Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Organization Religion

Mormons are highly organized people. This cultural characteristic is probably a holdover from the early days, when the members of the church were forced from place to place: from New York they went to Ohio, then to Missouri, then to Illinois, and then finally to Utah. Tight organization was a survival technique. Brigham Young, who led the Mormons to the Salt Lake valley, has been called a modern Moses for leading his people on a great exodus through the desert to what they decided was a promised land. To accomplish the migration, Mormons stuck to a tight organizational model whereby they were placed in various "parties" and then as separate parties drove their wagons and pushed their carts all the way to the Great Salt Lake. Establishment Mormons today trace their lineage to individual parties that crossed the plains (you might think of it as akin to the Boston Brahmins citing the ships they crossed over on). I’m fifth-generation, but I’m not quite “Mormon Establishment” enough to be able to cite an ancestor who belonged to one of the very first parties who crossed the plains to Utah. Mine came a few years later.

Of course, it wasn't called Utah when the first Mormons arrived in 1847. To them it was Zion. Mormons were and are big on finding (or forcing) parallels with Biblical Israelites. Brigham Young is the stand-in for Moses. The Great Salt Lake is the Dead Sea – and a river that flows into the Great Salt Lake was named by Mormons the Jordan River. The Salt Lake Temple is Solomon's temple. The Salt Lake Tabernacle (where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir – or “Mo Tab,” as Mormons affectionately call it – sings) is the tabernacle in the wilderness, where worship occurred before the temple was built. Even polygamy, it should be noted, was something Joseph Smith took from the Old Testament.

Once the Mormons arrived in their Zion, the church hierarchy again organized the population, using terms that still hold today. Larger geographical areas (throughout the world at this point, and not just in Utah) are divided into "stakes." This term was originally used because stakes are what hold a tent firm to the ground, and a tent is what the Israelites used for their tabernacle while traveling in the wilderness. Stakes in turn are divided into "wards," which are essentially local congregations. Wards meet in buildings that are called ward houses or chapels, and some ward houses are larger because they also function as stake houses or stake centers, where a combined conference of all wards in the stake may occasionally occur. When Mormons say they are going to the stake house, they don't mean Sizzler.

Because the boundaries of stakes and wards are set centrally by inspired church leaders, individuals do not choose which ward they wish to attend. Instead, Mormons are automatically members of the ward in which it is divinely determined that they live. In other words, just as you can't choose your family, you can't choose your ward – unless you opt to sell your house and move. And just like a family, a ward becomes close, in no small part because you spend so much time with your ward members.

But Mormons aren't only organized at the level of the community. There's also a lot of pressure to be organized at the level of the peer group and the individual. When I turned 12, I was, like all active boys of that age, ordained to the office of a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood. The Aaronic Priesthood is called the "lesser" or "preparatory" priesthood (holding it is meant to prepare you for the Melchizedek Priesthood, which active adult men 18 or over can hold). Ordination to the Aaron Priesthood is a major rite of passage for Mormon boys, something akin to a bar mitzvah for Jewish boys. The analogy is particularly apt since the first office of the Aaron Priesthood, that of deacon, allows boys to take an active part in the administering of the most important weekly ritual: the passing of the bread and water (Mormons may not drink alcohol of any type) during the sacrament portion of the main meeting on Sundays.

Before church on the first Sunday I was eligible to pass the sacrament, the leaders of the deacons' group (deacons themselves) came over to teach me the carefully orchestrated patterns of passing. The plan wasn't unlike a secret football play dreamed up by the boy president of the deacons' quorum. We each had numbers that told us where to sit during the first part of the meeting, where to stand as the older boys who blessed the sacrament handed us our trays of bread and then water, and what pattern we'd branch out in to make sure that every person present got a chance to eat a little piece of that blessed Wonder bread and drink water from a tiny disposable paper cup. If you were assigned the number one position, you got to go up on the stand and serve the bishop (the lay leader of the ward), who, out of respect, was always offered the bread and water before anyone else. If you were a number three you took the front half of the left side aisles. If you were a number eight you did the very back overflow rows, where latecomers and moms with fussy babies sat. Just like a quarterback, the president of the deacons' quorum might assign you any number, so it was important to know the play well. Mess it up, and the whole holy ritual might look disorganized, and the bishop might have to stand up to ask whether there was anyone who did not have a chance to partake of the sacrament. No one wanted to be the cause of that humiliation.

New deacons were almost always given the number one position, and I am proud to say that this part of my story is not an anecdote about failure. I performed beautifully that first time as the deacon who served the bishop his morsel of bread and his splash of water. And I successfully served all other people (the speakers, the choir, etc.) sitting on the stand, as well. If the bishop did have to get up later that Sunday to ask whether everyone had had a chance to partake of the sacrament (because he suspected not everyone had), it wasn’t my doing.

Careful planning and organization were encouraged at a personal level, too. It was also at the tender age of 12, after being ordained as a deacon, that I was encouraged to start organizing my life with a day planner. Franklin planners (now called Franklin Covey planners) were all the rage at church when I was growing up in the 1980s. Just as you were expected to bring your copy of the scriptures each week to church, you also brought your day planner. This was probably a real necessity for a lot of members, since church meetings, church activities, and church obligations throughout the week were so numerous that they could literally take over a person’s life. It turns out that organizational skills are just as necessary for the survival of modern Mormons as they were for those pioneer ancestors.

Those same obedient youth who were using Franklin planners at church were also using them at school. I, on the other hand, found that the (totally awesome) Trapper-Keeper was working well for me at school, and already at that age I was interested in keeping my academic life separate from my religious life. So I didn't bring my Trapper-Keeper to church. I did bring my scriptures to church (that was non-negotiable), but I resisted the pressure to purchase the Franklin (even just for church use) and attend classes on how to use it. There must have been youth leaders who shook their heads sadly at my disorderly obstinance. I imagine them saying, in a meeting where they discussed the progress of each of the youth, "He thinks he can get by without one, and perhaps he can for now. But what will happen once he's an adult and has a job and a wife and children and a church leadership position?" Then a clich̩, much loved by Mormons, springs to mind: If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. And, ultimately, fail I did Рat least at organizing my life within the hard boundaries of Mormonism. My organizational skills, however, are what many a supervisor has called heaven-sent.