Natalie Brown: How can the LDS Church help families? Think lower tithing, free missions, child care at the chapel...

Amid an affordability crisis, practical support can bring spiritual rewards for the faithful and the faith.

It is no longer news that middle-class Americans are struggling to afford families in light of the staggering costs of housing, child care, higher education, groceries and other critical expenses — and U.S. Latter-day Saints are hardly exempt from this dilemma.

The increasing cost of forming a family might be the greatest long-term challenge facing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose theology, volunteer structure and future growth rely on members’ ability to afford families and the time and resources for church service.

It is past time for serious talk of how the church might evolve in light of this quandary. In particular, how might it provide more practical support to its members, especially those raising children?

Below are suggestions I have heard that are worth discussion. Some might require paying workers to maintain buildings, repurposing spaces in meetinghouses, contracting with providers, or navigating business, legal, insurance and regulatory requirements. The question is not whether this global church of 17 million members with financial riches in the tens of billions could but whether it should. Faiths with far fewer resources routinely overcome these obstacles. The more relevant questions are whether (1) these proposals are consistent with its mission and revelation received by those in authority and (2) could be done competently.

Not every suggestion will make sense for every community. While my focus here is on how the church might better serve parents and children, we should also have conversations about how it might better serve other demographics. Local input is vital when considering what a community needs and how to best use meetinghouses and resources:

• Open up meetinghouses to child care: Some buildings already are being used for community programming. Could underused ones be used for more children’s activities? The church could pilot renting spaces at a steep discount to qualified organizations for full-time child care. Buildings also could be used for simpler things such as parent-run preschools, summer camps and after-school activities.

(Michael Stack | Special to The Tribune) Primary in the English-speaking Latter-day Saint Cairo Branch in Cairo, April 2022.

• Have ward nights rather than youth nights: Being a parent is isolating. While the church has solid youth programs, it provides little social support for parents. As I have suggested before, it makes sense to convert youth nights into ward nights with informal opportunities for congregants to gather.

• Design future meetinghouses as community centers: These buildings often sit empty for most of the week. The church could design future facilities for multipurpose daily uses, including coworking, child care, lounges and community classrooms.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Volunteers checks in dozens and dozens of immigrants at a Las Vegas Welcome Center in Las Vegas on April 27, 2021.

• Have a second-hour parenting course: On Sundays, I would most like to discuss the parenting challenges I share with other Latter-day Saints, including how to respond to difficult questions we and our children have about the church. We gather in the halls to discuss these topics anyway. Why not make it a class to which all are invited?

• Adjust ward boundaries more frequently and flexibly: Gentrification can decimate a ward surprisingly quickly. It is hard to reverse a congregation’s decline after it loses the critical mass necessary to attract newcomers. Encouraging local units to more easily and frequently adjust their boundaries to maintain critical numbers of families could help retain current members and attract new ones. When doing so, leaders should be mindful of school boundaries, transportation routes and other factors. It would be wise to speak with the impacted members before finalizing changes, because they know their communities best.

In addition, there might be benefits in making it easier for some members to attend wards outside of their geographic areas. For example, could we normalize allowing seniors to attend the ward of their choice if they want to downsize? Moving should not have to mean losing lifelong friends. Could we invite divorced parents to attend the same ward, even if one lives outside the boundaries, so that their children do not need to shuttle between wards? Anything the church could do to remove barriers to its members moving would help create a more efficient housing market.

• Think harder about the theological roles of extended family, friendship and community: Our focus in church is usually on the nuclear family, the (private) home, and the specific, gendered responsibilities of each parent. As a consequence, those who are not parents often feel excluded. Those who are frequently feel unsupported by the wider community because they are supposed to handle everything on their own. Younger members rightly perceive that they may not be able to replicate the model of breadwinner father and stay-at-home mother even if they desire to do so. What if we thought harder about the possibilities offered by deeper extended family, friendship and community ties?

• Make young adult missions free: Young adults who serve missions are already giving up future earnings to live a difficult lifestyle and must pass through a series of gatekeepers. It’s unclear to me that they need more skin in the game. Could we eliminate this expense for families?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Missionaries at the Missionary Training Center in Provo on Thursday, June 22, 2023.

• Prioritize family while serving senior missions: Senior missionaries typically have more flexibility to temporarily leave their missions. Many internalize the idea, however, that they should not leave unless in an emergency. Could we create a culture in which senior missionaries are encouraged to prioritize and spend time with their families while serving?

• Reduce male-only callings: Men could become more involved in the children’s Primary and other activities if we reduced the number of callings that require male-only priesthood and invited bishopric members to sit with their families when not conducting services. These changes also would aid women, who are often with their children throughout the week and on Sunday.

• Give members permission to pay less in tithing: To be clear, I believe in the principle and blessings of tithing. But the historical context in which we pay it has changed. The church is no longer a financially struggling institution, and it plays far less of an economic and political role in its members’ lives than in previous eras. Today, it is a rich organization while many of its members struggle. There are solid arguments that tithing never was intended to be narrowly defined as either 10% of gross or net income, the cultural standards to which many members cling even though the church is careful not to inquire into the details of how its members calculate their donations.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The simplest way to help Latter-day Saints afford families is to leave more money in their pockets. Some members might benefit from permission to meet their family’s needs before paying tithing, while others could afford to pay more in different seasons of their lives. I appreciated a friend’s suggestion that members be asked for a more flexibly defined “generous” tithe.

The church cannot solve the affordability crisis. Yet what members need from their faith is always tied to what is happening in the wider society. It is worth pondering if the church could help its members, increase its relevance and generate more future members by making parenting a bit easier.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the church or her employer.

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