While living in Reno in 2010 we got an exciting announcement in our ward: L. Tom Perry was coming to speak to us in our next Stake Conference. We were all excited to hear from an Apostle. We were told that it had been many years since an apostle had visited and that this was a special opportunity to hear from a special witness of Jesus Christ. My wife and I showed up extra early for the Saturday adult session to make sure that we got the cushy seats up front and not the hard folding chairs in the cultural hall. We sat next to some friends and I joked that Elder Perry was going to tell us that we are the chosen stake and that we must start the trip to Jackson County. We sat, waiting in anticipation for Elder Perry’s arrival. Everyone began standing up. So I stood up. I looked around and saw Elder Perry walking in from the side entrance. I felt vaguely uncomfortable that we were standing. He is an important leader of our Church, sure. But I also thought that apostles are men just like me. It felt too reverential. During his talk, Elder Perry talked about his brand new iPad (they had just come out). He gave it a glowing review and said he could now give talks without having written notes. Everyone laughed at his display of humanity. We felt close to him in a way that we never got from hearing him speak in General Conference. All it took was the slightest hint of telling us of his personal life. A little anecdote about his daily life left the audience rolling with laughter.
In 2012 I had some interest in the new Latter-Day Seekers program that the Community of Christ was starting to push. I got on the Latter-Day Seekers website and sent an e-mail on the contact page asking if a local Community of Christ congregation would know about the program if I were to show up for services on a Sunday morning. I got an e-mail back from Dale Luffman of the Council of Twelve Apostles. I was surprised to receive an e-mail from an apostle. I thought it would go to a random secretary somewhere. He told me a little bit about the program and asked from my phone number so that he could have someone from a nearby congregation contact me. I told all of my Mormon friends that I got an e-mail from an apostle. They were amazed that I got an e-mail from an apostle and immediately asked what it said. When I told them he said to contact local Community of Christ leaders they were a bit disappointed. They’re never impressed that I got an e-mail from a “false apostle.”
A year later I found a really cheap source of Book of Commandments reprints that are sold by the Church of Christ-Temple Lot. However, it didn’t say what the cost of shipping was. I e-mailed the “Contact Us” e-mail on the form and got a response the next day. It said that shipping was $2. The e-mail was from William Sheldon, Apostle.
Differences of Size
One big difference between the three apostles in these experiences is the size of the church that they lead. L. Tom Perry is an apostle of a church with a reported membership of 15,000,000. The Community of Christ reports 250,000, and Church of Christ-Temple Lot has just over 7000. As a church gets larger there is a natural increase of distance from the top to the bottom. Elder Perry is generally only seen in official speaking capacities. With Dale Luffman he responded to me when inquiring about a program he is in charge of. William Sheldon is apparently in charge of shipping.
However, the Mormon Church has more issues with church leaders than simply the size. We are completely and utterly cut off from our church leaders. Sending a letter to the First Presidency results in it being sent to local leadership instead. Many Church members view the First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve as being functionally infallible. While it used to be that when someone voted “no” in General Conference they spoke to an apostle, when this happened in the past Conference they were told to speak to their Stake Presidents. In podcasts about voting no, Micah Nickolaisen compared this to a call to customer service: You call about a problem with your bill, the customer service representative says he does not have the power to fix the problem and transfers you to a manager. When speaking to the manager she says that she doesn’t deal with these types of problems and sends you back to the customer service representative. Access to Church leaders is gone. While if you live in Northern Utah you might have a friend whose uncle is close friends with the brother of an apostle, those of us outside of Utah aren’t even that close.
Is there any way to fix this problem? Giving any church member the ability to e-mail an apostle may be too much to ask. They may truly be too busy to reply to all of the e-mails and letters, even through secretaries. However, they could possibly develop canned responses to certain e-mails:
- A question of policy – A reply containing the current position of the church. These could possibly be forwarded to the Church PR department if they like.
- Asking for a change in doctrine/policy – Canned response stating that they consider and pray about all possibilities. Perhaps stating that they keep track of issues when they receive more letters about them would be appropriate.
- Asking for prayers for a loved one – Canned response stating that all names will be added to the temple prayer roll. Maybe this would be an actual case where a letter could be forwarded to local leadership to make sure that all needs are taken care of.
Fixing Leadership Worship
Fixing the problem of leadership worship is a little bit bigger challenge. Because we are so separated from the Apostles and First Presidency, it increases their godlike status and functional infallibility. I have a couple ideas for fixing this problem:
- Retract Statements and doctrines
The current system usually follows this pattern: 1) Church Doctrines that are no longer accepted are slowly faded out through no longer talking about them in General Conference or Church magazines. 2) This old Doctrine is assigned to “Church culture” and claimed to have never been Doctrine. 3) When given quotes from apostles or prophets about this Doctrine these are claimed to have never been Official Doctrine but were simply given as opinions. Instead we should have church leaders teach us about when we had wrong ideas in the past. Talk about how infallibility is real. “Line upon line” doesn’t mean we only add new doctrines but that we replace old ones. Revelation is a human process and we slowly evolve to come closer to divinity.
- Give us a peak behind the curtain
This is related to point number one: let us know what goes on in those meetings with the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Let us know when you are considering different issues. Let us know when there are arguments. Tell us about how the discussions and disagreements led to revelation. Don’t pretend that one day God didn’t want black people to have the Priesthood and the next day Spencer W. Kimball received a revelation saying they should receive the Priesthood. Show us the humanity in the process.
- Change the voting system
The current sustaining process is not a vote. This was not always the case in Mormonism. Church leaders may have to admit that the current system is not working to change it. Tell the church members that when the majority vote no that a policy will not be enacted, or a calling will not be filled. Promote disagreement and honesty.
- Stop Asking for Obedience and Reverence
Tell church members to stop standing when leaders enter a room. Ask those giving talks in General Conference not to give talks about obeying leaders. Seemingly every manual has a lesson (or more) about the importance of obeying leaders in any situation. Get rid of them. Add more lessons about disagreements between church leaders (Acts 15) and the evolution and change of doctrine. Add lessons about what to do when the Spirit does not confirm the decision or teaching of a church leader. And no, the answer is not to pray harder until the Spirit does tell you that their decision or teaching was correct.
I have hope that things will change but if they do it will be slow. We are a church that moves at a glacial pace. However, when we as church members change ourselves first change happens more quickly. One of the biggest changes in my view of the Church was in my late teens when I realized that the Prophet of the Church doesn’t have nightly visits from Jesus and receive perfect revelation from God. While I was only a dumb teen this seems to be similar to the view of many lifelong adult members of the Church. Of course the Prophet doesn’t receive perfect revelation. It’s not even nearly perfect. It is completely and utterly human with the hope of a spark of divinity. Some day we will all believe it. Hopefully.