Uniformity and Adaptation


I have been asked to speak about chapter 17, on “Uniformity and Adaptation.” As the Church has grown into a vast international organization encompassing over 170 nations, its leaders around the world face hundreds of unique situations for which no ready answer can be found in the handbook. Stakes and wards today operate in a wide variety of political and legal systems, geographic conditions, and economic circumstances. What is easily done in the metropolitan areas of Utah may be difficult or impossible to do in some other parts of the United States or the world. Given this, the Brethren want to assure leaders around the world that they have the privilege to follow the Spirit and make certain common-sense adaptations to Church programs.

Chapter 17 was included in the handbook to help leaders better determine when local adaptations are appropriate and when they are not.

To illustrate the magnitude of the challenge, this chart depicts the geographical size of a typical ward in Salt Lake City—0.2 square miles, or a few city streets. Now look at the size of an average ward in the Philippines—37 square miles, or about 185 times the size of a ward in Salt Lake City.

Since international units have on average less than half the membership of wards in the United States, this means there are fewer members in the Philippines to cover a much larger area. But this problem is not limited to the international areas. Look at the size of wards in the North America Northeast Area—371 square miles, or about 1,800 times the size of a neighborhood ward in Salt Lake City. Such travel distances make Church administration challenging and require adjustments.

This next chart shows the percentage of active members who own telephones or automobiles in two developing nations of the Church on different continents. With only about half the members having telephones, and only one-fourth owning automobiles, the challenges of administering these far-flung wards and stakes is considerable. Leaders in these circumstances simply must feel they have the authority to make adaptations as guided by the Spirit.

Yet, while some adaptations are necessary, there are certain sacred, revealed, and fundamental elements of the Church that cannot be changed at local discretion. If you will look at chapter 17, you will note that it is divided into two main sections. The first concerns those things that must remain uniform throughout the Church. The second outlines those conditions that allow adaptations by local leaders. Now, I will not discuss in any detail the list of things where uniformity is required, but let us read through it together: scriptures, commandments and standards, purity of doctrine, sacrament meetings and the Sunday meeting schedule, conferences (meaning general, stake, and ward conferences), temple work as directed by the keys of the President of the Church, disciplinary council procedures, records and reports, ordinances, and a unified Church curriculum. These elements must remain uniform across the Church in keeping with the doctrinal mandate “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Or, as the Lord says in modern revelation, “Be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). The Church ought to have the same spirit, the same feeling, and the same basic structure worldwide.

The second section, 17.2, is entitled “Circumstances That May Permit Local Adaptation.” It notes in the first paragraph that adaptations may take place in the following main areas: in the auxiliary programs, in the format and frequency of administrative meetings, and in the format and frequency of activities. One other category is also discussed later in the chapter, namely, the organization of home and visiting teaching.

The conditions that allow local leaders to make adaptations are grouped into five general categories. The first one, family circumstances, applies to every unit of the Church worldwide. Everywhere leaders should take into account family circumstances as they organize wards and branches, plan meetings and events, and make callings. For example, when the husband and wife both work, which is the case in many countries of the world, or when they work more than one job, the total load of their callings should be reduced accordingly. Members should not be asked to make excessive family sacrifices to serve in callings or to support programs and activities.

The second set of conditions concerns transportation and communication. Millions of our members rely on often expensive public transportation, on bicycles, or on walking to get around. Many do not have telephones or e-mail connections; hence we ought not to assume that the same results can be achieved in every country.

When travel and communications are limited, many adjustments are needed. Administrative meetings, such as high council meetings, may be held less often. The frequency of activities may be reduced. Finally, home and visiting teaching assignments may be adjusted. For example, the bishop may determine which families will receive priority for home teaching and assign accordingly. Home and visiting teaching visits may be alternated from month to month so as to spread a scarce resource, and, if necessary in places where these conditions apply, husbands and wives may be paired to both home teach and visit teach a given family. These possible adaptations to home and visiting teaching, which are only appropriate where there are insufficient priesthood home teachers to accomplish normal visits, are discussed in chapter 7, section 7.4.3.

The third circumstance permitting adaptation is small quorum or class size. It normally requires 300 members to create a ward in the United States and Canada but only 150 in other areas of the world. These wards typically have less youth and children attending. Many wards have very few high priests outside those serving in the bishopric or the stake. When this is the case, the elders and high priests may meet every Sunday together in one class, though they do not form a single quorum. If there are few youth in a ward, the same principle applies: the young men may be combined into one class—not a single quorum but a class. Young women may similarly meet together until their numbers are large enough to divide into the traditional age groupings. The same applies, of course, for Primary. In some cases there can be just one Primary class for all the children, or perhaps a senior Primary class and a junior Primary class, or divisions that are not year by year but perhaps every two years, as the Primary president determines with the bishop. Now, I might add that local leaders are already doing these things in many parts of the world, but the new handbook will now reassure them that in doing so they are in tune with guidance from the leadership of the Church.

The fourth condition is leadership resources. When wards and branches do not have sufficient leadership to fill all positions, they should simplify the organization and programs, fitting them to the size and needs of the unit, just as in the wonderful example President Eyring has given us. The new handbook already reduces the number of callings recommended, but when leaders are in short supply, further simplification may be needed. Elder L. Tom Perry spoke of this principle in the first worldwide leadership training broadcast. We do not try to make the ward fit the organizational chart; we reduce the organizational chart to fit the ward.

Finally, security conditions. There are places in the world where crime or political unrest makes it unsafe to travel at night. In those places it is simply impossible for wards and branches to schedule activities or meetings during the work week, which in some countries lasts six days. Therefore, for these units it would be appropriate to hold Mutual, for example, on Sunday. In that case youth would not participate in activities such as sports or swimming that would violate the Sabbath but do the kinds of quieter recreation and learning activities that a family might do on the Sabbath in their own home.

Now, brothers and sisters, appropriate adaptations do not weaken the Church. They strengthen it. Our local leaders should not feel that in making them they are settling for less than the ideal. They should know that every unit of the Church has access to the doctrines, to the ordinances, to the priesthood power, and to the gifts of the Spirit necessary for the salvation and exaltation of God’s children. The Lord has said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20), of which I testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.