In Latter-day Saint parlance “making somebody your project” is the act of approaching your relationship with them mechanistically; only viewing your relationship with them through your ability to get them from point A to point B spiritually, and generally it’s frowned upon because the friendship is insincere.
On a similar note, I sense that some people problematically approach their relationship with the Church as a “project.” For the purposes of this analogy, these people are primarily interested in the Church as a potential vector for their personal ideological or political views. Given the influence the Church can have on its members (which I think is less than commonly believed on both the right and the left, but another post for another day), capturing the General Conference pulpit or First Presidency Statement is highly appealing to people who want to vector it towards their own ideological or political ends.
These people may be members. However, although they may tout things like their pioneer ancestry or mission experiences to show off their cultural bona fides, as a shibboleth to say I’m one of you and gain admittance into the realm of the orthodox, you often get the sense their affiliation is mostly sociocultural or familial rather than stemming from actual belief in the truth claims.
However, their attempts at reformation are often incredibly paternalistic to the targets. In the same sense that ward council projects often treat people as two dimensional statistics, efforts to change culturally conservative church members often treat them as Footloose caricatures waiting in small towns for enlightenment instead of 3-dimensional, complex human beings with reasons and experiences underlying their beliefs.
You can see this attitude in regards to the people who lobby for revelation, implicitly treating the process as something stemming from grassroots pressure (which is very different from grassroots inquiry—so don’t @ me about Zelophehad’s daughters or Emma and the Word of Wisdom). They are so desperate for that revelation or statement precisely because it has God’s imprimatur for the orthodox in a way that an article published in Dialogue does not (by multiple orders of magnitude). However, they themselves don’t treat that imprimatur with the seriousness that the orthodox do. They are willing to pocket the potential gains of lobbying a very top-down church without actually adhering to the structural premises that make such lobbying so potentially powerful.
Ironically, the very conservative structural elements such figures fight against such as hierarchy, standardization, respect for authority, and centralization, are the very principles that make the institution and its leadership a tempting target for attempted ideological capture, whereas a Church based on Dialogue and Sunstone articles just wouldn’t have the same kind of institutional traction (“the Book of Mormon is probably a 19th century fabrication, but we need you to commit to 100% ministering this month…”). Whether they intend to or not, what is subtly communicated here is that the simple orthodox members are the rubes that will just “follow the prophet,” while the theological, intellectual thought leaders can convince the leadership to get a revelation, wink wink that will then benefit from the energy of the orthodox to actualize the theology to a particular end.
Like how an overeager ministering brother might maintain an artificial veneer of friendship for the notch in the belt, so too can Church reformers maintain the veneer of involvement or belief, and act like they’re operating from sincere Latter-day Saint belief, when it’s painfully obvious they’re just prooftexting Latter-day Saint scriptures to drive home a conclusion clearly derived from elsewhere. That’s not to say that external sources can’t ever be used in in-house discussions, but it’s clear when the external influence is the primary thing, and not the gospel. It’s better to be sincere about one’s stance vis-a-vis the theological and historical particulars of the Church and engage in discussion on those grounds than to invoke a genetic or cultural heritage and then try to shape the Church around your alternative faith.
If one sincerely believes in the Church’s truth claims, which also implies giving credit to its structurally conservative elements such as belief in top-down revelatory authority, then that’s a different, interesting issue of how far God allows fallibility before He would remove the presiding authority, to paraphrase Wilford Woodruff. Presumably the further off-base one believes that prophet is, the harder it is to logically maintain that you are sincere in your belief about the Church. Maybe another post for another day, but generally speaking if you argue that the Church as an institution is doing more harm than good, I have a hard time seeing your claims of affiliation or adherence to the institution as anything more than a rhetorical ploy.
Also, as a non-believer in its religious claims, attempts to reform a religious institution along the lines of what you think it should be is disrespectful to that belief system and its adherents. For example, it would be uncouth for me to try to ingratiate myself with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and try to “reform” them away from their eclectic biblical interpretations because I like aspects of their culture and see a lot of potential in being able to direct their army of pavement pounders into, say, marching for migrant rights. That’s not their main thing that they’re about, and me trying to warp their belief system to vector their social influence into my ends would be completely inappropriate.
Treating the Church as a project also raises a utilitarian concern about whether it’s worth the opportunity cost relative to other places that energy could be spent. It’s pretty clear that attempts to lobby the Church are usually ineffective at best, and backfire at worst (even with the revocation of the priesthood and temple ban, it’s not clear to what extent grassroot pressure helped), so even granting the correctness of such efforts for the sake of argument, it’s arguable how much bang for the buck such efforts yield. It’s one category if one is a believing, practicing member and want to raise an issue that is being overlooked (for example, women praying in General Conference), but an entirely different one if you’re essentially theologically outside the premises of the Church and are treating it like any other institution that is ripe for reform and enlightenment. In that case, there are plenty of other institutions that could more effectively use such efforts.
Finally, we are blessed to live in a rich marketplace of ideas and religions. I would feel more sympathy for people trying to reform the Church if it was the only option, but with so many others out there it seems that such efforts are a bit of a waste. You can exert energy to (try to) make the Church a version of the Episcopalians or Community of Christ, or you can use those efforts and energy to meaningfully help build up those communities that are a better fit for you theologically. Heaven knows they could use a non-believing cultural Mormon with a 100% ministering record.