoot the messenger. By placing all of the responsibility for growth and happiness within an institution on the individual, it is possible to conclude that the institution need never adjust its course or rectify its failures. Saying “the Church is what you make it” has as its subtext “shut up, quit complaining–the Church works just fine for me because I am virtuous and proactive; if it’s not working for you, it must be because there is something wrong with you.” Of course there are people who are chronically and groundlessly malcontent (I may be one of them!), but if we assume that anyone whom the shoe pinches fits into that category, we will undoubtedly miss opportunities for institutional growth and needed change. Worse yet, we may add to the pain of our brothers and sisters who are already suffering in large and small ways because of the imperfections of the earthly, divinely guided but oh-so-human Church.

*Although Jordan used this phrase in the comments on the last post, he was not deploying it in all of the ways that I have reacted to here. His use of the phrase was quite limited, and while I disagree that the Church does not bear responsibility for meeting people’s needs (or trying to meet some of them), I’m not attacking Jordan’s statements specifically. I would do that in the comments, if I felt the need.


  1. “righteous” is an objective term anyway. What it means depends on who is saying it.

    “Conservative” mormons are called “unrighteous” because they are pharasaic.

    “Liberal” mormons are called “unrighteous” because they see an R-rated movie or two.

    These terms are so relative that they don’t mean anything real anymore. The only judge of righteousness is yourself (and the LORD of course- but mostly just yourself).

    So if I ever accuse anyone of being “unrighteous” here (or even imply that someone is), please smack me.

    Saying that the “church is what you make it” is not saying that you must be unrighteous if you are not happy in the Church. But thanks for putting those words in my mouth, even though I would NEVER say or even think them.

  2. D. Fletcher says:

    Curious to this thread, my Bishop said to me last Sunday (I quote verbatim):

    The Church is a lot more than what you make of it.

  3. er…. oops! Guess you can tell a Canuck in a baseball conversation! Crap. I was thinking Orioles b/c of Camden Yards.

  4. Great thoughts, Kristine. This is what I mean when I say that those who go to Church and are active in it are also the ones who control the discourse about happiness in the Church, what it means to be active, righteous, apostate, etc.

    Since they control all the discourse, they frame all the discussions through their own filters and if something doesn’t fit within their view, they simply dismiss it as the fault of the person. If you pray about the Book of Mormon really hard and never get an answer, you must be doing something wrong. If you go to the temple and don’t have a positive experience the first time (especially pre-1990), you just don’t have the spirit with you. If you’re bored in Sunday School or General Conference, it’s because you aren’t paying attention and don’t have the right spirit. If you complain that we hear the same things over and over again in Church, it’s because we just don’t listen and don’t get it – the Brethren want to teach us more, but we aren’t ready. And conveniently enough, the fact that you’re complaining about it is in itself evidence of the very problem! How can they teach you the mysteries of the gospel when you complain about hearing the simple things?

    And so it goes. Those who control the discourse in the Church have an answer for everything – every anomaly you can imagine. It always revolves around the individual who is the anomaly – it is a problem with their testimony, their faith, their spirituality. It is NEVER a problem with the Church institution, leadership, etc. It isn’t that they simply don’t fit in or are struggling to find their way in the Church. They are doing something wrong, and if only they’d be more like the active people (you know, the ones framing the discourse), then all would be well.

  5. Hey I was just thinking about this and wondered-

    isn’t this problem something that EVERY large institution faces? Including corporations, schools, our country, etc.?

    In each of these institutions, people often feel unfairly judged and unlistened to. I know I did as a student at the University of Michigan when the law school administration cancelled a visit from a JAG attorney after lots of pressure from the “outlaws”. Anyone who thought that the JAG should be able to speak to us that day were unfairly labelled as bigots.

    It has also happened to me several times as a graduate student involved in GEO (the union for graduate student instructors at Michigan)- where I have been scorned, ridiculed, or ostracized because of an idea or an outspoken opposition to the union getting involved in certain matters.

    My point is that this is a problem representative of institutions in general, and one which ALL institutions must strive to some degree or another to fix. It is certainly not specific to the church.

    Which is why the “it’s what you make of it” argument seems so compelling to me. We can’t change huge institutions for the one, but each person can adapt themselves or allow the annoying clashes to drop off their backs like water off a duck’s back. And this is not saying that it is somehow immoral or wrong if they don’t- it is just easier.

    For example, despite all of my disagreements with the union, I STILL support it and attend meetings and try to actively contribute to its well-being.

    One more thing (so that I don’t have to heaven forbid post another comment right after this one)-

    I HAVE left one institution all together because I just could not stand the insanity any longer- that was graduate school. After attending graduate school in two different places, I realized that I would never learn anything from it that was real, so I left. That was despite my best efforts to push my program to something that actually had meaning in real life, but I don’t think real meaning is to be found anywhere in the fantasy realm of academia. But that is a gripe unrelated to this post, so enough on that.

  6. Hey now- I was not just saying this about the Church. LIFE is whatever you make it.

    I did not mean to say that if it’s not working for them that they should “shut up and stop complaining”.

    Nor did I say that the Church was anything but human.

    The reason for my cynic comments (“the church is what you make it”) is not what you seem to think it is. I have given up on the Church’s ability to change and solve these problems. Totally and completely given up. So, since it’s not going to change no matter how muich we (ME included) fuss about it, what’s the point?

    It’s the same thing with the upcoming election, with this divided country, etc.

    The best anyone can do right now is to devote time and attention to themselves, their families, and others within the circle of influence. I can’t change the church, I can’t change the country, I can only affect those with whom I have some sort of contact.

    That is what I mean when I say the church is what you make it to be- I mean that it’s not going to change. So we should deal with and move on. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is. It sucks. But life sucks, unless you can beat it by whatever you do to beat it (it varies from person to person).

    I beat it by working as hard as I can and trying not to think about it too hard.

  7. I don’t know why we can’t, and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be able to.

    But what we SHOULD be able to do, and what we can ACTUALLY do are two entirely different things.

    The divide between them is what actually prompted me to leave academia- I just got so tired of hearing about all these theories that sounded good and idealistic on paper, but were practically unworkable or meaningless.

    I personally don’t think the Church really matters that much- I mean, I will give my all to serving there, but I think that the family is where it’s at. And until I feel unaccepted by them, I won’t worry too much about how I feel at Church.

  8. Jedd, a good start would be to have church leadership at its higher levels be a reflection of how church membership is actually demographically composed.

    I’d like to see a non-English native apostle; I’d like to see women give more substantive talks. I’d like to see a general authority under 40 years old. Yes, I know Church leaders care for me; I don’t know that they understand me, and I don’t think that delegating this entirely out to local authorities is an effective response given the fact that overall policies come from the top.

    I think we could easily do this and remain “true to [our] core doctrines and principles.”

  9. Jedd, it’s not affirmative action to represent a majority (or soon-to-be) of church members… but I share your discomfort to a limited extent because it also means ‘forcing’ the Lord’s hand in choosing His servants. However, the Lord’s not racist, and although He’s old, He’s not a geriatocrat.

    Your feedback mechanisms are a good idea. But in reading threads here and elsewhere, it’s clear that our suggestion boxes would be ignored by the higher ups — or that at least, we would have no real say if they were ignored.

  10. Jedd, you’re lucky if you’ve never seen local leadership unwilling to meet needs. I’ve seen it, and it isn’t pretty. I think that we’d actually go a long way towards meeting many people’s needs if we would just listen for a while before we judge or try to jump in and fix the problem. Merely acknowledging that there might be a problem with the institution, rather than with the individual with a gripe, goes a long way to diffuse the kinds of concerns I’m talking about. You’re right that it would be daunting to try to make a new program or do something for every single member of the church. But I’m not sure we have to actually *do* anything; it might be sufficient to just *be* a little more open and less defensive.

    Personal example: In 1993, when the September Six were exed, I was in grad school. I had recently had my own really awful experience with church leaders and was pretty angry anyway, and as someone who was just starting (in the vainglorious way of second-year grad students) to see myself as an intellectual, I was disturbed about what was happening to them, and shaky about my commitment to the church in general. A very, very wise branch president (now Jordan’s Stake President) sought me out, gently pried out of me what was troubling me, and listened for a long time. Then he pulled out a file folder of newspaper clippings and articles about the September Six, said he was paying close attention, too, and that he didn’t really have any answers, but that we should keep talking about it. That was it–no impassioned defense of the leaders involved, no pleading with me to stop being upset, no ringing testimony that this is the true church and nothing really bad can happen. And that was enough to get me through.

    It’s commonplace for people to bash Sunstone and Exponent and Dialogue for being just places for people to gripe and complain, but I think that it is important for people to have that. I know that for me it was really important to have a place to go where if I said “this thing about the Church is really bothering me,” no one would say, “well, the Church is true, so you must be crazy.” I don’t quite know why the Church is so unable as an institution to make a little room for that–I suspect it’s just denominational immaturity; Catholics do it significantly better, and maybe that’s because they’ve had a few (thousand) years longer than we have to get used to it.

  11. Kristine says:

    John, you’re right (of course, because you agree with me :)). I think this is a problem in almost all institutions, but it’s worse when the people who question the prevailing discourse are thought of as unrighteous as well as wrong.

  12. John-

    What does it mean to “fit in”? I have never understood that.

    But then, maybe that is because I have always marched to the beat of my own drummer and not cared about fitting in.

    I speak my mind, sometimes people get offended. I could care less. Just because I am outgoing does not mean I care the least bit about “fitting in”.

    “Fitting in” is a meaningless term. People feel they don’t “fit in” for numerous different reasons- it is not something that can be measured.

    Why does anyone WANT to fit in? Why have people been so duped by society that they think they HAVE to fit in? Fitting in, whatever it means, is highly overrated.

  13. Jordan,

    I don’t mean “fit in” as if it’s something the Church ought to be catering to in every possible way.

    What I mean is, if I get a new job and go to work and it takes me a while to get along with people or start to be comfortable, then I might be seen by other employees as “strange”, “shy”, etc. But if someone goes to Church and has a hard time “fitting in” or doesn’t tow the same line as everyone else, then they might be labeled unrighteous. That’s all I mean.

    The current Mormon culture is a remarkable thing. It’s like the people that go to Church have decided what all the rules are, then when they’re the only ones who play by those rules, they declare themselves the winners. It’s really amazing. All I’m trying to say is, I think it would profit us more as a Church institution if we realized that some differences are simply personality differences, rather than whenever someone does something we don’t like, it’s because they lack faith, testimony, etc.

  14. Kristine says:

    Jordan, it may be true that there are institutions we can’t change, but I’m not ready yet to say that the Church is one of them. The Church is the body of Christ, and we are its members (in the double sense of that word). Why can’t we change the Church?

    (And don’t, *don’t* anybody say “it’s not a democracy.”)

  15. Kristine says:

    Jordan, sorry. I should have put in a disclaimer that you were not doing many of the things with this phrase that people sometimes do, especially not calling people unrighteous. You happened to use a turn of phrase that is sometimes deployed in these ways, but I specifically did NOT mention you in my post, because I thought it was pretty clear that I was arguing against a more general application than the one you made. Sorry! There’s no personal attack here, and at most an oblique attack on what you said in a previous comment thread. I should have been explicit.

  16. K, you trying to get Orioles tickets?

  17. Kristine,

    I know the attack wasn’t personal- no attack on here ever is. We discuss principles here and attack really bad viewpoints, not the people that hold them. At least that was my understanding.

    So no harm here! :)

  18. Kristine, John – how do you, at the institutional level, meet the unique needs of 12 million members while remaining unwaveringly true to your core doctrines and principles? Really – I’m not trying to be flippant here, and I’m very open to discussion. That is an incredibly daunting task. What would you have church leadership do differently at that level (an example or two would be great), and why?

    I wonder if the genius of church subdivision is part of the answer. If four of our ward members need to prepare for the temple, we hold a special class. If childcare needs become acute, we form a co-op and use the local meetinghouse as a care facility. If the singles in our ward feel out of place, we form a unit for them and other singles in the stake to attend. We can and do customize response to the individual, and I think we have more leeway in this regard than is commonly thought.

    Meeting deeper emotional and spiritual needs is obviously more challenging, but it seems to me that responses to such matters are, once again, best wrought out close to home and not dictated by Salt Lake. Isn’t this the “teach them correct principles and they govern themselves” approach?

    In short, I’ve never seen local leadership unwilling to minister to “the one.” Of course, the needs of “the one” have to be made known in some way or another, and perhaps we need better feedback mechanisms to discover such things.

  19. Kristine says:

    lyle, are you in Philly or Camden?

  20. Kristine says:

    No, just wondering if I know his branch president–we lived in Philly for 5 years. There’s a CES guy there who will sprout 5 new gray hairs instantly if lyle mentions my name to him :)

    Orioles?? That’s Baltimore, sweetie, and the Phillies are better this year!!

  21. Noone ever said the questioners were unrighteous. Where has worthiness or unrighteousness ever entered this discourse from my end?

  22. Kristine says:

    OK–I’ve added the disclaimer. Poor you, Jordan, little did you know you could channel my mother and make my head fly off!!

  23. Okay, try this scenario:

    Slave owner to slaves: “You slaves just need to learn that slavery is whatever you make of it. You can be happy if you just accept and adjust. Dreaming of liberty or talking about rights this, ownership of self that, it will only make you unhappy. You can’t change a large institution.”

    I’m not comparing the moral weight of any LDS institutional failings with slavery, I’m just pointing out that this type of hokey “learn to live with it” argument is a weak moral defense of the status quo. Practical appeals fall short when deployed against moral failings or even (sometimes) institutional ones.

    Hey Jordan–good on you, mate. There are never too many good lawyers. Glad it’s working out for you.

  24. p.s. Jordan, if you post that many times in a row anymore, we’ll have to put some sort of e-kibosh on your commenting!

  25. So you went to law school…

  26. Sorry to post again.

    That means that I don’t care about fitting in with the “liberal” crowd either.

    I don’t “fit in” with the conservative crowd- if you don’t believe this you should read my blog.

    I don’t “fit in” with anyone (whatever that means). I don’t care!! I have my family, and I have my work/studies. Let the world do up in flames around me.

  27. Sorry- i kept on pressing OK before my stream of consciousness was over. I wasn’t trying to spam, honest.. :)

  28. Steve – Apostolic affirmative action??? I’m squirming a bit. . .

    You write, “I don’t know that [church leaders] understand me.” Fair enough, and I think this is where my comment about feedback mechanisms comes into play. ItÂ’s not entirely clear to me how our individual thoughts, opinions, needs, situations, etc. wick up through leadership layers. I would like a way, within appropriate bounds, to add something to the “suggestion box.”

    There are some examples of this. Last year, our stake had members fill out an extensive, anonymous questionnaire (in sacrament meeting, no less) about everything from finances to personal scripture study habits. It helped the new stake presidency understand the lay of the land so they could focus their efforts accordingly. One finding showed that our collective emergency preparation levels were far from adequate, and members wrote that they wanted more help in this regard. So the stake made a substantial push in the area of emergency preparedness. The effort has yielded demonstrable fruits. In fact, our stakeÂ’s efforts are now used as a model for other stakes in the region.

  29. The Church can either be a big tent (consciously offering different things to different people) or it can be a one-size-fits-all church (and if you don’t match the cookie cutter, there’s something wrong with you and you need to change).

    “The Church is what you make of it” could mean we’re a big-tent church and all are welcome here. I don’t think that’s how the phrase is used, however.

    Instead, the phrase is used to mean “we’re a one-size Church, and you need to match up with it; if you choose not to, of course you’ll be unhappy, but that’s your choice.” Problem is this attitude refuses to consider what exactly the Church should be or entertain the notion that some things might be changed for the better. The Church is not God. Suggesting it can be changed for the better is not heretical, it’s common sense.

    If people matter more than programs, then one should generally be willing to consider changing programs for the benefit of people. Instead, programs are often (not always) treated as sacrosanct, and people must change to match the program.

    I wonder, for example, whether the Stake Presidency in the earlier comment was surveying the membership to (1) identify the failings of the membership and how the members need to change, or to (2) learn how the organization might change to better meet the needs of the membership. Hmmm . . .

  30. Well what else can we do?

  31. Kristine says:

    Whine a lot on weblogs :)

  32. Y’all welcome to see how my inner-city branch ‘adapts’ to its members.

    Half our membership are children…and only 1/3 of that 50% have parents that bring them to church. Hence…I am a family home evening “dad” responsible for the religious education/church attendance/weekly FHE of my three “kids” [baptized cuz an aunt is a member].

    Because of the heavy pull on active members to raise these kids…there is an ALL adult (no kids, except nursing babies) social night this Friday.

    The Elders Q is responsible for babysitting so that their wives can do RS stuff.

    We just got translation headsets…and now accomodate Spanish, Cambodian, Thai & Vietnamese speaking members.
    Heck, I even read five verses in Spanish in SS, since the english speakers could just follow along in their quad, & the opening & closing prayer were given by a spanish-only speaking couple.

    We have early morning seminary…for about 15-20 youth. This requires picking them up & delivering them to their schools after. They are scattered over a driving space of 30 minutes.

    What more can we possibly do to accomodate “X” or “Y” group or individual?

  33. yep, and it was the best decision I have ever made.

  34. You are right- but your critique will fall on deaf ears when ot reaches the Church as an institution.

    The best we can do in this regard is to teach our families and those around us not to engage in this offensive behavior.

    Other than that, we are stuck. So yeah- what you said on the original blog is unfortunately true. Maybe there is nothing better to do than just “enduring to the end” in misery.

    But, since I was trying to be optimistic, that is why I thought maybe we could change things by how WE individually act. I don’t know why the onus has to be on a person who is already having a hard time. I admit that such a culture is pathetic. But that’s the way it is.

    Maybe there is some good law and economics reason why the burden has so often been placed on the disaffected to change themselves rather than on the majority to change itself