When controversies take hold about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am often asked how I understand or have come to terms with it.
One such controversy has resulted in enough requests that I thought it would be wise to address it publicly. Nearly a year ago, the beloved head of Church Communications, Eric Hawkins, suffered a health setback and had to step down. Last week, the Church named his successor, Aaron Sherinian.
Concerns have circulated about Sherinian’s previous employers and his positions on hot-button social issues. Many people want to understand this better, so I hope I can best explain how it’s come to make sense to me in the hope it may be helpful to others.
A Culture of Critique
Latter-day Saints are far from the first religious group to apply this level of scrutiny to hiring decisions. This kind of back-and-forth has long been common among our Catholic friends. I’ve observed the effects of this kind of public focus on internal decisions. Many Catholics actively debate and scrutinize the Vatican’s decisions, often through the lens of political perspectives. One Catholic publication will support, another will critique, and every decision made becomes a proxy war for the direction of their church. This discourse undermines an overarching faith in God’s direction. A culture of critique is a net negative for Latter-day Saints as a people.
A culture of critique is a net negative for Latter-day Saints as a people.
Latter-day Saints do believe that God has a destined mission for the Church of Jesus Christ. A culture that begins to focus on this level of detail may erode that faith that has served our community of believers so well.
In a practical sense, if this culture of suspicion takes hold regarding the Church and its decisions, it will take up considerable time and financial resources that the Church could better employ elsewhere.
Public Pressure Pitfalls
The Church’s decision-making process is not impervious to the needs, opinions, or preferences of its members. Indeed, the Church has demonstrated a willingness to adapt and accommodate as cultural attitudes evolve. However, these adaptations arise from internal consultation and revelation, not external pressure.
For Latter-day Saints grappling with concerns, such as those surrounding the appointment of Aaron Sherinian, the scriptures have a clear direction. The Doctrine and Covenants, a canon of scripture in the Church, offers guidance on addressing grievances. In D&C 42:88-89, it advises us to not take our grievances to “the members, but to the elders.” Today, the leader we would speak to is our stake president, who can relay these concerns to senior Church leaders. Latter-day Saints with public platforms who use this or other controversies to generate attention among “the members” rather than taking their concerns to their stake president are violating this scriptural counsel.
The internal channel is not only more effective in conveying information to those who need it, but it allows more effective change because it allows Church leaders to make informed decisions without the complication of responding to public pressure. In contrast, public campaigns often inadvertently complicate decision-making processes, typically to the detriment of those applying the pressure.
While concerns and differing opinions are natural within a diverse faith community, the scriptural and organizational framework of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourages addressing these matters through respectful, private channels. The scriptural approach to concerns upholds the dignity of all involved but also aligns with the Church’s foundational principles of revelation, unity, and personal growth.
Realities of the Role
In addressing the concerns about Aaron Sherinian’s appointment as the new Communications Director for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s crucial to understand the nature and limitations of this role. This understanding can help alleviate some of the apprehensions members of the Church might have.
First and foremost, the position of Communications Director is that of an employee, not a called leader within the Church hierarchy. This distinction is significant. Unlike called leaders, an employee, regardless of their rank or department, does not have the ability to influence its core theological tenets. Their role is more akin to a professional with a specialized skill set—similar to hiring a plumber for their expertise in plumbing. The scriptural approach to concerns upholds the dignity of all involved.
The scriptural approach to concerns upholds the dignity of all involved.
Moreover, it’s important to note that the director of the Communications Department does not operate in isolation. The role involves working within large councils, collaborating with both called ecclesiastic leaders and employees from other backgrounds. This collaborative approach ensures that no single individual outside the President of the Church, could dictate the Church’s communications strategy.
Additionally, the Communications Director is not typically a public-facing figure. The most visible church employee, the spokesperson, is a separate role currently held by Doug Andersen.
This context is vital in understanding the appointment of Aaron Sherinian. The Church will naturally hire employees with diverse thoughts and backgrounds for many under-the-radar roles without raising any concerns. Suggesting that the Communications Director role is so pivotal that it cannot similarly tolerate varying personal views or complex past employment decisions may be an overestimation of the position’s individual influence.
Delving into the Decision
So far, I have largely avoided the specific question that many people are asking. Why was he hired? While Sherinian himself is not in a called role, he was hired by someone who was. It’s a question that, candidly, neither I nor you know the answer to. However, there are several considerations that might shed light on this decision.
In March 2015, D. Todd Christofferson, an apostle for the Church, said in an interview that Latter-day Saints were free to share different opinions about same-sex marriage on social media. He went on to say, “In our view, it doesn’t really become a problem unless someone is out attacking the Church and its leaders.” While considerations on how to do this are certainly complicated and can be informed by other apostolic direction, it’s perhaps notable that Sherinian’s first controversial social media post came three months after this statement and the last several years before he began working for the Church.
This has been particularly influential on my own thinking. Sherinian only shared his personal views after an apostle explicitly said members were free to do so. This reflects a level of faithfulness that I find reassuring. And the last message that has concerned others was more than six years ago.
Another important consideration is that Sherinian’s professional competence is undisputed. His status as one of the world’s leading communication experts, combined with his faith as a temple recommend-holding member of the Church, presents a unique alignment of skill and belief. In a time when the Church faces significant challenges in media representation, his expertise could be seen as providential. Like many figures in scriptural narratives, God often uses imperfect individuals for His purposes. Could Sherinian have been prepared “for such a time as this”? It’s certainly one explanation.
Those who know Sherinian paint a picture of a man deeply loyal to the Church and its leaders. Despite differing views on certain issues, his overall life trajectory and public persona—as evidenced by his active and faith-promoting social media presence—suggest a profound commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This aspect of his character is critical to consider, especially in a role that requires a blend of professional skill and personal conviction.
The role of a Communications Director, in many respects, is akin to that of a diplomat. The Church, often perceived publicly as opposed to LGBT+ issues, has, in reality, been proactive in seeking fair and compassionate solutions that seek to meet the needs of everyone in the country—an approach they’ve called “Fairness for All.” Having a director who is committed to the Church yet has a personal understanding of communities the Church seeks to engage with could be strategically advantageous.
Similarly, it’s worth noting that his role at Phillip Morris aimed at mitigating the negative impacts of smoking. While the effectiveness of these efforts is debatable, they reflect a lifelong willingness to try to make positive differences, even among those with very different purposes or worldviews. Sherinian’s professional competence is undisputed.
Sherinian’s professional competence is undisputed.
Embracing Grace in the Lesser Controversies
Do we want to create a community of believers characterized by suspicion, second-guessing, and accusation? The kind of diving for content that has sprung this story will lead to that kind of atmosphere. We have seen that result among other religious communities and, more generally, in our “cancel culture.”
In a recent Public Square Magazine article, Jeff Thayne spoke about greater and lesser controversies. He draws on the Apostle Paul’s teachings about eating meat sacrificed to idols, a topic that, in its time, was fraught with moral complexity. The lesson here is that in certain ‘lesser controversies,’ there are valid arguments on both sides, and different individuals may arrive at different conclusions based on their circumstances and understanding. And both answers may be the right one at certain times. This concept applies aptly to the current discussion.
Debating and deliberating over these lesser controversies helps us develop our moral reasoning. However, it’s equally important to maintain humility. If our concerns remain, there are helpful, scripturally dictated avenues to bring them forward.