From the devout to the skeptic to the disaffected, our experience with the Church is personally contextual. We take issue with belief systems as well as the performance aspect of the religion i.e. do we practice what we preach? Our experiences are most often influenced in the sociological atmosphere of our local church branch. Even Church theology influences us locally if we take general belief cues from our local Priesthood leadership. It dawned on me recently that our own judgments of church efficacy in practice are largely based on our experiences with local leadership. Aside from the few firesides where Apostles and Seventies have attended, our views of prophets and apostles are myopically understood only telescopically. We see them in General Conference and on the pages of history as well as in the media, hardly laboratories for us to judge them personally as to the efficacy of their Priesthood leadership in practice. We are left to largely judge them based on feelings, spiritual witnesses, how their words affect our own prejudices, etc. What we are left with in the concrete of religious action and orthpraxy is our own local leadership.
Local leaders, stake presidents and bishops, are the only ones who are Judges in Israel. They are where the rubber meets the road. Keys of the Priesthood are only given to them locally. With those keys they can rent out ordinance labor with the local Priesthood pool, but it is under their approval only. Area Authorities do not have it, neither do the Seventies. Only the Twelve and the First Presidency hold keys other than stake presidents and bishops. How we see the Church, at least sociologically, is in a greater part how our bishops and stake presidents exercise their keys. Here, you find a wide variety, which was a surprise for me, as I assumed that stakes took very specific marching instructions from Salt Lake.
What I found is that this is not true. There are some very specific rules that must be followed (commandment rules). Aside from that, how they practice as Judges in Israel, as well as policy implementation is subject to personal revelations, interpretation, and culture. The Church is a loose confederacy, where stakes are given general principles in the Church Handbook of Instruction (a thin book) and the rest is left up to the man with the keys. Some stakes will take a statement in the handbook like fundraisers, where the text is ambiguous, and run in either one of two directions, either they will have no fundraisers, and all of their allocated budget money is sufficient to provide for the needs of the stake activities, including Scout camps, and another stake will follow another tack where fundraisers are allowed under certain stipulations (those outlined by the General Young Men’s President). Stake Presidents and to a smaller extent Bishops are their own prophets for their flock. The chain of command in 99% of all instances stops there.
Another personal example is from my life, where I was confessing to sins in my rebel days to my stake president in Salt Lake. He was an inch from excommunicating me based on a single situation that had occurred. I was relocated to Sacrament, California for a job where that stake had a more liberal stance (no sacrament until behavior improves for three months). It was quite confusing and I realized how different those with keys interpret their responsibility to judge. In Utah, I have noticed a pattern of very conservative judgment (harsher punishment and longer probation) versus other places I’ve lived such as Florida and California where judgment is more lenient and probation periods lighter. There is discretion of judgment in stakes and it seems that local culture is taken into consideration, as well as personal upbringing of the key holder, his political attitude, etc. Now, I do want to say that I had positive experiences in the two church courts held in my behalf and the several times I met with bishops and stake presidents. The Brethren were loving, positive, encouraging, and helpful, despite any verdict. Indeed, the only injustice I ever felt was in the length of some of the probations, especially when I felt that I was forgiven of any sin. I learned to accept the decisions despite any personal differences I had with the individual, the conclusions, or the judgment. The bottom line is that the only person that keeps me from God is me and my humility and state of repentance. This was very liberating for me and made me not fear local judgment from my local leaders. The only thing they could withhold from me was officiating in the Church as well as denial of ordinance renewal, which was a pain, but I could still approach God in prayer, and no one can take that away from you.
The final example from my life was from my own stake president who sent me out on my mission and brought me back home. Months after I returned he was released and excommunicated. Life went on, and eventually ended up without his family, poor, and he died recently. While he was ministering to me in my mission, and some of the problems that ocurred for me before my mission, the mantle was definitely there. All this time, he was abusing his position as judge with young women. I didn’t know this at the time, but my mother did. It took that long to get it investigated by Salt Lake. Although our family knew this was going on, we still respected the keys he held until they were passed on to another. It was a very humbing experience, but showed that the Church must be true, or the “local leadership” would have destroyed it along time ago – to twist a familiar phrase about missionaries. At least, I felt this way. I felt that in his ministry to me, he was exercising keys he had, they worked, but he shouldn’t have had them. Nevertheless, while he had them, they worked. Perhaps it was my faith justifying their use and not any specifics of his title. Who knows? That’s always a good discussion.
Which brings me to philosophy of responsibility of Priesthood: Whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies. That doesn’t mean it happens overnight, or in the first instance. I believe that Priesthood judgment and efficacy is an evolutionary process, just as we in our everyday Christianity must evolve to be better Christians. That understanding keeps us from judging our local leaders too harshly. We can be more accepting of judgment calls if we realize they aren’t perfect and let bygones be bygones. Sometimes that interferes too much with personal needs and we can’t afford to let a sloppy priesthood leader mess things up for us. Another approach we can take is to ward and stake shop. If we feel unduly judged or oppressed by a Priesthood leader we can vote with our feet. I know that Church hates this, but it is effective and can often put the person in need in the arms of a Priesthood holder that will truly understand.
Finally, one hopes that brethren up the chain will be more effective than those who are green under the proverbial collar, and that it isn’t just politics. One hopes that there is a weeding our process that our Apostles and prophets have Priesthood experience in exercising and judging. One hopes that there is a refining process that occurs. Indeed, because the general lay member’s judgment is local, we have very little personal experience with them. Our local leaders, on the other hand, are ministered by these General Authorities, so we are indirectly affected. We are also ministered in General Conference, but one gets the feel that the GA’s have been playing good cop and letting the local leaders play bad cop.
It’s a tough job to be a bishop or stake president. Thankfully it’s not a lifetime calling. I wouldn’t covet it for anything; however, those that have been in those positions consider it the best time of their lives as they learn to love their flock.