Here’s the talk I gave in Belfast’s congregation yesterday. It’s centered around this talk by President Eyring.
It’s taken me much longer to write this talk than I usually set aside for the task. Some of that is because of simple procrastination. Getting a talk assignment right before the holidays is often a good formula for finding a thousand things to do other than write that talk. But some of it is because each time I went to write it, my perspective on the concept had changed. The topic? The Lord Leads His Church, a talk given in General Conference by President Eyring.
When I first received the assignment back in December, President Monson was still the prophet, and my instincts were to focus on how to support local leadership. My notes from then focused on sustaining bishops and branch presidents, or stake leaders. But then President Monson passed away, and I began to think about speaking on sustaining the new prophet. And once the new First Presidency was called, I also considered speaking on the transition of leadership roles in the church. Elder Uchtdorf’s release from the First Presidency gave an excellent opportunity to have that discussion.
But each time I waited, and so once the deadline was just too close for me to ignore anymore (this past Wednesday), I decided it was just time to dive in and see where the topic took me. I’ll start with some views on church leadership, both at a local and global level.
When someone is called to the Bishopric or Stake Presidency, I think about how time intensive that calling will be, and what a strain it will be for them to rise to the challenge and still have time for their family, work, and any hope at down time. When they’re released, I’ve felt happy for them, knowing they now no longer need to carry that burden.
And yet, when President Uchtdorf was released, my first thought wasn’t for him. It was for me. I’ve loved his talks. They’ve always been a highlight of General Conference for me, and I knew his release would mean I would get to hear far fewer of them. In the end, it wasn’t a huge deal for me. Elder Uchtdorf is still an Apostle. I’ll still hear from him periodically at conference, and even if I didn’t, it wasn’t something I’d get particularly upset about.
Of course, our current social media society being what it is, articles appeared about his transition. The Salt Lake Tribune wrote an article titled “Many Mormons Are Not Happy with Uchtdorf’s Lower Profile.” Though honestly, any news source that refers to Apostles by using made up nicknames (“the Silver Fox” in this case) loses a whole boatload of credibility in my book. I think we often want to idolize these leaders. We look up to them. We listen to their talks. We feel like we know them, even though we only see them in a very limited capacity.
I remember back when President Hinckley was interviewed by Larry King, how surprised I was at first. It was my first time seeing President Hinckley in a non-conference setting. Take away the pulpit and the flower arrangement background, and put him in a chair I’d seen other people occupy, and he suddenly seemed less like a prophet and more like a man. An old man. A nice man, but still, just a man.
For me, that was a helpful realization. We give lip service to the idea that we don’t believe our leaders are infallible, but I don’t know how often we actually keep that belief in mind, particularly at the highest levels of the church. It is easier to sustain someone if you think they have a direct, constant conduit to God. If they are somehow better equipped to receive revelation and inspiration than you are. If they are different.
This tendency can cause a number of potentially harmful side effects. First, it can give us an excuse. If our leaders are more spiritual or obedient because they have a better tool set than we do, we don’t need to feel bad if we aren’t doing as well at the basics. Reading our scriptures. Saying our prayers. Going to church regularly. Keeping the basic commandments. It’s easier on us if we just attribute their heightened spirituality to their calling.
I am not trying to say our Prophets and Apostles don’t have the chance to speak with God, but I do believe that when they do, they most often use the same tools we do. Prayer and the promptings of the Spirit. God would not want to ignore one of His children in preference to another, and we have been taught by our leaders countless times how God answers prayer. We can be just as close to God if we will only do the things He has asked of us.
Second, we can claim that the way our leaders leave their lives disconnects them from the rest of the “real world.” That they live apart somehow, and so they might not be as in touch with what’s really going on in the world today. We put them on a pedestal and then use that pedestal to explain why we can get away ignoring some key piece of their teachings.
But when I watched the news conference introducing President Nelson, I was surprised how often they cut from the conference to the scene of his family, and how they brought his family in at the end of the conference. To me, it made him seem more normal. It made me see him in the same light I saw my grandfather before he passed away. A respected member of the family, but still a normal person with strengths and weaknesses.
In his talk, President Eyring addresses both sides of this view. “It takes faith to believe that the resurrected Lord is watching over the daily details of His kingdom. It takes faith to believe that He calls imperfect people into positions of trust. It takes faith to believe that He knows the people He calls perfectly, both their capacities and their potential, and so makes no mistakes in His calls.”
In that quote, President Eyring isn’t just talking about your Bishop or your Stake President or even your home or visiting teacher. It applies to every level of church leadership, something we must keep in mind during this transition from one First Presidency to the next.
He continued discussing this idea that God calls imperfect people He knows perfectly, saying, “That may bring a smile or a shake of the head to some in this audience—both those who think their own call to serve might have been a mistake as well as those who picture some they know who seem poorly suited to their place in the Lord’s kingdom. My counsel to both groups is to delay such judgments until you can better see what the Lord sees. The judgment you need to make, instead, is that you have the capacity to receive revelation and to act on it fearlessly.”
The fact that our leaders are imperfect shouldn’t disappoint us, though at times their actions and words might, whether locally or globally. Rather, it should remind us to be as forgiving of them as we would hope they would be of us.
Trying to think our church leaders are infallible opens us up to a third difficulty. We can project our thoughts and way of thinking on them, assuming we know what they “really mean” when they say something from the pulpit. After all, a perfect leader would have to agree with the things we already think are true. I’ve read and heard members give opinions in stark contrast to what our leaders have said, then justified their beliefs, explaining that the leaders just aren’t able to state that publicly. “Milk before meat” is often the justification used for this one. I saw one member online staunchly declare and defend her beliefs of white supremacy, trying to use the Gospel and the teachings of our leaders to support it. When church headquarters specifically and publicly chastised that erroneous belief, she fell away, disillusioned.
It’s interesting to note that each of these three pitfalls contradicts the others in several ways. If our leaders are perfectly in tune with God, why would they be out of touch? If they were out of touch, why would they be on a pedestal? If they believed just as we believe, how could they be perfect?
The answer, of course, is that they aren’t perfect. They are as human as the rest of us, but because we only see them in a few select settings, it’s easy to assume their entire life is represented by what we see. At a local level, this falls apart. President Eyring noted, ”A bishop is sometimes called to serve people who know him well. Ward members know something of his human weaknesses and his spiritual strengths, and they know that others in the ward could have been called—others who seem better educated, more seasoned, more pleasant, or even better looking.”
So it’s important for us to remember all our leaders have flaws. But keeping that fact in mind brings with it its own set of challenges. Time for a public confession. I don’t like stray strings or pieces of fuzz on my socks. Most of the time, this doesn’t get me into any difficulties, but once I notice a string sticking out of my sock, somehow that bit of information sticks around in my brain. I know from experience that pulling on stray strings and pieces of fuzz that turn out to be stray strings is usually a good way to ruin a pair of socks. You pull that string and the next thing you know, you’ve got a hole in your sock.
Let’s call it the hangnail principle. My entire body can be feeling fine, but once I notice I’ve got a hangnail I have to fight the urge not to pull on it. (Maybe I’ve got a thing about stray stuff I shouldn’t pull on. I’ll have to look into that.) Regardless, I know pulling on a hangnail is a bad idea. I know it will likely end up hurting me more than the hangnail is annoying me. And yet I pull on it anyway.
I’m so focused on this tiny part of my body that’s not functioning well that I allow it to consume my attention, often to my detriment. How many times do we let that same principle work in the way we interact with other people? When it comes to leaders, this approach would have us focus on the one or two things we see a leader doing that we disagree with, allowing that to cloud the rest of our focus about all the things he or she might be doing right, when in the bigger scheme of things, it just doesn’t matter.
I’m to the point now in my time in the church that its leaders are all people I have known or seen in other capacities before they came to their current positions. The earliest Prophet I can really remember is President Hinckley. President Monson was his counselor, and so even when President Hinckley passed, it wasn’t too great a leap to see President Monson assume that mantle. President Nelson was called as an Apostle when I was six years old.
It is easier to believe in Prophets you haven’t known, or who you were raised to believe were a Prophet. Questioning Moses’s free time activities, or what Peter did in his down time isn’t something that occurs to us. We see their lives through the lens of the scriptures, and as far as we’re concerned, they had no hobbies, and never did or said anything objectionable. When it comes to Joseph Smith, it becomes a bit harder. We can read accounts of his contemporaries and critics. There are more stray threads we can pull on. More hangnails to distract us.
With new Prophets and leaders, it becomes harder still. After all, last week they were just another person. A person with no special duties or responsibilities, perhaps. Why is it that now their words should carry more weight? Are they leading the Church the same way the last Prophet or Stake President or Bishop would have led it?
Probably not, honestly. They’re a different person. But that’s why they were called. Isn’t that what we believe? That Christ is truly at the head of this church, and that He calls those He needs to lead it in the direction it needs to go? President Eyring said, “For a leader to succeed in the Lord’s work, the people’s trust that he is called of God must override their view of his infirmities and mortal weaknesses.”
It didn’t take me long after I became Elders Quorum President to discover just how impossible it was to keep everyone satisfied. I received complaints (often second hand, conveyed by someone else) about everything from how moving projects were organized, what activities we were doing, how often we were doing those activities, and more. Sometimes it feels like people just want to be upset about something. Anything. And so they criticize.
This is not to say that all criticisms are without merit. I know of examples of church leaders abusing their positions of trusted authority to commit unspeakable acts. I’ve had family members whose Bishops have done and said shocking things. When leaders are doing or saying serious things that go against Church teachings or principles, this should not be ignored. But in my experience, typically the things people object to are more a matter of taste than one of eternal salvation. The Gospel gives us plenty of room for personal application and agency, and that applies to our leaders the same as it does to us. If we are considering complaining, perhaps the first step should be to think about the issue and ask ourselves just how important it really is.
This tendency to doubt our leaders (and for our leaders to doubt themselves) is nothing new. It appears even in the Book of Mormon. King Benjamin says in Mosiah 2:10-11: “I have not commanded you to come up hither that ye should fear me, or that ye should think that I of myself am more than a mortal man. But I am like as yourselves, subject to all manner of infirmities in body and mind; yet I have been chosen by this people, and consecrated by my father, and was suffered by the hand of the Lord that I should be a ruler and a king over this people; and have been kept and preserved by his matchless power, to serve you with all the might, mind and strength which the Lord hath granted unto me.”
We must remember that church callings aren’t about wielding power or enforcing our will on others. At least, they shouldn’t be. When we are called, our goal is to do and say the things the Lord would have us do and say. That’s the ideal. We are here to bless others, and often the best way we can do that is by others helping us accomplish that goal. Again, President Eyring explains “the faith of the people we serve, sometimes more than our own faith, brings us revelation in the Lord’s service.” It’s important that we don’t abandon our leaders to their own weaknesses. That we don’t dismiss them offhand because of a few stray threads, or even a few gaping holes, for that matter.
President Faust said, “We should look past any perceived imperfections, warts, or spots of the men called to preside over us, and uphold the office which they hold.” This reminds me of an experience I had in the Missionary Training Center. My district and I were doing our best to learn German, and while I thought we were making huge strides, I discovered a short time later (when I moved to Germany and tried to speak the language with real natives) just how little progress we’d really been making.
When you’re in the MTC, they’ll bring in people for you to practice on. Roleplay real life teaching situations. One of our teachers, Bruder Grunke, was from Germany, and his parents were visiting him for the week. Having real native speakers wasn’t something that came up every day, so he asked them if they wouldn’t mind coming in to let us practice. They agreed.
We did our best, but in hindsight, I know just how broken our German was. And yet, somehow in the middle of it all, Bruder Grunke’s parents broke down in tears. It isn’t every day that a pair of nineteen year olds make a couple in their sixties sob, and we didn’t really know what to do about it. They gathered themselves together, and the lesson went on, but we had no idea what we’d done wrong.
Afterward, once his parents had left the Training Center, Bruder Grunke explained. They were converts to the church, and they had been first contacted and then taught by missionaries with the same sort of broken German we’d been using. Being taught about the Gospel in that same manner had made them both remember what they’d felt like when they’d first encountered it, and it had touched them deeply.
Brothers and sisters, sometimes those perceived imperfections are the very reason we’re called to serve where we are, as counterintuitive as that might be. I have a firm testimony that God knows us all perfectly. He puts us in the places where we can do the most good. Where we have the best chance for success. He would not purposefully damage our likelihood of salvation, or the chances of His church growing and flourishing.
I want to pause on this concept for a moment, because I think it brings us to something that might be an issue with some. How do we reconcile the notion that God knows us perfectly with the very real fact that sometimes church leaders make serious errors? In other words, how do you tell a church member who was abused by someone in a position of power that God knew that person perfectly, and knew what he or she was capable of when He called them to that position? Does it become God’s fault? Couldn’t He have prevented it if He just hadn’t called that person in the first place?
Perhaps. But I believe we are all capable of good and evil. God wants us to grow and overcome our weaknesses. We know we have our agency. Some of us will make good choices, and some will make bad ones. But it’s important to the success of His plan that people be allowed to make those decisions. Even when that means they harm other children of God. It’s a harsh truth, but it’s central to the success of the Plan of Salvation, even within God’s church. That doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to it, or we let the people who abuse others go unpunished. But it does explain how God could let such a thing happen.
To sum up so far: The Lord leads His church. Principles of the Gospel should be present. In cases of egregious error, there must be the same accountability the Lord asks out of all of us. There’s a difference between matter of taste and a matter of right and wrong. Let the first slide and hold true to the second.
Another issue that comes up at times for some is the simple question of why won’t Church Leaders do something we think they ought to do. No how matter how much we might give lip service to the concept that we believe our leaders are doing God’s will, it seems inevitable that there will be times when we think they ought to zig when all they’re doing is zagging. This might be something as small as directing how the music program is being organized in your branch, to something as big as the church’s stance on gay marriage. Culture can change quite quickly, but we all can see from experience that the Church doesn’t turn on a dime.
For this concept, I turn to another contentious issue in the church’s past: the ban on blacks receiving the priesthood. There were certainly members back then who were not satisfied with the Church’s stance on this issue. They felt the ban should be removed, and it should be removed as soon as possible. But I look to the example of a few black members of the church living in Utah at the time. I’m going to read from an account of this group, written by a friend, Margaret Blair Young.
“In 1971 Ruffin Bridgeforth, Darius Gray, and Eugene Orr, all African American Mormons, met at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to create a strategy for receiving greater support for the black members of the Latter Day Saints. In that year, there were only three or four hundred Latter-day Saints of African descent throughout the world, although some of them traced their family lineage to the earliest black LDS members in the 1830s and 1840s.
“In 1971 the church continued its ban of all blacks from its priesthood and significant temple rites that was handed down in 1852, regardless of the length of their family membership as Mormons. Ultimately, Darius Gray approached Church President Joseph Fielding Smith with their concerns. President Smith assigned three junior apostles, Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, and Boyd K. Packer, to meet with the three black Mormons. Their meetings began on the morning of June 8, 1971, a date which would take on greater significance in 1978, when the priesthood restriction was abandoned. From June until October, meetings were scheduled twice a month. In early October, an unscheduled meeting was called. Gordon B. Hinckley told Bridgeforth, Gray, and Orr that he and his associates were establishing a support organization for black members of the LDS Church and wished to have Ruffin Bridgeforth serve as president. Bridgeforth asked both Gene Orr and Darius Gray to serve as his counselors, and the three selected a name for the group: Genesis. On October 19, the Genesis Group of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized. Mary Lucile Bankhead, a descendant of vanguard pioneer and “colored servant” Green Flake, was named president of the Relief Society, the women’s auxiliary.
“The Genesis Group conducted activities to promote unity and understanding between black and white Mormons. Group members performed plays, put on soul food dinners, and brought many inactive black Mormons and other Mormons of color back to the church. Their summer picnics also brought together many of Utah’s African Americans for socializing and food, whether or not they were LDS Church members. Though these social activities were initially a great success, the fledgling group had to work hard to keep its members active.”
At a time when they could have arranged protests and sought to forcefully change the Church from within, this group did what it could to encourage positive change within the current boundaries the Church had set. They worked with leaders, not against them. The Genesis Group continues to this day in Salt Lake, and I believe their efforts contributed greatly to the eventual removal of the priesthood ban.
I know that the Church isn’t perfect. It’s run by imperfect people. Each Sunday when we attend meetings, we will come in contact with members and leaders who irritate us from time to time. Who might even drive us crazy, just as we likely drive others up the wall. But I have a firm testimony that the Lord leads this church. He leads it the same way He leads my life. I try to follow His teachings, but sometimes I fall short. That happens in my personal life and my church calling. Let’s try to be as easy on others as we are sometimes on ourselves. Though I suppose for some people, that should be reversed. Be as easy on yourself as you are on others.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.