“Leadership roulette” (or “bishop roulette”) is a common term thrown around when there is some good or bad outcome that depends on the contingencies of who happens to be your local leader. This particular complaint is often aimed at some perceived authority figure in a bubble at Church Headquarters that is supposedly detached from the complexities of lived experiences of the Saints. Now, “leadership roulette” is real, and I don’t mean to dismiss its occasional relevance, but there are also a lot of complaints about the “one size fits all” solutions, when the two are essentially tradeoffs of one another.
Tying a bishop’s hands essentially involves imposing mandates from above, while allowing bishops to use their judgment essentially allows for variation from case to case. God can think multiple things at once in a perfectly consistent way, so He can square that circle, but for us mortals we are required to essentially pick our poison here.
This isn’t a new idea. One of the founding fathers of sociology, Max Weber, coined the term “the iron cage of bureaucracy” to describe the routinization of roles and decisions that is inevitable in a legal/technical society. To some extent the benefits of bureaucracies outweigh the costs. We like the rules being codified and written down so that they protect us from arbitrary judgment. Also, as institutions become large enough it simply becomes impossible for the leaders to manage every detail, so they need to rely on rules and regulations. At the same time, codifying everything hurts flexibility and on-the-ground creativity and accommodations, so institutions have to decide the proper tradeoff between “leadership roulette” and “one size fits all” solutions.
To take one extreme example, if the Church was fully bureaucratized, we would have very precise details about what constitutes being a “full tithe payer.” Like the government, recipients of Church aid would have to turn in pay stubs that would then be put into an equation deciding how much they get. Local widow needs emergency assistance moving from a predatory landlord? That would have to go up several layers of approval under the “emergency exception” clause. “The Line” (you know what I’m talking about) that high school priests try to deduce from an intensely close reading of the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet that would make any lawyer or rabbinical student proud would be clearly delineated, with the length of sacramental restrictions tied to a matrix that inputs the specific state of undress, body parts, and activity.
Hopefully I’ve painted enough of a picture to show the problems that a world without any “leadership roulette” would have. The Judges in Israel would be operating at the higher levels of Church organization, because everything else would be routinized based on their general decisions.
On the other extreme, a world without any bureaucracy or “one size fits all” solutions would be chaos. Each Bishop would essentially have their own fiefdom and be able to teach and do what they wanted. Even if we take the basic beliefs and authority structure as a given, the lack of a “Church Handbook” would mean that each bishop would have to take their cues about what to do from their own interpretation of the rather large body of General Conference talks, devotionals, and face-to-face events. There would be no message control within the highest ranks either, so we’d have the potential for Brigham Young and Orson Pratt style open theological conflicts while the local leaders are trying to figure out what to teach and how to operate. It’s pretty clear that in such a situation we’d have dozens if not hundreds of different theologies and institutions under the umbrella of the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Part of being a “House of Order” is having a bureaucracy.
Of course, these are two extremes, and religious institutions try to find the optimal mix given their theology, tradition, and history. A lot of Protestant denominations basically have a “congregational roulette” situation, which is why church shopping is more of a thing for them. The Catholic Church is more bureaucratic with its priesthood-based structure, but still not as much as we are; they operate more on a “franchise” type model (that’s not a dig, there are good reasons for that given their own traditional, theological, organizational, and historical premises) and more decision making is held at the middle level; dioceses (groups of congregations) are their own financial entities, and are more independent of the Vatican than the Area President is of Salt Lake City (e.g. if the Area 70 in charge of Germany treated Salt Lake City the way the German Catholic leaders treat the Vatican, he would be released immediately).
Whatever one’s opinions about the optimal mix of these two options, the fact is that they are natural converses to one another, and you cannot gain the advantages of one without conceding the disadvantages of another to some extent, so how much decision making to give to local and mid-level leadership is a genuinely hard issue.
However, just because local or global control has respective unavoidable disadvantages doesn’t mean that those issues are any less real. The vast majority of bishops are solid disciples of Christ ministering according to the whisperings of the spirit, and I do think my own experience of winning of bishop roulette every time (I doubt any of them read Latter-day Saint blogs, so this isn’t sycophantic) is more typical than we might think given that their stories are less sensational, and therefore get told less, than the alternatives.