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?