What do hiring decisions indicate about the organizations that enact them? For many organizations, hiring decisions don’t carry any particular weight beyond measures of employee competence. For religious organizations, however, alignment with a religious mission is critical.
Latter-day Saints do not believe any of their leaders are infallible, and the same goes for church employees. However, there is a meaningful distinction in perceptions between called leaders who help direct the Church, and hired employees who execute the instructions of those leaders.
Recently the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the hiring of Aaron Sherinian to the position of Managing Director of Church Communications. This is a hired, not called, position. And since the announcement, Sherinian has faced a barrage of commentary about the decision to hire him. This is not surprising, because his is a very important and impactful role at church headquarters.
By all accounts, Sherinian is a world-class professional in the area of communications and public affairs, the area of employment he has been asked to conduct for The Church of Jesus Christ. Some have commented with concerns over Sherinian’s previous work for Philip Morris International and others over several of his past social media posts celebrating same-sex marriage and transgender activism. Other church members celebrated these facts, seeing Sherinian’s hiring as evidence that the church is moving in the direction of progressive reform. Some social conservatives, who often feel besieged by the larger culture, have voiced strong concerns as to whether Sherinian’s past employment activities and personal opinions have crossed lines of propriety for a church employee.
I’m sympathetic to these concerns in general. Hiring decisions matter, and in situations where employees have access to an organization’s sensitive information, we should take great care to ensure that employees are ideologically aligned with the church’s doctrines and priorities.
In a recent presentation, I suggested that we would benefit from adding new dimensions to our thinking about decisions made at church headquarters. Our engagement with the world is shaped by scriptural injunctions to be distinct and separate, to touch not the unclean thing, but also a surprising directive to make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness. These principles seem paradoxical, and they mean that sometimes, observing a fellow disciple’s decisions will leave us with a sense of whiplash. This is also true of organizations: an organization like the church will always have more dimensions to its decision-making than are visible to lay observers, and often more complex ethical dilemmas than we tend to appreciate. These are some of the many reasons why there is great value in being slow to condemn.
Returning to the subject of Sherinian’s social media posts—are they truly cause for alarm? Sometimes a social media trail can indeed bring up valid concerns. But in the case of Sherinian’s posts, I suggest that in the time frame of the posts, 2015-2017, church members were in a very different place understanding-wise than where we are now. Many church members, informed by cultural influences like the TV show Modern Family, had become comfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage as perhaps a better option than unmarried promiscuity among our gay friends. In a recent article “Have Progressives Really Won This Contest of Ideas?”, Jeff Bennion and I offered an avalanche of information that should cause discomfort with this stance of neutrality or even acceptance. But most of the information that we presented is recent, developed only since 2018 or thereabouts. Our observation is that there are many things we have come to understand now which we could not have anticipated when Sherinian publicly posted on these matters, and most church members’ online activity from that time frame reflects their best attempts to behave in ways that they understood to be compassionate.
Information-wise, 2024 is a completely different landscape. As Jeff Bennion and I demonstrated in our two series on sexual minorities and The Family Proclamation, we are now vastly better equipped to understand and articulate the validity of the church’s doctrines on gender, sexuality, and the family. This is a massive amount of new information that most members are only beginning to assimilate, and we would benefit from extending grace and patience to others as we all make adjustments to long-held paradigms.
Similarly, in considering Sherinian’s work for Philip Morris International, there are good reasons to pause and reflect before voicing condemnation. Living and working in the world, Latter-day Saints are always going to be faced with tasks and associations that cause various kinds of moral discomfort. Having spent a good amount of my career in defense contracting, I know what it is like to see my career choices portrayed as sleazy and villainous. And unfortunately, those characterizations of that industry are sometimes true. But if we as church members were to withdraw from any and all industries and organizations with a morally questionable dimension to them, we would greatly limit our ability to influence the world in places where our influence is needed. Fields of employment like entertainment and law and gambling are easy targets for criticism in discussions of ethics and morality, but it is also true that even in ostensibly-benign fields like academia and medicine, participants are frequently confronted with all kinds of morally-questionable situations and incentives.
As a simple mental exercise, imagine that church leadership were to call a randomly-chosen assembly of faithful Latter-day Saints from all over the world, to meet in a large arena. If I were a politically-conservative church member in the United States and I were chosen to attend, I might be surprised to find myself seated in the arena next to a saint from Sweden who is very active in promoting their local socialist political party, and a Nicaraguan saint who supports an authoritarian party in their country. I might also find myself next to a Peruvian coffee farmer; a humble saint who works at a casino in Macau; a Brazilian saint who works for a firearms manufacturer; a saint in Russia who drives a delivery truck for a vodka distributor; and, well, any number of other life situations and commitments that might challenge someone’s mental model of what it means to be a faithful Latter-day Saint.
This is why it is a good idea to keep a healthy degree of flexibility and realism in these mental models that we create for our lives and for the lives of those around us in church. Any serious study of the mortal ministry of Christ will show us that his command to make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness was only one example of a divine pragmatism that often left his followers feeling perplexed.
And in that light, I suggest that our best response to the hiring of a new communications director is exactly that kind of pragmatism. This is a real person, with a real family, who has been a faithful co-religionist. He is more than a pawn in culture war social media fights. We should wish him well and allow him space to grow and develop, just as we all hope for those things for ourselves. And simultaneously, we can celebrate the competence that he brings to an immensely challenging role in the kingdom.