Tuesday, August 20, 2013

LDS church bureaucracy- starve the beast

As an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I believe that this church is led by revelation and that the president of this church is also a prophet of God.  This has significant consequences for not only members of the church, but for the entire world.  As a result of this I have come to know that the church can do miracles in helping people come to Christ.  For a good read on the relationship between the church and spiritual progression check out this conference talk by Elder Hallstrom.  Regarding temporal affairs, I have come to know that an enormous bureaucracy exists within the church that is responsible for inefficient use of tithing funds. 

The LDS church employs armies of people who work in all the different sectors that are necessary, church education, translation, printing, IT, accounting, management, facility management and construction. Having a bureaucracy is certainly not bad, it is necessary.  These good people who work in these capacities enable the church to function.  With all bureaucracies there can be a tendency for waste and inefficiency, unfortunately this is the case with the church bureaucracy as well.   Problems have occurred because of several reasons.  First, there is no competition for services, the church is a monopoly.  Second, there is limited accountability which is a result of a monopoly and a lack of transparency.

For example, let’s take a look at how the church prints and distributes church materials for Europe and parts of the East-Europe areas.  There is a regional printing center that prints and then distributes material to units throughout Europe.  This represents an enormous cost in terms of printing, but especially shipping.  One would think that there might be an element of economies of scale here, if you are going to print Liahonas print them all at the same place just change the language a few times in the computer and ship them out.  Unfortunately this is not the case.  The center has been plagued for years with mismanagement and mistakes.  Often units in the Baltic Mission (and throughout Europe) have had multiple problems with getting the correct orders.  A box of 20 French seminary manuals sent to Estonia, boxes of Lithuanian copies of the Book of Mormon sent to Estonia and so on.  This presents a problem on two fronts.  First, it is a large waste of resources.  We took the box of seminary manuals and threw them away because it was cheaper than shipping them back to Germany.  Second, it presents difficulties to the units who do not get the proper materials. 

Along with the problems of centralized production is centralized planning.  In Estonia we recently received Doctrine and Covenants in Estonian.  This has been a great blessing for the members here.  We were very excited to study the D&C and church history this year in Sunday school.  I was aware that the teacher’s manual had already been translated.  When the yearly shipments arrived there were no manuals.  I inquired what the problem was and the answer was “what manuals?”  According to their records no such manuals existed.  After further inquiry (this time from the translation department) it was confirmed that after the church had paid for the manual to be translated and edited they decided to cancel the printing.  Apparently there had been some restructuring and some projects were put on hold.  If the church in Estonia was a business we would have stopped buying from the German printing press years ago.  If the German printing center was a business they would have gone bankrupt years ago. 

Another example is landscaping at the Twin Falls temple and adjoining stake center, a church land scape architect was brought in and the result was a sprinkler system that wastes a significant amount of water (no regard for a local need to conserve water), and non-local plants that had a harder time getting going in a foreign environment. 

Similar examples could be given in terms of translation, construction, and facility management.  As members in Estonia we constantly wonder why audit and financial texts are being translated at the expense of handbooks, manuals, and other needed spiritual materials (only one clerk does not speak English at a high level).  When there are issues of extreme incompetence and negligence people can be fired, but in practice employees have solid job security.  Competition for jobs is also low as most posts require that members be temple worthy, which narrows the field of qualified candidates (think of the thousands of non-member professionals who could be working for the church). 

Recently I brought up the printing issue with a high ranking church official for temporal affairs and his response was that the church was getting away from printing all together, the Come Follow Me youth curriculum being a prime example.  We can bring out two positives from this example.  First, it is commendable that the church is involved in restructuring, budget slashing, and canceling projects (starving the beast).  This keeps costs in check.  Second, it is good to see that the church is innovative and using technology to cut costs.  However, these positives also highlight a larger problem that remains unsolved.  The church is only willing to look for improvements within their bureaucratic system.  This does not increase accountability, transparency, or competition.  While the balance sheet might be positive the product or service will always be lacking.

What should the church do to?  First, the church needs to stop doing everything itself.  In spiritual affairs the centralized monopoly style works well.  There is one faith and one baptism.  In temporal affairs this does not work as well, as the printing case demonstrated.  The church should apply principles of New Public Management to increase efficiency.  This means establishing partnerships with the private sector and outsourcing services to for profit entities.  The church has done a terrible job at printing and distributing supplies, but there are many private printing businesses that do a fine job.  The church could find a printing press in Latvia, email them some PDF documents and have them print them out and cargo bus them to the units in the Baltic Mission. This would save on delivery and printing costs, and decrease the mistakes and waste.  A private printing company can’t afford to mess up orders time after time. This would increase accountability.  It is possible that the paper type might be slightly different than the paper type used in Utah, but the words would be the same.  This same process would be beneficial in many sectors, not just printing.

Second, the church needs to localize the decision making process regarding temporal affairs.  Local leaders have a better idea of the needs, laws, and customs.  When local leaders have more control over decision making (such as what to translate, what to print, how to construct facilities) accountability is greater and the product is better. 

In the early days of the church a centralized system may have worked very well.  Today with more members outside of the US than in the US it is time to make some changes.  I suggest reorganizing the presiding bishopric into a council of the twelve presiding bishops.  The president of the council of the twelve presiding bishops would be responsible for the US and Canada, and Church investments.  The remaining 11 presiding bishops would then be responsible for each non North America area (currently 15 which could easily be reduced to 11). They would have full jurisdiction, with no Salt Lake city approval needed for temporal affairs in their area.  They would report only to the Area presidency (or in the case of North America the First Presidency).  Standard operating procedures would also be rewritten (area based standard operating procedures) to include local members, as areas can still be rather large, in decision making processes. The church should also open up competition for many positions to people who are not members of the church.  As previously stated, the use of private companies for products and services should be encouraged. 

Bureaucracies are a way of life and should not be seen as something negative or bad.  However, as this post has highlighted it is easy for certain problems to arise in bureaucracies.  Currently there are significant problems in the church that have resulted in waste, poor decisions, and bad products.  This unfortunate situation could be improved if accountability, competition, and a localization of the decision making process were introduced into church bureaucracy. Maybe we don't need to starve the beast, maybe the beast just needs a better diet.


  1. Well done Matthew! Excellent examples here. Great read.

  2. Hi Gina,

    I started a petition against the new policy that prevents the children of LGBT children from getting baptized. If you are interested in signing or promoting the petition it would be appreciated.