“Bishop Roulette” vs “One Size Fits All”

“Leadership roulette” (or “bishop roulette”) is a common term thrown around when there is some good or bad outcome that depends on the contingencies of who happens to be your local leader. This particular complaint is often aimed at some perceived authority figure in a bubble at Church Headquarters that is supposedly detached from the complexities of lived experiences of the Saints. Now, “leadership roulette” is real, and I don’t mean to dismiss its occasional relevance, but there are also a lot of complaints about the “one size fits all” solutions, when the two are essentially tradeoffs of one another.

Tying a bishop’s hands essentially involves imposing mandates from above, while allowing bishops to use their judgment essentially allows for variation from case to case. God can think multiple things at once in a perfectly consistent way, so He can square that circle, but for us mortals we are required to essentially pick our poison here. 

This isn’t a new idea. One of the founding fathers of sociology, Max Weber, coined the term “the iron cage of bureaucracy”  to describe the routinization of roles and decisions that is inevitable in a legal/technical society. To some extent the benefits of bureaucracies outweigh the costs. We like the rules being codified and written down so that they protect us from arbitrary judgment. Also, as institutions become large enough it simply becomes impossible for the leaders to manage every detail, so they need to rely on rules and regulations. At the same time, codifying everything hurts flexibility and on-the-ground creativity and accommodations, so institutions have to decide the proper tradeoff between “leadership roulette” and “one size fits all” solutions. 

To take one extreme example, if the Church was fully bureaucratized, we would have very precise details about what constitutes being a “full tithe payer.” Like the government, recipients of Church aid would have to turn in pay stubs that would then be put into an equation deciding how much they get. Local widow needs emergency assistance moving from a predatory landlord? That would have to go up several layers of approval under the “emergency exception” clause. “The Line” (you know what I’m talking about) that high school priests try to deduce from an intensely close reading of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet that would make any lawyer or rabbinical student proud would be clearly delineated, with the length of sacramental restrictions tied to a matrix that inputs the specific state of undress, body parts, and activity. 

Hopefully I’ve painted enough of a picture to show the problems that a world without any “leadership roulette” would have. The Judges in Israel would be operating at the higher levels of Church organization, because everything else would be routinized based on their general decisions. 

On the other extreme, a world without any bureaucracy or “one size fits all” solutions would be chaos. Each Bishop would essentially have their own fiefdom and be able to teach and do what they wanted. Even if we take the basic beliefs and authority structure as a given, the lack of a “Church Handbook” would mean that each bishop would have to take their cues about what to do from their own interpretation of the rather large body of General Conference talks, devotionals, and face-to-face events. There would be no message control within the highest ranks either, so we’d have the potential for Brigham Young and Orson Pratt style open theological conflicts while the local leaders are trying to figure out what to teach and how to operate. It’s pretty clear that in such a situation we’d have dozens if not hundreds of different theologies and institutions under the umbrella of the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Part of being a “House of Order” is having a bureaucracy.

Of course, these are two extremes, and religious institutions try to find the optimal mix given their theology, tradition, and history. A lot of Protestant denominations basically have a “congregational roulette” situation, which is why church shopping is more of a thing for them. The Catholic Church is more bureaucratic with its priesthood-based structure, but still not as much as we are; they operate more on a “franchise” type model (that’s not a dig, there are good reasons for that given their own traditional, theological, organizational, and historical premises) and more decision making is held at the middle level; dioceses (groups of congregations) are their own financial entities, and are more independent of the Vatican than the Area President is of Salt Lake City (e.g. if the Area 70 in charge of Germany treated Salt Lake City the way the German Catholic leaders treat the Vatican, he would be released immediately). 

Whatever one’s opinions about the optimal mix of these two options, the fact is that they are natural converses to one another, and you cannot gain the advantages of one without conceding the disadvantages of another to some extent, so how much decision making to give to local and mid-level leadership is a genuinely hard issue. 

However, just because local or global control has respective unavoidable disadvantages doesn’t mean that those issues are any less real. The vast majority of bishops are solid disciples of Christ ministering according to the whisperings of the spirit, and I do think my own experience of winning of bishop roulette every time (I doubt any of them read Latter-day Saint blogs, so this isn’t sycophantic) is more typical than we might think given that their stories are less sensational, and therefore get told less, than the alternatives.


7 comments for ““Bishop Roulette” vs “One Size Fits All”

  1. It’s a fair point to discuss the trade off between one size fits all and leadership roulette, but a huge question that is ignored here is whether the rules are optional in the first place. Very few churches dictate that their members attend in a specific building under a specific leader, for example. And the OP presupposes that tithing status must be checked by someone other than the tithe payer.

    I’m not convinced these are necessary, or even good traditions/rules, but they are so ingrained in the church that I’m not surprised that OP did not consider them.

  2. Maybe I misunderstand your argument. But when people complain of “bishop-roulette,” they aren’t arguing in favor of a fully bureaucratized/one-size-fits-all approach. There are many options in the middle ground between the two extremes.

    Our current system undoubtedly slightly favors the decisions by a particular local leader (overwhelmingly a male) over an individual member’s grievance. To me (and I think to most), the logical answer is to slightly tweak the system, not scrap it. One improvement is to create a culture that provides a member with options for what you might call an “appeal.” Honoring the individual member’s inherent right to be heard about a grievance could ameliorate the effects of harmful idiosyncrasies of one particulate leader. (Would such a culture be a little less bureaucratically “efficient”? Yes, but oh well.)

    Bottom line: it’s not about scrapping our current system of some local control in favor of total control from Salt Lake. Instead, let’s have a conversation about improving the power imbalance.

  3. Stephen invites an important conversation. At the heart of “leadership roulette” is a culture of bureaucracy, which I refer to as “the institution.” In the Restored Church, we can differentiate the institution from the congregation, the “state” from the “people.” The relationship of state-to-people, or corporation-to-shareholders is defined by internal culture. We can talk about the culture of institutions without taking aim at specific leadership.

    In the LDS institution, the culture of power delineates by “keys” of “priesthood.” Both “keys” and “priesthood” are ambiguous terms, but here we will focus on keys. The word “keys” could easily be replaced by almost any noun, because it is empty and without substance: keys, for the current LDS institution, do not open or unlock–it merely refers to ordination or office.

    Historically, however, “keys” referred to a mantle of wisdom and knowledge–a special, spiritual understanding. A prophet is given “keys” by angelic or spiritual visitation–revelatory data that “opens” and “unlocks” the mind and heart. It was evident to learned men, that Joseph Smith possessed such “keys.” When Joseph ascended to the thirty-third degree in a single day, he split the [Masonic] Establishment: Joseph was manifestly more wise and knowledgeble than any Master Mason before him, and this upset as many men as it enlightened. [It also stands as evidence that Joseph didn’t get, or take, anything from Masonry–rather he employed it as a tool to communicate symbol and analogy].

    Today, unfortunately, “keys” refer to office and authority–there is no link to wisdom or knowledge. We identify leadership by other means. If not by wisdom and knowledge, what criteria elects/ordains LDS leadership? Success? Wealth? Managerial skills? Handsome hygeine? Subordination? Countenance? Attitude? Aptitude? Righteousness? Nepotism? The process of ordination is a reflection of what we worship. The feigning of keys and priesthood amounts to any claim to power and authority, without wisdom and knowledge. Neither keys nor priesthood are commodities. Eyes open.

    The current culture of the institution is geared to prevent another Joseph Smith from happening. Nothing is more dangerous or threatening to a religious leadership than someone who has greater knowledge and wisdom. Religious institutions tend to produce a culture of hatred towards wisdom and knowledge, because it challenges their arbitrary claim to power and authority. A “warm fuzzy feeling” may amplify resonance for a choice of leadership, but it does not substantively identify what-it-is that causes for one person to be set apart from the rest. When “keys” equivocated as “power” arbitrarily identify “office and authority,” instead of “wisdom and knowledge,” the order of the kingdom is rendered flimsy: we ought not be surprised if a leader babbles like a drunk, or stumbles like a blind man. While the import of wisdom and knowledge is central to The Restoration, as an institution, we cultivate very little of either.

    “Leadership Roulette” is a consequence of the culture of an institution that no longer seeks, or has lost, wisdom and knowledge. A protective, hoarding, dogmatic, institutionalized culture, claiming power and authority is, to some extent, a house of cards: the commodifying of power and authority is a sad fact. Quoting Arthur Koestler, “Geometry is the purest realization of human reason; but Euclid’s axioms cannot be proved. He who does not believe in them sees the whole building crash” (Darkness at Noon, p.81).

  4. @Rockwell: Sure, which rules are necessary in the first place is another point, and yes, I am focusing on the more general issue of local versus global control.

    @Hunter: I do get the sense that people throw the term out there sometimes without really thinking through the implications of what the alternative to Bishop’s roulette is. Of course, they’re welcome to think it should be higher or lower on that continuum, but I wanted to frame it as lying on a continuum with tradeoffs at either end.

  5. In my experience problems arise when bishops go rogue. I have had a bishop try to ex me. He was more politically than me and thought my views on assisted dying worthy of ex ing. He was a high school teacher and trying to get sex ed banned. I was the P&C president who watched the programme and thought it was good.
    All became mute because a bishop can’t ex a HP.

    I do not have any communications with church office, so I think I may have experienced bishop roulette, but don’t know what the rest of your post was about.

  6. I was baptized 48 years ago, at the age of 22. In all, I have had 34 immediate ecclesiastical leaders. Most were Bishops, but a few were Branch Presidents. Two were Mission Presidents, and two were Area Presidents, to whom I reported directly. I have served as a Branch President and as a Bishopric First Counsrlor. EQ President twice, HP Group Leader twice, and one stint on a Stake High Council.

    A large majority of my ecclesiastical leaders were very good: humble followers of Christ who, despite their imperfections, tried very hard to serve with kindness and help those in need.

    Two were politicians (figurative), careerist in nature, wanting to climb the Church ladder. A few had extreme conservative views, and sometimes tried to peddle their political beliefs as the Gospel. One man had an abusive personality, and one caused significant damage to our Ward by his pharisaic rigidity. One suffered from a troubling lack of humility.

    But overall, I have truly been blessed by my Church leaders, and am grateful. They tried very hard to be Christ’s servants.

    We err in expecting too much of our Bishops. They cannot try to be everything to everyone. We need to cut them slack. Divine inspiration does come to them, usually because of their humility—and in a few cases, divine inspiration had to smack them upside the head, much like Peter being smitten on the thigh by the angel who rescued him from prison.

    But Bishop’s Roulette is a real issue (I have played this game of roulette well, not through any skill of my own). The problem, as I see it, is that there is a reluctance by the Church, at a general level, to weed out those who go beyond normal human frailty and actively harm their flocks. This harm usually takes the form of the leader saying, “You can’t be a good member of the Church if you don’t accept my version of the restored Gospel.” These leaders ignore Dieter Uchtdorf’s reassurance that the Church welcomes people, no matter what their problems or their questions are.

    Authoritative leadership is okay. Authoritarian leadership is not. Also not okay is an instinctive human nature to cover up problems, and this can be an issue in the Church:

    I worked for the Defense Department for 36 years. It has an Office of the Inspector General, which is tasked with investigating and rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. The Church would do well to have such an Ombudsman’s office, but I think the Church bureaucracy is afraid of this.

  7. My experience is similar to yours, Taiwan Missionary. We expect way too much of our Bishops, and I try to remind myself of that fact when I’m frustrated from time to time. Also, the vast majority are amazing. But that statement is unhelpful if you and your life choices get hung up with one of the less amazing ones. And regardless of how amazing they are, my experience is they all could talk less and listen more. That probably applies to all of us.

    And yes we need an Ombudsman’s office yesterday.

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