Is this Building the Kingdom of God?

By: Jake
August 4, 2011

Today’s guest post is by Jake.  When I first went out onto my mission I was warned that when I saw missionaries all day that it might challenge my testimony. That they would lose the shine they once had when I viewed them as beacons of spirituality when I was a 14 year old youth.  This warning turned out to be true. As I entered the mission field it was a marvel to me that missionaries had not already ruined the church.

Upon returning from my mission I got a job at  the UK church offices. Before I started work I was warned that working there would once again challenge my testimony. When I saw how the church was really administered it would be difficult. As it turns out this was also true.

The first thing that struck me about working in church offices (in the UK) was the fact it seemed that many of the people were not hired because they were qualified. They got the job either because they knew someone who worked in the office already or they were a recent RM or held a position of power in church. It was also true in my case; I had been given my job due to ward connections and because the head of human resources knew my family. 

I realize that favoritism and nepotism is a problem in many workplaces. It’s fine if the people selected are capable of doing the job. My job was merely data entry, and anyone who can type could have done it.  However, other jobs required greater experience and qualifications;  in such cases hiring based on personal friendship was detrimental to organizational effectiveness. Further, it made firing people or even correcting performance problems difficult as everyone knows everyone and attends the same wards, so people were often kept on the payroll just to avoid awkwardness. This gave employees a sense of security as they knew they could get away with more then normal and still not be fired or made redundant. 

This attitude created an environment of mediocrity at church offices. In the end workers didn’t care how inefficient or expensive processes were, because they wouldn’t be held accountable, and the Church was not tracking “profits” anyway. This was the greatest challenge I faced:  if this was the adminstration of God’s kingdom then why was it so unprofessional and content with mediocrity? God is a God of order yet I saw disorder in my working environment. 

It also bothered me that tithing was used to run the office.  It shocked me to see how the tithing funds were squandered through inefficiency. As an example of the inefficiency, the filing system I had to work with made no sense whatsoever; there was no organization at all.  To file 5 documents could take up to 45 minutes as you wondered around finding the right section to file them in. I offered to create a filing system which was rejected because ‘this was the way things had always been done around here.’

There seemed to be no end to the inefficiency. After documents were filed, they were later taken out so that they could be unstapled. This meant that for hours we would sit around taking out 3-4 staples out of documents. In the space of a week I was able to construct a model of the London Temple out of all the staples that I removed. When I suggested using paperclips instead, this was again vetoed as it went against the way things had always been done. This could simply have been the conservitivism of my department but as I looked around I saw it in every facet of the organisation. It was difficult for me knowing then that my job of taking out of staples for 5 hours a day at £8 ($12) an hour was at the expense of someone else’s tithing. 

Tithing I had always been told was for the purpose of building the kingdom of god. Was my taking out of staples really helping to build up the kingdom of God?  More generally it made me think: does God really need such an extensive adminstrative organisation to run his kingdom? After all this is the God who said take no heed what to wear or eat (neither purse nor scrip) to his apostles when he sent them out to build his kingdom.
 
In the end I came to see that working for the church was just a job like any other. I learned to see that church offices and the church were two very different organisations. That just as the gospel and church should not be conflated neither should the adminstrative body of the church be confused with the ecclesiastical body. However, I noticed that many people who worked for the church did not see this division. They thought that their job was greater and more sacred than other jobs; they developed a “holier than thou” mentality. Working in the same office as the area presidency led many to think that their job was an act of salvation that was bringing them closer to God. 
 
This produced strange dynamics with the local wards. In some cases, managers in church offices would have their bishop working for them.  This produced interesting power struggles, especially since the bishop conducted the temple recommend interview that his own manager needed in order to keep his job!  Some who worked for the church looked down on members who had ‘common’ jobs.  Wards with a high concentration of church office employees felt that they were more blessed for doing more to build the kingdom of God than wards whose members had secular occupations. Why do Mormons feel that proximity to leaders impacts their own holiness?
 
Working there challenged my testimony but also taught me something valuable about the kingdom of God. It highlighted the limited way in which we conceptualise building the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God will be bigger then both the church and church offices. Therefore the work of building it will not be limited to our service in church, missionary work, or church offices. The kingdom of God still needs the infrastructure of our current society to run.  So, in essence, building and creating that infrastructure is helping to build up the kingdom.
In the kingdom of God our lives will not revolve around the church. Whilst my work on my mission and in church offices contributed in a specific way to God’s kingdom, I realise now that building God’s kingdom is far more than knocking on doors and taking out staples. The Saviour said the kingdom of God is within each of us.  Whilst my pile of staples may not have literally built up God’s kingdom it helped me to understand that building up the kingdom is more about building and making better where I am, wherever that may be, not just through the service I give at church. 
 
P.S.  I should point out that many of these observations are from 6 years ago. The headquarters and much of the administrative work has since been centralised in Germany.  Perhaps things have become more professional and efficient. In my heart I can’t help but think that things probably haven’t changed that much. 

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22 Responses to Is this Building the Kingdom of God?

  1. Small Dog on August 4, 2011 at 1:42 PM

    Oh, no. It’s still accurate. I currently work for BYU and spend many a day with jaw agape for baffling business practice (or alternatively banging my head on my desk out of a sense of futility whenever I try to do something different or reorganize a system).

    Although I’m not sure that it’s proximity to leaders for and upswing in holiness that people are looking for. I just think we’ve bought into our own propaganda as sober, industrious, protestant/mormon work ethic types, which means that if we’re already surrounded by such fabulous workers, it should be a no brainer to hire within our social pool. But as you point out, it’s a seriously flawed scheme.

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  2. Andrew S. on August 4, 2011 at 2:45 PM

    Jake

    I just wanted to say first that this piece is really good. I hope that the comments don’t derail this. One thought that came to me when reading this from my phone is the fact that there certainly are different perspectives in conflict here. I mean, the conflict between viewing such a job as more then a non -church job or viewing it as just another job… as you mention, on one hand there is inefficiency that would be despised in a for profit setting, but do we really want church jobs to be approaches from a perspective of numbers? One could see problems either way you go.

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  3. argyle on August 4, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    one question is – if God was running this church, would it look this way? the author seems to think yes. to some people that answer is no.

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  4. Steve on August 4, 2011 at 4:13 PM

    I know some of the local churches have a policy that they will not hire members of the congregation to work on their staff.

    Maybe that approach might be smart for the LDS Church — hire non-Mormons.

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  5. Ethesis (mobile) on August 4, 2011 at 6:02 PM

    the church / employment confluence was much worse in Tonga — i do not know how it is now.

    the social issues are a real guagmire. no solutions, though most chuch groups have them. generally on lds circles one part of the solution in the states has always been underpaying people. sounds like that was not the case here.

    byubon the other hand, seems to run like most universities do, in terms of efficiency or the lack thereof. some departments were much better than others when i was there.

    using volunteers on service missions helps. i would also expect that hiring germans would help too. :)

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  6. MH on August 4, 2011 at 8:33 PM

    Jake, what an interesting post! I’ve always wondered what it was like to work for the church.

    Why do Mormons feel that proximity to leaders impacts their own holiness?

    I suspect that employees of many religious groups feel the same way–I don’t think this is unique to Mormonism.

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  7. el oso on August 4, 2011 at 8:49 PM

    The turnover of service missionaries and the top level (GA) in non-US offices should help curb the most ingrained inefficiencies. I can imagine that a new Area Presidency could decide it is time to assign a former business consultant missionary to reorg the whole office. Goodbye bishops in the awkward reporting relationships and hello value stream mapping etc. etc. Or at the very least he might interview the departing missionary couple and implement their org change recommendations.
    I would also agree that the US has the low pay to cause some less painful turnover in many positions. You can also claw your way up the hierarchy just to be sent on a mission (now that the GAs know you) and then return to a totally different situation.

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  8. hawkgrrrl on August 4, 2011 at 11:02 PM

    I agree with those who said this is a fascinating post. These are the implications I found most interesting:
    - keeping the status quo trumps efficient use of tithing funds. That’s a telling observation.
    - conflicts of interest, nepotism and favoritism are not questioned.

    This reconfirms something I have always suspected: that I would never want to work for the church.

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  9. FireTag on August 4, 2011 at 11:31 PM

    My observations of the Community of Christ, as a family member of several of those employed by the church over the years, would concur that the COI, nepotism and favoritism are alive among us, too.

    We seem to have a fascinating difference in regard to the status quo, though. We welcome change, but by the time the change agents work their way up the favoritism ladder, they’re implementing “new” management approaches that they learned before they started working for the church, and so our innovations always seem years behind current best business practices.

    Sort of like my home computer technology. :D

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  10. Paul 2 on August 5, 2011 at 1:53 AM

    Jake,
    This kind of thing doesn’t get published very often, but lots of people talk about it. I have heard comments like this in most of the places I have lived. How to deal with other people’s imperfections and systemic imperfections is one of life’s great questions, IMO.

    IMO, some factors make it hard to have a highly effective workplace environment:
    1) A very top-down culture tends to lead to learned helplessness and a feeling that one’s opinions don’t matter.
    2) No external feedback–i.e. market forces don’t exist, so it is like living in a bubble in some ways.
    3) European work rules make employment situations inflexible, though it is better in the U.K and Germany than in other countries.
    4) In a culture where obedience to authority is the highest value, a lack of productivity is not as bad as disagreeing.

    It would be a mistake to think that church leaders are not aware of these issues and trying to introduce cultural changes that will improve the situation.

    Here is a link to Elder Bednar’s discussion with COB employees:
    http://lds.org/gospellibrary/leadership/hr-2010-02-leadership-elder-david-a-bednar-conversation-eng.pdf

    It is just speculation, but there may have been an institutional desire to have an expert in organizational behavior to work on the kind of issues, explaining in part his call.

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  11. Paul 2 on August 5, 2011 at 1:55 AM

    Clarification: When I said, “It would be a mistake to think that church leaders are not aware of these issues “, I did not mean to imply that you thought this!

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  12. Geoff - A on August 5, 2011 at 4:35 AM

    In the 1970s the whole of the church offices for Australia consisted of one man and his secretary. He was a builder who was in charge of the building programme, the maintanemce, handled the tithing and I don’t know what else.
    Someone decided they needed a person with management qualifications. So an office was set up and soon it took 200 people to do the same work as these 2. No more buildings were built by the 200 administrators than by the 2.
    As an aside to people thinking they are better because they work in church offices. We referred to people working there as working in the “sheltered workshop”, a term usually used for a workplace for disabled workers. Not a term of respect.

    Though it is amazing how many stake president and bishops work in such places. Perhaps an indication that callings are also more about who you know than inspiration/revelation.

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  13. Jeff Spector on August 5, 2011 at 6:02 AM

    I had an encounter early in my Church life at the COB trying to resolve a tithing problem in my Ward as I was Ward Finance Clerk. As I sat with the person in the Finance department, I noticed one of the oft-copied posters on her bulletin board. “The beatings will continue until morale improves.” I thought that quite odd to see that in the COB and figured out it must be an odd place to work.

    I also noticed in later callings dealing with the computer systems that the software quality was not very good. I came to understand that the Church didn’t pay programmers very much because they (The Church) considered it some type of honor to work for them, which I also considered odd.

    But, I will also say that after more than 30 years in the corporate world is that you will see the same types of behavior there as well. Those in bureaucratic/operational positions not in the line of revenue clearly operate differently than those on the front lines.

    So, while I think if we are surprised that the Church works so much like a Corporation, it should be no surprise that its employees would as well. Without the proper motivations, incentives and recognition, no one works hard at doing particularly good job.

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  14. BethSmash on August 5, 2011 at 7:16 AM

    Wouldn’t it be great, if the Church as a corporation, worked more like Google than like… I don’t really know businesses very well…ummm… a stodgy family owned bank?

    Also – I have friends that work at the COB and they are NOT paid well (and the male to female pay discrepancies are ASTOUNDING)

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  15. BethSmash on August 5, 2011 at 7:18 AM

    I should point out those friends are at entry level jobs – so it’s not surprising they aren’t paid the best. And the pay differences that I knew of were from a few years ago… they could have changed. But I don’t know for sure.

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  16. Heber13 on August 5, 2011 at 10:10 AM

    It creates jobs when there is ripe opportunity for improvement.

    I think there is an element of supply for workforce too, so they don’t need to pay top dollar because members want to work there.

    The mediocrity poster was fitting!

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  17. Cowboy on August 5, 2011 at 10:17 AM

    “That just as the gospel and church should not be conflated neither should the adminstrative body of the church be confused with the ecclesiastical body.”

    My mission president used to say that he didn’t think that “…the spiritual side of the Church understood the business side, or that the business side even had a spirit”. The missionaries used to laugh when he’d say this, but to be honest it was always kind of a puzzler for me. Should we assume for example that there are two sides to Jesus, his spiritual side and his business side? I know this article wasn’t about the shrewdness of Mormon business, but I’m not sure I understand why either side should operate on a seperate set of principles. I can see a little room for the “Church vs Gospel” dichotomy. Not because they should operate on distinct ideals, but because one is the ideal (the gospel), and one is the imperfect means for reaching towards the ideal (the Church). However when we port that dichotomy over to the ecclesiastical vs business side of the Church, we are now operating under mutually exclusive ideals. The spiritual side preaches to poor and offers succor to their needs, whereas the business side drives them out of their midst through a multi-billion dollar shopping center. I don’t get how this kind of acceptance for two sides of the corporate infrastructure of a religious organization is tolerated.

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  18. Cowboy on August 5, 2011 at 10:20 AM

    “I think there is an element of supply for workforce too, so they don’t need to pay top dollar because members want to work there.”

    Yes, that is basic economics of wages/labor that exist in the “fallen world”. However it doesn’t seem to jive with me as a principle that should be embraced by the ultra-wealthy organization that prides itself as the Kingdom of God on Earth preparatory to Christs Second Coming.

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  19. Paul on August 5, 2011 at 1:37 PM

    Jake, interesting article and interesting perspective.

    When we lived in Venezuela, I felt sorry for the poor paid guy in Caracas who had to input our (and everyone else’s) weekly financial data into the only computer. Especially since the spiritually called (and unpaid) clerks at the local level made tons of errors that he’d have to either sift through or just input. (At tithing settlement at the end of the year, we realized he just put them through without thinking about the data.)

    Jeff is right: admin staffs just don’t have the same drive or incentives as those with P/L responsibility. And church offices are all overhead.

    It is sad that some feel proximity to leadership makes them special (maybe that’s why they’re willing to work for low pay), but people are people after all.

    It intrigues me that some complain about the “corporate” nature of the church and / or the general authorities, yet the business practices don’t seem to be so cutting edge.

    Cowboy, I agree with you: splitting the church into the ecclesiastical and business sides seems odd. But I do acknowledge that the specific tasks may be different on different sides of the house.

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  20. BethSmash on August 5, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    “It intrigues me that some complain about the “corporate” nature of the church and / or the general authorities, yet the business practices don’t seem to be so cutting edge.”

    Cowboy,
    It doesn’t have to be cutting edge for me not to like it. I have no problem with the Church running itself like a business. It does make some sense. However, I do have a problem with doing things just because it’s how it’s been done in the past – when there are new ways that could do it better. This, for my family’s experience is particularly true regarding computer programs. Btw, can I pay my tithing online yet? ‘Cause that would be awesome.

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  21. BethSmash on August 5, 2011 at 2:49 PM

    Wait, I just googled it, and I can… but HOW LONG did that take to set up? Really. So I guess my problem is MAINLY that they’re slow at stuff.

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  22. jacobhalford on August 10, 2011 at 9:27 AM

    Thank you all for the kind and thoughtful comments, I wish I had been able to respond sooner.

    I apologise for the delay in responding, I was in a technology bubble for the past week whilst serving at Especially for Youth.

    Bethsmash,

    I know, the CO are so sexist. I know women who didn’t get a job based on their gender. Especially in CES. Apparently, its not ok for a women to be a CES coordinator because they would be alone with men, even though the majority of seminary teachers in the UK are women.

    Cowboy,

    “The spiritual side preaches to poor and offers succor to their needs, whereas the business side drives them out of their midst through a multi-billion dollar shopping center. I don’t get how this kind of acceptance for two sides of the corporate infrastructure of a religious organization is tolerated”

    I agree I think this tension is deeply problematic and is simply ignored by many. I think this is a case where people don’t see the problem because its easier to pretend it isn’t a problem. I have yet to reconcile this tension yet though. How do you reconcile it?

    Also, I have noticed that church position impacts upon someone getting a job. I know a stake president, who is completely unqualified for his position but because he is the stake president of the stake where church offices is based… well it might not be the reason why he got the job but it certainly seems a very fortunate turn of events.

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