The Problem with Local Change

Imagine that everything in the church is precisely the way that it is now with two exceptions:

1. The handbook has absolutely nothing to say about how tithing money should be processed.

2. The tradition in virtually every unit of the church is that the bishop handles tithing alone, behind his closed office door.

Imagine that you become aware of the possible problems that this system could cause and so you express them to me and wish for change.

I tell you that there is nothing in the handbook prohibiting tithing from being handled differently, and so if the status quo bugs you or anyone else, you should advocate for change on the local level. You might find my response inadequate for the following reasons:

1. The wards most likely to have problems under the status quo (i.e., cheating bishops) are the ones least likely to adopt new policies.

2. By suggesting that the problem be solved in an ad hoc, local manner, I have denied that there is a systemic problem. If there is a systemic problem, this is the wrong response. Addressing a systemic problem locally denies that it is a systemic problem. This denial reveals one’s opinion of the advisability of the practice in question; in this case, that protecting tithing money is not important to the church as a whole, but might possibly be done in some places  if a certain leader can be convinced that it is a good idea.

3. By punting tithing oversight policies to the local level, I am asking you to go in to your bishop and say, in effect, “I’m worried you might be STEALING MY MONEY, so I think we should adopt new policies that no other ward in the church has.” This is unlikely to go over well. It is, rather, likely to lead to contention. Avoidance of contention is a prime LDS virtue and robust general-level policies help us avoid it by leaving fewer decisions over which to contend at the local level.

4. Innovating on the ward level disturbs the consistency between wards and risks creating wards of different temperaments, which increases the incentive for ward shopping, which further increases the polarization between wards. And that story never ends well.

This post isn’t about tithing but rather is an analogical and partial response to Neylan McBaine’s new book Women at Church. I will write a full review in another venue, but in the mean time, I wanted to balance the intense and well-deserved praise that the book is receiving with some concerns about a bottom-up approach to change in the church. I am not claiming that these concerns outweigh the benefits; I am claiming that it is a question that we need to seriously consider.

53 comments for “The Problem with Local Change

  1. While I appreciate the intent of the analogy, it is not relevant to those of us who pay tithing directly to SLC, anyway.

    And if one is concerned, rather than going to the bishop and accusing him of stealing, one would have the option to send directly to SLC. Which is not true of other things in the church.

  2. Naismith: how do you pay tithing directly to SLC? I didn’t know that was an option! How does that work?

  3. Q1: Why would it be considered “cheating” or “stealing” if the handbook doesn’t say how the money should be handled?

    Q2: Does a Bishop’s “mishandling” (in the eyes of the members) of tithing money excuse the members from paying their tithing as commanded?

  4. God bless you, Julie M. Smith. This thought exercise you’ve presented is a beautiful thing.

  5. “Addressing a systemic problem locally denies that it is a systemic problem.” BINGO. That’s exactly the concern with this approach.

  6. Excellent thought experiment. I would add an additional problem related to #2: it allows local leadership responding to the person with concerns to say, “You are the only person who has voiced a problem with this. We won’t/can’t change everything for one person. Everyone else seems fine with it.”

  7. Great, insightful critique of Neylan’s approach. However, (and I hope you post what you do like about the book/her approach) I think local level efforts seem like the only way to go. If there is a moral to Kate Kelly’s experience it is that the quickest way to excommunication is to (be a female and) take action on a grander scale. So that is what I like about Neylan’s approach – it gives me tangible, concrete things I CAN do without risking my membership. It’s not perfect or how I wish things would happen. But I can’t do nothing and I can’t do things on a larger scale. So local efforts are what I have. They are not without their problems (some of which you pointed out) but at the end of the day, I would rather take actions that are imperfect and even frustrating than not do anything at all.

  8. I think think this is great. We can easily see how leaving someone alone with a big pile of money and no oversight will sorely tempt even the best people, and will at best leave people wondering if it might be a good idea to add some safeguards.
    Yet for some reason having doubts about the prudence of leaving a man all alone with a big pile of unquestioned authority might be bad for the ward and women in particular means that you hate the church.

  9. I’ve wondered this in my own situation in several ways. For example if I find the practice of one on one bishopric interviews somewhat problematic in terms of my children, and I say that to my bishop, there a tinge of “I think you might be a problem,” no matter how much I say “This is not about you, this about the system!” Systematic problems can have attention drawn to them from the bottom up, but real solutions need to come from the top down

  10. This is a great analogy. I do love the idea of being the change I want to see, and even some suggestions on how I can do that. But I HATE the idea that women only have as much decision-making authority as the local leaders see fit. I’m at the whims of a bunch of men who may or may not have my best interests in mind. Which I’m sure is how anybody would feel in your tithing hypothetical.

  11. You give me hope on two fronts Julie: first, I appreciate Neylan’s measured, faithful voice addressing feminist concerns but feared that her book would be seen as a solution that obviates the need for any other approach and second, I worried that criticism of her book would primarily take on more polemical us vs them rhetoric. Your post reminds me that Mormon feminism is a big tent and we can offer substantive critiques that will broaden the dialogue, not shut it down. Great job!

  12. Really relevant observations, Julie. It will be interesting to see how this plays out on the ground. My hope is that as wards try experimenting with some of McBaine’s suggestions, they will experience success (and not bring about the apocalypse) and the more egalitarian practices will be officially adopted higher up a few years down the road. Maybe more like ten years. The alternative is that if increasing numbers of practices become unstable from ward to ward, that a new wave of correlation will crack down and remove those ambiguous parts of the handbook that allow for the kinds of innovations McBaine suggestions. I hope for the former!

  13. There are some counter-examples to your very useful thought exercise, Julie:

    Aurelia Spencer Rogers and Primary.
    Harold B. Lee and the Welfare Program.

    Both suggest that local leaders should seek vigorously to find solutions to their problems that work for their stakes and wards. And that such solutions may very well “trickle-up” and become church-wide solutions. We need not think that every good idea for change in the church will arrive at 47 East South Temple Street before showing up someplace else.

  14. “Addressing a systemic problem locally denies that it is a systemic problem.” AMEN.

    Wonderful, wonderful analogy.

  15. Excellent observation about the inability of bottom-up efforts to deal well with church-wide systemic problems. But I also agree with Amanda, that in practical terms, as imperfect as they are, bottom-up non-hierarchical innovation seems to be the only available option to spur any meaningful change (at least as things are presently constituted in the Correlation era). Things may change marginally for the better here and there, creating a crazy quilt of different practices, but it’s also possible that in at least some cases hierarchs might actually pay attention to the local innovation and broaden some of those initiatives to become church-wide.

  16. Joining the crowd of backslappers.

    I’m very much in favor of local action–though some of the systemic problems we have in place concern the culture of no-appropriate-way-to-challenge. That said, two very different orientations leadership can take toward local action: recognize the problem and encourage folks to work creatively on the local level; remain silent, allowing brave souls to try creative things, occasionally excommunicating those whose creative attempts don’t accord with one’s unarticulated instincts in order to prune the local vines as they grow.

    I hope that McBaine’s efforts lead to an official endorsement of the former. In order to really be successful, however, centralized authority has to be willing to implement what does in fact turn out to work on the local level. But this way of going about things is counter to the culture that’s developed since correlation (as Mark B.’s #18 comment highlights – counter to his intention).

  17. Spot on, Julie! Systemic problems just can’t be solved locally. The top-down only rhetoric (and practice!) of the Church doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility of such problems existing. McBaine’s approach can’t be applied universally. There’s something to be said for acting where you can, but there’s also something to be said for acknowledging and calling out big problems even when there’s no obvious solution to them.

    “Yet for some reason having doubts about the prudence of leaving a man all alone with a big pile of unquestioned authority might be bad for the ward and women in particular means that you hate the church.”

    I think this is going in my Starfoxy comments hall of fame along with the “amen squad.” “Big pile of unquestioned authority” is just a wonderful phrase!

  18. Incredibly useful lens for looking at the meta-issues we’re considering and being asked to address. One the things concerning regarding the approach in Women at Church (my copy has been ordered, but has not yet arrived) is the exact iniquity you point out- a systemic approach cannot be addressed by individuals subject to leaders who might be the least likely to listen. I’m looking forward to reading the whole book, as well as your further review.

  19. I completely agree with the potential benefits of local change articulated in #12, #18, etc. I’m just not sure how to weigh those against the potential disadvantages that I outlined.

    And I hadn’t taken my analogy as far as Starfoxy did, but she is brilliant. She wins the Internet today as “big pile of unquestioned authority” enters the lexicon.

  20. +1 to Starfoxy’s “a big pile of unquestioned authority” winning the Internet today. Brilliant!

  21. In other conflicts, some people advocate for local change on the bases that (1) systemic change in large bureaucracies is do difficult and (2) local change may be adopted by larger systems. (One example of this kind of advocacy is in the book Slow Democracy by Clark & Teachout.) This is happening a lot on divisive topics like climate change and LGBT equality, with cities and towns initiating climate policies and non-discrimination ordinances. I think those local efforts are extremely important. They do make a difference locally in the places where they are successful and impact the broader atmosphere. Those successes and impacts absolutely do not invalidate efforts toward systemic change. We absolutely still need federal and global climate policy and a good nationwide NDA. The local efforts warm up the country to those kinds of things. The discourse needs all kinds of voices. Even voices that oppose equality and common sense, sometimes (not saying that’s Neyland McBaine, *at all.*) I feel pretty optimistic right now. I think we are going to work it out, eventually.

  22. A lot of the existing church financial rules exist because well-intentioned Apostles were were taking out loans from church finances.
    There probably are other policies that may need to be implemented to restrict bad behavior from well-intentioned GA’s.

  23. I call baloney on the claim made in #28. I cannot cite the sources I have been recently using, but I know in fact it is false, and I state that under my own name.

  24. Yes! Thank you. I couldn’t agree more. I, like most mormon feminists have advocated for change on a local level for years. And all the baby steps that are made are continually reset w/ each change in leadership. Bottom up approach is a never ending battle when local leadership is temporary.

  25. Even if tomorrow there is a top-down policy change that women can be ordained, it would take decades for our culture to catch up in terms of recognizing and hearing women’s voices. The ManOnTopOfTheAuthorityPile says, so what if she has the priesthood, she is still a woman so I won’t listen to or validate her opinions and experiences. Getting the priesthood won’t be an equalizer until our culture is on board, too. So in Neylan’s book she pushes for incremental cultural changes via one-on-one interactions with local leaders and members, positing that true zion-building takes place heart-to-heart rather than through policies. True, this could also be done after an announcement for female ordination takes place, but for now it’s one of the few constructive strategies I see available.

  26. We could compromise on the local/systemic divide with ward or stake ombudsmen or something like that, couldn’t we? Someone outside the regular chain of authority who could address concerns and relay them upwards. I wonder if petitioning for that would lead to being chastised for trying to change church structure, or if it could be seen as simply an external addition. It would probably have to be a full-time job, but I would totally be willing to donate to that kind of fund.

  27. Some useful parallels here. The good and bad for me is that my ward is far better for women than what I hear at General Conference and in church publications. So on the one hand, I enjoy my ward, but on the other hand I dislike the misogyny I hear from higher sources.

  28. Everything I’ve read by McBain leaves me frustrated. I feel she tries too hard to straddle fences… trying to point out flaws in the current system but refraining from anything that could be construed as critical of the Lord’s anointed. (Obviously, her career as an active, LDS feminist voice goes down the tubes if she isn’t in the Church’s good graces… and her book sales with it!) Her local-level approach is just another tepid attempt to simultaneously do something and do nothing. After all, we all know the LDS Church does not operate from a bottom-up approach, but rather a top-down approach.

    I’m not saying McBain should necessarily adopt a more harshly critical voice if that isn’t where her heart truly lies. But at least have the authenticity to say, “I recognize severe problems in this system and yet, for personal reasons, I am not willing to criticize it harshly.”

  29. Tina – all proceeds from Neylan’s book are going toward the Mormon Women’s Project – not personal gain.

  30. I think Neylan knows all this. What she really wants is to get top down change, and I imagine she is hoping that by getting the ideas out there, with maybe a few individual wards experimenting, that someone upstairs will get wind of it and think its a good idea for church-wide implementation.

  31. “Addressing a systemic problem locally denies that it is a systemic problem.”

    Well, we don’t have universal agreement that there is a problem at all. But assuming there is, arguendo, and assuming it is a systemic problem, addressing it locally makes perfect sense. Try, experiment, learn. Change can work laterally uphill in organizations.

    Like with gay marriage. Complaining and waiting for the Congress to correct the problem (arguendo) didn’t work, so the gay marriage proponents turned to local judges — so much easier to convince one judge for one locality who can make a decision all by him- or herself, than to convince a body of policy-makers. The gay marriage proponents win before some judges, and lose before others, but partial victories are better than none at all — and it looks like partial victories will lead to complete victory pretty soon. Bloom where you’re planted, my mother used to say.

  32. Nate in #37 nailed it. One proven way to facilitate systemic change is to demonstrate successful change locally. Let’s give McBaine a little more credit.

  33. Nate and BHodges, I absolutely agree that the possibility of systemic change stemming from local change is one of the advantages that we should weigh against the disadvantages of local change that I articulated in the original post. (Of course, we might experience the opposite phenomenon: I’m aware that the sentiment _already_ exists among some general-level church leaders that there is no need to take general action on certain problems that might theoretically be solved locally, so perhaps more local action would actually end up diminishing systemic action.)

    At the same time, I am deeply uncomfortable with Nate’s statement about what McBaine “really wants.” As far as I know (do correct me), she has never advocated for systemic change, so we shouldn’t put words into her mouth.

  34. Wonderful analogy and thought exercise. I would respond–or perhaps extend the analogy–in a couple of ways.
    1. If you really wanted a local change in the way bishops handle tithing, you would take it to the Stake President. As a practical matter, that’s the level at which change really happens “locally”. Doing so would somewhat ameliorate problem #1 (those most likely to have problems are least likely to change) because it is a step removed from the direct problem. Would reduce problem #3 (contention) for the same reason. And would ameliorate problem #4 (forum shopping) by widening the boundaries of consistent behavior.
    2. Suggesting that the problem be solved (or at least moderated) in an ad hoc, local manner is consistent with denying that there is a systemic problem. But it is also consistent with recognizing a systemic problem but determining that the best way to approach the problem, after due consideration of all the alternatives, is a bottom up “show them” approach. You may be able to discern intent and understanding from other evidence, but I don’t think you get there from the “local option” approach by itself.

  35. christiankimball: Keep in mind that Stake Presidents call Bishops. Thus many SPs might feel protective on behalf of their Bishops. If I complain about a Bishop to my SP that could be seen as a sign of lack of support to the SP. Didn’t he, through inspiration, call the Bishop. Thus, going to your SP may not reduce contention at all; it may increase it. It depends on the SP, the Bishop, and the member.

  36. Of course. The Stake President may be protective. Contention may not be avoided. But “he needs to change” will always be a different conversation than “you need to change”. That’s how people work.
    The real point is that a feature — I would suggest advantage — of the local option approach is the ability to appeal to a higher (human) authority. By contrast, a systemic problem approach forces one into the “pray about it” petition since the only higher authority available is God.

  37. The only reason I am championing Neylans book is that 99% of ppl in my sphere of influence are TBMs and we have been shut down so thoroughly for decades by asking for centralized change, instead we get retrenchment….. So Neylans approach isn’t my favorite way forward….. But it may be the only way forward. It depresses me to no end, but I’m trying to be realistic.

  38. I do think this analogy has serious limitations with women in the Church, precisely because women in the Church do have opportunities locally to influence a ward that aren’t reflected in the notion of a bishop closed off in a corner hoarding authority. A bishop will never have full authority behind closed doors simply because he cannot be in multiple places at once, and authority is exercised in multiple ways throughout the callings in a ward. That doesn’t mean that authority isn’t violated (the Lord warned us that would be the case in D&C 121).

    The council system is something that I think has yet to even come close to reaching its potential, and the *only* way for that to happen in its most effective way is at the local level. It also is as much about women understanding that doctrine as it is about men doing so. Every time we suggest that women’s power is dependent on structure or visibility, imo, we undermine the power that is in us. (And yes, I understand that ‘the world’ does the visibility thing. I think there are ways we can talk more about how women are woven into the plan, but I think ultimately, the Lord’s pattern will still disappoint those who expect the world’s pattern in structure and function.)

  39. p.s. I think the biggest concern I have about Neylan’s approach and suggestions is that there is nowhere near a universal agreement on whether or not they should even happen. To me, Sharon Eubank’s recent FAIR talk has come the closest to capturing and staying in the tension of doctrine vs practice and to me, you can’t talk about the latter without really understanding the former. “True doctrine understood changes behavior” quicker and all that. I’m frustrated with what feels like a focus on the branches without more discussion around the roots of our doctrine.

    I haven’t yet read Neylan’s book, but from what I have heard reported, she steers away from doctrine (deliberately?) and I think that is the wrong way to go. The way she started her FAIR presentation talking about the doctrine resonated with me but I was disappointed with the direction her talk went, and I have been disappointed to see the continuing discussion lean so heavily toward practice.

    Let me be clear: I understand comments like Kristine’s (#45). I think conversation should continue (because we all know there are cultural facets of things that always need improving) but I think the bottom line is that people are still going to feel the gap when, say, girls are handing out programs and boys are administering an ordinance. At some point, we are still backed up against the wall of faith and I think more modeling of leaning into those tensions rather than trying so hard to pretend we can release them with a few changes would be more meaningful in the long run. In my experience, it’s the leaning into the tensions that has brought the most insight and excitement about the doctrine of the priesthood and the various other doctrines that interface with these questions about gender, priesthood, partnership, roles and responsibilities, etc.

  40. I think #32 might indirectly be hitting on something, that is, it might take people working effectively from both ends – locally and Church – wide – to effect real change. Sister McBain has chosen to work in the local sphere. Work in the other if you like, but be grateful she’s bolstering you from that side, since she’ll appeal to the TBM sister crowd you’ll need to have see reason.

  41. Julie # 40: I don’t know if McBaine really wants women to be ordained someday or not. But it’s important to point out that her book doesn’t weigh in on that question, with the possible exception of noting that some changes to the Church will need to come from the properly-constituted leaders who have been given authority by God to direct the Church and to whom revelation for the Church as a whole is delivered. When I say Nate “nailed it” I was not reading the phrase “top-down change” to refer to women’s ordination, but rather to many of the proposals McBaine offers. These proposals, if implemented successfully locally, could trickle up and then be more broadly promulgated by leadership, incorporated into Handbooks, made part of training sessions, etc., and thus influence the church in a top-down, bottom-up way.

  42. Blair said, “These proposals, if implemented successfully locally, could trickle up and then be more broadly promulgated by leadership, incorporated into Handbooks, made part of training sessions, etc., and thus influence the church in a top-down, bottom-up way.”

    I’m skeptical of a “trickle-up” theory, Blair.

    My skepticism is largely due to the fact that bishops and stake presidents have little autonomy to come up with novel solutions to problems. Maybe in yesteryear, but not today (i.e., Harold B. Lee and his stake welfare innovation). I simply can’t imagine a stake president having the free rein to institute, let alone fully develop, a local welfare program like HBL did. It just wouldn’t happen today. And as a more recent example, our former bishop called a woman in our ward as Ward Sunday School President several years ago. The bishop was swiftly instructed from higher-ups that a woman couldn’t serve in that position. It was to be held by a priesthood holder, he was told. (At the time, there was purportedly nothing in the Handbook forbidding it, hence the bishop’s surprise.)

    So, I’m not happy to say it, but increases in women’s roles, responsibilities and visibility will have to come from the top.

  43. As Neylan suggests in the book, some of the things the institutional Church is already doing could be replicated on a smaller scale in wards. So it’s not just a one way street her book is describing. Read the book, people.

  44. I think you need local change and attention to generate the necessary mass to enable top down change in many situations. We’ve had a number of examples in the thread, both of political issues and of church programs that came about that way.

    BTW, to use an analogy, and then call people trolls for pointing out issues in the analogy (“its not about tithing” “C’mon, stop trolling me” is a bit reactive. It may not “be about tithing” but if the analogy works, things about tithing will be about the analogy. If not, they point out where the analogy is broken.

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