Monday, August 19, 2013

The Low-down on the Mormon Lay Man

So Mormons churches, unlike most other religions, are run almost completely by lay people.  There's no Mormon Theological College (though there should be!) where people train to become Mormon leaders.  I guess to completely understand, we'll have to go through the Mormon hierarchy.  At the top, there's the prophet (currently Thomas S. Monson).  Mormons believe that the prophet is chosen by God and is a seer and revelator in our times.  Under the prophet is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  They make up kind of a grand council to make decisions for how the church should run, and give talks occasionally.  These are all upper class, older white men.  Though lately there have been a few from other countries, predominately these men have come from Utah, and Utah stock.  Under the Quorum of the 12, is the Quorum of the 70.  I think there are 3 Qo70s, and many area 70s underneath.  Basically an area 70 is in charge of a large region.  Underneath an area 70 are Stake Presidents.  These men run a stake, which is a local group of individual wards.  Under the Stake Presidents are Bishops/Branch Presidents.  These are what, in other denominations, would be considered the priests or the pastors.
   So how does one become a Bishop?  Is it intense spirituality?  Is it through hard work; working one's way up through lesser jobs?  No. It's done by "revelation", on the Stake President's part.  I put revelation in quotes, because I found that many times, the same people get re-called into top positions.  A "calling" in Mormondom is a fancy way of saying "Well, hey there, Brother Jones, God thinks you'll do a bang up job teaching 14 year old boys.  Whatdaya say?"
   That means that everyone, from the organist to the Sunday School teacher, to the Stake President and higher are lay people.  They don't get paid for their service.  There is very little training to fulfill these callings, outside of being given the Handbook of Instruction.  Inside the Handbook are the rules of how things ought to be done.  Back when I was in Single's Ward (a special church for single adults 18-30), I was a member of the Relief Society Presidency.  Relief Society is the women's meeting.  Relief Society President is about as high in authority a Mormon woman can reach; in culture, it's often the sign of the perfect woman, and many wish to be called as RSPres.  Anyway, I was given the Handbook, with it's 2-3 paragraphs of what my job was supposed to be.  There was not much by way of how to do things, just a list of things that should get done.  As a 23 year old, this was quite tricky.  I, without any formal training, was expected to help lead a group of women towards salvation.  It was hard enough working with the people in the Presidency; not even taking into account the needs of the women that were under us.  It's an insane amount of pressure.  Added onto that, I was going to school and had a job.  But that's how it goes (I'm assuming) for everyone.  They have a job, maybe school, probably a family, and a church calling.  Every one's a layman.
   But think about that, for a minute.  If everyone is a layman, then how can they be expected to lead effectively?  That's the rub.  It seems like people assume that if God calls you, God will strengthen you to fill your calling.  What I've always wondered is what about the times of stretching?  You make mistakes, tick people off, say inaccurate things.  But this thought somehow never reaches flowering; the idea that because a person was called to a calling they are perfect at it is the predominant.
   This is dangerous.  Especially with Bishops.  Bishops are expected to guide the ward and give counseling, advice, and repentance when necessary.  So you have, say, an architect trying to give marital advice.  He has some training, maybe a workshop or a broadcast or two, so he's not totally incompetent, but it's a bit out of his scope.  How does he do it?  Mormons say it's revelation from God.  I think it's maybe a bit of that, and a lot of regurgitating what they have been taught.  For example, when I told my Bishop I felt out of place in Relief Society because I have no kids, my husband isn't in the military, and I didn't live in the subdivision right next to the church.  His advice was to tell me that Relief Society was ordained of God and that I needed to adjust my attitude.  How I felt meant very little in comparison to his experiences as Bishop.
   I've heard from now-divorced people that they were counseled not to divorce. In one instance, my friend's husband had been sleeping around since before their marriage, was verbally abusive to her, and didn't support his family.  And yet she was counseled not to divorce, but to try to be a better wife, and maybe seek counseling if that didn't work.  She is thankful to this day she didn't listen to him.  But a lot of people do listen.  Because when they see the Bishop, they see GOD.  I mean, God called him, God has to lead him, God wouldn't let him make a mistake...On a personal note, when I was 16, I had a meeting with my then-Bishop.  He told me that he had special revelation from God that I would never get married.  He told me I should start looking into a school that would teach a career to provide a future for me, as I'll never have a husband to support me.  At 16, I was told that God says I'll never be married!  It still makes my blood boil, and to this day I can't look at him without getting upset.
   OK. So the Bishop has very little training to do his job.  What about the other people?  Take for example, the Sunday School teachers.  They are given a manual and told that they can only take from the manual, the Scriptures, and church magazines for extra info.  You've got people with no training in teaching told that they can only look in a few (carefully regulated) places for knowledge.  So how do they teach?  As best they can with what they're given.  And what they're given is only what the First Presidency wants people to know and think about.
   Think about it.  If you were in charge of a school, and told the teachers that here is there lesson plans.  If they want anything else to supplement these lessons, then they have these 2 approved options.  How much learning and growing can really happen in such a stunted environment?  If teachers aren't trained to teach, and aren't given adequate resources to teach from, then they have no real recourse but to use what they have and supplement it with things they've heard previously.
   Even in Sacrament Meeting (Which is equivalent to an hour's sermon).  Lay people give talks.  The Bishop supplies a topic and the person looks for info on it in the scriptures,, or Church magazines.  They supplement it with their opinion, church culture, and personal stories.  Average people are teaching "doctrine" from the pulpit, once again with no training.
   This may sound harsh, but it seems more like indoctrination than actual teaching.  Teaching should be about asking questions, and reaching higher, and searching answers for oneself.  Not simply re-reading approved material and asking easy questions (the answer is always go to church, read your scriptures, say your prayers).  In my experience (limited, I'll give you that), the ones that ask the hard questions, or try to dig deeper are labeled troublemakers or rabble rousers.  Or they are simply ignored.  One final personal example.  I was a bright kid. When I was 14, I decided I was done with teenage Sunday School because I knew all the answers.  I'm not bragging.  I literally could answer every question.  So much so, the teacher got snippy and told me I was reading from my mum's manual so I could show him up.  I decided to go to adult Sunday School, hoping it would be better.  I lasted 2 weeks.  I have a habit of answering church questions in a way that is succinct and unique.  And it bothered people.  Perhaps it was because I was 14, perhaps it was because they never thought of things that way.  I don't know.  What I do know is that I was asked to leave adult Sunday School because I made the adults "uncomfortable".  I wasn't disrespectful or rude.
   My point, in this whole rambling post isn't to (totally) dog Mormondom.  I just think they should implement more training. There are already people schooled to teach Church Education. Why couldn't the church also employ them to teach people how to adequately fulfill their callings?  What reason could they possibly have to not want people properly educated in how to perform their duties?  A doctor needs a license to practice. A day care provider has to prove hours of training.  A Bishop can preside with a 2 hour broadcast and God's stamp of approval.  It seems a tad unequal to me.
    I've often heard it said that the reason people are called is to make them strong when they are weak.  But while they are getting strong, what are the people that depend on them for education or edification supposed to do?


  1. "This may sound harsh, but it seems more like indoctrination than actual teaching. Teaching should be about asking questions, and reaching higher, and searching answers for oneself. Not simply re-reading approved material and asking easy questions (the answer is always go to church, read your scriptures, say your prayers). In my experience (limited, I'll give you that), the ones that ask the hard questions, or try to dig deeper are labeled troublemakers or rabble rousers."

    Well, that's pretty much the foundation of organized religion, so Mormonism certainly isn't unique in that regard. Also, with regard to training, it means very little to say "that pastor went to seminary, so he's an expert on religion" or "he's qualified to counsel married couples." Um no, the pastor is qualified to relay to you what his seminary's doctrines are on an array of topics, but under no circumstances does that make him specifically qualified to render counsel or provide a definitive view of what scripture says. Real counselors get actual training, combined with teachings on the latest in psychology, anthropology, scientific research, etc. And given how many interpretations there are of religious doctrines, the only thing a pastor's theology/divinity degree tells you is that he's certified to deliver one of those interpretations. It says nothing of the actual truth or trustworthiness of what he's it might as well be just some yahoo up there muttering about his thoughts on Ephesians or whatever.

    Anyway, I'm no Dawkins fanboy, but his comments on theology are apt, I think: "If all the achievements of scientists were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no doctors but witch doctors, no transport faster than horses, no computers, no printed books, no agriculture beyond subsistence peasant farming. If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference?"

  2. You make, as usual, valid points. I figured better years of training than a few hours of training? But the result is still the same. People doing things they are unqualified to do. Which is wrong in so many ways.
    And I like the quote, but I think it's a bit wrong. I think if theology disappeared, there'd be a lot of people angry because without theology, they lose their "moral high ground" and are just like everyone else. I mean, can you imagine, being the same as *gasp* an atheist?

  3. So is there no "quality control" in individual Mormon churches? If the bishop or whoever gets up and spouts some nonsense, who keeps him in line? Do the congregants complain to the stake president?

  4. The thing I find frustrating in Mormondom is that doctrine, culture, and opinions get all mixed up. And people preach all of them with the same amount of weight. So it's really hard to distinguish what's actual written doctrine and what's not. Therfore it's awfully difficult to tell when the Bishop spouts nonsense. And usually, the Bishop is a decent guy that earnestly believes in Mormonity, so he's not going to spout slantwise stuff.
    However, there have been stories of Bishops saying inappropraite things (usually to women). The consensus usually is "talk to your husband, who may or may not talk to the Stake President". In general, it's better for a guy to bring up things to other guys. Then the Stake President decides if it's truly a wide-sweeping problem or a personal one. I don't know how often that happens, as very few people are privvy to how Stake Presidiencies go.
    Here's an interesting story along this theme:

    I don't know what happened to this Bishop, but there are other stories floating around the Bloggernacle (Mormon Blogosphere) about Bishops being inappropriate and StakeP's not doing anything because they don't want to "embarass" the man. I'm sure there are SP's that will discipline a Bishop for being inappropriate, but since these things are done on the down low (church discipline is confidential), then few people would know.

    But to get back to your post, perhaps that's why there are few resources to glean from. The only way to ensure quality control is if everyone teaches the same thing from the same sources.

  5. How interesting that Mormonism and the Pagan community have something in common; a religious community run by lay people. By necessity most leaders is my faith movement are not full time clergy. I think the difference is that some of our best leaders go out of their way to learn skills like counseling and others (like me) make a point to get to know some trusted professionals to refer people to. I guess another difference is that our community (typically) encourages healthy debate of ideas and one of our slogans is to respect the rights of others to hold differing views.

    However, it seems like both communities could struggle from leader burn out.

  6. I guess any leader has the potential to burn out. I think it's wonderful that some leaders try to learn skills or refer, instead of trying to do everything themselves. I wish there were a larger pagan community here!
    Though I did perform my first ritual last night! (Full moon)

    1. Well happy full moon to you! I've heard that the pagan community in Utah is sparse. Here's a place to start and I also second the UU suggestion from one of your other commenters.

    2. Thanks. There's not a big Pagan community in Kansas, where I am, either. :(

  7. Wow! I cannot believe a bishop would go around telling 16 year old girls that they will never get married. I mean I'm all for encouraging young women to develop their own interests and pursue education/careers, but still!

    Aside from being untrained I think it's also significant that good Mormons are taught never to refuse a calling. So not only are people untrained for their callings, they are often given to those that have neither the inclination or time to fulfill them. I've heard Primary teachers complain about how much they despise working with children, seen a bishop that was called despite the fact that his wife was already overwhelmed raising their 7 children while he worked very long hours (and had even been hospitalize a few weeks prior for depression), etc.

    1. I considered adding that people are cultured not to say "no" to callings, ever. I should have. But you're exactly right. I have known people that hate their callings, and still say yes, preferring to just not show up to fulfill them. Because apparently saying "no" to a calling is like saying "no" to God.