Imagine you lived in a small town with a river that ran through the middle of it. Every spring there would be flash floods, with the river overflowing its banks suddenly. This would destroy homes and crops. To solve this problem, the town built large berms to wall off the river from the town. This berm alleviated the flooding, but needed to be rebuild every year, and pretty much cut the town in half. A few years later a lady moved to the town, and she went for a hike up the river. High in the mountains she found that the river was flowing into a valley, and a natural dam would form. Then when the water would get high enough, it would overflow the dam and break it, causing the flash flood. She proposed building a rock dam that could withstand the spring melt and let water flow at a regulated pace.
She proposed an “upstream” solution to the problem, rather than the town’s people doing a “downstream” solution. You’ve heard of this in other terms, like treating the symptom and not the cause. I like the upstream/downstream terminology, as I’m a visual persona, and can see the river and the solutions.
Last Month President Nelson gave a talk in Conference about being a peacemaker. Valerie Hamaker on her excellent podcast Latter Day Struggles reviewed this talk with her husband. Several of the things that bothered Valerie about the talk was that the solutions Pres Nelson recommended for being a “peacemaker” were downstream solutions, and did not address the root cause. (I highly recommend you listen to the linked podcast).
In the talk, Pres Nelson says
If a couple in your ward gets divorced, or a young missionary returns home early, or a teenager doubts his testimony, they do not need your judgment. They need to experience the pure love of Jesus Christ reflected in your words and actions.GC talk, April 2023, Nelson, “Peacemakers Needed”
The downstream solution is to not judge divorced people, early returning missionaries, or a teenage who has doubts. The upstream solution would be to look at why we would even think about judging people under those circumstances, and change the reasons.
Why judge an early returned missionary? Missionary service (for men) is held as the ultimate rite of passage in the Mormon Church. It is not a choice, but a duty. Some girls are taught to only marry a returned missionary. In the past, the most common reason to come home early was that the missionary committed some sin (usually law of chastity). While there are no hard numbers to back this up, my guess would be that most kids coming home early today are for health reason, both physical and mental. But the impression is still there that the early returned missionary did “something wrong”. The upstream solution is to de-emphasize missions as the be-all and end-all of a young man’s “covenant path”. There needs to be other options that are just as important, just as prestigious. Then a ward will not judge the young man when he comes home early.
Why does the ward judge a divorced person in the ward? Maybe because we have all had drilled in our heads that the only way to exaltation is to be in a sealed marriage. The family (one man, one woman, 2.4 kids) is held up as the ultimate goal in this life. You can’t be a Bishop or higher if you are single. Divorced single men can’t be temple workers. Single men can’t go on senior missions. What is the upstream solution? Have examples of single parent families in church publications. Talk about all the good things single mothers are doing. De-emphasize the one-size-fits-all of the 1950’s nuclear family as the only union that will receive exaltation.
Why would anybody judge a teenager that doubts his testimony? Because we are to “doubt our doubts”! Doubts are bad! “I know the church is true” is good, “I hope the church is true”, not so good, “I don’t know if the church is true” is bad. How can you not judge people who doubt! The upstream solution? This one is easy: teach that doubts are OK, or even they are good. Doubting will lead to learning, exploring new truths. Stop saying “I know the Church is true”. Not everybody “knows” the church is true, and I would say nobody really knows the church is true. Everybody has varying degrees of faith and hope that it is true.
What other ways do you see the church delivering downstream solutions when they should be looking for upstream solutions?
The Eleventh Commandment of Mormonism is “judge your neighbor.” We need to stop teaching that, explicitly or implicitly.
It’s a bit ironic that Pres. Nelson is calling for members to practice extending “the pure love of Jesus Christ” to members in the categories he calls out in the quote — and I would assume he would extend that to all of the other LDS judgment categories. In his 2003 talk “Divine Love,” he preached the doctrine of conditional divine love. In that talk, he taught that while divine love (God’s love for us) is universal, it is also conditional. God loves some more than others. Implicitly teaching we should love some more than others.
As Pres. Nelson put it: “The resplendent bouquet of God’s love—including eternal life—includes blessings for which we must qualify, not entitlements to be expected unworthily.” He has repeated this teaching as President of the Church. So it is no wonder that LDS get the idea that “the pure love of Jesus Christ” gets directed to members who deserve it, and something less (condescending love? sad love? judgmental love? judgmental not-much-love?) gets directed to others, like those who are divorced, young missionaries who come home early, or teenagers who doubt LDS truth claims (they’re not doubting their testimony, as if they are doubting themselves, they’re doubting what the Church is teaching them). Pres. Nelson’s call for peacemakers would be more convincing if he had, at the same time, rescinded his doctrine of conditional love.
Oaks comment “it’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true, because it diminishes their effectiveness as a servant of the Lord. One can work to correct them by some other means”.
For me this is a downstream solution, for multiple upstream problems.
I would like to know, what are the “other means”?
How can you communicate with a GA about a rouge Stake President, if all the correspondence goes directly back to the SP?
How can a member opine about anything, if there is no common consent?
How can a rouge Mission President get away with abuse (physical,spiritual, mental) when they have all the control?
How can change occur, if the church almost always discourages calling the police when a law has been broken?
Nelson’s platitudes do nothing but state “All is well in Zion”, “be not of the world, and only safety is found within the LDS church”(bubble)
His attitude of we know all, and just be obedient to us.
First let me also promote Valerie Hamaker’s “Latter-Day Struggles” pod cast. I have listened to every episode and every single one is outstanding. The one covering President Nelson’s talk is particularly good because she and her husband Nathan discuss the talk, each having a different opinion. Not only do they each make excellent points, but they give a great example of civilized discussion when two parties disagree.
I want to share an example of the damaging up-stream thinking that I experienced. As I’ve mentioned here before, I retired from church employment. I worked in media and broadcasting. One time in a producer’s meeting we were shown a documentary that had been produced by a college student. It was not only a great student film, it was a great film period. It followed a teenage young LDS woman living in NYC. It emphasized her dedication to her family by how she helped her mother take care of the younger siblings, her dedication to the gospel (getting up early every morning to catch the subway to seminary, then back home to help get her siblings dressed, fed and off to school). It showed how hard her mother worked and how little she slept to provide financially for the family. In short, it was an inspiring, moving piece of film making.
The documentary had been sent to the General Young Women Presidency with the suggestion it be used in some way to inspire other young women in the church. The YW presidency showed it to the producer’s group to get their input. The praise and support from the producers was unanimous; it was exactly the kind of thing many of us wanted to produce, but were not able to because of restraints from higher up. Many of us talked about the film for days, excited about the impact it would have on the youth of the church.
A few days later we were informed that the powers that be had decided to not use the documentary. The reason? The girl’s mother was divorced, and single parent families was not the kind of example they wanted promoted. The up-stream message could have been that no matter what hand you have been dealt, you can still accomplish great things, but the up-stream message they saw was divorce is bad and should not be acknowledged.
I agree with Valerie Hamaker and Bishop Bill, many of our latter-day struggles need to be dealt with up stream.
During my mission, I was interviewed by the Ensign about my experiences. I shared that I waited for a mission call for close to 2 years because the missionary department kept mishandling my paperwork. To make matters worse, I was treated poorly by those working in the missionary department because they wouldn’t own up to their mistakes. Despite these setbacks, my bishop and SP had my back and their support helped me persevere until I finally got my mission call. I told the interviewer that if it weren’t for those setbacks, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I was having now (meeting my best friend, phenomenal mission president, etc). I testified that God can truly make the best out of situations when we are let down by others.
The person who interviewed me LOVED my story and found it inspiring. We both saw the article as an “upstream” opportunity that could showcase how members can keep the faith in the face of bureaucrats who act less than Christ-like. Unfortunately, the story was never published. Since church magazines and the missionary department are in the same building (Church Office Building), my guess is that one of the editors had friends from across the hall in the missionary department and quashed the story.
It’s unfortunate that they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. It could have been a great article…
My instinct when reading that RMN quote is to applaud. “Yay! He actually said something Christian in nature.” But you raise a very good point. Why does he start from an assumption that the church is rife with judgment when that’s an environment which the leadership creates?
Also of note: the categories he leaves out of his list of people to not judge. In his example, it’s implied that the divorced couple, the returned missionary, and the teenager are all still “in” and obedient. Imagine if he had said,
“If a same-sex couple in your ward gets married, or a young man courageously transitions from the gender he was assigned at birth, or a family decides to leave the church, they do not need your judgment. They need to experience the pure love of Jesus Christ reflected in your words and actions.”
Imagine how much good that could do for those who experience the members’ (and leaders’) judgment the most.
Kirkstall, yes your instinct was correct, and most times a downstream solution is needed immediately. You are not going to sit and watch your house flood. RMN took the first step. Now come the hard work of figuring out what caused the problem, and developing the long term upstream solution.
Really enjoyed this article.
I also have seen a lot of pressure by top LDS leaders to make a what is just a choice in life out to be a “sin”.
A real big “SIN” in the LDS church and such in/behavior is shunned and avoided by so many members because they do not want to be judged.
Making not going on a mission, or coming home eary, or getting divorced ( which might be a good and necessary thing if one spouse is a jerk) a “sin” and brings down horrible judgment from ward members is not really the problem.
The making of it such a big deal is.
There is no place in any of the scriptures that makes not going on a mission or returning early a sin.
But LDS culture (like the Pharisees of old) does,
And like Bishop Bill says changing that solves the problem, not harping on members to not judge.
Has anyone else noticed that this upstream/downstream paradigm is more reflective of Eastern religions? In the 21st century West (especially in demographics dominated by conservative political thought), we look too readily at downstream issues. I think it is because we are so seduced with individualism, with it’s artificial division between us and them. Anyway, I am reminded of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon. That sermon places a significant amount of responsibility back on the one “seeing” (or judging) and improper attachment. This is a sin we can fix because it can be resolved in the grapplings of our own minds. We bring peace to our own souls, then there is hope for others. But us first. If we can only convince ourselves and each other that our precious perceptions and snap judgements are based in delusion, there truly is hope for peace. There are related concepts in Zen and Taoism.
Honestly both upstream and downstream solutions are necessary. Sometimes you have to get an immediate handle on a situation before looking upstream. Downstream solutions are also often good enough for an acute problem, while chronic issues are often better addressed upstream.
Regarding “doubt your doubts,” it’s a cute phrase for churchy Instagram posts but also sounds a bit like, “You have a broken arm? Hmm…Have you tried NOT having a broken arm?” Not much of a solution of any kind IMO.
Not judging is one of the most under-emphasized commandments. I could write a whole post on this, but I’ll just say that having your dad excommunicated very quickly reveals where people stand on that commandment.
As a mother of people with disabilities, to me the problem upstream is caused by two issues coming together: a complete lack of understanding of how different individual people are from yourself, and imagining you can simply demand conformity from other people and they will be able to comply because they are just like you and have all the resources you have. This is a lack of understanding of the realities other people face, a lack of empathy and care, replaced by pride and judgement (hiding in conditional love talks).
I appreciate Nelson’s recent talk. It was like balm on my soul. I don’t really know, but it appears to me that Nelson is an amazingly healthy and intelligent man who has been able to comply with the template his church life gave him, apparently completely most every day of his life. It’s likely that he is naturally surrounded by people very like him in most of his close interactions because people without health problems, or marital problems or doubt problems or gender identity problems or serious disabilities are the ones called to be in church callings. In his work life people with problems widely different from his experience likely didn’t become close to him. Family members with these problems may be rare because of his family’s great genetics, but when there are problems, likely they were handled by his wife and he never had to deal with it directly, but could safely judge and conditionally love, from a distance. As such, like many church leaders, he is a round peg fitting into a round hole. He doesn’t understand why those square pegs keep complaining when he keeps demanding that they fit into those round holes.
But reality is, God made people in an amazing beautiful variety. Many of us genuinely cannot conform with the church’s round hole regimen, no matter how much we try or want to. I appreciate his asking people not to judge us. But alot more remains to be done to understand other people and change the problems caused upstream.
To know what needs to be done, a person like himself would have to listen to and believe a person like Valarie Hamaker, or others who have paid the price to understand the pain of others. I believe God can inspire a leader with what they need to know. But they aren’t going to reward lazy learners with a vision from heaven. The information about us square pegs is readily available, even to a round peg, if a person is curious and can listen and believe without imagining people are just like them and could have chosen just like them, and thus deserve only conditional love and judgement for their nonconforming situations.
I really like Hamaker’s (and your) framing of upstream and downstream solutions. I feel like this could be applied to a huge swath of issues the Church is facing, where rigidity and refusal to admit fault at the very top lead to ongoing problems that would be easy to see coming if they weren’t so sure they were always right.
One example is their handling of the billions in the Ensign Peak fund. They could have just admitted, at any point after closing the Church’s financial books in the 50s/60s, that it would be better to be transparent, and given financial reports in Conference (or in some other venue, or published in some other way). But they’ve doubled down on keeping the money a secret, dispensing bullcrap like Gordon B. Hinckley’s infamous line that the financial information is only owed to the members, and actively working to hide the money in separate accounts to avoid SEC rules, as we all of course learned recently. The pathway is always open for an upstream solution of opening the books. It would be painful when it happened, but all the damage control the Church has to do to explain why it’s hoarding all this money would largely dissipate. Members would either make their peace with a Smaug-like church, deciding that some apologetic explanation or other about the need to save for a rainy day was true, or they would leave. The dramatic revelations of Church finances would end, though, because the Church would be getting ahead of the problem by publishing the data themselves.
Another example is the Church’s failure to take abuse seriously. As has been suggested in numerous posts here and at BCC and at the Exponent, nobody is requiring them to use this hotline that’s only concerned with protecting the Church’s reputation. They could set up a new hotline that was actually interested in protecting victims. They could make new policies that would require bishops to go to law enforcement immediately when they learn of abuse. They could have third-party review of bishops’ handling of abuse cases, and punish them when they do it wrong, so fewer bishops would openly side with abusers against abused (especially a problem when abusers are men and abused are women). If they did any of these well enough, they could reduce the constant scandals of local leaders enabling abuse. Instead, they march onward on their chosen course, refusing to consider any adjustments, and thus requiring them to face the constant scandals, and more importantly, refusing abused members help that they so sorely need.
The ways in which BYU professor Sarah Coyne was recently attacked on Twitter (e.g. see Mike Lee’s tweet, and the hundreds who piled on) and by direct email demonstrates how limited in effectiveness RMN’s downstream focused tactics are. Promoting peace and withholding judgment, evidently, doesn’t extend to a professor and her classroom who used her own child as an example of the challenges someone with gender dysphoria faces. In my opinion, this illustrates perfectly the problem with the lack of upstream solutions, and shows us why downstream solutions in our church are mostly about talk and perception management.
Some twitter users who piled onto Mike Lee’s disgusting tweet justified doing so by drawing a made-up line between “seeking peace” and the need to call-out the immorality of Coyne and her classroom methods. Ignoring RMN and justifying these kinds of attacks is easy for members to do, especially when you have people like DHO sermonizing on not making the mistake of loving your neighbor more than you love god, codewords for withholding empathy from our gay brothers and sisters, the very empathy RMN supposedly sought to promote. And it’s easy to dismiss RMN’s talk when you have a sterling example of the church’s demonstrated lack of morality in Jeff Holland’s musket fire talk. Tell me that part again about how much the brethren worry and weep about our gay members after you have just finished using your authority as a bully pulpit to trash Matt Easton and threaten BYU faculty and staff?
I have been aware of “dam removal efforts” over the last few years due to species extinction stories and related concepts.
A side question that pops up in my head whenever I hear about building a dam someplace is, “Do we really need a dam to resolve the issue? Or, what are the odds that if we invest in building a dam now, we will wind up investing in removing the dam in 20-50 years?”
In terms of this example, I guess that I am more skeptical then I used to be that the best solution is “solve my problem” rather then “shift perspective to solve a problem greater than mine (that hopefully solves my problem – at least for the next generation)”.
But then, I think a “a lot” of church problems actually need to be solved by drastic perspective changes and measures designed to actually put “God” (Including Heavenly Mother) and “the family” (especially ALL Children of God) into the organization instead of the lip service They get through a form of leadership that prioritizes self-protection and a variation on maintaining “The Great Chain of Being” hierarchy (Explicit authority goes from God –> Prophet (or Territory Leader like King) –> Favored Male Leader(s) (selected from the majority whatever that looks like) –> Husband –> Everyone else.
But most of this is sourced from my husband’s focus on studying history as his major (The Great Chain of Being is HUGE) and reading “The Broken Ladder” and “Hidden Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” and comparing them against my experiences at church.