Local Decisions

True or false?  “The Mormon church has a policy that mandates the excommunication of any member of the church who enters into a same-sex marriage.”

False.

The church’s policy requires that members of the church who enter into same-sex marriages meet with their ecclesiastical leaders to discuss their standing in the church (a conversation known, unfortunately, as a “disciplinary council”). As Elder D. Todd Christofferson clarified, the policy “means the discipline is mandatory — [it] doesn’t dictate outcomes but it dictates that discipline is needed in those cases.” The only mandatory requirement is a conversation.

Period.

Some ecclesiastical leaders may be under the false impression that decisions about the outcomes of these mandatory councils have been made for them, when in fact they have not. Outcomes have been left intentionally undecided. Excommunication is not mandatory. Disfellowship is not mandatory. Nothing is mandatory, except the conversation.

One effect of this is to make decisions about outcomes local. Here the word “local” has at least two meanings: (1) the decisions are made by people living in close proximity to the affected parties, and (2) the decisions only have effect within the immediate context in which they are made. By crafting the policy in this way, church leaders acknowledge that these decisions are best made by those who know the members best. This is an important point. Even the global revelation to which the apostles claim access does not trump the local revelation of personal acquaintance.

Leaders should necessarily feel tension as the two forms of revelation (local vs. global) come into conflict. If they were always in agreement, both would not be necessary. If a local leader does not feel torn between guidance from the top and real life at the bottom, they are ignoring one or the other. These leaders should expect experience with real people to challenge their assumptions and even change their mind. They should expect the best decision to often be something they would never have considered. They should feel uncomfortable at times, wondering if they are showing too much mercy or being guided too much by sympathy and not enough by responsibility.

George Handley gave a remarkable address on November 11, 2015, about his journey as a scholar of faith. During the Q&A afterward, he made a comment related to the church’s then-recent policy changes and the importance of local leadership:

It’s important, for me in my experience, to be patient with large organizational structures, because I think it’s easy for those structures to do unintended damage. And usually that unintended damage happens because people aren’t on the ground, knowing the individuals like they should. That’s one thing I’ve always appreciated about the way the Church teaches and trains leaders. It’s how I was taught and trained as a missionary. It’s how I’ve been taught and trained all my life in the Church—that I need to know the individuals, I need to know the individual circumstances, and I need to use my best judgment, and I need to go to the Lord. I have full confidence in that process.

The protective power of “knowing the individuals” works only to the extent that local leaders act differently than they would have if they had not known the individuals. The benefits of personal acquaintance are lost if we get to know people and then treat them as if we didn’t. Following the prophet does not mean making the decision the prophet would make. It means making a better decision than the prophet is able to make, because you are “on the ground.” That is what the prophet has requested of you implicitly by asking you to make the decisions instead of him.

My impression from hearing stories from all over is that there is some misunderstanding in this regard. Many leaders seem to believe that excommunication has been mandated by the policy. Others suggest that it is at least the only acceptable option and appear unwilling to consider other options. Whether this is the result of ignorance, institutional fear, and/or willful misrepresentation of church policy, it is inappropriate. Excommunication should never be considered a default outcome, especially in the case of this policy, which has been specifically designed to delegate such decisions to local leaders.

Some leaders, however, have done a remarkable job of balancing the messages they receive from the top and the conditions they see on the ground. They are taking the time to know and understand people and to hear their stories. They are making great efforts to reconsider their own perspectives. In some cases, there are excommunications, which is always unfortunate. But in many cases there are not. Most importantly, these local leaders are taking very seriously their duty to act in the way that is best for each individual, regardless of the opinions of those on the outside or even their own prior assumptions. And that is a wonderful thing.

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4 thoughts on “Local Decisions

  1. Specific instruction by Elder Anderson and Elder Clayton at a Regional Conference to Bishops and Stake Presidencies in Mesa, AZ “clarified” that a court for a same-sex marriage is only to confirm whether a couple are indeed same-sex married. Apostasy is to be the outcome if that is found to be true. They were counseled to not go after everyone at once, but overtime, to ‘take care of all of them.’ This Regional Conference was in February 2016.

    Sorry.

  2. My Stake President took all the mystery out of the process when he met with me in my home last month. He told me that if I married a man he would excommunicate me.

    Sounds like the outcome has been decided even before the church court has occurred.

  3. Tom, I am sad to hear that those instructions were given. In my mind that is a perfect example of how problematic it can be when sweeping decisions are made at the top of an organization, far removed from the individual situations affected. My hope is that local leaders will be willing to enter into the tension that comes with receiving those instructions while also witnessing the holiness in the people they have been asked to treat so thoughtlessly, and that they will even be willing to push back when necessary. I realize these are high hopes.

    Nathan, I am so sorry my friend.

  4. Unfortunately, it is far more likely that local leaders will follow specific instruction from an apostle. Three days later, I was made aware of a trans-male of 20 meeting with his Bishop who had just received ‘clarification’ on how to implement policy. I knew from the same Regional Conference, that Elder Clayton had instructed that trans-persons were not to be allowed to be a ‘distraction’ to a ward. So dressing counter to one’s gender of birth or attending classes outside your gender were forbidden. This Bishop told this trans-youth that he would not be welcome unless he wore a dress and attended the correct classes.

    I found him collapsed in the gutter outside that Bishop’s house. The words of our apostles, repeated in the mouths of our Bishops – devastating our LGBT members and youth. That is today’s reality. Just as Christ would have it…..

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