Before the leaked videos, there was a leak of Church documents that couldn’t even muster enthusiasm from the ex-Mo reddit crowd. Why was that? Because the one thing the documents clearly revealed is that the church is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies have policies. And those policies, like nearly all policies, are boring.
Calling the church a corporation or a bureaucracy is one common criticism we hear in the bloggernacle as Sam Brunson recently pointed out at By Common Consent.
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.
What exactly is it that critics are complaining about when they say that the church is a corporation? Here are a few things that seem to come up in these discussions:
Paranoia about lack of transparency
Mostly these are individuals who have lost trust in how the church spends the widow’s mite (or their own mite for that matter). They want to know they are spending their charity wisely, that those funds will go toward things they approve and not be wasted on frivolity or things they oppose (e.g. shooting preserves). Particularly in the internet age, charitable organizations are far more transparent than the church usually is. Some of the lack of transparency undoubtedly protects our ability to work within the confines of different countries’ limitations and is therefore necessary. But some of the lack of transparency may cover up wrong-doing (as it usually does in other corporations). Not knowing leads to speculation, and speculation leads to paranoia. It’s one reason that when the leaked videos came out, the leaker said that even though the content wasn’t that interesting, it’s better to have transparency.
Defenders would say that transparency can also lead to misunderstandings, and that it’s not secret, it’s sacred, and that only those whose stewardship it is need to know about it.
Suspicion of wealth
This criticism stems from a belief that capitalism is antithetical to Jesus’ teachings and that wealth corrupts both individuals and systems. Sometimes critics conflate capitalism, profitability, financial solvency, and bureaucracy into a big bucket of materialism that drives out spirituality and humility. The pride cycle in the Book of Mormon bolsters this thinking. If we are prosperous, we’re on the verge of losing our way spiritually and needing to be taken down a peg. There’s also a strain of Popish criticism to this as well–the Protestant idea that the Roman Catholic Church was corrupted by wealth. The reformation tore down the wealthy edifices and returned that wealth to its rightful heirs–the plundering aristocracy!
Defenders would say that we donate to the poor, and that financial solvency is being good stewards of the widow’s mite.
A dislike of the meetings in our church
The “corporate feel” of policies about facial hair or color of shirts or how the meetings are run with “ward business” at the beginning and a rote structure. The ward buildings that feeling like a spartan, cookie-cutter corporate creation rather than the artistic joyful spaces some other churches have. The push for conformity is very specifically related to a 1950s style of corporate governance (The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit) that is no longer in vogue but has a very specific feel to it that most modern corporations now see as oppressive and soulless, from the lofty perch of their exercise ball chairs. This criticism can also be about lay members in our church feeling like employees with bishops and stake presidents acting as managers handing down business objectives rather than pastors tending to Christ’s flock.
Defenders would say that we keep things stripped down so people can focus inwardly on their relationship with Christ.
A dislike of the centralized top-down governance in our church
This is because local wards have limited power to deviate from the model, that our manuals are all identical and that teachers who deviate at all are often quickly released. The level of control at the top level contrasted with the complete lack of control and variability at the local level drives this criticism. This is a contrast with other denominations where the congregation can find a new pastor if they don’t like the one they have, and the worship service is intentionally geared to the needs of the individual congregation. Rules and structure are dictated by local committees rather than handed down from a central committee at headquarters. Often, when complaints are voiced about how programs are run, local leaders claim powerlessness to fix the problems or simply state that it’s what they’ve been told to do. This can leave the member in a calling feeling that they have no support to succeed. In reality, it could just be a dodge by their local leader, or their local leader could in fact disagree with their proposed solution. But some of this criticism seems to stem from leaders often being chosen from the “yes men” who make the fewest waves rather than the more dynamic, creative types who push the norms but sometimes break a few eggs (or rules) in the process of making an omelette.
Defenders would say that the wards do govern and minister to ward members’ needs and have budgetary discretion (within guidelines), and that one man’s “yes man” is another man’s “if ye are not one, ye are not mine.”
Distaste for political actions
There is some element of this criticism that is related to disliking mixing of religion and state, a particularly American concern, but one also that has some root in the feeling that Mormons have more often been the victims of other religious groups’ politicking rather than the ones who were able to exert influence in the political realm. There is also dislike among non-conservatives in the church (in the US) for the church using tithing funds toward political aims (such as Prop 8) that they would not support and might in fact oppose. Church members living outside the US may not like the focus on American politics with little interest in similar issues outside the US. Even within the US, church members are often alarmed at how Utah-centric the church’s political efforts appear to be.
Defenders would say that politics is personal, that all churches participate in politics, that the Mormon church does it less than most other conservative churches, and that we only get involved with issues, not candidates. Those who watched the Gordon Smith leaked video might feel a bit queasy about this one.
Criticism of commercial endeavors
This is a tricky one because there are different types of criticism associated with the church’s commercial endeavors: 1) that the church shouldn’t own investment properties or oversee non-church related projects like a mall because they are unrelated to religious or spiritual aims, a distraction, 2) that some of these endeavors are ill-advised or have negative impacts such as gentrification to urban communities. (This criticism was particularly pointed at the Philadelphia housing project). There is also a tinge of secularism vs. spirituality to this criticism, the notion that religion should be at odds with secularism, not operating under its auspices.
Defenders of these endeavors often point to the fact that as a “business” the church wants to maximize returns to make the best overall use of funds to which critics respond “Ha ha! I knew you were going to say business!”
Where do you sit on these issues? Do you think the church is too bureaucratic or just the right amount to run it? Do these leaks give you more comfort or less comfort? Are there other issues I haven’t identified behind the criticism that the church is too corporate?