The Tensions within the Priesthood as understood within Mormonism
The nature of the priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presents something of a paradox: the priesthood is for all men, regardless of their abilities or education, and it requires pastoral, leadership, administrative, and other skills. All men are called to the priesthood and most men will at some point serve in some sort of priesthood leadership capacity. The process by which men are selected for leadership roles does not generally include an assessment of their abilities—the prevailing attitude is that God will qualify whom He calls. While it is certainly true that God can, through spiritual gifts, aid the priesthood in discharging their duties, Latter-day Saints are not supposed to sit idly awaiting divine intervention. Instead, Latter-day Saints are encouraged to develop their talents and abilities to best serve the needs of the Church.
There is a lack of formalised training for the priesthood—particularly the priesthood leadership. There are also various factors which can inhibit priesthood leaders from being able to serve consistently at a high level. Latter-day Saints are particularly proud of having an unpaid “lay” clergy. The Book of Mormon is quite adamantly opposed to priestcraft—defined as ‘men preaching and setting themselves up for a light to the world that they may get gain and praise of the world’ Zion (2 NE. 26:29) and ‘churches which are built up to get gain’ (1 Ne 22:23). Many Latter-day Saints interpret this to mean that any form of money attached to priesthood service is bad. However, various Latter-day Saint priesthood and ecclesiastical figures are given a stipend (in a manner not dissimilar to the way other churches take care of their clergy). Missionaries, General Authorities, Apostles, and the First Presidency all receive some sort of living stipend which allows them to focus their energies completely on their ministry.
The Latter-day Saint approach to priesthood leadership leaves us vulnerable to certain obvious weaknesses. The first, and perhaps most disastrous, is the so-called leadership roulette. Leadership roulette exists everywhere leaders are able to make interpretive decisions; however, our ender-educated priesthood leadership has a wider degree of variance possible in their leadership roulette because they lack formalised training in ministerial, pastoral, theological, and administrative areas. This brings us to our second critique: variable interpretations of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
Again, so long as there is allowance for independent interpretation, there will always be priesthood leaders who differ in the way they handle various situations. The issue arises over an inconsistent standard about what sort of behaviour, belief, and practice are orthodox (orthopractic) for members and priesthood leaders. The Church Handbooks attempt to provide some indication as to how to handle various situations but they are not terribly detailed nor do they explain the principles in ways which would allow local leaders to adapt their processes to individual cases or areas. To solve this, the Church needs to not only make clear to all members, and particularly to priesthood leaders, which beliefs and practices are essential for Latter-day Saints and which are, for lack of a better word, “optional”, the Church also needs to teach leaders the principles which inform Church policy so that they can better enact Church policy at the local level.
A final concern is that priesthood leaders are frequently overworked (as they continue working a full-time secular job and gain a part-to-full-time ecclesiastical one). This means that they are tired, that fatigue allows them to miss signs and opportunities for engagement with their members. It also puts strain on their families, as families frequently sacrifice time at home to enable priesthood leaders to fulfil their functions.
A Tripart Solution
It should be stressed that this is not intended as a proscriptive “political” platform. These are academic suggestions which might help the Church resolve some of the tensions which are present in our attitudes towards the priesthood and also better enable priesthood leaders to serve their communities and families.
The first part does not involve structural changes. Latter-day Saint Sunday services already include a twice-monthly priesthood meeting in which they could learn more detailed and applied pastoral techniques, be more strictly catechised, be exposed to a range of orthodox theologies, and be equipped with the tools to be better priesthood leaders.
The Church has re-emphasised home-based learning, it would be worth offering a voluntary priesthood education programme which could be modelled on the new Come Follow Me programme. This priesthood study programme could include a range of study topics (theological, philosophical, pastoral, theoretical, and applied) with reading material and exercises which would improve the abilities of priesthood holders to exercise their priesthood, minister within their communities, and prepare them for service in the Church.
The final adjustment would involve significant structural changes but may be a way to improve the quality of leadership and simplify life for the priesthood leaders themselves. Certain callings within the Church, like stake president and bishop, require full-time service. Currently, the men in these positions are required to work a full-time secular job, or be financially independent, in addition to their ecclesiastical functions. If these men could be financially supported by the Church, in the form of a living stipend modelled on the stipends received by General Authorities, two things could occur: 1) these leaders could better devote their time and energies to the service of God and their local congregations; 2) it would open up these positions to men who might otherwise make good priesthood leaders but are currently unable to serve because of the time and financial constraints.
The goal of these changes is to increase the ability of the ordained Latter-day Saint to serve the Church and his local community. The solution proposed is practicable but would require significant changes to emphasis on priesthood education and the deployment of Church resources. The questions the Church needs to ask are simple, ‘is it worth the effort?’ and ‘is it the will of God?’.