Why is the Church Handbook of Instructions not Public?

I don’t know the answer to this question. Let me suggest some possibilities:

Perhaps the Brethren are worried that publishing the Handbook will encourage people to treat it as a legal text. There are two possible problems with this. It might then encourage people to use deviation from the Handbook to attack priesthood leaders, when the Handbook is merely intended to orient them in particular ways not necessarily limit their ability to deviate. Alternatively, treating the Handbook as a legal text might discourage members from approaching issues prayerfully and flexibly rather than legalistically. By keeping it private, the thinking might go, we limit its public authority as a text and thus limit legalism. The problem, it seems to me, is that it tends to function as a legal text anyway, just a problematic one because it is not public.

Perhaps the Brethren are worried that the deep secrets of the Church will be revealed if the Handbook is made public and deeply embarrassing things will come to light. The problem with this is that there just isn’t anything particularly scandalous in the Handbook. I’ve read it. There’s no deep secrets in it. Furthermore, copies of it are available in various research libraries — including BYU Special Collections — to say nothing of the Internet. If it contains deep secrets they are already out of the bag. Remember all of those breathless investigative reports in the NYT exposing the way that Ward Clerks are supposed to prepare quarterly reports or the operation of the Bishop’s Youth Council? Yeah, me neither.

The only reason that really makes sense to me is legal, and even that doesn’t really make sense to me. There are a number of cases involving litigation against employers in which corporate manuals held out to the public or to employees were deemed to be contracts or the very least promises on which one might reasonably rely. Accordingly, they were made the basis of lawsuits. Because contractual liability is strict rather than fault based, showing that a manual is a contract is potentially really powerful because you can impose liability simply by showing failure to comply with procedures. Importantly, one needn’t show negligence or malice in failing to comply with procedures, so meeting the evidentiary requirements for liability are easier. Although, on the back end one’s remedies in contract cases as opposed to situations involving fault-based liability are — to use technical legal language — less umphy. No punitive damages for breach of contract, for example. Perhaps the Church wants the Handbook kept private in order to head off suits by members and others based on some local leader’s failure to comply with procedures in the Handbook.

The problem with this last explanation is that lots of jurisdictions don’t follow the handbooks-are-contracts theory. To again use technical language this is what is known among lawyers and legal scholars as some-batshit-crazy-thing-that-state-courts-in-California-and-New-Jersey-do-sometimes (SBCTTSCICNJDS, pronounced spects-cinc-noj-dos; there is a dispute as to whether the stress is on the second or third syllable). More importantly, it’s, as I understand it, a pretty recent development, and the CHI has been kept confidential for some time. (Although its worth pointing out that what became one of the main 20th-century versions of the CHI was published by the Church in the 1930s as a lesson manual and later as a book, namely John A. Widsoe’s Priesthood and Church Government. Go figure.)

So there you have the anatomy of my ignorance. I don’t know why the CHI (or at least the first volume of the CHI) is not public. The only thing that really makes sense to me is very cautious lawyering, but I suspect that historically this isn’t the actual explanation.

28 comments for “Why is the Church Handbook of Instructions not Public?

  1. I think it’s a combination of all of the above. The Church wants to avoid legalisms because that diminishes the local authority’s omniscience and it also avoids potential lawsuits. No lawsuits are better than the few that would go through the courts. Also, successful lawsuits in one jurisdiction promote change in another jurisdiction.

  2. Why does it matter if it is public or private? Is there some potential good that isn’t happening because the CHI isn’t public??

  3. some-batshit-crazy-thing-that-state-courts-in-California-and-New-Jersey-do-sometimes (SBCTTSCICNJDS, pronounced spects-cinc-noj-dos; there is a dispute as to whether the stress is on the second or third syllable).”

    The dispute is only in VA, where state courts have trouble making any meaningful law . . .

  4. Part of me says “why do people need to know the administrative aspects of the callings of Stake President or Bishop or clerk?” The other part of me says, why not? We know how the MPH, APH, YM, YW, RS and Primary programs function and the responsibilities of those who serve in those callings. Why would we treat SP’s and Bishops differently? My gut says it has nothing to do with legal posturing but the desire to discourage rank and file members from spending all their time reading Handbook 1 and then telling the SP and Bishop how they ought to be doing their jobs.

  5. I don’t know, either. But, having served in several bishoprics, on a stake high council, and in numerous other leadership positions, your idea that it isn’t published being that people might treat it as legal doesn’t make much sense, because, in all of the leadership positions I’ve had, the next-higher-up leadership always encouraged us to use the CHI to answer any and all questions we had about what to do in any given circumstance. So, in essence, considering that all men rotate in and out of these callings in the bishopric, in the stake high council, and, well, in all of the leadership callings (obviously not women in these callings, as that’s against the law), all the “people” end up treating it as legal text anyway, because it’s the go-to source for answering all the questions about what to do. I also put forward this same idea (that “lay” leadership rotates to many people throughout the years) that it really should be made public to avoid misinterpretations of it by people who used to be in a calling of leadership (men) but are no longer and may think they know what the CHI says, but don’t really because they don’t have access to it. And, of course, all this is horribly sexist, because few women have access to the “full” CHI, so, let’s move into the new century.

  6. My guesses similar to yours, Nate. I guessing they don’t want these policies to become the subject of interpersonal debate. The handbook is basically quasi-scripture/revelation which only applies to those who have been given it and their own actions, so nobody else really has any business reading it. On a related note, not publishing it gives the church some flexibility to change and modify the handbook over time.

    In other words, not publishing it keeps such information and the justification for it flowing top-down through the proper priesthood channels rather than bottom-up through some process of peer review. Differing handbooks from the past have no bearing on the cases that happen now, and a non-authorized interpretation of the handbook has no bearing on how an authorized person ought to interpret it.

  7. The same reason the last two presidential administrations have tried to keep controversial OLC decisions under lock and key: avoidance of accountability.

  8. In the uber-litigous society we have avoiding accountability can save lots of tithing dollars from ending up in the hands of ill intentioned persons. I don’t know if avoiding accountability is the real reason, but I can’t say it is a bad thing if it is.

  9. Steve M,

    The main difference is that the church leadership isn’t accountable to its members or any other people on earth. Unlike a democracy where (ideally speaking) the leaders are ultimately accountable to their constituents, the church is under no obligation to expose itself to such checks and balances.

  10. “some-batshit-crazy-thing-that-state-courts-in-California-and-New-Jersey-do-sometimes”


    Yeah, I don’t know why it isn’t published.

  11. And a related question: What _is_ “conduct contrary to the laws and order of the Church”? Does it have an official definition? Is it just an arbitrary make-it-up-as-you-go-along catch-all?

  12. Kaimi,

    It sounds to me a lot like the reasons that Joseph Smith gave (if I remember correctly) for excommunicating quite a few people throughout his lifetime. It might sound vague, and we might not like it, but I personally see plenty of precedence for it.

  13. I don’t understand why either, but I support the decision to keep Handbook 1 confidential — it is administrative guidelines from the general church to leaders in the local churches — one supposes a corporate CEO could reasonably establish guidelines for his or her regional managers without sharing those guidelines with all employees or the general public.

    Limiting legalism is a noble and worthwhile and necessary endeavor — absolutely necessary.

  14. Private things are private because they are private, tautology notwithstanding. The parts of the handbook not made generally available ARE available to those who need it and use it. It’s not anyone else’s business.

    It is common to say today that private must mean you have something to hide. Not so. The private business of the Church is totally open to those who need it. If I need to know something from the handbook, I can ask my ward leaders, because I believe I trust them with such information more than I trust you.

    Is it okay with you that the temple is private?

  15. If you have a serious question, you can always go to your bishop. I’ve done that a few times with some of mine, and they’ve shared the applicable parts of the Handbook with me. No biggie.

  16. A previous leadership meeting that followed by putting Handbook #2 online resulted in comments from the Church that Handbook #1 was not made public so that members would not view it as a substitute for personal counseling.

  17. Having been in a bishopric in a ward that had a small but destructive gossiping, second-guessing group of busybodies, I thought it was pretty nice to be able to check the handbook for inspiration rather than primarily to check whether sister so-and-so was going to make sure the whole Relief Society and the stake president knew that the bishop had arguably deviated from the handbook.

    The person(s) in question, even though they didn’t have Handbook 1, nevertheless made life pretty miserable for the bishop and his family

    Keeping Handbook 1 out of the hands of general membership keeps the Pharisees, the second-guessers, the gossipers at bay. It ensures that the person who has a personal vendetta against the bishop starts quoting chapter and verse of Handbook 1, the potential whisperers can say, “Since when was that your business to know?” rather than start second-guessing on their own.

    I don’t know that it’s the main reason the church keeps it on a need-to-know basis, but it’s a good enough reason by itself, in my first-hand experience.

  18. Jeff G @ 3:55 – it may be true that the church leadership is accountable to no humans, technically, but in a larger sense they are.

    In other words, the Church doesn’t operate in a vacuum, otherwise there would be no need for spokesmen. For example, instead of the explanations in the past few years about the priesthood ban, the leaders could have simply said “The Lord changed the policy in 1978. End of discussion”.

    I see the church as being quite adept at modulating their message and being very astute at marketing, which would be strictly unnecessary if the sole means of communication was via the spirit and instruction given top-down.

  19. because then people would know and have proof and they couldn’t say ” i did’t say that” or” i didn’t mean it that way”. you know, like our government.

  20. I think the most likely explanation for the secrecy is simply: (1) H1 is needed because our bishops and SPs are lay leaders often with no prior training or experience in leading a congregation, being a pastoral counselor, etc.; and (2) other Church members don’t have those needs thus don’t get access. For most sections this presents no real problem. The problem with lack of info about church courts doesn’t require publishing H1 — just take the chapter on disciplinary councils and post it at LDS.org. They could solve this problem in 5 minutes if they wanted to. But they don’t, which keeps the process unfair for participants but gives bishops broader discretion to control the process with a minimum of fuss. Which kind of undermines the claim in H1 that the process is intended to be fair to participants.

  21. One reason there could be is to try to prevent members from seeking to be micromanaged in all things, to try to stem the “list” mentality in the Church. The Handbook is guidance for leaders, not intended to replace leader revelation or counsel not to replace our own personal decisions.

  22. Having read the post and the comments some reasons why not to publish the CHI come out, all of us busy figuring out the world view of the leadership. I have been involved in the translation of CHI into Dutch and used the CHI as a branch president, bishop’s counsillor, high councilman and as stake president (that happens when you live way outside Deseret). I think the reasons mentioned make all limited sense, and boil down to the fact that the notion of putting it on internet simply comes as a second thought. This is mainly because internet is seen as a proselyting tool, as inpiration and as and a medium for gospel content correlation, not as an administrative underpinning. Internet, in the eyes of the leadership, is for ‘Public Affairs, GA talks and Sunday School’, with genealogy as a pièce de résistance. There is, however, one way in which CHI can serve this purpose. When the new CHI appeared, it got some publicity, and most of it was very positive. Quite a few Catholic colleagues asked me about it, and expressed the wish they had something like that in their church. I told them I experienced it as ‘condensed good common sense’. So let us search for more arguments to put in online, and feel confident that it can serve as an example of good governance. I think we can be proud ot if.

  23. In my day (old man speaking) the CHI was one volume (plus addenda that accumulated over time) and it was all private. Not very tightly controlled, usually available for inspection on request, held in a number of library collections, and I have copies of most versions up to but not including the volume 1 volume 2 split, but not public or published or widely known or read. With this background, I’ve always viewed the question the OP addresses from the other end, as a “why was volume 2 published?” (that’s what’s new, after all). And, believing that the decision process was less about what to keep back and more about what might be useful for the general public, did they get it right? Or is there some part of the still private volume 1 that would be useful or valuable for the public and that should be moved over?
    The current discussion seems to swirl around procedure and offenses in church discipline. However, my understanding and experience is that procedure (in the Church) is a matter of order not right. A bishop might be censured in a “don’t do it again” sense for a procedural failing, but it is almost inconceivable that a disciplinary decision would be reversed on procedural grounds. And that lists of offenses are not a sin/no sin catalog (as some would like to make them) but rather a must/should/may/should not instruction to leaders about when to hold a disciplinary council. Viewed that way, I think the procedure and the offenses belong in volume 1 and moving them to volume 2 would materially change their meaning (would start creating procedural rights, and a sin/no sin meaning for the offense list).

  24. Nate, great post. To further undermine the concern about legality, most states allow this to be mitigated by a simple disclaimer (“This employee handbook is not a contract. Your employment remains at-will, unless otherwise agreed to in writing signed by the Executive Vice President of Human Resources. The company’s failure to follow the guidelines set forth in this handbook shall not constitute a breach…”, etc.). The current NLRB has issues with this approach, but even the state of California is okay with it.

    Seems to me it would be simple enough to include such a disclaimer in in the CHI. Heck, maybe there’s already one there. All it may take is an explanation that the Handbook is intended to be guidelines and that local leaders must still use discretion and revelation to guide their decisions.

    Further, I think there would be serious First Amendment issues with a court allowing a lawsuit to go forward against an church because it failed to follow it’s internal procedures.

  25. Jeff G,

    “Unlike a democracy where (ideally speaking) the leaders are ultimately accountable to their constituents, the church is under no obligation to expose itself to such checks and balances.”

    Oh, well that makes me feel better.

    . . .

  26. Jeff G says in #9, the church leadership isn’t accountable to its members or any other people on earth. Unlike a democracy where (ideally speaking) the leaders are ultimately accountable to their constituents, the church is under no obligation to expose itself to such checks and balances

    Well, they probably would be held responsible to some standards, anyway, in a court of law. I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me that enough of the leadership of the Church at all levels has access to the manual that if someone chose to sue for noncompliance, they’d be held to that standard whether the thing was widely distributed or not.

    Parenthetically, scintillating reading it isn’t.

    Kaimi, #12, there’s no specific definition in the manual. However, I don’t think it’s meant to be arbitrary. It just ends up that way, like most arbitrary things. You have to strike a balance between excessive legalism and a free-for-all, I suppose.

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