I recently read a 1981 Sunstone article written by J. Bonner Ritchie called The Institutional Church and the Individual. The article is as timely now as when it was written, perhaps even more so as the church continues to become more focused on obedience to authority and less on progressing from principle to principle, line upon line, precept on precept. Ritchie is uniquely qualified to opine on this topic as a former soldier and professor of organizational behavior. His experiences as a soldier made him curious about organizational behavior and led to his career choice. The article, based on a speech he gave, talks at length about “organizational abuse.”

He later clarified the term:

My definition of abuse is: when anyone’s best interest is not served by organizational action or policy. And since all people are different, there’s never a time when one policy or program will serve all people’s interests equally.

He mentions the advice he was given by various types of people and what that advice revealed about those who gave it. He was told, variously, that he should:

  • Give a careful and rigorous theological talk (not use his signature creative license, but “stick to the script” as it were).
  • Establish academic credentials by giving a professional organizational theory talk.
  • Trace historical conflicts between individuals and the church.
  • Deal primarily with contemporary conflicts between institutions and individuals.
  • Focus on potential strategies for the future.
  • Relate personal feelings and experiences.
  • Remain detached and theoretical, scholarly.

All of this advice reveals more about how individuals approach the organization rather than what the best way truly would be. As Ritchie puts it:

As I look at such prescriptions, I wonder what they reveal about all of us and our agendas? What do they say about our pain or frustration with organizations? What about the attempt to skirt the issues by virtue of academic niceties? And, what about the demand to take on the issues with a gut-level confrontation? What is the process within each of us? Can we back off and identify those forces within us that make us so self-righteous in our apology for the  organization or so defensive in our attack on it, so protective of individual prerogatives in light of organization encroachment or so defensive in terms of the right of the organization to dictate? These ought to be some of the questions generated for each of us.

The B.H. Roberts Society was a independent Salt Lake City group devoted to “examing and discussing all aspects of the restored gospel as they relate to contemporary society.” Sounds like the role today’s Bloggernacle fills. Their introduction exposed the underlying tension between individuals and organizations:

 lndividual free agency, in its purest form, implies the existence of unlimited choice. Institutions, on the other hand, require a certain level of conformity in order to preserve their identity.

It’s interesting when we hear the shift in Mormon rhetoric away from “free agency” which focuses on the open ability to choose toward “moral agency” which focuses on there being a “right” choice, and being accountable for the choices we make.


How individuals interact with the organization:

While I do not feel we can make organizations safe for people, I think we can help people protect themselves from organizational abuse. By doing so, we can free people to develop their creative potential using the organization as a resource, rather than as a limiting force.

The purpose of organizations:

I would hope that we can make our organizations (especially the Church) more effective tools for noble purposes. This is especially important in a contemporary world where we so often see a dichotomy between a self-indulgent, narcissistic approach to organizations, on the one hand, and the noble dream of the idealist on the other.

He lists several issues that can lead to dysfunction between organizations and individuals:

Individual Responsibility

One of the biggest “cop-outs” you can hear in any organizational context and especially in Mormon culture is the statement, “I will do what I am told, and if it’s wrong, the person who told me must bear the responsibility. I am justified because I am obedient. If I am told to do something that turns out to be evil or inefficient or unproductive,
my loyalty to the organization somehow absolves me of responsibility for the results of that choice.”

Gordon Allport describes religions as either security or growth mindset:

Security religion provides refuge. It builds an ecclesiastical wall which protects from the onslaught of questions and doubts and decisions. Growth religion, on the other hand, forces its adherents to grow, to accept responsibility to assume the burden of proof, to move beyond extrinsic constraints. Growth religion provides not a wall but stepping stones to climb for the purpose of understanding, analyzing, serving, and making choices.

Personal Intellect

In Mark Leone’s book Roots of Modern Mormonism, he observes that one of the strengths and weaknesses of Mormonism is the burden it places on individuals to reconcile their individual views with the organizational norms.

We are told not so much what to believe in detailed theological terms, but rather that we should all be in harmony and that it is up to each individual to get there through prayer or study.

Ritchie explains that within Mormonism we encounter problems due to impatience with each other when one church member violates another’s idea of the acceptable norm. He says there is a predictable tendency toward a “conservative convergence.”

Organizational membership carries with it a surrender of alternatives in many respects. I give up the choice of playing tennis and skiing every day from eight till five for some organizational benefits which are important. In the process, I may resent what I have given up, and I may wonder if I haven’t made a bad trade. So I try to justify my organizational involvement, especially if I happen to have a leadership position, by converging on rules, criteria, and procedures that demand compliance by me and others in order to justify the fact that my position is important and worthwhile.

I have often made the observation in discussions on Mormonism that those who are most judgmental or exacting in their standards for others’ behavior tend to be those who most resent their own sacrifices. For example, a woman who resents her choice to remain out of the workforce (or to abandon educational pursuits) because she believes that is the more acceptable choice may be the most vociferous critic of a woman with a career. If she is happy with her choice, there’s no need for her to criticize another’s different choice. Likewise, someone who has chosen not to drink alcohol but who feels excluded from desirable social events as a result may be more openly critical of those who indulge in social drinking as a way to downplay the perceived loss.

Ritchie talks about the problems nearly all organizations face if they continue to become more and more controlling of behaviors, more focused on institutional obedience:

We get more and more control over less and less until finally we have perfect control over nothing. That is exactly the fate of most organizations. That is where systems find themselves as they attempt to dictate all policies, as they become weighted down by bureaucratic rules, with more and more tests of obedience, loyalty, and conformity.

When an organization (or its individuals) become too insistent on having all the answers, dysfunctional leadership dynamics are the byproduct:

This respect for the person who is supposed to give the answers, who is in the position of authority, can be a stabilizing force or can become a kind of adoration which is oppressive and frightening.

The Proper Role of Institutions

Who doesn’t know the three-fold mission of the Church? Or that Pres. Monson added a 4th mission? Or did he? Did it stick? Or does the Church just have one goal: to invite people to come to Christ? Why is there so much ambiguity about something so simple?

Organizations don’t have goals. Whom do you ask about an organizational goal? People have goals for organizations, and people use the mechanism of organizational goals to achieve their own noble or selfish purposes. When we impute an anthropomorphic nature to the organization and give it the dignity of needs, motives, value systems, and goals, we corrupt the process by which individuals control organizations rather than are controlled by them.

He talks about the role organizations play in creating discipline in individuals that can improve their potential, but he points out that it only works if the goal is to transcend that discipline, like in a university education. One can be a perpetual student, but without applying that knowledge and discipline in broader society, it’s not of benefit to either the individual or really anyone. From Hesse’s book Beneath the Wheel, Ritchie notes:

There is nothing so threatening to a professor as having a student who may be smarter than the professor. The teacher’s task, after all, is not to produce extravagant intellects, but rather decent, conforming folk.

If we never rise above the discipline, we don’t achieve our potential.

We start with discipline and the system. We must converge before we can diverge. We must converge to the discipline before we can diverge to the discretionary skill. And the organization, the church, is the means to do that. Unfortunately, many of us end up converged with the discipline as the end.

Imperfect Organizations

He next talks about the problems when we encounter the abuses within the organization.

Our next challenge is to remain positive even after a long series of bureaucratic encounters. Picture a U-shaped curve. We begin at the top, naive, trusting, pristine. Bureaucratic entanglements may disenchant, frustrate, aggravate, and lead us to believe there is a malevolent force operating in this organization which wants to destroy us, to get us; we become paranoid.

His point is that all organizations function this way, and the best we can do is to protect ourselves and others from being ground up in the “conservative convergence,” the efforts of the organization (and its leaders) to protect the institution as an intact organization. Power within an organization is a corrupting influence, and individuals must understand this to be able to protect themselves.

As previously discussed, the organizational process is by nature conservative. In fact, I would argue that a liberal organization is a contradiction in terms. Organizations, including the Church, must have liberal people to survive, but the organizational force is a conserving one. This seeming dilemma was discussed by Clark Kerr, president of the University of California. Responding to a critic who said we must eliminate all “evil” forces in the university, he stated that we can never make the university safe for students, we can only make the student safe for the university You can not make any organization safe, you can only prepare people so they can safely function in the organization.

An important part of this issue is that a person must learn to deal with the power system of institutions. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Those were his main points.

Liberal (or Progressive) vs. Conservative Leadership

Eighteen years later, he revisited his article, expanding on some of his earlier thoughts. He discusses this idea of conservative thinking among leaders (focused on preserving the organization, the status quo) and liberal thinking (progressive thinking to address flaws in the organization and make improvements).

The conservative trap is to not even understand that the past needs to be changed. The one who incorporates both aspects realizes you must go forward and change and that you don’t spend time beating up the people who made the organization. If we’ve learned anything from organizational culture, which has become a major field since I gave the talk, it’s that you must honor the past. And one way you honor it is by changing it without hurting those who created it, whether they’re alive or dead.

By contrast, too much progressive thinking can get stuck on rejecting the past as a means to move forward:

It’s kind of a liberal obsession to feel you need to precisely articulate 3 each point of the past to be able to move on to the future.

He decries the idea that organizations can be liberal or progressive and still continue to exist over time. I’m reminded of a funny Jon Stewart sketch in which he talked about how fragmented the Democratic Party was. His “beat reporter” asked a room full of twenty liberals what the most important cause was that they were all working toward, and got twenty different enthusiastic answers.

People ask, “Why can’t we have a progressive, liberal organization?” and my point is we can have progressive, liberal people in the organization, but the organization itself will be conservative. My official off-the-top-of-the-head theory is that an organization can have one in thirteen people who are liberal. If thirteen out of thirteen are liberals, no one’s doing the organizational maintenance tasks. . . You must have some people minding the store. But it’s more than maintenance; it’s conserving, literally, in the best sense of the term, the organization itself. . . . Effective organizational leaders must maintain and manage the conservative/liberal tension. They must conserve the essential organizational values and, at the same time, respond creatively to the needs of the individual and the changing environment.


Ritchie goes on to talk about the difference between effective and ineffective leaders in terms of conserving or progressing the organization:

The worst leaders are low in both–they neither conserve anything nor change anything, and there are many of those. Then there are those who are high on liberal and low on conservative–they want to change lots of things. They are the real crusaders. Then there are those who are high on conservative and low on liberal. Those are the ones who want to conserve everything. The really good leader hangs on to the things that need to be conserved and changes the things that need to be changed.

Most strategic leadership involves these two aspects of work: the maintenance of the organization (bureaucracy), and what should be ditched or improved (new projects). To Ritchie’s list of good and bad leaders, I would add that those who conserve the wrong things about the organization and make bad changes are probably the real worst ones, not the ones who neither preserve nor change the organization. Devolving an organization results in a surge of attrition.


  • Do you like his definition of organizational abuse? Have you seen examples where this occurred?
  • Why is it so difficult for people to acknowledge the tension between the institutional church and the needs of individuals?
  • Do you see a good balance of conservative and progressive leadership in the church? When have you seen it at its best and worst, either locally or at higher levels?