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VOLUME 2, 1996

Part 1
Effects of Authoritarianism


Issues to Consider
Lavina Fielding Anderson


The expectation of member obedience and the insistence on member obedience within the Church encourages some priesthood leaders to make unreasonable demands or to not distinguish adequately between their own opinions and Church policies and procedures. In such cases, the merits of the original issue are almost immediately abandoned. Instead, the priesthood leader insists on obedience at all costs, intensifying his demands, threats, and punishment, while the member becomes increasingly bewildered and frustrated. Is the original point of disagreement really worth all this? Usually, the answer is no and the member gives in, but the spiritual damage is deep. The member knows that he or she has been treated unfairly, that his or her views have not usually received a fair hearing, and that the decision has been made on the basis of power rather than reason. The member’s trust in the Church and in Church leaders is usually permanently altered, even if he or she is able to see that the problem was one leader merely using the system to "win this one."

The Lord’s scriptural instructions specifically ban the use of force, intimidation, or coercion in dealings between leaders on all levels (even those with "a little authority") and those who fall within the sphere of their "power or influence."

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

Hence many are called, but few are chosen.

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—

Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death. (D&C 121:39-44)

In most cases of unrighteous dominion, "persuasion" often takes the form of "because I said so," "long-suffering" is replaced by exasperation and threats, and "reproving betimes with sharpness" seems seldom to be prompted by the Holy Ghost. An almost predictable confirmation that this scriptural injunction has been violated is the extreme rarity with which the leader reaffirms either love or faithfulness. The member often feels marginalized, devalued, and discarded.

Janice Allred has cogently observed:

Because of inevitable human differences some relationships are inherently unequal; and unequal relationships, by definition, always involve a difference in power. Some relationships which involve an imbalance of power are parent-child, teacher-student, pastor-parishioner [In Mormon terms, leader-member], and therapist-client. The principle of human equality demands that whenever one person in a relationship has more power than the other, he or she should use that power to benefit rather than exploit, dominate, humiliate, or coerce the person with less power. The person with the greater power should not expect to have his or her primary needs met in the relationship. Of course, some secondary needs, [such as] giving needs, may be met in the relationship, and sometimes the person with less power may voluntarily give something to the person in the more powerful role. However, whenever the more powerful person uses his power to take advantage of the less powerful person, he is abusing his power and abusing the other person. To avoid abuse, he must grant the other person her free agency.1

The Church’s visible hierarchy and authoritarian structure are not necessarily bad. In fact, they have some distinct advantages. First, the clarity of the structure means that it is very easy, in almost all settings, to tell who is in charge. This clarity is a distinct advantage when tasks needs to be apportioned and when all of those present, including the leaders, are willing to be responsible for their assignments. A much-cited example is the speed with which the mayor’s office in Salt Lake City got thousands of baggers shoveling sand in Liberty Park in a matter of hours during the spring 1982 floods by tapping into the Church’s priesthood pipeline. From the area president, once he was authorized to act, to the stake presidents, to the bishops to the able-bodied men of the ward, the communication chain was a short and very effective one. The response rate was also very high.

Second, the emphasis on structure itself makes it possible to argue that the structure is more important than any particular occupant. Bishops and stake presidents cycle in and out of their positions. If a member encounters an insensitive or incompatible leader, in many cases (though certainly not all), it is possible and practical to choose other options than conflict: (1) through prayer and hard work come to tolerate if not embrace the leader’s opinions and working style, (2) grit one’s teeth and endure, (3) maintain a low profile and concentrate on the fulfillment to be found in one’s own calling, (4) become passive-aggressive, withdraw psychologically, and limit participation to "safe" levels, or (5) purposefully become selectively active with the intention of becoming more fully active when the leadership changes.

Another benefit of this depersonalizing emphasis on structure is that members develop loyalties to the Church itself, and not to a particular leader. For example, members pay their tithing to the Church, whether they happen to agree with their local leaders’ political opinions, and no one thinks that such tithe-paying faithfulness is a sign of support for the leaders’ opinions. The structural emphasis on "approved" programs further means that members also can feel that programs like missionary work or Boy Scouts are part of "building the kingdom" and not merely a local leader’s passing fad. As a result, the Church’s financial base of contributions and ability to call on the volunteer labor of its members is relatively secure, regardless of the exact degree of loyalty a member may have to a given local leader.

Third, the priesthood pipeline is a very rational structure, providing protection against the disadvantages of disorder. Increasing the weight assigned to successive offices is an alternative to the paralysis that can overcome an organization when conflicting but equal personalities clash. In contrast, Episcopal priest Tom Ehrich lamented that "one in five American2 churches is experiencing severe leadership conflict" and an estimated thirty pastors per month are "forced out" by their congregations—some for misconduct, some by "clergy killer" parishioners, and some by the fact that "parish ministry is inordinately stressful." Seminary enrollments are down. He continues:

The effect on congregations is equally devastating. Conflicts drain energy, drive lay leaders to the sidelines, hurt fund raising, and impede the congregation’s ability to do the necessary work of evaluating the present and preparing for the future. Many congregations—my guess is more than half—are in a bleak survival mode.

New, nondenominational congregations are attracting members, at least in part, because they haven’t started fighting yet. But as many a start-up pastor has learned, it’s only a matter of time. Of four new congregations started by the Episcopal church in one southeastern city, all four have been paralyzed by leadership conflicts. Two already have closed their doors.

Congregations seem trapped in stale rage and dysfunctional behaviors. ...

My hunch is that religious book sales are booming because people can get at least a taste of religion without having to endure the dysfunctional dynamics of the church on the corner.

Is it really this bad? No, it’s probably worse. For we don’t have any way of measuring the slow loss of spiritual vitality that happens when the energies of the faithful and their pastors are diverted by waging wars, healing the wounds of past wars, or avoiding warfare.3

Most Mormons simply would not recognize the bleak picture Ehrich paints. Mormon congregations hardly ever close their doors, although they may be combined or reorganized as local demographics change. Although budget requirements are strict and strictly supervised, no ward is financially limited only to the cash its members can spare. And even though conflict resolution methods in Mormonism are heavily weighted in favor of the presiding officer who may not scruple to alienate or punish the member who is perceived as causing a problem, it is unusual for a ward or stake to be paralyzed by internal conflicts in the way Ehrich describes.

Fourth, for many members who feel that life is uncertain and frightening, that social forces are overpowering, and that their ability to maintain a steady course through difficulties is doubtful, the structure, values, programs, and leadership provided by the Church are reassuring and comforting. Their job as members, as Steve Benson flippantly but not inaccurately put it, is to "pray, pay, and obey."4 In return, they have a cadre of teachers who are willing to take at least some of the responsibility for their children, the psychological reassurance that they are "on the right path," and the equally comforting assurance that the bishop has additional resources that he can call on to help them in times of need—the stake president (and, through him, General Authorities), LDS Social Services, employment specialists and other welfare programs, and a steady stream of usually encouraging inspirational messages.

However, the Church’s authoritarian structure and the frequent modelings of authoritarian styles of leadership also have important disadvantages. In the context of this discussion, for example, authoritarianism encourages a leader to make decisions quickly and stick to them, makes it very difficult for a leader to retreat from a position once he has taken it, and makes it virtually impossible for a leader to admit that he was wrong and to apologize. It is simply a human tendency to want to be right, a tendency to which both leaders and members are subject, but the presumption that the leader is always right and the range of powerful tools he has at his disposal for enforcing conformity create a climate in which the leader is probably less likely to examine his motives, less likely to approach a difference of opinion humbly, and less likely to repent quickly if he is wrong.

In the first case report which follows, as a one-time exception to its no-anonymous accounts policy, we are sharing a group of letters received from members who found some relief in venting their frustration and sadness at Church situations which hurt them. They show how even a very small amount of authority, in some cases, can be used against others. In the second case report, Devery Anderson was active in every way but fell afoul of his stake president’s personal opinion that a study group, which he had never attended, was "dangerous." When Devery refused to disband the study group, the grounds shifted quickly from the merits of the study group to the issue of obedience to priesthood authority. In the third case, Phyllis Rueckert was able to endure the pinpricks of minor harassment from authoritarian female leaders, but saw a chilling extreme example of over-reliance on authoritarianism that eventually resulted in her withdrawal from activity. In the fourth case report, Vivian D. Ellsworth records the slow erosion of her family’s zealous loyalty to the Church under grueling and excessive demands, then shows how that erosion accelerated during a few anguished years when the very foundation of their loyalty—their spiritual integrity—came under direct attack from authoritarian leaders.

Endnotes (Click on the Back button to return to the reference.)

1Janice M. Allred, "Sacrificing the Children: Why the Church Won't Fight Child Sexual Abuse," paper presented at the Sunstone Symposium, 16 August 1996, 3, electronic copy in my possession.

2It is not clear whether Ehrlich means "Episcopalian churches in America" or "all American Christian denominations," although the context seems to suggest the latter.

3Tom Ehrich, Religion News Service, "Churches in Disarray from Conflict," Salt Lake Tribune, 21 Sept. 1996, B-3.

4As quoted in "The Mormons," a segment of "Sixty Minutes," aired 8 April 1996, video and transcript in possession of Lavina Fielding Anderson. Steve Benson, the oldest grandson of Ezra Taft Benson, is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning political cartoonist with the Arizona Republic. He and his wife, Mary Ann, resigned from the Church in the spring of 1994 after a long period of disagreement with the public announcements that his grandfather's health was much better than it actually was, the Church's authoritarianism, and some of the Church's major faith claims.