Round Table: Correlation – vol. 2

By Common Consent is pleased to release the second of a two-part round table on Correlation. Vol. 1, is available here, and adds a significant depth to this conversation. The participants in this round include:

From: Jonathan
To: Claudia, Armand, Greg, Jan
Subject: Correlation Round Table, vol. II
It seems that change was necessary for the survival of the Church. Correlation has had many benefits; however, there is no doubt that survival and growth have come at substantial costs.

Claudia in her initial round response noted the decline of the “female-friendly” MIA and associated programs. Some have credited correlation with playing a major role in dis-empowering the women in the Relief Society, and diminishing their voice. Reaction? Does the correlation of the Relief Society relate in any way to the antecedent auxiliarization of the Society?

Correlation also seems to have limited the influence of the individual within the hierarchy of the Church. General Relief Society presidents are no longer called for lifetime. Manuals no longer carry author attribution. Talks are vetted by committee.

Are the days of an Orson Pratt, B. H. Roberts, or Bruce McConkie past? Are the Days of Zina or Emmeline Wells forever gone?

It is in this context that the words of President Faust during the October 2005 General Priesthood Meeting are quite remarkable:

I believe that never before in the history of the Church has there been more unity than exists among my Brethren of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the other General Authorities of the Church, who have been called and chosen and who are now guiding the Church. I believe there is ample evidence of this.

Is this the ultimate fruits of correlation? What effect does this conformity have on the Church’s ability to perceive and adapt?

From: Claudia
To: Armand, Greg, Jonathan
Subject: Correlation Round Table, vol. II
Everyone else is taking care of the historical, so I am playing gadfly.

Do I have anything more to say about correlation? Do I have anything more that I want to say about correlation? I would say that we can look upon more limited and simplified responsibilities in the Church as a blessing. It is true that women, for instance, now lack the old opportunities to run organizations, manage budgets, and magnify their callings to exhaustion as they once had, and that that training was invaluable in many other settings. But it is also true that we have more time to engage in other outside activities. We can’t learn as much on the Church job as we once did. But there are new opportunities. The most interesting positions are at the edges of the church, negotiating relationships with others, planning joint programs, persuading others that we are at least somewhat respectable. These are real jobs, with risks, without descriptions.

I am not convinced that unity is as desirable as some seem to be. Unity requires much squelching of initiative. One of Joseph Smith’s most attractive teachings is the existence of individuality prior to creation. Somewhere, somehow we all existed as bits in a ditch with some sort of characteristics even before we were the children of God. How can we be alike? And why should we be alike? Joseph expansively said that he taught his followers correct principles and they governed themselves. Now we hear some voice and the “debate is over.” How are we supposed to progress if we only do what we are told? My model for success in Church programs is to identify the strengths of the people we are dealing with and then help them into activities that will develop those strengths. Strengthening individuals and individuality is what strengthens the Church.

From: Armand
To: Claudia, Greg, Jonathan
Subject: Correlation Round Table, vol. II
There seems little doubt that Correlation has had the effect of reducing the roles and voices of women in the governance and operation of the Church, not only because of the loss of autonomy by the Relief Society itself but also because of the loss of the Relief Society Magazine or any equivalent medium for women to express publicly their ideas and feelings and/or literary talents. In the Fall 2004 issue of Dialogue, there are two poignant articles assessing the nature and extent of these losses for women. One of these articles is by Tina Hatch, a student of Claudia’s. Tina does her best to provide balance in her account, lest it become just another “narrative of loss,” but the stiff upper lip does not succeed in hiding the disappointments felt by LDS women’s leaders since 1960. I think these losses for women were simply unintended (though predictable) consequences of Correlation, not some sort of patriarchal conspiracy to rein in women’s power or prerogatives. (Marie Cornwall has written about this). It’s the sort of thing that happens when men act simply on their own experiences and assumptions, without taking into account the impact of their decisions upon those with different experiences and assumptions. As a husband, and the father of daughters (as well as sons), I found myself doing that all the time when I was younger. I had to be taught by the women in my life to think differently. I am, of course, still learning — a “recovering patriarch,” you might say.

Nevertheless, in the past decade or so since Correlation started, I think church leaders have tried harder to include women in the decision-making process, especially through ward councils. Also, we have lately been seeing more of a definition of certain leadership roles as couple roles, and not just male roles (e. g. mission presidents and temple presidents); and we now see women speaking regularly in stake and general conferences (if not proportionately to their numbers in the church). In my stake, I now hear Relief Society and Primary presidents often referred to as (e.g.) “President Jones,” rather than “Sister Jones,” which always was the terminology in the earlier days, even when the auxiliaries were quite independent. Under pressure from wives, daughters, granddaughters, and even progressive young men, I think older church leaders are trying to mitigate somewhat the generally patriarchal tone of so much of our religious life. I am probably too old to expect to see women get the priesthood, but I do expect to see additional incremental steps in that direction, as the line between a priesthood office and other kinds of offices becomes less important operationally.

I also expect Correlation to be drastically transformed during the coming decade or two in the direction of greater decentralization of many operations, and even decentralization of authority. This change will be necessitated by the experiences of LDS leaders and missionaries outside of North America, as they come to recognize how cumbersome and counterproductive Correlation from headquarters can be in other parts of the church, and especially in other cultures. To be sure, such a decentralizing trend will be resisted for awhile, as leadership callings continue to go primarily to people in those other cultures who have already shown a compliant tendency toward directives from headquarters. This is especially true, of course, of paid employees of the church who so often are called as bishops and stake presidents, and who thus bring to their priesthood callings a special motivation for compliance. I hope that the unity so pleasing to President Faust does not include the stifling of initiative, or even dissent, from the grassroots leadership that will make increasingly obvious the need for a large degree of decentralization in far-flung stakes and wards. I remain optimistic that the intelligence, ingenuity, and commitment of LDS leaders everywhere, and at every level, male and female, will make the inspired modifications in Correlation that will maintain its advantages while removing its more arbitrary and inflexible features.

From: Greg
To: Claudia, Armand, Jonathan
Subject: Correlation Round Table, vol. II
The growth of the Church during the McKay years (and later) necessitated a different way of doing business, due to the sheer size that we attained. Correlation, which was intended by McKay to be nothing more than a process by which curricula were coordinated to eliminate overlap, morphed into something quite different, something that changed the structure and activity of the entire Church. It could have gone any one of many different pathways and, indeed, the process has not been a straight line progression. Many things have been embraced, but many have subsequently been rejected.

Have women been intentionally singled out in the process? I don’t think so; even though there is no doubt that they have been affected adversely. But so have many other individuals and organizations.

I’m not sure what today’s “Correlation” really is. For several years following McKay’s death, it appeared to be a tail wagging a dog. Yet the shift of power from the First Presidency to the Twelve, a process that occurred over several years, has undoubtedly had the effect of trimming the sails of Correlation and placing policy decisions squarely within the First Presidency and Twelve.

Where will we go from here? Anybody’s guess, but it is essential to remember that the Church is like a living organism, which undergoes both growth and development. What works during one period may not work during another. In the face of shrinking convert baptism numbers and problems with retention, one may be sure that changes will continue to be made, whether through the Correlation department or through other means. It may be that we return to a model in which the input of the individual is more valued than it has been, in which the progression of the whole is acknowledged to be dependent upon the actions (and creativity) of individuals. This was a model that worked splendidly for much of the Church’s existence. Perhaps it is time to revisit it.


  1. Great responses. I agree that we should not necessarily view Correlation as an eternal principle, but be prepared to adapt and revisit out models as the Church grows. The question I have is, don’t the Brethren think this way too?

  2. rleonard says:

    I see correlation as a mixed bag of pluses and minuses.

    I doubt the bretheren see it as a eternal principle.

  3. I think Correlation has been captured and transformed for bureaucratic ends, namely to solve the “what is Mormon doctrine” questions that abound in the modern Church. The practical, working solution to those questions is that if an idea or doctrine or historical vignette gets through Correlation and gets into a priesthood/RS or CES manual, then it is an acceptable doctrine.

    Bruce R. McConkie’s attempt to codify Mormon Doctrine was only partially successful (and arguably presents McConkie Doctrine, not Mormon Doctrine). Senior LDS leaders rarely make definitive doctrinal statements, and when they do they are not always helpful (e.g., the recent attempt to make conditional love an attribute of the divine personality). But CES and local LDS units teach thousands of courses and lessons, and demand clear answers to all of the “what is Mormon doctrine” questions. So Correlation stepped into the vacuum. It produces doctrine behind the protective veil of committee anonymity.

  4. The practical, working solution to those questions is that if an idea or doctrine or historical vignette gets through Correlation and gets into a priesthood/RS or CES manual, then it is an acceptable doctrine.

    You might think so…but not necessarily. See this story

  5. Aaron Brown says:

    Dave said:
    … (and arguably presents McConkie Doctrine, not Mormon Doctrine) …

    Arguably? Can one really make a serious counter-argument?

    Aaron B

  6. Dave, I’m not sure correlation does determine what is doctrine. At best it attempts to resolve some issues and avoid some controversies. But the way it does this is, of course, somewhat dependent upon the people writing the manuals and so forth. Dan Peterson’s funny anecdote is a great example of people who put perhaps too much meaning into what does or doesn’t make it into the manuals. Further the manual authors have a reputation for McConkie styled orthodoxy above all else whereas that doesn’t really fit Peterson at all.

  7. Dave said:
    … (and arguably presents McConkie Doctrine, not Mormon Doctrine) …

    Arguably? Can one really make a serious counter-argument?

    I think one can…Gary over at NDBF does it all the time. The fact remains that “Mormon Doctrine” has been very widely read and trusted, and is still quoted more than most other works in our correlated manuals. McConkie’s thinking in MD is also reflected in his many other published and oft-quoted works, and in the supplementary materials that we all cary around in our scriptures every week. MD and McConkie in general has both reflected and influenced what is taught in mormon churches and homes to a great degree. So if “doctrine” means what actually gets taught (as good a definition as any, I think), then yes, “Mormon Doctrine” really is Mormon Doctrine.

  8. Mark Butler says:

    I agree that any quote of Elder McConkie’s or any other authority that ends up in an official Church publication may generally be considered Church doctrine. However, his controversial, non-consensus positions, particularly those without clear scriptual support, or those that contradict other scriptures or other authorities outright, cannot be considered the doctrine of the Church without reducing the term to meaninglessness.

    I have had a few teachers teach Nibley doctrine too, including a proposition that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery called a “doctrine of devils”, and I don’t think that makes it the doctrine of the Church.

  9. Jon in Austin says:

    I’ve been participated in three firesides with Elder Bednar over the last year, one while as an intern Church HQ and two here recently in Austin. It’s interesting to note his emphasis on ‘acting, rather than being acted upon.’ During each of these he has mentioned how most of the instruction in the church is observational- and by being present at his Q&A firesides we are given the opportunity to act and participate rather than just observe.

    Perhaps 20-30 years down the road when Elder Bednar is President Bednar we might see some changes in the opposite direction to the current observatory that we all lovingly call church.

    Interesting how we measure change in decades in the church…

  10. I find it interesting (and disappointing) that, as far as I could see, none of the comments either from the round table participants or from the commenters acknowledge the role of the Spirit in correlation’s conception or functioning.

    I have the opportunity to talk on a regular basis with someone (a woman, no less) on the correlation committee. I am inspired by the stories of how the Spirit is involved in what they do, and how the council system works therein (Matt 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”) Knowing that correlation is more about the Spirit than about personal opinions (they don’t make decisions as individuals, and they seek to make decisions with the Spirit as they decide what stays and what goes) gives me confidence in the process. Of course, it’s not a perfect process. But it’s a good one. And it deserves a lot more respect and credit than it often gets.

    I also appreciate Elder Oaks’ confidence in the process:

    “[T]he Church does approve or disapprove those publications that are to be published or used in the official activities of the Church, general or local. For example, we have procedures to ensure approved content for materials published in the name of the Church or used for instruction in its classes. These procedures can be somewhat slow and cumbersome, but they have an important benefit. They provide a spiritual quality control that allows members to rely on the truth of what is said. Members who listen to the voice of the Church need not be on guard against being misled.”

    I didn’t live in pre-correlation days, but I think it behooves us to be grateful for living prophets who receive guidance on how to run the Church. Frankly, I think gripes about correlation are misguided. Correlation provides many benefits for the Church. We don’t have to give up individuality. There are many ways to express that. But we don’t need individuality in doctrine. We need unity.

    It will not be surprising if procedures and processes change in the future. That’s what happens in a living church. But if they do, I am confident it will be a result of much more than leaders’ personal opinions or preferences. The Lord is in this work. Even in the correlation program, or whatever may come next.

  11. Kristine says:

    m&m, I don’t see any gripes in the above–I see people mulling and musing about Correlation, albeit in slightly different vocabulary than you may prefer. Claudia talks about the “great blessing” and opportunities provided by correlation; J. Stapley notes that it was necessary for the church’s survival (and, by implication, therefore what the Lord must have wanted); Armand takes note of a welcome development in the treatment of women in the last few years and predicts “inspired modifications”; Greg expresses confidence that policy decisions are made by the First Presidency and the 12.

    Don’t make the mistake of missing people’s love and concern and faith in the Church just because they don’t bear testimony with the pet phrases you expect. I suspect you’d find widespread agreement with the substance of your conclusions from the panelists.

  12. Kristine,
    I sensed more negative than positive in nearly everything I read, at least in tone. Substance also felt more leaning on the negative side (e.g., complaints of negative effects on women (when most women, I think, are fine with changes that have been made); comments about how decisions have been made by men without understanding of consequence based only on their mortal assumptions and experience (without any apprarent recognition or allowance of divine guidance coming into play with these decisions); complaints about church meetings; — and then there’s that story by Dan Peterson (which proves nothing except that he has a sense of humor and ultimately the Spirit still prevailed, just on him — and that the writers have as much responsibility as those who approve the materials).

    I should say that the negative felt more pronounced in the first segment than in the second.

    Perhaps, however, I’m just highly sensitive about this subject, so it’s possible that I jumped the gun. Having a friend who is entrenched in the spiritual nature of the correlation committee perhaps makes me a bit overprotective. You can’t fault me for being desirous for people to understand more than just historical analyses. I want people to understand how involved the Spirit is! After all, you have to admit that correlation gets a bad rap a lot in the ‘nacle, and that general feeling is some of what I respond to. Still, I’m sorry if I responded hastily. Thanks for pointing out some of the positive aspects that I let get drowned out by other stuff I “heard.”

  13. m&m, if what guides the activities of Correlation is a bunch of anonymous rank-and-file Utah Mormons serving on a committee trying to “feel” what curriculum material is right … that’s not a reassuring picture. I’d be much happier if the GA’s gave them clear and detailed direction about what is acceptable or not, about what is doctrinal versus what is speculation, and just told them to follow what’s on the list (which hopefully has a “this stuff is okay” column to complement the “this stuff is bad” column).

    Not that we’d all agree with that list, but at least it would be GA’s making the decisions. If you introduce a layer of risk-averse bureaucrats between the authors and the GA reviewers, the bureaucrats will exercise defensive editing and cut out anything that would possibly raise a GA eyebrow (i.e., just about anything you haven’t heard at least a dozen times already).

  14. Mark Butler says:

    My feeling about the filtering aspect of Correlation is this: There are a lot of strange ideas floating around in the church that no one really understands, nor did the often authoritative originators make a proper argument for. In general, it does not require an inordinate amount of inspiration to recognize these things do not have the same standing as first principles, and as such they probably should be filtered out unless supported by an argument so straightforward the possibility of substantive error is minimal.

    That standard is a pretty high one, one so high that one can certainly not concede any Correlation subcommittee any notably substantive role in forming the secondary doctrines (precepts) of the Church. That role, if there is to be one separate from the revelatory authorities, needs to be a tentative one in terms of careful gospel scholarship, suggesting what should be the doctrine of the Church, e.g. what the scriptures imply, without taking too hard a position, but supplying all the available evidence.

    The works of such authors will then hopefully be read sufficiently widely to contribute to a consensus under the influence of the Holy Spirit, which consensus, when reflected in sufficient authoritative endorsement that there is no doubt that the precept is the common, inspired understanding of *the Church*, and not just one person, no matter how highly ranked.

    That is how Correlation is supposed to work for the primary doctrines of the Church on the level of the Quorum of the Twelve. For secondary tenets possibly too insignificant or too ambiguous to reach that level of attention, the process must work similarly, but with a wider scope of inspired consensus. As a rule, it is impossible for a controversial precept to become the doctrine of the Church except under direct revelation. The only paths to doctrine are inspired consensus and revelation.

  15. Dave,
    The Spirit is quite capable of guiding people who are called and set apart to perform a job in the Church. I wish you could know the person I know and see how humbly and prayerfully she approaches her calling. I think you should take comfort in the fact that our leaders approve of and are keenly aware of what happens in correlation.
    They are also involved in different ways. No need to worry. We’re in good hands.

  16. “We’re in good hands.”

    I guess we’ll have to take your word for that m&m! I have no reason to doubt you, but it would be nice to know who these people are. Do you know if there are any international Mormons in this committee?

  17. Ronan,
    I don’t know if there are. If there are, they would have to be international living in SLC because the committee meets weekly. :)

    Why do you ask? What would you hope to see from an international member? (I have a feeling I know what kinds of answers you might give…just want to hear from you for discussion’s sake.) I guess I’m wondering — if the committee’s purpose is to keep the doctrine pure, why would an international member be an asset in that regard? I see doctrine as being the same regardless of culture.

  18. …which is exactly what all good colonial administrators would say!

    “Who needs an Indian on the British-Empire-For-Indian-Schoolboys committee when we have fine British gentlemen who can run the show, old chap? There’s only one Empire, after all!”

    If you cannot see why it would be useful for the curriculum committee for a world-wide church to include some international members, then, well, nevermind!

    A hint: it’s more than just “doctrine,” it’s also about application and pedagogy.

  19. Ronan,
    I figured it was along those lines…I am just trying to ask questions rather than presume. No sarcasm necessary.

    Personally, I think it would be more valuable for the writing committee to have the international input, although I can see your point. That said, the mandate for the correlation committee is very specifically focused on doctrine, so I’m not sure how much application and pedagogy falls on the radar screen when talking about what they are about, if that makes sense.

    Is there anything you would like me to pass on to my friend about things you wish were more internationally-friendly? Can’t make any promises about anything except delivering the message, but I will do that. :)

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