Quotes of Note- McKay on Running the Church

mckay“Men must learn that in presiding over the Church we are dealing with human hearts, that individual rights are sacred, and the human soul is tender. We cannot run the Church like a business.”-David O. McKay Diaries, May 17, 1962, as quoted in “David O. McKay and the Twin Sisters’: Free Agency and Tolerance” by Gregory Prince, Dialogue 33:4 (Winter 2000):13.

I read this as saying, we need to be sensitive to other people; we cannot make hard decisions and simply say, “this is business, not personal” as if real people were not involved. I wish we had more context for the statement by McKay.

38 comments for “Quotes of Note- McKay on Running the Church

  1. This is interesting background to the idea that I got from reading _DOM and the Rise of Modern Mormonism_ that in some ways, administration was a weakness of McKay’s because he would agree to whatever was asked by whoever was in front of him at the moment. This quote perhaps puts that practice into some context.

  2. This quote has actually frustrated me in the past, as it has been pushed at me from time to time when I suggest some business method or business book which might help our local unit in some way.

    From the context here, it seems more that he is talking about the approach of using Carrots and Sticks as Motivators and focusing on the value to the share holders.

    I also wish I had more context on this. How do I hire Ardis Parshall to dig it up?

  3. That is a funny quote give how corporate, dictatorial and bureaucratic the Church has become in the last 20 years.

    I also agree with Julie – poor President McKay was known to be very soft-hearted and a pushover when it came to standing firm on decisions. That is why Bruce McKonkie, Harold Lee, Mark Petersen and Joseph Fielding Smith were able to hijack Church theology and doctrine while he was President. That is also why the policy on denying blacks the Priesthood drug out for another 10 years when it should have been rescinded back in 1968.

    The Rise of Modern Mormonism details this very clearly.

  4. Subsequent prophets with more modern revelation think we need to run it as a business, then?

    Michael – It seemed clear from the book that it was not yet time to change the priesthood policy.

  5. The insight expressed by Julie and Michael in comments 1 and 3 applies also to President McKay’s relationship with Ernest L. Wilkinson. I believe that ELW did some real damage to BYU and the church by exploiting his personal friendship with DOM.

  6. Michael writes, “That is also why the policy on denying blacks the Priesthood drug out for another 10 years when it should have been rescinded back in 1968.

    The Rise of Modern Mormonism details this very clearly.”

    That is not an accurate statement. The book details that Pres. McKay was very disturbed by the policy, prayed about changing it, and was told “no.”

  7. I heard that DOM said he never got an answer when he prayed about giving the blacks the priesthood, not that he was told no.

  8. I should clarify my comment. According to the book, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve actually voted to change the policy back in the late ’60s (I don’t remember the actual year) and the vote was unanimous. However, Harold B. Lee (an ardent supporter of segregation and antagonist towards any civil rights for blacks – as was Mark E. Petersen) was out of the country in Europe. Elder Lee had sworn many times that he would never support a change in the restriction. I don’t know if he believed it was doctrine from on high or just Brigham’s policy. Anyway, when he returned from Europe and was made aware of the vote, he demanded that it be discarded as he was not in attendance. Given the self-imposed rule by the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve that all votes be unanimous, the policy remained in force.

    It is my belief that President Lee’s untimely and unexpected death at an early age represents the Lord’s will in getting the policy rescinded (I understand my opinion may not be accepted by all in this matter).

    As concerns receiving confirmation from the Lord, I believe that the Lord was not going to give any confirmation until the Brethren were all united in their decision. Isn’t that how we are taught to approach the Lord regarding decisions? To weigh the issues in our mind, to determine the course of action based upon the light and knowledge we already have, and to approach the Lord to CONFIRM our decision through the Spirit? It was not until the Brethren finally gave up their prejudices and until Elder Lee passed through the veil that the Lord could confirm their decision.

    At least that is how I read it.

  9. Matt, I work cheap. Wish I could help. I checked my transcription of the DOM diaries; this is recorded by his secretary Claire Middlemiss who says only that it was a statement he “made … to me this morning” — no context given. He had returned from a council meeting in the temple, so I suppose it could have been a reaction to something discussed there, or to some council member’s attitude; he also met that morning with men about the restoration work going on in Nauvoo. But there’s no clue in the diary suggesting why he had made that remark to his secretary.

  10. So how should a church be run? What is the ideal? Certainly not inefficiency and wastefulness. So even if we accept the statement “The Church should not be run like a business,” how exactly should that be interpreted? However you describe the ideal church management model, it likely includes efficiency and careful, responsible use of resources.

  11. I emailed the Church Archives not three weeks ago about the context of this statement and this was their response

    “The quotation that you provided can be found in the following published source:

    Prince, Gregory A., and Wright, Wm. Robert. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism.
    Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005, page 21.

    The book states: “He told his secretary, ‘Men must learn that in presiding over the Church we are dealing with human hearts, that individual rights are sacred, and the human soul is tender. We cannot run the Church as we would a business.’”

    The source identified in the book for this quotation is “David O. McKay Diaries 1936-70.” This is part of the David O. McKay Papers collection at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

    We hope this will be helpful to you. “

  12. It would be useful to know the context of this quote, as it would be easy to take it too far. But this is my take on it.

    Accounting, record-keeping, balancing the books, choosing where and how to spend resources, making policy, these are all areas of church management that can be informed by sound business principles. But in an organization whose missions include perfecting the saints, proclaiming the gospel, and redeeming the dead, these principles are not sufficient.

    Human hearts, minds, and bodies—human souls are not widgets. Human souls were meant to act, and not to be acted upon. They were meant to be guided by “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge.” The immortality and eternal life of each tender soul should always be our end, and never used as means to and end.

    One man’s “waste and inefficiency” may be another’s sacrifice. Here is an example. How much does a convert baptism in Brazil cost compared to a convert baptism in Norway? Is the Norwegian baptism wasteful and inefficient? It is difficult to know without taking into account the souls involved.

  13. Errr… I don’t read that as really relating to businss practices being bad, but rather the idea of “I’m the boss, my employees must obey or be fired.” I interpret it as referring to the notion of presiding and how it fits within various types of leadership. There are different models of leadership, and sometimes we want to look to management principles of leadership in the businss world… and I’d assume back then it was even more so the case of looking at business management models of leadership — focusing on tasks, focusing on people, focusing on directions, focusing on on participation.

    Anyway, I’d assume he’s basically referring to persuasion and long suffering and that we can’t just say, “I’m the boss” when making church decisions.

  14. I wonder if he wasn’t thinking about the whoel baseball baptisms that hit teh fan in the early 60’s. I think the ends can be confused with the means, the end is not a baptism but eternal life as per DC 101:65. If your in business then yeah how many you make can matter but souls are more important then goals

  15. i believe that the backgrounds of many of the General Authorities of the Church have a strong influence on the operations of the Church as an organization. If you look at other hierarchal religions of any significant size, they have a more pronounced separation between pastoral care and managerial operations. They also have more of an emphasis on theology than we tend to have which produces a varied cadre of leadership. A man placed in a position of authority will do what they have learned. Since the large majority of our leadership comes from the business and legal realms, it is natural they think and act in those ways.

    I don’t think President McKay exhibited those traits and was, most likely, expressing frustration at those that do. Perhaps there was also some pressure to think in terms of organizational efficiency since the Church was so close to bankruptcy in the early ’60s. Elder Tanner was said to be an extremely pragmatic fiscal disciplinarian with little inclination towards spiritual musings.

  16. The only serious problem I see from time to time, is that a handful of leaders have what I call the “military model of the church”, namely that the folks they preside over are pawns to be moved around on a chess board, who are guilty of grave moral sin if they act like participants instead of peons. No discussion, no persuasion, no explanation.

    That might work (barely) in business for well paid employees, but nearly everybody in the church is an unpaid volunteer who receives only intangible spiritual benefits for his or her service, and most just won’t bear being treated that way without experiencing something between resentment and hatred.

  17. Mark, I don’t know if the Church leadership style is as dramatic as you portray but there is a huge difference between managing / motivating employees and doing the same with volunteers. I run a for-profit company owned by several non-profit credit unions. The two worlds are vastly different. You do bring up a good point about having to keep in mind that Church service is voluntary. Even if some local leaders think it is a non-negotiable obligation. The number one frustration exhibited by our Stake Presidency is when members turn down callings they don’t find challenging or fulfilling. It drives them crazy because they think there should not be any ability to refuse what they claim comes directly from the Lord.

  18. Here’s how I’d personally like to see the quote interpreted:

    Businesses are accountable to stockholders (in addition to dealing with customers, employees, the public, etc.) The church is accountable to God (in addition to its members, the community, etc.)

    Therefore, the way the church treats its members, (even if its proven to produce excellent results–and even in the long run) still may not be right. D&C 121 must be adhered to, otherwise the efforts are ineffective from God’s point of view.

    Seeing it this way, the church and its leaders are accountable not only in results, but also in methods: in the way members are treated with love, sensitivity and kindness. While business have to deal with the natural consequences of unkindness, the church has to deal with both natural consequences as well as a sacred responsibility (which is independent), this principle gets forgotten from time to time.

  19. The Church is an organization entrusted with helping Heavely Father’s children receive the full blessings of his Plan of Happiness. It has a fiduciary duty toward all of Father’s children, acting as Father’s agent on earth, and especially toward those who have made a covenant to join in the great work of blessing their brothers and sisters. Baptisms without people being ready willing and able to receive the Holy Ghost are not efficacious.

    All of the fiscal and physical resources of the Church are only means to an end. Anything that sacrifices people, the beneficiaries of the Fathet’s program, in order to enhance resources, is violating the Father’s plan. D&C 121 warns us against diverting the mechanisms of the Church to personal ends, which is fine for many businesses, and away from the blessing of God’s children.

  20. The “military model” is especially ironic because the most effective military organizations affirmatively do NOT work like someone pushing pawns on a chessboard. Real military organizations depend on the intelligence, initiative, skill and courage of individual soldiers, airmen and sailors. The best leaders are intimately involved in oreparing the people they will send into battle so they will have all those qualities and the instruments to implement them. The best thing that happened to the US armed forces was becoming a fully voluntary organization. Service members freely enter solemn covenants to put their duty to defend the nation ahead of their own lives.

    In that way, the solemn covenants we make in the temple are similar in placing the interests of others ahead our own. It is not a contractual relatuonship, in which our obligations cease if the other party ever fails to live up to their end of the bargain.

  21. I would point out that President Monson is the first president of the church to have an MBA.

    However I sense an emphasis in his administration on “reaching the one’ instead of concentrating on the care and feeding of the church organization. His biography was entitled “To the rescue” for a reason.

    Note the story in the biography about how president Monson was at a stake meeting and felt impressed to leave early and vist a member in the hospital but decided to wait until the meeting was over.
    He left the meeting and arrived at the hospital and found that the member had just died and had asked when he was coming.

    That sums up the Monson approach to Church service I think.

    I agree that President McKay was not a good admistrator and he knew it.That is why he brought men like president Tanner into the first presidency to carry the admnistrative burden.

  22. queuno — thanks; d’accord.

    Mark, I don’t know if the Church leadership style is as dramatic as you portray but there is a huge difference between managing / motivating employees and doing the same with volunteers.


    I do love the quote Men must learn that in presiding over the Church we are dealing with human hearts, that individual rights are sacred, and the human soul is tender. though. We need to reflect on that from time to time.

    john willis — now I’ll have to look for the book.

  23. As someone mentioned earlier, we need to differentiate between the church’s business operations and its pastoral operations. Its business operations (Corporation of the Presiding Bishopric, and so forth) ned to be run with a business frame of mind. But its pastoral operations (stake and wards) need to be run with a pastoral frame of mind. These are VERY different. A person who approaches his pastoral calling with a business frame (as though those who serve under him are him employees to be ordered to achieve goals and so forth) doesn’t understand his calling.

    In our pastoral operations, we’re all brothers and sisters, and D&C 121 should certainly apply.

    “Men must learn that in presiding over the Church we are dealing with human hearts, that individual rights are sacred, and the human soul is tender.” Amen.

  24. I realize that I am reading this far differently than most of you, but the first thing that came to mind when I read this was my 17 year old son. Right now his soul is tender. He is faced with some very big decisions over the next year or two, and his testimony is still very much in its fledgling stage. He is a good kid who has always done what is expected of him, and right now he’s trying on a moe independent persona. He is growing his hair (on his head and his face), and is no longer enthusiastically kowtowing to whatever his YM leaders ask. It is mild rebellion. He is worthy to perform priesthood ordinances, and yet I’m quite sure he will soon be asked to stop because in our stake this is a common occurrence.
    Are his individual rights not sacred? Must we come down so hard on our worthy young men that their not yet fully developed testimonies can’t withstand the blow?
    Business practices aside, it seems that the individual preferences of those in charge are being given precedence over the individual rights of the generation we are supposedly so concerned about losing. Thread jack? Sorry. That’s what the quote brought to mind.

  25. At its best, I think this quote means that people are not bundles of doctrines and reactions to doctrines. And that governing by policy will be inadequate to the humanity of the governed.

  26. In some areas, the church does need to be run like a business. In the late 60s, as I recall, the church was in serious financial difficulty because of its antiquated financial structure which had not been updated in some time, and the deficit spending that went on under Henry D. Moyle to forward the church building program. Pres. Tanner, who had been CEO of a big corporation in Canada, was asked to take on the job of fixing the problem and by all accounts he did a masterful job. Now, I admit that this is a very different thing than dealing with peoples’ problems or youth issues or who can be a good scoutmaster. But it’s not an either/or thing.

  27. Meggie (no. 25) — “He is worthy to perform priesthood ordinances, and yet I’m quite sure he will soon be asked to stop because in our stake this is a common occurrence.”

    You might make a proactive attempt to quietly talk about this to your bishop, so that it doesn’t happen. You can try to help him understand your son’s “rebellion” in a spirit of love. May God bless your family.

  28. Are we the only religion that has teen-age boys conducting the most sacred ordinance of our weekly communal worship – that of Blessing and Sanctifying the Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour? That still seems very strange to me.

  29. RE: The death of President Harold B. Lee

    I believe it was President Boyd K. Packer who said President Lee would have received the same revelation relative to extending the Priesthood to all worthy males as that received by President Spencer W. Kimball, and that the notion he was taken from mortality because it would have been otherwise is incorrect.

  30. Kurt, while I am certain that he could have received such a revelation it must be remembered that revelation comes to those who are open to receive it AND accept it. Given the well-documented racial views of President Lee, it would have been very difficult to imagine he would have even bothered to ask the question.

  31. Michael, there is much logic in what you say. Yet at thebsame time, I am reminded if intrusive revelations that came unbidden, like the one given to Peter as he napped on a housetop in Joppa. The Lord had not only prepared a vision for him, but had sent an independent revelation to an unbaptized gentile, Cornelius, to make him part of the whole revelation to Peter.

    I wonder if the faithfulness of many black saints, both in Utah and Brazil, was not part of the revelatory experience God had prepared for the prophet, to urge him to ponder the question. I know that it could not have escaped the notice of the apostles that the Church was actively embracing people of Polynesia, Asia, and Latin America and ordainingbthem in the priesthood, so the xituation of those of African descent was an anomaly. And at least for President Kimball, the mandate to take the gospel to the whole world, which he had emphasized from 1974, included the milluons of people in Africa.

    I cannot but think that the yearning for the true path to salvation was not a random aspect of Joseph Smith’s life, but was part of the divine agenda that included placing in the prophet’s path the people who came forward to help him, such as Martin Harris, Oluver Cowdery and the Whitmers.

    I recall stories about Heber J. Grant being determined to make a friend into an apostle, but beingbdirected othetwise when he became president.

    And I remember how humbly Presudent Lee pleaded for our prayers in his behalf as he took on the respinsibility of the presidency. So I think it is possible the Lord could have gotten the message through even to one who was resistant, as Saul was when he set out in the Damascus highway.

  32. Julie:

    I do have a source, but need to track it down. I looked for it before making the post, but couldn’t find it in the materials I had with me at the time.

    My first thought is that it is in one of Ed Kimball’s biographies of his father, but there are a few other places it may be as well. I will keep an eye out over the Thanksgiving break and post it if I’m able to find it.


    It may be difficult for some to imagine that President Lee would have asked the question, but the point made by President Packer was that the Lord was behind the decision and would have impressed whichever man was at the helm of the Church to solicit the revelation.

  33. If you can find the source, please do. I think that says more about Elder Packer’s beliefs than anything else. Elder Maxwell once told my mother that some things don’t change until certain people die.

  34. If Pres Lee had been the reason for not extending the Priesthood, why didn’t it happen in 1974, when he died? Did someone else die in 1978 who was “in the way”?

    I’m not convinced this could be, as it is much too easy to kill a person off.

  35. Julie:
    I tracked down the source I mentioned previously. It is actually Elder Russell M. Nelson, not President Packer with whom the quote originates:

    The source comes from Elder Nelson’s book, “From Heart to Heart” which was written for an intimate audience.

    On pages 59 and 60 he shares an experience where he learned “that the revelations received and the actions taken by President Kimball were the very same as would have been received and performed by President Lee had he remained the prophet.”

    President Packer also teaches the principle (though without using specific names) in a chapter of his book, “That All May Be Edified.”

  36. @36-I love Elder Nelson but I wonder how he would know that? Unless Pres. Kimball had told him as such

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