Mormons turn to Internet to preach, but sometimes it turns on them

The LDS Church has embraced the virtual universe with unalloyed enthusiasm, hoping to harness its global reach to bring converts to Christ, while some local Mormon leaders have used the same tools to monitor — and occasionally discipline — longtime members.

Whether to proselytize or to punish, social-media outlets are part of the LDS landscape, and leaders and members alike are struggling to adopt and adapt guidelines for getting along in what they see as God’s kingdom.

The 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints now hands out digital devices to nearly half its 85,000 missionaries. It employs contemporary advertising techniques to promote its beliefs in various online venues. And the faith’s sophisticated software allows millions of eager researchers to use Mormon files to discover and document their ancestors.

Meanwhile, individual members have flocked to social networking as a way of finding other Mormons who share, say, their love of art or history, their commitment to the Constitution or gay rights, or their desire for in-depth discussions from a believing or questioning perspective. LDS congregations and missions often have their own Facebook pages and members quickly become one another’s "friends."

Some local church leaders have found individual pages, for example, a good way to learn the needs of their congregants.

"The focus of our ward council and other leadership meetings in our ward is always on the well-being of our members," says Ross Trewhella, a Mormon bishop in England. "The Internet, especially Facebook, is a major social outlet for a lot of people, so it is natural that the things people have written are discussed in our meetings when we are discussing someone’s welfare."

Trewhella, who has been in his position for six years, says those meetings are never about intimate details or about political or cultural opinions but rather about the ward members’ needs.

"I have always found that the more information I have, the better I can serve someone," he writes in an email. "So, for example, if we find out someone is sick from their Facebook [page], we make sure the resources of the ward are taking care of them. There is a fine line between using information to help people and just being nosy."

Trewhella has never spoken to a ward member about online posts, especially those noticed by another member, he says. "I can’t abide by tattling and gossip anyway."

Other local LDS leaders have acted on what they have seen members put on the Web.

One woman says she was in a stake Young Women’s presidency until she posted a photo of herself nursing her daughter on her private Facebook page. A man — who, like others, requested anonymity for fear of further sanctions — was released as "elder’s quorum president" after someone informed his bishop of his online posts in support of same-sex marriage. After posting photos from a Pride parade and a feminist event, a Utah couple were removed from leadership of a youth conference and told that they could not have any future assignments or access to LDS temples. A woman in Australia was not given a calling or asked to give a talk for two years after moving into a new ward. When she asked the Relief Society president if she could get assistance with her newly adopted daughters, the president replied that if she wanted help, she "should stop posting all that feminist stuff on Facebook."

Such actions are decided by local LDS leaders.

As for church headquarters in Salt Lake City, it does not track members’ online comments, Facebook posts, tweets or blogs, says LDS spokesman Dale Jones.

The Utah-based faith does have a Strengthening Church Members Committee, whose purpose, Jones writes in a statement, "is to pass on public information to local leaders about members participating in abuse, fraud and other activities that may endanger others. It oversees pre-baptismal interviews of those formerly associated with polygamy."

The committee, the spokesman says, "does not make recommendations to local leaders."

Tools for the times • These are exciting times for Mormons to "sweep the Earth with messages filled with righteousness and truth — messages that are authentic, edifying and praiseworthy," LDS apostle David A. Bednar said Tuesday in a Brigham Young University Education Week address, "and literally to sweep the Earth as with a flood."

And there are "inspired tools" — such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest — the apostle said, that can be used "appropriately and more effectively."

Bednar mentioned several LDS Church-produced efforts, including a three-minute video about Jesus that was "viewed more than 5 million times during Easter week in 191 countries and territories of the world" and an orchestrated initiative to share messages about Christ by using the hashtag #BecauseofHim on various social-media platforms.

The apostle urged Mormons to be "authentic and consistent" when using social media and to offer messages that "edify and uplift rather than to argue, debate, condemn or belittle."

LDS posters "should not exaggerate, embellish or pretend to be someone or something we are not. Our content should be trustworthy and constructive," Bednar said. "Anonymity on the Internet is not a license to be inauthentic."

Steve Evans, who created the Mormon blog By Common Consent, applauds the apostle’s instructions.

"Elder Bednar’s advice isn’t anything new, but it is welcome," Evans says. "His talk sets forth basic, but sound advice for anyone: Be authentic. Don’t violate [intellectual property] rights. Be wise. Uplift. Some of those four goals will appear to some to pose an inherent contradiction, but I don’t think so. I’d welcome authentic, uplifting messages from church members any day of the week."

The apostle was also clear, however, about the "public and permanent nature of participating on the Internet," the blogger says. "This means that we will be held accountable for our words, both in the public eye and in our congregations."

In some areas, that might mean trouble if local LDS leaders don’t like what a member says.

"Where is the line," Evans wonders, "between holding out an opinion on the Internet and being an activist?"

Is "liking" an Ordain Women profile the same as supporting the push for female ordination to the church’s all-male priesthood? Is penning a blog critical of a talk by a Mormon apostle tantamount to "not sustaining" the leader — even if the writer never says anything negative at church meetings?

Some LDS bishops and stake presidents apparently think so.

Informal sanctions • Mormons have been released from callings in their local congregations for various Facebook posts, blogs, tweets or online comments. Some have had temple privileges revoked; others have been called "apostates" to their face.

Kevin Kloosterman, a former LDS bishop in Illinois, had his "recommend" — which allowed him entry to Mormon temples — withdrawn for a tweet of congratulations he sent to the first gay couple married in Utah.

A couple of years ago, Missy McConkie, a Mormon mom in the Northwest, signed an online feminist petition, "All Are Alike Unto God," suggesting ways that the LDS Church could enhance the roles of women. Last year, McConkie was asked to be the Activity Days co-leader for girls ages 8 to 11.

All those in the congregation raised their hands in support of her assignment, except one couple, who went to the bishop and complained about her signature on the petition, pressuring him to pull back the calling. McConkie was never told the identity of the couple and could not then counter their misunderstanding or have a dialogue with them.

"It was painful for me to be at church and know that someone was judging me," she says, "and they were not willing to work it out with me in person."

Some Mormons say they have been called in to "chat" with their bishops about Internet writings, but were not disciplined.

Their local LDS leader in Washington, D.C., asked Spencer Clark and his wife, Cherry Hunsaker-Clark, to discuss their Facebook comments about Ordain Women and Kate Kelly, the group’s founder who was excommunicated in June. The couple, who were friends with Kelly, had a frank conversation that, Spencer Clark says, ended amicably.

"We stayed true to ourselves," says Clark, who is also the executive director of Mormons for Equality and an LDS temple worker. "He showed understanding even while sticking fairly closely to the church’s talking points on this."

Two weeks after Kelly’s ouster, Crystal Young-Otterstrom, head of Utah’s LDS Dems caucus, was named to her Sugar House ward’s Relief Society presidency. Young-Otterstrom had written on her blog that she was grieving the action against the Ordain Women leader and her bishop had read it.

"After he gave and I accepted the calling, he asked me about how I was feeling and cried when he said he hurt for me," she says. "I never got a sense if he agreed or disagreed with Kate’s excommunication, but I absolutely knew and appreciated that my bishop was willing to mourn with me. He perfectly exemplified not only his calling but Christian behavior as well."