In one of my recent posts I talked about the connection between wealth and Church leadership; one of the issues that naturally rose to the surface in the comments was the connection between Church leadership and one’s standing before God.
On this issue there’s a somewhat uncomfortable tension between different truisms in Church teachings and culture. On one hand, we generally recognize that righteousness isn’t irrelevant to church position. All things being equal, the higher up one goes the more righteous the individual is, to put it bluntly. I’d expect more from an apostle getting cut off in traffic than I would my local bishop. (I suspect having your reaction during a moment of weakness on your worst day becoming part of a multi-generational lore about what Elder so and so did is a stressor; it certainly would be for me).
On the other hand, in theory we recognize that God needs all types, and that the calling of nursery leader isn’t any higher than the bishop. This is especially true when we layer gender issues on top of all this, since we limit leadership positions with priesthood keys to about half the Church, the only way this is not discriminatory is if we honor the female roles as much as the male leadership roles. (I’m fine with the current setup, think we should honor both equally, and do see it as discriminatory when we don’t, but this is not a post about female ordination and I won’t be engaging that debate here).
However, for men at least, because of the first belief the lack of a leadership calling often causes people to doubt their importance or righteousness before God. (Also, this is not particular to the Church; the rhetoric we constantly hear about creating leaders and raising leaders is pyramid scheme-ish. If anything we have too many people who want to be leaders and not enough people who want to have a fulfilling internal life without the honors of leadership).
There are a couple different problems with this. First, to start off with a very non-Sunday School answer: there have been more than enough mistakes made to obviate any sense that a leadership position is a clear one-on-one correspondence between the position and standing before God, whether it’s the Stake President arrested for a Ponzi scheme or the newly called Bishop who gets released because skeletons in the closet come out after the fact, it’s clearly a thing. That’s not to say that the vast majority of church leaders aren’t righteous men, but like a lot else in this lone and dreary wilderness it’s messy. However, a silver lining of this messiness is that it helps mitigate against the use of ecclesiastical structure to create some sort of tightly controlled spirituality hierarchy that otherizes people who never happen to serve in leadership callings.
It was a while ago, but one of the most spiritual Church leaders I had was an Elder’s Quorum president who constantly beamed that Christ-like presence that I’m lucky to momentarily carry with me on my best temple visit. However, his tenure was also an organizational disaster, and he understandably never got called into a “higher” position. Conversely, I’m personally familiar with another church leader who was quite wealthy, but frankly didn’t really strike me as being terribly spiritual, seemed a little artificial, and was later arrested for a Ponzi scheme (I doubt he or the EQ President reads T&S or would recognize themselves here).
In CS Lewis’ stunningly insightful work The Great Divorce the main character is being given a tour of heaven, in the course of which he encounters a God-like being. It’s a bit long for a blogpost, but it nails it on the head enough to be worth quoting:
First came bright Spirits, not the Spirits of men, who danced and scattered flowers. Then, on the left and right, at each side of the forest avenue, came youthful shapes, boys upon one hand, and girls upon the other. If I could remember their singing and write down the notes, no man who read that score would ever grow sick or old. Between them went musicians: and after these a lady in whose honour all this was being done…
But I have forgotten. And only partly do I remember the unbearable beauty of her face.
‘Is it?…is it?’ I whispered to my guide.
Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.
She seems to be…well, a person of particular importance?
Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.
And who are these gigantic people…look! They’re like emeralds…who are dancing and throwing flowers before here?
Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.
On a more personal level, like a testimony, the times when I felt validated in my spiritual bones were very direct, sometimes unexpected, communications from God. Of course, “validated,” is different from “justified,” (since none of us are on our own merits. In a sense theologically there really is none that doeth good, and we are all in the same category of sinfulness). While there may be people with spiritual anxiety who find it very difficult to recognize God’s validations and have to rely on the theology or other people telling them that His grace is sufficient, for me personally I’ve learned that in general the personal communication with the divine, either personally or through a priesthood blessing, is the only signal of standing before God worth putting much weight on.
On that note I’ll end with a story my dad sometimes tells. When he was younger he was in one of those not-glamorous-but-time-intensive positions that wore him out. He received some indication from the higher ups that he was under consideration for a leadership position and felt some relief that he would finally be able to move on from the grind of that calling; however, after enough time had passed it became clear that he was no longer under consideration. While he was in the temple feeling discouraged about recent events he had a powerful spiritual communication that God knew him personally and was involved in the details and trajectory of his life. While he was still marinating in the aftermath of this experience he was in the temple bathroom when he noticed somebody had missed the target on the urinal. Not finding it appropriate for there to be splashed piddle in the temple, he crouched down with some toilet paper and started wiping, during which he thought, in the aftermath of that divine communication, “I would be happy doing this for the rest of my life if He wanted me to.”