You Want the Church to Be a Corporation. Really.

I blame Time for the whole "LDS Inc." movement.

I blame Time for the whole “LDS Inc.” movement.

The other day, our own Aaron B. posted this on Facebook:

The single DUMBEST criticism of the LDS Church is the claim that “it’s a business, not a church”, or “it’s a corporation, not a church”. Obviously it’s both …[fn1]

I’ll confess that, like Aaron, I’ve never been particularly impressed by the implication that somehow corporate organization is antithetical to spirituality. After a discussion with one of Aaron’s friends, though, I think I kind of understand where some who object to its corporate status are coming from. 

Aaron’s friend explained that he’d grown up with the church’s transcendent truth claims, the idea that the church was both True and special. And finding out that its organizational structure is common and secular felt like a letdown, somehow, the mundanity of the container tarnishing the claims of transcendence.

I can understand where that disappointment comes from, even if I disagree that there’s anything disappointing. That said, throwing “corporation” around like an epithet shows a significant lack of understanding of religion in America broadly, and of the benefits (not only to the church and its members, but also to those who are skeptical of the church’s good motives) of the corporate form. In the interest of helping out, then, some context:

The Corporate Form Is Common for Churches

It’s not unique to Mormonism. Among others, the Catholic church, the Presbyterian church, and the United Methodist Church incorporate.[fn2] They each do it slightly differently—the Catholic church appears to incorporate each diocese separately, where the Methodists appear to permit the incorporation of each church separately, and the Presbyterians incorporate at least at the state level.

And why do churches incorporate? A couple big reasons: for a tax exemption in the US, you have to have a corporation. Also, a corporation is a legal person that can enter into contracts and own property. That prevents issues with succession (that is, if the Bishop owns the diocese’s property, when he dies, what happens to it? A corporation, on the other hand, never dies, and when the Bishop dies or leaves, the corporation continues to own the property).

But I Don’t Trust Corporations (and/or the Mormon Church)

Fair enough. But there’s nothing inherent in the corporate form that is antithetical to religiosity. Believe it or not, under US law (or, better, state law in the US) there is no requirement that corporations maximize their profits.[fn3] Again, the whole point of corporate status is that the church has the ability to act in certain legal ways.

And, to the extent you don’t trust the church, you definitely want it to be a corporation. Remember the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church? Those who were abused sued various Archdiocese where the abuse occurred, and won significant recoveries. Note that they won the recoveries from the corporate entities; had they been required to sue individuals, it would have been really tough to get any money, because priests—including those who abused children—take a legitimate vow of poverty. That is, the abusers were basically judgment-proof. But the corporate form made it possible for victims to have some degree of recovery.[fn4]

So Are You Saying I Can’t Criticize the Mormon Church?

Absolutely not. There are definitely places that the church does poorly.

I am saying, though, that criticizing the church for being a corporation is stupid. It misunderstands both churches and corporations. At best, it is a lazy way of saying, I’m critical, but I don’t want to work hard enough to explain what my criticism is. At worst, it’s a lazy way of saying, I’m critical, but I haven’t thought carefully enough to even figure out what my criticism is.

(N.b.: I know, from long experience, that someone’s going to comment that the church needs to disclose its finances!!!1! I mean, feel free, but I’m going to delete any comment that does, since it has nothing to do with the post at hand. The question of transparency is unrelated to the question of entity form.)

[fn1] And I’m not particularly interested in the argument that the church isn’t actually a corporation, but instead is a series of corporations. Sure, it’s “The Corporation of the Presiding Bishop” and “The Corporation of the First Presidency,” not “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Inc.,” but so what? What we think of Apple, Inc. is actually a series of corporations, LLCs, partnerships, and foreign entities, each of which has different duties and different roles. But, while for-profit entities differ in many ways from non-profit entities, in both, it’s easier to think of the series of entities as a single entity and, for most purposes, that’s good enough anyway.

[fn2] It’s not unique to those three, of course, but I didn’t feel like Googling any further.

[fn3] There is one case, about a century old, that suggests they might, but the context—a closely held corporation, minority shareholders who were being squeezed out, and a state court in Michigan—indicate that it has little, if any, relevance in today’s world.

[fn4] And note that it’s possible that, had there been no corporate form, there would have been a person to sue, but it was a whole lot easier with the corporate form.


  1. Aaron’s hyperbolic style is in a class of its own, but I agree with the essence of his FB post, and the OP here. Howeve, with respect to the OP,
    — corporate form is not required for U.S. Federal tax exemption
    — profit maximizing, or more carefully operating for the benefit of shareholders, is more complicated and controversial than “one century old Michigan case” would suggest, and in Illinois we would use an Illinois not-for-profit corporation where no part of the income or surplus may be distributed to its members, directors or officers (although reasonable compensation may be paid for services rendered).

  2. Nice post. I would add, however, that I think a lot of the intent of the “corporation” criticisms is that the Church is run in an overly bureaucratic and corporate way–so, it’s not the formal incorporatedness but the informal processes and (esp. governance) culture that are the aim of the too-corporate criticisms.

  3. Good post, Sam. If I could propose a follow-up post, it would be helpful to lay out just how messy things got for the LDS church when Joseph died without a corporate structure in place, but rather a confusing tangle of property and succession issues that others had to work out (especially Emma).

  4. Clark Goble says:

    Not just Joseph but much more so with Brigham.

  5. Thanks for the post! I don’t understand what you are trying to say about profit maximization, though. Seems like you want to say that a corporation is not required to do so, but the syntax is confusing.

  6. Maybe it’s out there and I’ve missed it, but has anyone bothered to suggest an alternate governing structure that accomplishes the same goals? It if doesn’t resemble a corporation, what *does* the Church organization look like, that manages a vast network of temples and meetinghouses, hundreds of missionaries, tens of thousands of missionaries, welfare resources, teaching resources, a vast website that includes the ability to manage local units, etc.?

  7. I think the main concern arises when the Church behaves like a corporation rather than a church. Having both worked at Church headquarters and taught business management (including the effects of corporate values on organizations), I can attest that most of the problems with the bureaucracy in Salt Lake come primarily from trying to apply corporate values to a religious organization. It’s a gross mismatch and creates some very unique problems. No room to go into detail here, but you have to go back to about 1960 and Harold B. Lee’s Correlation movement to understand how the Church adopted a corporate structure and a set of corporate values to address certain organizational issues. We’re still paying the price today, and it’s aggravating when you run into these values in the course of everyday life. Tough to fix at this point, because of the inexorable organizational momentum, and these values tend to perpetuate themselves and spread. They reshape individuals and organizations in their own image to support their own survival.

  8. It is common among some–I encountered it in conversations with members of the Churches of Christ–to use “corporate” in speaking of their group worship services. Thus, private devotion is private, but public worship is referred to as “corporate worship.” If we started talking that way about our LDS worship services, some people’s heads would explode, or at least their hair would spontaneously catch fire.

  9. Thanks, all, for the discussion so far!

    Christian, I’m glib with the idea of lack of profit maximization—and that rule exists in some countries, as I understand it, but the business judgment rule insulates boards of directors pretty broadly from assertions that they breached their fiduciary duty by doing something that didn’t maximize profits. That doesn’t mean that many corporations don’t—and to be careful, you may want to use a non-profit corporation or a corporation sole or something–but they don’t have to. (And yes, there are a couple other entities you can use for tax exemption, but I don’t think they fit what churches do; in fact, if they did, I suspect churches would use those alternative forms, not the corporate form, but most churches seem to use the corporate form.)

    Robert, if the argument is that the church is overly-bureaucratic, that may well be a legitimate argument. And it takes like two extra words to say. Which is to say, I think yelling “Corporation!” obscures more than it reveals. Even corporations aren’t inherently and necessarily bureaucratic, though they are obligated to meet certain formalities that aren’t obligatory

    Dave, I thought about including the succession problems, but it was late when I wrote the post, and I didn’t feel like Googling enough to get up to speed.

    And Walker, thanks—I fixed the paragraph.

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Maybe it’s out there and I’ve missed it, but has anyone bothered to suggest an alternate governing structure that accomplishes the same goals?

    My sense, perhaps incorrect, is that people want more autonomy at the local level. That is the complaint as someone else noted is really less about “corporation” than the perception of corporate hierarchy and bureaucracy. My own perception is that the church would love to do that but every time they start moving in that direction some Bishop does something that gets the church as a whole in trouble.

  11. Clark Goble says:

    I should add that if the real concern is a perception of how corporations are structured hierarchically and bureaucratically there are two problems. First this conflates a common structure with the legal structure – something Sam’s pointed out. But secondly it ignores the huge differences our lay leadership requires from typical corporate structures. Could you imagine Walmart having the equivalent of a Stake President only come from the local area? No, they’d be a full time employee carefully managed and most likely required to move. You could argue that perhaps GAs are more akin to that. However that’s a relatively recent change and still debatable. More importantly most corporations would simply have more control over local actions than a Bishop usually faces from Area Presidents.

    Fundamentally though as queuno noted, what are the practical alternatives?

  12. Sam, I think Robert is correct that most of those who bring this criticism are really saying they are disgusted by the corporate-ness of the culture — stake presidents viewing themselves as managers of employees (stake members), dress codes, bureaucracy, top-down corporate directives from 1950s-style IBM board of directors (the Q15), etc.

  13. john, if that’s the criticism, I’d love to hear it as a criticism that the church is too The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The idea of top-down bureaucratic lockstepping was exactly what that book and movie criticized, and it was certainly the business culture of the 1950s. As best I can tell, though, today that’s no longer the dominant business or corporate culture (I mean, Silicon Valley destroyed formal dress standards in New York law firms), which makes the use of “corporation” as critical shorthand even less apposite.

    Also, I’d love for critiques to have a stronger literary bent.

  14. Sam, you are glib with profit maximization, and if you reframe it as shareholder benefit I think you’ll find more to worry about. Private inurement is a big issue. But it’s not to the point here, so enough.
    I am surprised that there is no mention of trusts–a very common form of ownership for churches, especially in the generically Protestant (and more specifically Wesleyan) traditions, and for Muslim organizations. The vocabulary around “trusts” including “beneficiaries” and “trustees” and “fiduciary obligations” is quite attractive.

  15. Thanks for keeping this important subject going, Sam. Robert C brings up a good point–and his attempts at nailing down the “intent” of those critical of the Church’s corporate structure seems to give due legitimacy to the critics. I have often traced my own lows in the Church to the “informal processes” that Robert mentions–ward councils that feel too business like and insufficiently spiritual, management-speak from leaders at the pulpit, or priesthood procedure that feels just a little overly-procedural.

    If the corporate-ness of Mormon culture gets me and many others down, who can blame us for drawing a link between the informal corporate processes that affect us in our day-to-day Church activities and the formal corporate processes of the Church? A “lazy” conclusion, perhaps, but not a “stupid” one. I think my tendency to draw such a parallel is mostly due to the Church administration’s own intense efforts to portray itself to members and the outside world as an well-managed, administrative marvel. Sadly, there appear to be instances when we place more worth in Mormonism’s organization than the spirituality that such organization is meant to promote.

    My tendency to draw a parallel between informal and formal procedure absolutely validates Same’s recent attempts on BCC to present the Church’s corporate nature as something other than bad. But my frustration with the parts of Mormonism that feature undue corporate culture also warrants another type of post–one that explores how Mormonism’s corporate structure differs from that of the Catholics or Presbyterians. Assuming there are differences, does Mormonism’s unique corporate structure possess certain traits that, if changed or altered, could restore some of the spirituality that I feel may be lacking in my dealings with Church leadership, well-organized youth programs, or my home teachers?

  16. Private inurement is clearly a significant problem, both in the for-profit and non-profit worlds. I totally agree. But while not maximizing profits clear bears a relationship to private inurement in some situations, many (if not most) times, the lack of profit maximization has nothing to do with private inurement.

    To your other point, you’re right that trusts are an option. (I’ll confess that I hate trusts—I haven’t spent enough time with them to really have a handle on how they function. Corporations strike me as much cleaner and more understandable.)

  17. Clark Goble says:

    Michael if the issue is a perception of not following the spirit enough, isn’t that inherent to the people holding those callings and not the structure? i.e. isn’t your real complaint with the nature of how individuals fulfill callings?

    The question then becomes how on earth you change that. Heaven knows there are enough training meetings where they encourage following the spirit. So teaching doesn’t seem to be the problem. Dare I say it any way to fix this would itself be more corporate in terms of pronouncements from above structuring how individuals do their jobs?

    I’d add that while I’ve had very limited experience in ward councils, so my opinion isn’t worth much, it seems that the vast majority of meeting items are fairly practical in nature. My own experience, again fairly limited since I’ve thankfully had limited leadership callings, is that the biggest problem is more people wasting time with anecdotes and not getting to what needs done in a timely manner.

  18. Sam, if they say “I hate that the Church is so corporate,” in my opinion, that is what they are saying — they are not making a statement about its legal form. Virtually no one cares about that, including most ex-mos.

  19. Clark, I was getting at the idea that it may be worth exploring whether “the nature of how individuals fulfill callings,” as you say, could somehow be related to the nature of how the men at the top administer the Church. Could the spiritual leadership of the Mormon Church be more involved in their Chruch’s corporate dealings than their counterparts in other sects or come from more corporate backgrounds? If the answer is yes, I think the question of whether that drives non-GA members to fulfill their callings in a more corporate manner is a worthwhile one.

  20. Michael, interesting questions. My impression (from the quick looks I’ve taken) is that Mormon corporate structure is a lot more centralized than most churches’. There’s basically one (or two, maybe) corporations for all of the U.S. The Catholic church incorporates at the diocese level (and perhaps the parish level—I wasn’t completely clear on that), and many other Christian churches incorporate either at the individual church level or some lower regional level.

    As a practical formal/informal culture matter, I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes. I mean, it does match up with the deeply hierarchical, top-down nature of contemporary Mormonism, but I don’t know that (a) that hierarchy would go away if we incorporated smaller units (say, at the Stake level), or (b) that other churches would be more hierarchical if they were incorporated at, say, the national level.

  21. john, but saying, “I hate that the Church is so corporate,” strikes me as different than “The church is a corporation!” I may object to the use of corporate as the best adjective, but I get what’s being said. And for a lot of people, that may be their argument, and this post doesn’t address that argument.

    There is at least a swath of people who argue that the actual state of the church’s being a corporation is somehow un-Christian. And that assertion doesn’t make sense, so that’s why I’m trying to explain why the corporate form is not antithetical to churchiness, both by contextualizing it (i.e., pointing out that lots of Christian churches incorporate) and by explaining the benefits the church, its members, and its critics receive as a result of incorporation. That doesn’t respond to “the church is so corporate,” but it does respond to “Corporation!!!1!”

  22. fair point!

  23. Sam, perhaps another good question is, does the type of leadership required to administer Mormonism’s centralized corporate structure instill overly-hierarchical/managerial values in local leaders/members? Perhaps such centralization requires that the majority of our General Authorities possess background in corporate law or executive leadership in private industry, and perhaps the dominance of those backgrounds is trickling down to the gold standard of leadership style that many local leaders/members strive for.

    I had never thought of it until you brought up the centralized/non-centralized typology, but perhaps the Church’s corporate structure is inimical to more of the Richard Bushmans of the Church being called to the high rungs of leadership (Q15, or 70 for that matter).

  24. Clark Goble says:

    Michael H, could you flesh that out a bit? I’m not quite sure what you’re saying. I think you’re saying that if the church leadership is more involved in day to day practices that makes it “more corporate.” It’s just that I then don’t understand what it means for those lower down (say Bishops and Relief Society Presidents) to fulfill their callings in a corporate way. My sense is that you’re using corporate in two senses here but maybe I’m misreading you.

    It seems to me two things are being addressed by many. (This may not be your point but I hear it alot)

    The first is really about standard rules and norms. (Rules being formally presented and norms being more unconscious “that’s how we do things” sorts of quasi-rules) So one complaint about corporatism is really that there are too many rules prescribing things rather than individual innovation at the local level.

    The second is more about following the spirit. While in theory fewer rules allow more spontaneity by the spirit, that doesn’t necessarily follow. After all even with what some see as too many rules there may be ample room for the spirit to guide people but people not take advantage of. Second there often are rules and norms that are expected behavior but that leaders are allowed to violate when the spirit dictates.

    I think clarifying what people dislike can be helpful.

    My own guess is that really what people object to aren’t corporate structures, top down rules, or innovation but homogeneity. After all even without many rules there may be a ton of homogeneity in the church. There’s no rule to wear white shirts but most people do, for instance. There’s no rule for women to wear pants but most do. (Although that’s a stronger social norm than white shirts since most people myself included often wear other colors)

  25. There is at least a swath of people who argue that the actual state of the church’s being a corporation is somehow un-Christian. And that assertion doesn’t make sense

    There is also a swath of church leadership who argue that the actual state of the church is the restored Urkirche, which the 21st century American church clearly is not, even if in that context it makes all kinds of sense to incorporate in order to keep the lights on. As for alternatives in form, see the UK, Germany and France.

  26. Clark, you raise a good point about homogeneity vs. corporate-ness, and I think the former is behind many of my angst with dealings with local leadership. The exact nature of that homogeneity, however, is one that is based on emulating the more corporate traits of members of the Q15/70.

    I find too often local members subtly equating the the Q15/70’s backgrounds in law/executive corporate command (I find it conspicuously odd that someone saw the need to add a lengthy “Professional leadership acknowledgements” section in Russel M Nelson’s Wikipedia entry) with righteousness/fitness for leadership. It would be hard to reject the notion that, at least in the Mormon Corridor, an overwhelming majority of local/stake leadership mirror the professional backgrounds of the Q15/70–hence my comment to Sam that local congregations seem to have developed a gold standard for leadership that corresponds to the background of Church high-ups that is quite corporate. Exceptions abound, but they remain exceptions–at least in certain geographic areas.

    Maybe that was a ramble, but I’m trying to say that if local units strive for any type of homogeneity, it is very corporate one that may come from the top–quasi-mandated white shirts and all.

  27. Sam, I recommend more learning about trusts. Beyond personal preference informed by knowledge or lack thereof, I think you’ll be hard pressed to distinguish a corporation from a trust for purposes of a church’s legal structure.
    Separately, I do understand that some part of the “corporation . . . bad” commentary is about corporate hierarchy and bureaucracy. But I think there is another aspect that needs to be addressed more squarely (this is me bringing private inurement back on the table). In U.S. political/economic/worker-owner discourse, “corporations” operate for the benefit of shareholders . . . not employees, not the environment, not the supply chain, not future generations. (That’s not universal; Germany is an instructive contrast.) When someone says “Church . . . corporation . . . bad” in a U.S. context, one thing they/we are saying is “I’m not clear who is the owner, for whose benefit the Church operates, but I don’t think it’s me.” Now there are reasonable replies in logic and principle, but not so much in spirit and feeling.

    Trust language would be better, in my opinion. NFP (not for profit) corporation language, where it is explicit that the purpose is _other than_ profit to anybody (members, directors, or officers), would be better, in my opinion.

  28. Clark: “I think you’re saying that if the church leadership is more involved in day to day practices that makes it ‘more corporate.'” Not quite. I think my comments have been getting more at *how* the day to day practices are carried out. I won’t flesh that out with examples, because 1) some seem to already understand the sentiment I’ve communicated in earlier posts (John F, Robert C) and 2) I fear I’ve already steered Sam’s post enough in my own direction.

  29. Michael H – I think that for every “low” experience of an over agenda’tized meeting, formal seating, rigid participation and driving towards efficiency, you will find a counter-low experience of a completely wasted 1-2 hr ward council meeting where pontification is rampant, no set purpose and nothing is done.

    I guess the challenge (and our corporate/church leaders are hitting hit hard) is how we effectively leverage councils – so that there is structure and collaboration equally.

    The value I find in good administration is it allows us to identify and focus on ministering so much better (e.g. who hasn’t been visited in 3 months?). I would chastise our priesthood for poor HT’ing reporting that causes a ward council/PEC to spend 45 minutes discussing the problem and who needs or doesn’t need a ministering visit. Those are 45 minutes that weren’t used to focus on the widows, the poor in spirit and the needy – because administration did not happen.

  30. I am going to take this another direction. I grew up being taught about the Great and Abominable church. I was instructed on all its unrighteousness. During that time my teachers often pointed to the wealth accumulated by The Great and Abominable Church (yes we were even taught it was a specific sect.) All the finery, the ornate buildings, etc. etc. were drilled into us as carnal, devilish, evil. Now today my noble religion gobbles up land and builds mega buildings for income. Our religious centers are works of art. The money that I donate to God through tithes go unanswered. And I have passed the poor and the needy begging outside those mega centers built by my humble and noble church.

    When those two worlds collide I get angry. I understand places of worship needing to be built but I was taught that frugal was best. So corporation comparisons really chap my hide. According to my youthful instruction our behavior looks, feels, and sounds very much like the Great and Abominable church I was warned to have nothing to do with.

  31. Clark Goble says:

    Michael I think I’d distinguish homogeneity that’s somewhat imposed versus what tends to arise more naturally. I completely understand those annoyed when people from Utah come into a local ward and try to remake it in the image of a typical Wasatch Front ward. However well intentioned. (And often there are good reasons to do this – sometimes things are somewhat dysfunction in a way they aren’t elsewhere – it’s just that other social norms often come along for the ride)

    My critique of the homogeneity critique is to ask why it matters. That is I suspect part of it is just people not liking a certain style in preference to a different style. I tend to agree a lot of style is ultimately irrelevant. i.e. dress is ultimately fairly arbitrary so a 19th century Polynesian ward would dress quite differently from a 21st century Utah ward. However if it doesn’t matter then why worry about it?

    Of course in practice people worry because there are these informal norms yet when people break them some people get judgmental. Think women wearing pants which honestly seems a non-issue yet somehow is a big issue for some on all sides. Thus I suspect that generally (although certainly not universally) “corporate” becomes a kind of odd signifier for “judgment about unconscious non-essential social norms.”

    That’s fine. I just think it’d be useful to be careful what the real issue is. For one we’re more apt to solve the problem. But more importantly I think it helps everyone understand what the debate is about. Often we have these debates where people talk past one an other because the real issues aren’t discussed.

    Again, not to dispute that there really are some structural issues as well. And there I think the issue is ultimately the 12 having to spend so much of their time doing administrative tasks that they don’t have time for anything else the 12 could have done in pre-War periods – those administrative tasks are also why I suspect so many recent calls have come to people with business or legal backgrounds. Those are the skills most in demands. However again to go back to queuno’s point. What is the alternative?

  32. pconnorc: I heartily agree that a well-structured meeting can lead to more effective ministry. But statistics-driven missionary work and home teaching, many worthiness interviews, and, as I’ve hit on above, the material/corporate success-to-local leadership pipeline that I’ve observed throughout the Mormon Corridor are some things that strike me as spiritually-starved forms of administration.

    Clark: Your last paragraph at 12:10 hits on my comment at 11:06. It seems we may agree that an alternative would be more desirable. As to what that alternative could be, beats me. Maybe a more decentralized corporate structure, like the one Sam brings up at 10:58?

  33. Clark Goble says:

    Michael, that’s where I think queuno’s point becomes deeply relevant.

    I think the brethren have tried to shift more and more of the workload onto the 70. Indeed the expansion of the 70 from the presidency to having a first quorum and then eventually a second quorum really is about that shift. Yet there are many tasks people expect the brethren to do that just don’t seem to scale. Add in the fact the brethren are living longer with the associated problems and it’s a thorny issue.

    The problem of a decentralized structure is that there’s still a ton of settings apart that need done. You can resolve that somewhat by creating a new bureaucratic layer of the 70, but isn’t that increasing corporateness not decreasing it? And if we decrease the number of Stake Conferences they go to in order to free up time, does that make it worse or better?

    Really what I think people want is somehow to magically have the involvement the 12 had in the 1930’s. But that just can’t scale to a population of millions of active members around the world. We read about how things were in the early church and want that. But some things just don’t scale.

    Decentralizing it really doesn’t resolve the problems either since then people immediately start complaining about the mistakes leaders make. So all the incentives (often indirectly encouraged by people criticizing the corporateness) are to give less freedom so that they screw up less. (Since screw ups are simply viewed as more weighty than successes)

  34. One of the more robust frameworks that I can think of that might help shed light on what people are trying to refer to when they are concerned about the church as “corporation” is one currently popular (maybe overly popular for its own intellectual good) on “institutional logics”. This is a strand of organization theory (or macro-sociology focused on organizations). The basic idea here is that organizations tend to operate on fairly defined set of norms, values and activities that are consistent with other organizations of their type – ie we evaluate and expect something very different from a corporation than a church or government agency. For those into this type of thing the definition for institutional logic I prefer is from Thorton and Casio “the socially constructed, historical patterns of material practices, assumptions, values, beliefs, and rules by which individuals produce and reproduce their material subsistence, organize time and space, and provide meaning to their social reality”. Another way to put it is that these logics are how we make sense of and approach solving the important problems our organizations face.

    In the context of this discussion, what I think people are worried about (and rightly so IMHO) is the tension that exists between applying a corporate logic versus a church/religious logic to the LDS church. These can coexist but often do so in tension as they *value* different things and operate on different assumptions. For example, the church developed a program that tried to analyze where placing temples would have a maximal impact on tithing receipts. The very fact someone was doing geospatial, economic analysis on demographics and past tithing behavior to predict changes to tithing is something very understandable from a corporate logic (businesses are basically seen as mismanaged if they don’t do this type of thing) but feels very uncomfortable from a religious logic. Because the church is now managing a very large number of assets and this includes employing hedge funds, complex real estate deals etc. there is always a risk that such matters can creep into the organizations time, attention, practice and values.

    This tendency might be particularly strong due to the church’s lay ministry and leadership structure. Unlike other church’s whose leadership local and global come from systems that are designed to specifically train them AS clergy with their own set of norms, networks, practices, and skills, we basically rely on professionals who have spent their whole lives solving problems with professional tools and lenses. So there is less to counterbalance the interpolation of the professional corporate logics onto the church. An example of where this has gotten us in deep trouble is when professional sales people become mission presidents and apply sales tools to the conversion and missionary process. It isn’t that they are being evil but they are being asked to solve a difficult problem and it is completely understandable that they use the logics and tools they know to do it. Yet there is something disconcerting to watch sales incentives, prospect qualification pipeline systems, and sales techniques being applied to a sacred process. Its not hard to think of other similar examples in other areas of church life.

    So yes, I worry A LOT about what the application of the logic of the modern corporation may do to a church, our church. In some ways, the tool of modern management are a blessing to any large organization (and bureaucracy shouldn’t be the unidirectionally dirty word it is). However, our scriptures warn us about trying to serve God and Mammon. The BoM and Christian church history, ancient and modern, gives us many examples of how the sacred can come to be subsumed by the economic or political. I think anyone sympathetic to the Church, inside or outside, that *isn’t* worried about this is missing one of the greatest threats to the Church as it moves forward. I personally think that modern managerial logic has invaded the Church to a disturbing extent. That is what I would mean if I were to critique the “church as corporation”. However, others may not feel this way.

    This critique can operate completely independently from conspiracy theories of rent-seeking ecclesiastics getting rich off the church. In fact, I don’t think there is a lot of evidence for that viewpoint. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about things like mission drift, mixing the sacred and profane, or the church becoming increasingly decoupled from his religious purpose in meaningful ways. It even seems some leaders may be worried about this when they give talks about the need to “minister” instead of “administer”.

    Hope that was helpful to the discussion.

  35. very useful, from my perspective — thanks

  36. Clark Goble says:

    rah, wouldn’t such analysis be part of the “study it out in your mind?” Perhaps though you point to the right direction that the issue is a certain theology of inspiration/revelation people attribute to the Church that perhaps isn’t accurate? (I don’t want to put words in anyones mouth – just that I think you point in a fruitful direction where people don’t want leaders to study things in traditional ways)

  37. The criticism of the LDS Church being “corporate” usually comes from ex-Mormons with animosity toward the Church (like gay marriage or something) who are simply pissed off that the Church continues to actually be effective at what it does.

    Usually the same people are the ones calling for churches to lose their tax exemptions whenever said churches win a political victory.

    There’s tons of tolerance for religion in secular American – until religion is actually effective – then it’s like Wells Fargo and the prophet ought to be nailed with criminal charges.

  38. Seth, I have no idea what your assertions have to do with entity choice for churches. I’ve argued that the corporate form is not anti-Christian, and I would also argue strongly (and correctly) that it has nothing to do with religious freedom. So, to the extent you want to talk about religious freedom, may I suggest finding a post somewhere on that topic, not entity choice?

  39. rah: What an amazingly sensible comment. You’ve articulated the problem in a way that those of us without your expertise in OB would have a hard time matching.

  40. rah: Excellent. I subscribe.

  41. To what extent is the current corporate form a consequence of the disincorporation of the church in the late 19th century by the Edmunds ( or Edmunds-Tucker) Act?

  42. Clark Goble says:

    Paul if I recall Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition goes through some of that. However I suspect the main period of change was when the church was scaling so quickly. That’d put it in the 60’s and 70’s. So starting with McKay and probably professionalized when Pres. Tanner was brought in to clean up the mess the church was in financially in the 70’s. Pres. Tanner had a lot of skill in that area and streamlined a lot of things. Although even after his death many aspects of church management were messes. There were horror stories of say the building department in the 80’s for instance. I think those got cleaned up after the church had to spend a lot of money to redo numerous chapels built in Canada using plans designed for the Wasatch front.

    While I’m very sympathetic to rah’s point, I’d add that there were compelling reasons that the church was made more and more ‘corporate’ in rah’s sense. i.e. the alternatives were almost always worse.

    The problem of mission drift, mixing sacred and profane, and the other points he touched upon are real of course. Although I tend to think most of these existed prior to the period of the real corporate church. (Say roughly the 80’s to the present) So for instance the infamous baseball baptisms arguably occurred independent of ‘corporatism’ as did the infamous ‘survey tracting’ that we encountered in my area growing up. Both caused no end of problems and arguably more ‘correlation’ over mission practices were the result precisely because of the problems.

    So while I’m very sympathetic to those being real concerns I’m also quite skeptical they’re actually uniquely corporate. Certainly people lacking better choices will turn to management technology. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. What are the alternatives? This is why I raised the issue of a theology of revelation. since I think what’s behind all this is people not liking the idea that God gives people responsibilities and often leaves them to figure things out. Even though in the callings we regularly have that’s the status quo. i.e. moments of inspiration and a whole lot of “figure things out yourself by looking at what others have done.”

  43. rah: Thank you. Excellent comments.

  44. Sam, I was actually on topic. I was aiming for the point that “corporate” is usually code among the disaffected for “the LDS Church is a lot more organized and effective than I feel comfortable with.” Perhaps I didn’t convey that well enough.

  45. Thanks, rah. That’s a great example of productive critique. It does an excellent job of laying out the issues in a manner that warrants response, and could potentially effect change. (I mean, even assuming a trust or other entity form is a better fit for the church, given the cost and learning curve involved in that change, I suspect it won’t happen.)

    Overt analytics and the other things you mention, otoh, are definitely changeable, and their clear articulation (by any or all of us who feel similarly) could at least plant the metaphorical seed.

  46. The real question is “Would Jesus incorporate?” Jesus seemed comfortable with a loosely constructed joint venture. But then perhaps Jesus was a product of his time.

    Sam, do you know who are the shareholders of our church? FP and Q12?

    Internally, the Church feels corporate when one is referred to The Handbook. It seems to strip away the ministering Jesus applied to individuals and instead administers to all members collectively. I think for many of us that spend the weekdays in Corporate America, we long for something different on the Sabbath.

  47. Chadwick, you underestimate the likelihood of another scenario: “Think about it, fellas! We get all thirteen of us putting in 60 hour weeks on six different boats fanned out across the Sea of Galilee…and we’re talking huge profit margins on the local salted fish market. If you’re thinking that cuts too far into our ministering time, then you’re simply not catching my vision. Matt, is your cousin still working in real estate?”

  48. Brian Duffin says:

    Sam, loved reading this! Great work, as always!

  49. The church itself is technically not incorporated. Almost all Church activity is done via the Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is a “corporation sole” organized under Utah law. This is one area where the Wikipedia summarize are reasonably useful. A corporation sole is a specific kind of non-profit corporation in which a specified religious officer is the trustee of the corporation. Corporations sole have no obligation to maximize profits, and are best thought of as non-profits.

    Some of the criticisms seem to be that the Church is too bureaucratic rather than that it is legally organized as a corporation sole. I think there is merit to those criticisms, but I also think its unrealistic to expect a 15M member worldwide Church to be anything other than a large bureaucracy with some bureaucratic excesses.

  50. Just a late note on trusts – in many U.S. jurisdictions a non-profit entity can be either a corporation or a trust. Nowadays, a corporate form is universally preferred and I think especially so for a church such as our own, where leadership is determined from the top down and not elected by the members. Not just a regular corporation, a corporation sole allows any duly chosen successor in interest to occupy the spot (this is surprisingly ambiguous – see, e.g., the Utah code at 16-7-9). There is no need for an election by a board of directors, etc, as in a regular charitable corporation. A trust, however, must set forth its order of succession explicitly in a declaration, which is very difficult to change after once set. If the declaration fails to adequately specify the successor trustees, the law of most states requires that a court step in to determine a successor. This whole structure would be very difficult for our church to work with. I think a trust structure could work, however, for churches that have a very democratic structure. Note that other traditional churches in the U.S., such as the Catholic, tend to use corporations sole (and this has a common law background in the Church of England and the Crown of the UK).

  51. rah’s comment is very cogent.

    A thought that keeps coming to my mind is that those who dislike the “corporate” nature of the church also object on principle to the authoritarian and hierarchical structure that has evolved. The notion that the corporate heads (the apostles) are completely removed and inaccessible yet their views are the only ones that matter when it comes to setting the policies that govern those of us in the membership creates for many an intolerable closed loop wherein the only feedback to be heard at the top is that of acolytes and toadies. This type of hierarchical insulation only exists in authoritarian organizations, and those types of organizations are no longer the norm. In fact, they are increasingly rare. Most of us work in organizations where employers care what those at the bottom think, both employees and customers, and although there are some core values that will never change, policies and procedures often adapt to reflect the realities on the ground. That seldom happens in today’s top-down church. Trying to improve the organization is viewed with suspicion as a sign of faithlessness rather than a sign of engagement and investment. Again, that’s not how it is viewed in most successful companies today.

    I suspect there are two key reasons that the church struggles to shed this hierarchical structure: 1) this is the type of structure that was the norm when most of them were in the heyday of their careers in the working world, and 2) there are no women in the structure. Organizations that involve both men and women tend to be flatter and less hierarchical with peer to peer mentoring and many feedback loops–communication is prized. They are proven to be less likely to reward group think and more likely to solicit input from a broader variety of people before making decisions. Male-dominated organizations tend to be more authoritarian and less egalitarian (consider the military vs. an organization of nurses – two very different types of structural approaches that tend to be dominated by different genders). When our top leaders come from organizational backgrounds that are integrated like most corporations are today (and are increasing in their integration of both men & women), we’ll see some movement on this. But we’ll all be dead by then.

  52. I’m not sure how much of the “isolation” of the first presidency/apostles is driven by a corporate model and how much is just sheer #’s?

    My impression from anecdotal stories is that compared to corporate leaders I have known, the leadership of the church (1st presidency, quorum of 12, seventies, general presidencies) go out of their way to engage with individuals. With recent YW general presidency and quorum of 70 leaders in our area, while they did have large group meetings, they also set aside what to me was a surprising amount of time to visit with individuals – in some cases going out to visit recent converts, less actives and investigators.

    I’m not saying they or the structure is perfect, but I wonder if when put in context of the sheer #’s and how they do connect if we aren’t giving them enough credit?

  53. Note: Churches and religious orders have been corporations since at least the 12th century, viz for as long as there have been corporations as a matter of law. Businesses, on the other hand, have only been widely organized as corporations since the last half of the nineteenth century. The real question is not whether churches should be corporations but whether businesses should be corporations. (Adam Smith, for example, thought not.)

  54. Clark Goble says:

    Angela, it’s worth noting that as the hierarchal structure of the church developed fairly early on it was the cause of many initial apostasies in the early 1830’s.

    It’s completely understandable why some don’t like it. In many ways it is anathema to the American ethic of radical individualism. It’s worth comparing ourselves to our nearest religious parallel: evangelicals. Evangelicals ended up largely breaking with the mainline protestant churches and embraced that individualistic model. If our structure is corporatist in terms of hierarchy theirs is corporatist in terms of retail with many large and small churches competing for consumers interest. The focus is much more on the individual’s wants and they frankly are very good at evolving quickly to meet those wants.

    To my eyes both are corporatist yet in very uniquely different ways.

  55. Clark Goble says:

    BTW – it’s interesting that the problem is seen as corporatism while it seems to me two other parallels work nearly as well and perhaps have more explanatory power. Why not see it as the government of a small country? (Governments have bureaucracies too) The other structure that seems apt is military.

    A common divide in militaries actually parallels a lot of the concerns expressed in this thread. You have the very top down hierarchy often seen as insufficiently nimble and too caught up in fighting the last war. You then had the different approach of what some called maneuver warfare. (I know the discomfort at a war metaphor, but I think the structural parallel is worth it) Maneuver warfare requires more autonomy at the local level in order to quickly move to deal with threats and opportunities. However it’s much more difficult and requires innovation and discipline by those local troops. The metaphor for maneuver warfare is often ju-jitsu in that it blends and adjusts to the situation at hand rather than having a limited number of actions controlled by figures higher up.

    My sense is that people want that nimbleness that maneuver warfare represents but don’t quite see how much it depends upon discipline and capability at the local level. It’s fine to want that, but how many units are capable of doing it? I think the church has developed the current structure largely due to necessity from failing units and problems. It’s how to deal with those problems that’s the tricky issue.

  56. Angela,

    I think you make a very good point that the corporate logic of the church is one that seems rooted in the very 1900s-1980s top down logic that has come to be challenged in many (not all) corporations in the 2000s where organizational metaphors and models have been heavily influenced by more organic, bottom-up models of thinking. In fact, I would say you would be hard-pressed to find a more apt organizational comparison than say a 1970s utility company or IMB to how the church looks organizationally, especially at the center. I also think it’s fair to say there has been no indications that the central church is rethinking its basic command and control structure at any serious lever. It tinkers here and there – like putting a token women on a council – but there is NO discussion, appetite or leadership for the type of organizational transformations that have been brought to corporate America in the last 20 years. It will take a plurality of apostles versed in and desirous of such a transformation before we see any movement. Barring a significant change like creating emeritus apostles and using it aggressively that won’t be until our generation is in its 70 and 80s. SO corporate logic yes, but one trapped in post-WWII amber.

  57. Clark Goble: The difference between the flatter more local structure in an evangelical church is interesting to note. I think a big reason for the charge of corporatism that critics level against the church is that the church itself isn’t sure what to do with us. We aren’t just consumers (which is essentially what lay members are in an evangelical church). We are also “employees,” staffing all the positions and doing the ground level work of running our wards and stakes. But certainly while being “employees” we are also “consumers,” there to receive as well as to give. Where the problem comes in is that we are assigned to run it but given very little freedom in how to do so, and when our ideas are routinely shot down or we are taken to task for showing initiative or we see that programs are failing our needs as consumers, that’s where the criticism that the church is too corporate comes in.

  58. Clark Goble says:

    Angela, I think it’s not just ‘flatter’ but independent. Each Evangelical church whether it has 40 members or 10,000 or more is independent from the others. That’s huge in terms of costs for bad choices. If one church pastor is caught in embezzlement, sexual misconduct or bad counseling for things like rape, the members typically don’t blame Evangelicalism but simply switch churches. (Some will of course point to Evangelical culture – but it’s still a different way of looking at it)

    Contrast this with Mormonism where if a Bishop inappropriately doesn’t regulate a child offender, it’s the church as a whole that gets blamed. One doesn’t need to look far to realize that when one Bishop acts inappropriately many people blame the Church and not just the Bishop. That produces very different incentives. (Catholics face that too of course)

  59. Re: “I also think it’s fair to say there has been no indications that the central church is rethinking its basic command and control structure at any serious lever.”

    Considering our belief in the doctrine of keys dictates that some semblance of command/control will exist AND that the church moves very slowly, I think that there is reason for optimism.

    In my lifetime I look at the advent of correlation, the dissolution of the local 70’s, the investment in the growth of the general 70’s, the past several years focus on councils, expansion of PEC/Ward Council and even the new collaboration process of sacrament meetings – those all indicate shifts in leading.

    But again, if you’re talking about the basic doctrine of keys and responsibility – barring a new revelation, it won’t change. What seems to be changing is the notion of how keys are exercised and the collaboration associated with them.

  60. all those shifts centralized the corporate structure more and more as part of the overall “priesthood correlation” program, removing initiative from local branches of the corporation (the wards and branches), including from the Relief Society.

  61. Priesthood correlation,, and the emphasis on unity among the leaders (12 or 15 or 70+) suggests that the “institutional logics” are not changing any time soon.

    I wonder whether we are operating in unprecedented territory? As a comparison, the (Roman) Catholic Church has a centralizing structure (with the Pope, i.e., the bishop of Rome) but one can see it functioning at an institutional level as a combination of dioceses each with a bishop. With 1.27 billion members and 2200 to 2800 dioceses or bishops, the average diocese has just half-a-million members all in a relatively compact geography. Other data points: General Electric has about 350,000 employees; the U.S. army projected active duty strength for FY2016 is about 1.3 million. Arguably the Mormon church is an extreme outlier among centralized organizations.

  62. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    I’m surprised noone has skewered the obvious recent example of a corporate institutional logic creeping into the ecclesiastical portion of the church: last conference’s now-seemingly-forgotten debacle around p0nderizing. At some level it didn’t seem unseemly to the GA and his family to have prepared to sell “p0nderizing” merchandise in the wake of his highly memorable conference talk. Oops. Disconcerting, as rah would put it.

  63. Chadwick, sorry it’s taken me so long to get to your question.

    Who are the shareholders of the church? While I haven’t seen the documentation (clearly), my guess would be: nobody. Utah nonprofit corporations, for example, can either have shareholders or not have them. That is, a shareholder isn’t necessary to the corporate form.

  64. Kevin Barney says:

    I think Sam’s right. My understanding is that as a religious body, the Church is an unincorporated religious association (IE members are not “shareholders”). Its corporate structure begins with two corporations sole, the Corporation of the President and the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop. The corporate form resides not in the individuals as shareholders, but in the then current holders of the office. So when one President dies and a new one is installed, the Corporation automatically resides within the new President; there is no need to transfer shares or anything like that. So while there is a corporate form, there are not actually shareholders.

  65. I can’t believe someone didn’t pull out Citizens United and the “personal” rights of a corporation. Remember that SCOTUS believes that corporations are people too*!

    The question for the corporation of the church then becomes, is the corporation-person-thingy Christ? Christ-like? Even close? Of course the answer is a resounding NO. It’s cut-throat, protective, somewhat of a bully. (Is the corporation-person-thingy then God’s Porter Rockwell?)

    Frankly, since SCOTUS personifies corporations* then let’s take a moment to personify the corporation of the church and it’s many components.

    It’s a wounded animal- born of the tortured persecution, of the trek, debt, and the constant threat of total annihilation by the enemy. It requires all – total consecration from members and only gives back a fraction and only after it takes it’s share. It is fueled by a never-ending sources of lazer-focused zeal, a kamikaze zeal. It never doubts itself. It is God’s word, God’s might, God’s hope. It exists to perpetuate itself by self-sustaining. It gives a portion to charity, but like Joseph in Egypt, knows to keep much larger stores for years of famine. Each year its graineries grow larger. It invests in itself. It cares not for the 1 and could sacrifice the other 90 and 8, as long as one were alive to feed it. It is the size of a brontosaurus, so it can’t turn without painfully slow and awkward movements. It is pre-programmed with an ancient and primal instinct to arrive at a destination and doesn’t plan on making any diversions. It can lose a digit or an arm or whatever and feels nothing, like a starfish or The Borg, it regenerates. It has plugged its ears with wax in order to be deaf to the masses. It never looks back, nor does it see where it steps.

    *I know the nitty-gritty of the SCOTUS decision doesn’t affect non-profits in the same way and there are important exceptions, but generally speaking we can draw some parallels. Arms of the church (CES, church employees in various sectors, etc.) were affected by the ruling and the church stood by the ruling, allowing them the ‘religious liberty’ to do the Hobby Lobby thing and not pay for abortions or birth control or other such things for its employees.

%d bloggers like this: