A commonly expressed frustration among members of the bloggernacle is that LDS church members who identify troubling issues within the church feel that there is not an effective pathway for members and church leaders in authority to address particular concerns or change policy at the church wide level. 

Most recently, the efforts of particular Mormon feminists to influence church policy have been in the spotlight because of the efforts of Ordain Women and, previously, Let Women Pray. However, feminists are not the only people seeking changes in the LDS church, nor is there homogeneity in the types of strategies being employed. Also, not all feminists in the church are supporters of Ordain Women even if many do share the desire to learn more about the possibility of women’s ordination. The struggle to find effective ways of advocating for change is experienced by a number of groups on a myriad of issues. This article will employ case studies demonstrating examples of LDS women’s efforts to effect change in the church so that members engaging with other issues can better understand the established procedures for members to communicate with church leaders.
For years, members have been advised that letters sent directly to church general leaders are sent back to stake presidents and bishops to be addressed at the local level.  For members who understand the concept of stewardship and keys of authority, this is a frustrating response because they know that stake leaders are only called to address issues within their stake. When a letter is kicked back to local level leaders who do not have stewardship at a general jurisdiction, the sender of the letter can feel that it does not matter what they do to be heard because their attempt to communicate with the proper authority was unsuccessful.

With this dilemma in mind, I sought to learn about the way in which the church handles communication from the stake level and how that communication can reach higher levels of church leadership who do have the stewardship and authority to address church wide concerns. I met with my Stake President with this question in mind. While he was welcoming, loving and congenial towards my concerns, he too was unclear about how he would go about sending a letter from me to church headquarters. As we counseled together and discussed how he could address a variety of feminist concerns at the local level, he recognized that decisions made for the entire church were outside of his stewardship. He was willing to work with me in figuring out the correct procedure to follow and then wrote to the First Presidency on my behalf. He also forwarded a letter I wrote personally.

My personal experience provides evidence that ward and stake leaders (male and female) can hear local concerns and then process those with their leaders up line when it is appropriate and necessary. Stake leaders have regular communication with seventies and sometimes apostles or general auxiliary boards/presidencies. By working with local leaders via church channels of communication, members can have their concerns heard and addressed. The church organization is designed for this type of communication so there is potential there to utilize this procedure to serve and bless church members who are grappling with many of the issues frequently discussed in the bloggernacle.

It may be that many stake leaders do not understand the established means to direct a member’s communication to general leadership, and they may refrain from processing concerns higher than their jurisdiction. Therefore, this article describes the process so that both members and leaders can better understand the established policies that are in place to facilitate this type of communication.    

Before getting into the little understood institutional procedures outlined in the Church Handbook of Instruction, let me cite an attempt to change policy outside the given process that was not successful, even when it is a worthy cause. Heather Moore-Farley, blogging as TopHat, attempted to alert church leadership about negative attitudes towards breastfeeding in some wards, where local bishops and Relief Society presidents were discouraging mothers from breastfeeding their infants in church.  Heather sent a bundle of letters from women directly to Church headquarters, but the letters were sent back to her stake president who could not do anything for women outside his own stake--so the effort was dropped. [1] Heather’s stake president could have met with her to discuss her concern about this topic and then informed her of the process by which he could send her packet to church headquarters, but he may have been just as unaware of this method of communication as she was. Breastfeeding attitudes are one of the issues that women hope to see the Church address in a more general fashion. Many letters have been written over the years on that topic alone.

From the church’s perspective, the Church Handbook of Instruction Vol. 2 (see section 21.1.24) states the reality that church headquarters is unable to answer or deal with the numerous personal letters and phone calls from individual members that have been sent. [2] The Handbook goes on to state why this is: “With an ever-increasing Church membership, responding personally to these inquiries presents an almost insurmountable task and would make it difficult for General Authorities to fulfill the duties for which they alone are responsible.”

So what is a more appropriate, and hopefully effective, avenue for change besides conducting letter writing campaigns?

Michael Otterson, head of the Church PR Department, recently addressed this question and outlined 3 steps that church members ought to take when seeking to be understood by church leaders:

“First, local leaders should always be given a chance to listen. If approached prayerfully and sincerely, most will.

Second, every member, whether man or woman, should initiate such an interview with a willingness to take counsel as well as deliver a message.

Third, every ward also has a Relief Society presidency. While matters of personal worthiness must remain a matter between the member and the bishop who is a “common judge,” other matters of personal concern to a woman can be voiced privately to faithful Relief Society Presidency members and other local leaders. Without becoming an advocate, such a confidante could not only offer counsel but could be invited to accompany a sister to see a bishop or a stake president in some circumstances.” [3]

To put it simply, Otterson is reiterating the request for members to go through the channels of leadership starting at the local level instead of writing directly to the apostles and First Presidency, since the latter course is clearly counseled against.

Otterson’s statements in conjunction with the Church Handbook of Instruction offer directions to church members about how they can communicate concerns or suggestions regarding Church policy. The CHI also makes it clear that members' communications can make it to church headquarters. CHI 21.1.24 states: "Stake presidents who need clarification about doctrinal or other Church matters may write in behalf of their members to the First Presidency [bold added]."

Though permission is granted to a stake president to write directly to the First Presidency, he will likely determine if it can be addressed at the local level. If he is unable to resolve it there, the Stake President then may try to address it with his local Area Seventy (formerly called Area Authority). If the Seventy is advised of the concern and is unable to address it, he is then able to consult with his leaders, generally a President of the Seventy, from whom the issue can then go to the Quorum of the Twelve, who can then communicate with the First Presidency.

Yes, that is a lot of steps. However, a stake president has the opportunity to counsel with not only his Area Seventy, but ultimately, he has the ability to write directly to the First Presidency as well.  This shortcut is a tremendous blessing and shows that church leaders really stand by their statement in the CHI: “The General Authorities love the members of the Church and do not want them to feel that they are without the support and guidance they need.”

As Otterson pointed out, women also have the additional option to direct their concerns through their female leaders. The Relief Society has its own line of authority between the ward RS President and the Stake RS President, who can directly communicate with the General RS board and General RS President. At established times and venues, Relief Society leaders also communicate with their male counterparts in the church as they counsel together on collaborative efforts. 

Women might be especially privileged to have their own line of potential inquiry through the Relief Society: these are presidents at the local, stake, area and general level who are called to act as advocates for individual women of the church and assist them in being heard and adequately benefited by church policies. Each Stake Relief Society president is supplied with the contact information for the General Relief Society representative that oversees her region of the church. Most communications between local area Relief Society presidents to general leadership occur in large stake and regional trainings where it is difficult to bring up topics of concern for discussion or guidance. Relief Society Presidents can reach out individually and personally to the general level leaders so that concerns brought to them are adequately and appropriately represented.

Thus, rather than members writing directly to general leaders, it is more effective when individuals go to his/own ward and stake leaders (either Stake Relief Society President or Stake President). It may be that a ward member first informs the Bishop or ward Relief Society President that s/he is planning to meet with stake leaders regarding certain issues that can only be addressed by general leaders. This initial meeting with ward leaders can result in having a confidante who can support the ward member in her efforts to work through church channels in order to address concerns. This also provides ward leaders the opportunity to become aware of issues that may be affecting less vocal members of their ward and assists them in figuring out effective leadership strategies to serve and meet the needs of ward members.

In the breastfeeding example, going through Relief Society leaders may have been an effective way to handle the issue because breastfeeding is among women’s physical and mothering concerns, and the Relief Society is tasked with the responsibility to assist women with their homes and families. A sister could ask her RS President to clarify the Church’s policy in relation to breastfeeding at Church. The RS President can then represent the concerns of the sisters within her ward, branch, or stake to the presiding authorities overseeing her efforts within the Relief Society. Chances are the answer would be similar to the tacit support shown by the March 2013 PR Statement printed in the Salt Lake Tribune, which said, “countless thousands of mothers have been accommodated in Church for generations, simply by everyone observing common sense, discretion and respect." [4]

For members who believe they are grappling with a crucial topic that deserves to be addressed by Church headquarters, there are ways to communicate effectively with those appointed within the church structure to address their concerns:

  1. Approach the local leader who is best suited to address the issue (Bishop or Relief Society President, Stake President or Stake RS president) and outline the issue.

  2. Express a willingness to work with the Church leaders appointed to address the issue.

  3. Ask if your local leader can assist you in communicating with higher leaders, or if he/she will seek clarification for you regarding an official Church position on that topic.

  4. If your local leader decides to send your communication up line, ask your leader to write a letter sponsoring or endorsing your effort at communication.

If a member of the church were to follow the CHI instruction, and his/her letter were to reach a member of the First Presidency, chances are he or she will receive a personal response from him. This alone is a crucial success in communication with general leaders. Their reply may be that the General Authorities of the church are already aware of the issue and are already working to address it. However, their response confirms that they have heard and taken the unique perspective of that church member into account. The member may also receive encouragement from the First Presidency member to continue counseling with local leaders in order to effectively address that particular issue within his/her individual stake. This too should not be discounted for its ability to influence future policy decisions.

When my letter was sent to the First Presidency, I did receive a response, which indicated to me that church leaders were already aware of the topic that I had raised and that there were efforts in progress to address my concerns. This is a comforting response because I felt the concern was being addressed and that the member of the First Presidency expressed confidence in my ability to work on the topic from my own perspective. [5] I was also encouraged to continue counseling with my local leaders and as a result I have had several productive conversations with my bishop, stake president and stake Relief Society president. From their reports, I have been able to influence their thinking and decision-making process in our local area which has led me to feel connected to and engaged in the church in a way that I had not felt previously.

The recent PR response to Ordain Women (March 2014) provides evidence that counseling with local leaders has been successful for various women who have been able to speak with church leaders on topics affecting the church worldwide: "Some wonderful conversations have been held over recent years, and are continuing to be held, relative to women in the Church and the invaluable contributions we make. The recent changes you have seen, most notably the lowering of the missionary age for sisters, serve as examples and were facilitated by the input of many extraordinary LDS women around the world." [6] This statement indicates that not only is the Church well aware of issues that concern Mormon feminists, but they are already actively seeking to address them through counseling with female leaders and members within the church.

The argument can be made that some public media strategies, such as those employed by various LDS activist groups, may be circumventing effective communication within established church channels. If anything, the central message of the March 2014 PR statement is that public activism to effect change, either locally or Church-wide, is not an effective means to communicate with church leaders. The PR department seems to be suggesting that anyone engaged in activist efforts within the church should seek other avenues. Some activists cite the section of 21.1.24 that counsels members to avoid direct personal communication with church leaders as a driving reason for public activism, but they may be unaware of the the option made available in the final paragraph stating stake leaders can direct communications from stake members to the First Presidency.

Historically, great change has come about by following the given lines of communication with local leaders. For example, Sister Aurelia Spencer Rogers discussed her concerns about unruly neighborhood children and proposed a plan of action with General Relief Society President Eliza R. Snow in 1878. With the approval of President John Taylor and after receiving a calling from her bishop, Sister Rogers began planning the first meeting of the Primary Association. She was thus able to implement change church wide through a new program. [7]

Even though the church was much smaller in both number of members and in geography then, the current policies and procedures would operate similarly in today’s church. Because Primary was a church wide program, it needed to go through the priesthood line of authority, which is why Eliza R. Snow would have directed Sister Rogers to counsel with her bishop regarding implementation of her idea. If a member of the church today were to see a use for a new program or an adjustment of a current program, she would discuss the idea with the president of that auxiliary and her stake president, who would then be able to communicate the idea to the First Presidency for their consideration.

The March PR letter addressed to Ordain Women also suggests that the age change for sister missionaries came about through a process of church members counseling with leaders. There are likely countless other examples where an idea from a church member was implemented into existing policy but their participation does not make news. Some suggestions and requests may inform future policy changes even without the knowledge of the person who inspired that idea. Internal church dealings are very rarely transparent to the general membership though that is one request that many members have made over the years. Often the historical story is told many years later in memoirs and scholarly research.

To summarize, the Church has a process and line of authority in place that is designed to hear, process and deal with members’ concerns. The church also has policies in place that inform church members how to effectively communicate with church leaders through these lines (see CHI for the full statement).  The Church’s divine mandate is to bless the lives of it’s members and the people of the world. The method of communication outlined in this article supports that effort by allowing individuals to communicate their thoughts, feelings and concerns to church leaders.

Unfortunately, the process can stall at any level of communication; trust or good will can break down. Fear and judgment can easily enter into communication between individuals on differing levels of a power structure and cause them to become pitted against each other. Often this is due to an unfortunate lack of confidence, empathy, patience or time on the part of one or both parties that interferes with their ability to listen or communicate with sensitivity. [8] As a lay church, all leaders and members are human and can be insensitive, uninformed or biased which causes them to be unable to effectively handle differences of opinion. According to leaders I have spoken with directly, the church is working to train local leaders to be sensitive towards members who are struggling or who come to them wishing to see changes in policy.

Without a doubt, more dialogue and consideration must be given to effective ways to handle difficult communication with church leaders. Working through these challenges are of great interest to many church members and forums such as this and other spaces around the bloggernacle are actively discussing the means by which difficulties working with local leaders can be addressed. Future discussions are necessary to adequately address this area. Learning from the experiences of others attempting to employ this strategy will be of particular salience.

There are many topics that deserve consideration at the highest levels of the church. It is disheartening to me to see so many of my brothers and sisters in the gospel struggle in their desires to get their concerns heard.  It is my hope that the ideas presented here will assist LDS church members in their efforts to voice and move their thoughts and concerns through the established lines of church leadership.



[1] It's All About the Hat, “Mormon Lactivist Call to Action” Accessed Electronically June 14, 2014: http://itsallaboutthehat.blogspot.com/2013/02/mormon-lactivist-call-to-action.html . [Back to manuscript].

[2] The Church Handbook of Instruction Vol. 2  “21.1.24 Member’s Communication with Church Headquarters” Accessed Electronically June 14, 2014: https://www.lds.org/handbook/handbook-2-administering-the-church/selected-church-policies#21.1.24 . [Back to manuscript].

[3] Otterson, Michael “Context Missing from Discussions About Women” May 29, 2014 Accessed Electronically June 14, 2014: http://bycommonconsent.com/2014/05/29/an-open-letter-from-otterson-context-missing-from-discussion-about-women/ . [Back to manuscript].

[4] Stack, Peggy Fletcher “Battles Breakout Over Breastfeeding at Mormon Meetings” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City) March 19, 2013 Accessed Electronically June 14, 2014: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle/55921668-80/breast-church-feeding-lds.html.csp . [Back to manuscript].

[5] I am choosing to keep the specifics of my communications private. [Back to manuscript].

[6] Public Affairs Department “Ticket and Meeting Request” Letter directed to April Young Bennett, Debra Jenson, Kate Kelly, Hannah Wheelwright, Date March 17, 2014. Accessed Electronically June 14, 2014: http://www.deseretnews.com/media/pdf/1317612.pdf . [Back to manuscript].

[7] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, “The History of Primary” Accessed Electronically June 14, 2014: https://www.lds.org/callings/primary/getting-started/history-of-primary?lang=eng . [Back to manuscript].

[8] For more information and tips for communicating with leaders who may be uncomfortable addressing concerns, please see "Now is The Time," a blog post shared by the author on Feminist Mormon Housewives: Alderks, Jenne “Now is the Time” Feminist Mormon Housewives Accessed Electronically July 20, 2014: http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2013/03/now-is-the-time/ . [Back to manuscript].

Full Citation for this Article: Alderks, Jenne Erigero (2014) "Effecting Change in the Church," SquareTwo, Vol. 7 No. 1 (Spring 2014), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleAlderksChurchCommunication.html, accessed <give access date>.

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