The concept of an Ombuds(man) (or woman) is a fairly recent development that has gone hand in hand with larger entities. You can read about the history and such about it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ombudsman
“The typical duties of an ombudsman are to investigate complaints and attempt to resolve them, usually through recommendations (binding or not) or mediation. Ombudsmen sometimes also aim to identify systematic issues leading to poor service or breaches of people’s rights”
“The major advantage of an ombudsman is that he or she examines complaints from outside the offending state institution, thus avoiding the conflicts of interest inherent in self-policing.”
“Many private companies, universities, non-profit organizations and government agencies also have an ombudsman (or an ombuds office) to serve internal employees, and managers and/or other constituencies … Organizational ombudsmen often receive more complaints than alternative procedures such as anonymous hot-lines.”
The essence of an Ombuds is that they give a voice to the powerless — especially those outside of a power or social structure. If you’ve ever been at a stake conference where every talk has five-ten minutes of the speaker talking about his or her connection to the other speakers and leaders and five minutes of a talk, you have been in a place where the power structure and social order have squeezed out almost everything else.
An Ombuds counteracts the feeling of dispossession and not-belonging that often causes organizations to shed members and become nothing more than an expanded social club, often combined with being large enough that it feels faceless.
While there were prototypes in many older societies, the essence of an Ombuds is that the society has outgrown the other forms of formal and informal appeal. For example, in the early church people were known to buttonhole Joseph Smith on the street and anyone could schedule a meeting with Brigham Young.
Later in the Church, all you had to do in order to talk to an Apostle was to vote no at Conference, something anyone could walk in and do. Not to mention, many people lived near general authorities. When the church had only a couple hundred thousand members (and a 5-1 child to adult ratio) that wasn’t too hard. Anyone had a voice.
Now this did lead to some headaches. We have comments and complaints from a number of church leaders about the types of problems they had to deal with, including the confessions of things that leaders did not feel bore even remembering, nonetheless confessing (a complaint Brigham Young had). Others have tired of “drama lamas” and those on both sides of issues constantly pestering them (Bruce R. McConkie bore a special animus for people who kept pestering him to speak out against chocolate and white bread). Some have attributed Elder McConkie’s tireless work ethic to a desire to avoid all the people who were buttonholing him and trying to get him to endorse their special cause or perspective.
If you read about the trials Moses had, where he was overwhelmed by the people (and then appointed captains of thousands, 50 and 100), you can see this goes back a long way in time. Leaders can get overwhelmed, especially by minutiae. [http://biblehub.com/exodus/18-25.htm]. The bigger the organization, the more complaints they hear, the more overwhelming it can get.
Now, in the present church, all complaints are referred back to Stake Presidents, unopened or un-reviewed except to figure out where the complaint is coming from so it can be sent back. The only way complaints make it up the chain is by surveys, personal contacts (much rarer) and when a problem is so common that State Presidents bringing it up with Area Authorities moves it up the chain.
The question that I’ve had looking at this is what method is available to allow for something more than what we do and do we need something more? That is two questions. Is there a solution is the one everyone asks, but the other question, do we need a solution, is also valid.
The question that I’ve had looking at this is what method is available to allow for something more than what we do and do we need something more?
The third question is: “What other venues for appeal do we have in the church as it is that I don’t know about, and that exist in the church as it could be?” Again, like my last post, I expect that the question will turn out to be more complicated than my essay and have more facets and things I did not know about.
There are problems that seem to be routed in local authorities basically being unchallenged. For example, those who have moved their funerals outside of LDS Chapels because they were told that one parent could not participate if they had left the Church. I don’t know enough to state whether or not or who was right or wrong in the case I blogged about, but I do know that the parents felt they had no venue for an appeal and the process caused some significant ill-will for the Church in the local community.
I’ve also heard from people who have cancelled baptisms rather than expose children with anxiety disorders to large numbers of people, or who have been told that their child’s non-member friends could not attend the baptism because baptisms were only for members and those committed to baptism themselves. They were told that a baptism was not a missionary event for exposing people to the Church and the matter stopped with the Stake President who did not believe in anxiety disorders (including those with formal diagnosis and treatment plans).
In the LDS Church the process of no appeal beyond a stake president is referred to as “leadership roulette” though often an Area Authority will involve themselves if asked (and they seem to be the natural person to serve as an Ombuds in the current system).
In dealing with problems like this, some churches have experimented with Ombuds (the sex-neutral term). Some have had Ombuds imposed from outside, especially in cases involving sexual abuse of minors, some have worked to consider them from the inside (the Church of England’s 2013 plan). Orthodox congregations have considered having ombuds who serve for a twelve month period who would report to leaders things that they were missing. The Catholic Church has had some difficult times with some systems:
You can read about the Catholic experience at http://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1113&context=drlj
(Yes, while I do not know everything, I do know that some solutions cause problems as well as solve them).
Even non-church and non-government entities have had ombuds. Some that would surprise you.
Other churches have tried other alternative dispute resolution systems.
Other churches have a fully democratic form of common consent — except when they do not. For example, the Anglican Communion has the majority of votes held by African Churches that oppose gay marriage. They have grown quite adept at subverting the system to support gay marriage regardless of where common consent would lead them.
Now, I don’t have the answers. I can’t even spell Ombuds in a way that avoids my spell check and I’m not sure if it should be capitalized or not. I’m aware of lots of problems with such systems and the fact that such a system is no guarantee of uniformity or happier outcomes.
But, it is something I’d like to talk about.
So, without my having the answers, I’d like to ask some questions:
- What method(s) is available to allow for something more in the way of an appeal from a local leader than just sending it to the local Stake President, unread? Does the current Church system have structures I don’t know about that work and are available to most members.
- Do we need something more to do with complaints than just sending it to local leaders or is that really the amount of an appeal that is realistic, given the size and complexity of the Church? Should “leadership roulette” be a thing that is a feature, not a bug?
- Is there a system (Ombuds or otherwise) that would work with a church as large as the LDS Church currently is? You can tell I’m at a loss to even give much of a suggestion of a solution.
- What procedures would you suggest, what are the positives and what are the negatives you see in them?
All images are from Wikipedia Commons.