I’ve enjoyed Andrew Ainsworth’s recent posts on (1) being a loving critic of the church, (2) in a way that doesn’t get you excommunicated. I thought they were very insightful. I also enjoyed Stephen Marsh’s post asking if we want to be an improver. In Andrew’s 2nd post, he mentions the option of privately expressing concerns to a letter via letter or email. I think it is difficult for many of us to express differences of opinion in a way that will not cause defensiveness in a church leader, so many of us never consider the option of writing a private letter to express a concern.
I must say that I am one of these people who believe that private communications don’t work very well. However, I have tried hard to improve my communications (though I’m not always successful.) A few months ago, I decided to give Andrew’s option #3 a test to see if it would do any good. I was quite surprised at the positive result.
I wrote my stake president (SP) a letter expressing concern for how large our ward is. I live in a growing community, and the last time the ward split, we reached about 950 people. I thought it was outrageous–parking was terrible, and even finding a seat in the gym was hard if you were late. So, our ward was over 700 again, and I decided to write the SP a letter expressing concern at the size of the ward, the parking problems, and difficulty finding a seat in the gym for sacrament meeting. I have a baby, and one particular Sunday, he had a blow out just as we were leaving for church. So we had to change his clothes completely and were late, having difficulty parking and finding a seat.
I tried to take extra care to emphasize that I wasn’t trying to “counsel the brethren”, and I hoped my email would be considered in the same way that Jethro counseled Moses. My email was met with silence. I told my bishop I wrote an email to the SP, and asked if he had heard anything. He hadn’t heard anything (and was concerned that my email might be taken the wrong way) so he asked the SP if my email had offended him. The SP said it was no big deal, and made a comment that when I was stake president I could split the wards as I chose. (I wasn’t overly impressed with the SP response.) I never heard a word from the SP, but in the coming months, he or his counselors would visit the ward and tell us they were aware of the overcrowding problem, and exhorted us to be patient. I kept wondering if my email was the reason they were saying this. Within about 3 months, they decided to realign the ward boundaries, and during the meeting, the SP used a phrase from my email that only he and I knew about.
As I discussed the ward split with my bishop, he said, “You’re the one that started this whole thing!” I said, “Wow, I have a lot more power than I thought.” I’m sure there were other influences here (my bishop had served 5 years and was due to be released anyway, and I am aware a counselor to the SP also had similar reservations about the size of our ward), but I do think that my email did play a role in influencing the SP in this decision when I talked about concerns about parking and overcrowding in sacrament meeting. One Sunday I counted 60 people in the foyer because they couldn’t find a seat for sacrament meeting. I think the split did happen sooner than it would have if I had stayed silent.
Now I know my issue isn’t very large in the scheme of things, but I was positively surprised at the results of my email. Have any of you had any similar experiences, or are they all bad experiences?
I seem to remember Mitt Romney story of when he was a SP, he solicited feedback from the members of the stake. I think that idea is a great one. Perhaps if members were given a clear process and encouraged to take advantage of it, there wouldn’t be as much defensiveness on the part of the leaders. I am going to do something like that on a somewhat regular basis if I am ever in a leadership position.
I know that when my father was bishop he had a few members of the ward come in and tell him everything that was going wrong in the ward, and how to fix it. He smiled and thanked them, but of course felt that the way they handled that was inappropriate. I suppose you can’t really know the best way to offer feedback until you’ve been in a position to get it.
I think expressing concern over something is far different than suggesting a solution. I can see the overcrowding problem causing real difficulties establishing the appropriate environment for a sacrament meeting and the range of solutions is very small. Standing Room Only is great for Broadway not so much for church. It is when suggesting the solutions that most get into trouble, for the simple reason that it is very easy to forget that we rarely have the full picture when assessing a situation. Telling leadership “I think there is a problem I thought you should know about”, then moving on is far different than “There is a problem, and you should do this about it”. I can’t even count the number of times that employees of mine have pointed out problems that were very real problems to them but were actually entirely worthwhile tradeoffs for curing larger problems. When possible I tried to explain that, but it wasn’t always possible to disclose the complete picture.
So, my suggestion (!) is to not suggest(!). Simply observe and be satisfied that the leadership will do what it should in its own time. That’s called “faith”.
Sometimes leaders need suggestions about solutions, though. If they haven’t recognized there’s a problem on their own, they might have no clue as to how to solve the problem. So sometimes it’s nice to say, “Hey, I noticed this specific problem in our stake/ward. This is why it’s a problem. Here are some possible solutions that could fix it (or, here are some ways other units have solved this problem in other areas), or perhaps you could come up with a better solution. Thanks for the hard work you do to keep the organization running.”
Re: 1 Adamf
This is absolutely true and something that I am sensitive to. That’s why I think your suggestion to occasionally query those over which you have stewardship for their opinion is absolutely brilliant. It shows that you are interested in what others think, and that you’re humble enough to accept criticism. Perhaps more importantly, it allows the leader the flexibility to then make whatever decision he feels inspired to make while also demonstrating that he has already taken into account everyone’s suggestion by asking for it.
I have not spent much time in the corporate world so I am probably ignorant of many realities. But it seems to me, in my limited experience, that this produces a much better environment, happier people, and better management decisions.
To answer MH’s question, I must confess I have actually not ever tried to effect change in such a large way before in the church. I suppose I have always been content to work on changing myself to get what I need out of church.
My husband and I have had enough leadership positions in the Church and have served under enough leaders to feel that giving helpful feedback is critical is a ward and stake is to run well. When any leader–either Church or corporate–refused to listen to the needs of those they serve, they abuse their power and exercise unrighteous dominion. No one can lead effectively who is unwilling to listen to the ideas of those they serve, who does not delegate respectfully and well, and who refuses to accept the fact that all of us are fallible and need the input of others to become more effective leaders.
adamf – I heard that Mitt Romney story, too. They said he made 3 columns: 1) things that would not change, 2) things that might change but needed more consideration, and 3) things they could change immediately as a result of the meeting. What a great example of how to run a feedback session!
I think the sp could have taken my email 2 ways. he could have thought I was demanding a ward split, or he could have seen that I was highlighting parking problems and overcrowding. I am glad he focused on the latter. while I did want the ward split I didn’t focus on that, which may have been better received by him than if I had demanded it up front. I think tenor of the message has much to do with its effectiveness.
MH, excellent post and a great result for your ward(s). Sometimes things just need to be pointed out that seem obvious to us because we are so close to it and less so to those with many other things on their mind. The process of splitting a Ward can be long and drawn out and requires SL approval. Quite a bit of homework must be done at the Stake level to justify the split. In some cases, like one I was involved in was stopped by the Area President. It was perfectly logical, had the support of the Stake President and High Council but was stopped by someone without any idea what was going on who came to a rather presumptuous conclusion about the situation and denied the split. It eventually went thorough a few years later after that AP was gone.
and so it goes.
In Dalin H Oaks, “The Lord’s Way” he sets up how to go about doing this. I have used this a couple of time, more specifically with my Mission President when I was on a mission. It’s nice, because if I get scolded, I can point to the fact that I am only following how an Apostle of the Lord recommended how I proceed with a concern with a Priesthood Leader, ie., to counsel in private.
I spoke to my bishop privately (like Andrew says!) when I was serving as Scoutmaster and “my” assistant scoutmasters–who I had zero say in choosing–were basically unable to support me in any way (due to work, family situation, etc.) After explaining the situation to the bishop, he thanked me for bringing that to his attention and said, “INFORMATION leads to INSPIRATION.” A few months later, he called another assistant without releasing anyone. I think at a ward level, suggesting change is easy.
On the other hand, I have a number of suggestions on how to improve scouting that would involve changing churchwide policy, and I don’t have the courage to write a letter to a GA.
While it is nice to see some bottom-up results now and then, I am also aware of members who run to the bishop with every complaint, gripe and piece of gossip they can think of. Some have less-than-honorable intentions. We had a coup in our Young Women’s Program by some sisters who thought the YW leadership wasn’t sufficiently something or other. I also know of a bishop who was undercut by someone who went behind his back to the SP to bad-mouth him. Sadly, this kind of behavior also resulted in changes, not necessarily for the better.
Ultimately, you cannot subtract human nature from the equation…..
If the Church really wants feedback like this, it should make it a recommended and endorsed part of standard practice, rather than an anomaly that makes members feel like they are budding apostates. The problem in practice is that a standing army has greater flow of information than all too many (most?) instantiations of the Church’s ecclesiastical order.
Mark D, if I were a “leader” I would HATE a “recommended and endorsed” complaint policy. It’s bad enough without one in some stakes, wards, branches – and other places where members gather.
Yes, it’s possible – but you can’t be seen as an attacker or an enemy or a chronic complainer if you want to affect change.
I believe it was President Hinckley who said, “One of the most important components of inspiration is information.” I had an experience many years ago when a person asked me for a priesthood blessing (counsel-type). I asked her why she wanted the blessing; she didn’t want to tell me what the issues were and said, “The Lord knows what my problem is.” I told her that she was limiting my inspiration by making me give a ‘blind’ blessing. (I did go ahead and give her a blessing; I think she was dissatisfied with it.)
About 15 years ago, I wrote a piece for Vigor on “community response” within the Church. Here’s the key paragraph:
What is critical in this process is that it should be done with the same confidentiality, sensitivity, understanding, patience and forgiveness — in short, the same Christ-like behavior — with which we would desire our own imperfections and errors to be handled. The Savior taught that “if they brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou has gained thy brother.” (Matt 18:15) The Savior goes on to say that if that brings no results, we should inform the Church — which I would interpret as meaning the appropriate divinely-appointed stewards, not our circle of friends, the members of our ward, or the readership of Sunstone and Dialogue [not to mention the entire Internet]. We would probably be outraged, and rightly so, if we found that a church member — much less a church leader — was publicly criticizing our performance in our church duties; we’d even be upset over private criticism, if it was shared with those not involved in the situation. Yet all too often, we feel little compunction — and, worse yet, a great deal of self-righteous satisfaction — about doing the same, whether privately, over the net, in print, or even over the pulpit or lectern.