Q: When is a policy not a policy?

A: When noone knows about it?

A couple of Sundays ago, in the hall during Sunday School time, I was talking about vasectomies with a woman in my ward. (What?! What do *you* talk about in the hall during Sunday School?) She was telling me quite matter-of-factly how glad she was that her husband had been willing to have one when they were sure their last child had arrived. This woman is fairly conservative, and I’m sure she would never knowingly do something contrary to Church policy. In any case, she would not discuss it openly if she had. She just had NO IDEA that the Handbook of Instructions “strongly discourages surgical sterilization as an elective form of birth control.” Moreover, unless she or her husband had been prompted to consult with the bishop about the surgery, there’s no way they *could* have known about the policy.

So I’m wondering what the usefulness of such policies is. It’s true, of course, that not everyone would want to read the Handbook if it were available, but what are the effects of actually forbidding most members (and all women) from reading the rules by which the Church is run?

30 comments for “Q: When is a policy not a policy?

  1. I think that the most interesting effects have to do with the distribution of power between local leaders and higher ups (general authorities, Quorum of the 12, etc.)

    The one clear effect is to empower local leaders at the expense of those higher up the org chart. Because official positions are promulgated only to the extent that local leaders choose, it is difficult for top leaders to make their influence felt (ie you can put it in the GHI, but that doesn’t mean that anyone will actually hear about it), and it is difficult for local members to “call” local leaders on policies (ie there really isn’t a rule about Diet Coke in the GHI). Interestingly, I think that it tends to weaken the influence of top leaders more than it strengthens the influence of local leaders. The reason is that these sorts of “invisible” policies are more likely to occur in areas that appear grey on the basis of public pronouncments of higher ups. Members who are inclined to resist local leaders’ attempts to micromanage on such issues, however, are likely to feel justified in ignoring local counsel on the basis of grey public pronouncments from those with greater authority. I could be wrong here. Perhaps the greater formality of the GHI vis a vis conference sermons cuts the other way.

  2. Good point Kristine. If there’s going to be policy, counsel, etc. it ought to be readily available to all who might be concerned.

  3. Oh, the problem is actually much worse than that.

    Some smart laddie in Salt Lake decided that not only would it be policy to keep the Handbook from the general membership, they would only release parts of it to the leadership on a need-to-know basis. The Elders’ Quorum President gets certain pieces, the Sunday School President gets certain pieces, the Scoutmaster gets certain pieces, etc.

    So unless you’re in one of the positions where you get the whole thing (Bishopric, Stake Presidency) you have no idea what everybody around you is doing.

    So, if for example, you are a High Councilman (as in my case) and you are put in charge of the stake Young Women’s program, they only give you the bits of the Handbook that talk about that particular program.

    They don’t give you, for example, the bits having to do with the Young Men’s program that you have to interact with on a periodic basis, so that you have some concept of what your counterparts are doing over in that part of the stake organization.

    Nor do they give you the bits having to do with, say, Bishop’s interviews and policies on sexual morality, so that you know what to do (just for example) when one of the young women decides in the middle of a youth temple trip (literally in the baptistry) that there might have been some additional matters about her boyfriend that she should have discussed with her Bishop while being interviewed for a recommend.

    Somebody in the bowels of the Church office building seems to think that the Handbook is some sort of a trade secret. And as anyone who deals with trade secrets will tell you, it’s one of the most cumbersome, inefficient, and stifling operational regimes you can imagine.

    As you may be able to tell, I am moderately disgusted about this.

  4. I was going to say that there’s a cure for this: the internet. But that would be a problem too. We can’t have the whole world digging with its mocking critical eye into our church policies and concerns. What would be a solution to this problem? I can’t imagine a bishop reading out over the pulpit that men are advised not to get vasectomies (or other sensitive policies that are meant only for the mature members of the church).

  5. Nate, other lawyers, didn’t the Church successfully sue the Tanners and force them to take down the Handbook from their website?

  6. I’m with obi-wan here. I would point out, however, that the GHI can be an instrument for cutting away certain unwritten rules. As an example, a couple of years back, a couple of kids brought some face cards to youth conference. (The audacity!) One of the stake youth leaders objected and asked a member of the stake presidency to confiscate them. This counselor in the stake presidency (a convert to the church not familiar with the so-called evil of face cards) consulted his GHI and quickly determined that there was nothing addressing the issue. He then told the youth leader that he had no intention of taking away the cards in the absence of some directive in the handbook.

    If only there were more like him . . . .

  7. I can see that Kristine is still peaking into the book on her coffee, er, hot chocolate table while her husband isn’t looking. Naughty, naughty! ;-)

    I think Nate is on to something with this comment:

    “Members who are inclined to resist local leaders’ attempts to micromanage on such issues, however, are likely to feel justified in ignoring local counsel on the basis of grey public pronouncments from those with greater authority.”

    I have no solution.

  8. Kristine —

    The Tanners had posted portions of the Handbook on their site, and were forced by a lawsuit to remove them. We discussed this on the “Robert Frost” thread a while back.

    You can still find Part I of the 1999 Handbook here (see the last section on “Policies” for the rif on vasectomies, around page 158). Unfortunately, Part II, that tells how all the organizations actually operate, doesn’t seem to be juicy enough for any of the anti-mormons to want to post it. So we can easily get (possibly outdated) policies on excommunication, but not any info on, say, the job description of the Stake Family History Director, or who the Ward Employment Specialist reports to.

  9. Bureaucrats hoard information. That is a tried and true method by which bureaucracies retain power.

    More promising is the recent official publication of True to the Faith, a simple and understandable presentation of answers to doctrinal and daily-living type gospel questions in topical, alphabetical format. It was handed out in church a few months ago, and is available on LDS.org if you look hard enough. You might think of it as “CHI light” repackaged for the rank and file. However, the sections I’ve read suggest it actually takes a fairly progressive, even liberal, view of many items, rather more so than the CHI and common LDS “in the hall at Sunday School” understanding. Speculating, one might think of it as a successful move by senior leaders to put accurate information out to members, bypassing rigid and conservative bureaucrats and local leaders who control the drafting and dissemination of the CHI.

    To wit, consider the following passage under the True to the Faith article “Birth Control” in relation to Kristine’s original question about vasectomies, suggesting the directives apparently given in the CHI may no longer be good LDS canon law:

    If you are married, you and your spouse should discuss your sacred responsibility to bring children into the world and nurture them in righteousness. As you do so, consider the sanctity and meaning of life. Ponder the joy that comes when children are in the home. Consider the eternal blessings that come from having a good posterity. With a testimony of these principles, you and your spouse will be prepared to prayerfully decide how many children to have and when to have them. Such decisions are between the two of you and the Lord.

    Not a word in the entire article (only three paragraphs) about proscribed methods of birth control, surgical or otherwise.

  10. I had a vasectomy about a decade ago. I didn’t care what the GHI said, and I don’t think I bothered trying to look and see (I didn’t and don’t have a copy); it was what my wife and I wanted to do, so I did it. To me, my wife’s wishes and concerns rated way, way above anything a bishop would or could say on the subject. That stuff is there in the handbook to give bishops something to say to the people who are to insecure to act for themselves without vetting every decision through a church authority. (Better to ask for forgiveness than permission, in this church at least.)

  11. Bob, actually I haven’t looked in a while, but the part on surgical sterilization hasn’t changed since I was 11 and reading my dad’s copy of the handbook. (Nope, didn’t have any friends in jr. high!)

  12. Are there good reasons for keeping the CHI secret?

    What kind of damage would happen to the church if they published the thing or posted the entire text on lds.org?

  13. What if the CHI were published? You know that busybody in your ward, the one who thinks he/she is the bishop? She (in my ward she’s a she) would become even more unbearable. The handbook would gain more power and influence than it deserves, for too many would become self-appointed interpreters and enforcers.

  14. Sheldon, I’m sure you’re right. But I think it’s worse to have people like that freelancing, instead of being bound by some actual text. Seems to me that while access to the CHI might lend some authority to the ward busybody, it might also (or instead?) limit the scope of her/his busy-ness to actual church policy, instead of “the traditions of their fathers” and his/her whims.

    Also, I think that to the extent policies are based on doctrine, it’s strange to deliberately keep people in the dark. Presumably, since the woman I used in my example didn’t know about the policy, she and her husband have not sinned in having the procedure done. But would it be sinful for me to encourage my husband to have the same procedure? Or, have I sinned by looking at the policy, and should I try to forget I ever saw it and feign innocence if he calls the urologist? (And, before Bob has to say it again, I *know* that I’m blurring the rule/commandment distinction!) Great fun for a freshman ethics class, less nifty for sincere wannabe perfect Mormons!

  15. Here is another alternative for the GHI secrecy policy:

    It provides a way for members of the Twelve to deflect some of the ideas of their collegues. It provides a forum that is both ultra official and (in many ways) irrelevant. Thus, if Elder so-and-so has some idea about vasactectomies that he is hell bent for leather on pushing “openly” you placate him with an equivicol passage in the GHI (Notice the language speaks of counsel rather than commandments. Perhaps not a meaningful distinction, but the joy of authoritative texts is that you get parse the text really closely, which tends to make it less controlling than one assumes!) The GHI is then kept secret to minimize the effect of these concessions. In an institution with a unanimity rule, having ways of deflecting pet projects without provoking a veto may be very useful.

  16. The year the new GHI came out the Bishop of the Yale student ward held a special joint RS/EQ meeting. He had the old GHI and the new GHI open and told us that we could ask him to read any listing on any topic we wanted and compare the new with the old entries to see if any changes had been made to Church policy. I was impressed with this broadminded approach. His reasoning to us was that he thought the “future leaders of the Church” needed to know how these things worked—i.e. that Church policies change.

    The listing that got the most response? In a ward full of young marrieds and single students it might come as no surprise that it was the big change in the entry on birth control.

  17. “Or, have I sinned by looking at the policy, and should I try to forget I ever saw it and feign innocence if he calls the urologist?”

    Actually, Kristine, I wonder about this myself. Check out my Elder Oaks story directed toward Ryan Bell on Kaimi’s “Efficacy of Condemnatory Prophecy” thread. You don’t have to wade through all 120 comments, it’s toward the bottom in the last 10-15.

  18. Dave, happen to have a link to true to the faith? I suppose I could search for it- but I’m lazy.

    I have nejoyed this discussion. I haven’t been reading T&S much lately, but reading it today reminded me what attracted me to it in the first place.

  19. Dave, happen to have a link to true to the faith? I suppose I could search for it- but I’m lazy.

    I have nejoyed this discussion. I haven’t been reading T&S much lately, but reading it today reminded me what attracted me to it in the first place.

  20. I am surprised that no one has yet explained the simple reason why the GHI is tightly controlled in the Church. Unfortunately, it seems that what is (to me at least) very simple and obvious is overlooked in favor of more sinister reasons (e.g. the retention of power in the hierarchy).

    I don’t have a copy of the GHI to refer to, but I believe it states the following principle itself (although perhaps without as much interpretive exposition).

    Essentially, the policy hearkens back to the days when the dissemination of policies and protocols was built upon the foundation of snail-mail. Imagine, back in the day, when a policy needed to be changed, how difficult it would be to get, not just every Bishop, Stake Pres., etc. to update their manuals, but every member of the RS/EQ/HP as well. By controlling how many copies of the complete GHI exist in each unit, the Church could be assured that no lingering copies, with outdated material, could continue.

    In a large organization, it could wreak havoc to have neighboring units operating from GHI with different or updated policies. And then, imagine if some units had a version that was more the one or two generations old! Or if an EQ Counselor began teaching an updated (correct) policy, while the Bishop still had not received his copy in the mail.

    In a way, this can be seen as an effort to retain power in the beauracracy. However, describing it in this way sounds far too Machiavellian. Information in the Church should flow from top to bottom. This is according to Scripture and common sense. It is not for the aggrandizement of Church leaders, but only to promote uniformity.

    In addition, keeping strict control of the number of GHI copies available in local units helps to mitigate access to the GHI by detractors or dissentors, who might wish to find any reason to attack the church, either legally or through the court of public opinion.

    This does not explain why, for example, EQ Presidents or their counselors have different subsections, nor does it explain the vigorous manner in which the Church protect the GHI (i.e. the Tanners). However, the reasons for these phenomenon, I believe, are entirely unrelated (I won’t get into my opinions of these items here).

    Personally, in the Internet age, I believe the GHI should be more readily available to all members. If we are concerned about enemies of the Church obtaining proprietary organizational information, the Church could easily place the link to the the GHI behind the passworded “Local Units” section of the website.

    Before I read the GHI, I had preconceptions based in no small measure on the sinister reputation of the GHI that had built up due to the “secrecy” surrounding it. However, I was pleased to learn that there was nothing in there that I wasn’t already well acquainted with just by paying attention on Sunday. Although I am certain a determined enemy could, after going to great lengths, succeed in creating some attack vector using the published GHI material, in my impression of the manual, there really aren’t any chinks in the armor at all.

    Hopefully, I am only restating the obvious.

  21. Jim says: “I am surprised that no one has yet explained the simple reason why the GHI is tightly controlled in the Church. Unfortunately, it seems that what is (to me at least) very simple and obvious is overlooked in favor of more sinister reasons (e.g. the retention of power in the hierarchy).”

    Jim, I don’t think there’s anything sinister about it; I just don’t think it’s a sensible policy. They could go back to having a copy in the ward library with virtually no effect whatever–there’s (hopefully!) a very small number of geeks and weirdos like me who would read it. And, as you say, there aren’t any smoking guns in there, and truly not much to get worked up over. It’s hard for me to imagine what dissidents or antis might find in there that can’t be deduced from other sources. Even Lavina Anderson’s (mildly) critical piece from the mid-90s doesn’t really find anything new; only some interesting themes that are more obvious when you look at the policies all at once.

  22. Mike, LDS.org has split frames that prevent one such as I from finding a linkable address. But you can get there in five clicks from the LDS.org home page as follows:

    Gospel Library, Church Publications (click HTML), Curriculum, Home and Family, then True to the Faith.

  23. Dave,

    The key to the split frames is to use the “open in new window” on the last click. That will pull up a non-frame web address. It won’t be pretty. LDS.org individual addresses are incredibly long and ugly.

    True to the Faith is at:

    http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Curriculum/home%20and%20family.htm/true%20to%20the%20faith%20a%20gospel%20reference.htm?f=templates$fn=document-frame.htm$3.0#JD_36863ttl (the address it pulls up if you open in a new window), or:

    http://library.lds.org/nxt/gateway.dll/Curriculum/home%20and%20family.htm/true%20to%20the%20faith%20a%20gospel%20reference.htm (just as good).

  24. Thanks to everyone for the link.
    There is quite a bit more in this booklet than I remember, but it is still a bit short of the CHI.

    I don’t think that the Church’s reasons for keeping the CHI “secret” are sinister- but most of the reasons that Jim talked about for keeping tabs on how many coppies are out there doesn’t really answer why the church wouldn’t make it available to all memebers online.

  25. I’m surprised none of you bothered to ask Kristine the first question that should have entered your mind.

    “My dear woman, what were you doing in the hall during Sunday school time?”


  26. The woman you talked to almost could have been me.

    I’ve had the same questions since then of what if I’m supposed to be doing something or not doing something and I don’t know about it? Now I don’t feel I would be accountable for something like that, but just as it is preferable to be baptized before you are dead (so you can live with the gift of the Holy Ghost) it is preferable to live in other ways that you should.

    I feel there is a great deal of inspiration in the CHI. With every calling that I have I make sure that I have what pertains to me. I have had great inspirations of what to do with my callings through reading it. I also feel that what it says about birth control is important for some to know. I don’t feel things would have changed for my husband and I had we heard about it, but I do think it would change for some others – and in fact I know of some and are grateful they got this advice.

    So having asked my bishop about this, and putting the question in for the Stake Presidency for a question and answer fireside I still haven’t got the question of why we don’t know about these things answered. It’s something I will be asking about though next time I see one of them.

  27. Kristine said, in reference to publishing the GHI: “…it might also (or instead?) limit the scope of her/his busy-ness to actual church policy, instead of “the traditions of their fathers” and his/her whims.”

    Perhaps, but there’s church policy people already know quite well and still prefer to follow their own whims.

  28. I think that the people who know what the policies are but follow their own whims anyway would have less ability to persuade others of their whimsical interpretations if all members could have access to a copy of the GHI in their ward library or on their ward website.

    It seems to me that if parts of it keep getting posted and linked to on the web, then the church might as well make authorized copies more available, with publication date displayed obviously on the title page so that no one could mistake an older version for the current one.
    Or, have it on the ward websites and officially update it every year whether there are actual changes to policy or not, so that anyone could always be sure of where to find the current year’s CHI.

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