Apologia Pro Correlation Sua

Just about every day in the bloggernacle, church correlation gets a black eye and a fat lip. Whenever the conversation turns to church manuals, CES, the role of women, insipid gospel doctrine lessons, or snore-inducing talks in sacrament meeting, correlation gets put on the ropes where it receives yet another beating. If this were a heavyweight fight, the referee would have stopped it long ago on humanitarian grounds. I come not to bury correlation, but to praise it. Tempting though it may be to chafe under the heavy, oppressive hand of Big Brother from Salt Lake City, I think there are at least two good reasons to look on the bright side.

First, the process of simplifying and streamlining that we call correlation enabled the church to grow more rapidly than it otherwise would have. The church finally realized that it was not going to be able to replicate the Salt Lake City 148th ward everywhere in the world, so it had to identify what is essential and what could be dropped. Once the church program was finally whittled down to a manageable size, it was agile enough to move quickly and sufficiently simply that brand new members could take responsibility for their own wards and branches, with only minimal training. This is how Kathleen Flake expressed it, in her interview for The Mormons:

“I got a master’s in liturgical studies from Catholic University, and as I studied 2,000 years of Catholicism’s missionary efforts from the point of view of their liturgy, it was only then that I realized how lightly Mormonism travels, how little it takes to create a Mormon congregation and sustain it, because remember, it’s lay leadership. Lay leadership is one of the untold stories of this church. If you want to know how it travels and how it roots to indigenous cultures, you have to look at the extent to which indigenous peoples are given control of local worship.

So all this talk about hierarchy and control and power and making people do things misses this point that leadership in Mongolia is Mongolian. And yes, Salt Lake City will say: “Tithings are 10 percent. You can’t charge 5 percent; you can’t charge 20 percent.” But the other story of 20th-century Mormonism that doesn’t get told is the extent to which they do not feel in control. They’re perceived to be this juggernaut of organization, but internally, my guess is they have all their fingers in the dike…..”

I think she is right. Mormonism will always have a strong and centralized hierarchy, given our belief in prophets and authority from God. But it also appears anxious to devolve power away from the Church Office Building.

My second argument has to do with group cohesion and community building. I have attended LDS services in four different countries, and I have always felt at home. There was an instant sense of familiarity that I think has real value. Many of us here might wish that church teachers had a somewhat freer hand, but we would do well to consider that when we all learn from the same manual, we have a sense of solidarity with our brothers and sisters everywhere in the world.

Yi-Fu Tuan is an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin. He has spent his career studying why groups succeed and fail. In his book Escapism, he wrote:

“If a small vocabulary and the frequent use of clichés promote understanding and communal solidarity, the achievement of verbal-intellectual sophistication can have the opposite effect. The more people know and the more subtle they are at expressing what they know, the fewer listeners there will be and the more isolated individuals will feel, not only at large but also among colleagues and co-workers.”

In Virginia Postrel’s review of the book, she remarked:

“Although Tuan is talking about scholarly communities, the same phenomenon can be found in…religious groups. There are strong communal rewards for sticking to relatively simple, widely shared language (and the simple, widely shared beliefs it implies).”

I find that argument entirely persuasive, and I think it behooves us to sometimes hold our own needs and desires in abeyance for the sake of Zion building. Which brings me to my own difficulty with correlation, and it does not stem from standardized lesson manuals or the loss of independent auxiliaries. As a deacon, my testimony took shape as I worked side by side with adults on the church welfare farm. It was wonderful – several hundred men and women, saints and ain’ts, assembled at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning to labor together in a glorious riot of untrained, cooperative effort, crawling on our hands and knees for hours, picking green beans on behalf of people we didn’t know. What could be more Mormon? Those experiences engendered a sense of kinship that endures to this day, and those people will always be my people. The welfare farms were a casualty of correlation. Sure, I understand that agricultural land is prohibitively expensive, and the farms were inefficient, and they sometimes caused us to run afoul of local tax regulations. I say, so what – what is money? Mere lucre, in exchange for a piece of my soul.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I too have heard lots of people stand up in testimony meeting and praise the fact that you can go anywhere in the Church and it is the same. I agree that there is a value to such cohesion. This actually made me think of franchising and McDonalds. They strive to make the McDonalds experience the same everywhere, and that is part of its success.

    Of course, just as there are positive aspects to such sameness, so there are negative aspects. Comfort zones and reliability can also translate into blandness, lack of diversity, lack of spice.

  2. After a week traveling eastern Turkey where my son ate nothing, we thanked the gods when we saw a McDonalds.

  3. Ranbato says:

    The welfare farms were a casualty of correlation.

    News to me. I know many areas of the USA that still have welfare farms. For example in Central California, where I grew up, and where I spent many Saturdays working in the vinyards (literally!), there are still acres and acres of welfare farms where members volunteer.

  4. Mark, I tend to agree that Correlation was a necessary movement for the sustenance and growth of the Church. It also had costs. Perhaps we are at a time to evaluate those costs better. Either way, there are a lot of very positive things that we must attribute to Correlation.

    The larger welfare farms were corporatized and the smaller ones have mostly been sold off, or turned into recreational properties. Even some of the larger ones have been sold off.

  5. Northerner says:

    There’s an interesting related essay in an old issue of Dialogue:

    J. Michael Cleverley, “Mormonism on the Big Mac Standard,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought 29:2 (Summer 1996), 69-75.

    Online at this URL

  6. The dead language grammar Nazi says:

    Mark, I’m shocked! Following the preposition pro, the ablative case is required, and correlation is clearly a Latin feminine of the third declension. So, please: pro correlatione sua.

  7. Streamlined and simplified lessons allow my 19-yr-old son to teach Elder’s Quorum and grow from the experience – my other teenage children to do the same in Sunday School – my wife to do so in Relief Society – and recent converts to do the same wherever they are called. I don’t want to cast aspersions, but we have to think of this in the broader context of what it does for the Church at large – and not just what it does to stimulate our intellects. Those opportunities are all around us OUTSIDE of church (like here) if we want them. I don’t mind letting Church be a place of refuge and growth for those who desperately need simplicity and nurturing care – especially in areas where recent converts outnumber BIC members.

  8. anonymous says:

    An advantage of correlation is that it can help keep people from riding their personal hobby horses through a lesson. I avoid gospel doctrine in my ward because the teacher doesn’t feel bound enough by the outlined content. We still get political diatribes and folklore.

    Another advantage is that you don’t need lots of (sometimes expensive) supplemental materials to be called as a teacher. A manual, a set of scriptures, and the Holy Ghost are really all that’s needed. This is especially important in primary, where it’s easy for teachers and students to get lost in the maze of extras that sure are cute, but they aren’t cheap and they don’t necessarily help reach the lesson’s goals.

  9. I too have heard lots of people stand up in testimony meeting and praise the fact that you can go anywhere in the Church and it is the same.

    You can only say that if you’ve been to church while on holiday. Get a calling, go to a few PECs … there’s a difference, baby.

    I agree generally that correlation is necessary and useful, but a problem arises when people get a testimony of the correlation. I think about how missionaries would bear their testimony of The Commitment Pattern, an incredible correlation fiasco IMHO.

  10. Another benefit of correlation is how it has opened the doors to an avalanche of independently produced materials. With a well defined core of approved materials, the fear of another “Mormon Doctrine” being held up as an LDS theological torch is greatly reduced. Hence the deluge of extra-materials by general authorities and scholars alike. The masses are free to weigh them against correlated materials and come to their own conclusions. It’s a much safer way to go.

  11. Mark IV says:

    Mark, I’m shocked! Following the preposition pro, the ablative case is required, and correlation is clearly a Latin feminine of the third declension. So, please: pro correlatione sua.

    Dear Br. or Sr. Nazi, as the case may be:

    Sorry for the shock, and I’m happy to acknowledge that of course you are absolutely correct. Nonetheless, the title as it now stands, with its mixed up cases and incorrect declensions, reminds me of my younger self when I was serving a mission, and therefore has a certain sentimental appeal.

  12. Julie M. Smith says:

    I’m wondering about the assumption that

    correlation = poor quality lessons

    Is there a reason why we can’t have thought-provoking, easy to teach, stimulating lessons . . . that are the same all over the church?

  13. #11: None whatsoever, if “the same all over the church” means the same basic foundation, not the exact same word-for-word final product. The more closely a teacher comes to reading the lesson from the manual, particularly while limiting class involvement, the more correlation equals poor quality lessons. It is the quality of the teacher that determines the quality of the lesson (and the willingness of the student(s) to look intently for new insight even in the face of a bad teacher), and the quality of the teacher depends on both an understanding of the material AND the ability to teach by the Spirit – both to touch hearts AND to ascertain where to take any given lesson.

    If correlation were to blame, we wouldn’t have poor Sacrament Meeting talks – only poor lessons.

    Having said that, it is important to add one qualifier: If someone is looking for deeply nuanced and intellectually stimulating lessons, then most church meetings are not going to fit that description. (I have had some Gospel Doctrine teachers who were amazing, but even some of their lessons have been hijacked into mediocrity.) I have been in quite a few that were both nuanced and stimulating, but they usually were limited in attendance and self-selected in some way. They were NOT general meetings open to any average member, where incredible diversity of understanding is the norm. Correlation in these more narrow meetings would be pointless and disastrous.

    I participate here and in selective circles (and by relishing the written word) to gain nuance and intellectual insight. I don’t go to ward meetings to do so. I go there to have my spirit lifted, and, frankly, that happens to some degree almost every week – at least once and usually multiple times, even when not one talk or lessons would be considered close to professional.

  14. If someone is looking for deeply nuanced and intellectually stimulating lessons, then most church meetings are not going to fit that description.
    I understand this, but I wonder why then, that we can’t have study groups? Or why Institute can’t be a bit more meaty? Because those members who _are_ looking for something more intellectually stimulating are being driven to other churches’ Bible studies!

  15. A forum like this helps tremendously, but why can’t you have study groups?

  16. Maybe the thing that bothers me is not the common content, but the content itself. Our gospel doctrine lesson yesterday mainly quoted Bruce R McConkie, who has been dead for nearly 25 years. The most recent quote was from the 90s. It would be great to hear what our current leaders have to say on these scriptures. I remember some of the Old Testament lessons last year that quoted Marion G Romney extensively and wondered what the younger members of the class thought. I have a BIC son in college and Marion G Romney was before my time.

  17. Ugly Mahana says:

    Re: 15

    Thus the fourth sunday lesson in Priesthood and Relief Society. And, each Conference Ensign contains a list of talks organized by topic for the youth. At least, as I recall.

  18. a random John says:

    Lessons suffer from the Peter Principle somewhat. Those that know their stuff and are good teachers tend to get promoted to other callings in which they do not teach often.

  19. Deep Sea says:

    Yi-Fu Tuan is a geographer, not an anthropologist.

  20. My first thought was the same as Kevin’s — McDonalds baby. But even the McDonalds here in Japan sells curry rice from time to time — and Ronald is called Donald McDonald (because of the Japanese difficulty with “r”). So they still allow for some regional/cultural variation.

    But I really didn’t know much about the correlation efforts until I got into the Blogernacle a few months ago. How many times has something like this happened in Church history? It seems that something similar happened in Kirtland when Jospeh tried to put a stop to all the uncontrolable charismatic manifestations (speaking in tongues, etc). I would also be interested to go back and look at the folklore record to see how — if at all — the correlation effected folk transmition

    And BTW Mark — “The dead language grammar Nazi?” Really? I thought the recent BCC correlation had but the axe on these kinds of handles. Ah — sigh.