The Most Progressive Organization on Earth

By Steven Piersanti, Draft 5.1, December 28, 2012

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter, “the Church” or “LDS”) is often described in the media, by critics, and even by faithful Church members as being hierarchical, authoritarian, rigid, and highly conservative.  This is the standard, virtually unquestioned narrative about the LDS Church.  But this narrative does not offer an accurate or well-informed picture of the LDS Church.

The thesis of this paper is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is actually one of the most progressive organizations on earth, when all dimensions of the Church are considered.  I am not arguing that the LDS Church is perfectly progressive or that it would even like to be perfectly progressive.  In some respects it is conservative.   However, I believe that when all dimensions of the Church are compared to all dimensions of any other organization of substantial scale (with many locations and thousands of organizational members), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is as progressive or more progressive than any other organization on earth.

In this paper I am using “progressive” in reference to the organizational structure, practices, and functioning of the Church.  By “progressive” I mean an organization that is (a) high in egalitarianism, broad leadership participation, contributions of all members, service focus, lifelong learning and education, compassion and caring for others, tolerance toward others, environmental responsibility, and what is called “abundant community” – and (b) low in inequality, hierarchy, privilege, class distinctions, resistance to new ideas and learning, self-centeredness, intolerance, separateness, and disregard of the environment.

I am not using “progressive” in a political sense, although toward the end of this paper I will comment on major misunderstandings about the political orientation of the Church.  And I will spell out at the end of this paper a number of harmful political consequences and other consequences resulting from mistaken ideas about the nature of the Church.

Mormon Congregation Image from More Good FoundationMy focus in this paper is not the group of Church leaders headquartered in one building in Salt Lake City.  Instead, my focus is on the nearly 30,000 congregations of the Church around the world.  These congregations (“wards” and “branches” as they are called) are the essential units of the Church.  They are where 99.99 percent of the members of the Church experience the Church, attend Church services, learn their religion, and practice their religion.  It is just as much of a mistake to view one Salt Lake City building and the leaders in that building as “the Mormon Church” as it would be to view a few buildings in Washington, D.C. and the leaders in those buildings as “the United States.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the tens of thousands of congregations around the world and nearly fifteen million members of those congregations.

I am drawing on four primary sources of knowledge for this paper.  First, during the five decades since I was baptized into the Church, I have attended LDS Church services in over sixty different congregations in twenty U.S. states and four other countries, and I have had deep knowledge of the functioning of many of those congregations.  So I am drawing on my own observations of the Church in action in these congregations.

Second, I have supplemented my personal observations with what many other people from around the world have shared with me about the LDS congregations that they have known.

Third, for the past thirty years I have been an editor of books on leadership, management, organizational behavior, organization development, business, economics, diversity, inequality, poverty, power, service, community, social change, social responsibility, social and economic justice, environmentalism, sustainability, international development, education, training, lifelong learning, and similar topics.  I have helped select, shape, develop, and edit hundreds of such books for publication – many by leading authorities in the world on these topics – and I have also reviewed thousands of manuscripts and book proposals on these topics that I elected not to pursue.  Because of this work, I have gained a wide range of knowledge about many dimensions of the functioning of organizations.  And during this time I have also been a leader myself at various organizational levels, including being the president of two well-respected book-publishing companies and holding various leadership positions in LDS congregations.

Fourth, over the years I have read and studied a great deal of literature (besides the books and manuscripts mentioned above) on the topics of this paper in books, journals, newspapers, and the Internet.

So here, then, are some of the dimensions on which I find the Church to be highly progressive.

Continually Rotating Leadership.  All of the leadership positions in every congregation in the Church are continually rotating.  One week a man may be the bishop over a congregation, and the next week that man’s responsibility may have changed to be the teacher of a class of 11-year-olds, reporting to a woman half his age.  Or, to use an example that just happened in the congregation I attend as I was drafting this paper, a woman received a new calling to work with a small group of teenage girls, after she had previously served for several years as “Relief Society” president – top leader of the hundreds of women in our congregation, member of the congregation’s overall leadership council, and overseer of compassionate service to meet food, shelter, health, and other needs of individuals and families in the congregation.  And a woman who was serving as a part-time lay missionary and president of a Sunday School class – and who is an immigrant from China – became the new Relief Society president, the first time she had served in this role.

This rotating leadership system gives every member of the congregation the opportunity to experience both leadership and followership roles throughout their lives.  And the proportion of members of the congregation who serve in leadership roles at some point in their lives is higher than that in any other organization of which I am aware.  While there are hierarchical leadership roles, the continual rotation of so many different congregation members in and out of those roles is one of the practices that makes the actual structure and culture of LDS congregations very nonhierarchical.

Few other organizations have such a radically rotating leadership system where members are continuously rotating in and out of so many different leadership positions at all levels.

No Compulsion.  Church founder Joseph Smith famously said, “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.”  LDS scriptures give the following guidance, which is the heart of the LDS leadership approach: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile . . . The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (Doctrine and Covenants 121: 41, 42, 46)

Leaders at every level in LDS congregations, both men and women, lead without compulsion.  Instead, they use persuasion, kindness, gentleness, meekness, patience, and love.   All of the thirty-plus bishops, branch presidents, and Relief Society presidents whom I have closely observed over the years have led in this gentle way rather than attempting to use force, coercion, or anger to control others.

Lay Clergy and Leadership.  All of the clergy, leadership, and administrative positions in every LDS congregation are voluntary lay positions filled by men, women, and youth who are members of the congregation.  No clergy, leaders, or administrators in LDS congregations are paid or receive any monetary compensation.  Nor are there other perks or tangible rewards from leadership positions.  Instead, the object and reward of leadership is service (to other congregation members, to the surrounding community, and to the Lord) and the development of the leader (growing in faith, compassion, discipline, and devotion).  

Service Instead of Privilege.  Because of this lack of monetary or other tangible rewards, combined with the lack of compulsion, leadership in the LDS Church is really service to others rather than privilege or power over others.  The greater the leadership responsibility that a man, woman, or youth holds in LDS congregations, the greater is the service expected of the leader rather than the privilege of the leader or power over others.  This turns on its head the traditional notion of leadership positions as offering power and privilege to the leaders.

Service and Sacrifice.  Leaders at every level in LDS congregations are continually sacrificing their time, comfort, and energy to serve the needs of other congregation members in a myriad of ways.  They are like doctors who are always on call, except that LDS congregation leaders provide this service without compensation.  To give a glimpse of this service, here is an account by Eugene England of service he provided during the initial months after he became president of a small congregation in Minnesota:

I traveled hundreds of miles and spent many hours: helping a couple who had hurt each other into absolute silence learn to talk to each other again; seeing a student through drug withdrawal; teaching a somewhat domineering man to work cooperatively with his counselors in the Sunday School presidency; blessing a terribly sick baby, aided by its father, who was weak in faith and frightened; comforting, at a hospital at four in the morning, parents whose son had just been killed by his brother driving drunk – and then helping the brother forgive himself.  (Eugene England, Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel, Bookcraft, 1986, p. 10.)

Many leaders at all levels in the congregation in which I serve, as well as in most other congregations throughout the Church, could provide similar lists of service rendered.  To use my own case as an example, I estimate that over the past 40 years I have personally provided well over 25,000 hours of service to others both inside and outside our Church (children, youth, families, single adults, the elderly, handicapped people, the homeless, alcoholics, drug addicts, and many other groups) in fulfilling my Church leadership and membership responsibilities.  And during these 40 years I have never received any monetary compensation, awards, or perks for this service, nor have I had power or privilege over others.  What is remarkable is that my case is the norm rather than the exception: numerous leaders and members in our congregation as well as in each other LDS congregation around the world have been just as actively providing service without compensation or privilege.  It cannot be stressed enough that in the LDS Church, leadership is service and sacrifice.

Service Rewards for All.  All active members of every congregation throughout the Church are invited every month to provide various types of service to other congregation members, to the congregation as a whole, and often to the surrounding community outside the congregation.  As stated above, congregation leaders have an especially heavy service burden.  And, as explained below, leadership is extraordinarily broadly spread among congregation members, including both women and men and both youth and adults.  The result is that all congregation members experience the rewards of service.  These rewards are nicely described by Eugene England on pages 4 and 5 of his book cited above:

There are constant opportunities for all to serve, especially to learn to serve people we would not normally choose to serve – or possibly even associate with – and thus there are opportunities to learn to love unconditionally (which, after all, is the most important thing to learn in the gospel). . . .Church involvement teaches us compassion and patience as well as courage and discipline.  It makes us responsible for the personal and marital, the physical and spiritual welfare of people we may not already love (may even heartily dislike), and thus we learn to love them.  It stretches and challenges us, even when we are disappointed and exasperated, in ways we would not otherwise choose to be stretched and challenged.  Thus it gives us a chance to be made better than we may have chosen to be – but need and ultimately want to be.

Egalitarian Responsibilities.  Women hold approximately half of all leadership positions in most LDS congregations.  Women deliver approximately half of all sermons.  Women hold approximately half of all teaching positions.  And women lead approximately half of all educational programs, social events, service projects, and other programs in LDS congregations. 

How many other organizations can say the same in terms of such an even division of leadership, speaking, teaching, and service roles between men and women? 

The obvious counterpoint is that men in the Church can hold the priesthood and women cannot hold the priesthood.  However, this does not really change the egalitarian division of roles because of several factors: (a) the other egalitarian dimensions of LDS leadership described above (especially the service rather than privilege nature of all LDS leadership positions for both men and women, with men and women being equal in their ability to provide service and receive the rewards of service); (b) the fact that the leadership, preaching, teaching, and service responsibilities are divided so equally between men and women in LDS congregations; and (c) the fact that women hold many of the highest responsibility leadership roles (including “Relief Society” president,” “Primary” president, “Young Women” president, and the supporting officers to each of these presidents) in LDS congregations as measured by the scope and level of responsibility of these positions in relation to the overall weekly functioning of the congregations.

Indeed, the priesthood roles of men probably contribute to the egalitarianism and gender balance by encouraging men to be more religiously active than would otherwise be the case, given the fact documented by numerous studies that women are more typically religious than are men.  (For example, George Gallup Jr. writes in a December 17, 2002 Gallup, Inc., article: “A mountain of Gallup survey data attests to the idea that women are more religious than men, hold their beliefs more firmly, practice their faith more consistently, and work more vigorously for the congregation . . . . The tendency toward higher religiosity among women has manifested over seven decades of scientific polling, and church membership figures indicate that it probably existed for many decades prior to the advent of survey research in the mid-1930s.” 

Leadership Spread among All Ages. Girls and boys start stepping into leadership positions at the age of twelve, and this continues their whole lives.  In any congregation there are leaders of all ages, and all ages serve in leadership roles.  The young lead the old, and the old lead the young – this is happening every day in every LDS congregation.  The top leader of a congregation may be 20- or 40- or 60- or even 80-years-old, and the same is true of most positions in the congregation.  At the age of 20 I was entrusted to be leader of a congregation in Palermo, Italy, home of the mafia.  This congregation was experiencing enormous problems because of the mafia, and I was helping congregation members two and three times older than me to deal with difficult challenges.  I am not aware of another organization that entrusts so much responsibility simultaneously to both the young and the old and in which there is so much acceptance among all age groups of the young leading the old and the old leading the young.

Universal Leadership.  At any given time, a third or more of the active members of a congregation hold leadership roles, and the rest hold teaching roles, administrative roles, or other service roles.  Almost all members of the congregation will serve in multiple leadership roles during their lives.

Unparalleled Leadership Training.  No other organization provides as much ongoing leadership training to all members of the organization throughout their lives as is the universal practice in LDS congregations.  This training includes frequent formal and informal leadership development presentations, ongoing courses, training films, training manuals, training exercises, individual coaching, and individual mentoring, which all members of the congregation receive many times over the years.

Participative Mode of Teaching.  Mirroring the radically universal nature of leadership, teaching in LDS congregations is also very progressive.  Instructors of classes of both youth and adults are learning facilitators rather than lecturers or dispensers of knowledge.  The foundational assumption is that the knowledge is already in the room among class members, in the books of scripture that class members bring to class, and in each class member’s ability to receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit.  The role of the teacher is to facilitate discussions among class members to bring out the knowledge in the room, to help class members learn to use their books of scripture to enrich their learning, and to help class members receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit.  All class members participate in helping themselves and everyone else learn together.

All Are Teachers and All Are Learners.  This is true in multiple ways.  As noted above, the mode of teaching is that class members are learning from each other, not just from the instructor.  Also, most members of congregations have one or more callings as an instructor at some point during their lives, and many times the role of instructor rotates from week-to-week among the members of a group.  Furthermore, any and all congregation members – from teenagers to the oldest members – are asked from time to time to deliver sermons to the congregation.  The underlying assumption is that every congregation member has something worthwhile to learn from other congregation members as well as something worthwhile to share with other congregation members.

Lifelong Learning and Education.  Great value is placed on learning – individually, in families, and in peer groups, through formal studies and informal searching – from when congregation members are small children until they pass away.  No one ever knows enough.  No one is too young or too old to learn.  And this emphasis on learning is not only for religious learning but also for learning in history, science, literature, and many other fields – both through individual study and through educational institutions at all levels.  This is a reflection of the emphasis on learning and education that permeates LDS culture and is emphasized in LDS scriptures, such as the following: “Study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people” (Doctrine and Covenants 91:15).

Given this emphasis on learning, it is not surprising that Latter-day Saints have a much higher level of college education than the U.S. population as a whole.  And whereas in the general U.S. population the most educated people are the least religious, just the opposite is true among Latter-day Saints: the greater their level of education, the higher the level of religious observance among Latter-day Saints.  Here is a link to the classic, widely quoted study of these topics.

Open Individual Expression.  Few other organizations have a structure that offers more regular, open, and personal sharing of what people find most important in their lives than the monthly LDS “Fast and Testimony Meeting,” in which all congregation members who wish to do so can spontaneously go to the microphone to share their beliefs, experiences, and learning with the whole congregation.   The sharing of people’s deepest beliefs and most precious experiences is done live, in a self-organizing way, without anyone being asked to speak and without anyone previewing or approving who will speak or what they will say.  Month after month, in 30,000 congregations around the world, the result is authentic, inspiring, and powerful.

Democratizing Access to Inspiration and Revelation.  All congregation members are taught to seek their own personal dialogue with God through prayer to receive inspiration and personal revelation from God to help them deal with the challenges that they and their families face.  Inspiration and revelation from God are the domain of every LDS member, not just clergy.  (For a highly informative and authoritative exposition of the LDS belief that “revelation is the province of everyman” and how this “democratic, rather than hierarchical application” of revelation permeates the Book of Mormon and LDS culture, see Chapter 8 on “Dialogic Revelation” in Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, Oxford University Press, 2002.)

No Double Standard.  The same rules of moral conduct apply to all congregation members, men and women alike, no matter what position an individual holds in the congregation.  There is no special treatment or allowance for leaders or for anyone else who violates those rules – either in theory, nor, so far as I have been able to observe, in practice.

Emphasis on Caring for the Poor and Needy.  A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that “nearly three-quarters of Mormons say that working to help the poor and needy is an essential part of what it means to be a good Mormon.  It’s not just an important part, it’s not just a nice thing to do.  Helping the poor is essential to what it means to being a good Mormon. . . . It is precisely those Mormons who are the most committed to the practice of their faith . . . who are most likely to say that providing assistance to the needy is an essential part of what it means to practice their faith.” (“Mormons and Civic Life,” March 15, 2012, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life)

A good description of how this emphasis on the welfare of others translates into action is contained in this article.

Generosity in Giving of Time and Money.  A study released in March 2012 by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice surveyed 2,664 active LDS members in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Michigan, Utah, and California.  The study found that active LDS members give, on average, 427.9 hours of volunteer labor annually, which is more than ten times the national average for volunteering of all Americans.  Nearly 80 percent of this volunteering meets the social, physical, and other needs of other LDS congregation members.  But even the remaining 89.7 hours per year that the average active LDS member devotes to meeting social, physical, and other needs in the community (outside of LDS congregations) is more than double the national average of all Americans for all forms of volunteering combined.  The University of Pennsylvania report concludes that “Latter-day Saints are the most committed volunteers in the USA.”

This generosity also includes the donation of money.  The same study found that the percentage of income that active LDS members give in the form of tithing to support the LDS Church “surpasses the level of charitable giving to all causes combined by all Americans and even by the most-religious Americans.”  In addition, on top of being the highest tithe payers, “on average, a Latter-day Saint . . . donates $1,171 annually to social causes outside the church.”  Furthermore, “an average Latter-day Saint . . . donated $650 annually to social causes through the church” (mostly in the form of “Fast Offerings” that support the poor and needy on a local level and in donations to the Church’s worldwide humanitarian aid efforts).

The study concludes that “active members of the LDS Church volunteer and donate significantly more than the average American and are even more generous in time and money than the upper quintile of religious people in America. . . . Overall we found that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are the most prosocial members of American society.  Regardless of where they live, they are very generous with their time and money.”  (“Called to Serve: The Prosocial Behavior of Active Latter-day Saints,” March 2012, by Ram Cnaan, University of Pennsylvania, Van Evans, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis, Daniel W. Curtis, University of Pennsylvania)

Abundant Community.  LDS congregations all over the world are among the best examples of what is described in the community development literature as “abundant community.” For the fullest exposition of this topic, see the new book by bestselling authors John McKnight and Peter Block, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2010, for which I served as one of the editors.  The properties of such abundant community, as defined by McKnight and Block, include the giving of gifts (recognizing the diverse capacities of every community member and enabling community members to use those capacities to enrich the community); rich association (community members voluntarily joining with other community members to aid each other and the whole); and the compassion of hospitality (the welcoming of strangers). McKnight and Block describe how, in abundant communities, all of these properties are practiced with the capacities of kindness, generosity, cooperation, forgiveness, acknowledgment of mystery, and tolerance for individuals’ limitations (such as those who may be ill, frail, developmentally disabled, or suffering from addictions).  

I don’t know of another organization that exhibits these properties and capacities more fully than what I have observed in the many LDS congregations I have known.  These qualities are the essence of what goes on every week – both Sundays and throughout the week – in LDS congregations all over the world.  (Eugene England's book cited above, Why the Church Is as True as the Gospel, provides a good description of abundant community in the Church; see especially pages 12 - 13.)

Programs for All.  Congregations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints each offer a rich array of spiritual, educational, and social programs to benefit all members of the congregations, including children, youth, women, men, and older adults.  The programs are all led and organized by congregation members on a nonpaid basis, and there is remarkably broad participation of congregation members in most programs.  For example, as I write this, I am still marveling about last Sunday's worship service of our congregation and two congregations that share our meetinghouse, which featured an inspiring program on "Choosing the Right" put on by nearly fifty children (nearly all of whom had speaking parts and singing parts) with the help of about a dozen adult leaders.  I'm sure that this program benefited the children participating as much as the audience listening.

Equality of All People.  The focus on service to others, caring for the poor and needy, generosity in giving time and money, programs for all, and abundant community are all anchored in foundational LDS Church doctrines.  Just as the organizational practices, structure, and functioning of the LDS Church are exceptionally progressive, so too are LDS Church doctrines exceptionally progressive. LDS doctrines – and the many ways they are progressive – are a subject for a future paper rather than this paper.  But two non-LDS early readers of this paper convinced me that I needed to call attention in this paper to LDS doctrines about the equality of all people.  These doctrines flow from the LDS belief that everyone who has ever lived or will ever live on this earth and on all of the other many earths that God has created are literally children of God (who is the parent of their spirits while their earthly parents are the parents of their bodies), that all people are therefore literally brothers and sisters in the same human family, and that no one is ever born into sin (contrary to the doctrine of “original sin,” which the LDS Church does not follow) because of either the fall of Adam (which Christ atoned for according to LDS teachings) or because of sins of their earthly parents.  There are numerous LDS scriptures that emphasize the equality of all people; here is one example from the Book of Mormon: “The Lord . . . inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi: 26:33; emphasis added).

Tolerance for All People.  A non-LDS neighbor recently mentioned to me that a public school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area told him that LDS students have typically been the most helpful and courteous to other students of all the students in that teacher’s classes over the years.  This tolerance for other people, openness to people of differing beliefs and backgrounds, and friendly relations with many diverse groups is consistent with what I have observed among LDS members in many places around the world and it is consistent with numerous anecdotes I have read and heard.  For a topical current example, see this article about the positive and friendly attitudes that LDS members typically have toward Muslims, Buddhists, and people of other religions:

I know of no study that has measured LDS members’ tolerance for other people, and therefore I cannot establish this tolerance definitively.  However, I can say definitively that such tolerance is the only behavior that would be consistent with LDS doctrines (such as the “equality of all people” mentioned above).  And I can say definitively that in five decades of attending LDS Church services in many diverse locations I have never heard preaching or teaching of hate toward any group or demonizing or ridiculing or putting down any group.  Instead, what is preached and taught every week is that everyone who has ever lived on earth, who currently lives on earth, and who will ever live on earth is a child of God; we are all brothers and sisters in the same family.

Environmental Responsibility.  LDS scriptures and doctrines support responsible stewardship of environmental resources, as have the teachings of many LDS leaders from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to the present.  (For the fullest treatment of this topic, see Stewardship and the Creation: LDS Perspectives on the Environment, Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2006.  The entire text can be accessed at this site.)

Many practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints advance environmental responsibility.  Most importantly, most LDS meetinghouses are shared by multiple congregations -- from two congregations to as many as four or more congregations.  For example, the meetinghouse I attend is shared by three congregations (two English-speaking congregations, each covering a different geographic area, and one Laotian-speaking congregation); the three congregations use the chapel and the adjoining rooms at different times during Sundays and at different times during the rest of the week.  This sharing of meetinghouses is done throughout the Church, except where the number of members in a geographic region is so small that congregations are spread far apart and excessive travel would be needed for more than one congregation to use a meetinghouse.

The sharing of meetinghouses means that LDS congregations use far less natural resources than would be the case if each congregation had its own meetinghouse (as is common for many other religious organizations).  For example, two congregations sharing a meetinghouse use only half the land, building materials, and energy of two congregations with separate meetinghouses.

This environmental benefit is further amplified by multiuse buildings throughout the Church that serve the needs of from five to 200 or more congregations.  These multiuse buildings provide services and functions not provided by meetinghouses, thus allowing meetinghouses to be smaller and less resource-consuming than would be the case if each meetinghouse was self-contained.  For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the "Oakland Interstake Center" supports over 150 congregations by providing a large auditorium and other facilities for religious, cultural, and other events that would be too large to fit into any single meetinghouse.  And LDS temples around the world are the ultimate example of such multiuse buildings, as each temple hosts special religious ceremonies that are not available in meetinghouses but that serve, on average, over 200 congregations.

In recent decades the Church has taken numerous further steps that support environmental responsibility.

In 1980, the Church moved worldwide to a "consolidated meeting schedule" that grouped the principal congregation meetings together in one three-hour block on Sundays instead of the previous longstanding schedule whereby members traveled to their meetinghouse on Sunday morning for "Sunday School" and meetings of male and female members, then home for lunch, then back to the meetinghouse for an afternoon worship service.  This consolidation cut energy use and travel costs for members by half.  Among the stated objectives of this schedule change were to "reduce the amount of travel by Church members" and to "conserve energy resources and reduce the nonessential costs required for members to participate in Church activities."  ("Church Consolidates Meeting Schedules," Ensign, March 1980.)

In 1981, the Church introduced a new, standardized, energy-efficient design for meetinghouses.  "The new meetinghouses are more economical to build, more energy efficient, and generally smaller than most buildings now being used for Sunday worship services and other Church activities. . . . The new building is designed with construction and energy costs in mind; it is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the initial building expenses will be saved with the construction of each new meetinghouse, and the building will be fifteen to twenty percent more energy efficient than past designs."  ("A New Generation of Meetinghouses," Ensign, November 1981.)  It is worth noting that this LDS Church initiative was launched well before the green building movement became prominent in the 1990s in the U.S., with a principal milestone being the founding of the U.S. Green Building Council in 1993.  (See this history.)

The building where I currently attend Church services is one of these smaller, more energy efficient meetinghouses.  Like many other members of our congregation, I have gotten to know each nook and cranny of this building intimately because the members of LDS congregations take turns in groups in cleaning their meetinghouse each week, and I have done so personally dozens of times.  While I am cleaning I often marvel at the extraordinary efficiency of the use of space in every single room and hallway of the building.

LDS meetinghouses have pioneered many other environmentally beneficial practices as well.  Starting in the 1950s, LDS building designs around the world started using overhangs and verandas to reduce heat load.  Also starting in the 1950s, some LDS meetinghouses on islands of the Pacific set up cisterns to capture rain water, store it, then use it for irrigation on landscaping.  Beginning in 1990, motion sensors were installed in restrooms in LDS meetinghouses throughout the world to automatically turn lights and fans off when rooms were no longer occupied.  Over the past twenty years water usage in landscaping around meetinghouses has been greatly reduced; first, by using water sensors to detect moisture levels along with water system controls that adjust water flow according to weather conditions and landscaping needs; and second, by installing drought tolerant plantings in landscapes.  Numerous other conservation and energy efficiency practices are described on the website in "Church Has Enduring Track Record on Conservation Practices" (April 27, 2010) and this "Timeline of Conservation Practices."

And the LDS Church is continuing its environmentally friendly innovations.  In 2010 the Church introduced a pilot program of building new meetinghouses with the latest environmentally progressive construction methods, including roof-mounted solar panels to provide all of the building's energy, high efficiency heating and cooling systems to interface with the solar power equipment, landscaping and plumbing fixtures that cut water use by more than 50 percent, and Low-E Solarban 70 windows that block 78 percent of the sun's heat energy.  "'It's about creating a place of worship that works in harmony with the environment,' said H. David Burton, Presiding Bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and responsible for the physical facilities of the Church.  'For decades we have looked for innovative ways to use natural resources in our meetinghouses that reflect our commitment as wise stewards of God's creations.'"  ("Solar-Powered Construction Design Gets 'Green' Light from Church Leaders,", April 27, 2010.)

The Most Progressive Organization on Earth

What is most striking and noteworthy is that the characteristics I have described above are present not just in many or most LDS congregations.  Instead they are the norm in virtually all of the nearly 30,000 LDS congregations around the world because they are built into the very nature and structure of the LDS Church rather than being a special program pushed by particular leaders or congregations.  This sets a very high bar for any other organization that might be put forward as equally or more progressive than the LDS Church; the progressive characteristics must be generalized in virtually all of the units of the organization rather than just in some of the units.

As I stated at the beginning of this paper, this is not to say that the LDS Church is progressive in every respect.  Some of the early readers of this paper have objected to my thesis by pointing out one dimension or another on which the LDS Church is not progressive.  But there are no perfectly progressive organizations on earth.  In order to contest the thesis of this paper, it is necessary to compare the LDS Church to other real organizations, not to a hypothetical perfectly progressive organization that does not exist.


While the focus of this paper is not on politics, a mistaken view of the political stance of the Church is so pervasive that it gets in the way of people being able to consider the points in this paper and overshadows other considerations.

The strongest objection that I have received to early drafts of this paper is that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a highly political institution with a sharply conservative political agenda.  Some people even group the LDS Church with the Religious Right.

This view of the Church is entirely mistaken.  In fact, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the most nonpolitical churches in the U.S. and perhaps the world.

To begin with, for decades the Church has widely disseminated to Church members, media, and politicians the Church’s statement of “Political Neutrality,” which states:

The Church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in matters of party politics.  This applies in all of the many nations in which it is established.

The Church does not:

Endorse, promote, or oppose political parties, candidates, or platforms.

Allow its church buildings, membership lists, or other resources to be used for partisan political purposes.

Attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to.  This policy applies whether or not a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Here is a link to view the full “Political Neutrality” policy, which is read each election year in all LDS congregations:

Please note that this policy of political neutrality “applies whether or not a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”  Perhaps because of the attention generated by Mitt Romney’s campaign for president, the LDS Church has gone to extra lengths this year to reiterate the political neutrality of the Church, even posting on the Church website a video animation that graphically explains and emphasizes the Church’s position:

This policy is followed with great exactness.  In my five decades of Church membership, I do not recall ever hearing any Church leader in any LDS Church meeting endorse any political party or candidate or tell congregation members which candidate or party they should vote for.  I have never seen a political candidate or political party endorsed in any LDS Church publication.  I have never seen an LDS Church building used for a political fundraising event or for a rally for a political candidate.  On a small number of occasions I have heard a classroom instructor (not one of the congregation leaders) violate this policy by expressing her or his personal political views in the class, but each time someone pointed out to the instructor in the class or after the class that such comments were out-of-line, and the instructor apologized; such behavior is jarring because it is so rare.

To further drive home the message of political neutrality, Church leaders have welcomed visits from both Democratic and Republican U.S. presidents, and Church leaders show respect to both Democratic and Republican political leaders.  For example, here is a link to a Church press release about LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid presenting President Barack Obama with his family history:

Where the LDS Church has earned a reputation for being politically active is on the rare occasions when the Church has taken a position on a political issue it considers to have great moral consequence.  The Church states that it reserves “the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church.”

However, the Church rarely takes such a position.  I am aware of only four such positions that the Church has taken on national political issues over the past thirty years.  Moreover, these four positions have been balanced between the progressive and conservative sides of the political spectrum.  On the progressive side, the Church came out in 1982 against the MX ballistic missile system, and over the past three years Church representatives and publications have made several statements supporting a more compassionate and progressive approach to immigration legislation.  On the conservative side, the Church has opposed legalizing same-sex marriage, as is well known because of the California Proposition 8 battle.  The fourth such national stance over the past thirty years is that several times the Church has issued statements opposing the legalization of gambling and lotteries, but this stance cuts across progressive and conservative positions, so it is not easy to characterize it as either progressive or conservative.  (The Church has also taken positions on some local Salt Lake City and Utah political issues during this period.)

Furthermore, contrary to what is popularly believed, in those few occasions when the LDS Church has expressed a Church position on a political issue, there has been no requirement that Church members take the same position and no enforcement mechanism to compel Church members to support the position.  Members have been encouraged but not forced to support the Church position.

Consequences of Mistaken Views of the Church

There are a number of harmful consequences of mistaken views of the LDS Church as a monolithically “conservative institution.”

1.  Some sectors of society have a more negative view of the Church than would be the case if they had a more accurate understanding of its progressive nature.  For example, many people who are highly critical of the “religious right” political movement in the United States mistakenly lump The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in with this conservative movement, even though the LDS Church is more progressive than conservative in its structure, practices, and functioning and even though, as described above, the LDS Church goes to extraordinary lengths to maintain strict political neutrality throughout the Church toward all political candidates and parties.

2.  The conservative image of the Church has led to a rush to judgment about the Church in the media, among political and intellectual groups, and among other influential groups in society. In a vicious circle, these media and groups reinforce this conservative image every day without digging deeper to get a more accurate understanding of the LDS Church.  The result is an unquestioned, endlessly repeated, constantly reinforced conservative narrative that is based on superficial, incomplete, and false information and that gravely distorts the LDS Church.

3.  In turn, this endlessly repeated conservative image of the Church influences many members of the Church to self-identify themselves as politically conservative because they view themselves as belonging to a conservative rather than a progressive organization.  Our politics often reflect our vision of ourselves.  (For an extensively-researched and thoroughly-referenced examination of how people identify themselves and how this identity influences their political views, see Amy Gutmann, Identity in Democracy, Princeton University Press, 2004.)  If members of the Church had a more accurate perception of the progressive nature of the Church, fewer members would identify themselves as politically conservative and more members would identify themselves as politically progressive.

4.  Another consequence is that the potential LDS contributions to progressive ideas and behavior are greatly underappreciated and underutilized.  Instead of seeking and learning from LDS approaches to progressive ideas and action, the common view among many media as well as progressive groups is that (a) the LDS Church as an institution, (b) LDS ideas and practices, and (c) individual LDS thinkers and leaders don’t even belong in the room or at the table with other progressive approaches and groups.  And individual LDS thinkers and leaders who already identify themselves as progressive often feel excluded from progressive circles unless they either stay silent about their LDS Church membership or criticize one or another particular stance of the Church.

What I find to be especially pernicious is the concept that to a large extent underlies these exclusions: one-issue tyranny.  There is a tendency to define who is progressive and who is not very narrowly: how institutions or individuals stand in relation to one or two current issues.  Progressives often rail against one-issue tyranny by others (such as portions of the electorate who base their entire vote on opposing gun control), yet they fall into this trap themselves when they insist on complete purity on one or two issues while giving much less weight to dozens of other progressive dimensions.

The Bottom Line

One purpose of this paper is to encourage progressives both inside and outside the LDS Church to focus on the many progressive dimensions of the Church instead of just on a few issues on which the Church is perceived to not be progressive.  I believe that the LDS Church as an organizational model, distinctive LDS ideas and practices, and individual LDS members all have a great deal to contribute to advancing progressive ideas, practices, approaches, and institutions.  I hope that this paper encourages progressives both inside and outside of the LDS Church to include LDS members, ideas, and practices in the rooms and at the tables where progressives gather.

Another purpose of this paper is to encourage a political balance that better reflects the progressive nature of the LDS Church than the current balance of political affiliations of LDS members in the United States, which is skewed to the conservative side.  In my view, progressives both inside and outside the Church have substantially contributed toward pushing LDS Church members to the conservative side of the political spectrum by perpetuating and broadcasting the myth that the LDS Church is a conservative institution.  If progressives both inside and outside the Church would instead recognize and tout the progressive dimensions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the politics of a greater number of LDS members in the U.S. would move from conservative to progressive, thus yielding a political balance more consistent with the nature of the Church.

I hope that those who read this paper will reconsider their preconceptions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, take a deeper look at the actual nature of the Church, and act with courage and conviction in response to new understanding and insights that they gain.

I hope that Church members who view themselves as progressive will be more open and vocal in expressing those views in many types of public forums without feeling a need to simultaneously criticize some aspect of the Church. 

I hope that progressives who are not members of the Church will be more open to and welcoming of LDS ideas, practices, and members in advancing progressive movements. 

I hope that Church members who view themselves as conservative will take a close look at the many progressive dimensions of their Church and consider whether their personal beliefs are actually more progressive than conservative. 

I hope that many more Latter-day Saints will run for office on a progressive platform, joining Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in saying “I’m a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it” (  ), while realizing that one reason why Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney comes across to conservatives, progressives, the media, and the public at large as “inauthentic” is because he has turned away from progressive aspects of his religion in pursuit of conservative votes.

And I hope that through all of these actions the progressive dimensions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be more widely appreciated and embraced as a wonderful potential model and force for good in the world.

Sharing This Paper with Others

I encourage people to share this paper with others through every means that they would like to do so, without needing to receive permission from me, as long as they do not edit or change the content of the paper, in line with the Creative Commons license stated below.  I would ask to learn of where this paper is being distributed.  And I welcome questions about the content, disagreements about particular points, and suggestions for improving the paper.  My intent is to update and improve the paper from time to time as I receive useful feedback.  Please contact me at the following email address:

I appreciate the many people who are sharing this paper with others as well as voicing support for its messages.  It has already received over 10,000 views.

I am pleased that especially strong support for the paper is coming from the group that is most knowledgeable about the subject matter of the paper: LDS professionals in the organizational behavior and organization development fields.  They are the most knowledgeable because they have devoted their lives to studying organizational behavior, change, and innovation while at the same time being personally and intimately knowledgeable about the functioning of the LDS Church.

For example, here are comments from Kimball Fisher, who is an internationally acknowledged authority on leadership, teams, and organizational behavior and is co-founder of The Fisher Group:

Thanks so much for sending me Steve's paper. I found it entirely consistent with my experience as an LDS progressive and have taken the liberty of copying him on my reply to you (as an expression of gratitude for his work and also to offer some [unsolicited] feedback). I really loved his points about the Church being much more than a building of leaders in Salt Lake, and his excellent detailing of our progressive organizational practices. It is a brilliant, well written, and enlightening piece of work. I hope it gets published everywhere! The New York Times has been doing a lot of these pieces lately because of the Romney campaign, and I think that compared to those articles Steve's paper presents a fresh and important take on our culture and widely mischaracterized beliefs. – Kimball Fisher

And here are comments from Dave Ulrich, who is a professor of business at the University of Michigan, co-founder of the RBL Group, and one of the top ranked experts in the world on human resource management, organizational performance, and organization change:

This essay raises great points.  Often any discussion of “Mormonism” turns to a discussion of arcane doctrine.  This essay does a wonderful job discussing the organization and governance processes of the LDS Church and how these unique processes embody the characteristics of innovative organizations.  Leaders brought up in these organizational practices are acculturated to innovative thinking and acting.  In my work, I have identified 10 emerging or evolutionary characteristics of high-performing organizations.  The LDS Church exemplifies the current/future thinking on almost every dimension.  It is a progressive organization, with progressive leaders.  – Dave Ulrich

I'm also pleased that many people are sharing their own observations and experiences that augment and enhance the points in this paper.  Some of these observations have already made it into versions of this paper, while others will make it into future drafts.  For example, here are comments by John Sorenson, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University who is one of the top scholars in the world on the culture of the LDS Church, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and other areas of LDS studies:

I enjoyed this paper very much and agree virtually 100% with what you have said.  I'll be happy to send it on to a variety of people.  Many years ago I lectured on the "social inventions" in the Church.  Some of my points were similar to yours.  The only other notion I feel like mentioning to you is this: The Church is virtually an ego-free organization.  Except for some exceptions, one is not allowed to invest one's ego in Church positions (roles) or activities.  The ethos of the Church generally not only does not allow that, it definitely discourages it.  -- John Sorenson

Finally, I am pleased that many people who are not members of the LDS Church are sharing their own experiences that support the conclusions of this paper.  For example, Martha Lawrence, who is executive editor at a major training company, wrote: "While I am certainly aware of the prevailing narrative that the Mormon Church is conservative and hierarchical, my real-world encounters with Mormon friends tells me otherwise."  And a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church reported the following:

I am a member of my Unitarian Universalist Church choir and we now hold our practice sessions at the local LDS Church -- an extremely nice facility, which the LDS folks have offered to let us use for free as a service to the community.  When we learned that -- we were jumping up and down, as we were struggling to figure out how to pay for a practice space, since our choir had outgrown the office space where we had been practicing.  I've been impressed that at every practice session -- it's on Wednesday nights -- there is something going on at the church besides us.  And people seem to be having a good time and are always very welcoming of us.

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This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to Steven Piersanti.

About the Author

Steven Piersanti has been both a staunch progressive (mainly supporting Democratic Party and Green Party political candidates and causes) and a continuously faithful and active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ever since he returned in 1974 from his LDS Church mission to Italy.  He believes that the progressive dimensions of the Church that are described in this paper are divinely inspired.

He graduated with Highest Honors from Brigham Young University in 1977, with a bachelor’s degree in University Studies.  While at BYU, he founded, published, and edited a university student scholarly journal.

Steve began his career at Jossey-Bass, Inc., Publishers in San Francisco in 1977 as a promotional copywriter and then served as marketing director, editor, editorial director, and executive vice president before becoming president and CEO in 1989.  He founded the Jossey-Bass Management Series, which became the company’s largest and most profitable publishing program, and he helped develop the Health Series, Nonprofit Management Series, and Public Administration Series.

In 1992 Steve founded Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., in San Francisco, which has become a leading independent publisher of progressive books on current affairs, personal growth, and business and management.  Berrett-Koehler pursues its mission of “Creating a World That Works for All” by publishing groundbreaking books that promote positive change at all levels – individual, organizational, and societal.  Steve continues to serve as president of Berrett-Koehler as well as one of its book editors.

In 2003 Steve received the “Champion of Workplace Learning and Performance Award” from the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD).  The five previous annual recipients were Jack Welch of General Electric, Thomas Stewart of Fortune Magazine, Robert Galvin of Motorola, John Chambers of Cisco, and Fred Smith of FedEx.

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