Local, individual initiative and authority

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.’


  1. Funny how this works. I was just talking with two brethren in my ward yesterday on the very topic. One of them mentioned an idea to realign Gospel Doctrine to match with Seminary/Institute classes, including having summers off. During the summers, the local wards and stakes would have leeway to decide what supplemental classes to teach (teacher development, temple prep, etc.). I would like to see more local control.

  2. In support of your third paragraph, note the following.

    Neal A. Maxwell, speaking of President Faust- “There is a tendency among some at Church headquarters to be so obedient that people don’t speak up.” He praised Elder Faust for his willingness to be candid with the Brethren. James P. Bell, In the Strength of the Lord: The Life and Teachings of James E. Faust (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999), 146.

  3. We see this horrible effect in our ward: The area presidency requested that each ward make a ward mission plan, and provided a template for us to use. Our ward missionary plan of course closely resembles the template, having only the most superficial changes, but no one has expressed any enthusiasm for it or thinks it is our plan. When the ward council was asked to comment on it, no one was willing to say anything, so it was approved and sent back to the stake without comment. The issue: Could you publicly say that your proposed ward missionary plan is preferable to the template proposed by several General Authorities? I am sure the General Authorities hate when this sequence of events happens.

  4. “Our preference for the authoritative over the local is holding us back.”

    Well I suppose this could be true to an extent. And I have no problem with there being less top down approach to hierarchical/organizational rule making in the church.

    But generally that statement falls on its face to me. Holding us back? Really? Church HQ’s rules are holding us back? Or a desire to do things “because a GA said do it this way” is holding us back?

    How about we get off our butts, do what we know we should visit those we know we should, serve all those around us, show love as Christ taught and DID.

    I don’t know what’s holding us back from that…except us. But we could blame it on the handbook and those overzealous types.

  5. Great post Norbert —

    So many of the church programs were started by ward & stake leaders, then adopted church-wide. Including Sunday School, Primary, Index to the scriptures, Family Home Evening, Girls’ camp, Institutes of Religion, Welfare Program; Early Morning Seminary; Ward mission plans; Perpetual Education Fund; Addiction Recovery Program, etc.

    Clearly the members of the church have great ideas and input to think outside the manual–but in areas of the church (like Boston where I am) not populated with enough active members to keep the auxiliary programs running, I agree with Chris that there’s a necessity to have order in all things.

  6. This was a lesson I had to learn personally. When I was made Bishop, the first six months of PEC and/or Ward Councils were boring (and kind of pointless) affairs. I would bring up an issue and then, going first, speak my mind. Then I would open the floor and get a whole lot of “That sounds great!” answers back. Luckily, my SP gave me great advice when I commented to him about how quiet everyone was. Let them speak first. Bring up the issue, toss it to the newest person in the room and get their input first, then slowly let others pipe in until you’ve reached a decision. I got much, much better input from all involved from then on. And had to do a lot less talking.

  7. esodhiambo says:

    I subbed at Stake Council once. It was very interesting–they discussed SO MUCH stuff, and they kept asking questions and I kept answering, because I thought they were actually asking. The SP sought me out afterwards to thank me for my input and ideas and emphasized that he is always trying to get people to speak out more. I guess I spoke more than usual. I can see how it would be very frustrating to seek guidance from counselors and not to get any because people don’t want to say the wrong thing. I have had PLENTY of my ideas shot down, but a good number have also been used. I think sometimes people don’t change things up more because they like tradition or they like easy, and sometimes change is hard.

  8. Why? It’s an integral part of the Church culture, from on high on down. A few examples:

    For teaching: We don’t stay from the “approved” manuals for teaching, because we were specifically told to NOT use other materials, that all we needed was there.

    For trivial matters of appearance: A Church leaders expresses his “suggestion/opinion/preference” that women should only have a single pair of earrings. It’s now to the point that my daughter going to EFY at BYU, when looking at the “Dress/Grooming standards”, sees everything in normal print, but in BOLD LETTERS, a requirement that she only have ONE PAIR OF EARRINGS (which is all she has, by the way).

    So in all aspects of the Church, “higher” up the authority chain absolutely trumps “lower”. They can talk all they want about “all members being equal”, etc., but if one higher church leaders doesn’t like more than one pair of earrings, and 10,000 lower church members see nothing wrong with it, guess who wins?

  9. The only “church leader” I officially heard talk about earrings was President Hinckley so that’s enough authority for me.
    I think it is an extremely hard balance to strike when the smaller units want some autonomy and the worldwide church needs to be unified.
    2 examples:
    I made a wall hanging, after getting permission from the bishop, to hang in the mother’s nursing room (which had all the charm of a prison cell with a rocking chair in it). After I gave it to the bishop and waited months for it to appear I asked about it and got a story about how only approved things can be on the walls and it got put in the Physical Maintenance office and nobody knew what happened to it. Would have been nice to know before I spent 50 hours on it. So, why can’t a ward memeber make something to decorate the meeting house? Because if everyone did it, it could get out of control. So, nobody can. Bummer.
    Second, the primary chorister was telling me that some other choristers (online group) think it is no big deal to just make up new verses to primary songs and then teach them in primary to all the kids. Fun? Sure. So why bother with a children’s song book at all? Well, the songs and their words teach the children lessons. If everyone around the world got to decide how to phrase gospel principles for primary songs, would the local favorites phase out the standards? Maybe. It could turn into a serious problem.
    So, yes, people need to take intitiative, but they also need to keep in mind that their ward has to reflect the entire church in the ways that unify us in the gospel. The leaders have to evaluate if that balance is correct and make adjustments. I don’t envy them.

  10. I suppose like most issues, it depends on which facets you emphasize:

    Local initiative for new ways to reach sagging members because of peculiar local conditions: Good.

    Local initiative to make the sacrament service more holy by putting up a veil to shield the table from profane view: Not so good.

  11. Paul: The “template” one we’ve seen is simply a structure: The ward lists “desired outcomes,” “predictive key indicators” for each outcomes, and “actions to impact key indicators.” The ward can choose any outcomes it wishes, it can choose whichever “key indicators” it thinks contribute to those outcomes, and it can come up with whatever “actions” it thinks will have a positive impact on those “indicators.” I don’t see that the “template” in any meaningful way restricts local control. Were you given something different?

  12. I agree with the premise that people should speak up in councils (not counsels, btw). This is not original, as you mention, as that is how councils are designed to work in the church. A stake president once asked President Packer about receiving revelation in his calling. President Packer pointed his finger at him and said: “You have counselors!” He then added: “A counselor who doesn’t counsel is not a counselor at all.” I am sure he would agree that the same principle applies to ward councils as well.

    That said, I think the OP makes a lot of generalizations from anecdotes. I have the 3rd full paragraph in mind. While I don’t doubt that these are true, it is also true that some read policies in the CHI as merely suggestions that do not need to be followed (or don’t read the CHI at all). And some wards and branches stray significantly from the teachings of church leaders. My point is that I am not convinced from my own experience that this is a pervasive problem, and your generalizations haven’t convinced me either.

    “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.”

    I agree. Not sure there are too many who would disagree (though some things should be follow policy to the letter of the law, such as responsibilities related to church finances).

    “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.”

    Seems like a false dichotomy to me. “Either people are allowed complete reign over their individual callings, or they are completely controlled by higher authorities.” I think it is quite normal for individuals to act freely under guidance from higher authority. After all, those in higher authority received their calls by inspiration too. If their call is over an area or a stake, should they not act on inspiration received for members or administrations in that area or stake? If no one’s calling allows them to influence how others act, that severely limits their calling (and not just at the general, area, or stake levels – it would affect the local callings as well; for example, try directing the YW’s organization with a “pray and good luck” approach to both the adult and YW leaders). I’ve tried the “just pray and you’ll know what to do” with regard to training someone in their calling, and it has failed miserably. Some guidance and understanding of their responsibilities, as well as church policy, is needed, and some boundaries have to be maintained.

  13. Kristine says:

    “Seems like a false dichotomy to me.”

    Well, perhaps, except for the part where the OP specifically notes that there is a productive tension between the two poles you caricature…

  14. “Our preference for the authoritative over the local is holding us back.”

    I think this statement is absolutely true. In my experience the preference to look for authoritative instruction leads to waiting for authoritative instruction, i.e. being commanded in all things. Why does the bishop put in so many more hours each week than I do? Because I’m waiting to be assigned something that will put me to good use instead of finding creative ways to be useful. Sometimes my waiting to be “called of God” is just an excuse to not do much for His cause.

  15. Ardis’ comment is great. If members of the Church hadn’t been innovative and had waited to be directed…well, we probably wouldn’t have the three hour block. A vast many of the great things in the Church have come from the bottom up.

  16. There is a difference between a leader asking that things be run past him or her for approval, with advice being offered sparingly and prohibitions being imposed only in extreme circumstances, and a leader demanding central input into everything being discussed. Too many members don’t understand that difference.


    Probably because that’s how most YM and YW Adult Presidencies function, in direct opposition to how they are supposed to happen – and because our future leaders are learning it in their formative years. If YW and YM leaders advised the youth presidencies and allowed them to function as they are intended to function, I believe we would see stark differences in adult councils down the road. We can and should try to fix adult presidencies, but we simply must start teaching our youth NOW and preventing the need to fix so many future presidencies.

  17. Mark Brown says:

    Excellent post, Norbert.

    With regard to the handbook, we would do well to realize how many of the policies it contains actually are qualified with phrases like “Of course, local leaders should adapt to their needs”, or “This is a general guideline, and we encourage stake presidents and bishops to implement this policy as they see fit.”

    We also need to remember that GAs get sick and tired of everybodys’ stupid questions. Elder Faust once said in conference that church leaders shouldn’t have to spell out every jot and tittle of gospel living, but the members keep asking for it. I got the feeling he wished we would all grow up a bit.

  18. JrL: You are right. But the template example had specific numbers and specific goals, only as an example, I agree. But the fact that general authorities had put those numbers down made it so no one was willing to change them. Maybe some of us learned not to change suggested goals on our missions.

  19. Chris:

    Church HQ’s rules are holding us back? Or a desire to do things “because a GA said do it this way” is holding us back?

    I think more the second, but I stand by that. To use your example, too many people worry about the visits being done in the right way rather than meeting those needs in the most direct ways.


    So, yes, people need to take intitiative, but they also need to keep in mind that their ward has to reflect the entire church in the ways that unify us in the gospel.

    I probably don’t completely disagree with that last statement completely, but the need to represent the entire church is fairly limited to some core principles, I think. Changing words to primary songs seems like no big deal to me, especially since translation to their languages does this already.

    Paul: Good example, and I imagine it does drive them crazy.

    Ardis: Good point. This the need for balance and an understanding of what really matters, I think.

    JT: I agree that there are those who err on the other side, but as an institution we seem to like the authoritative voice, and we have no official warning sign for that error as we do for ‘apostasy’ in localizing the church excessively.

    Ray: Very true. That relationship is often mirrored in YSA activities and, bizarrely, with the Relief Society.

  20. I know people in and now out of the Church who’s lives are screwed up because of what the brethren local or otherwise have taught. Personally I have learned that when it comes to advice from whoever I will hear what you have to say and either ignore it or think it all through before acting on it-something I went to therapy to learn.

  21. Two thoughts…

    The fear of apostasy or steadying the ark does probably inhibit some initiative in some Church members, even to the point that they don’t magnify their callings.

    I think our titles hinder us, also. Every assignment has a title. Compare (a) calling and sustaining Jim as a Primary worker with (b) calling and sustaining Jim to help a particular small group of small children have a good learning experience every Sunday. Or compary (a) calling and sustaining Mary to be ward Relief Society president with (b) calling and sustaining Mary to help all the sisters work together to help each other.

  22. I have often wondered about something I have come to call “spiritual top trumps”. I have experienced directly and witnessed indirectly a process whereby the more “senior” the authority the more valid the “revelation”.

    For example: I followed what I understand to be the revelatory process (identifying, shortlisting, pondering, interviewing, praying etc.) in calling a HP Instructor. I felt I received an answer to my prayers that was from God. I didn’t doubt that it was. He was subsequently called only to be called to be on the High Council within a month. He didn’t teach any lesson during that time. I spoke with the stake president (a lifelong firend) regarding this and although not told explicitly I received a strong impression that what I was being told was that the revelation to call him on the High Councilw as more valid and right than mine??

    I have seen this on other occasions too.

  23. Aaron R. says:

    Mark, I agree that the phrase you mention is used liberally. Yet finding space to innovative is difficult even if you are in a position of authority because there is always someone else (either a leader or not) who will raise questions. Consequently I think one of the difficulties within innovation at a local level is the strong conservationist culture we have. The result is that innovation will be painful for some and the costs of that pain might well be considered greater than the gains from innovation. Because most local leaders are caring people who try to seek advice from others they will perhaps make change less frequently because they are motivated by that care.

  24. Glenn Thigpen says:

    The best and most progressive wards and branches do innovate. There have been several programs in recent years adopted church wide or maybe promulgated church wide that were developed in individual stakes and wards/branches.
    Think that the biggest problem is that too many people are resistant to change and are more comfortable with the same lessons in the same way, the same songs, and the same activities, with the same group of people doing most of the work.
    I do not think it is a problem with the upper leadership being authoritarian.
    Instructors are urged to use inspiration in the presentation of their lessons, but are also urged, maybe required, to stay on topic and not stray from the theme and goals of the lesson.
    There have been instructors who have strayed far off the beaten path and injected elements that were not doctrinal into their lessons.
    Their is plenty of room for innovation, and it is sorely needed, withing the guidelines that we are given. As long as we are working from inspiration and not desperation or attempting to inject our own agenda into the workings of the ward, branch, stake, etc.


  25. 19, “too many people worry about the visits being done in the right way rather than meeting those needs in the most direct ways.”

    So I see what you’re saying… I just look at it as 5% of “the problem”, if even.

    If what you’re saying is true, is that why people don’t help a fellowship a new member or bring back a lost one? I’m not buying it, but we can give ourselves that way out if we want.

    The rules could and should be slimmed up simply because no one reads them. And those handful that actually do probably takes it too seriously. But I’m pretty sure the reason why some in the church are floundering, others are falling by the waysides, others are being offended and leaving, etc. is not because we have a bit too many rules and we just don’t know how to interpret them.

    And going back to what I quoted from you above, I think it would be preferable if people know the general right ways to do it and the direct ways. Let’s not shy away from actually going and preaching the gospel to each other, lifting each other etc. because it’s better to just be their friend and hang out and have fun. Why not both? Teach by example and precept.

    But really, the list of people who don’t take up a missionary opportunity (or make one), don’t visit the sick, care for their home/visit families, etc. is really not for lack of wanting to follow the rules.

    I’ll fully grant in some specific instances you’re probably right. And someone could pull out a quote from a GA or book and use that to stifle any progress as a church while they make a mountain out of a molehill. But I’d have to see an example first.

    But I’d wager if you reduce the “rules” to a list of 2 bullet points (how about Matthew 22:37) we probably wouldn’t suddenly see people getting it done.

    But let’s try anyway I guess :)

  26. Chris, I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but maybe setting my attention in a different direction. It’s a solid point to make.

  27. Mike S (8),
    While I know next to nothing about EFY, much less EFY at BYU (other than that it was annoying to students there in the summer ~10 years ago), I assume the dress and grooming standards mirror those of BYU. And sure, you probably can’t have 2 sets of earrings at BYU; you also can’t wear a beard there. But that doesn’t keep people with two sets of earrings and/or beards from having callings (even high-profile callings) at church. So I don’t buy the statement-of-a-leader-leads-to-a-de-facto-church-rule school of thought. (I will buy, however, that it leads to an overbroad BYU rule, but I’m long past ever having to deal with BYU rules again, so I don’t really care.)

  28. Along the lines of #10:

    Good: Local initiative in creative community outreach programs.
    Bad: Local initiative in creative accounting practices.

    Some stuff really should be done by the book, so to speak. The rest can and often should be customized to fit the needs. The trick is to tell what things fall in which category.

  29. John Mansfield says:

    Talking with our ward’s young men’s president months back about youth leadership, he said that our young men’s presidency tries to get the boys to decide what the quorums are going to do, but they will never come up with anything. I think the boys in this case lack a sense of what the parameters are that they could work within, how big or small to aim, what their resources are. Answers to such questions are often kept a mystery (not only to youth) that can be decyphered only by bouncing off the limits over and over. There is also the tendency to defer responsibility for our own desires or decisions to vague anonymous authority. (“You can’t drive my car . . . because insurance won’t cover it.”)

  30. What can people expect when we’re pounded with “Follow the prophet” and “listen to the bretheren” all the time and are suddenly expected to make our own decisions?

  31. Dave P

    We can expect people to actually follow the Prophet and listen to the Brethren who teach about not confusing programs for principles, and actually adapt to meet the needs of the ward.

    Exhibit A

    Exhibit B

    It is amazing how far back some of the talks available on lds.org go when you search for phrases like “adapt to ward” or “programs principles”.

  32. Thomas Parkin says:

    “We can expect people to actually follow the Prophet and listen to the Brethren ”

    The problem, though, Alex, is that we _can’t_ expect this. Just as in many other areas: prevailing, common Moronisms preempt what Priesthood leadership actually says (and scriptures, and common sense), a solid majority of the time. The problem with the ‘Follow the Prophet’ mantra, in the way we see it, is that it generally _feels_ reductive – it _feels_ as if one need not explore, discover exceptions, learn by direct personal experience, etc. It feels as if Priesthood leadership’s revelation has a trump over personal revelation within the sphere of one’s own life. You can say you don’t feel it that way, I don’t either. But it is pretty clear that many people do. ~

  33. Ray @ 16: this is my teenage daughter’s biggest frustration in life! The first time she went to an “Achievement Days” meeting, at age 8, she was told it would be a planning meeting. So she did what she sees her Dad and I do to plan: she got a notebook, wrote down her ideas, needed supplies, any budget needs, and why she thought this activity would help the girls achieve something.

    She came home from the meeting very discouraged. I got a call later from her leader, praising her initiative and preparedness, and sounding a little shocked that a child would think it all through to that extent. I explained that she was a very organized little girl, and was just following the example she sees at home.

    Now as a 14yo, she’s having the *same* struggles. She *knows* how to plan and carry out; the leadership in YW is comprised of very clever, well-meaning women who won’t let the girls learn to lead, and possibly fail. They make a show of asking for input they don’t really want; they don’t involve the girls in planning. Leadership meetings are reduced to the girls showing up to take notes on what the advisers have decided. The few times the girls have planned something, the leaders changed the plan at the last minute, or cancelled the activity entirely (again, at the last minute.)

    With that sort of “leadership”, I’m not surprised that my daughter is frustrated and discouraged; I’m also not surprised that there are other young women who’ve learned to just sit there and tolerate things, rather than actually lead, and possibly (gasp) disagree with the leaders.

    My husband sees it in Scouts, too, though we’ve given up on LDS scouting, and moved to a Catholic-sponsored troop that actually functions and gives boys Scouting experiences and leadership opportunities.

    With Scouting, particularly, the non-LDS he’s encountered are heartily disappointed with LDS Scouting–they remember with fondness the years (not too long ago) when LDS Scouts would camp into Sunday and join them for a prayer service in the morning, and hold their own services as well. That was a local adaptation that non-LDS Scouts appreciated, and miss greatly now that some abuses (Scouts planning campouts *every* weekend) have put a stop to the overall option.

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