Ward boundaries & choice

Community Political Economy of Religion Traditions Values

Every week my Catholic grandmother drives 20 miles to the next county in order to go to Saturday mass with her sister. Both are elderly widows, and the routine has been ongoing for over twenty years. I think their little tradition is really sweet, and it means a lot to them. Whenever I go to visit I go along with them because it’s such an important part of their lives and I like to be a part of it, even if it is only once or twice every few years.

Of course if they were mormon this wouldn’t be allowed. As a missionary I spent almost a year in our mission office. One of the other elders was responsible for transmitting all the baptismal data to SLC every week. One of the things he told me was that the church has the whole world mapped out, and every inch of it is in one ward or another. When we needed maps of every unit in the mission Salt Lake was more than happy to oblige.

As mormons we were assigned a ward and we had to go to it. No excuses no exceptions. Indeed if we had dared to attend somewhere else we would have been barred from holding any callings. So why when most churches allow parishioners to choose their congregation are the mormons different? Why don’t they allow you to choose?

Well, what if you want to attend a different ward, not for social or familial reasons, but because the new bishop is really cool? Or there’s a great sunday school teacher? The fact is that different church leaders tend to have slightly different views and pet topics.

When I lived in UT I had an Institute teacher who’d been a Presbyterian minister for 30 years. Unsurprisingly he taught from the bible more than any other book. If mormons could choose which congregations to attend there would be movement according to belief. Where there was a socially liberal bishop, socially liberal members would follow, and where there was a hardcore über TBM bishop, the über TBMs would follow.

Over time congregations with a distinct take on doctrine would develop just as they have within Anglicanism for example, with its’ high church/low church split. Such a move would deal a fatal blow to the last 30 years of top down correlation of materials and teachings. There are different and distinct brands of mormonism, the mormonism of Spencer W. Kimball and the mormonism of Hugh B. Brown are different. Congregations of brand adherents would start to campaign for their beliefs to hold overall ascendancy within the hierarchy.

Wards would become more vibrant and the members more passionate, but the church would cease to be homogeneous and cease to speak as one with the same cultish manner that they do now, and there could rise a congregational style movement. The brethren realise this would lead to democratisation and a loss of power and control. Instead of General Conference there would be a General Synod.

What seems like a small and innocuous little rule buried within the Church Handbook belies the the controlling nature of the church. It exposes their authoritarian tendencies and desire to protect members from themselves. The limitations of freedom to associate within the group may seem innocuous, but in reality it is a key indicator of some of the cultish and controlling practices of the LDS Church.

8 thoughts on “Ward boundaries & choice

  1. I think a lot of Mormons think the top-down hierarchy is reasonable since they believe that the top guys have special inspiration from God. It’s true that different teachers and leaders have a different emphasis or style, but to choose your leaders according to your personal doctrinal preferences is antithetical to Mormon beliefs. They would see choosing doctrines democratically as being a sign of apostasy.

    I know you can point to examples where the LDS church has evolved in response to popular pressure. And I know that the Bloggernaclers and NOMs would probably like to see changes that would allow more leeway in choosing one’s beliefs while remaining members in good standing. But it’s important to remember that what looks “cultish and controlling” to you may look (to someone else) as a way to be directed by God instead of by man.

  2. I think this is a very insightful article. I hadn’t ever really considered why they are so strict about this, but I think your argument is correct. Great insight!

  3. I think the benefit of assigning people to go to a church based on geography rather than personal preference is that it allows them to associate with people that they otherwise wouldn’t. The branch that I was in encompassed the richest parts of the county and the absolute poorest parts of the county. It had predominantly white areas and African-American areas. Instead of allowing people to go to the church with people who happen to share the share political/racial/ethnic/class profile, the members of the branch got to interact with a huge variety of different people. Our ward mission leader was from the Caribbean and wore long dreadlocks. His best friend was a retired Navy pilot who had strong views about the truthfulness of the Gospel and what people needed to do to be saved. Our Sunday School president was an ex-hippie who refused to cut his hair. For all the lip service that people pay to diversity, I found that participating in the church allowed for me to experience more of it.

  4. dpc — I think this is a very good point, and I’ve thought of this every time I’ve heard people in other churches talk about how awful it is that Mormons can’t choose their own congregations.

    In the Mormon corridor (where wards correspond to physical neighborhoods) there’s surely less of this effect, but in the “mission field” (where I grew up), I felt like there was some value and interest in putting people in the same tightly-knit community with others from different neighborhoods rather than encouraging people to seek out only those who resemble them most.

  5. The “associating with people you otherwise wouldn’t” isn’t much of a point in some places.

    When I lived in Utah, I associated with people in my neighborhood. We were all pretty much the same kind of person, economically, socially, what have you.

    Out in the so-called “mission field,” things are a little different, but rarely do you find an poor inner city ward with a substantial amount of well-off individuals from the suburbs attending. Travel time is taken into account. The stake might include both, but probably not a ward, although that isn’t an absolute.

    In my current California ward, there is an actual Relief Society calling to try to overcome the cliques and get people interacting with people-not-like-them. I don’t envy the sister with that job.

  6. Out in the so-called “mission field,” things are a little different, but rarely do you find an poor inner city ward with a substantial amount of well-off individuals from the suburbs attending. Travel time is taken into account. The stake might include both, but probably not a ward, although that isn’t an absolute.

    That’s probably true for the most part. But keep in mind that there are places where member density is really low, and a whole city might have only one ward, in which case if there are rich members and poor members, they would attend together.

    In my current California ward, there is an actual Relief Society calling to try to overcome the cliques and get people interacting with people-not-like-them.

    Wow. Well, at least they’re taking the problem seriously and making an effort to do something about it.

  7. I am considering a post on my blog about Extremism at McCain Rallies Comes Naturally. The premise is that like-minded groups tend to move toward extremes.

    This agrees with your premise that geographical wards tend to moderate Mormon culture. At the general level, however, the church acts as a group of like-minded individuals making the members tend toward extreme forms of Mormonism (i.e. by trying to out-Mormon the other ward members).

    I wonder what kinds of extremes Outer Blogness brings out. 😉

    Interesting stuff.

  8. That’s interesting, Joe. It seems to me that the Brethren are afraid of Mormons who are organized.

    Catholic theology is just as focused on authority as Mormonism but Catholics can start an order or a lay group any time they want. As a result, Catholicism has generated a vibrant civil society.

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