How to Provide Critical Feedback to Church Leaders Church Without Getting Excommunicated

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If you didn’t happen to read the February issue of Ensign Magazine in 1987, you missed some valuable instruction about how to provide critical feedback to Church leaders. Luckily for you, this post provides a second chance to get up to speed on what all would-be “improvers” in the Church should know about how to seek improving the Church without crossing any line that will forfeit your eternal exaltation and doom you to an eternity of teeth-gnashing with a TK smoothie.

Over the past couple weeks here at Mormon Matters, we’ve had two posts discussing the need to be “improvers” in the Church rather than uncritical optimists or unloving pessimists, and suggesting some practical rules that would-be improvers should follow. Fortunately, our Church leaders have not left us to re-invent the wheel when it comes to figuring out what our options are when we disagree with their statements, policies, or practices.

Below are excerpts from Elder Dallin H. Oaks’ article entitled “Criticism,” which appeared in Ensign magazine in February of 1987. (You can read the full article here.) In this article, Elder Oaks straightforwardly informs Church members that there are two very different sets of rules when it comes to publicly disclosing the truth and criticizing leaders or their decisions: (1) the rules that apply to the political and business worlds; and (2) the rules that apply to the Church. According to Elder Oaks, it is essential for Church members to be aware of, and abide by, these two different sets of rules. As you read these excerpts, I invite to you pay particular attention to the following ideas that Elder Oaks shares:

(1) “’[T]he fact that something is true is not always a justification for communicating it. . . . The gist of Paul’s thought is that integrity is of no value in itself.’ . . . The critical consideration is how we use the truth. . . . A Christian who has concern for others exercises care in how he uses the truth. Such care does not denigrate the truth; it ennobles it. Truth surely exists as an absolute, but our use of truth should be disciplined by other values. . . .”

(2) “The use of truth should also be constrained by the principle of unity. . . However, this caution to constrain the use of truth provides no justification for lying. . . . When truth is constrained by other virtues, the outcome is not falsehood but silence for a season.”

(3) “Government or corporate officials, who are elected directly or indirectly or appointed by majority vote, must expect that their performance will be subject to critical and public evaluations by their constituents. . . . A different principle applies in our Church, where the selection of leaders is based on revelation, subject to the sustaining vote of the membership. In our system of Church government, evil speaking and criticism of leaders by members is always negative. Whether the criticism is true or not, as Elder George F. Richards explained, it tends to impair the leaders’ influence and usefulness, thus working against the Lord and his cause.”

(4) You’ll want to pay particular attention to the latter part of Elder Oaks’ article where he presents five suggestions for how to appropriately deal with situations where we find ourselves disagreeing with Church leaders.

And now, without further ado, excerpts of Elder Oaks’ Ensign article on Criticism:

I am persuaded that many do not understand the Church’s teachings about personal criticism, especially the criticism of Church leaders by Church members.

I do not refer to the kind of criticism the dictionary defines as “the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.” (Random House Dictionary, unabridged ed., s.v. “criticism.”) . . . Sports writers, reviewers of books and music, scholars, investment analysts, and those who test products and services must be free to exercise their critical faculties and to inform the public accordingly. This kind of criticism is usually directed toward issues, and it is usually constructive.

My cautions against criticism refer to another of its meanings, which the dictionary defines as “the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.” (Ibid., s.v. “criticism.”) Faultfinding is “the act of pointing out faults, especially faults of a petty nature.” (Ibid., s.v. “faultfinding.”) It is related to “backbiting,” which means “to attack the character or reputation of [a person who is not present].” (Ibid., s.v. “backbite.”) This kind of criticism is generally directed toward persons, and it is generally destructive.

Faultfinding, evil speaking, and backbiting are obviously unchristian. . . . The primary reason we are commanded to avoid criticism is to preserve our own spiritual well-being, not to protect the person whom we would criticize. . . .

Does this counsel to avoid faultfinding and personal criticism apply only to statements that are false? Doesn’t it also apply to statements that are true? In a talk I recently gave to Church Educational System teachers, I urged that “the fact that something is true is not always a justification for communicating it.” A letter published in the New York Times Magazine described my counsel as “contempt for the truth.” (Feb. 9, 1986, p. 86.) I disagree. I rely on the teaching in Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” (Eccl. 3:1.) Specifically, there is “a time to speak,” and there is also “a time to keep silence.” (Eccl. 3:7.)

The counsel to mute our criticism is like the counsel the Apostle Paul gave to the Corinthian Saints to abstain from eating meat offered as sacrifices to idols. In truth, he taught, the idol was nothing. But since some of the members were weak and might misunderstand, those who knew the truth needed to “take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.” (1 Cor. 8:9.) A Protestant theologian, Krister Stendahl, concludes: “The gist of Paul’s thought is that integrity is of no value in itself.” (See Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976, p. 61.)

The critical consideration is how we use the truth. When he treated this same subject in his letter to the Romans, Paul said, “If thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy him not with thy meat, for whom Christ died.” (Rom. 14:15.) A Christian who has concern for others exercises care in how he uses the truth. Such care does not denigrate the truth; it ennobles it.

Truth surely exists as an absolute, but our use of truth should be disciplined by other values. . . .

The use of truth should also be constrained by the principle of unity. One who focuses on faults, though they be true, fosters dissensions and divisions among fellow Church members in the body of Christ. . . . In this dispensation, the Lord commanded that “Every man [should] esteem his brother as himself,” and declared that “If ye are not one ye are not mine.” (D&C 38:25, 27.)

However, this caution to constrain the use of truth provides no justification for lying. The principles of love, unity, righteousness, and mercy do not condone falsehood. The Lord commanded, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” (Ex. 20:16), and he has not revoked that command. When truth is constrained by other virtues, the outcome is not falsehood but silence for a season. As the scriptures say, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” (Eccl. 3:7.)

The counsel to avoid destructive personal criticism does not mean that Latter-day Saints need to be docile or indifferent to defective policies, deficient practices, or wrongful conduct in government or in private organizations in which we have an interest. Our religious philosophy poses no obstacle to constructive criticism of such conditions. The gospel message is a continuing constructive criticism of all that is wretched or sordid in society. But Christians who are commanded to be charitable and to “[speak] the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) should avoid personal attacks and shrill denunciations. Our public communications—even those protesting against deficiencies—should be reasoned in content and positive in spirit.

Does the commandment to avoid faultfinding and evil speaking apply to Church members’ destructive personal criticism of Church leaders? Of course it does. It applies to criticism of all Church leaders—local or general, male or female. In our relations with all of our Church leaders, we should follow the Apostle Paul’s direction: “Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father.” (1 Tim. 5:1.) . . .

“Criticism is particularly objectionable when it is directed toward Church authorities, general or local. Jude condemns those who ‘speak evil of dignities.’ (Jude 1:8.) Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. . . .

Government or corporate officials, who are elected directly or indirectly or appointed by majority vote, must expect that their performance will be subject to critical and public evaluations by their constituents. That is part of the process of informing those who have the right and power of selection or removal. . . .

A different principle applies in our Church, where the selection of leaders is based on revelation, subject to the sustaining vote of the membership. In our system of Church government, evil speaking and criticism of leaders by members is always negative. Whether the criticism is true or not, as Elder George F. Richards explained, it tends to impair the leaders’ influence and usefulness, thus working against the Lord and his cause. . . .

So what do we do when we feel that our Relief Society president or our bishop or another authority is transgressing or pursuing a policy of which we disapprove? Is there no remedy? Are our critics correct when they charge that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are “sheep” without remedy against the whims of a heedless or even an evil shepherd?

There are remedies, but they are not the same remedies or procedures that are used with leaders in other organizations.

Our Father in Heaven has not compelled us to think the same way on every subject or procedure. As we seek to accomplish our life’s purposes, we will inevitably have differences with those around us—including some of those we sustain as our leaders. The question is not whether we have such differences, but how we manage them. What the Lord has said on another subject is also true of the management of differences with his leaders: “It must needs be done in mine own way.” (D&C 104:16.) We should conduct ourselves in such a way that our thoughts and actions do not cause us to lose the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord.

The first principle in the gospel procedure for managing differences is to keep our personal differences private. In this we have worthy examples to follow. Every student of Church history knows that there have been differences of opinion among Church leaders since the Church was organized. Each of us has experienced such differences in our work in auxiliaries, quorums, wards, stakes, and missions of the Church. We know that such differences are discussed, but not in public. Counselors acquiesce in the decisions of their president. Teachers follow the direction of their presidency. Members are loyal to the counsel of their bishop. All of this is done quietly and loyally—even by members who would have done differently if they had been in the position of authority.

Why aren’t these differences discussed in public? Public debate—the means of resolving differences in a democratic government—is not appropriate in our Church government. We are all subject to the authority of the called and sustained servants of the Lord. They and we are all governed by the direction of the Spirit of the Lord, and that Spirit only functions in an atmosphere of unity. That is why personal differences about Church doctrine or procedure need to be worked out privately. There is nothing inappropriate about private communications concerning such differences, provided they are carried on in a spirit of love.

There are at least five different procedures a Church member can follow in addressing differences with Church leaders—general or local, male or female.

The first—and most benign—of the procedures is to overlook the difference. President Brigham Young described his own application of this method in a circumstance in which he felt “a want of confidence” in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s financial management. After entertaining such thoughts for a short time, President Young saw that they could cause him to lose confidence in the Prophet and ultimately to question God as well. President Young concluded:

“Though I admitted in my feelings and knew all the time that Joseph was a human being and subject to err, still it was none of my business to look after his faults. … He was called of God; God dictated him, and if He had a mind to leave him to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine. … He was God’s servant, and not mine.” (Journal of Discourses, 4:297.) . . .

A second option is to reserve judgment and postpone any action on the difference. In many instances, the actions we are tempted to criticize may be based on confidences that preclude the leader from explaining his or her actions publicly. In such instances there is wisdom in a strategy of patience and trust.

The third procedure, which should be familiar to every student of the Bible, is to take up our differences privately with the leader involved. The Savior taught: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” (Matt. 18:15.)

This course of action may be pursued in a private meeting, if possible, or it may be done through a letter or other indirect communication. How many differences could be resolved if we would only communicate privately about them! Some would disappear as they were identified as mere misunderstandings. Others would be postponed with an agreement to disagree for the present. But in many instances, private communications about differences would remove obstacles to individual growth and correction.

A fourth option is to communicate with the Church officer who has the power to correct or release the person thought to be in error or transgression. The Bible calls this “tell[ing] it unto the church.” (Matt. 18:17.) Modern scripture, in the revelation we call “the law of the Church,” describes this procedure:

“And if he or she confess not thou shalt deliver him or her up unto the church, not to the members, but to the elders. And it shall be done in a meeting, and that not before the world.” (D&C 42:89.)

Note the caution that this remedy is to be private—“not before the world.” This is not done in order to hide the facts, but rather to increase the chance that the correction will improve the life of a brother or sister. . . .

There is a fifth remedy. We can pray for the resolution of the problem. We should pray for the leader whom we think to be in error, asking the Lord to correct the circumstance if it needs correction. At the same time, we should pray for ourselves, asking the Lord to correct us if we are in error. . . .

All five of these are appropriate options for Church members who differ with their leaders. The preferred course depends upon the circumstances and the inspiration that guides those who prayerfully seek. . . .

Despite the commandments and counsel I have reviewed, we have some members who persistently and publicly criticize Church leaders. What about them? . . .

Just as our Church leaders’ source of authority is different from that of government and corporate leaders, so are the procedures for correcting Church leaders different from those used to correct leaders chosen by popular election. But the differences are appropriate to the way in which our Church leaders are called and released. By following approved procedures, we can keep from alienating ourselves from the Spirit of the Lord.

This counsel will be anathema to some. I invite those who are troubled by it to consider it in terms of the teachings of the scriptures rather than in terms of their personal preferences or the canons of any particular profession. Those who reject the authority of the scriptures or our latter-day prophets cannot be expected to agree with what I have said. Those who see freedom or truth as absolutely overriding principles in all human actions cannot be expected to be persuaded by the scriptures’ teaching that “knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.” (1 Cor. 8:1.)

Those who govern their thoughts and actions solely by the principles of liberalism or conservatism or intellectualism cannot be expected to agree with all of the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As for me, I find some wisdom in liberalism, some wisdom in conservatism, and much truth in intellectualism—but I find no salvation in any of them.

. . . It is easy to preach freedom or truth. Praise for those subjects is usually safe and always popular. It is infinitely more difficult to preach how men and women should use freedom or truth. The preacher of that message may command respect, but he or she will not win popularity.

I conclude with a message of hope. When Isaiah condemned the critics of his day, he concluded with a prophecy. He said that in time the children of God would sanctify his name and “fear the God of Israel.” Continuing, he declared, “They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.” (Isa. 29:23–24.) In that spirit I pray for the day when all of us will know God and keep his commandments. In that day, as Isaiah foretold, the “king shall reign in righteousness,” and “the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever.” (Isa. 32:1, 17.)

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