Life offers plenty of intended consequences, where things work out just like they are supposed to. And there are cases where outcomes are highly foreseeable, at least to objective observers, although sometimes the primary person is blind to that foreseeable outcome. No doubt as a friend or relative recounts their story of misfortune, you have replied, “Well, what did you expect? I tried to warn you.” But there are a lot of cases where largely unforeseeable consequences follow from a rash decision or even a carefully planned decision. It’s not just that you didn’t see it coming — no one did. Let’s talk about unintended consequences in the world and in the Church.
Exhibit Number One: Ukraine. There is a very long list of things that Valdimir Putin didn’t see coming when he made the apparently unilateral decision to send Russian troops into Ukraine almost three months ago (Google tells me Russian troops crossed the border on February 21, 2022.) He expected a quick land grab and a quick regime change with little or no opposition from the West or the wider world. What he didn’t expect was for his Russian troops to get their butts kicked by a bunch of underequipped but highly motivated Ukrainian troops. He didn’t expect the reputation of the Russian military to plummet to zero. He didn’t expect Finland and Sweden to suddenly decide to join a newly energized NATO. He didn’t expect Russia to become a pariah state subject to harsh economic sanctions almost overnight. He didn’t expect McDonalds and other western businesses to close their stores all over Russia, then pull out of the country, probably forever. He didn’t expect the invasion to place significant pressure on world food supplies and prices. He didn’t expect to put lots of fish and chip places out of business (at CNN: “Thousands of Britain’s fish and chip shops could close within a year“). Let’s hope that this story doesn’t end with “He didn’t expect the nukes to start flying.”
I suppose there are other lessons to learn here. “Don’t start a war you can’t finish.” Or: “Always have an exit plan.” Or: “This is what happens when you make big decisions in an echo chamber.” But the one I’m pulling from this is the lesson of unintended consequences, and some of them can be nasty. Now let’s consider some LDS examples.
Exhibit Number Two: LDS Finances. At the end of this post, I’ll ask readers to add some LDS examples, which are obviously not as flagrant as the still-evolving tale of Putin and Ukraine but still worth some reflection. I’ve got two in mind. First, LDS finances. Somewhere in the 1950s (Google tells me it was 1959), the LDS Church in the United States released its last set of public financial statements. As a private entity, the Church is under no legal obligation to publish them, but it nevertheless did up until that time. You could argue the Church has a moral obligation to inform tithe-paying members what the leadership is doing with all that money, and perhaps that is why financial statements were previously published.
For whatever reason, that changed starting in 1960. I seem to recall there were some financial difficulties the Church was facing, possibly from an overextended building program, and they didn’t want that made public. They brought in a sharp business guy, N. Eldon Tanner, to clean up the financial mess, which he did. The leadership then apparently decided life would be easier if they didn’t resume the practice of publishing financial statements (although I know they are required to publish country-level statements in some other countries). This gives us the comical display of a Church auditor going to the Conference pulpit once a year and proclaiming that the financial statements (that no one is allowed to see) and its accompanying notes (which no one is allowed to see) accurately report the financial position and performance of the Church over the last twelve months. That’s a charade. It’s the appearance but not the substance of financial accountability.
What are the unintended consequences? Two that I can think of right off the bat. First, there is the Hundred Billion Dollar Fund. Like Motel 6 (which nowadays costs more like $69.99 a night, not $6 a night) that fund or collection of funds and portfolios isn’t just a hundred billion. It could be in the hundreds of billions by now. Someday it will probably be the Trillion Dollar Fund. Who knows? But I certainly know that if the Church had continued releasing financial statements over the years that showed large and growing surpluses in the billions, then tens of billions, then hundreds of billions, there would have been pressure to explain what’s going on. What’s the plan for the money? Perhaps too much tithing is being collected, since they spend every penny they can but still end up with huge surpluses? The Hundred Billion Dollar Fund is an unintended consequence of the decision to stop releasing financial statements.
A second consequence, somewhat related, is that it slowly extinguished any responsibility leaders felt to be accountable to the membership for how the money was collected, spent, and invested. This is evident in the publicly expressed opinion that proceeds from invested tithing funds (investment gains) are not tithing money at all. To LDS leaders, that’s just fun money, with no strings attached. Which is funny, because they basically regard straight tithing, the financial contributions collected every week, to be irrevocable donations with no strings attached either. But they apparently feel just a bit of obligation to the members for how straight tithing money is spent (although they do not honor that sense of obligation by actually issuing financial statements, just telling us they prepare them but give no one except a few senior leaders and a handful of sworn-to-secrecy auditors any access to them). They feel no sense of obligation about what is done with investment gains. Technically, of course, gains from invested tithing surplus are just as much a “member contribution” as the twenty-dollar bill you stuff in an envelope and give to the bishop. Any other view is just a version of money laundering, as if moving the money from the “tithing receipts” checking account to the “discretionary spending” checking account somehow severs any attached obligations. Another way to describe this second unintended consequence is that the leadership unwittingly damaged their own reputation for financial credibility and responsibility. If they won’t tell you about the Hundred Billion Dollar Fund, there are an awful lot of other things they aren’t telling you about. To believe otherwise is simply naive.
Exhibit Number Three: Missionaries Are Getting Younger and Younger. In 2012, President Monson announced that the age of eligibility for LDS missionaries dropped to 18 for young men and 19 for young women. That was a big change. The immediate consequence, perhaps partly unintended but certainly foreseeable, was a surge in new missionaries, particularly young women. By now, ten years later, things have settled back down. Were there any unforeseen and unintended consequences to this move?
One is the rise in the number of missionaries who return home early due to health challenges or depression or whatever. I certainly hesitate to throw out the term mental illness or even mental challenge, although there are a few cases of this, no doubt. Really, what technical term can you put on the state of mind of a young LDS missionary who comes to the realization that they just don’t want to be there anymore and they want to terminate their service and go home? In most cases, that’s sanity, not mental illness. Honestly, it’s the kid who says, “I don’t want to be here anymore, I hate it, but I’ll soldier on for another 18 months,” who is better described as suffering from a form of mental illness or is a victim of blatant manipulation. The kid who says, “Hey, I gave it a good shot, I tried very hard, but it’s just not working at all” — that’s not a sign there is something wrong with the kid. Maybe there is something wrong with the program. Maybe it’s just not a good fit, that kid and that mission. However you describe it, the significant rise in young missionaries returning home early is, I believe, an entirely unintended consequence of the age drop, as younger missionaries find the challenges of missionary service even more challenging.
Here’s a second consequence that might be lurking out there but has been much less discussed. A lot more young women are serving as missionaries. They have a lot of responsibility and serve with a great deal of dedication and energy. Then they come home and … get called into Primary to teach six-year-olds? There are just so few avenues for teaching and leadership in local wards for these talented and motivated returning missionaries that there must be a lot of frustrated young LDS women. Women in today’s world can serve in the military and climb the officer ranks, they can work in business and climb the corporate ladder right up to CEO, they can work in all the professions on relatively equal terms with their male colleagues … but they encounter mostly closed doors and glass ceilings in the Church. It seems like there ought to be a lot of church-frustrated returned sister missionaries. But I haven’t heard or read any accounts of this. Either they are suffering in silence, or quietly walking away, or maybe this is, in point of fact, not a consequence at all. Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree. Maybe they aren’t frustrated, at least not yet. Or maybe it’s a silent but real negative consequence that hasn’t really emerged in public view yet. I hope readers can add some thoughts or experiences here. There are tens of thousands of female twenty-something LDS returned missionaries in the system. What is their experience and state of mind? Inquiring minds want to know.
Conclusions? Leadership cadres that operate inside carefully cultivated echo chambers are no doubt more at risk to make decisions that produce unintended negative consequences. That certainly describes some LDS decision making. Here are some questions to consider in the comments.
- Any other examples you can think of where an LDS program change or big decision has led to unintended and unforeseen negative consequences?
- For the contrarians out there, try and think of a decision that led to unintended positive consequences.
- How do we reform the echo chamber? Appoint a particularly bold GA to be a devil’s advocate required to give a formal critique of any proposed new LDS policy or program? How about a rule that a change to any women’s program requires consultation and feedback from LDS women? How about a rule that a change to any youth program or missionary service requires consultation and feedback from LDS youth?