Originally published June 18, 2017.
A recent post on Timesandseasons.org (see “Consolidation of Church units: some reflections“) described recent changes to a stake in Europe. Several wards and branches were closed and the membership redistributed to other remaining congregations. The post was very thorough and informative. While the author expressed a desire to provide objective information and also commentary on these changes, I found the post highly critical in content and negative in its overall message. Allow me to clarify that I have nothing against Professor Decoo and, as a former missionary in this area, I appreciated the detailed information. I am concerned, however, by the tone of the post and see a warning in it for all members of the Church. In this age of hyper-communication, we need to be extremely careful about what we choose to publish online as it can have serious consequences for the belief and faith of others.
I have seen other such posts from time to time which comment on LDS Church policy changes, administrative happenings, and more. Certainly there is room to question and work out intellectual or other misgivings on doctrine, Church administration and other events, but when that personal process becomes public (and is so often highly negative), commentary runs the hazardous risk of robbing others’ faith and belief.
In the case of the Times and Seasons post, the author describes how administrative decisions are made in the LDS Church and then expresses the issues he has with the way unit consolidation was handled in his stake. For example, Decoo reports, “the abrupt implementation came with an approach that some experienced as mental coercion. Only a few men at the stake level prepared the operation for months in strict secrecy.” Decoo proposes an alternative method that might have been more palatable to church membership in this area: “One former stake president from the Netherlands wrote me that such an approach is totally contrary to their national “poldercultuur” of consultation and deliberation: potential changes that affect everyone are proposed and discussed over a long period, assessed with a willingness to compromise, and then people slowly come to emerging consensus. All feel involved and respected. This stake president once had to close a unit and did so in polder-cultuur-mode: it worked much better.” Implicit in this reflection on what “would have worked better” is a stark criticism of local and regional leadership, even that the consolidation happened at all.
Concessions to cultural preference are not always possible or preferable in church government. Often the methods of church administration, while not perfect because they are implemented by imperfect humans, can actually provide opportunities for members to exercise faith––faith in their leaders’ calling and exercise of Priesthood keys, faith that the leaders have the members’ best interest at heart, faith that decisions were prayerfully made and given God’s stamp of approval, faith that God really does lead His church through prophets and other leaders with delegated responsibility and authority. (See Elder Boyd K Packer’s BYU speech “Follow the Brethren” and then Elder Gordon B. Hinckley’s “If Ye Be Willing and Obedient” for counsel on sustaining church leaders.) The online publication of Decoo’s concerns and opinions will now influence how members in his area and in other areas throughout the world faithfully or faithlessly approach the same and similar issues. Publicly expressing doubt and openly criticizing the Church can all too easily destroy the faith of other people. That is a terrible responsibility to bear.
I felt pretty uncomfortable reading the Times and Seasons post, given my personal commitment to act faithfully. By acting faithfully I mean that I support my church leaders both privately and publicly; when I have a concern, I approach it with faith that God will help me understand, change my heart, or resolve the issue in time. When a church-related challenge arises, I seek divine help to resolve it and then encourage others to individually seek that same help.
While Decoo did attempt to recognize “Positive social and emotional consequences,” the post misses several important “positive consequences” that could do much to help the members in his stake heal from their disappointment and begin to build their faith in new and profound ways (some of the comments on the post touch on these missing elements). The reorganization of the stake in Europe presents an opportunity for the members to exercise and thereby grow their faith, not just in their local leaders but in the Church and Gospel as a whole. Their commitment to the Gospel can be strengthened as they prayerfully accept the geographical changes and resultant difficulties. The members can seek divine aid in building their enthusiasm to make new friends and strengthen their new congregation (this holds for the multigenerational families as well as the numberless converts). They can find joy in having more responsibility to share the Gospel with friends and neighbors (contrary to Decoo’s assessment that a city with no missionaries will have no missionary work). When seen through the lens of faith, the administrative changes are a terrific opportunity to not only build a stronger congregation (sometimes numbers really do equal strength), but to build it through increased personal faith and conviction.
I hope I have not overly simplified the issues at stake here. On the other hand, I find time and time again that the Gospel is formed from basic and simple truths. Sometimes the simple or simplified approach is best. We must be extremely careful about what we share and publish online. Consider the influence of a John Dehlin or a Kate Kelly whose online presence not only resulted in their own excommunications but has rippled through Mormon society and captured the minds of many people. Certainly every individual can think and act for him or herself, but our faithful or faithless actions can and do influence the people around us, especially when those actions are published on the internet. In D&C 108:7 the Lord counsels,
Therefore, strengthen your brethren in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations, and in all your doings.
We have a tremendous responsibility to everyone within our sphere of influence. When we take issue with church administrative, policy or other decisions, let us act faithfully and try to build the faith of others.