The hardest time of my mission, and one of the hardest time of my life, was serving as an office elder. The job was incredibly stressful. I had days that started at 4 AM and did not end until after 10 PM. The worst part of the job, however, was that there was no teaching. Neither the office elders nor the AP’s had had a teaching pool in the memory of anyone in the mission. In the 6 months that I served in the office, I had time to go tracting exactly once.
I vividly remember getting on my knees one Saturday evening, and telling God that if he did not find someone for me to teach, that I would not make it. I went to sleep confident that there would be an investigator for me to start teaching at church the next day. There was.
Teaching that family became the most important part of my life. I did not have a regular companion and so sometimes I took an AP and other times I took an office elder. Even though it was only one discussion per week, it kept me sane. It was the most sacred experience of my mission.
During this time a general authority came to visit the mission. He held a leadership meeting in the mission home. I think my mission president felt sorry for me (he had promised to make me a trainer, and it never happened) so he invited me to attend even though I had never been so much as a district leader. I felt acutely unwelcome in that meeting, but I tried to participate anyway.
When the general authority asked the missionaries who had been the greatest missionary in the Book of Mormon and had told his sons to “be sober” my first thought was that he was mixing up Alma the Younger and Ammon, but my second thought was that he was trying to make a point about the importance of “missionary work” to the members. So when no one else answered, I raised my hand and said it was Alma the Younger. No, it wasn’t, he told me. No big deal.
There was a mission conference the next day. I arrived late, and the conference had already started. When I found a seat, one of the APs was unveiling a new mission-wide initiative. Every night, the District Leaders would call all the companionships to get an update on the baptismal prospects at a certain time. 15 minutes later, the Zone Leaders would call all the District Leaders. 15 minutes after that the Assistants to the President would call the Zone Leaders. Looking back today–with several years experience as a business analyst–I can see the obvious attempt to apply principles of supply chain management to the missionary work, but that didn’t occur to me at the time.
As part of this new initiative, the AP told us that he would give a sample update by talking about the AP baptismal pool. This struck me as odd, since I knew the APs were not teaching anybody. In fact the AP who was speaking had never even come with me to teach the family that I was teaching. He had not taught anyone at all since becoming an AP because, in our mission, APs didn’t teach. They were too busy running all over the country following the Mission President. Everyone knew that.
So, although I should have seen it coming, I was completely shocked when he launched into a description of my investigators as if they had been his own. Suddenly the investigators I had prayed and struggled to find, were his investigators; the relationship I had cultivated over weeks was his. In the end, I was allowed to continue teaching the investigators until I was transferred, but the stabbing sense of betrayal as this stranger to the family told the entire mission about how close he felt his investigators were to baptism never faded.
After the conference the other AP, who had come and taught with me once and who had also been my friend since the MTC, came to find me with tears in his eyes. I was also crying as he apologized for what had happened. Having the sacred and personal relationship between a missionary and an investigator usurped for what was essentially a marketing campaign felt like an intense violation of a sacred trust. My friend had tried to come and warn me before the conference so that at least I would have some warning, but I hadn’t been there so he hadn’t found me. The General Authority had simply decided that it was unacceptable for the APs not to be leading by example. If they did not have an investigator in their pool, they would simply invent a relationship to someone else’s. In this way images would be maintained.
Something else happened in my mission to put this all in perspective. We were also visited by two apostles and I have a distinct recollection of one of the apostles teaching us about D&C 29:30 – 32.
30 But remember that all my judgments are not given unto men; and as the words have gone forth out of my mouth even so shall they be fulfilled, that the first shall be last, and that the last shall be first in all things whatsoever I have created by the word of my power, which is the power of my Spirit.
31 For by the power of my Spirit created I them; yea, all things both spiritual and temporal—
32 First spiritual, secondly temporal, which is the beginning of my work; and again, first temporal, and secondly spiritual, which is the last of my work—
According to my memory, the apostle stated that verse 32 was first about the creation of the world (“the beginning of my work”) and then about the Restoration (“the last of my work”). According to this interpretation, the Restoration through Joseph Smith was principally a temporal affair. The institution of the Church with its priesthood keys and authority was created first, but the spiritual creation–the maturation of the members of the Church–was only now unfolding.
To me, these two stories are very closely related. It has to do with this simple question: what is the church for? Or, perhaps more narrowly, what are our leaders for?
We frequently talk about our leaders being imperfect. When I taught Sunday School lesson 9 yesterday, we spent time on D&C 20:5, where some of Joseph Smith’s foibles are canonized along with his status as first elder. Despite the rhetoric, however, I think that the Latter Day Saints sometimes deny the reality and depend too heavily on our leaders.
Dependence and obedience may look similar, but I think there are some important differences. When we obey, we do so willfully and as free agents. We listen to the counsel of our leaders, we choose to follow, and we claim responsibility for our decision to do so. In addition, we are actively engaged in our own self-directed efforts both individually and within our communities to build up Zion independently of the specific teachings of our leaders. When we are dependent on our leaders, in contrast, we evaluate all potential endeavors against past pronouncements and, should we fail to find explicit precedent, we abandon the effort for safer ventures. In addition, we turn obedience into something automatic, and almost slavish. We excuse our own wills from the equation entirely. It is as if we are always preparing the, “I was only following orders” defense.
I wonder if this is not a part of the cause that the torrent of revelation under Joseph Smith has not continued with other prophets. The early Saints had no problem thinking independently, to the point of sometimes opposing Joseph Smith, such that apostasy and division were commonplace. Directing the early Saints was herding cats, but today perhaps we’ve gone too far in the other direction and become lemmings.
I wasn’t yet a deacon when Elder Packer gave his controversial talk on the evil triumvirate of homosexuality, feminism, and intellectualism. I did not live through the September Six affair. I learned about it on Wikipedia. So I apologize for any resultant lack of sensitivity in discussing this talk, but when I first read it (from a link provided by a disaffected Mormon), it had the opposite effect on me that my correspondent had intended. Rather than making me see Elder Packer as the embodiment of rigid, authoritarian callousness, it impressed me with the impossible position that the worshipfulness of the Saints puts our leaders in.
It should be pointed out here, that even those who criticize the General Authorities most vociferously are contributing to the cult of leadership. When I argue that perhaps we as Mormons ought to do this or that and I see a respondent counter that “The Leaders will have none of it, for they crave popularity” (or power, or the status quo, etc.) I am struck by the irony. Even if the intent is to criticize, the fact that some Mormons reflexively think “But what will our Apostles say?” thrusts those leaders onto a perilous pedestal. That elevation is our doing (critics included), not theirs.
In any case, here are some things that I noted from Elder Packer’s talk. The first is that he explicitly acknowledges and validates the pain and hurt members feel. After excerpting from three letters, he states: “The question is not whether they need help and comfort. That goes without saying. The question is “How?”” (Emphasis added.)
That second thing I note is that Elder Packer explicitly acknowledges the importance of exceptions. Rather than insist that public council given by the Apostles is uniformly and universally applicable, he states explicitly that there are exceptions. For example, regarding working mothers, he writes: “Some mothers must work out of the home. There is no other way. And in this they are justified and for this they should not be criticized.” (Emphasis added.)
In the same spirit, Elder Dallin Oaks once said to a young person:
As a General Authority, it is my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord. (From a CES Fireside on May 1, 2005 in Oakland, CA)
Elder Packer, just like Elder Oaks, is pretty clear that the General Authorities are not going to deviate from general advice. As he puts it:
We cannot, however, because of their discomfort over their plight, abandon a position that has been taught by the prophets from the beginning of this dispensation. The question then is, “How can we give solace to those who are justified without giving license to those who are not?”
For me the importance of this question is not to maintain that Elder Packer has perfectly answered it, but merely to recognize that it is a valid and indeed inescapable question. To generalize, the problem is this: how do we react to individuals with compassion while maintaining a system / institution that tends towards good results for everyone? I don’t believe that there is necessarily a perfect answer to this, but the compromise which Elder Packer speaks of (that the Elders maintain a private and invisible ministry to individuals) seems at least to deserve our consideration as a good-faith effort to solve the puzzle. I am not confident that I could do better.
I realize that one of the phrases from this speech which probably irritated people (there are plenty of candidates) is this one: “In each case, the members who are hurting have the conviction that the Church somehow is doing something wrong to members or that the Church is not doing enough for them.” Superficially that sounds like victim-blaming, but I believe that Elder Packer made a legitimate point. To whatever extent the insistence of the General Authorities on dispensing general advice causes harm to those who face exceptions in their lives, that harm is compounded by the expectation that it ought to be otherwise. And, to some extent, that is simply an impossible expectation. As long as there is any balance between the need to provide general guidelines and the need to reach out to individuals, some individuals will be left somewhat in the cold.
I also think it’s worth pointing out, although Elder Packer does not, that sometimes calls for more compassion arise not only out of empathy for those who suffer, but out of a desire for own sympathetic suffering to abate. Watching the suffering of others arouses not only a desire to have their pain alleviated, but also our own pain as witnesses. The former is noble, but the latter is not.
The rock-and-a-hard-place scenario is highlighted by Elder Packer’s observation that “out in the Church there is another growing group of the discontented. That is the rank and file who are trying to do what they are supposed to do and feel neglected as we concentrate on solving the problems of the exceptions.” This is the fate of the ninety-and-nine who got left alone while the shepherd went after the one who was lost. This is the fate of the prodigal son’s older brother, who stayed at home and worked without ever getting a feast in his honor. This is the fate of the laborers who came to the vineyard early, worked the whole day through, and received for their reward the same penny as those who arrived at the 11th hour.
This sense of isolation is not only inevitable but probably also essential. It is true, after all, that fear of sin and love of righteousness can lead to such similar behavior that we may not know ourselves from which motivation our actions arise. As the sorrowing father of the prodigal son told his apparently obedient son, “you are always with me”. If that was not sufficient reward itself, the fault lay with the son for not valuing his relationship with his father more than a feast, not with the father who killed the fatted calf to celebrate his reunion with the lost son. After all, a feast cannot make up for years of estrangement.
So where does that leave us? I think the answer is to seek a greater measure of spiritual independence from our leaders. This doesn’t mean being less obedient. The answer is an understanding that revelation from church leaders can never take the place of personal conviction. When God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he did not relieve him of moral culpability for his decision. When the spirit told Nephi to cut off Laban’s head, Nephi was similarly left responsible for his own decision. The fact that the Spirit engaged Nephi in rational debate about the ethics of his decision shows that he was involved not as a mere instrument in the God’s hands, but as a self-directing participant. God’s bargaining with Lot also shows that we do not experience dilution of responsibility just because we are following revelation. Whether the instructions come from God, Christ, the Spirit, or his prophets, it is the same. We may hope in faith that what God commands is right and just because God is right and just and would not ask otherwise of us, but God’s commands are never right and just merely because they are God’s commands. Although we are servants, the Plan of Salvation calls for us to be active participants and not merely conduits for divine will. We are called to be instruments in the hands of God, yes, but never only instruments. We bear ultimate responsibility for our actions. That is a responsibility we can divest to no one.
It almost seems unfair to have all this revelation from leaders and scripture if the revelation does not benefit us by absolving us of some responsibility to find the same revelation ourselves. It is reasonable to think that once God has revealed anything it is more efficient for everyone to get with the program rather than insist that the revelatory experience be repeated on a case-by-case basis. It is reasonable, that is, until one realizes that the purpose of revelation is not merely the dissemination of information, but ultimately the growth and transformation of human character.
Whatever the Church is for, whatever our leaders are for, absolution of responsibility is not it. This will surely not ease the broken hearts of those who are condemned to walk–for a time at least–on lonely paths that fall outside the official sanction of Church teaching. But easing pain, though an important mission for the Church, is also not its ultimate goal. Exile, too, is a trial that some lives are designed to experience.
My hope is simply this: that the next time someone suggest that Mormonism ought to change in this way or that way that the ensuing conversation not get hung up on “But what will the Leaders think?” Should Leaders choose to weigh in, what they think will matter at that point. Let’s not presume, however, that it must necessarily be relevant in all cases whatsoever what the leaders think. Making that assumption may not be, I maintain, an expression of humility or obedience but rather an attempt to evade responsibility at the expense of others.