On Correlation

Local control is a good thing. When every policy and practice is dictated by a distant, centralized authority, a local organization can lose its flavor. And the flavor that is not lost will make that small group of people feel alien when word comes in from HQ on how they are to behave. In essence a one-size-fits-all approach to governing a vast, diverse group of people will invariably mute the differences among the individual units that ought to be thriving and making the overall organization stronger.

And that is why I support federalism. Did you think I was talking about something else?

If you did, you may be part of the trend that seems to be sweeping the church (or just the bloggernacle?)– the “We think correlation is ridiculous” crowd. It’s ironic, of course, that there’s a decent chance that many correlation haters also support increased federal control of states. But the irony is double-edged– I, being a federalist, should also support local control in the church in the name of some “laboratories of spirituality” philosophy, but I don’t. So let’s analyze: How can you support both correlation and federalism? Conversely, how can you oppose them both? Isn’t the only coherent position one in which centralized control is either uniformly despised or venerated?

Here is my defense. (I’ll leave the defense of the other other position to those that understand it). As I’ve alluded to above, one of the major motives for supporting increased state control is the idea that states are lithe and maneuverable, able to innovate and experiment in ways that an entire nation cannot achieve. This possibility is sometimes referred to as a “laboratories of democracy” theory, because it views the states as test tubes in which workfare or illegal alien driving permits can be safely tested out without nationwide ramifications. Another benefit touted by federalists is greater democracy. If Utah is as different from Vermont as many think it is, then Utah and Vermont should be run differently, so that each set of constituents can have their way. While there are several other arguments in the federalism arsenal, I’ll limit my thoughts to these two for simplicity (bring up whichever others you’d like, if you can find a way to link them to correlation).

So, now you know why I think local control is a good thing when speaking of governments. Why not in the church? First of all, because wards are not laboratories. The “rumors” of the Pleasant Grove ward that is currently testing out a two-hour block schedule notwithstanding, (you hadn’t heard???) I don’t think it does much good to approach a unit of the church as a place to innovate and experiment. Yes, a bishop needs some authority to cater to the needs and strengths of his congregants, but to the extent he needs it, I think he has it under the current system. What a bishop is not able to do is change the structure of sacrament meeting or introduce a different curriculum in Sunday School. And why is that a bad thing? Jesus never suggested that his flock should be multivaried, diverse, and different based on local custom and regional quirks. ‘One flock’ is the goal, and I’d say we are probably living in the moment in which the Lord’s church is more unified in its modes of worship than any other. I see that as success.

(You may object that experimentation is happening in some wards and programs. Yes, but notice that that experimentation, when officially sanctioned, is being run by HQ, under centralized guidance– never at the whim of a local Bishop.)

Further, a ward is a horrible place to foment democracy. Sure, there’s the ordinary argument about church leaders not being elected by popular vote. But equally important: I’m not sure it’s a good thing for my neighborhood to create its ward in its own image, and your neighborhood to do the same. Where the goal in American government is accurate representation, the goal in church governance is perfection. Assuming there’s some ‘best’ way for a ward to be, the way to achieve it is not to allow each ward to do whatever it feels like. If my Salt Lake ward is different from your Little Rock branch, it’s because one or both are not exactly what they should be. Is it so unreasonable that the Lord’s prophets might be able to suggest to each unit what it ought to become, rather than the reverse? Why do we accept that a Prophet make suggestions for individual growth, but shun advice concerning the collective?

In the end, I can’t think of a reason not to trust President Hinckley, his counsellors and associates in the quorum of the twelve, and all of the committees and other workers whose decisions and curricula they pass off on. It’s a huge waste of time to insist on experimenting when you’ve got messengers from God telling you the formula. And it’s equally wasteful to fight for the elevation of your local identity, when you’ve been baptized into Christ’s body. And the eye cannot say to the hand ‘I have no need of thee.’

Perhaps the best summation of the feelings of federalists is that they simply lack faith in large, impersonal institutions. Most people do. The question is whether we ought to view the Kingdom of God on earth with a similarly jaundiced eye. For myself, I think the church is something altogether different from a national government– not given to incompetence, waste, and corruption, because it is led by extraordinary men, with an extraordinary power, for an extraordinary purpose. Far from being a democracy, the church is government of the people, for the people, by the Lord. Or is it something else?

33 thoughts on “On Correlation

  1. Great post, Ryan. Political and governmental analogies aside, correlation makes me uncomfortable because it seems to allow for a remote control approach to spirituality, and an emphasis of form over substance.

    The faithful workers in the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City are out of touch with the reality happening in Recife, Brazil or Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This church is about helping *individuals* come unto Christ through a personal revelation that Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God, not about making sure everyone follows step-by-step instructions to micro-manage this deeply personal, unique experience.

    Sure, we need administrative rules and regulations so that enough meeting houses are built, etc., but, with certain exceptions, I think imposing a “one-size-fits-all” approach is counterproductive and creates feelings of alienation in the Church.

  2. Follow the money. Local control results in local demands on how to spend the money, accompanied by local accountability. Direct cash flow into SLC is diluted; power shifts to the field.

  3. P.S. As an example of a heavy-handed “top-down” approach, think about the automatic rule (in the U.S.) about waiting a year after you’re married civilly to be married in the temple. What are the reasons for this rule? Is it to make life easier for the First Presidency or whoever is in charge of approving these marriages, so that they use the one-year rule as an approximation for whether or not the couple is ready to be married in the temple?

    The local bishop does interview the couple before they get married in the temple, and his recommendations is usually followed after the year-long waiting period, but why not allow the bishop to determine whether or not the couple is ready to get married in the temple based on their individual circumstances? Barring any “morality” issues, I don’t understand the purpose for this rule.

  4. If it’s a trend Ryan, it’s several years old. The “correlation is ridiculous” crowd has been around for longer than I’ve been on the Internet (which is now nine years). Instead of blogs at that time, it was mailing lists.

  5. Tess, it seems that your formulation proves too much. If the process of becoming a disciple is really so exclusively personal, why have a church at all? Obviously, we agree that there’s some need for a social element to this. And once you’ve conceded that an institution is needed, you ought to concede that the institution should have uniform elements throughout. Of course we can haggle all day about the level at which the uniformity is desirable. But I take is pretty foundational that the church should be able to dictate some of the ways in which we conceive of religious and church living.

    Further, your second post, about the one-year convert minimum for temple participation strikes a sympathetic chord in me. The T&S discussion on this topic a few weeks back was educational, and helped me see some of the issues involved. Still, your thesis seems to be the following: I cannot see the reason for this, therefore there is no good reason for this. I’m not sure that’s very reliable logic, especially in an institution whose authority claims are strongly based on revelation.

    Diana, I’m not sure I follow your suggestion, but it sounds like you’re saying that correlation is a way of consolidating power. Is that correct? If so, what is the motive behind this consolidation, in your view? Do you suspect that the COB is driven by sheer megalomania, or could there be something more benign at work?

  6. Hi, Ryan –

    Yes, the Church organization is necessary. The opportunity the Mormon church affords to its members to learn to lead others and serve others as we progress along our personal spiritual journey is unique and important.

    I do agree with much of what you are saying, but I think that apart from general rules of organization reflecting efficiencies of economies of scale (and we could argue what these are), we should defer to local authority.

    But now that I’m writing this, I can see the need for some final authority to be in charge, since bishops come and bishops go, and personalities can dictate policy and “doctrine”. However, I think there should be a more flexible approach than the current structure. Guess I don’t have much to back this statement up, other than my own preferences, so I’m not sure what the right answer is. I just don’t like the idea of Church members being governed from afar.

  7. Temple sealings are a funny choice to pick out as an example of something that is too centrally controlled, given what our scriptures say about how the authority to seal is distributed.

  8. I just don’t like the idea of Church members being governed from afar.

    I think that it is funny that the same people who complain about correleation and want more local control are the same people who claim that their bishops often make errors and therefore they should be able to disobey the instuctions of their Bishop when they think that he is wrong. They don’t like being ruled from a distance because such rulers “cannot be aware of and adjust to local differences,” and they don’t like being ruled locally because the rulers are, according to them, “not like the prophet and often wrong.” They would never submit to the instructions of their Bishop or Stake President the way they would to the Prophet, but they wont submit to the prophet because he is too far away. They don’t like the idea of being ruled from afar, and they don’t like being ruled locally.

    It sounds to me like they simply don’t want to be ruled at all.

    The principles of revelation and stewardship compensate for the normal problems with distance rule. And while things are correlated, there is a degree of flexibility accorded to the concentric circles of stewardship. The Preach My Gospel manual is a perfect example with its universally applied system with built in flexibility. Sure, mistakes are sometimes made, but it is our job to submit anyway, pray to the Lord to reveal a better way to His annointed, and be patient.

  9. Ryan:

    Still, your thesis seems to be the following: I cannot see the reason for this, therefore there is no good reason for this. I’m not sure that’s very reliable logic, especially in an institution whose authority claims are strongly based on revelation.

    G.K. Chesterton put it this way:

    In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

  10. Well, I can’t speak for others, but I’d rather discuss my concerns with a bishop who knows me rather than have my letters and phone calls fall on deaf ears (or no ears) in Salt Lake City.

    As for the temple example, my point was that there is a set rule for everyone to wait for one year, regardless of circumstances, not that there should be de-centralization of sealing authority.

  11. For the record, my sister lives in Pleasant Grove and her Church block was 2.5 hours. Sacrament was the same but they shaved the passing periods and the other meetings a little. Also, announcements were severely restricted. This started when there were too many wards meeting in one building last year, but they’ve kept it since then, last I heard.

  12. Frank, I’m actually quite astonished to hear that there is some truth to that story. I wonder how long the 2.5 hour block will last for them.

    Tess, I actually think you’re making some valid points. It sometimes doesn’t feel completely natural to approach a case-by-case God through a one-size-fits-all church. I just wanted to point out that there are some very good arguments for uniformity and order, that seem to counter your thoughts on individual attention.

    Beyond what’s been said already, one other possible reason for a centrally administered church: it give Bishops what negotiators call an “empty chair.” When the rebel kid comes in fully expecting to be allowed to serve a mission, the Bishop is able to be completely loving, and try to help him repent, even while rejecting the hope of missionary service. He can do this because his hands are tied– sorry, nothing I can do, this decision was made in Salt Lake. Thus, if the rejection comes from far away, the local, onsite leader can still be respected, and shepherd people through their problems.

  13. Ryan-

    I think you would agree that there is a balance to be had between the “one-size-fits-all” approach and the “anything-goes” approach.

    My personal philosophy is to teach people correct principles and let them govern themselves, so I guess I have more faith in local leaders to use their own judgment to serve members in their congregations. That said, there are numerous examples of wayward bishops that wreak havoc on the members, so, to go back to your government analogy -there do need to be some checks and balances. Was it James Madison who said if men were angels, no government would be necessary?

  14. I agree that there’s a balance. What’s interesting is that in this era of criticism over centralized control, the brethren seem to be sharing power like never before. Sure, there’s a manual with hard and fast rules, and plenty of guidelines. However, one hears more and more that Stake Presidents are increasingly left on their own to make all sorts of decisions. While the model used to be that a stake president could consult a general authority on almost anything, they are now being left to their own devices (according to several anecdotal sources).

    I’d be interesting to figure out why they allow this local self-governance on certain issues, but prohibit it on others. A complete theory of why the central church controls the things it does would be intriguing.

  15. I think complaints about corr. tend not to take into account the realities of a worldwide church.

    Do you realty want a 23 year old branch president who has been a member for 8 months to have any more power and autonomy?

  16. Julie – I’d say yes. Especially if we believe that the person was called by inspiration.

  17. Does anyone know if correlated lesson manuals are translated and used throughout the world, or if they are used only in certain “markets”?

    If they are not used throughout the world, what is used in their place?

  18. I have to say that as a Bishop, I really don’t feel like my hands are tied that often. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the freedom I’ve been given and I try to pass that on to my ward leaders. Of course we are still following the standard curriculum, but if we wanted to do something different for a period of time (1 day, a few weeks, even a few months), I’d feel comfortable approving that sort of change. As long as there was a defined purpose.
    I know there is still a lot of correlation, but I do think the Church is backing off a bit. The most recent version of the CHI is much smaller than it used to be. In some of the satellite training broadcasts, they are training the leaders to only setup what you can in your unit. Even the new missionary program shows that they are trusting more in the individual and how the Spirit directs them.
    Lastly, I would hope that if a member of my ward had a problem with the way something was being run, that they’d come in and discuss it with me. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers for my ward. I’d love people to come in and help, rather than complaining.

  19. Listen to Clayton Christensen’s comments on this very subject:


    The problem with your assertions, Ryan, is that pretty much every program in the Church has come to us as a result of the inspiration of local leaders. You name it, Primary, Relief Society, the Welfare Program, the Topical Guide, and no doubt many others. They all were the result of inspiration and creativity from local leaders. These successes were then seen by global leaders and organized by a correlation committee of some kind or another.

    The gospel plan is not to turn us into some form of borg automata. We must be one with God and yet remain conscious of our own individuality, otherwise we would not even be aware of our own happiness. God is pleased when we exercise our own initiative (agency) to bring to pass much righteousness. Such things as creativity, perseverance in the face of small-minded opposition and innovation are Christlike characteristics that are ours because we are made of the same stuff that he is: “Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth. …Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.” (D&C 93) The difference between us and Christ is one of (enormous) degree, not kind. We should therefore not be content to consider ourselves subservient slaves, fulfilling the bidding of some benevolent master whose will we can never hope to comprehend, but friends and fellow-citizens with the saints, each of whom must play an active role in ensuring the success of the kingdom by exercising those divine gifts with which he or she alone has been endowed.

    Indeed, if the Lord’s work and glory is to bring to pass the eternal life of man, then these divine characteristics must be allowed to flourish. It is of no benefit to the Lord’s plan to inculcate automatic behavior, for that would do nothing to advance His cause. Local members and leaders, working together, must do as President Packer has encouraged, and step out into the darkness of the unknown, exercising their agency and creativity, only to discover that their way is still illuminated by the light of One who has gone before. Only this kind of behavior will ensure our ultimate worthiness to be instruments in ushering in the Lord’s millenial reign on earth.

    The programs that are organized by Correlation provide many blessings and needed guidance, but they are not absolutely complete, and like all good programs are deliberately flexible so they can be adapted to the needs of local leaders. Furthermore, they are not absolutely complete. New needs and issues may arise that require new programs, and you can be sure that it will be local leaders who will bring about such innovations and that those that function well will be adopted by Correlation.

  20. I want to revisit Ryan’s initial tie between correlation and federalism b/c I completely agree with this point. In my view federalism is a stance far past its relevance. It was important in pre-20th and early 20th century America. When transportation was slow and communities really were very, very different, isolated, and insular. Now, America is America is America. Sure, the South is about as similar to New York as is Bolivia but we WANT the South to look more American (that is the result of a little thing called civil rights and economic progress). Federalism is no longer needed. Yes state governments should have governments. But the current over-arching power of the federal government is a great thing and we should be spending our resources to change policy in DC rather than at the state level. States matter less and less and I hope will continue to matter less (of course I overstate the case slightly but my point is federalism is on its way out and good riddance!!).

    And this brings me to the second point. I think correlation is great. Sure, it gets rid of some great old style manuals from the likes of Lowell Bennion etc. but it also gets rid of, presumably Covey as gospel (you know I couldn’t resist) and other crack pot personal theories on both sides of the political and orthodoxy aisles. I gladly give up my pet projects for a formulation that helps make the church look and teach the same in Utah, NY, and Mozambique. And central control does not worry me. After all, I may love my bishop and support him but in most decisions I’d like Pres. Hinckley to have the last word.

  21. HL, THANK YOU, for a very relevant and frank response to my initial thoughts. Nice to have someone else weigh in on the comparison.

    Also, I’m impressed with how consistent you are. I think there are far more people that straddle these two issues, with different opinions on each (like myself).

    That said– what are you smoking? Federalism is on its way out? Maybe at your law school they never talked about a small epoch in American legal history known as “The Rehnquist Court,” but I swear I read about it somewhere.

    But beyond arguments about the current strength of the movement, I’m far more driven by arguments made in support of federalism. I actually would love to see America as a very diverse place. Making the South become more like Manhattan would be just really sad. Yes, this only goes up to a certain point (civil rights, yeah, that was a good thing), but much farther than you take it. I’m not sure what’s changed in order to make the desirability for regional flavor and control disappear.

    Still, nice to see someone who supports centralized dictatorship in all its forms. I wonder, why the current flavor of dictator hasn’t made you soften that stance a bit.

  22. In case anyone was wondering, I agree with Ryan in that if you support federalism you should be inclined to be against correlation and vice versa.

    While Ryan may rationalize all he wants, if he really wants to support correlation he needs to rescind his belief in federalism forthwith–I for one will welcome you into the democratic party, Ryan with open arms. All Hail Correlation!

  23. It appears the last two points passed like ships in the night (in other words I didn’t see your response ryan prior to posting my second comment)…

    Ryan, I like to refer to the Rehnquist Court lovingly as a bump in the road–that being said 7 republican appointed justices have made a very small dent in the historical flow away from federalism.

    I also don’t see the tie between federalism and local flavor. Sure legal regimes and federal spending have enormous impact but I think even with a near total swing away from federalism Louisiana will still have great cajun, grits will abound, and deep fried turkeys will be enjoyed by thousands.

    As far as the main point. I think the consistency is rarely seen, however, this points toward 2 observations which I often make but people seem reticent to comment on. 1. politics often dictate our religious views as much or more than vice versa–which I think is flawed. And 2. political conservatives in the Church often assume that if you are a political liberal you are less orthodox. Also, a stance I think is often wrong. Oh, and finally, our speaker on Sunday quoted Covey–either I’m a “Covey as gospel” magnet or this guy is quoted frequently from pulpits around the country–unbelievable!!

  24. A few semi-random thoughts:

    1. Covey sometimes does an excellent job of synthesizing gospel principles in an easy-to-teach and easy-to-understand package. As long as people don’t get carried away there is nothing wrong with quoting him or using an example from one of his books in a church talk or lesson. I say this as someone who has done his share of eyeball-rolling over Covey quotes. As long as Covey’s used in moderation, and in an illustrative manner, he’s fine. But I could say the same about any LDS, non-GA author. Or about C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton or Tolkien or other sacrament talk favorites.

    2. General rules for the entire Church membership are an unfortunate result of the need to come up with a rule that will not result in arbitrary application. I really dislike the way this approach plays out in reality but I accept it. For example, departing missionaries now speak all by themselves in sacrament meeting, with no parental involvement. I think this is a sad loss of a fine and beloved tradition. I understand it resulted from a problem exclusive to the Wasatch Front: So many missionaries were leaving that some wards were devoting half of their sacrament meetings to “farewells,” and the bishoprics were much less involved in planning sacrament meetings than they were supposed to be. Solution: Missionaries are simply to be one of the usual two main speakers,and that’s it.

    The problem is that in someplace like my Los Angeles ward, we send out 2 or 3 missionaries a year (and that’s in a big year). It would be no problem to have the usual “missionary + mom + dad + friend singing special music” formula. So we lose out because of the Wasatch Front.

    But what is the alternative? If the decision were left up to bishops, chaos would result. Some bishops would be softies and would let the family run wild. Others would be in the middle, and still others would be hard-core “by the book” enforcers and never allow more than a single missionary speaker. There would be no rhyme or reason to the rule’s application and all would depend on who the bishop is. Perhaps most important, the bishops’ job would be harder because all the pressure would be on them to make decisions about something that is very emotion-laden but is not really all that important. (Note: I’m sending my own son on his mission in 3 months and so I think I have some credibility on this issue.)

    So that’s why we have sometimes annoying across-the-board rules. It’s a matter of practicality that does not thrill me but, but I can live with it.

    Time to go . . . .

  25. If you read the Doc & Covs, you’d see that revelation comes by asking questions. All of the rules from SLC came because the prophet felt he needed to ask and make a decision. Probably because people were whining….I mean, he had many people telling him it was a problem.
    That’s how we got the WoW, by the way.
    There are many “rules” that we have now, that we didn’t have 60 years ago. Because people ASKED the prophet for guidance. Pres. X, my daughter is dating at age 13. This can’t be right. Pres. X, the bishop let the boy who got my daughter pregnant go on a mission, that can’t be right.
    And lets be fair to bishops and other leaders. They get called and they need some directions. How are they supposed to know how to do things. I showed up at a job once to replace someone who had left weeks before. There was no one to train me. No list of responsibilities. No information. It was stressful, to say the least, to have to figure things out from scratch.
    A primary president deserves to have a manual to tell them how to run the primary. Parents who entrust their children deserve to know that the primary workers are at least attempting to teach their children in a safe, loving environment.
    The old way isn’t necessarily wrong. Take the missionary monthly cost. It used to depend on your mission. Was that wrong? No. But SLC decided that it would be better to have one cost accross the board. Better for some, worse for others, but on the whole they decided it would be a good thing.
    Just like parenting. The dynamics are constantly changing. We are constantly trying to be better parents. Was what we were doing yesterday so wrong? No, but I always think we can do better, so how about lets try this!

  26. H.L., I agree with you that Rehnquist and co. have been mildly disappointing. Let’s hope that the next seven Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices can step up federalist program a bit more, huh?

    And yes, if federalism dies, the Louisianans may still have grits and jumbalaya, but they’ll no doubt lose a lot of their own quirky autonomy.

    I’m mostly interested by your point that politics influences religious belief more than we think. That’s something I’d never considered. Write a post about it sometime. (and submit it to a blog that won’t make you bow and bend).

  27. Carl Youngblood, thanks for adding the nuance that I didn’t have time or space for. I agree with most of what you said– about learning to exercise our agency, feeling our way, and using such experiences to become like Gods. I don’t think that’s an argument against correlation, however. Even to feel your way blindly, you need to know where you’re trying to get to. Presumably, the correlated curriculum and policies are designed simply to illustrate our destination, not govern our every action on the journey. For myself, I feel I have ample freedom to break my own trail, even with the COB sending out their directives every once in a while. Does that differ from your experience?

  28. Ryan, your experience sounds much like mine. I was mostly interested in pointing out that almost everything in the way the organization of the Church functions today was the result of inspired local leadership. Your focus on Correlation seemed to omit this important fact.

  29. Carl, don’t you think your statement, “almost everything in the way the organization of the Church functions today was the result of inspired local leadership,” goes a bit too far?

  30. I don’t care if they have correlation or not. Within my little realm, I do what I want and disregard the, uh, what’s that book called? I just fit to the situation and apologize if anybody calls me on it. Nobody has so far, since I’ve implemented my “get forgiveness instead of permission” policy in all my affairs.

    Which takes me over to Clark’s thread.

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