The LDS Church must infuse a personal dimension into its rigid bureaucracy or else its members will "spin out of orbit" away from the church, a leading researcher on Mormonism said.
"There is a tremendous importance to personal contact," said Jan Shipps, a professor of religious studies and history at Indiana University-Purdue University. "It allows people to know that you care even if you have to discipline them."In an interview with the Deseret News, she said her thoughts about challenges facing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been generated by research into early Mormon history and into the church's growth since World War II.
Shipps said she would share those "personal reflections" at the 1994 Sunstone Symposium Saturday evening.
Problems associated with explosive growth in the 1830s were never effectively resolved by early church leaders, Shipps told the Deseret News, and those same problems are facing church leaders today.
Chief among them is personal communication with church members. In the early years, she said, lack of personal contact and communication created two different churches: one in the outlying branches and another at the center. And what it meant to be Mormon took on different meanings in each setting.
As a result, groups splintered off to form their own churches at the death of church founder Joseph Smith. But in the isolated Great Basin, Shipps said, the church was more successful in communicating with members.
"You had a culture small enough for the periphery and center to communicate on a personal level and maintain a balance," she said.
Today, with church membership nearing 9 million, that personal contact and balance is threatened. Shipps compared the LDS Church to a solar system with the gravitational pull at the center keeping the planets or varying groups of Mormons in orbit. If the pull isn't strong enough, some of the planets will "spin out of orbit and do their own thing." If it is too strong, it will collapse.
Shipps believes particularly ultraconservative and liberal groups in the church are spinning out because the church's efficient, authoritarian system of disseminating information through the ranks and processing responding reports lacks a personal dimension.
That dimension could be added by having an active prophet at the head, speaking to the people, she said.
"I think the problem is the lack of a prophetic voice," Shipps said, citing recent research that found the church's system of most senior apostle ascending to president has resulted in the prophet being either incapacitated or short-term half the time since World War II.
"Until the church solves its gerontocracy problem, the other problem (of a more personal administration) won't be solved."