Tuesday, March 17, 2009

First Viral Mormon Video

In the wake of the Big Love controversy the LDS Church put out a video through their new YouTube channel called "Mormon Messages" which has easily broken all previous records for an official LDS video going viral on YouTube.   It has only been out a few days and it has even made the Top Viewed list for the week.   The guys over at LDS Media Talk provide the backstory but I think it did well because:

1) it was relevant to active discussion online 
2) it was short
3) it used the word "Mormon" strongly which has  Google power 
4) it was integrated across the LDS websites 
5) they specifically asked LDS bloggers and email lists to promote it.  

In general the Mormons are a tech-savvy bunch, it will be interesting to observe the evolution of their participation and convening power online. 

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blacks and the Priesthood; 30 Years Later

The most recent issue of BYU Studies has a number of interesting articles commemorating the 30 year anniversary of the revelation allowing worthy men of all races to be ordained to the priesthood within the LDS Church.

This topic has special meaning for me as it was one of the first major issues that I explored in depth as I began to examine my own faith on the road to my own conversion to the Mormon faith. At that time I relied heavily on the writings of Jessie Embry but these BYU Studies articles provide a very personal look into the mind of Spencer W. Kimball. The main article is a long excerpt from a book published by his son, Edward L. Kimball. A couple things that struck me:

The role of academics and historians in influencing the thinking within the First Presidency. This article in BYU Studies points to a personal letter exchange between an LDS sociologist and a Mission President in 1947 asking about expansion to Cuba as a catalyst that caught the attention of the First Presidency in terms of re-examining the policy. Although the First Presidency put out a statement defending the policy at the time, behind the scenes a special committee was formed of the Twelve to study the issue and policies began to change, such as not requiring all converts in South Africa to trace their lineage. The author summarized, "The possibility for changing the policy increased subtly as scholarly efforts to trace the restriction to its source showed no certain beginnings and shaky reasoning in support of the practice," he then goes on to list the various scholarly articles published and evidences that members of the Twelve were actively reading and following the debate. It was also a letter from a Harvard administrator and reports from the Historical Department that seemed to influence the timing of the announcement.

The differences of opinion within the Twelve on the issue and the role of personalities. Strong opinions are to be expected when putting men of such caliber together in the same room. It only makes the unanimity that accompanies decisions by the Twelve that much more incredible and, in my mind, evidence of the influence of revelation and the spirit in humbling certain strongly opinionated individuals. (a quote by Elder Romney illustrates, "I had gone eighty years defending the Church's position. I am a Romney, you see, and a stubborn man...I would not have gone along without a witness in my own soul.")

Hugh B. Brown seems to have been the most in favor of dropping the ban as an administrative decision, not seeing need for a revelation if the policy did not originate in revelation. President McKay saw it not as revelation but as an inspired policy requiring divine intervention to change. He apparently desired and sought such a revelation but did not receive it. After President McKay's death momentum was apparently building within the Twelve, led by Hugh B. Brown, for a policy change but President Lee was strongly opposed to it and so it remained. Then of course it is interesting to look at the life of Spencer Kimball and all the ways he was prepared by his assignments to be the leader that finally received the answer. I was also struck by the personal correspondence that Kimball had with Elder McKonkie who concluded that there was no scriptural barrier to a change in policy and how strongly this endorsement apparently influenced President Kimball.

The nature and process of revelation. Perhaps the most interesting element of the article is the insights that can be garnered as to the nature and process of revelation. Even though President Kimball straightforwardly believed "should the day come it will be a matter of revelation" and that those who wanted to force the issue "cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority," he also was an almost obsessed student in conducting informal interviews, keeping clippings, and then spending hundreds of hours alone in the temple in prayer and fasting focusing on the issue. Then his description of his answer, "there grew slowly a deep, abiding impression to go forward with the change." The moment of consensus among the Twelve was a bit more dramatic but even then it only came after years of debate and deliberation.

That process and recognition of an answer is within the reach of every member, and very well should be the experience of every member at some level. Hopefully the ramifications of my decisions are not of such a magnitude that it will take 25 years to get an answer or for everyone around me to be ready for the change...maybe that's why I'm not married, the rest of the world is not ready to accept a married David Stoker... ok, maybe there are other factors at play there.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

LDS Philanthropic Culture Part 3: What I would like to see

After looking at our scriptural mandate and the current status/trends in LDS Philanthropy I will now be so bold as to share my humble opinion of where I would like to see the Church and the LDS community position itself in the wider world of philanthropy. It's my personal opinion but that's what this blog is all about :)

1. I hope for the LDS brand, Helping Hands, to become synonymous with disaster relief. 
I think disaster relief is a natural fit for the LDS Church and its members, both in terms of values and playing to the strengths of the organizational efficiency of the Church. I would love to see the church brand of Helping Hands to become as synonymous with disaster relief as the Red Cross but with a more impressive response time and army of volunteers.

2. I hope for LDS Philanthropies to become known in wider circles for Health and Education.

Institutionally the LDS Church has already defined itself according to these two issue areas: focusing on health in their humanitarian work (emphasis areas in clean water, neonatal resuscitation training, wheelchair distribution and vision treatment), and then by focusing on education through the Perpetual Education Fund and the various church-sponsored universities and colleges, which are no doubt the biggest expenses in the LDS Philanthropies budget.

If the Church or its members were to become more involved in the wider circles of health and education I would suggest a number of high-impact organizations with whom the Church could partner with/support financially and/or view them as implementers of the Church's philanthropic goals:

Whirlwind Wheelchair: (Disabilities) appropriate design for conditions in poor countries.
Path and PSI (Health; focus on utilizing market mechanisms)
Room to Read: (Education; strong focus on enabling local publishers in local languages)
VisionSpring (Vision; business-in-a-backpack reading glasses)
OneWorldHealth (Health; first nonprofit pharmaceutical company, making medicine for the diseases of the poor that are currently not financially attractive to the large multinational corporations)
Sprinkles (Health; simple product that can provide great returns in terms of malnutrition, the largest killer of children under 5)

3.  NEW Packaging: LDS philanthropists should brand themselves around family-based interventions.

This is somewhat already happening but it is not being articulated and I think if it were articulated clearly, the community of LDS philanthropists could introduce a new paradigm into philanthropy and one that is perfectly aligned with LDS values.  Potential investments:
  • Microfinance.  This is already a favorite investment for the LDS community; they have been involved with Grameen and FINCA from the beginning; UNITUS, the microfinance accelerator, which has received rave reviews, was started by a group of LDS businessmen. But the articulation piece is recognizing the power of microfinance in terms of household income and the % of the loan that goes directly to the family.  Another organization to keep on our micorfinance radars: Microfinance International Corporation, creatively using remittances and the formal banking system to fuel microfinance. 
  • Renascer.  Vera Corderio's family based model of health care in Brazil, focused on reducing readmission.  She is one of the most high-touted social entrepreneurs, found early and elected an Ashoka Fellow in 1992, AVINA leader in 2000, Schwab social entrepreneur in 2001, Global Development's "Most Innovative" project in 2002, Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship in 2006.  For an overview, listen to Vera on Social Innovations Conversations, or watch a video of her work
  • A sample of recently elected Ashoka Fellows working with family-based strategies: Dariusz Cupail (Poland-supporting fathers as a key part of a family); Sylvia Reyes (Ecuador-traces various societal problems to the home and works with the entire family); Indira Ranamagar (Nepal-reintegration of prisoners into society by focusing on their roles in families);  Marli Marcia da Silvia (Brazil-supporting single mothers and encouraging fathers to be responsible for their children), Katarzyana Oles (Poland- family-centered obstetrics system). 

4.  LDS members and philanthropists should engage more fully in the wider efforts of philanthropy. 

I think the Mormons can bring great strength and insight into the world of philanthropy but for a host of historical and cultural reasons I believe they remain largely outside of influential circles in terms of leadership, employment, and activism in addressing the toughest social problems of our times.  I think LDS members should be encouraged to be active in service organizations outside of the Church and the Church should make concentrated efforts to involve the public-at-large in their humanitarian work.  I also think LDS philanthropists can bring great respect and dignity to the Church by being active in the wider circles of philanthropy, which is correlated to my last point...

5.  LDS businessmen should lead the way in integrating business and philanthropy.

Mormons have made a name for themselves in business, they fill leadership positions at the Harvard Business School, they have a highly ranked business school themselves, and some of the most highly visible Mormons are businessmen.  There is a world-wide trend in philanthropy that is borrowing the efficiencies and operations of business and applying them in the social sector.  LDS business leaders and LDS business schools should be out in front championing this movement.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Map of words in General Conference

Really interesting visual representation posted on LDS Media Talk of the words used in the most recent general conference (included below). I would be even more interested to see a comparison: general conference vocabulary vs. a sample of the vocabulary used in LDS congregations around the globe. I think the differences would be extremely telling.

A couple comments:

  1. I think it is nearly impossible to argue that Mormons are not Christian based on this analysis.
  2. My gut feeling is that I think most LDS congregations in the U.S. tend to not use the words "Lord" and "Jesus" as much as our leaders do in general conference, instead using "Savior" and "Christ" in greater frequency.
  3. I was sad to see "Zion" used so infrequently.
  4. I think it is interesting to see how frequently we use the word "President." I understand it is for good reason-citing previous Presidents of the Church and bearing testimony of our current Prophet Thomas S. Monson- but what does it say about us culturally that we use that term so frequently? I think it falls into the category of vocabulary that is a cultural phenomenon and not driven by or used in proportion to our scriptural foundation. I think an onlooking sociologist would point to the very business-like structure of leadership in the Church.
  5. The word "May" is probably in the top 5 which I find extremely interesting because I think it is a word that has fallen out of use in most common vernacular. I really like the way Mormons use the word which is often as a prayer or call to action "may we all be a little more kind, a little more loving" or "may we always remember." I think it signifies polite and a humble people.
I could go on but a very interesting visual graph. If you want to run one of your own talks or posts through the tool it is available at Wordle.net.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

LDS Philanthropic Culture Part 2: Current Status

This topic obviously deserves further research and investigation but without published research specific to Mormons the ideas will have to rely on my own conversations, observations and a bit of intuition from my own experiences so it is by no means authoritative nor expert.  Also, bear in mind that I am only trying to explain what is currently happening, not passing judgement.  Here is my take on the current culture of philanthropy in the Mormon community:

1. Mormons do mainly charity not strategic philanthropy

This is not good or bad this is just what we do.  Mormons are generally happy with one-off charitable gifts/activities and they do so frequently and freely. Disaster relief is therefore a great fit for the LDS Church which they do very well and they are starting to make a name for themselves in that space, which I think is fantastic. Our ability to mobilize a large army of volunteers swiftly and orderly with smiles on their faces and not afraid to get their hands dirty is largely unmatched in the world.

The Mormon community in general is not involved in what could be called 'strategic' philanthropy meaning professional analysis, ongoing intervention, and evaluation, whether doing so themselves or supporting such efforts. Even activities of the institutional church such as employment centers or the Perpetual Education Fund are not completely 'strategic interventions', limited by their operations being carried out almost exclusively by short-term volunteers with little expertise in analyzing and refining such interventions.  Not to take away from what the PEF is accomplishing but I think the implementation is still catching up to the vision.

2. Mormons trust the LDS Church with their money

When an average latter-day saint or a wealthy LDS businessman is considering a philanthropic donation the brand of the Church is an instant vetting process. The Church is 1) extremely conscious of treating donated money as sacred funds, 2) they have a long track record of proven fiscal responsibility and 3) the fact that they use volunteers means extremely low overhead (which is appealing on the surface but I'll toss in my own opinion--low overhead is a very poor indicator of impact or social return on investment). So, many Mormons will give gifts to the Church before they would consider giving money outside of the Church for other philanthropic activities.  I think this phenomenon is also connected to the general isolation of the church for most of its history; general members simply have not been exposed to alternate options of philanthropy.  

3. Mormons are extremely conservative

Mormons have an interesting relationship with government and gov't welfare programs so that there is a constant battle over words in LDS charitable activities.   I sense that there is such an adverse taste to "socialism" and/or hand-out philanthropy that some do not like the connotation of 'social' even in words like "social entrepreneurship" or "social issues." Mormons have liked to use the word "self-reliance" but even that word has not been accepted by everyone, some do not like the word on grounds that it can appear to mean we somehow do not rely on the Lord as we should.  See Hugh Nibley Work we Must but the Lunch is Free.  So, it goes back and forth. Generally, the church and the members are weary to support 'liberal' activities.  I think that somewhat explains why Mormons have been drawn to activities such as microcredit and educational loans because they mix charity with conservative practicality and values.

4. Mormons prefer anonymous giving

This is more intuition than hard research but I get the sense that Mormons prefer anonymity in their giving. The roots likely come from the scriptural injunction for anonymous giving from the Sermon on the Mount but that would be common among all Christians. I think some give through the Church to preserve their anonymity and at the same time get satisfaction that the Church is, instead of themselves, getting the public relations attention. There is also a sense that Mormons will just go about their work, whether it's recognized by the wider world or not, which is a spirit that has accompanied most of their operations, so why not their philanthropic activities.  I really like this cultural phenomenon.

5. High competition and demand among a relatively small pool of high net worth individuals.

The body of LDS philanthropists is relatively small and so the demand for their wealth is great among all the programs of the church: Temple building, BYU, Humanitarian Department, etc. let alone all the independent Mormon-run charities and the philanthropic world at large. Additionally, although Mormons have a strong showing and reputation in business, most of the wealth is new wealth so they do not have the same size endowments or foundations as some of the East Coast old-money foundations. This goes back to the history of the Mormons being chased out of the United States and the demographics of the early pioneers of the church.

I could keep going but there is enough here to discuss... how did I do? Do you see the same patterns? What goes on in your mind when you are considering donating to the Church above and beyond tithing donations?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

LDS Philanthropic Culture Part 1

A favorite Mormon scripture reads "...see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength..." (Mosiah 4:27). That phrase, as quoted, has been used recently in General Conference referring to church service (Ballard and Oaks), education/occupation/marriage/childbearing (Oaks), temple service (Oaks), family history (Oaks), heeding the prophet (Uchtdorf) and then Neal Maxwell built an entire beautiful discource around that phrase.

It is a great verse and appropriate in multiple settings, I think it is interesting to note that the context of that verse refers specifically to our philanthropic efforts as disciples of Christ and I highlight a couple phrases that I find interesting but do not always receive the same level of attention:
Mosiah 4:26-27 I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants. And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore all things must be done in order.

There is that famous essay by Hugh Nibley entitled Zeal without Knowledge, which phrase will serve as my thesis on this subject or at least will provide a benchmark for what we must be weary of. For the next three posts I would like to explore the philanthropic culture of the LDS community and evaluate our performance based on those measurements: wisdom, order, and diligence. The first post will attempt to provide a survey of the current/historical culture of philanthropy in the Mormon community, the second will look at trends, and the third is my hope for the future.

To set the stage, our mandate from scripture, living prophets, and the temple:

"Remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple" D&C 52:40

This humbling sentiment is expressed throughout scripture: James 1:27, Jacob 2, and Matt 25:34-36 which has been a favorite scripture of both Gordon Hinckley and Thomas Monson.

However, I think we as Mormons have a much larger mandate, we are supposed to create entire communities, whole societies, that function in this manner. We are to be of "one heart and one mind" and have "no poor among" us. We speak of salvation, not in the Protestant tradition of individual salvation, but in the Israelite tradition of being saved as a people. We have a heavenly mandate to live the law of consecration now yet the common sentiment is that it will somehow be switched on at some magical moment in the future. Brigham Young had something to say about that:
Some of our Elders, and, in fact, some of the Twelve will tell you, "Yes, yes, the Order is a splendid principle and will bring happiness, etc., but it not hardly time to enter into it, wait a little while until the people understadn it a little better." Why, the are fools! They don't konw what they talk about. They have ears to hear and will not hearken, and have eyes to see and will not understand... I don't care how the world goes, what the President (of the U.S.) or his emissaries do. It matters nothing to me. What I am thinking of and interested about is how do the Latter-day Saints do?...The devil is in the community and he has not been turned out. Well, I still have hope in Israel.
I might not have the fiery bluntness of Brigham Young or the poignant prose of Hugh Nibley but these next few posts are delivered in a similar spirit, my hope in Israel and it is as more of a sermon to myself than to anyone else.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Don't "go through" the Mormon Temple

In the spirit of my last post I want to re-examine some of the cultural phrases the LDS community has come to use, this time in regards to the House of the Lord.

It is a common phrase in Mormon circles to talk about "going through the temple." But I love how Truman Madsen puts it in his essay "House of Glory" which can now be found in Five Classics of Truman Madsen, that we should talk about the "temple going through us."

I love that paradigm shift. If we are simply going through the temple like it were some sort of amusement ride or rite of passage then we are missing the point entirely. Furthermore, if we are communicating to our youth that the sole goal is to "go through the temple" then again I think we are doing ourselves a great injustice. The temple is a "house of learning", "a house of glory", "a house of faith"; all of those characteristics require time and accumulate in small increases in wisdom due to long exposure to light and truth. The temple should go through us.

Another phrase Truman identifies is "temple work" about which he says, "there is a sense, of course, in which it is work; but too rarely do we speak of "temple worship," which can send us back to our work changed."

Why do we shy away from using the word "worship"? I tend to hear the word 'worship' used mainly in the negative as in 'worshipping' money or cars or other things of this world or in terms of bowing down to idols. However, while that is a apt description for peoples' behavior, using the word strictly for the negative lessens our ability to describe true or pure worship. Alternatively, I do see a point that the word "worship" is sacred, particularly to the individual who is approaching the Lord, and should be used sparily and is perhaps most appropriate in text. But in the end I do think that if we used the phrase more often it would change our outlook on the temple and what we do there.

What do you think? Are there other casual phrases or words that we as members use that we need to re-examine?