As a Mormon, you belong to two churches: your local congregation, be it ward or branch (the Local Church), and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Institutional Church). While something similar may be true for members of other denominations, it is more true for and has more effect on Latter-day Saints. You may draw strength from both your Local Church and from the Institutional Church; I do, and I think most Mormons do. But they are surprisingly distinct units, with rather different, if complementary, agendas.
Your Ward. Unlike almost any other church I know of, the LDS Church assigns its membership to a specific geographical congregation with one specific bishop who has official jurisdiction over that assigned membership. Whether you attend or not. No self-segregation for Mormons. No shopping for a congregation with a pastor you like or a nice youth program. No one gets paid. Everyone serves, most in formal callings of one type or another, but also through friendship, conversation, encouragement, and service projects or activities both large and small. Wards are fairly close-knit communities, at least by modern big-city standards. Teaching supposedly follows manuals which spell out the modern Institutional Gospel, but a wide spectrum of personal opinion and persistent folk doctrine gets taught in classes and across the pulpit. Some bishops follow procedural guidelines for administering the ward fairly closely, others take their discretionary powers and run with them, for good or ill. Exactly what doctrinal and procedural ingredients make up your particular Local Gospel depends on where you live. I have attended LDS congregations all over the world and never encountered a version of the Local Gospel that was really off the charts, so I don’t want to exaggerate the degree of variation, but it is certainly there.
Your Church. Unlike almost any other church I know of, the LDS Church bestows a strong, omnipresent sense of denominational identity on its membership. It follows you wherever you go in the world. There is something about being Mormon which is definitively transnational, even compared to the Catholic Church, where national churches retain some autonomy and still reflect national differences. While local leaders (stake and ward) exercise direction over local members, the Institutional Church retains direct control over LDS temples and temple presidents, over LDS missionaries and mission presidents, and over CES personnel and LDS university presidents. The Institutional Church authors (anonymously, in some undisclosed draft and editorial process) manuals to be used by local units for instruction in Sunday classes. The manuals, along with material posted at LDS.org and what can be gleaned from General Conference talks, constitute the modern Institutional Gospel, presently rather streamlined compared to the freewheeling 19th-century version. Local LDS buildings are in fact owned by an entity of the Institutional Church. All contributions collected by local congregations are upstreamed directly and immediately to the Institutional Church, which takes title to those gifted funds and has accumulated a remarkably large portfolio of investments. Local members and units have zero input or influence over the management and disposition of those accumulated assets and the revenues therefrom. The Institutional Church issues handbooks spelling out in detail how local leaders are to administer their congregational affairs but granting some leeway on certain matters to local leaders.
So much for the set up. How does this play out?
Activity. Some members get disgruntled with their ward and the Local Gospel they encounter, so they stop attending. Yet, they may still consider themselves fully Mormon in the institutional sense, and may be quite willing to resume congregational attendance after moving to a new city or a new neighborhood, or even upon a change in local leadership. In other denominations, a disgruntled person is free to find another congregation more to their liking to attend, so our congregational inflexibility causes some of our inactivity problems, doesn’t it? Surprisingly, we do set up separate congregations based on language and on age, to keep Spanish-speaking members and young adults active. Imagine if we set up separate congregations based on other factors (say a ward for religiously liberal Mormons, or a ward for those who idolize the writings of Elder McConkie, or a business casual ward). And why not, if it makes people happier about attending church?
Then there are members who *do* continue to attend and be fully engaged with their local congregation but who, either informally or even formally, disengage from the Institutional Church. They are quite happy with the Local Gospel of service and moral exhortation, with activities and pot luck dinners, but take serious issue with one or another aspect of the Institutional Gospel. Our church buildings all proclaim “visitors welcome” and such local-only Mormons are generally welcome. But this is clearly a variant form of membership, a “local only” option.
Communication. The Institutional Church communicates directly with its local leaders via Handbook 1 (not available to the local membership), letters sent directly to local leadership, and regional training meetings. The Institutional Church communicates directly with local membership (without going through local leadership) via General Conference and magazines like the Ensign, as well as via Handbook 2, which is now publicly available (and contains a lengthy section of LDS policies which apply to most members but were rather puzzlingly previously unavailable to the general membership). The Institutional Church does sometimes communicates indirectly with local members through local leaders, as when letters are first sent to local leaders to be read over the pulpit on Sunday. Oddly, these letters are not posted at LDS.org or otherwise made publicly available. There is very little communication from local leaders or members to the Institutional Church. What’s interesting here is the various communication channels open to senior leadership and how and when they elect to use one or another of those options to communicate broadly or narrowly, to communicate with the media or the membership, to communicate with US/Canada membership versus worldwide membership, and so forth.
Public Perception. As J. B. Haws made clear in his recent book The Mormon Image in the American Mind, the general public has a vague but distinct awareness of the difference between the Institutional Church and the local Mormons they know as coworkers, neighbors, and friends. They like their LDS friends and neighbors, but they are suspicious of the Institutional Church. Something about all that money and all those temples and all those missionaries (all features of the Institutional Church, not local congregations) makes them nervous. It’s like the average person splits the Mormon persona into two halves, assigning good attributes to the local Mormons they know or meet and bad attributes to the shadowy Institutional Church they are aware of but are largely unfamiliar with. Heck, even veteran Mormons are largely unfamiliar with the actual workings of the Institutional Church and largely uninformed about what the Institutional Church does with member contributions.
Positive Change? Few Mormons are activists calling for major change or reform. But in a changing world full of challenges and opportunities for the Church and its membership, change is inevitable. Doctrine and practice change more frequently than we tend to notice. So recognizing the local-institutional dynamic outlined above does help us recognize some opportunities to make positive changes that will advance the work of the Church and its membership at both levels. Why shouldn’t we have a two-hour block? How about a Thursday night sacrament meeting in each stake for those who can’t attend on Sunday or who can only handle a one-hour block? If local units were given more flexibility, would that be used wisely or just to find new ways to screw things up? Online seminary, service missions, female clerks — there is no shortage of ideas for positive change. As we slowly but surely continue the evolution from regional to national to global church, productive adjustments to the local-institutional dynamic are going to be part of the process.
Deep Tributaries. A final point: while the modern Institutional Gospel has been streamlined in part by largely dropping speculative doctrines that flourished in the 19th century (think Brigham Young and Orson Pratt), there are still doctrinal tributaries that feed the modern Institutional Gospel that are rich and deep. There is the orthodox stream one can find in books by BYU religion profs like Robinson, Millet, and many others. There is an apologetic stream pioneered by Nibley and carried on by organizations like FAIR, FARMS, and now the Interpreter. There is the broad Mormon Studies stream that includes journals like BYU Studies, Dialogue, and JMH, as well as books by the hundreds. I suspect that some Mormons whose experience of the LDS Church is limited to their Local Gospel sometimes conclude it is too shallow for them or doesn’t address particular issues that trouble them. They deserve the opportunity to sample one or all of the deeper tributaries feeding the Institutional Gospel, sources that treat standard issues in more depth or from a different perspective, and that cover a broader range of issues than is ever encountered in local settings. That might be just what some of those not-quite-mainstream members need to read — it would be nice if somehow the general membership were more aware of these sources. Deeper water carries risks, of course, but also opportunities for some who don’t find their Local Gospel sufficient for their religious needs.
So are you a local Mormon, an institutional Mormon, or both? Do you find any of the deeper tributaries that feed the Institutional Gospel particularly helpful?