Understanding General Authorities, Part II

Stephen MarshLeaders, Mormon 17 Comments

The current culture of the Church involves a lot of committee work where movement happens only after consensus is reached on most points. Consider, the ideal Stake Presidency acts on any significant point only (a) if they all agree and (b) with complete outward unity.  That set of values reflects those above them.  The leadership culture of the Church in Salt Lake also involves a large group of men who generally find each other supportive and pleasant company, yet who spend much of their time on road trips ministering to a greatly expanded Church.

If you think of any criticism of any core church leader in the past fifty years that has percolated out from the top, you won’t find criticism of competence, scope or anything but those who acted without consensus.  Consider Ezra Taft Benson or others.  No one criticized his competence, no matter how sick he got.  His only criticism was for his perceived taking of positions without consensus behind them. (Though I would note that the way Spencer W. Kimball kept being written off as terminal and then coming back to full competence probably had an effect on how ETB was treated.  His presidency in the later stages also gave people significant amounts of experience and training time that would have been denied them had it terminated earlier).

To understand better both our leaders and ourselves, you need to realize that we have a culture where the only two sins against the culture (that are experienced by those at a high level) are acting outside of consensus and failing of public unity (~ to criticize others publicly). That brings some focus to those who are surprised at the reaction they get when they make a private criticism public or where someone engages in public disunity.  You can see the same thing mirrored in the large blogs — how many are happy to have any public disunity?

The biggest counter-force to unity in the leadership of the Church is individuals who try to push doctrines or programs without consensus.  There really isn’t any other source for disruption of unity. For an example, think of Bruce R. McConkie on Blacks and the Priesthood or Evolution for a good example of someone trying to establish an opinion as doctrine (cf Mormon Doctrine, the book). Anyone living who pushes a doctrine even though the Church as firmly stated it does not have a position is cross-wise and part of that cultural force that goes against the current ethos.

To understand the source of cross currents, it is important to acknowledge that most people who spend a great deal of time thinking about the gospel come to conclusions about some doctrines. Most people who spend a great deal of time administering the gospel either find that many doctrinal questions do not seem as important as ministering to people, or that they find a need to correct and expand doctrine.  So you have two types of evolution — those who see a need to correct or expand in a doctrinal area and those who find themselves putting people ahead.

Keep that in mind and think where that takes you in dealing with the hierarchy of the Church.  Share a private criticism — you just made whoever shared it with you a party to a gross social breach (they’ve just become a party to public disunity through your sharing). Push a doctrine where consensus is lacking — you’ve just joined a counter-force to unity that is the only real disruption to the equanimity and supportive love that is generally shared.

It is an interesting social dynamic. Understanding it is important to making sense of the narratives we all experience in dealing with those who lead us.

Comments 17

  1. Yes it is an interesting social dynamic. I would add that those who do share private criticism publicly are often quickly ostracized by the culture.

    I disagree though with the comment on blacks and BRM. I understood that it actually was the general consensus back then when BRM wrote his Mormon Doctrine that it was about a “doctrine” plus that it was the men who were more accepting of blacks, like President Brown or even DOM, the ones who were the odd ones out. So maybe it was the other way around: President Brown was pushing his view which lacked consensus and BRM held the majority.

    By the way it wasn’t until the hardliners died off, Presidents JFSmith and Lee especially, that the policy changed. I doubt that Lee would have done this even though he was a good leader. So sometimes some men have to go off to the spirit world before consensus has any chance of showing its face. At the stake level maybe it is more about some men getting released before consensus is reached.

  2. Interesting. Sometimes I wonder (esp. in the past) if the refrain from publicly criticizing someone else allows false doctrines to exist and grow, while at the same time too much (or any at all?) public criticism can lead to all kinds of problems as well. I’m not sure where the balance is there.

  3. Jimmy, McKay was the president at the time of the book being published, and from what I understand, he did NOT consider it to be a “doctrine” – perhaps he was one of the “odd ones out” but he was in charge. The problem I see with that is he seemed to be unwilling to publicly correct any of these teachings for fear of doing any damage, but NOT saying anything publicly also has the effect of endorsing the false teachings to many members, imo.

  4. Adam, certainly. I counted Mckay and Brown as the odd ones out and its true that DOM did not consider it a doctrine, as per that recent bio. But the rest did seem to consider it as doctrinal. Remember that leaked letter to Romney senior as a good example.

    But as you point out DOM was in charge and he didn’t make any public statements concerning blacks/priesthood which suggested to people that the church considered it as a correct teaching. Another example was with Benson and his support of that extreme John Birch society, DOM was also silent, at least publically.

    So I agree that the net effect is to appear to support false teachings precisely because Consensus isn’t reached.

  5. As much as I love DOM, that is one of the most frustrating aspects of his church life. I still occasionally talk with members who say things like “McKay never spoke out against McConkie” to justify their racist beliefs.

  6. So in some ways then, once someone reaches certain levels in the hierarchy, if they espouse certain views then they might not be put down publically for fear of saving face, they can get their views out in there in a powerful way if they are willing to accept the private censure. This may be unlikely because of the types of people who we have as leaders but it obviously happens, so what we have is a tendency for those who are more dogmatic willing to say they are right in public and those who are less sure unwilling to public censure. This dynamic seems fertile ground for what we have seen in terms of certain doctrinal foci over the years.

    However, in contrast, the episodes of public debate and disagreement between Pratt and Young only show that authority becomes the source to end discussion if it goes too far. This means that doctrinal pronouncements are forced because of a need to clarify, if the one in authority thinks they are right. In some ways this would restrict ambiguity faster and so I think I favour the appearance of unity with some radicals rather than public debates that get quashed by official pronouncement. I don’t see ongoing debate as an option for a group than needs to maintain some degree of doctrinal coherence (although I guess it is possible that now we have more consensus that disputes will be over minor things rather those more fundamental ideas).

  7. So, how did we get here? As mentioned, Pratt and Young had public disagreements. Joseph Smith encouraged discussion and evolved his own doctrine as time went on. Why are we so stagnant today?

    As with any large corporation (I worked at HP for 11 years) consensus just slows things down. I think history shows that many were in favor of giving blacks the priesthood as early as the ’50s, but it had to wait until 78 because some people were opposed. First, that diminishes my faith in revelation, second, the consensus element slows down progress and change in the church. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

    On the other hand, having a tyrant like B. Young who imposes his will by “authority” has its own set of downsides.

  8. Maybe consensus is a necessary evil, but I do feel (as I said in my post The Problem with Tolerance) is that the strident, confident and often intolerance voices (what Stephen is referring to as a counter-force to unity) get a free pass on their rhetoric through sheer bravado. That can’t be right.

  9. re 7: I think the consensus issue works with revelation. It that it stops the use of authority to determine policy and doctrine. It means that an individuals bias is counter-acted by the others. I agree that the consensus issue is necessary but not evil. It means that change is slow but the church is less likely to say and do things that are contrary to the Christ core message. I am not saying they never have, but i think this is less than what would have occurred.

    re 8: I think one way to step through these issues is public statements by Prophets that those who make such comments are not necessarily church doctrine. this leaves the either/or option open but is sufficient to undermine the ‘doctrinal’ status of some texts. Lets face it there are very few books that really have that kind of authoritative status. I know that people do that themselves at the beginning of their books, but sometimes something else is needed.

  10. There is a wonderful article on BYU Studies website entitled – Grant’s Watershed: Succession in the Presidency, 1887-1889.
    Events during 1887‒89, during Elder Wilford Woodruff’s succession to the Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, remains an important but largely untold story—a time when differing views divided the Church’s General Authorities and when the policies and procedures for installing a new president of the Church ere tested and confirmed. These years are also important for the insights they offer in understanding the life of Heber J. Grant, who himself regarded that time as a personal watershed. While it is clear that he acted with candor, energy, and idealism throughout the episode, with hindsight he believed that he had erred, especially in breaching a vital rule of the Quorum—collegiality—as he and other young members of the Twelve had tried too hard to make their views prevail. So deep his later anguish, he cut troubling passages from his diary, and on becoming a senior Church leader he either avoided speaking of the Woodruff episode or retold the incident without including much of its detail, a not altogether conscious handling of a painful memory. But clearly it was a lesson learned. For the rest of his life, unity among the “Brethren” was a cherished, if never fully realized, ideal.

  11. #7 – “As with any large corporation (I worked at HP for 11 years) consensus just slows things down.” (if this is who i think it is)

    To achieve consensus in the proper way, all parties have to come to the table with the attitude that compromise is the goal. That each is there to make a decision and that everyone is entitled to their opinion. With the proper give and take, a decision can be reached that is satisfactory to all. Where things slow down, in your example, is where one or some feel they are more entitled to their position than anyone else and either browbeat or force a decision that others do not like. Achieving consensus becomes long and laborious, as we saw. or they pursue passive-aggressive techniques to undermine the will of those deciding.

    In the church, the consensus is achieved in a slightly different way. The presiding authority listens to the input and makes a decision and the rest fall into line. If the presiding authority is unable to reach a decision because of the concerns of a member(s) of the group, they postpone it. Remember, President Eyring’s press conference. In the case of the Black/Priesthood issue, one can safely assume that strong feelings prevented a decision and the appropriate consensus that should have followed.

  12. Stephen,

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. This statement really caught my interest: “To understand better both our leaders and ourselves, you need to realize that we have a culture where the only two sins against the culture (that are experienced by those at a high level) are acting outside of consensus and failing of public unity (~ to criticize others publicly).”

    I haven’t thought deeply enough about that assertion yet to say whether I agree or disagree with it. But assuming for the sake of argument that it is true those are the only two “sins against the culture”, what I’d really like to know is: WHY have those become the two only “sins against the culture”?

  13. This was a very interesting post. Something I found most thought-provoking was the idea that although Stephen seems to stick with the idea of the sins of disunity and public criticism among those in positions of authority (i.e., general authorities, etc.), this idea of it being a “sin against culture” is very strong at the level of the general membership. Why is that? Is it intentional (namely, do the GAs intend for it by showing us the example of unity and discouraging disunity and dissent at the SLC leadership level) or is it a natural byproduct of it being a concern among the GAs (“trickle down doctrine,” if you will)?

    #10 – Thanks for the reference, I am going to check that out.

    #11 – I am not sure what you are referring to by Pres. Eyring’s press conference. Can you point me to a link or other explanation? Thanks.

    – Kate

  14. WHY have those become the two only “sins against the culture”? — that are commonly experienced. After all, when was the last time someone engaged in embezzlement or spending too much money? Once you get a culture of “old guys” all sorts of things just don’t happen, or at least anywhere near as much (e.g. people apostatizing, losing faith, and such). We don’t have a lot of the “normal” institutional issues (especially the embezzlement and quasi-embezzlement ones) that plague others.

    That leaves us with these two as the ones that a leader is most likely to encounter.

  15. #10 Comment on HJ Grant was quite enlightening. Truman Madsen’s bio of B.H. Roberts explains at length that Grant was constantly having to mediate docrinal disagreements between Roberts and J.F. Smith.

    Maybe that was the watershed era when Unity became a corporate virtue above others?

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