Friday, May 29, 2009

She Said: Disseminating the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions

You've made me think on this topic. In some of my previous blogs on the subject, I've agreed with you, but for different reasons. I'm sure I would NOT become more orthodox by reading the Church Handbooks! I DO believe in disclosure and I think members should be aware of the Church policies concerning these many varied issues. And, like everyone else, I'm curious about what they contain. But let me discuss some of the reasons why the Church Handbook of Instructions isn't available to most members, and why liberal members like me should be glad this is so.

Policy Vs. Doctrine

Policy is a course of action or procedure which is pursued by an organization. Policies differ from doctrine because they are not principles of belief. They are intended to support doctrine, but they do not define doctrine. The Church Handbooks contain policy, not doctrine. They are intended to guide the leaders in organizing branches, wards, and stakes, but they are not binding upon the general membership of the Church. It seems to me that if the Handbooks were widely distributed, members might feel constrained to follow the policies in every instance rather than to use them as guidance for establishing procedure. By not making the policies widely available, it seems that the Church is promoting the message that these are not commandments, to be strictly obeyed in every instance.

Autonomy of Local Leaders

In the introduction to the 2006 Church Handbook of Instructions, Church leaders are told that they "should seek personal revelation to help them learn and fulfill the duties of their callings." This introduction speaks of using the Handbook as a guide along with the scriptures, the teachings of latter-day prophets, and the influence of the Spirit, to assist the leader in administering the Church units by revelation.
"These instructions can facilitate revelation if they are used to provide an understanding of principles, policies, and procedures to apply when seeking the guidance of the Spirit." ("Introduction," Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics, [2006], p. xiii).

Withholding of the Church Handbook from the general membership is helpful in allowing leaders to use their autonomy to decide how to implement procedures in their Church units. For example, despite the instruction that "Stake presidencies and bishoprics determine whether musical selections or instruments are suitable for a particular meeting," the Handbook also states that "Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting." ("Music," section 14 of the Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 2: Priesthood and Auxiliary Leaders [1998], 289). Some leaders, especially in areas where percussion instruments are used culturally in worship services, have determined that these instruments do not detract from the spirit of the meetings. I think they feel more free to make these types of exceptions when the suggested restrictions in the handbook are not generally known.

Continuing Revelation

Because the LDS Church is a church of continuing revelation, the policies found in the Church Handbook are not intended to define procedures which will always be followed. For many reasons, these directions may change. The procedures for conducting meetings, or for calling missionaries is certainly not the same as it was in the early 1900's. Some of the policies may be based upon social and cultural conventions which shift over time. There is often a need to modify or clarify instructions which are printed in the Handbook. This is more easily done when the Handbooks are strictly controlled to the possession of Unit leaders. Letters are sent out from time to time to these leaders as instructions on policy, or the Handbooks are updated and superseded.

At one time the Church Handbooks stated as a policy that organs should not be donated, in order to better facilitate resurrection. By 1998, this policy had changed significantly. (The policy on cremation has similarly changed, as noted by Dr. B.)
"The decision to will or donate one's own body organs or tissue for medical purposes, or the decision to authorize the transplant of organs or tissue from a deceased family member, is made by the individual or the deceased member's family." ("Church Policies," section 18 of the Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics [1998], 155).

In the newer 2006 Handbook, a further statement is made in addition to the above:
"The donation of organs and tissues is a selfless act that often results in great benefit to individuals with medical conditions. The decision to will or donate one's own body organs or tissue for medical purposes, or the decision to authorize the transplant of organs or tissue from a deceased family member, is made by the individual or the deceased member's family." ("Medical and Health Policies," section 19 of the Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics [2006], 184).

Over the years the Church policy on organ donation has shifted from discouraging the practice to a subtle promotion of donation as a selfless act. This is why I see the policies in the Church Handbooks as guidance for leaders to assist them in their administrational efforts rather than commandments that should be disseminated and considered binding upon all members.

So, even though I would like to see the Church Handbook of Instructions freely available on the Church's website, and though I think this would make the Church more accountable for its policies, I do think that we liberals should be more accepting of the current stringency. It actually allows us more freedom both as liberal leaders who manage Church units a bit differently than is typical, or as general members with slightly different paradigms than our more conservative brothers and sisters.

1998 Church Handbook of Instructions

2006 Church Handbook of Instructions


  1. Wow-I didn't expect what you said on this, but it is interesting. In a sense, I agree and can totally see what some of my more orthodox friends would do with something like the CHoI. It would probably become daily study.

  2. lol! I think it might become daily study for Dr. B, too. Yikes.

  3. You are correct, I am sure, that some members would take it upon themselves to bully their bishops if the Handbook was a public document.

    On the other hand, it would be even better not to have a policy that cannot possibly work church wide.

    I have become skeptical of personal revelation. People tend to mistake their self-serving desires for revelation. In the process, many Mormons have gotten hurt.

    There are reasons to deviate from policy. Personal revelation, however, is too unreliable. If you want to deviate from policy, you should be able to justify that choice reasonably. That way, we can evaluate the choice on the merits of logic and evidence.

  4. Helmut, Thanks for making that point. And logic and evidence doesn't have to negate revelation. In fact, I'd like to believe that revelation works better when we use our powers of reasoning to the fullest extent first.