I confess I’m a little emotionally exhausted after the whole impeachment trial, pseudo-acquittal, and McConnell speech (he was guilty as hell, but no I won’t vote “guilty”), piled on top of the endless Covid drama (there are millions of vaccines being distributed every week, yet it seems to require heroic effort to somehow get an appointment and a shot or even to decipher the rules your state or local health authorities are putting out). I find it difficult to find a topic or issue to write on that seems relevant or interesting at the moment. It’s sort of like clicking through the Netflix menu when there are hundreds of shows and nothing looks interesting. So in this moment of failing political leadership, and with a wave of the hands at the next General Conference which is only seven weeks away (April 3-4), let’s talk about LDS leadership. Is LDS leadership doing any better than our political leadership? I’m inclined to say yes, but that’s a pretty low bar to clear at the moment.
Let’s look at an article by Jana Riess over at Religion News Service, “Leadership by old men: In Mormonism, gerontocracy is a blessing and a curse.” You might think Joe Bien looks a little old in some of his appearances. He is. He is 78 years old. Now he might very well be the right man for the job of the US Presidency at the moment, a very demanding job, maybe the toughest job in the world. But still, taking on the toughest job in the world at age 78 is a lot to ask. Normally people retire well before age 78, much less take on daunting new tasks and responsibilities. But consider the LDS comparison: Joe Biden is nine years younger than the *youngest* member of the LDS First Presidency. Remember that the next time you see Joe Biden on the screen and think he’s old.
Now the truth is that the whole LDS system sort of runs itself on a week-to-week and even a month-to-month basis, so a leadership vacuum at the top of the LDS hierarchy is not as problematic as you might think. And President Nelson has been remarkably energetic and activist by LDS standards. He has changed a few things, even if the changes are relatively minor in the overall scheme of things. But age is still an issue. Here’s a paragraph from Jana’s article:
Latter-day Saints often proudly say the church is led by a prophet and apostles so these anointed leaders can speak to the needs of our particular time, but in reality the church is often dragged kicking and screaming into the present. Rather than taking the lead and speaking prophetically to counter injustice, it all too often openly resists the changes that lead to justice. In large part that is because resistance to change is baked into the system.
I doubt that “Don’t Rock the Boat” is inscribed in stone above the entrance doors of the COB, but it could be. That’s okay when things are rolling along smoothly, but it becomes a problem when change is needed. I won’t launch into any long discussion, but just consider the decades-long struggle within the LDS leadership to, for example, end the practice of polygamy or end the exclusion of those of African descent from participation in LDS priesthood and temple activities. It shouldn’t have been that hard. It’s not like there was resistance from society or government to make those changes. All the resistance was internal. It was self-generated. Sometimes the LDS leadership system creates its own problems, then struggles to solve them.
So how old is too old? What set of circumstances would lead the LDS leadership to acknowledge there is a problem that needs to be addressed and then modify the current leadership structure that guarantees leadership by an aging gerontocracy? It’s hard for me to see any set of circumstances will lead to change. Consider the recent impeachment trials (Trump 2, Trump 1, Clinton). It’s fairly clear that, at this point, presidential impeachment as an accountability tool is a dead letter. It looks nice on paper but cannot actually be properly employed by Congress. If the events of January 6th and Trump’s role in those events cannot support a conviction in an impeachment trial, then no set of circumstances will support a conviction. Impeachment is a dead letter at this point. Likewise, there have been periods, stretching to several years, where an LDS president was fully incapacitated and could discharge none of the duties of the office. But no change to the LDS leadership structure resulted. If that scenario does not motivate a change in structure, then there really is no set of circumstances that will lead to change in the LDS leadership structure. It’s not even worth discussing. Which leads to the next topic.
Second article by Jana Riess, “Mormon leaders and the erosion of traditional power.” The central point of this second article is that now not just progressive members but even conservative Latter-day Saints have started to selectively ignore pronouncements and guidance by LDS leaders. This is, she thinks, part of the generational shift away from traditional deference to leadership elites. But the process doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If particular leaders or leadership cadres get in the habit of dispensing unreasonable, unfactual, or irrelevant guidance or counsel, just repeating what was said a year ago or ten years ago or thirty years ago, that accelerates the process. Jana emphasizes how unflinchingly traditional and hierarchical the LDS system really is:
In terms of power structures, the LDS Church is more like the royal family than it is like a contemporary evangelical megachurch. There is a clear hierarchy, with a next-in-line flow chart and carefully delineated protocols for leaders’ behavior and dress. At General Conference, this protocol is on vivid display. Every male leader wears the requisite uniform of dark coat, white shirt and restrained necktie and sits in an assigned seat according to his place in the line of succession. A royal coronation could not be more conventionally ordered.
Jana then likens the LDS leadership approach to the Catholic model, and warns that the LDS group may become “a leadership that continues to make pronouncements in the manner of a traditional power structure and a membership that increasingly disregards them.” And that’s the question that we maybe should talk about in the comments: Is the LDS membership increasingly disregarding pronouncements of LDS leaders? It’s a little hard to tell with so many wards and stakes not physically meeting at the moment. But this Covid disruption is only likely to increase the distance between leadership and the membership. And consider this: Given the Trumpification of much of the LDS membership, the very reasonableness of LDS pronouncements might give rise to more disconnection. So becoming more relevant and more reasonable and more informed in their public statements might actually make the problem worse for LDS leadership. Recall how the bland LDS statement recognizing Joe Biden’s election triumph and wishing him success in office, even coming weeks after the election results were confirmed, angered many conservative LDS. This is a tough situation for LDS leadership.
I have no doubt that the LDS leadership is aware of these developments. Are they going to address the issue openly in the upcoming General Conference? Or will it be the usual offering of basic doctrinal and institutional talking points? Celebrating the timeliness of the home-focused Come Follow Me program (that many members are more or less ignoring). Talking about the wonderful ministering program (that many members are more or less ignoring). Talks on repentance and the sacrament and going on a mission. You’ve heard it all before. It just feels to me like at this upcoming General Conference the leadership really needs to shake things up a bit to get the attention of the membership. While people are still listening.
So here are some things from my rambling post that you might talk about in the comments.
- Are you emotionally burned out at all? Do you, too, find yourself thinking we’re all on a big train to nowhere at the moment? Do you think you need a vacation, then remember you don’t want to get on a plane or be in a hotel room? You can’t go to Hawaii. You can’t even get into Canada.
- How old is too old for LDS leadership? What conceivable set of circumstances might motivate LDS leaders to rethink the “serve until we die” paradigm?
- Are more and more LDS members just tuning out LDS leadership? Is this just overreacting to the difficulties of the moment, or is this really a thing?