A Church Ombudsman

Several years ago, while we were waiting for the church to build a building in downtown Chicago, my ward met in a rented public school on Sundays. And honestly, it was a great location–the nursery was in the gym, with its basketball hoops and plenty of space to run (and/or toddle) around. Primary and adult classes met in classrooms, some with class pets you could watch if the lesson was less-than-completely interesting. And kids could play on the playground out back once church was over (and—shhh!—sometimes when their primary class took them out).

But, like many Chicago public schools, this school didn’t have air conditioning. Now for real, that’s not a big deal in Chicago. It doesn’t get super-hot here, and, when it does, the heat only lasts a few weeks. (Also, those few weeks of heat tend to be in the summer, when school’s not in session.) But it could be uncomfortable, especially in the gym.

And one day, the gym was air conditioned. How? What I’m told is that a member of our ward who was related to a general authority in Salt Lake mentioned the heat and, because of that personal connection, the church provided air conditioning.

While it was great for the kids and nursery leaders, this story highlights a failure in church structure: if you’re an ordinary member of the church, there’s no way to provide feedback to church leaders. But the problem is, this isn’t an accidental design failure; this is the design. Church policy expressly discourages members from contacting General Authorities about “doctrinal questions, personal challenges, or requests.” In most cases, any correspondence to church leaders will be sent on to a person’s local leaders.

And I get it! With almost 17 million church members worldwide, church leaders don’t have the bandwidth to engage with all member questions and concerns. But ignoring members’ concerns is harmful, both to the church and to the members.

For members, it means that they have no clear way to solve problems they’re facing, especially when the problems involve local leadership. If a person’s stake president is exercising some type of unrighteous dominion but any letter complaining of that will be sent right back to that person’s stake president, they’re not going to get their problem solved and potentially will face negative repercussions (social or ecclesiastical).

But the harms to the church are equally grave. By limiting communication, it means that church leaders don’t know the problems the church is facing at the ground level. They only hear from people they know and people with some degree of ecclesiastical authority (because it’s possible for stake presidents to write to General Authorities and not have their letters bounced back). That means the church can’t resolve very real problems it has because leaders are unaware of those problems until they explode into something worse.

It also means that the most effective way to communicate problems is to do it very publicly, through blogs or Twitter or media. (I’ll note here that, on occasion, commenters accuse us at BCC of being fake or unfaithful Mormons because we sometimes blog about missteps the church makes. But for many of us, that’s the only way we can bring problems to the church’s attention.)

And it also means that there’s a baked-in elitism in the church. If you’re related to or friends with the right people, you can elevate your concerns. If not? You’re out of luck. And that kind of elitism is bad not just for members but for the church.

So what to do? There are all sorts of options, but I want to suggest that the church would be well-served by creating an ombudsman office.

An ombudsman is basically a person within an institution whose job is to help resolve problems with the organization. And the ombudsman office I’m most familiar with is the Taxpayer Advocate Service. The Taxpayer Advocate is appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury and, while they are located within the IRS, they have significant institutional autonomy. Among other things, they cannot work for the IRS for a certain number of years before or after their term as Taxpayer Advocate.

The TAS motto is “Your Voice at the IRS” and frankly, it’s a pretty good model for what I’m thinking. The Taxpayer Advocate has two main roles. First, it helps taxpayers who have problems. It helps them navigate the tax system, it helps them resolve their problems, and it even advocates for them in the IRS. Second, it releases an annual report to Congress listing, among other things, the 10 biggest/most common challenges taxpayers have faced in the prior year.

Both of these would be valuable roles for a church ombudsman. First, they could help members navigate thorny issues they’re facing. Outside of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, members wouldn’t have to worry about ecclesiastical repercussions. And because they would be outside of the hierarchy, they also wouldn’t be the ones causing the problems. (And it’s not just problems: it could be things like the need for air conditioning. Or more bike parking. Or the stake or ward is teaching incorrect things, or is politicking, how to appeal church discipline or get rebaptized, etc.)

And second, because the ombudsman would be regularly interacting with members, it would be well-positioned to know what problems members are facing, whether it’s big things like priesthood access for women or losing a generation because of regressive LGBTQ policies or little things like social isolation. Like the Taxpayer Advocate, the church ombudsman could issue an annual report to the General Authorities, giving them a sense of actual issues church members are facing, unfiltered by hesitancy or layers of homogenous bureaucracy. Of course, what they did with that information would be up to them; the ombudsman’s office couldn’t and wouldn’t force any kind of change.

If the church were to adopt an ombudsman model, there would be plenty of issues to figure out. Like, how many people would be in the office? (The Taxpayer Advocate has at least one office per state; it would make sense to maybe have one or two per Area?) How would the church ensure the independence of the ombudsman? What exactly would its mandate be? But an ombudsman’s office would allow General Authorities to not be overwhelmed by individual feedback (a thing the current policy seems designed to ensure) while, at the same time, getting real feedback and allowing members to have their voices heard. Having this type of feedback-and-information structure would improve outcomes both for members of the church and for the church itself.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Comments

  1. seniorhalf says:

    It seems so obvious that this sort of thing should be established, doesn’t it?

  2. Talks at Conference regularly contradict the message that members shouldn’t write directly to general authorities. So many talks are built around a letter they received and then read aloud. The other contradictory element in church practices is that each unit leader – either stake President or bishop regularly has to send petitions and requests to the general authorities for a decision.

    An ombudsman/woman would be a great way to resolve these conflicts.

  3. nobody, really says:

    There’s absolutely no need for a program like this. The Church is perfect, continuously led by revelation given line upon line to inspired priesthood leaders. They would NEVER have an organizational problem, because The Lord is in charge of His church.

    Thus, any complaints like roof leaks in the buildings, black mold, broken windows, unrighteous dominion, sexual assault, pyramid scams, financial fraud, and even nepotism are just fabricated stories and efforts from “The Adversary” to discredit and waste the precious time of our inspired leaders.

    So, shut up and get back in line. Your salvation and eternal family depend on it.

  4. it's a series of tubes says:

    A great idea. Would be beneficial for the organization and for the members.

  5. jdavidtedder says:

    Snack machines in the foyers would also help immensely.

  6. I know the Church solicits feedback on specific issues from members outside of the ward, stake, area, hierarchy because I’ve been contacted and invited to participate. It was long enough ago that I’ve forgotten the gist of the conversation but there was a structured component (good for doing all those statistical things researchers love) and some open ended discussion at the end. I vaguely recall having some issues with the structure of the questionnaire, having at one time worked in marketing research on a national level. Interviews were conducted in person by someone sent from Salt Lake.
    While not a perfect model, selection bias could be a problem and a rapid response in a changing environment could be an issue, there is, at least, some effort being made to get a feel for the members.

  7. Alma Frances Pellett says:

    Was the now ended “Church Patriarch” system helpful to this? Or was it simply another (competing) source of direction?

    Even with regular reports, it seems the Church is much too rigid in hierarchy to want such an office who could potentially say something “not approved”.

  8. In addition to the “Don’t write to us”/”My talk is based off of a letter I received” whiplash from General Conference talks, I also found the talk where the seventy mentioned how when he was first called he wanted to bring up local issues with the higher ups, he was told that he was facing the wrong way; to be very deflating. An officially approved General Conference talk based on how church leadership doesn’t want to hear about local issues.

  9. The Church actually conducts surveys among youth. My children have been interviewed a couple of times. That’s another way on knowing what’s going on. Except that the answers depend on the questions asked… You only find what you’re looking for in such pattern. The ombudsman idea seems interesting, but situations are problems faced are so different from one continent to another, there would have to be many of them. There are issues here that I doubt will ever be resolved. Like the difficulty to make a 2 years pause in your studies and then resume them. In France, it is very hard, to say the least. Many of our youth has to choose the one or the other.

  10. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    But the Church already thinks they have a system like this. Bishops and Stake Presidents are supposed to fill the role of Ombudsman. What you’re saying is that this system isn’t working. And you’re right. It doesn’t work. And while there are many reasons why that system falls short, I think the main reason is that Salt Lake leadership doesn’t want it to work. To the extent that they want feedback, it’s only on the things they are interested in – and they’ll send out a survey for that. The other stuff…they just don’t want to hear it. Unless, of course, it can be used for a conference talk.

  11. ushallbcot says:

    And an Appeals Office, right?

  12. Anything to address the sneaking feeling that leadership operates in an echo chamber is good with me.

  13. I’m not saying it is a bad idea, but it would be *weird*…because ostensibly, unlike say, the IRS, who is in charge of enforcing a particular set of laws, of which even if you support is mission, you are probably not personally in love with every iota, the church is supposed to be an organization of service to its members, not top-down laws with attached enforceable mandates. The top leadership spends more time “in the field” that those of most organizations. So, maybe? I’m not sure a traditional ombudsman, as much as a suggestion box that has a formal receiver at the other end with some authority.

    This is in conjunction with my own personal experience with a university ombudsman: who was comically, nay tragically, incapable of doing the slightest thing to help me in a moment when I really, really needed some. i.e. they are nice to have but are almost always really only for decorum, I’m afraid. And, for the chronically underfunded IRS, which even with it’s newly hired agents, I can’t help but think it’s a similar situation.

  14. Southern Saint says:

    When the Raleigh Temple was finishing up being renovated in 2019, it was originally announced that an open house wouldn’t be hosted at all and that the rededication would be private. This confused many NC Saints because we got a whole new exterior and interior for the temple. Renovated temples out west were regularly showcased to the press and public, and we were confused as to why NC wasn’t being treated the same. Coincidentally, the MP of the NC Raleigh mission at the time was Elder Holland’s son, and barely a few days later, an open house was added to the schedule.

    Though I don’t know exactly what prompted the Church to change its mind, I sometimes wonder if Elder Holland’s son played a role in that decision.

  15. Some years ago, when I still attended church, I was the Stake Executive Secretary. A second building was being built in our city, which was including one of those carpet basketball courts. In a high council meeting, there was a discussion about maybe getting a hardwood court. As it happened, a member of the high council was a son of the then current prophet and president. It was agreed that when he went to conference he would ask dad if we could have a hardwood basketball court. Conference came and went and the high council met again. The basketball court question was on the agenda. The high councilman reported he had indeed asked dad.he reported that his father started to cry, and said that of course we could have the hardwood court, and continued that the cost would have built three chapels in the Philippines. We were told that the high council could decide which course the church would take, and to let him know. We took the carpet. Absolutely true story.

  16. I think it is hopelessly naive to think that anyone appointed in such a role by 50 North Temple would be independent enough to actually perform the role as outlined. Moreover–and this may be the cynic in me–I seriously doubt that there would be any freedom from potential blowback/ecclesiastical consequences (I cannot be the only one for whom “Will you walk into my parlour? said a spider to a fly” comes to mind when thinking about a GA-appointed ombudsman).

    All of the rhetoric about not contacting GAs does call into question the authenticity of some of the faith-promoting “letters” referenced in conference talks, although I suppose that some leak through from connected sources. Still, those of us of a certain age certainly remember some of Paul Dunn’s stories that turned out to be, well, not so much based on actual events…

    But the fundamental point of the Church’s leadership being too insulated from the reality that many members experience is real and valid. Whether or not there is a realistic way to address or change that is, of course, the question.

  17. An ombudsman? An absolutely great idea that will never occur due to the top-down direction of the organization in question. Excuse my pessimism…

  18. We got to this point by a natural evolution in the church’s growth. As Sam explains, the Church is no longer small enough for general authorities to give personal attention to individual members. The ad hoc solution to this problem was to refer personal inquiries to local authorities. This is a poor long-term solution, but no one has done the work to find a better way, so the kluge has become permanent. Because policies in a bureaucracy tend to justify themselves, there’s now an attitude that this state of affairs is really for the best, and we just won’t think about whether it has a rational basis.

    In this way, the idea of a responsive community in the Church has been undermined. The “don’t contact us” policy opens a chasm between general leaders and the average member. This is maybe not a total disaster as long as the average member is left to operate in the sphere of the local Church community. But there’s a hitch. General leaders frequently give average members detailed guidance in the form of sermons, policy statements, and program pronouncements. Frequent, detailed instruction from general authorities who are not part of a responsive community is problematic.

    This week, Jana Riess wrote a column about the problem of celebrity culture in the church. You can find it online at Religion News Service. (Headline: “Mormons are insulated from some dangers of celebrity culture—but not all.”) She points out an issue that many of us have noticed: the increasing idolization of general authorities.

    It’s one thing to show reverence for leaders who are among us and whom we might come to know personally. (It felt natural for people to call their leaders “Brother Joseph” and “Brother Brigham.” Those men were not just authorities, they were everyone’s colleagues in the work.) It’s a different thing to show reverence for leaders who are systematically inaccessible. The relationship between leaders and followers in the Church seems to have fundamentally changed.

    I’m not convinced that creating an ombudsman is the best solution, although it might be if we can fix the underlying issue! As others have said in the comments, it won’t accomplish much to change the façade when the weakness is in the framework. The problem that needs to be solved first is the attitude that no contact is good contact.

  19. Even have the GAs secretaries keep a count of how many people write in on what subjects, before sending the letter back to the person’s stake president would be a huge improvement over “don’t call us, well lecture you.” Politicians do this, because they don’t have time to read every letter. That is what secretaries are for. So, the secretary counts the letters about what the concerns are, and the GAs could be given a general idea. Something along the lines of, “65 people wrote in that they are leaving the church over LGBT issues, and another 106 are unhappy. 347 grandmothers from San Pete county are happy with the church’s stand on LGBT issues.” Just to give the GAs a general idea of what people have issues with.

    But that still won’t work until they solve the underlying problem. That is that the top leaders just don’t care what members are dealing with. All the church talk about which direction junior leaders face, the directions not to write, the very fact that the church has no system of giving feedback up the chain of command, they all add up to show that the church cares about its image and it money.

    So, until that underlying attitude of leaders changes, the best option to be heard is “Go public.” And believe it or not, there is pretty good evidence that the church has bots and real humans that pay attention to blogs like this. So, this is a good place to openly discuss what top leaders don’t want to hear.

    One of the problems with this lack of feedback to the top is the vast number f people who give up and leave. When a person feels there are problems that top leaders do not even care about, when they know they cannot be heard, they leave the church. You can see this on the feminist blogs. They were very active with hope for change. The the church excommunicated Kate Kelly, and the blogs changed. People said they had left the church, but even more just quietly disappeared. Some stuck around, but there was a new tone of hopelessness and about 1/4 the total participation. 3/4 the people following such blogs just quietly disappeared. Most of them probably from all church participation.

  20. Diana Isham says:

    This is 💯 exactly what is needed!!!

  21. AcademicMom says:

    I like the idea. I hated that there was no way to talk to those making decisions. We hit this with early morning seminary years ago. For various reasons it was very hard on our family and really bad for kids (early starts are detrimental to teens). It was a matter of serious mental health issues for my kid. I tried talking to the stake about options. They patted me on the head and said there are rules and the current system was the only way to do it. If I wrote, it would get sent back to the stake and I was already “that woman”. So I just pulled my kids. Now it doesn’t seem radical to me but it did then. I figured though they wouldn’t change unless someone forced them to look at enrollment (or the parents felt empowered).

    So many similar stories. As a woman it’s amplified. I got tired and left.

    Although I also fear it would be like a university ombudsman. Nice in theory not so useful in implementation. (I had a similar situation needing help with a work situation as the above poster. Academia is a very rigid system and they will protect those higher on the totem pole or the good name of the university. If they aren’t afraid that you will sue to file a complaint with the federal government, which I wasn’t brave enough to do, they aren’t much help.)

  22. I think this is a great idea, Sam. As others have said, it would sure be an improvement on our present arrangement where there’s no way of getting information to flow upward.

    Also, to keep the offices independent, they should be staffed by non-Mormon employees, absolutely not Mormons, either called to the position or employed by the Church. Non-Mormons would have an employer/employee relationship with the GAs, and would only have to navigate the usual issues of higher-ups not wanting to hear bad news from the rank-and-file. They would be spared the inevitable subtle (or not-so-subtle) threats to their Church position or membership if they pushed too hard to get a particular issue aired.

  23. J. Mansfield says:

    It reminds me of the time back in the fall of ’93, I wanted to know the pressure that Coke bottles were designed to contain without bursting, so I called the 1-800 number on the label of one. Surprisingly, I was quickly provided an answer. I expect if I tried that today, there would be a lengthy wrestle with an automated system with repeated encouragements to hang up and use a website, until the computer would surrender and put me in a queue for the next available agent. After several minutes waiting (due to “exceptionally high call volume,” somehow is rather commonly encountered “exceptional” condition), I would spend some minutes with someone who would not understand what I was asking and would vaguely recommend that I try looking for an answer on the company website. I almost want to test my prediction and see how getting information out of Coca-Cola compares in 2022 with 1993.

    And since you are all wondering: 150 psi.

  24. On my mission several years ago, then-Elder Hinckley visited us. At one point he claimed that he considered the fact that the Church was able to survive its bureaucracy was another evidence of the Truth of the Church. I don’t think it’s gotten any better in the meantime

  25. Rick Powers says:

    Sam, this is way off the track but, I would like to request your help. I have greatly enjoyed your blogs, particularly your insight into the Church workings, for better or worse, because of your expertise in law and taxes. Well, this week two monster stories have come out concerning church financial handling of donations, one from Australia and one from Canada (and the stories actually intertwine). Long story short: Australian 60 Minutes is accusing church leadership (i.e. Salt Lake City) of creating a “shell” corporation to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars from Australia to the Church in order to subvert a new tax law put into place in 2014. In the other story, the Church is accused of funneling church donations out of Canada using BYU as the charitable donation source, possibly having reached a cool billion.

    That is a brief overview of how I heard the stories explained. They are both on youtube, the Canadian one 5 days ago and Australia’s 2 days ago, and they are highly troubling. My request is that you look into the stories and give us your read. I have no educational background in any of this but have come to trust your insight and, quite frankly, I don’t know where to get non-biased understanding, blowing by the side stories about our history and our hatred for gays, and focusing on these allegations. In other words, I guess what I’m saying is “help me, Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope”.

  26. My experience in local church leadership is somewhere I’ve seen this a few times.

    For me the two most exhausting issues with these types of things is the role of A70’s and the role of church employees.

    The A70’s are often too busy retweeting the brethren and too much time looking up instead of looking around them. Too much time showering the corridors with rose petals to pave the way of the brethren.

    Unfortunately church employees are notoriously bureaucratic and scared to step out of policy. That policy is blown apart with ecclesiastical intervention though. In my opinion, the current age of the leading brethren isn’t as much of an issue with being out of touch as much as it is the approach of many A70’s and policy drivers.

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