Last month more than half of the Church units in Flanders were closed (Flanders is the Dutch-speaking, northern part of Belgium, with a population of 6.5 million). We shrank from 9 wards and branches to just 4. Historic cities like Bruges and Louvain lost their Mormon meeting place. It’s part of the major “contraction” of the Church in Europe, rumored to dismantle 800 of the some 1200 units. If what happened in Flanders is symptomatic for the rest, the proportion is confirmed.
These original 9 units in Flanders are part of a stake, the Antwerp Belgium Stake, that also covers a southern area of the Netherlands, with 5 units, of which only one was closed. For the whole stake, it means that of its 14 original units (9 in Flanders and 5 in the Netherlands), 8 remain (4 in Flanders and 4 in the Netherlands).
This post is not going to argue about the appropriateness of decisions made at the top. However, the historic dimension of this change deserves some reflections. Is it consolidation or contraction? What about the why and the how? What are implications and consequences? And at the end: What is painfully missing in the whole process of consolidation?
Consolidation or contraction?
The term consolidation is very Mormonspeak to express firming up what was scattered, and also bringing together under central control. It defined the centralization of Welfare projects in the 1950s. It characterized the correlation in the sixties and early seventies under priesthood authority. In 1970 Church magazines were consolidated into a unified worldwide publication. In 1976 President Kimball used the word for the reconstitution of the First Quorum of the Seventy. The term consolidation defined the incorporation of various Sunday and weekday-meetings into the three-hour block on Sundays.
Today, in the context of Church units, consolidation means to abolish smaller units and have those members attend a larger unit at a greater distance. At the same time the abolition of Church units is also contraction: in Europe it erases the Mormon presence in city after city and reduces the Church’s visibility. It is therefore also an admission of failure: all those cities that were “opened” decades ago, with dedicatory prayers, promises and prophecies, did not make it.
Let’s start with reasons that are not worded publicly. They include
- the burden on stake leadership to take care of and visit a number of smaller units (branches); on the other hand, once a stake is consolidated, a consolidation of stakes may follow;
- the lack of adequate local leadership which may cause continual tensions in immature units;
- the loss of active members which reduces the branch to a handful of members;
- the lack of converts or the disproportionate ratio of inexperienced members;
- the need to reinforce another unit so it can become or remain a ward; this may imply closing a sometimes well functioning unit;
- the cost, in particular in owning or renting buildings: according to some insiders, that must be the main reason for the massive consolidation; however, we have no insights in income and expenses because the church here, as elsewhere, doesn’t make specific figures known; it may well be that small local units contribute more than enough to keep their unit open, but other costs at the area level drain the resources — such as the involvement of (expensive) law firms in West- and East-Europe in (superfluous or ill-handled?) legal matters, and the salaries of (sometimes inefficient or unnecessary?) employees.
The public reason is that consolidation strengthens the membership, provides more opportunities for growth, allows the “full program” of the Church to be implemented, and makes young people be part of a larger group and thus helps them remain active, find a partner in the Church, and raise a family.
That general reason indicates a shift in emphasis: church growth comes less from converts in scattered places, but through “the multigenerational model” in Mormon bastions. Statements by Church leaders seem to confirm that shift. Retention is very low among converts. They lack the Mormon formative childhood and mission experience. Higher retention (or somewhat higher retention) is achieved among children who grew up in dedicated Mormon families and went on missions. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated in the framework of international Mormonism: “we must have third- and fourth-generation faithful Latter-day Saint families in our leadership and membership”. Elder David A. Bednar lauded the “multigenerational families” as representative for Church strength. In A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell, Bruce C. Hafen tells how Elder Maxwell got convinced, through international statistical data, of the “key to having a multigenerational church” for retention and for children going on missions: “We seek successive generations of grandparents, parents, and children who are grounded, rooted, settled, and sealed in the holy temple.”
It explains why consolidation aims at creating more opportunities for teenagers and young single adults, children of Mormon families, to meet weekly, find a partner in the church, marry and produce the next generation. Moreover, an older Mormon generation always puts a significant amount of pressure on the younger generations to remain active. The expectations of (great)-grandparents and parents to see children baptized, advance in the priesthood, go on missions, and marry in the temple are powerful leverages to stay in the Church, even if the younger generations may lack the deep convictions of their progenitors.
How is a consolidation prepared and announced?
The directive to stake presidents to close units comes from the area presidency, no doubt initiated from the top level. To what extent statistical analyses are used to decide on the closing of specific units is unclear. It seems a general directive is given to stake presidents and it is left to them to either eagerly comply and close as many units as possible, or to fight for their maximal preservation.
From what I have seen from the recent consolidation in the Antwerp stake, the changes are technically very well prepared by a small group on stake level. Maps, new membership lists per unit, instructions, recommendations for integration of members in another unit are all laid out in detail. There is no doubt the stake leaders are genuinely concerned about the well-being of their members. They may even disagree with the top that pushed for the consolidation, but they obey.
I wonder if the method of closure of units in the Antwerp Belgium Stake, last month, followed a standard procedure. In our case, the abrupt implementation came with an approach that some experienced as mental coercion. Only a few men at the stake level prepared the operation for months in strict secrecy. Then on April 9 a letter from the stake presidency was read from the pulpit in all units, urging members to come next week to stake conference because “important changes” would be announced. In preparation for the event the letter asked members to read and ponder 1 Nephi 3:5–8, the passage where Nephi is commended for not murmuring and for simply obeying. So, the tone was preemptively set: no contention, only obedience, whatever would be announced. Then, on the Saturday of the stake conference itself, first each local unit leader was separately informed by a member of the stake presidency of the immediate closure of his unit. In a next meeting all other priesthood leaders (no women) were informed in the same vein, and then finally all members in the general meeting. The reasons given were only upbeat: this is the inspired Lord’s way to “build strength”, help the youth, and prepare for future growth. “Experience elsewhere has proven it works.” The stake president told the audience how he had struggled with the assignment, but in a dream received a witness of the decision. A sustaining vote was asked. Unanimous. As one branch president of a closed unit told me: “My members voted in favor with their right hand and against it with their hearts. And almost all were crying.”
This procedure is thus set to make a drastic, surprise change, with expected contention being eluded preemptively, and thus inducing people to obedience. One former stake president from the Netherlands wrote me that such an approach is totally contrary to their national “poldercultuur” of consultation and deliberation: potential changes that affect everyone are proposed and discussed over a long period, assessed with a willingness to compromise, and then people slowly come to emerging consensus. All feel involved and respected. This stake president once had to close a unit and did so in polder-cultuur-mode: it worked much better.
Implications and consequences
Each unit is different as to number of members, levels of maturity and experience, ratio of leadership, ratio of full-member families, ratio of locals versus immigrants, language challenges, intensity of friendships, or, conversely, of tensions. The next reflections cannot cover all these variables.
One item is important to realize: we’re not talking about the local redrawing of ward and stake boundaries that goes on all the time and is part of church culture, but about “closing cities”. In Europe there is usually only one church unit per major city. Members from closed units are now requested to travel to another city for meetings. Yes, I know the rhetoric of sacrifice of long travels to attend church, but the original intention of the three-hour-block was to reduce travel time and enhance time at home. Many members in Europe use public transportation. On Sunday, public transportation is infrequent and travel time from home to a chapel in another city and back can easily amount to 3 or more hours. At the time of the announcement of the consolidation, the Antwerp stake leaders assured the members that transportation would be taken care of, even if it meant renting a bus. Already after a few weeks it became clear that such arrangements present major challenges. The stake leadership claims that they used as a main criterion of consolidation that the unit-to-go-to “will not be further away than 45 minutes”. That is probably correct for someone owning a car and who can drive directly from his home to the chapel. It does not apply to the many without a car using public transportation. Moreover, people with a car are expected to pick up other members or investigators. Members from the new central unit are also encouraged to help pick up members from former units, thus traveling twice in both directions, adding to their Sunday time. The increased traffic bothers those sensitive to the environment. There are issues with insurance by taking passengers or too many passengers. The new central location sometimes does not have adequate parking space, upsetting neighbors.
On family life
Church leaders on top and mid-level are all part of strong multigenerational Mormon families. Such a family goes to church together and usually all family members are implied in callings and tasks. But in Europe, as in many other parts of the world where converts form the bulk, we have numerous single members and part-member families. In the best case scenario, the husband or wife accepts the half-day Sunday absence of the partner. But when the absence extends to a couple of hours more, and to more travel costs, it becomes troublesome. Similar difficulties develop with parents and grand-parents who aren’t members: the consolidation abolishes or disturbs traditions of joined Sunday afternoons. In such families often a delicate balance had been achieved as to time management between church and family, but the extra requirements may lead to breaking points. None of this bothers the multi-generational Mormon family.
Positive social and emotional consequences
Strong Mormon families with children (and with a car) tend to welcome the consolidation. They may gratefully accept the closure of their unit where they may have been the only “normal” family carrying the burden of a struggling branch for years. Their children can finally go to a Primary, to Young Men and Young Women where they have peers. A lonesome young adult will be happy to join with others and build friendships. We should recognize those positive aspects of the consolidation.
All this, of course, is on condition that all people in the central unit will be sensitive to newcomers and that some will not feel their arrival as an intrusion. In certain age groups, with long social binds, expanding ties may be challenging. The whole movement thus creates learning opportunities for socialization — if thoughtfully monitored.
Negative social and emotional consequences
The negative toll can be significant. In smaller units, most are members who for decades have worked to keep their branch or ward alive, proud to have a Mormon meeting place in their own city. Suddenly it’s over. There is not only sadness for the closure as such, sometimes anger, but also feelings of guilt and depression. The responsibility for these feelings lies with higher church leaders, visiting authorities and area leaders, who for years have been pounding on these members with promises of growth, of “doubling the membership in one year”, of “second harvest”, if only the members were steadfast and doing their duties. None of those “inspired” promises were ever fulfilled, in spite of all the sacrifices of local members, thus leading to doubting the inspiration or to feeling blamed for not having done enough.
Another toll is the tearing apart of relations. Closing a unit does not mean that all members will be assigned to the same unit elsewhere. Depending on their address in a suburb or the periphery, they are assigned to units in different cities to the north, south, east, or west. For members in cultures where “friendship” has a different meaning than in the U.S. and where mutual socio-religious ties are deep-seated amidst a non-Mormon world, disrupting that relation abruptly and “commanding” to go elsewhere on Sundays is far more reaching than the dissatisfactions members often feel when ward or stake boundaries are redrawn in the U.S.
For some members the small community is ideal for their needs. That is not being considered, nor the value of pioneering with limited means in a small unit.
The emphasis on families as the core public reason for consolidation definitely entails the risk of isolating single members or singles in a part-member family, divorcees, widows and widowers. Moreover, the leadership on all levels is usually in the hands of those multigenerational families who mold the activities, lessons, and sermons to their image. Countries where the church has existed for a few decades count among their members a number of multigenerational key-families. Leaders of stakes and of the larger wards are for the most part chosen from within these families. There are many family ties from area authorities down to stake and ward leaders. Consolidation reinforces this tendency as fewer and larger units call the “best” leaders, obviously from those very families. They mostly set a tone of strong dedication and obedience. They form dynasties of “birthright members” who know each other well but who, especially among their younger generations, often seem to have little or no interest in converts, foreigners, divorcees, singles and single parents.
On the Church presence as such
Having a Mormon presence, with a meeting address, in as many cities as possible reinforces Church visibility and outward representation. Therefore consolidation to fewer units weakens the Church’s strategical position toward the country. It diminishes the chances for recognition or other legal advantages. It’s bad PR.
In cities where a unit is closed, missionary work comes to an end. Not only are the missionaries transferred out, but members who continue to live in that city and surroundings are not motivated any more to share the Gospel with others. It means hundreds of Europeans towns, many of more than 100,000 people, are off the list for the great mandate to preach the Gospel to the world.
In the case of the Antwerp Belgium stake, there is also a sensitive issue nobody dares to bring up: the stake president is from the Netherlands part of the stake. On that Netherlands side of the stake only one of the 5 units has been closed (and moreover a very tiny one kept open), while in Flanders 5 of the 9 were closed. With four units left over in Flanders, we’re back at where we were in the late 1940s, when missionary work started in Flanders. I think of people like mission president Max L. Pinegar, who in 1973 and 1974 dedicated himself to open a whole series of Flemish cities for missionary work, and of the next mission president, Larry H. Brim, who in the mid-70s led our own successful Flemish mission, independent from the Netherlands. Now, in 2017, those Flemish units were closed under the direction of a stake president from the Netherlands. Even if the closing was necessary, strategically it could have been done with more political sensitivity. Now it’s part of the historical record.
What is painfully missing in the consolidation
What is missing is a candid and thorough assessment of why the Church has not grown in those units that are now being closed. The usual explanations do not suffice — secularization, unwillingness to live a demanding religion, hedonism, immorality… These reasons are nonsense. They are excuses for failure.
All over Europe, every year, tens of thousands of people convert to religions, including Islam and Buddhism, or rededicate themselves to their childhood religion, or join evangelical churches or charismatic movements (in particular young people). Many more invest themselves in spiritual, ideological, humanitarian and social causes. People continue to yearn for meaning in their lives. Religion is resurging. Thousands of refugees from non-Christian backgrounds adopt Christianity (are we missing the boat or are we still too marginal to be considered Christian?).
One must start from the premise that in every city of a few hundreds of thousands, there must be at least one out of a hundred or one out of a few hundreds open to the Restored Gospel as message. That means multiple thousands of potential converts. But only a very tiny fraction of these people have ever heard anything of Mormonism other than a reference to polygamy in the media. Our Public Affairs, led from Frankfurt, has been an abysmal failure for decades. We must also recognize the total ineffectiveness of our missionary system in the European post-secular context, unable to draw from the “blooming alternative religiosity in Europe”.
But, wait, we have been baptizing at least enough to fill each of our units. Take one of those small units that was closed in our stake, Genk (near Hasselt, eastern part of Belgium): 160 members on the records; sacrament meeting attendance around 25. So here comes the problem of retention. Frequently discussed, never solved. I do not claim to have an easy answer. But more than half a century of experience in the Church in Europe has slowly convinced me that our one-size-fits-all program-model of religious living may need reassessment if the worth of souls is our true concern. The very consolidation shows how strong this program-model dictates policy. The Church opts for the full-program-model as standard religious experience: Mormons must function with all church programs enabled, as defined by the Handbook, within correlated schedules, with identical manuals, etc. It is called “the culture of the Gospel.” Sure, it contains the Gospel, but some feel it as stringently packaged and covered by layers of institutional distractions and obligations. To what extent can simpler and diverse forms of being Mormon become acceptable? What is the essential and viable core to be a Latter-day Saint? Some analysts still cling to the idea that demanding religions, such as Mormonism, are the most successful in the world. Demanding, to them, means the full-program-model. That may have been true in the half century after Vatican II. Does the paradigm still hold?
What are your experiences with consolidation in the international context (not the limited changing of ward boundaries)? What could have been done differently, what could be done differently so as to avoid the closure of Church units?
 Dallin H. Oaks, “The Gospel Culture,” Ensign March 2012, https://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/03/the-gospel-culture?lang=eng
 General Conference Leadership Meetings, April 2015, broadcasts.lds.org
 An extensive literature analyzes the trends, e.g., Allan Heaton Anderson, To the ends of the Earth: Pentecostalism and the transformation of world Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2013); Robert Barro, Jason Hwang, and Rachel McCleary, “Religious conversion in 40 countries,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49, no. 1 (2010): 15–36; Lieven Boeve, “Religion after detraditionalization: Christian faith in a post-secular Europe,” Irish Theological Quarterly 70, no. 2 (2005): 99–122; Timothy A. Byrnes and Peter J. Katzenstein (eds.), Religion in an expanding Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Andrew M. Greeley, “Religious revivals in Eastern Europe,” Society 39, no. 2 (2002): 76–77; Yves Lambert, “A turning point in religious evolution in Europe,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 19, no. 1 (2004): 29–45; Esra Özyürek, Being German, becoming Muslim: Race, religion, and conversion in the new Europe (Princeton University Press, 2014); Karin van Nieuwkerk, ”’Conversion’ to Islam and the Construction of a Pious Self,” in Lewis R. Rambo and Charles E. Farhadian (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (New York: Routledge, 2014).
 Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s century: resurgent religion and global politics (WW Norton & Company, 2011).
 Hubert Knoblauch, “Europe and invisible religion” Social Compass 50, no. 3 (2003): 267–274.