The church handbook is a foundational document for the lived experience of LDS church members. The handbook (actually two specific handbooks at present, but for convenience’s sake we’ll just refer to it as the handbook) sets out rules regarding a variety of important experiences in church member life. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism notes that the handbook contains “instruction on (1) Church administration and meetings; (2) calling members to Church positions and releasing them from such calls; (3) ordaining members to priesthood offices; (4) performing ordinances and giving blessings; (5) doing sacred temple work, and family history; (6) responding to calls for missionary service; (7) keeping records, reports, and accounting for finances; (8) applying Church discipline; and (9) implementing Church policies on such matters as buildings and property, moral issues, and medical and health issues.”
The handbook is cited repeatedly in a variety of general member discussions (see, e.g., here or here). However, under current policy, the handbook is not made available to the general church membership. Instead, as the Encyclopedia of Mormonism notes, “Church leaders who receive the handbook include General Authorities, Church department heads, general auxiliary presidencies, temple presidents, and officers in stakes, wards, missions, districts, and branches.”
In my observation, there are some potential negative consequences to the current policy.
One negative consequence is confusion and inconsistent application. The handbook sets out a number of specific rules and church policies that aren’t available anywhere else. It’s not clear how church members are expected to become aware of this information.
Of course, many members are former leaders, and so may be aware of handbook content through that avenue. Many members are current church leaders, and so have current access to the handbook. But a significant number of church members have never held a leadership calling which includes access to the handbook. This problem is particularly acute among women (because fewer leadership callings are available to women), as well as among both recent converts and less active members.
One way to remedy this information gap is for members to regularly consult with their local leaders about questions that they may have. But members cannot ask overwhelmed local leaders to micromanage their lives. Local leaders may be unavailable, or may have only inconsistent availability. And members may not be aware of what questions to ask.
The ad hoc nature of information transmission means that as a practical matter these policies really aren’t applied to members in general. Instead, they end up applying only to members who feel the need to talk to their bishop about that decision and bishops who, not being overcome with inspiration, feel the need to look something up.
Thus, it seems inevitable that a significant number of church members will be unaware of significant sections of the rules and policies set out in the handbook. An inaccessible handbook can be problematic when there are guidelines that aren’t well known. This raises the question of the purpose of such an inconsistently available and applied policy.
This is especially true where there are church doctrines or positions that are explained in the handbook but not otherwise widely available. For instance, specific detail on policies about abortion exceptions, about the theological status of stillborn children, or policies about certain types of birth control, are available in the handbook and basically nowhere else.
The fact that so few members know the church’s position shows the problem of making the handbook unavailable. What’s the purpose of writing a policy for the members on some topic (such as sterilization) if members never learn what that policy is?
A second negative consequence is the possibility of abuse. Discussions in a variety of other contexts (legal, historical, etc) often focus on how members of an organization can suffer due to the possibility for abuse when information is controlled by a set of elites.
I don’t want to overstate the case. I’ve known many church leaders who were wonderful, dedicated servants of God. At the same time, there is temptation built in to the structure. And when leaders are in sole possession of powerful administrative regulations, this possibility becomes more acute. The Doctrine and Covenants makes clear that even church leaders are subject to temptation to engage in unrighteous dominion: “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.”
Access to unavailable restricted and powerful information gives people “a little authority.” In that place, almost all men will act inappropriately — this is canon and scripture. One well known way to counter this tendency is to empower other constituencies with a checks-and-balances sort of power. Thus, good organizational governance principles would suggest making the handbook more broadly available.
Ironically, this possibility is sometimes suggested as a reason for continued handbook unavailability. That is, that it would make a bishop’s position needlessly more difficult if he had to worry about a half-dozen people checking his every decision, and it would give legalistic members an even bigger excuse to be legalistic. For example, many members don’t know that vasectomies are discouraged in the handbook. Many Mormons get them (or women get their tubes tied) and are never wiser, since it isn’t discussed or emphasized in other church manuals, it doesn’t come up in temple recommend interviews. In contrast, making the handbook available might turn lay members into
While this is a real concern, the fact is that members informally police each other without official handbook availability. There is already a culture of unwritten rules in the church. This can lead to inconsistent policy knowledge or application, and to vastly different experiences in lived church membership. The handbook’s current status reinforces this culture.
It ultimately does not make sense to put together policies and rules for church members, but to limit those members’ ability to see those rules. There may be a few, small selections of the handbook which should remain private, but the great majority of it could, I think, be made public without doing any harm to the normal everyday operations of the church, and in many cases in fact benefiting it. For instance, I think it would be very healthy for members to see for themselves that there is no official rule on women’s prayers, white shirts, or other topics of minutia which often lead to obsessive policing.
For these reasons, I would suggest that the handbook should be made available to church members, ideally by placing it on lds.org.
(I will discuss related topics, including existing unofficial internet publication handbook content, in future posts in the series.)